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 (2003) 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 (1945) 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

20th 10 - 2010 | 11 comments »

CIFF 2010: Problema (2010)

Producer/Director: Ralf Schmerberg

2010 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

I learned a couple of days ago that the venerable Howard University in Washington, D.C., a bastion of learning for African Americans at a time when they were barred entrance to other colleges and universities and still a educator of choice in the African-American community, is dropping its 90-year-old philosophy degree programs. Said Richard A. Jones, professor of philosophy at Howard, in a recent interview in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, “The loss of this program—for fiscal considerations—reflects a growing trend: the elimination of humanities and social programs for more ‘practical’ training programs. It is a postmodern reenactment of the debate between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington over liberal education versus vocational training.”

This is only the latest example of how educational programs that train the mind are losing ground in the United States. Those lucky enough to go to college these days no longer see value in taking classes that have no “practical” application, and given how expensive higher education is and how difficult it is to get a decent job, even with a college education, it’s hard to fault them.

Nonetheless, when people lose the ability to recognize issues that go beyond their basic concerns and, more important, to grope toward answers, we will truly be lost. It is with urgency over the loss of our intellectual capital at a time when globalism has brought acute problems from around the world to all of our doorsteps that organizers were inspired to create the dropping knowledge project. From their website:

Founded in the summer of 2003, the dropping knowledge project was initially based in Berlin, Germany, and San Francisco, USA.

After the Table of Free Voices, on September 10, 2006, the organization divided into two independent groups. The Berlin-based team became Mindpirates e.V. and the US-based team dropping knowledge International. Today, Mindpirates e.V. remains solely responsible for the curation of the Table of Free Voices and of this website.

It is the Table of Free Voices that forms the substance of the different kind of documentary that is Problema. The film “documents” a real-life circumstance, but it is the opposite of what I usually like in a documentary: it is nothing but talking heads. Problema records what happened when 112 people the organizers wanted to hear—primarily heads of nongovernmental organizations and activists like human-rights champion Bianca Jagger and physicist Hans-Peter Dürr, artists like Wim Wenders, and professional thinkers like Cornel West—talked about the great challenges of our day. The unusual format of the roundtable discussion (and yes, it literally was conducted at a round table in Berlin’s Bebelplatz, where Nazis burned books) was to have moderators Willem Dafoe and Nigerian human-rights advocate Hafsat Abiola alternately read each of the 100 questions culled from the dropping knowledge forums and have each participant give his or her answer simultaneously. A camera set up in front of each seat recorded their messages, and these messages, shots of the event taken by Schmerberg’s cameras, and thousands of images illustrating the various topics under consideration comprise the documentary.

Questions came from people of all ages from all parts of the world. A child’s question “What is God’s religion?” is treated with as much consideration as an adult asking “Is there a modern form of colonialism?” The answers vary. To the question, “Should a person have the right to live anywhere they want?”—a question near and dear to my heart as a person who thinks nationalism has outlived its usefulness—some gave a simple, “Yes, of course.” Others delved into the issue of resources versus need and how the exploding global population has made traditional strategies of nomadism impractical. The reverse question occurred to others—do people have the right to stay where they are?—and cited eminent domain and expulsions, such as what happened to Native Americans, as another population problem. In answer to the colonialism issue, one woman smiled and said, “Yes. It’s called debt.” We’re all concerned about economic policies in the United States, but the problems of smaller debtor nations could soon be ours.

It took me a while to realize that everyone was speaking at the same time. The din of voices was distracting before I came to this realization, and then it was like a symphony of the world, a perfect illustration of the dialogue the organizers of this event have orchestrated on the Internet and that they wish to encourage in face-to-face meetings. As cinema, the film leaves something to be desired. It seemed that the same faces kept popping up; a Maori woman was shown several times, but we don’t actually hear her speak until nearly the end of the film. The quick-cut images that show everything from the famous look at the earth from outer space and the Chinese student standing up to a tank in Tiananmen Square to film clips from Wings of Desire and Things to Come provide some visual interest, and one certainly has to credit the production team for tackling the permissions that must have been a nightmare to negotiate. But the montages didn’t add much. I think I would have preferred fewer images, more carefully chosen, and more questions.

The important thing about Problema is that it recognizes that the world needs to relearn how to talk about its common concerns. That does not mean leaving it all up to politicians to take care of for us—we’ve seen the folly of that. Indeed, Schmerberg deliberately left government officials out of the conversation because, he asserted in the Q&A, they have access to all the major media outlets and can have their say all they want. He offered the welcome news that all of the questions and answers will be available for download and recutting, so that communities can tailor presentations to specific issues they might want to address. Thus, the documentary I saw will never be the final documentary; like Sita Sings the Blues, the public is welcome to enter the creative process and use the materials to invent new uses for the footage. I’m planning to join the discussion. I hope you will, too. l

There are no more screenings of Problema, but the free worldwide online premiere of Problema will occur on December 6, 2010, here.

Previous CIFF coverage

The Happy Housewife: A buoyant young woman falls into a dangerous depression following the birth of her son and must deal with her past. (The Netherlands)

Southern District: The decline of the Bolivian upper class gets a very personal treatment in this close examination of one La Paz family and the natives who work for them. (Bolivia)

Asleep in the Sun: Ingenious period film that shows the transformation of a troubled woman into someone whose personality her husband doesn’t recognize after a stay in a mental health clinic. (Argentina)

Tuesday, After Christmas: A beautifully photographed story of adultery poses a potent metaphor for Romania in its new prosperity. (Romania)

On Tour: A French TV producer returns from “exile” in America with a troