18th 07 - 2014 | 2 comments »

Life Itself (2014)

Director: Steve James

13

By Marilyn Ferdinand

This is, perhaps, a review I ought not to write—after all, my acquaintance with the facts of Roger Ebert’s life and work isn’t exactly casual. I spent almost the whole of his career reading his reviews, watching his various TV shows, and attending his film festival. I owe my inspiration and approach to film criticism to him, more public acknowledgment than I might otherwise have gotten to his very occasional mentions of my work, and my absence of Second City Syndrome to the widespread love and influence he wielded as a critic who lived, worked, and died in my home town. Yet, when a local boy made good—Steve James—makes a documentary about another local boy made good—Roger Ebert—it would be unseemly for me not to comment on the effort. In fact, however, Chicago isn’t the home town of either James or Ebert—look to Hampton, Virginia, and Urbana, Illinois, for their earliest roots. Yet both embraced my Midwestern metropolis and found what so many other creative people have—a laissez-faire atmosphere that makes it possible to do the work in a generous and open fashion and avoid a lot of the competitive bullshit that closes off so many opportunities, both personally and professionally, in the nation’s large coastal cities.

Screen-Shot-2014-01-21-at-6.01.01-PM

Life Itself really isn’t Steve James’ kind of movie, and I’m not referring to the subject matter. His very people-focused documentaries offer biographies of sorts about his subjects, perhaps most comprehensively in Stevie (2002), which brought James further into the frame than any of his movies, based as it was on his former Little Brother when James was in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. James likes to spread into his subjects’ lives, take in the long horizon through his own observations. Life Itself, however, began as an end-of-life project for its subject—though neither Ebert nor James knew they would have only five months together, it was obvious to everyone that Ebert’s days were short.

Life-Itself

James reveals in the film that the nine single-spaced pages of questions he sent to Ebert to answer in writing were too much for the failing film critic, who requested that he receive them one at a time. Late in the film, Ebert points James to his autobiography, Life Itself, to glean answers, revealing even more than the voiceover recitations from the book by Stephen Stanton, doing a very good job of imitating Ebert’s voice, that the movie was largely structured and scripted by Ebert’s own take on his life. I think it was very honest of James to name the film after the autobiography, but I’m not sure he needed to crib so much from Ebert’s TV show, particularly his tribute show to Gene Siskel, in creating the film. At many points, I felt as though I were watching Sneak Previews or the tribute show, the latter of which included seminal moments from the careers of the two critics, such as their appearance on The Tonight Show when Ebert panned Three Amigos (1986) to Chevy Chase’s face, the combative outtakes of them recording promo spots for the show, and Ebert being interviewed about why he did not get top billing in Siskel & Ebert & the Movies.

Ebert_Kael2-thumb-300x208-40723

James tries to address some of the controversy surrounding the “thumbs” approach to movie reviewing with a series of talking-head interviews. Most cogent was his interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum, former chief film critic of Chicago’s alt-weekly, The Reader, and what he perceived as the demotion of serious film criticism that had arisen during the 1960s by the populist approach Siskel and Ebert popularized. (I’m not sure why James decided to do the interview in the lobby of the Music Box Theatre on Chicago’s North Side, but I’m always happy to see the old place, no matter the circumstances.) But he also recounts the appearance of Andrew Sarris, and especially Pauline Kael, on the print beat, pointing out that they were the darlings of those members of the film intelligentsia who were inclined to pay attention to the mainstream press—not surprisingly, both were based in New York City. A line that came from this part of the film, “Fuck Pauline Kael,” was said in reference to the people who held her in much higher esteem than they did Roger Ebert—who was, ironically, an acolyte of Kael’s approach. The line got a laugh, but a cheap one.

S&E

Was being and staying a Midwesterner the secret behind the enormous affection Ebert garnered from most of the people whose lives he touched? Life Itself doesn’t say so explicitly, but does mention a throwaway comment Ebert made when the New York Times came a-courtin’ following his Pulitzer Prize win—“I don’t want to learn new streets”—exactly the kind of no-nonsense sarcasm a Chicagoan might issue to a self-important “newspaper of record.” Ebert worked for the Chicago Sun-Times, the proletarian paper in town, and stayed true to his employer, his coworkers, his alma mater (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), and his roots to the end of his life. James reports that as Ebert and his long-time TV partner Gene Siskel, a native Chicagoan and Yale graduate who worked for the Republican-leaning Chicago Tribune, became the most popular film critics in the country, the self-appointed tastemakers in Los Angeles and New York ignored them and refused to carry their syndicated program—until it was no longer possible to do so.

03

The film recounts Ebert’s enormously mature felicity with words, even while working on the college newspaper; his alcoholic “men’s club” at O’Rourke’s, Chicago’s late, lamented haunt for newspapermen and writers; his entry into AA and sobriety; his jaunts to the Cannes Film Festival; and, of course, his marriage to Chaz, the woman who saved him from the life of loneliness toward which he said he seemed to be headed and who kept him going in the darkest throes of his fight with cancer. James offers a clip from the Conference on World Affairs Ebert attended for many years in which he announces that he is very ill—the salivary-gland cancer he thought he beat had returned and gone into his jaw. James is unsparing in showing the results of the illness—the lower part of Ebert’s face swings freely, the skin no longer having a jawbone to anchor it.

RogerLifeItselfStairs

It is in the footage of the day to day of Ebert’s final few months that James finds familiar ground, and it is here where the film really comes alive. Watching Ebert struggle to break free of his walker and wheelchair is grueling, but it also affirms how present he is in his life. When he comes home from the hospital, Chaz tries to stage-manage his ascent up the stairs, a cadre of home health workers at the ready. Ebert insists she give him his notepad to write some instruction or other; the couple’s power struggle continues for a couple of minutes, and Chaz finally relents. Ebert in his prime was a force of nature, a storyteller nobody ever interrupted, a critic of uncompromising honesty. He largely remained that man to the end, insisting on exerting his agency even in the most reduced circumstances. It’s easy to see how he could become so influential and champion so tirelessly the careers of filmmakers he believed in, from a faltering Martin Scorsese to promising young director Ramin Bahrani to Academy Award winner Errol Morris, whose first film, Gates of Heaven (1978), was dismissed by everyone but Ebert. That is what makes the single most affecting seconds of Life Itself so poignant. When James tries to press Ebert to type an answer to a question, we see his email response: “I can’t.”

1384923694000-ebert

I have read extravagant praise of this film as well as withering takedowns by critics and fans alike. Life Itself—like life itself—isn’t perfect, but it is a fitting tribute to a man who meant a lot to a lot of people. I think Ebert would have given it a big thumbs up.


21st 10 - 2013 | 4 comments »

CIFF 2013: Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me (2013)

Director: Chiemi Karasawa

elaine-stritch-shoot-me-001__gallery_image

By Marilyn Ferdinand

To paraphrase Thomas Aquinas, if you know who Elaine Stritch is, no explanation is necessary; if you don’t know who she is, no explanation is possible. Even if we had a documentary that went through her life in meticulous detail—which this film doesn’t come anywhere near to doing—a woman who belongs to the glorious age of the Broadway musical is a figure whose celebrity took place long ago, out of view of most of the world. That she made numerous films and television shows, most recently as Alec Baldwin’s mother in “30 Rock,” does not dim the glow that adheres to Elaine Stritch because of when her life in the theatre took place, and only those of us who follow musical theatre really understand why this documentary needed to be made.

Stritch4

Or so I thought. Whether or not she intended to, Chiemi Karasawa filmed a much different, much more valuable film than the one I thought I was going to see. Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is an appropriate title for this documentary about the 88-year-old Broadway legend because while we are aware that Stritch needs the attention of a film crew like a fish needs water, we are brought uncomfortably close to the tail end of a life, one now filled with infirmity. If Stritch were a horse, we might find it kinder to put her down. That she bravely reveals all of her pain and struggle, both physically and psychologically, makes this an unforgettable and necessary document, as well as a roadmap for taking our leave from this world.

hbz-tribeca-film-festival-Elaine-Stritch-lgn

I wish to emphasize that Stritch is still with us, and in fact, attended the sold-out showing of Shoot Me. (UPDATE: Elaine Stritch died July 17, 2014, at the age of 89.) She’s halt of gait, forgetful, and very hard of hearing, but her performer’s instincts and wit are as sharp as ever. Her performance at the AMC Theatre 11 was loaded with zingers, her characteristic profanity, and a teary appreciation for the love we lavished on her, a love whose pursuit propelled her to stardom.

Elaine Stritch_2

Karasawa films Stritch as she gets ready for a cabaret show at New York’s Café Carlyle with her long-time accompanist Rob Bowman. She sports the Judy Garland look of black tights and a long men’s shirt during rehearsals, in performance, and in fact, most of the time. One of her intimates says Elaine just won’t wear pants! She is very thin, so the effect is rather worrying, particularly when she goes through her dance routine.

elaine_stritch_makeup_a_l

She has a lot of trouble remembering her lyrics, a problem compounded by diabetes. When Rob suggests she check her blood sugar, she reacts with a violent “NO,” but soon relents. On seeing the number, she dispatches Rob to get her some orange juice immediately, and he jumps. She was always a volatile, self-critical performer, which we see in a vintage clip of her recording the cast album for “Company” with a displeased Stephen Sondheim listening to an unsuccessful take. Now, her volatile blood sugar makes her more unpredictable than ever. Add to that her decision to climb off the wagon after what she says is nearly a quarter-century of sobriety, and the health horrors multiply.

Stritch’s decision to start drinking again is very telling. She feels that at her age, she has earned the right to do what she wants, but the real impetus behind it is her fear of death. Despite the fact that alcohol could conceivably kill her, she feels calm and safe after she has taken a drink, and we don’t really believe her when she says she allows herself only one drink a day. As though to confirm our suspicions, she orders an old fashioned and then shows that she carries a tot of Bombay gin in her purse at all times. Perhaps we’d do the same if the reaper were so near at hand.

picture-of-alan-alda-alec-baldwin-and-elaine-stritch-in-30-rock-large-picture

One scene shows her going out of town to appear at an anniversary celebration for an 80-year-old theatre—younger than she—and celebrating when the show is canceled because of an approaching hurricane. She says she wasn’t feeling well anyway. Cut abruptly to news that Stritch is in the hospital, a cruel echo of an earlier scene from “30 Rock” showing her in a hospital bed. We don’t know why she’s there, but she looks frail sleeping under sedation, and when she wakes up, she says she can feel death around her, that it’s her time. A devout Catholic whose uncle was Cardinal Samuel Stritch, archbishop of Chicago, she hopes there isn’t nothing when she dies; “I wouldn’t like that,” she says as though she should be able to have the afterlife she wants, but then with a real uncertainty.

John Bay

We see the world start to pay her homage, with the Stella Adler Studio of Acting wanting to name a rehearsal room after her, but having to offer her three rooms before she finds one that is sufficiently small. Her assistant has been helping her choose photos from her collection to hang in the school, and we see her photographed with her beloved husband, actor John Bay, who died when Stritch was in her 50s after they had been married only 10 years. Her abiding love for him extends to her preference for the product of his family business, Bay’s English muffins, a staple in my home and found only in Chicago. When her regular delivery of the product arrives, she wants the cameraman to watch her open the carton and follow her out to the back porch to throw away the packaging. It’s a truly dotty request, but she who must be obeyed gets her way.

Stritchie

We get very little from her past—a few musical clips, photos of her when she was at the height of her beauty, clips from her Emmy Award-winning program “Elaine Stritch: At Liberty” and her acceptance speech in which she brings down the house by saying she’s glad that she won and the other nominees lost. Stritch’s honesty makes her the ideal person to reveal the ravages of old age as well as the vitality that many of us don’t believe the elderly have. Stritch will not be pushed off stage until she’s ready to go.

That she does, when she moves out of her long-time home in The Carlyle Hotel and into a condo just outside her native Detroit. Many of us go home to roost when our time is near. Gradually, not entirely gracefully, but with gusto, Elaine Stritch is walking her path to an eternity beyond the footlights.

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me has no more showings, but the film has been picked up by Sundance Selects for distribution and cable airing. www.chicagofilmfestival.com

Previous coverage

Shakespeare and More – A Conversation with Harry Lennix: The actor talks about his new film, H4, Othello, his new production company, and more.

The Don Juans: Veteran director Jirí Menzel brings his gleeful sensuality to bear on this story of two Don Juans working together to produce Mozart’s Don Giovanni and finding out about their failings as men. (Czech Republic)

The Exhibition: In this thoughtful and comprehensive documentary, an ambitious artist raises provocative and controversial issues when she paints a series of violent portraits of murdered prostitutes. (Canada)

Melaza: Economic uncertainty causes a young couple in love to make ingenious and risky arrangements to keep afloat in this lovely, surprisingly funny slice of life under communism. (Cuba)

H4: Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts I and II are given a contemporary spin by this spirited African-American production starring the great Harry Lennix as the title character. (USA)

Lifelong: The final breakdown of an unhappy marriage between an artist and her architect husband is chronicled in painful detail. (Turkey/The Netherlands/Germany)

Papusza: A biopic about the renowned Romany-Polish poet Bronisława Wajs, aka Papusza, is rendered in stunning images, with a strong emphasis on Romy life during the 20th century. (Poland)

The Verdict: The Belgian criminal justice system is put on trial when a man who was denied justice for his murdered wife takes the law into his own hands and dares a jury to convict him of premeditated murder. (Belgium)

A Thousand Times Good Night: This film explores the choice a war photographer is forced to make when her sexist husband threatens to leave her and take their two children with him if she doesn’t stop putting herself in harm’s way. (Norway)

Wałęsa: Man of Hope: Renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda offers an informative and exhilarating look at the life of Solidarity founder, former Polish president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa. (Poland)

The Invisible Collection: A young man who has lost his friends in a car accident comes to terms with his grief through an encounter with a blind collector of rare prints. (Brazil)

Stranger by the Lake: A lake in summer is the setting for a close exploration of the mating rituals of gay cruisers and the fatal attraction that envelopes one of the regulars to the lake. (France)


16th 10 - 2013 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2013: The Exhibition

Producer/Director/Writer: Damon Vignale

9.PamInStudio-810x455

By Marilyn Ferdinand

On a break from the festival, I started watching a classic Italian film on TCM, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s directorial debut, Accattone (1961). This film is highly regarded and bears all the visual stamps of its singular director, but as it progressed, I got more and more agitated. It seems that a fairly normal activity for the Roman men the film depicts is to hire a prostitute, have their way with her, and then beat her up. One such incident involves pimp Accattone’s whore, and we are meant to sympathize with the financial hardships he suffers when she is sent to prison.

3.Pickton50Headline-810x455

Coming on the heels of viewing The Exhibition, I just couldn’t watch the violently entitled, self-pitying men in Accattone without strong feelings of revulsion. The Exhibition is a 360-degree look at the broad range of issues surrounding a Vancouver-area farmer who admitted to killing 49 women, the vast majority of them First Nation prostitutes, during the 1990s and 2000s, and a successful artist named Pamela Masik who undertook a project to paint huge portraits of all of the victims in what she calls “The Forgotten” series. Director Damon Vignale told the audience at the screening I attended that he was not on any particular mission when he decided to make this film, his first documentary; rather, the impetus came after his strong reaction to seeing one of Masik’s canvases. That’s not hard to imagine. Even when viewed on a movie screen without the immediacy of standing below the towering images, the power of the faces, which Masik may have left intact or slashed, reassembled, or defaced, is overwhelming.

4.SusieInScrum-810x455

There are many ways to take in the story Vignale has to tell. He covers the police incompetence and frank lack of interest in exploring a lead to the killer, Robert Pinkton, which allowed his killing spree to continue and cost 16 more lives. He interviews surviving family members and friends to burrow into the stories of several of the girls and understand the grief and anger they feel. We see, yet again, that violence against women continues as a universal problem for which there are no easy answers, and that prostitutes, particularly from minority groups, are often considered expendable. He reveals various aspects of Masik’s life: a single mother to an eight-year-old boy, head of an art program for women at risk, and creator of a varied body of art, from beautiful canvases that resemble Monet’s water lilies to others that are too sexual for her gallery to show.

11.Preview-810x455

For me, The Exhibition offers another exposition of an issue I find an eternally fascinating conundrum: the line between expression and exploitation. Masik has poured $150,000 of her own money into the creation of “The Forgotten,” and is emotionally connected to these women because of her own history of abuse. Her portraits are not memorials, but rather seek to confront viewers with the violence these women experienced in their own lives and especially in their deaths. She says she wants to reverse the stare, to make the observer the observed in a kind of accusation for their lack of concern for the fates of women on the margins of society. Masik is also aware that she is inflicting her own injuries on the images of these women, slashing the canvases, sewing some of the wounds and leaving others dripping with red paint, cutting out faces and reassembling them in some imitation of the butchery they experienced at Pinkton’s hands. At some level, Masik understands that her artistic impulses are coming from a dark place that may not just wake up a blasé gallery hound, but also somewhat cruelly stir the emotions of those more closely involved with the victims.

pamela-masik-the_forgotten

The Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia planned to exhibit “The Forgotten,” but protests from the Women’s Memorial March, victims’ families, and First Nation representatives caused the museum to cancel the show. We sympathize with Masik, who seems to have the best of intentions in trying to raise people out of their torpor with regard to violence against women, but the issue isn’t just one of the perceived dishonor to the memory of these particular women. Image appropriation is more than a superstition or a copyright question—it is an integral part of creating social attitudes that have lasting consequences. Feminists have long objected to the objectification of women and the dictatorial way in which women are pushed to conform to each generation’s feminine ideal. Images of Native Americans, in particular, have been used as sports mascots and advertising logos, and Vignale includes information about how European settlers set about the systematic destruction of Native American culture and identity. It may seem a bit absurd to outsiders that anyone would complain that Masik didn’t show these women looking attractive or dignified, but given the degradation they suffered in life, perhaps Masik’s personal impulse to expose that ugliness, memorialize THAT, is indulgent and insensitive. Perhaps it creates another image of prostitutes and Native Americans that plays into a cultural stereotype, reinforcement rather than redress.

10.AmbitionOrArt-810x455

Artists are well-known cannibals, chewing up and spitting out the world around them in acts of creation that seldom take their “raw material” into consideration. The idea that the culturally sophisticated have the right to use and consume whatever material they want, whether the less sophisticated understand or approve of it, has been examined here before in my review of The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia. Masik says at the top of the film that she was naive about the reception the show would get. I believe her, but at the same time, she is self-aware enough to know that she uses her art to work out her personal issues as well as to make statements and a very good living. Is what she did exploitation? I don’t have the answer, but I know we should all keep asking the question.

The Exhibition has no more screenings. It will be broadcast nationally in Canada in the coming months. www.chicagofilmfestival.com

Previous coverage

Melaza: Economic uncertainty causes a young couple in love to make ingenious and risky arrangements to keep afloat in this lovely, surprisingly funny slice of life under communism. (Cuba)

H4: Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts I and II are given a contemporary spin by this spirited African-American production starring the great Harry Lennix as the title character. (USA)

Lifelong: The final breakdown of an unhappy marriage between an artist and her architect husband is chronicled in painful detail. (Turkey/The Netherlands/Germany)

Papusza: A biopic about the renowned Romany-Polish poet Bronisława Wajs, aka Papusza, is rendered in stunning images, with a strong emphasis on Romy life during the 20th century. (Poland)

The Verdict: The Belgian criminal justice system is put on trial when a man who was denied justice for his murdered wife takes the law into his own hands and dares a jury to convict him of premeditated murder. (Belgium)

A Thousand Times Good Night: This film explores the choice a war photographer is forced to make when her sexist husband threatens to leave her and take their two children with him if she doesn’t stop putting herself in harm’s way. (Norway)

Wałęsa: Man of Hope: Renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda offers an informative and exhilarating look at the life of Solidarity founder, former Polish president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa. (Poland)

The Invisible Collection: A young man who has lost his friends in a car accident comes to terms with his grief through an encounter with a blind collector of rare prints. (Brazil)

Stranger by the Lake: A lake in summer is the setting for a close exploration of the mating rituals of gay cruisers and the fatal attraction that envelopes one of the regulars to the lake. (France)


19th 04 - 2013 | 2 comments »

No Place on Earth (2013)

Director: Janet Tobias

cave1

By Marilyn Ferdinand

With the vast coverage World War II and the Holocaust have gotten in every facet of cultural endeavor the world over—films, books, plays, television, even video games—the challenge for any artist working in the subject area is to bring something new to the table. Edward Zwick had a chance to tell us a story of Jewish courage and survival with his 2008 feature Defiance, but his rendering of the relatively unknown story of the Bielski partisans of Belorussia is just another generic action flick. Documentarians have fared much better in finding unfamiliar subject matter and making the specific universal. Gordon Quinn’s Prisoner of Her Past (2010) looked at a case of late-onset posttraumatic stress disorder in a Jewish woman living in my town of Skokie and related it to the problems survivors of such disasters as Hurricane Katrina could face down the road.

2013_earth

Now we have No Place on Earth. Using talking-head interviews and lengthy reenactments, Janet Tobias brings us the story of three families, the Stermers, the Wexlers, and the Dodyks, who hid from the Nazis and Christian Ukrainians during the war. While we learn fairly early that this is a tale of survival, the events unfold for the audience with a glimmer of the dread, confusion, and triumph of those who lived it. The curiosity we share with the real-life detective of the story, Chris Nicola, turns into a strongly suspenseful narrative worthy of anything Alfred Hitchcock might have concocted, and made all the more interesting for being a true tale of life and death.

Noplace1a

This story might never have come to light, however, had it not been for Nicola, a New Yorker of Ukrainian descent with a passion for caving. Nicola combined a trip to his ancestral country to trace his family roots with the exploration of Verteba, a rare gypsum cave. When he came across some human artifacts in the cave, he started asking around about the how the caves might have been used in the past. All he could glean was that some Jews hid there during World War II. Years of inquiries yielded nothing more until a message came through his website from a relative of one of the survivors. Verteba had sheltered more than 30 Jews until they were discovered by German troops. Those who escaped capture moved to a second cave, Priest’s Grotto, where they remained until the defeat of Germany. In all, they spent more than 500 days underground; several of the men left at night to gather food and fire wood, but the women and children never came to the surface at all.

no-place-on-earth-film-bild07

It is a cliché to say that World War II represented a dark time in human history. No Place on Earth examines that notion quite literally. Cave guides will tell you that human eyes cannot adjust to the complete absence of light. Think about that. No light at all for days and weeks on end, no images of any kind to focus on. Of course, the survivors had candles and lamps, but they had to be rationed; it was better to sleep 20 hours a day to escape the darkness, hunger, and monotony than risk replenishing the sources of light. The Jews had a handful of friends in their village, but they were betrayed on more than one occasion, once by a man who discovered their location and whose life they spared. That betrayal cost two lives when the Germans raided Verteba. Living in the part of the world outside of Germany that was most hostile to Jews, these families only wanted to live and let live. They even spared a horse that could have provided them with meat for weeks.

posterNo Place on Earth, with its paradoxical poster image, takes literal darkness and makes it light, that is, safe, as Sima Dodyk says. Sima was a little girl when she fled with her family underground. At first, it was fun to explore the caves and dream up a pretend world of adventure. As the stay became more prolonged, the tension of the adults more extreme, and the gnawing hunger more persistent, the novelty of living in the cave wore off. When the Germans came and rounded up several of their number, the consequences became all too real. It is only in this context that one can understand how total darkness can represent the safety Sima says it was for all of them.

580x386

I saw this film at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, where Tobias and several of the survivors were present to make statements and answer questions. Sonia Dodyk (above left) believes they survived because they decided from the beginning to stick together. Yet we know that the Frank and the van Pels families stuck together in an Amsterdam attic and did not escape their fate. Nonetheless, there is something to Sonia’s assertion that by sticking together, they found the means to survive by using their collective intelligence and labor to keep mind and body together for the duration.

nissel

If there is a hero to this story, it is Nissel Stermer, whom both Saul and Sam Stermer looked up to and followed during their raids aboveground for food and fuel. The Stermer brothers stole a grindstone and were able to grind wheat into flour to bake bread in the cave. When needed, Nissel later bribed the right people to get bags of flour; when the bags proved too heavy to carry, he worked with his brother Saul to fashion a sleigh and stole a horse to pull it to the opening of Priest’s Cave. The ingenuity and foresight Nissel had saved many a life, including Hannah Stermer, who chose to remain aboveground and who escaped the police because Nissel knew her hiding place would be uncovered.

Noplace3

What I found so remarkable about the film was watching the reenactments and seeing how handy people used to be. They knew how to soak and bend wood to form the runners of a sleigh, carve and use a grindstone, dig a “back door” to the caves to help them escape if they were raided, collect water from the dripping ceilings of the cave and make bed frames and ovens. Reduced to living as our prehistoric ancestors did, they brought their 20th century knowledge to bear on making the caves more liveable and thereby holding onto their humanity.

photo_07

Perhaps it was could be seen as a triumph that several of the survivors were able to return to their village and visit the caves again. Their happiness in being able to thank the caves was leavened by their sadness at all the families they used to know vanished from the village and the future. The surviving families were quick to leave the Ukraine as well, where anti-Semitism never seems to go out of style. They settled in the United States, Canada, and Israel, and told the story of the caves to their burgeoning families. Now we know it, too.


21st 11 - 2012 | 4 comments »

Marley (2012)

Director: Kevin Macdonald

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Reggae is in my blood. Around 1980, when I was only a couple of years out of college and on my own in Chicago, I started visiting a new club called the Wild Hare & Singing Armadillo Frog Sanctuary that featured live reggae music seven nights a week. Lodged a block from Wrigley Field among traditionalist neighbors who fought the installation of lights at Wrigley for night baseball until just a few years ago, the club’s marijuana perfume and rhythmic music filled with revolutionary messages and prayers from musicians who worshipped Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I as the reincarnation of Jesus Christ were an endless source of irritation.

For a person like me whose early enthusiasm for the blues, jazz, and bossa nova turned into a passion for world music like reggae before it became a market niche, the Wild Hare let me escape the great white stiffs of the Great White North as the only club where I could reliably count on a man—always Jamaican or Ethiopian—to ask me to dance. As I worked up a sweat on the concrete floor that always turned my legs to rubber bands, I could only glance with condescension at the uptight white boys who did nothing but sit at the bar drinking Guinness at one of the few places in the city that served it while I chanted uncomprehendingly (and probably offensively) “Jah Rastafari” along with the band.

Along with local and small touring bands, a lot of big reggae stars played at the Ethiopian-owned club, including Jimmy Cliff, Dallol, and Shabba Ranks. The biggest star of them all, Bob Marley, was already too big a draw by the time the Wild Hare opened to play there. He made his one small-club appearance in Chicago at another of my hangouts, The Quiet Knight, back in 1975, but alas, I had not caught rasta fever in time to see him. In fact, until yesterday, I had no idea he had played there; a mention of the appearance is only one of numerous eye-opening facts I learned while watching Marley.

From its conception in 2008, Marley was meant to be the definitive documentary about the life of the Jamaican superstar. Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme, both superb craftsmen of music documentaries, picked up and then dropped the project. It fell to Kevin Macdonald, an impressive documentarian in his own right with a spotless film pedigree as the grandson of Emeric Pressburger, to meld archival footage with talking heads to tell the cradle-to-grave story of Bob Marley. Ziggy Marley, the oldest son of Bob and his wife Rita, acted as an executive producer of the film and provided photographs and footage that had never been exhibited publicly to help flesh out many facets of his father’s life.

One important facet of Bob Marley’s life was that he was so-called “half-caste,” with a white English-Jamaican father and a black Jamaican mother. The film shows the only known photo of Norval Marley, a handsome plantation overseer who was “the” Marley of Jamaica until his charismatic son took over that title. Norval had almost no contact with Bob and his mother, traveling constantly and fathering other children with other women, a practice Bob would pick up along with his father’s good looks. Bob would also deal with the prejudice against half-castes by saying his allegiance belonged to the god who chose to make him half-black and half-white; his shaky status and his life with his black mother most likely turned him toward his African heritage and his pride that Africa is the place where the human race began.

Marley has footage of Haile Selassie’s visit to Jamaica in 1966, a rather funny portion of the film in which we learn that Selassie emerged from the airplane in Kingston, saw the massive crowd on the tarmac, and turned right around and went back in. Selassie’s visit, however, marked a turning point for Marley in becoming a Rastafarian and growing his trademark dreadlocks. Scenes of Marley smoking marijuana in spliffs and pipes, lost in a haze of smoke, follow. Marley’s wife admits that Bob was almost perpetually stoned, though whether you view this as the religious devotion Rastafarians say it is or a consequence of being a poor musician, or both, is up to you.

Regardless of your views, there is something to the assertion in the film that pot smokers are laid back and peaceful, something Marley and his band The Wailers always preached and lived. It is rather amazing to see footage of two violently opposed political groups in Jamaica come together briefly during Marley’s 1978 One Love tour and Prime Minister Michael Manley of the People’s National Party (PNP) join his rival from the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP), Edward Seaga, onstage at Marley’s urging. This gesture is even more extraordinary considering that extremists tried to kill Marley and The Wailers at his Hope Road compound only two years before when a planned free concert by Marley was coopted for political capital by the PNP, angering JLP supporters.

Interviews with family members and intimates are sprinkled unobtrusively throughout the film, which mainly concentrates on Marley and the music. Incredibly, Macdonald talks with Mrs. James, Bob’s grade school teacher when he lived in his rural hometown of St. Ann, who remembers his musicality. After Bob and his mother moved to a Kingston slum called Trench Town, Bob met aspiring musician Desmond Dekker. Jimmy Cliff recalls auditioning and recording Dekker, and then being approached by Marley. He immediately noted Bob’s use of lyrics to convey a message, recalling Marley’s first recording “Judge Not” as an assertion of his human rights; Macdonald shows a young boy looking stern and punching the air as the song plays in the background.

Thus, the interviews become voiceovers with scenes that illustrate what the speakers are discussing, for example, a tall Rastafarian walking along a street in Trench Town with his enormous dreadlocks piled high under a knit hat and Marley’s song “Knotty Dread” playing under the voiceover. A result of this “reenactment” is that we get a sense of Bob Marley’s life as it was lived, a visual representation of his inspiration, and lively and colorful images that invite audiences to participate rather than nod off to a wall of words. Amusing and interesting capsule facts are scrawled on the screen as well, such as that there is no record that “Captain” Norval Marley ever rose above the rank of private.

Each step in Marley’s rise to superstardom is given attention, with remembrances from such figures in his life as childhood friend and original band member Neville “Bunny” Livingston; Chris Blackwell, who signed the Wailers to Island Records; and manager Danny Simms. Simms recalls how ambitious Marley was, agreeing to open for The Commodores in Madison Square Garden less than a year before his death so that American radio stations would play his records. Marley may have thought that the concert and radio plays would find him an audience among African Americans, which seemed as indifferent to Marley as white audiences were enraptured by him. The film is chock-full of concert footage and music, charting his career in a way any fan will absolutely adore.

Marley’s personal life adds to the film’s well-rounded portrait of the artist. Cindy Breakspeare, Miss World 1976 and Marley’s most famous lover, figures prominently in the film; when asked why Marley attracted so many women, she says incredulously, “Look at him!” Rita Marley seems to have had a laissez-faire attitude to Bob’s lovers and their children (she took lovers of her own), and thought that the key to his romantic success was that he was shy, recalling their own courtship. Cedella Marley, Rita and Bob’s daughter, is not so forgiving of the free love that pervaded her parents’ life, asserting that her mother was made unhappy by Bob’s philandering. In truth, Cedella seems the most unhappy with her father, complaining throughout the film of his lack of attention and even a lack of time alone with him in the days before his death.

Most informative and touching for me was an account of Marley’s final illness. I had always heard he had brain cancer, the joke going around that the ganga got him. In fact, in 1977, he was spiked in the toe while playing soccer, and when he went to have it looked at, the doctors diagnosed him with melanoma in the nail bed. Marley refused advice to have the toe amputated, worrying that he would not be able to dance or play soccer. In 1980, after a run in Central Park, Marley collapsed. When he was taken to the hospital, he was found to be riddled with cancer. Without real hope for recovery, he played his last concert in Pittsburgh, lost his dreadlocks to chemotherapy, and vainly sought relief at a holistic clinic in Germany. The film concludes by showing his burial site in St. Ann and surveying Marley’s lasting influence on world culture.

There is a lot of information out there about Bob Marley, much of it false or half-true. Marley is a treasure to fans and future generations who want as accurate and big a picture as may be possible on film of a man who freed a lot of people with his music.

Live concert audio from The Quiet Knight in Chicago, 1975


13th 06 - 2012 | 4 comments »

Portrait of Wally (2012)

Director: Andrew Shea

By Marilyn Ferdinand

There is little in the world like the passion of the collector. Film history would be much different if it were not for this peculiarly obsessed group of people rescuing cans of film and squirreling them away for a rainy day. Films that were thought lost have now been found, either through the good auspices of professional collectors (aka, archives) or the greedy hoarding of individuals who like the idea that they have something no one else does (see my review of Beyond the Rocks for more on this). Thus is the double-edged sword of collecting—preservation and the possessiveness of ownership.

Let it not be said that only individuals can behave badly when it comes to collecting. Indeed, massive pilfering of everything from flowers to entire building facades has led to the collections many of us enjoy at museums, conservatories, and libraries. Here in Chicago, many people enjoy gawking at the parts of famous structures Col. Robert McCormick swiped and embedded in the exterior of the Tribune Tower—if you can’t actually visit Westminster Abbey or the Parthenon, this, I guess, is the next best thing.

In recent decades, some countries that have had many of their priceless treasures removed through the spoils of war and collectors’ lust have taken steps to retrieve them. For a look at recent, large-scale plundering, I recommend the documentary The Rape of Europa. That film explicates, among other things, the attempt of a Jewish family to reclaim a stolen painting by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. Interestingly, the film under consideration here, Portrait of Wally, details another cause célèbre in the art world involving Klimt’s protégé Egon Schiele.

Wally Neuzil was Schiele’s mistress and the subject of many of his works. The 1912 painting in question, titled “Portrait of Wally,” is a companion piece to a self-portrait Schiele did. Unlike his sexually graphic works, these two paintings reflect a certain romanticism and emotional intimacy that makes them stand-outs. That is why Austrian art dealer Lea Bondi, who sold the works of Schiele and other cutting-edge artists and was herself painted by many of them, purchased the painting for her personal collection. Shortly after Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Bondi, a Jew, had her business confiscated and “Aryanized” by Friedrich Welz. Welz also went into Bondi’s home and coerced her into giving him “Portrait of Wally.” Bondi escaped from Austria and eventually settled in London.

Friedrich Welz, Rudolph Leopold

After the war, the art in Welz’s possession, including a collection of Schiele’s works Welz forced Dr. Heinrich Rieger to sell to him before Rieger was shipped off to die in a concentration camp, was recovered by American troops and turned over to the Austrian government. The government placed them in the permanent collection of the Belvedere, Austria’s National Gallery; “Portrait of Wally” was among the paintings, erroneously catalogued as part of the Rieger collection. In 1946, Bondi recovered her gallery and learned from Welz that the Belvedere had the painting. After failing to reclaim the painting on her own, she turned to noted Schiele collector and scholar Rudolph Leopold in 1953 to intercede on her behalf. Instead, Leopold, who owned the companion self-portrait, traded one of his Schieles for “Portrait of Wally.”

So Lea Bondi was screwed over by another Austrian and never saw her painting again—so what else is new? Well, actually, the story takes a unique and even more problematic turn. In 1998, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) arranged a special exhibition of the Schiele collection from the Leopold Museum in Vienna, including “Portrait of Wally.” When some of Bondi’s relatives saw the painting, they sought relief. In an extraordinary move, New York County District Attorney Robert Morgenthau sought to seize this and another Schiele as stolen art; eventually, the paintings were held in the United States under federal law, and the art world exploded in fear of the repercussions.

Portrait of Wally is a disturbing film for what it says about the guardians of culture. Despite a very clear trail of ownership—what viewers of Antiques Roadshow have learned is the all-important provenance of an object—running through Bondi’s correspondence, Welz’s writings, and a 1930s catalog of Schiele’s works by Otto Kallir, it seems clear that the Belvedere misidentified the painting as a drawing titled “Portrait of a Woman,” dubiously called a clerical error that upon discovery they took no pains to correct, and that Leopold erased Bondi from the provenance of the work in his definitive catalog of Schiele’s works to quash her persistent claims of ownership. The way the film documents the trail of ownership and falsification is a fine example why we all should care about and demand accurate documentation in the books, newspapers, websites, and other resources we consume.

What is even more disturbing is how museums across the United States stood with MoMA in fighting Morgenthau, claiming that if museums cannot guarantee the safe return of works on loan, it will have a chilling effect on the cultural education of the American people. This argument, on its face, seems not only sensible, but also altruistic—but only if the works on loan actually belong to the lender. Since the history of art is also the history of theft, what museum directors are really saying is that if they cannot be free to look the other way once in a while, they won’t be able to borrow collections they covet for their own walls. In essence, the acquisitive and exclusive mindset of the fanatical collector is part of a museum director’s job description.

Indeed, more scrutiny could send some works underground, perhaps never to be seen in public again—a real danger, but certainly a necessary trade-off in the interests of justice. Given the enormous prices pieces by Schiele and other artists command, collectors of ill-got goods are robbing families of their legitimate legacy. The fight Bondi’s heirs put up to regain “Portrait of Wally” was smeared as motivated by pure greed (another dig at its Jewish owner, perhaps?), but what then about Leopold, MoMA, and the rest of the art community that stood with them? Is their solidarity nothing more than collectors’ greed and a ploy to protect their own revenue streams from donors, museum attendees, and resale to acquire additional works?

Lea Bondi, by Christian Schad

The concept of ownership is one that has always given me trouble. When does a privately collected painting—or anything privately owned, like the land in last year’s film The Descendants—pass the threshold from personal pleasure to public interest? When corporate owners place onerous restrictions and prices on the use of their images and sounds, for example, charging independent animator Nina Paley $50,000 to use music they had shown no interest in making available, it seems that the ownership protections of current copyright laws are unnecessarily obstructionist. On the other hand, when a priceless painting is stolen and the rightful owner is systematically kept from reclaiming her property—even when that property is freely available for viewing in the public interest—it seems wrong. Should eminent domain or a statute of limitations apply to stolen art? I don’t have the answer. But this well-rounded documentary convinces me that at least in this case, Lea Bondi should not have died without her “Portrait of Wally” hanging in her home.


27th 05 - 2012 | 7 comments »

Let There Be Light (1946)

Director: John Huston

By Marilyn Ferdinand

This past October, I started my 2011 Chicago International Film Festival coverage with a review of a harrowing documentary called On the Bridge, in which director Olivier Morel documented the sufferings of Iraq War veterans afflicted with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is the invisible wound that scars witnesses to war, and some individuals so afflicted die physically or psychologically from this traumatic wound through suicide, homicide, or incurable psychosis. In 2012, this disorder is recognized and understood in ways it never was before, which is making it possible for more traumatized men and women like those documented in On the Bridge to get the help they need. War-related PTSD, however, certainly is not new, and when the 20th century and its technological might ushered in massively brutal, worldwide conflicts that buried forever the “gentleman’s war,” it also upped the psychological pressures on combat troops.

Motion pictures, a beneficial technological marvel of the 20th century, have been used almost since their beginning to document the many aspects of war. The United States government, a major producer of documentaries, commissioned a number of films that look at soldiers returning from theaters of war to reintegrate into the society they left behind. Such films include The Reawakening (1919), which shows doughboys of World War I, many of them amputees, getting medical treatment, prosthetic limbs, and occupational therapy as they reacquaint themselves with life free of the discipline and danger of armed conflict. Perhaps the most famous documentary about returning soldiers is Let There Be Light, but its fame derives mainly from being kept in the dark for 35 years after it was made by a War Department uncomfortable with the notion that there is any lasting downside to war for the returning veteran. So uncomfortable was the War Department with this documentary that it had it remade as Shades of Gray, a propaganda docudrama based on Let There Be Light that not only eliminated African-American soldiers from the cast, but also suggested that only soldiers who were soft in the head before they went to war cracked up upon their return.

Now, thanks to a National Film Preservation Foundation grant for the donated services of Chace Audio by Deluxe, the National Archives and Records Administration has restored the badly damaged soundtrack to an improved print of Let There Be Light. To commemorate Memorial Day this year, the NFPF premiered the film on its website  May 24, and will run the film through the end of August through a generous donation of web hosting by Fandor. For those who took an interest in our recently completed blogathon to stream the Cutts/Hitchcock film The White Shadow, the online presentation of Let There Be Light is a preview of the high-quality streaming, expert research, and copious film notes we can expect when that silent film makes its debut. For Let There Be Light is an amazingly powerful experience, even on my laptop, and one that left me in tears by its conclusion.

The first line of the opening title card must have gotten this film into hot water with the Army brass right off the bat: “About 20% of all battle casualties in the American Army during World War II were of a neuropsychiatric nature.” Along the side of a ship bringing the troops home, Huston shoots a deep shadow of men carrying a stretcher, a graphic depiction of the darkness attending the wounded in spirit in postwar America, as his father Walter Huston offers a sober narration to match. Ambulances back up to the admission department of Mason General Hospital on Long Island, New York, as the “psychoneurotic” soldiers step out one by one and pass through intake. A group of 75 new arrivals will be the subjects of Huston’s film, taking them from the start of their treatment in a common room where they are told not to feel self-conscious about the cameras, to the hearings eight weeks later in which doctors will determine whether they can be discharged to home.

We see individual sessions in which a psychiatrist tries to get to know the soldiers and find out the circumstances that triggered the uncontrollable shakes, stuttering, leg paralysis, and amnesia of the more physically manifesting patients, as well as the severe anxiety of others who jump at loud noises or dart their eyes nervously, as though reliving some horror. Hollow-eyed men who can’t sleep or whose sleep is interrupted by terrifying dreams that replay some scene of war haunt the screen in between these sessions. We hear the men testify that they have lost the ability to feel happy and that they feel useless. One man in particular, the only survivor of the original group he went into the service with, wished to go back into battle to do something for someone, feeling not only survivor guilt, but also a lack of purpose. One African-American soldier breaks down into tears when he tries to tell the psychiatrist how much his sweetheart means to him because of the sense of self-worth she gave him. I’m only playing armchair shrink here, but it seems to me that these men understand that their hopes and dreams, lives and achievements mean absolutely nothing to the men sent to kill them, and perhaps even to those who sent them to face the enemy. Cannon fodder, in other words, less than human in a dehumanizing enterprise.

Then, however, are the apparent miracles. Hypnosis and sodium amytal, aka truth serum, is used on several patients to free psychological material in the unconscious and help the psychiatrist effect a talking cure. One solider with hysterical paralysis gets up on his feet and walks after one such session once his paralyzing impotence to help his ailing mother and financially strapped father is released. Another solider with a severe stutter repeats over and over again in relief and amazement “I can talk. Oh god, I can talk” when the moment his stutter started—men in his unit teased him for mispronouncing a word with the letter “s” in it—is connected with his fear of the “s” sound made by a German weapon. The film cautions that it takes more than one dose of amytal to cure these soldiers, and that they have only been freed to benefit from follow-up therapy.

Slowly, the men begin through occupational therapy and recreational sports to regain a sense of usefulness, a respite from their psychotic episodes, and a reengagement with the people and world around them. Family visits are fragile moments, and family members must be carefully prepped so as not to undo all the hard-won gains made so far. It feels good to see one patient play catch with his young son as his wife looks on, or the African-American soldier smiling with his sweetheart under the sun.

The last meeting of the men in group therapy focuses on what they want when they get out in the world. Most simply want employers and the people in their communities to give them a chance to show that they can be productive and good to be around. They don’t want to be different from everyone else, an understandable desire. In time, they may be treated the same as everyone else, but it’s certain they will never feel the same as others—they don’t even feel the same as the people they used to be before the war. No amount of therapy will erase the scar of war. The chance to understand the costs of war that live on long after the conflict is an encyclopedia entry is the value of this finely crafted, compassionate documentary from one of our most gifted directors. On this Memorial Day, reflect on these mangled souls, the miracle of therapeutic understanding, and the obscenity of the endlessly recurring war chants of those who will never see a day of combat in their life.


18th 04 - 2012 | 2 comments »

This Is Not a Film (2011)

Directors: Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and Jafar Panahi

By Marilyn Ferdinand

“He’s still a cheeky boy from South Tehran,” said Narimon Safavi, an Iranian entrepreneur and philanthropist living in Chicago who participated in a panel discussion after a showing of This Is Not a Film. That statement may explain why of all the film artists in Iran who have been under official sanction by the government, Jafar Panahi is both heavily persecuted and the most visible face and voice of the opposition. The scrappy director has defied Iranian censors for years, and when he tried to shoot an unapproved script with fellow director-in-trouble Mohammad Rasoulof, both men were arrested; Panahi was sentenced to six years in prison and a 20-year ban on filmmaking, and is awaiting the call to report to prison. This Is Not a Film, a sarcastically titled movie if ever there was one, continues Panahi’s long-standing practice of doing exactly the opposite of what the Iranian government tells him to do.

This Is Not a Film, famously smuggled to the 2011 Cannes Film Festival on a flash drive hidden in a birthday cake, chronicles one day in the life of Panahi as he tries to make the best of his house arrest. A stationary camera sits opposite Panahi as he has breakfast and talks on the phone to family members who are going out to deliver a New Year’s gift to his mother. He also speaks with fellow filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb in vagaries about coming by and to the attorney who is appealing his conviction. After Mirtahmasb’s arrival and off-camera positioning behind the camera, Panahi talks mournfully about the next film he was going to make. He decides to tell the story by showing how he would have cast it, blocked it, and shot it, and starts laying masking tape on his Persian rug to show where the walls, stairs, and hallways would be. He continues the living storyboard approach until gloom descends: “If we could just tell stories, we wouldn’t need to make films.” It’s clear that Panahi is a filmmaker through and through; when he tells Mirtahmasb to cut, the documentary director tells him he’s not supposed to be directing. This sardonic joke both undermines the title of the film, shows concern for what might happen to Panahi for violating the ban, and emphasizes that the loss of his vocation may be the worse of the two parts of his sentence.

This Is Not a Film carries on in the tradition of many Iranian films in exploring the blurred line between fiction and reality. Although it is primarily a documentary, edits have been made, the first sign that there is some shaping going on. The day chosen to do the filming, New Year, introduces the sound of fireworks that could be gunfire, adding some “narrative” intrigue to the proceedings. Comic moments punctuate the day as we hear Panahi talking to Igi and discover a pet iguana in the home. When it later climbs a set of bookshelves, an entranced Mirtahmasb follows it with the camera.

By the last act, the sun has set, and New Year’s fireworks light up the sky as a television news reader announces an imminent ban on New Year celebrations as not being supported by scripture. Mirtahmasb gets up to leave, and Panahi opens the door, only to find a young man just outside it who is there to collect Panahi’s garbage. Both he and we are startled. Mirtahmasb gets on the elevator and leaves, and the scene changes in a way that could have been scripted. Was this encounter prearranged or spontaneous? We can’t be sure, but certainly Panahi knows that the garbage is collected at a certain time each day, supposedly by the young man’s sister, so there was bound to be some interaction at just the moment Mirtahmasb chooses to leave. In fact, Panahi actually spends some time forestalling his colleague’s departure; I took this delaying to be a desire not to be alone at night, but it might simply have been a ploy to ensure the transition to the next phase of the film.

This last phase is important because Panahi, who had been bending the rule about making a film by shooting video with his iPhone, goes into the kitchen and picks up the camera Mirtahmasb returned to its spot, a clear violation of the ban. He takes it into the elevator with the young man and questions him about what he does to make money and his schooling as they descent one floor at a time to pick up garbage on each floor. When they reach the bottom, Panahi follows the young man outside the building until he is told to stay back lest he be seen by the police patrolling the streets. The final image is of a fire outside the apartment block gates, an ominous image that paradoxically coordinates with earlier shots of fireworks demonstrating happiness for the New Year. Given the limits placed upon these directors, This Is Not a Film is a remarkable achievement and a tribute to the spirit of creativity that can free the imprisoned, making people like Panahi especially dangerous to the control of the Iranian regime.

After the film, Prof. Hamid Naficy of Northwestern University, author of the four-volume A Social History of Iranian Cinema, and Milos Stehlik, founder/director of Facets Multimedia, joined Safavi in a discussion of the “nonfilm” and the state of Iranian cinema. With the success of A Separation (2011), director Asghar Farhadi is being offered opportunities to make films abroad, and the closure of the House of Cinema makes it likely that he and other directors being wooed away from Iran will leave. The panelists agree that expatriate Iranian films are likely to be different from those dissident films directors like Panahi have been obstinate in continuing to make. Stehlik expressed the belief that just as a blossoming Chinese cinema was stopped in its tracks by government crackdowns, Iranian cinema was “finished.” Naficy disagreed because he believes the incredible vitality and recognition of Iranian cinema as among the best in the world will be hard to destroy, and points to Rafi Pitts’ The Hunter (2010) as a superior effort that shows directors have not been universally cowed by the government.

A discussion about Abbas Kiarostami’s “retreat” into personal films prompted me to ask about his Shirin (2008), which seems to continue the ongoing dialogue about women’s rights in Iran. Safavi and Naficy gave an enlightening perspective on the film. For Safavi, the film was nostalgic in that it employs so many actresses he grew up watching who have been banned from working in Iran, and celebrates them as highly capable actresses. Naficy added that to show women in full-face close-up was also an act of defiance against the Islamic state’s enforced modesty that has made such shots rare in Iranian films.

A representative from Amnesty International USA had the last word. Apparently, the Iranian government is quite concerned about international opinion and actually monitors how many people show up to screenings of and write about This Is Not a Film—it is thought that international interest and pressure has, in fact, been responsible in part for Panahi remaining out of prison. She suggested that people who want to do more to help Panahi and other persecuted Iranians go to Amnesty’s website or the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran to get educated and take action.


7th 04 - 2012 | 8 comments »

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2012)

Director: David Gelb

By Marilyn Ferdinand

With the proven popularity of what I’ve come to think of as a new subgenre—the aged celebrity documentary—and the overwhelming success of sushi as a food staple the world over, it was only a matter of time until someone made a film about one of Japan’s living national treasures: Jiro Ono, shokunin (sushi chef) extraordinaire. The 85-year-old Ono runs a sushi bar in a Tokyo subway in the Ginza district called Sukiyabashi Jiro. Despite its size—its seating is limited to nine stools at the bar, the bathroom is in the subway corridor, and its chefs do some of their work in that corridor—Sukiyabashi Jiro has earned three stars from Michelin, patrons need to make reservations a month in advance, and prices start at $275 for one of Jiro’s orchestrated tasting menus. Well-heeled foodies will be calling their travel agents after seeing this film to chalk up another exclusive experience. They’d better hurry if they want to be served by Jiro himself, though from the sound of those who have eaten sushi from his hand and under his penetrating gaze, the experience is likely to be nerve-wracking.

Jiro is a person driven by his dreams—ideas for new ways to prepare sushi come to him the way the opening few bars of a new symphony might have come to Mozart. His creations aren’t like the dragon-shaped maki rolls and other food sculptures many of us have come to expect; he’s more of a nigiri specialist, concentrating on the quality of the rice, the wasabi, the seaweed, and most importantly, the fish, to tempt the palate. There’s nowhere to hide when you’re making nigiri, and the smallest flaw—a too-tough piece of fish, rice that is not at body temperature—will make a big difference. That Jiro has even thought about such things is a sign that he’s not just preparing food, he’s showing respect—for the ingredients, for the diners, and for his profession. An apprenticeship with him lasts 10 years, an eternity in our new Easy A world, but necessary for anyone who really wants to become a master.

As anyone who has had a dinner party knows, the preparations are as extensive and exhausting as the cooking itself. A day in the life of Sukiyabashi Jiro starts early, with daily trips to the fish and produce markets to get the freshest, most high-quality ingredients. Until Jiro was 70, he made these trips himself, but after he suffered a heart attack at the fish market, he delegated this work to his eldest son Yoshikazu. With this change, Jiro acknowledged his own frailty and the need to train Yoshikazu in all parts of the business he will eventually inherit—the workaholic old man will undoubtedly die with his apron on.

After the fish arrives, the three apprentices and two sous chefs go to work. One will sit in the subway corridor and lightly toast seaweed sheets on an electric grill. Others will work on the fish, marinating and massaging it. Someone will also have to prepare the grilled egg, a fascinating process that involves flipping the wide brick of egg using four chopsticks; it took the chef in charge of this task three months and 200 rejected batches before he made one Jiro considered edible. Later preparations include washing and cooking the rice under high pressure, mixing the sauces that will be painted onto the tops of various types of nigiri, slicing the fish just so, and, of course, tasting along the way to ensure the proper results and to work on developing the nose and palate needed to create high-quality sushi with utter consistency. Despite Jiro’s nocturnal flights of fancy, a shokunin’s life is one of endless repetition, hard work, and discipline. The financial rewards are small, and many apprentices do not last—we are told one left after only one day in the kitchen.

I was utterly fascinated by the mechanics of running Sukiyabashi Jiro. The restaurant maintains its high standards by finding the best suppliers of all its essential ingredients. A rice merchant sits with Jiro and jokes that a hotel wanted to buy rice from him; he says he would only sell it to them if Jiro okayed it. One suspects that he said that to stay on the severe old man’s good side, but he might have been sincere. In the rarified world of high-end sushi, word of such a sale would probably leak out and show disrespect to Jiro, so I suspect he might have been hinting that he would like Jiro’s blessing rather than actually doing the deed without it.

We also are introduced to the tuna vendor, and follow him to a tuna auction, where he examines the flesh of each fish using a flashlight and runs the flesh through his fingers to check its texture. He says that if he can’t buy the best fish at the market, he won’t buy anything; of course, what he buys is reserved for his best customers, including Sukiyabashi Jiro. Such fish is increasingly hard to get because of overfishing, and even Jiro must find substitutions for fish that are no longer available. Ironically, the global popularity of sushi may actually doom its future; it certainly is of great concern to the next generation of shokunin, like Yoshikazu and his younger brother Takashi, who has his own sushi bar that is the mirror image of his father’s.

The approach of this film reminded me a bit of the Dutch documentary 4 Elements in its intense focus on the world of work, the world of men. Little in the way of personal information makes it into the film, leaving audiences to draw their own conclusions about these men from bits of dialogue that lightly season the film. Aside from a couple of customers and an old friend from childhood and her extended family who make a brief appearance, there are no women in the film. We know Jiro was married, since he has two sons, but absolutely no mention of his wife is made by anyone throughout the film; I assumed she was dead since she was not on the trip Jiro makes to his home town. Jiro’s own mother is mentioned only briefly when he and Yoshikazu visit her and his father’s graves. Jiro questions why he comes to visit them since they never took care of him when he was a child—Jiro’s father left when he was seven, and Jiro started work shortly thereafter for his own survival. He uncorks a good line that got a lot of laughs when he says parents who tell their children they can come back if their careers don’t work out are giving stupid advice that sets their children up for failure. He admits this is why he was harder on his sons than on the other apprentices—to ensure they would have successful careers. The question of whether Takashi and Yoshikazu wanted to be shokunin isn’t really broached, though Takashi said he hated it for the first two years and both boys wanted to go to college, an aspiration Jiro nixed. Basically, the Ono family is highly traditional, and if the brothers have sons—again, there is no mention of their personal lives—they, too, may be forced to follow in their fathers’ footsteps. Food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto speculates that Yoshikazu may be doomed to failure because Jiro’s shoes are just too big to fill.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is an excellent overview of just what it takes to make the best sushi in the world. Yet in execution, the film suffers from a self-importance it doesn’t warrant. Yes, Jiro is an intense man who takes his work very seriously. But he also says repeatedly that he loves what he does. Despite some humor that comes out easily from the people being documented, Gelb sees fit to score the film with large doses of Philip Glass, whose droning minimalism is so portentous and dark that it takes some of the joy out of the enterprise. We’re talking about sushi here, not nuclear war. It actually is fun to cook and eat and come up with new recipes, but Gelb presents Jiro as an unsmiling taskmaster. Dashes of pre-20th-century classical music flatter the foodie’s rarified tastes and coordinate with Yamamoto’s assertion that Jiro’s menus are like symphonies; the use of pieces like Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35, a violin virtuoso’s best friend, make rough parallels to Jiro’s virtuosic abilities. By the time the film’s last image flashes on screen—Jiro sitting on a train and slowing breaking into a grin—it’s too little too late. Nonetheless, the ideas about making and eating sushi leave an impression that just may change the way you dine, and that’s something any sushi lover can treasure.

Tags: ,

4th 12 - 2011 | 5 comments »

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (2011)

Director: Göran Olsson

By Marilyn Ferdinand

As the hubby and I made our way to International House at the University of Chicago to attend a free showing of The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, he said to me, “But you know, Angela Davis did shoot a man.” “Did he die?” I asked. “I don’t think so,” the hubby answered. This conversation alone justifies the existence of this film. Not only did we learn that Angela Davis never shot anyone—her legally owned and registered gun was used in an attack without her knowledge—but that she did 18 months in jail awaiting a trial that could have sent her to the gas chamber; she was subsequently acquitted.

Misinformation about the civil rights/black power movements in the United States is rampant among both opponents and supporters. That’s why Mixtape is an unusual and valuable look from an outside source—Sweden. During the years mentioned in the title, Swedish television journalists covered aspects of the movements both in the United States and abroad, providing a more in-depth and generally sympathetic look at the Black Panther Party and its allies than could ever have been found within the States, then or now. Indeed, the continued neglect of this important time in American and African-American history—the film opened on exactly two screens on September 11, 2011 and has not played on more than 13 screens during any week since—shows how frightened people still are of black power, even as a black-identifying president occupies the White House.

Rediscovery of this footage gave the film’s producers (including actor/director/political activist Danny Glover) and director Göran Olsson the very bright idea to offer today’s audiences a window on the past, as well as give contemporary African Americans a chance to reflect on the effect of this legacy on their lives and careers. During the panel discussion that followed the film, a number of Black Panthers reaffirmed the continued existence and activity of the Panthers, and young audience members showed their eagerness to commit to continuous transformation of society.

The film begins with a look at impoverished African Americans and segues into extensive footage of Stokely Carmichael, a handsome, educated, articulate spokesperson for black power. Carmichael is shown meeting with foreign dignitaries, including the king of Sweden, but his most affecting moment is in his mother’s apartment in Chicago. He grabs the microphone from the Swedes and interviews her about the cramped living conditions in which the Carmichael family struggled, teasing out with question after question the reasons for their poverty. Finally, his mother asserts that her husband was always the first laid off because he was “colored.” Carmichael was a separatist who broke with the Black Panthers over their decision to collaborate with white activists. In various interviews, he asserts his respect for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. while disagreeing with his belief in nonviolence.

In voiceover, hip-hop artist and poet Talib Kweli ruminates on the legacy of Stokely Carmichael. While confessing that he was not that aware of Carmichael, when reviewing the authors Carmichael read, Kweli sees they are more than brothers of the skin, learning as they did at the knee of many of the same people, including Richard Wright and Malcolm X. The extension of the black power movement through the artistry of hip-hop and rap artists is more inferred than stated in this film, but it is clear that the legacy has been carried forward and made relevant to young African Americans in a new way.

Panelist Dr. Charles Payne pointed out that the film takes a top-down view of the black power movement, focusing on such leaders as Carmichael, Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver, and Bobby Seale, and making some unfortunate factual errors, such as giving the incorrect dates for the murders of Medgar Evers (1963, not 1967) and Fred Hampton and Mark Clark (1969, not 1968). All of the panelists complained that the film gives little time to the “survival programs”—the free breakfast program, self-defense classes, free medical clinics and first-aid training, political and economic education, and other services—that made the Panthers a bulwark in the African-American community. Following up with contemporary commentary from the likes of Melvin Van Peebles, Erykah Badu, and Harry Belafonte continues this high-profile approach, though their faces are never seen and their comments are worth listening to.

Further, in the sensationalist style we’ve come to expect of modern journalism, the film shows a Panthers’ class in which the youngsters chant “take up the gun” repeatedly. Further questioning of Angela Davis in her prison cell by the journalists results in a takedown of epic proportions. Davis, angered by the continued focus on violence, recalls in harrowing detail the day the four little girls she knew during her childhood in Birmingham, Alabama were blown to bits by a racist bombing, an incident made most famous by Spike Lee’s 4 Little Girls. The horror that invades her eyes is memorable and fully explicates the need for the armed neighborhood watch that resulted to prevent further violence against African Americans. Indeed, a misunderstanding of the notion of nonviolence—not passivity in the face of attack, but rather a freeing of oneself from a desire to commit violence to further a cause—was elucidated by the post-screening panel. One of the panelists, Black Panther member Stanley McKinney, teaches martial arts to this day in accordance with the party’s 10-point program.

The film digresses rather humorously to a TV Guide article of the period that branded Sweden as the most anti-American country in the world because it shot and aired the footage we see in Mixtape, as well as of demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. Again, the bromide that the bad is not balanced with the good is trotted out to quell criticism by Swedes, but one criticism of their coverage does have some validity. It is rather hard to make sense of anything happening in the United States, then or now, without a thorough understanding of the country, and of the various factions of the civil rights/black power movements. While the footage provides a different perspective on well-known figures, it remains near the surface.

J. Edgar Hoover, founder of the dirty tricks infiltration of perceived subversive organizations known as Cointelpro (Covert Intelligence Programs) said, “The Breakfast for Children Program represents the best and most influential activity going for the BPP and, as such, is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for.” The film repeats assertions that drugs were introduced into the African-American community as a way to destroy the momentum of the black power movement. Many Vietnam veterans, both black and white, came back to the States addicted to heroin; whether it was by design is beyond my powers to discern. That drugs created problems for community organizers is a given, and reinvigorating an effective movement was on the minds of everyone attending the screening. As the panelists said, there is no way to achieve unity in a country as diverse as the United States, and that it is better for the various groups to work toward converging goals to form a powerful coalition for change.

Despite its shortcomings, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 gives contemporary audiences back a piece of their history, not only setting some records straight but also offering the passion of past activists as inspiration to a new generation. A Harlem bookstore owner in the film mentions how some young people came into his store one day talking about black power. He told them, “Black is beautiful, but knowledge is power.” Applause erupted in the audience at that line.


2nd 10 - 2011 | 7 comments »

CIFF 2011: Cinema Komunisto (2011)

Director: Mila Turajlić

2011 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

If you had to name the number one film fan who ever lived, who would it be? Film’s early inventors and innovators, like Thomas Edison and Georges Méliès? Director/collector/ preservationist Martin Scorsese? A collector of commercials, industrial films, and other off-the-beaten-path ephemera like Rick Prelinger? After seeing Cinema Komunisto, my answer would have to be Marshall Josip Broz Tito, president of Yugoslavia from 1953 until his death in 1980.

According to the records and recollections of his personal projectionist Leka (Aleksandar) Konstatinovic, Tito watched a movie nearly every night of his life, sometimes in the middle of the night, and was responsible for the construction of the Avala film studio, the largest in Europe. Tito greenlighted pictures, read and made notes on scripts, sat in on filming, spearheaded the Arena Film Festival in an ancient Roman coliseum in the seaside town of Pula, and even hand-picked Richard Burton to play him in Sutjeska (1973), a movie about one of Tito’s World War II experiences. My own admiration for the great cinema from the Balkans, indeed, the very existence of that great cinema, may be thanks to the opportunities Tito gave to so many young filmmakers before Yugoslavia broke into the pieces it had been before he glued its disparate countries together.

If you want a geopolitical look at Yugoslavia, find another movie. Cinema Komunisto gives only the barest background on the formation of Yugoslavia and its political ties to the Soviet Union before launching into what amounts to a history of Tito and the movies. The glory that once was Avala is surveyed by those who worked there. Steva Petrovic, a producer at the studio, and former director Veljko Bulajic take the documentary camera crew through the crumbling studio as they bemoan the ruin it has become. Petrovic talks about the studio’s first major co-production, The Long Ships (1964), a Viking saga directed by Jack Cardiff and starring Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier. The expensive production made a lot of money and put Yugoslavia on the map for film production. Petrovic proudly shows off a costume made for the film, still in use 50 years later, as well as the many artifacts moldering in the properties department.

Bulajic relates how the Oscar-nominated The Battle of Nerevta (1969) came to be. Tito had a home on the island of Brioni, near Pula, and would invite filmmakers showing their work at the Arena Film Festival to visit him and his wife Jorvanka for dinner and drinks. When Tito asked Bulajic what was next, he said he very much wanted to do a film about the World War II battle in which the Balkan partisans rescued 4,500 wounded prisoners of the Nazis. Of course, Tito was a major player in this battle. Tito stood quiet for an uncomfortable amount of time and finally told Bulajic, “My advisors think differently, but I think it’s important for people to know their history.” With this ultimate greenlight, Bulajic set to work on the most spectacular film shoot I’ve ever heard of. With Tito’s permission, Bulajic was able to set fire to dozens of tanks and jeeps and send them over cliffs. The pièce de résistance was filming the surprise the partisans pulled on the Germans. They blew up a bridge to confuse the enemy and then rebuilt it immediately to evacuate the wounded. Bulajic actually blew up a real bridge—a massive one at that—and had seven cameras rolling to capture its collapse into a deep gorge below. Believe it or not, not one of the cameras caught the bridge falling, and the production team had to shoot a model exploding. Nonetheless, shots of the partisans moving through the gorge are vivid, and the site has become a war memorial still visited by many thousands every year.

Cinema Komunisto makes ample use of archival footage, for example, newsreels showing Tito and Jorvanka meeting with Stalin, Sophia Loren and Carlo Ponti, and Kirk Douglas; press conferences of Orson Welles praising Tito while on location with The Battle of Nerevta; and interviews with Richard Burton about how it feels to wear Tito’s uniform. Images and footage from Belgrade’s Hotel Metropole, the luxury hotel to the stars, contrast with a man removing photos from the wall of fame after the 2007 closing of the hotel, and Leka bemoans the ruin of Tito’s beautiful home (seen in before-and-after photos from the same angles), bombed by NATO in 1999. Director Turajlić talks with Yugoslavia’s number one star Bata Živojinović, who mainly played partisan soldiers killing Germans in many of the 300 (“absolutely terrible,” says Zivojinovic) partisan films made at Avala, as he views the Tito display in a war museum and contrasts it with footage of Tito reviewing the museum upon its opening.

Tito favored accuracy in the telling of his personal stories, and was very pleased that his jeep had the correct number on it in one film. He also refused to allow a script change that would be more intelligible for audiences, but that would change history: “But they didn’t come looking for me!” There are allusions to the dark side of Tito, but the film does not explore them. Newsreel footage of his state funeral in 1980 shows a massive outpouring of grief and a fast-forward to 1991 and the end of Yugoslavia as war breaks out. The suggestion is clear—without Tito’s iron grip on the government and the hearts and minds of the people, Yugoslavia would never have been a fixture on world maps for so long.

Cinema Komunisto advertises itself as a look at propaganda cinema, and it is true that the propaganda messages embodied by the brave communist partisans come through loud and clear. But the film’s real aim is to celebrate the film industry in Yugoslavia—as vibrant and glamorous as anything Hollywood or Cannes had to offer and done on a grander scale than virtually any imaginable—and preserve its memory; there is a petition to the Serbian government to save Avala Film on the documentary’s excellent website. If you love film, you simply cannot miss this entertaining and valuable documentary.

Cinema Komunisto will screen Sunday, October 9, 8:30 p.m., Monday, October 10, 4:00 p.m., and Wednesday, October 12, 3:30 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Inshallah, Football: One young man’s struggle to get a passport to play soccer in Brazil is the lens through which this documentary examines the Indian oppression of Muslims in the occupied region of Kashmir. (India)

George the Hedgehog: Irreverent and adult, this comic-book-based animated film pits George, a pleasure-loving hedgehog, against his clone, a stupid, vulgar internet superstar. (Poland)

The Kid with a Bike: What makes some people give unselfishly of themselves is the question examined in this intense tale by the Dardenne brothers of a boy abandoned by his father and the single woman who takes him in. (Belgium)

Without: A suspenseful story of guilt and loss slowly unfurls as a young woman acts as a temporary caregiver to a helpless elderly man in an isolated island home. (USA)

Madame X: A riotous satire on spy/superhero films that has a drag queen hairdresser transform into a crusader for freedom and equality against the forces of repressive morality. (Indonesia)

Southwest: A haunting, beautifully photographed journey of discovery, as a young woman who dies in childbirth gets a second chance to live to old age, but only one day in which to live it. (Brazil)

On the Bridge: Moving documentary about the torments of posttraumatic stress disorder suffered by Iraq veterans and the failure of the VA medical establishment to help them. (France/USA)


30th 09 - 2011 | 8 comments »

CIFF 2011: Inshallah, Football (2010)

Producer/Director: Ashvin Kumar

2011 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

If my life depended on my knowledge of the Asian subcontinent, I’d be playing a very off-key harp somewhere out there in the universe. That’s why the CIFF’s “Spotlight South Asia” is such a welcome addition to this year’s festival, providing emerging voices from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka a much-needed showcase and giving people like me a chance to better understand this ancient and volatile region. My first foray into the “Spotlight” offerings, Inshallah, Football, was massively eye-opening, even as it told a story that’s all too familiar throughout the world today.

Basharat Baba is a very talented soccer player from the Srinagar district of Kashmir who has been recruited to live the dream of all aspiring soccer players—to train for and compete on a professional team in Brazil. But the Indian government won’t grant his request for a passport. Why? Herein lies the sad reality that has plagued Kashmir. This predominantly Muslim state has been trying to exercise its legal sovereignty since its forced occupation by Indian troops beating back Pakistani forces trying to control Kashmir following the 1947 Indian Independence Act that created the two independent countries. In Basharat’s case, his father’s past as a Pakistani-trained militant in the 1980s and 90s has put him on a government blacklist—the sins of the father, so to speak, preventing Basharat from realizing his dream.

Inshallah, Football provides helpful title cards that familiarize viewers with the facts and issues of the region, but there are some universal truths about the human condition that get a thorough airing as well. The dismantling of the British Empire left traditional political structures that existed before the British arrived in shambles in many parts of the world besides India and made land grabs in the name of security rather commonplace, for example, the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. The paradox of structurally democratic nations heavily oppressing a minority population is also easily recognizable as the paranoia of power desperate to keep it. That such oppression breeds militants who are denied their rights is no surprise, nor is blacklisting of future generations of perceived enemies of the state.

Ironically, the film shows Basharat to be a young man very much like any in the world. He asks a pretty girl for her phone number even as he maintains a steady relationship with another girl, he hangs out with his friends and engages in some playful rough-housing, he becomes childishly stubborn when faced with the need for compromise, and he doesn’t understand why he is being punished for something he didn’t do. Basharat is lucky; he was given the chance to join a soccer academy run by Juan Marcos Troia and his wife Priscilla, who moved from Argentina to start a feeder system for talented Kashmiri youth to soccer clubs throughout the world. If he hadn’t gotten that chance, it is likely that he might have been one of the angry youths, their faces hidden, who throw stones at the Indian troops who dog their every move with random arrests, harassment, and “defensive” volleys of tear gas, and rubber and live bullets.

That possibility was his father Bashi’s worst nightmare. Bashi’s life as a militant had been filled torture, imprisonment, and separation from his loved ones. It was also an adventure and one in which Bashi committed his share of crime and violence. He talks movingly of the night he thought he would die—the warden of the dreaded Papa 2 prison, Kashmir’s Abu Ghraib, told him, “You know the policy now is capture and kill for militants. You were lucky you were captured at home.” Bashi is quite unemotional about his militant days; he has moved on, and is now a successful real estate developer.

The Indians show no such signs of moving on, and the cause for which Bashi fought and so many others died is a long way from won. I was absolutely floored to learn that Kashmir is the world’s most heavily militarized occupied zone, with 500,000 Indian troops holding back a perceived threat from Pakistan. It’s hard to understand why the Marcos Troias want to live in Kashmir, but they are a pair of do-gooders the Indian government should welcome for reducing militancy and sending Kashmiris out of the country. Unaccountably, this affable, loving couple had their visas revoked at the end of the film; while they won a one-year extension at the last minute, I have to think that director Kumar’s own run-ins with the occupying Indians caused them this unwarranted trouble. Inshallah, Football lost three appeals with the censor board, and finally won an A (Adult) rating, normally reserved for films depicting extreme violence or graphic sex, thus limiting its exhibition potential in India. Fight the power by seeing this important documentary and sharing your thoughts widely.

Inshallah, Football will screen Thursday, October 13, 5:00 p.m., and Saturday, October 15, 12:00 p.m. at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St. It will show Sunday, October 16, 8:00 p.m. at the University of Chicago’s DOC Films, 1212 E. 59th St.

Previous coverage

George the Hedgehog: Irreverent and adult, this comic-book-based animated film pits George, a pleasure-loving hedgehog, against his clone, a stupid, vulgar internet superstar. (Poland)

The Kid with a Bike: What makes some people give unselfishly of themselves is the question examined in this intense tale by the Dardenne brothers of a boy abandoned by his father and the single woman who takes him in. (Belgium)

Without: A suspenseful story of guilt and loss slowly unfurls as a young woman acts as a temporary caregiver to a helpless elderly man in an isolated island home. (USA)

Madame X: A riotous satire on spy/superhero films that has a drag queen hairdresser transform into a crusader for freedom and equality against the forces of repressive morality. (Indonesia)

Southwest: A haunting, beautifully photographed journey of discovery, as a young woman who dies in childbirth gets a second chance to live to old age, but only one day in which to live it. (Brazil)

On the Bridge: Moving documentary about the torments of posttraumatic stress disorder suffered by Iraq veterans and the failure of the VA medical establishment to help them. (France/USA)


22nd 09 - 2011 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2011: On the Bridge (L’âme en sang, 2010)

Director: Olivier Morel

2011 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

I don’t know about you, but I know exactly where I was on April 9, 2003, the day Baghdad fell to Coalition troops—I was in an airport waiting to catch a plane. Big Brother-like and almost impossible to avoid, every television in the place was broadcasting images of some Iraqis trying to topple a statue of Saddam Hussein in the center of the city. They used ropes, they pulled with U.S. Army jeeps, it took a very long time. Finally, the statue fell. That was supposed to be the beginning of the end, right? In 2010, the war was officially declared over, but we still have 50,000 troops in the country who could be ordered to start fighting again. So, maybe we really are still at war in Iraq.

As a result of this seemingly endless conflict, a cottage industry in films about the war in Iraq has sprung up. In my interview with Errol Morris about his Iraq-related movie, Standard Operating Procedure, he said in defense of his approach, “If people want the same cookie-cutter movie about Iraq, there are plenty you can go see.”

While I would argue about whether all these films look alike—they most certainly do not—their missions all point in the same direction: they want to make the war and its costs visible and understandable to audiences, particularly to Americans who bought the lies that started the conflict and who have had no truly personal stake in our actions abroad. Olivier Morel, a French photographer and documentarian living in the United States, focuses on soldiers who have returned to their homes, but not to their lives, because they are suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He focuses all of his attention on the direct testimony of six individuals from various parts of the country who served in various capacities in Iraq, from tank driver to surgeon, and one family whose son committed suicide. Their stories are both particular and universal, a chronicle of tormented consciences, anger at bad-faith politics and bad-policy military orders, and soul-crushing terror at their helplessness to stop great evil from happening.

David Brooks is a career military surgeon who had been through seven wars. Iraq was his Waterloo, the one that cracked him into a million pieces that he is still trying to pick up. Wendy Barranco, another healer, was only 19 when she went to Iraq; now the head of Iraq Veterans Against the War, she is riddled with guilt and full of apologies for giving “200%” to try to save soldiers as young as she—only to fail. Ryan Endicott skateboards barefooted along Venice Beach, and angrily relates that he has to call suicide hotlines to find someone who will talk to him. We’re not convinced that he really doesn’t want to kill himself, unless it is the VA medical system that has let him down he really wants to kill; there is death in his voice and in his graphic songs of pain and destruction.

Lisa Zepeda is a Chicago cop, so what street horrors hasn’t she seen at home. Still, her service in Abu Ghraib is different, much different, and like Ryan, she finds that her fellow police officers won’t listen to her, preferring to spout jingoistic justifications for destroying the Iraqis where they sit. Vince Emanuele lifts weights and rails against the policies that made insurgents every day in Iraq; he wonders if these strategies weren’t part of a diabolical scheme to create a war that will last forever, and given what has transpired, it’s not hard to wonder with him. Jason Moon is a patriot—was a patriot—and brings out the three-page list of medications the doctors have tried on him, complaining that before the war, all he ever took was a multivitamin. He recalls when the news of Abu Ghraib broke that he sat appalled at the depravity of the torment Sabrina Harman documented for the world; his fellows in Iraq laughed at the sight and made him wonder what kind of an alternate universe he had stepped into.

Jeff Lucey, represented by his parents and sister, stands in for the two veterans of Iraq who kill themselves each week. The Luceys seem to be so even-keeled when talking about Jeff and his slow-building insanity. Mother Joyce looked up camel spiders on the Internet when he mentioned them, not realizing that he was hallucinating them in his room, and father Kevin accepted Jeff’s protestations that he was fine until Jeff snuck out of the house wearing his uniform and weaponry to buy beer. In a rage, Kevin broke every bottle against a tree; he still doesn’t know why.

The living casualties of war are as old as war itself, and these vets bear some self-inflicted scars/tributes. Lisa has a pair of dog tags tattoed on her shoulder, one written in English and one in Arabic. Ryan has a pair of bloody hands tattoed on his back along with the phrase “Forgive me for I have sinned.” There do seem to be people in the world, particularly those calling a lot of the shots, who have no such conscience as these two vets, nor that of Jason Moon, who told his commanders that he would be unable to run over children who might be blocking a U.S. convoy of tanks, thus defying a direct order. These honchos might not be so cavalier about wasting lives in the most gruesome manner imaginable if they had to face getting some brain matter on the Saville Row suits war profits help them buy—but, of course, that will never happen. So, well-intentioned, if misguided soldiers will keep getting thrown to the lions, will continue to have their mental health needs experimented with and ignored by an overwhelmed or uncaring system, and will fail to have their stories widely disseminated to prevent more young people from following in their ruinous footsteps. One thing’s for sure—for many Iraq veterans who have returned home, that war will only end with their deaths.

Another film about Iraq? We really can’t have enough. Go see this exceptionally moving one, an oral history of madness told by the people who lived through it.

On the Bridge will screen Saturday, October 8, 1:15 p.m. and Sunday, October 16, 6:30 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.


4th 09 - 2011 | 8 comments »

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness (2011)

Director: Joseph Dorman

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Regular Ferdy on Films readers will know of my ongoing struggle with my Jewish heritage and identity. An atheist, I nonetheless feel an attachment, if not to my religion, then to the unique cultural background of Ashkenazi Jewry that I have only a glancing knowledge of through my first-generation American parents and relatives. I become impatient with those whose pity for the Ashkenazi Jews who perished in the Holocaust tends to cast Jews as eternal victims. Yet, my awareness of Jewish vulnerability through the centuries is entwined with my own family history—I lost the whole Polish branch of my family in Auschwitz, and my mother used to tell me stories about her “skinny bubbie,” who used to share her childhood bed and scream in her sleep as she warded off the shadows cast by the pogroms she suffered in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in Eastern Europe. Try as I might, I have found myself too far removed in time and temperment from the seminal experiences that defined modern Jewry to really make sense of what it means to me to be Jewish.

That changed, swiftly and painfully, as I watched the unlikely documentary Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness. I say unlikely because the film’s subject, Sholem Rabinovitz, aka Sholem Aleichem, born and raised in a Jewish shtetl under Tsarist rule, lived from 1859 to mid 1916—definitely not in the sweet spot for a cinematic documentary. That director Joseph Dorman not only decided to go ahead anyway, but also found some strategies to help bring this story alive has resulted in a film that packs an emotional wallop.

Sholem Aleichem is the nom de plume and persona of the most famous Yiddish writer in the world, as well as the person who made writing in Yiddish acceptable. Writing in Yiddish, he said, was meshugeh (crazy). Jewish writers felt that only Hebrew was proper, and Sholem Rabinovitz was an admirer of the great Russian literature of his time, particularly Tolstoy and Turgenev, and aspired to its heights. Yet, Yiddish was the language of his heart and the only suitable way to address his subject matter. Through his countless short stories and novels, he became the chronicler of shtetl life and ushered in a golden age of Yiddish expression that even won favor in the atheist and anti-Semitic Soviet Union, until Stalin’s paranoia brought it to an abrupt and tragic end in the 1950s.

Even if you have never read a word by Sholem Aleichem, you know his most famous creation—Tevye the Dairyman. This pious character confused by changes to his traditional way of life was the center around which composer Jerry Bock, playwright Joseph Stein, and lyricist Sheldon Harnick built the wildly popular musical Fiddler on the Roof, often using the language of the writer himself to tell the story. Dorman begins his documentary with a clip from the 1971 film of the musical, with Topol dancing down a dirt road singing “Tradition.” I doubt anyone who chooses to see this film needed this prompt about Sholem Aleichem as a figure of wide significance, but Dorman cleverly returns to this film and an earlier Yiddish version from 1939 to show how alterations to the original story reveal how the Jewish community was redefining itself over time.

The life and times of Rabinovitz are recounted with a surprising thoroughness for a 93-minute film. Rabinovitz’s childhood in the Pale was a happy one—his father was prosperous, and Sholem felt confident and accepted as a result. Unfortunately, his father was swindled by a business partner, and the Rabinovitz family lost everything; at age 13, Sholem also lost his mother in a cholera epidemic. His father found a new woman, but afraid to reveal that he had 12 children, he parceled them out to relatives and recalled them to his home slowly during the first year of his second marriage. Sholem’s stepmother seems to have been a shrew, but she was a great source of epithets, which he gathered into a glossary of curses that would serve him well when he became a writer.

As a young man, he was hired to tutor the only daughter of a wealthy Jewish land owner. When the pair fell in love, Sholem was dismissed. He and Olga eloped after Sholem found steady work and settled in Kiev; their financial circumstances became more secure after Olga’s father died and left her his fortune. Nonetheless, Sholem was attracted to the thrills of playing the stock market and ended up losing everything, declaring bankruptcy, and fleeing the country. His mother-in-law agreed to settle his debts so that he could return to Kiev, but she never spoke to him again.

To support his large family, he wrote short stories at the rate of one or two a week for publication in the Yiddish newspapers that spread his fame throughout the world. At the same time, Jews were scapegoated after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, with vicious pogroms taking lives, destroying property, and sending frightened Jews scattering out of the Pale. In 1905, Sholem and his family went into hiding for three days to escape a pogrom in Kiev; he left for the United States with his wife and youngest son soon after, where he was determined to be a successful playwright of the Yiddish theatre. Instead, his plays were scathingly attacked by young Jews who could not relate to his tales of the shtetl, and he left New York, vowing never to return. A peripatetic life in Western Europe would be his lot until he was forced to flee Germany when World War I broke out; he reluctantly had to return to New York, where he died. His funeral was the largest for a private citizen the city—and the country—had ever known, with his coffin wheeled through every Jewish neighborhood in the city.

We get this chronology, but it is filtered through Sholem Aleichem’s writing. Dorman chooses still photos of two nameless Jews to stand in for Sholem Aleichem’s first enduring characters, Menahem-Mendl and Sheineh-Sheindl, as actors narrate bits of the stories he wrote. Menahem-Mendl and Sheineh-Sheindl are a married couple whose outlooks on life are amusingly opposed. Menahem-Mendl is a cockeyed optimist who has left his wife and family back in the shtetl to make his fortune in the big city. Loaded with enthusiasm, he writes of one great business venture after another, rarely mentioning that they never pan out, while his wife’s letters are filled with skepticism and scolding even as she tries to prop him up in his darkest hours. It’s clear that the couple has more than a few parallels with Sholem and Olga, but they face their hardships with the kind of humor that forms the subtitle of Dorman’s documentary.

The commentary about Tevye zeroes in on the changing attitudes to marriage among modern Jews. Tevye acquiesces to his first daughter Tzeitel’s rejection of the husband he has chosen for her so that she can marry for love. He speaks constantly of how unfair it is that some people can be rich simply because of who they are or what they are (Russian) while he has to slave to eke out a living. His second daughter Hodel takes his harmless complaints seriously and runs off with a Marxist, which stands as a lesson that children will listen to their parents but may act in ways their parents never intended. Third daughter Chava’s break from tradition is too much for Tevye. When she marries a Russian and must, by law, convert to Christianity, Tevye sits shiva for her and refuses to speak with her again. Interestingly, the 1939 film Tevya shows her Russian suitor to be a fine young man, and the 1971 film actually has Tevye break his silence to say “And may God be with you” to the couple as the entire town prepares to leave the Pale. The changes in this story show the gradual acceptance of intermarriage, and underlines the rapid transformation of the Ashkenazi Jewish community in trying to adapt to new countries and customs.

The most poignant parts of this film are also the most personal for me. Dorman makes use of still photos of Jews killed by the pogroms that are perhaps more shocking than any from the Holocaust—bodies laid out side by side include small children and even a couple of infants. “Tales of a Thousand and One Nights,” called a precursor to Holocaust literature, communicates the horrors of the pogroms suffered by its main character, who is on board a refugee ship in the North Sea with the character Sholem Aleichem as they try to find safety in the United States. These pogroms are the reason I was born an American and one of the reasons that the way of life my grandparents and great-grandparents knew was extinguished. And that is the second poignant part of the film, the realization by Jews who left the Pale and adopted different ways of life for themselves and their children that they were now the only link to a murdered way of life. If shtetl values and traditions were to be preserved, these Jews would have to take up the mantle. Sadly, even Sholem Rabinovitz’s children grew up speaking and reading Russian, with no knowledge of lowly Yiddish. This universal language of Jewry, which my parents always called “Jewish” (a much better name for it), is struggling for survival.

Dorman used what little film exists of shtetl life and photos to illustrate both Sholem’s life and his stories. He offers a vocal track of Sholem reading from one of his stories while on his standing-room-only lecture tours, and his expressive Yiddish is music to my ears, a reminder of the occasional pepper my parents and relatives would use to flavor their speech. Yiddish scholars Hillel Halkin, Dan Miron, David Roskies, and Ruth Wisse, as well Sholem’s granddaughter, writer Bel Kaufman, provide informative and spirited commentary that puts Sholem Aleichem’s legacy into a larger context without skirting the pleasures he offered his millions of fans. Reading aloud the new Sholem Aleichem story in the Jewish newspapers that were delivered on Friday became a Sabbath ritual in many, many Jewish homes. It’s a tradition Tevye might not have approved of, but one I would love to see resurrected, a mitzvah to the next generation.


20th 06 - 2011 | 4 comments »

The China Question (2011)

Director/Screenwriter: Brook Silva-Braga

By Marilyn Ferdinand

For about the last year or so, I have been on a crusade to buy American—or at least not Chinese. I had been buying items for two or three years on a shopping site featuring major labels I have always associated with quality merchandise, only to have the items fall apart in record time. Every one of them had a Made in China label. As I watched more and more businesses go belly-up and abandoned storefronts multiply in my community, I felt, if not patriotic exactly, a growing need to try to even the imbalance in the merchandising world. But not buying Chinese was much more difficult than I expected. Looking for a pair of low-cut boots at DSW, all I could find was a pair from Canada. At LL Bean, only their rubber Bean boots are still made in Maine. I found some SAS gym shoes and socks made in America. I paid more for these items, but I felt better about supporting my own economy and knowing that the merchandise quality justified the purchase price. However, I broke down and bought a Chinese-made toy for my great-niece’s birthday, having found only two objects that met my criteria, neither of them appropriate, at a large toy and party store. I find myself spending money on little but food, entertainment, and utilities these days.

After watching The China Question, an absorbing and thorough look at the forces that have shaped my merchandise-shopping experience, I learned that I am not alone in my boycott. The director’s mother has mounted the same protest, though for different reasons—to condemn the Chinese government for its human rights abuses and repression of basic freedoms. By the end of the film, Silva-Braga declared his mother’s boycott useless. I disagree—it can never be useless to get people to think about how they spend, and indeed, some of the people he interviewed wondered how our government could think so little about our long-term economic viability when China does little but obsess about the United States. But I understood where he was coming from, for the China question is indeed more complicated than I first imagined it to be.

Silva-Braga frames the film around Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when people stay up all night to be the first in line to start their Christmas shopping before the sun—and prices—start to rise. Even the rich like a bargain, but the need for such cost-conscious shopping reflects the wage stagnation and the loss of jobs among American workers. A lot of those jobs have gone to China, where small family businesses have grown into major employers that have attracted millions of workers from rural hamlets to China’s largest cities. These businesses, Silva-Braga points out, are not really manufacturing anything; instead, they take parts of objects made in other countries and assemble them for the export trade.

At this point in time, China is the world’s work room, and its workers are people escaping the extreme poverty of rural China to make the low, but still more substantial $200 a month at these jobs. In essence, low-wage or unemployed workers in the United States are only able to afford the needs and wants of life because the low wages of Chinese workers allow companies to keep their costs down and their prices low. These wages are often the only compensation for rural workers. The Chinese are registered in the government’s hukou system by where they were born; in its attempt to modernize and urbanize China, those with an urban hukou designation get free public education for their children, state healthcare benefits, and other perks; moving to the city alone will not affect one’s registration.

Of course, not every worker in China is low-wage. The middlemen and women who matchmake between Chinese suppliers and foreign buyers do very well. One of them, who has given herself the Anglicized and very appropriate name of “Dollar,” is a juggernaut, chatting on her cellphone, driving all over Shanghai to meet with company presidents, reassuring them that they will have a market for their goods—a concern since the economic collapse in the West—if they contract with her, and giving them a few tips on deceptive practices for internet sales that will help them understand the psychology of the average consumer. Dollar’s assistant thinks people would rather have more time to enjoy their lives, and confesses to having little ambition to be like Dollar.

Silva-Braga spends judicious time on Chinese history, recounting the events that caused China to close her borders and miss the Industrial Revolution and detailing the Opium Wars that resulted when Britain attempted to blast China’s trade barriers to bits after profitable opium traffic through a tiny door to China convinced the Brits there was a fortune to be made there. Chillingly, he reveals that companies eager to redress the modern trade imbalance are required by Chinese law to turn over their blueprints, a scenario about technology transfer that made Joss Whedon, the creator of the TV series Dollhouse, worried enough to pin the future of the scifi world of the series on it. It was this demand for trade secrets that caused Google to pull out of the country. More scary, the one strength the United States has had over the years is its ability to innovate. American businesses and governments are trying to bring science and language skills up in our schools to compete with the engineering whizzes in China and other countries, but without the “soft” skills the arts offer getting equal attention, we might lose our creative edge.

More recent history is recounted as well, when Silva-Braga discusses the government’s fears that the popular uprising for democratic reforms during the 1980s would lead to the insanity of the Cultural Revolution, fears that caused it to quash the protesters in Tiananmen Square. Silva-Braga asks two young Chinese if the date June 4 means anything to them, and both answer “no,” a demonstration that the Chinese are rewriting history. In a parallel example, however, a Chinese scholar says that Americans don’t know about the 1932 military assault on the Bonus Army of World War I veterans camping in Washington, DC to demand their back pay and benefits. Indeed, I don’t remember learning about this incident in school, but a quick Google search yielded the entire history of the event, something that would not be possible in China. Silva-Braga declares that The China Question will be banned in China because of this footage mentioning the Tiananmen Square massacre and showing the famous footage of the man who stood in front of a line of tanks leaving the square the next day.

Silva-Braga travels the United States to show the eclipse of America’s industrial base, and the stories certainly are sad. Yet the story isn’t balanced by the rise of other market sectors, such as tech companies, and doesn’t recognize how technological innovations have made entire industries obsolete within our own borders. We see a young tech entrepreneur in China copy AutoTrader.com, an online used-car company in the States, but the Chinese version won’t compete with this local concern. The future of America could very well be the local and hyperlocal focus of many businesses today, micro- rather than macroeconomics, though the fortunes will likely be more modest. Silva-Braga asks whether Americans are willing to leave the center of influence they currently occupy as China rises, through its economic might, to world leadership. My personal answer is “yes.”

Silva-Braga’s film is rich in information and offers much food for thought, particularly about what is happening in the country that influences our daily lives so much. I thought his talking-head interviews were interesting and presented a cross-section of economists, scholars, and ordinary people that covered a lot of necessary bases. I found some of his arguments facile and ranging further than his thesis could support, yet I think this is an important film to watch. It raises questions many people may not have asked themselves and answers them. It also reveals a lot about the evolution of a capitalist economy and its effect on people learning to work within it.

At the end of the film, Silva-Braga goes to visit the construction site of Dollar’s spacious new apartment with her assistant. The assistant appears to have finally heard the siren’s call and started following in her boss’ footsteps (shades of All About Eve); I couldn’t help but notice that she had put on some weight, evidence to me that anxiety is now also her companion on the way to prosperity.


22nd 04 - 2011 | 7 comments »

Tabloid (2010)

Director: Errol Morris

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In a press release for Sundance Selects, which has picked up his latest film for exhibition, Errol Morris is quoted as saying, “Tabloid is a return to my favorite genre—sick, sad, and funny—but of course, it’s more than that. It is a meditation on how we are shaped by the media and even more powerfully, by ourselves. Joyce is a woman profoundly influenced by her dreams and, in a sense, she was living in a movie long before she came to star in my film.”

I certainly think Morris conceptualizes his films with the intent of ascribing a larger sociological meaning to them, but I’m not always sure he does it before the fact. It seems to me that Morris is irresistibly attracted to self-justifying creeps and sideshow acts, intentionally looking for the oddities and monsters in society like a Diane Arbus crossed with P. T. Barnum. Like an actor who develops sympathy for an unlikeable character he must play, Morris assumes an emotional largesse toward his films’ stars that creates a self-justification for what he is doing. There was really no need for him to help Robert McNamara on his image-rehabilitation tour—anyone who saw the interview Charlie Rose did with McNamara shortly before the release of Morris’ Oscar-winning film The Fog of War saw the same act by the former Secretary of Defense as the one he put on for Morris. Perhaps the righting of a wrong he accomplished with his early film, The Thin Blue Line (1988), has been more of an albatross to him than anyone would care to think. Otherwise, he might feel free simply to indulge his curiosity without trying to ascribe more significance to it than that.

His latest found object is Joyce McKinney, who transfixed the British public in 1977 when her obsessive love for a Mormon named Kirk Anderson led her into trouble with the law and tabloid stardom. McKinney, a former beauty pageant contestant from North Carolina and a drama student, met Anderson in Salt Lake City when they were both 19 and says they fell deeply in love and wanted to marry. His parents disapproved of her, and one day, Kirk vanished into thin air, according to Joyce—she seemingly insists that he literally became a wisp of smoke, implying the evil cult powers of the Mormon Church. She moved to Los Angeles to make some money as a model so she could afford to hire a private detective. The P.I. traced Kirk to London, where he was doing his obligatory two-year missionary work. Plucky Joyce cajoled three men—one by wearing a see-through blouse without a bra—to come with her to find Kirk and deprogram him so that she could have her happy ending. Instead, Kirk accused her of kidnapping him, shackling him to a bed, and raping him repeatedly in a small cottage in Devonshire.

Despite the great many innovations Morris has brought to documentary filmmaking, including reenactments, the interrotron, and the perfection of the g-roll, he falls back heavily on talking heads to tell this story. He interviews two British journalists who were working on the story for rival newspapers—Peter Tory from the Daily Express and photojournalist Kent Gavin of the Daily Mirror—who approached the story once McKinney had jumped bail and fled back to the United States in quite different ways. Tory recounted McKinney’s various escape disguises, from dressing like a nun to pretending to be a deaf-mute, and pictured her as a lovably crazy woman in love, the woman who would “ski down Mt. Everest in the nude with a carnation up my nose” if Anderson had asked her to. Gavin, on the other hand, got to Angeleno Steve Moskowitz, a man carrying a torch for McKinney, who revealed how Joyce allegedly made all the money she needed—pornography and prostitution. The rivalry certainly made for some interesting insights, but by now, revelations of ever-present paparazzi, nude photos in British tabloids, paying people for information, and such, isn’t exactly earthshaking information.

Visually, Morris enlivens the proceedings with animations that show McKinney’s movements in England. He bring in a young former Mormon who tries to give a psychological profile of Anderson and what he would have been feeling if he had, indeed, had premarital sex, but this is like offering an expert witness in a trial who has never met the victim. Morris inserts footage from old TV shows and movies, for example, showing Celia Johnson seeing Trevor Howard off from a train platform in Brief Encounter to parallel McKinney’s story of seeing Anderson off, expecting to meet him in London to be married, only to be arrested instead. These devices seem to be used for comic effect and to try to make a parallel between staged drama and McKinney’s real-life and largely self-created drama.

Of course, the star, Joyce McKinney is interviewed extensively. She has a flair for telling a story and knows how to turn a phrase. Referring to Anderson’s impotence (typed out in bold letters across the screen as she talks) at first, she says it’s like trying to “insert a marshmallow into a parking meter.” Her manic energy starts off charming and ends up making one want to bash one’s head against a wall; I imagine this is how the pretty, young Joyce had so many men running at her heels. The combination of pretty, sexy, and crazy is a potent aphrodisiac. It’s also extremely unpleasant to experience for any length of time, and despite Joyce’s apparent willingness to have anyone pay attention to her, consummate narcissist that she appears to be, the film borders on exploitation.

That Joyce is telling a string of lies, or maybe a lot of self-delusions mixed with lies, is almost certain, particularly when she denies the Mirror’s story on her L.A. past when it was in possession of almost 1,000 photos of her. Her hopeless romanticism seems a bit tragic, but her willingness to act on it is pretty scary. She claims to have remained celibate since her Devonshire “honeymoon” with Anderson. When the only love in her life after Kirk—her pit bull Booger—dies, she pays a South Korean scientist $150,000 to have him cloned. She briefly moves back into the spotlight for this action, but it does truly seem that she’ll be happiest on her own playing with Booger-McKinney, Booger-Lee, Booger-Ra, Booger-Hong, and Booger-Park, out of the public eye. Let’s hope she stays there.


12th 04 - 2011 | no comment »

You Can’t Sing It for Them (2010)

Codirectors: Jacqueline Richard and Margot Fassler

The Talking Pictures Festival, April 14-17, 2011

By Marilyn Ferdinand

I don’t know about anyone else, but I generally don’t expect to hear business tropes about the need to rightsize or adapt or die coming from the precincts of a church. But that’s just the type of language the members of the four adult choirs who sing for the 123-year-old W.E.B. Du Bois Messiah Baptist Church in Bridgeport, Connecticut heard from their dynamic young pastor, Rev. Tyrone Jones, and their new music director, Jonathan Berryman. Jones’ motto for Messiah Baptist is “Multi-faceted Ministries for the New Millennium and Beyond,” and his charge to Berryman, an Ivy League graduate in music, was to consolidate the choirs. You Can’t Sing It for Them chronicles Berryman’s work from January 2008 to January 2009 to achieve this goal and to grow future generations of choir members capable of bringing back the full breadth of sacred music that is the heritage of Messiah Baptist and other largely African-American congregations.

Rev. Jones, who became the church’s fifth pastor in 2002, brought his Pentacostal roots and charismatic style of preaching to bear as he worked to establish a less formal, more participatory style of worship among the congregation. Berryman’s background is a much closer fit. He grew up attending a “silk stocking” Baptist church in Virginia with a very staid, middle-class congregation, and Messiah reminds him of his home church: “Whether it knows it or not, it is a silk-stocking church.” The church’s century-and-some-change continuity is impressive, but also presents an obstacle to some of the changes Jones and Berryman want to make.

Berryman emphasizes the need for consolidation to get the “meatier sound” of many voices singing together, as well as to ensure that there are enough voices raised in song in the first place. The Senior Choir especially suffers from insufficient numbers due to members who have health problems or who travel a good deal during the year. But the decision to merge the Senior Choir, the Ensemble Choir, and the Gospel Choir to form the Mass Choir is made without input of the choir members, and this situation presents Berryman with his first challenge. In particular, the Ensemble Choir is a small group of women who went from young womanhood to middle age singing together and who are vocal about wondering whether causing pain for the greater good really represents God’s will.

What comes through clearly is Berryman’s passion for sacred music in all its forms, and You Can’t Sing It for Them is as much a lesson in the history of African-American sacred music as it is a chronicle of Berryman’s journey toward his goal. “Spirituals, anthems, hymns, and traditional gospel music have been put on the shelf in a lot of churches. The musicians who had the skill set to teach that kind of music died.” Through the use of a chalk board and archival drawings and photos, Berryman takes the viewer through the evolution of African-American church music, from African chants to the structured anthems Berryman particularly likes and wants to revive and beyond to the modern gospel that Berryman believes is even more complex in ways than anthems.

The film is short, and this presents a problem in trying to understand the music at anything more than a superficial level. Practice sessions of the combined choir are shown briefly, giving us an idea of the work that will need to go into blending many voices that have fallen into bad habits in their smaller silos, but not much more. Berryman has a joking, winning personality, but he’s a hard taskmaster. He teaches music at a local grade school, and can be brutal to the students he is trying to train to be the kind of musicians who can handle all the music he wants to revive.

The directors often succeed in avoiding the potential monotony of talking heads, offering us the beauty of the music, meetings of the choirs, lively church services, and different points of view from the choir members. At other times, their attempts to be cinematic are kind of cheesy. For example, Berryman talks about working in God’s time, and the camera shifts to a wall clock; in another example, he says that one could make more money as a studio musician, and we get a shot of coins falling on a counter.

The film ends with a tribute concert of the Mass Choir for Mrs. Martha Gonzalez, a former music director, who is, perhaps, predictably no-nonsense and grudging in her approval of the music. Despite a familiar arc to the story, the information and personalities make the film an enjoyable, worthwhile experience.

You Can’t Sing It for Them screens Saturday, April 16, 3 p.m., at the Evanston Public Library, 1703 Orrington Ave.

This film has also been booked for the 2011 Chicago International Movies and Music Festival. It screens Friday, April 15, 6 p.m., at the Chicago Cultural Center, Claudia Cassidy Theater, 78 E. Washington St., Chicago.


10th 04 - 2011 | 2 comments »

Concrete, Steel, & Paint (2009)

Producers/Codirectors: Cindy Burstein and Tony Heriza

The Talking Pictures Festival, April 14-17, 2011

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Ever since I visited South Africa in 2000, I have been interested in the processes of forgiveness and reconciliation. Such processes occur on both the grand scale of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which sought psychological reparations for the atrocities committed under apartheid, and on the smaller scale chronicled by documentary directors Cindy Burstein and Tony Heriza in Concrete, Steel, & Paint. Their film takes a look at the complications that occurred when two artists tried to bring together inmates of Pennsylvania’s Graterford maximum-security prison and residents of Philadelphia’s Fairhill neighborhood, a poor, violent area from which many of the inmates hail, to create a mural.

The idea for the mural came from the inmates themselves, all of whom were part of an art class inside the prison who heard about mural-making from Jane Golden, director of the Philadelphia Mural Arts program, and urged her to work with them in the class. Spurred by their sense of fulfillment in creating murals for some of the prison’s common areas, the inmates wanted to do something to give back to the community they had each wronged with their crimes, including murder. Golden got together with Victoria Greene, founder of the victim advocates group Every Murder Is Real (EMIR) that is named for her murdered son, who helped facilitate a meeting between the members of the art class and crime victims. Eventually, the mural project got off the ground, but evolved into two separate murals, one representing the inmates’ point of view and the other representing the victims.

What is fascinating is the differing perceptions and attitudes of the inmates, victims (largely family members of murder victims), and Golden herself. Golden says, “Graterford is the sixth
largest maximum security prison in the country. It has a reputation of being a tough place. There were serious criminals there—people I had read about—people I had judged. I was very suspicious of them.” The 30 inmates who attended the first meeting looked upon the mural project initially as something to do, highlighting the monotony of prison life and uselessness inmates feel.

At an initial meeting where the idea is brought to victims, one woman says, “I’m speaking as a victim, a survivor. I’m not interested in what he has to say…necessarily. I’m interested in my healing.” Another says, “I have to hear from the offender. I have to hear the remorse. I have to hear their pain because I need to know do they understand my pain.” Altovise Love-Craighead, Emir’s sister, tells her story and says, “There’s nothing to come out of. There is no closure,” explaining simply that the pain of losing a loved one to murder never goes away.

Despite misgivings and nervousness, both groups meet at the prison. A bridge starts to form, as Love-Craighead says the encounter kind of opened her eyes. The project commences, as Golden and muralist/instructor César Viveros work with the prisoners to come up with a mural concept for the wall they have chosen. He and Golden feel the concept is beautiful, but the victim group attacks it as showing only the prisoners’ pain. This rift forces a reframing of the project: Golden locates two new walls, on buildings that stand next to each other, and Viveros works with the survivors’ group on a mural design of their own.

Again and again throughout the film, the prison artists repeated, “We’re still people.” The horror of a life sentence and of being judged to be inhuman and unfit to do anything but sit, grow old, and die is vivid and very disturbed. Yet, there is a self-pity and feeling of victimization coming from some of the inmates that is galling. Zafir says he was not guilty but some people “didn’t see it that way, and I have to live with that.” Although there is abundant evidence that wrongful convictions take place, most of the inmates admit to their guilt. Tom, who is serving a life sentence for a robbery homicide, says he sees his victim’s face every day and knows he can never get over it.

By working together to paint the panels that will form the murals, the victims and prisoners get to hear each other’s points of view and do something constructive together. Tom talks with one of the victims about how he thinks murderers have a right not to accept the verdict of the outside world that people like him deserve to be “ripped apart by dogs.” She counters that “I’m sure the person who that person murdered probably didn’t want to die. And they had no choice.” This seems to make an impression on Tom. Another inmate talks about how he was a crime victim before he became a criminal, and a victim advocate says that no one is trying to diminish the horror of his experience but that “it’s unfair for you guys to speak for the crime victims who aren’t incarcerated.” Tom’s sister also comes into the prison to paint with the group, giving the survivors a humanizing representative for the prisoners.

In only 56 minutes, Concrete, Steel, & Paint offers a comprehensive view of crime and its victims, punishment, and the importance of dialogue for bringing disparate, resentful groups of people together to affirm their common humanity. Criminals seem to take some responsibility for their actions, though many of them seem to cling to their status as victims before their crimes to assuage their guilt. Likewise, survivors start to let go of revenge as an effective means to heal their pain. Some are frankly pragmatic that many of the people who go into prisons come back into their neighborhoods eventually, and the community needs to care about them. Indeed, one of the inmates, Linwood Ray, is released during the project and gets a job with Viveros working on the mural walls.

Once the murals are up, the community responds, seeing not only their decorative value but the value of the stories they tell—one man, a former inmate, identifies with struggles portrayed in the prisoner-designed walls, another who looks at a crestfallen boy on the survivors’ mural and says “that was me” when he heard his cousin had been shot to death. The power of creativity and the ability of art to offer a channel of communication for people who desperately need it comes through. Concrete, Steel, & Paint is an affecting portrait that makes documentary into a healing art as well.

Concrete, Steel, & Paint screens Friday, April 15, 6 p.m., at the MTC Forum, Medill School of Journalism, 1870 Campus Drive, Evanston.


7th 04 - 2011 | 5 comments »

The Twenty-Four Dollar Island (1927)

Director: Robert J. Flaherty

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Robert Flaherty’s 1922 film Nanook of the North is credited with being the first full-length, ethnographic documentary in cinematic history. As we understand the term “documentary” today, this film certainly stands as the most famous of its time, that is, a documentary that is not merely a document impassively recording occurrences in front of the lens, as with the “actualities” from the dawn of filmmaking, but one that preserves cultural artifacts with either implicit or explicit points of view about those artifacts. Flaherty would be one of the first documentarians to fiddle with the truth to preserve things he found valuable. In Nanook and Man of Aran (1934), for example, his aim was to document ways of life that were becoming extinct. Flaherty banished any modern tools or methods used by the Inuit tribe he recorded in favor of filming their traditional way of life; in Aran, the fishermen of Ireland’s Aran Islands literally reenacted traditional practices they had already abandoned.

You might call Flaherty something of a Luddite, despite his use of photographic equipment in filming and editing his material, and someone who may have romanticized traditional societies even as he saw the evidence of their hardships with his own eyes. His bias toward simplicity comes roaring out of The Twenty-Four Dollar Island, a 13-minute documentary in which the city of New York itself is the main character. The film is included in Anthology Film Archive’s nine-hour DVD set, Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1941, a brilliant attempt to make it and other vital and fascinating films unseen no longer.

The Twenty-Four Dollar Island is another startlingly original work, portraying the mechanical organism that is a robust industrial city through its architecture and machines. While I don’t know what the original score for the film sounded like—or even if it had one—the new score by Donald Sosin provides a strong complement to Flaherty’s point of view that a city is something close to a fascistic overlord that, nonetheless, reflects human civilizations through the centuries.

The film opens with an image on paper: an historic drawing of the 1626 trade Dutchman Peter Minuit supposedly made with Native Americans—boxes of trinkets worth $24 for Manhattan Island. Title cards tell us the Dutch immediately built 30 houses. Next, we learn the new city of New Amsterdam grew to 1,000 residents by 1656. The film then juxtaposes a drawn map of the original New Amsterdam settlement with photos of the metropolis that had spread out on the same site by 1926, the year this film was shot. The next title card introduces Flaherty’s subject proper: “New York, symbol of impressive industry, finance, power, where men are dwarfed by the immensity of that which they have conceived—machines, skyscrapers—mountains of steel and stone.”

A couple of men are glimpsed on the edges of the frame as they maneuver some earth-moving equipment into place. Steel clam shovels dig into the sand and move on threads of chain into the air to deposit their loads in a nearby container. The music, which until now had trafficked in Native American motifs, starts to take on a stronger rhythmic intensity, as though it were imitating the heartbeat of the city, and synthesized tones emphasize the mechanistic nature of the subject. Ships belching black smoke and dwarfing nearby ferries and tugboats fill the frame. The Hudson River, visible on the maps shown at the beginning of the film, seems to be brimming with seafaring traffic, like a bathtub awash in rubber duckies and toy boats. Bridges spanning from the island to the surrounding land cut a swath through the sky; when the river traffic and bridges enter the same frame, the sky is all but obliterated. The total encroachment of the urban human habitat on the natural landscape of the island will fill the frame at the end of the film.

New York seems like some ghastly nightmare to Flaherty. Men building the mighty structures of the city work in deep holes, chipping at bedrock with pick axes and sliding down loose earth and rubble. The rock is loaded into a container and lifted by a crane out of the hole. During the scene, my mind raced to the building of the pyramids, which employed devices and many men working with their hands to erect the pharoahs’ tombs. As if by magic, the next image is of a building whose upper half is shaped like a stepped pyramid.

When the film segues to some of the skyscrapers then standing in Manhattan, a tree limb or two break into the frame. Not all of New York is hard and pushy, the film seems to want to say. The music softens with strains reminiscent of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” but trending in the direction of his more atonal Third Symphony, and the examples of grace and elegance then in existence are boxy or overly fussy, reflecting a basic bad taste. If only the Chrysler Building had been finished in time to be photographed for this film, this section might have made a better case for New York’s softer side.

Flaherty captures the muscularity of New York, its ugliness, and deliberately eliminates most humans from the frame. It’s hard to believe the title card that says there were 8 million people living in the city in 1926, so completely does the island seem entirely populated by buildings and machines. There is nothing left from 1626 for Flaherty to recreate ethnographically, and without the elemental roots of the city—only its bedrock bones being hacked to pieces by drone workers—Flaherty seems to find little to dignify in his portrait. His point of view is clear; The Twenty-Four Dollar Island is a mesmerizing and amazing achievement for him and for its new scorer, Donald Sosin, who captures the spirit of the film and enhances it significantly.


9th 11 - 2010 | 7 comments »

Exit through the Gift Shop (2010)

Director: Banksy

By Marilyn Ferdinand

There’s one genre of film that I just can’t seem to embrace—mockumentary. Unlike documentaries, the mockumentary is a fiction film that purports to be documenting real people and real events, generally to comic effect. Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap, a send-up of self-important rock bands premiering in the portentous year of 1984, is generally considered to be cinema’s first mockumentary. Like any other type of film, the mockumentary has evolved from its roots in spoof to become something that blurs reality ever more seamlessly and confusingly. For example, Casey Affleck’s I’m Still Here (2010) encouraged as much serious speculation about the state of Joaquin Phoenix’s mental health as it did knowing sniggers about this ultimate performance-art piece.

Now we have a true hybrid in Exit through the Gift Shop. This valuable film does indeed document the worldwide street-art movement with one-of-a-kind footage of this illegal activity actually taking place. But as its title indicates, British director/street artist Banksy has bigger fish to fry—namely the art collectors who buy and institutionalize rebellion meant to reach ordinary people on the street and have a very short shelf life. Like most mockumentaries, it doesn’t have a terribly original object of ridicule, and it’s not quite as entertaining as the first edition of Blue Man Group, which managed to be something totally unique while poking fun at the art establishment. But it has an interesting central character whom I choose to believe was sincere in his obsession to film every major street artist working from 1999 to 2007.

The anonymous, yet world-famous street artist Banksy sits in front of a camera, his face nothing more than a black hole inside a hoodie, his voice a scratch of electronic distortion. He tells us what we are about to see—a documentary that was supposed to be about him, but that he took over because the man who was making it was much more interesting that Banksy. That man is Thierry Guetta, a French expatriate to Los Angeles who supports his wife and children from the earnings of a hip, high-end, used-clothing store in a funky part of town and who never goes anywhere without a video camera.

Thierry, it seems, is as addicted to recording every step he takes as junkies are to heroin. He’ll film his friends having dinner, his kids getting food out of the refrigerator, or himself taking a walk down the street. After about 10 years of random recording, Thierry finally finds a focus when he visits his cousin in France, known only as Invader, and accompanies him as he makes street art. His cousin, who like almost all the street artists in the film has his face digitally obscured, makes images of the electronic soldiers in the video game “Space Invaders” and glues them all over town, on walls, on overpasses, on light poles and median strips. Thierry is so excited about this underground world heretofore completely unknown to him, with its whimsical and subversive images and danger from the law, that he decides to dedicate all of his energies to filming as many street artists as possible.

And film them he does. Invader hooks Thierry up with other street artists, whose reluctance to be filmed performing an illegal act is overcome when Thierry says he is making a documentary about their art. One artist we get extended coverage of is Mr. Andre, who tags his long-legged, smiling alien anywhere and everywhere with spray paint. Other artists work with photocopied images of varying sizes affixed billboard-style to walls, telephone poles, and other objects. The most famous of this group is Shepard Fairey—he of the instantly classic tricolor image of Barack Obama underscored with the word “Hope”—who likes to post an image based on a photo of pro wrestler Andre the Giant in sizes ranging from a small cardboard poster to a multipanel billboard stretching across most of the side of a building. For all of these artists, Thierry acts as witness, recorder, and lookout, taking the same physical and legal risks they do while racking up hundreds of hours on his video camera.

Thierry complains that despite his success filming many of the greatest street artists, the legendary Banksy remains frustratingly elusive. Just as Thierry is about to give up, he gets a call from Fairey telling him that Banksy is in town and needs a guide. Thierry drops everything and drives immediately to meet them and offer Banksy anything he wants, buying him a phone so that he can call Thierry on a moment’s notice, showing him the best walls, and driving him all over town. Soon, Banksy’s signature rat, spray-painted on walls using stencils, starts appearing all over Los Angeles. Banksy also places installation art in unexpected places. When he places a dummy depicting an Abu Ghraib prisoner on the course of a train ride in Disneyland, Thierry is apprehended and grilled for four hours. Thierry erases the footage in his camera, denies he was involved in the placement of the dummy, and says he saw no one. He is released, and his cleverness and bravery earn him a friend for life in Banksy.

Alas, this particular incident tips us that what we are watching isn’t quite what it seems to be. Thierry says he erased the camera, much like digital images can be erased in the camera with the press of a button. But we have just seen footage of Banksy placing the dummy in the park, and he says Thierry cleverly slipped the tape cassette into his sock. Things get even funkier when Thierry must finally come up with the documentary he has been promising for so long. Unless we are seeing a recreation of events, Banksy likely sent a camera crew to film Thierry working with a video editor to create Life Remote Control, which Banksy calls completely unwatchable; excerpts of that film inserted into Exit through the Gift Shop show more than the street artists or even Thierry’s home movie footage. It is at this point that we are led to believe that Banksy kept the street-art tapes and sent Thierry home to make art, and that taking this suggestion to his usual extreme, Thierry hired a boatload of artists and craftsmen to help him create more than 200 pieces of street art highly derivative of Andy Warhol’s work. Promoting himself under the moniker Mr. Brainwash (MBW) in a one-man show called “Life Is Beautiful” using quotes from Fairey and Banksy, now well-known artists embraced by the legitimate art world, Thierry supposedly nets sales of nearly $1 million from the two-month-long show.

There’s a sucker born every minute, and Banksy clearly wants audiences for Exit through the Gift Shop to be among them. His agenda for this film is the least interesting part of it, and the so-called bitterness he and Fairey exhibit over the success of faux-artist Thierry Guetta isn’t really very funny. But Banksy is right about one thing—Thierry is a more interesting subject than he is and one whose performance is truly artful in its artlessness.

It’s hard to know exactly how much of Thierry’s life story is real. He apparently does have some kind of film obsession, or it would not have been possible for him to capture so many street artists, including Seizer, Neck Face, Sweet Toof, Cyclops, Ron English, Dotmasters, Swoon, Borf, and Buffmonster installing so much art. The explanation for his obsession—that his mother sickened and died without him knowing it was happening, making him want to have evidence of every occurrence around him—seems like an exaggeration, if there is a shred of truth in it at all. But Banksy isn’t a good enough documentarian to allow the reality of his subject to come unfiltered to the foreground. It is Thierry’s personality—his unbridled energy and enthusiasm, his dogged determination, and his vanquishing of all obstacles to his objectives—that helps us appreciate his achievements and even wish that his fake triumph in his one-man show were real. (Or maybe Guetta really is an artist.)

I found the way the artists created their art to be a fascinating process, and the wide variety of styles, from simple cartoons to elaborate stencils and dimensional murals, to be visually intriguing and ingenious evocations of a genuine underground culture. Banksy’s attention-seeking self-mythologizing gets in the way of the real action more than I would have liked, but there’s a whole lot of lively doc triumphing over Banksy’s mock in Exit through the Gift Shop. l


« previous page

What others say about us

"You put a lot of love into your blog." – Roger Ebert, Roger Ebert's Journal
"Marilyn and Roderick … always raising the tone." – Farran Smith Nehme, The Self-Styled Siren
"Honestly, you both have made me aware of films I've never seen, from every era. Mega enriching." – Donna Hill, Strictly Vintage Hollywood
"You have my highest praise!" – Andreas, Pussy Goes Grrr




Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Recent Comments

Recent Posts

Blogs

Chicago Resources

General Film Resources

Categories

Archives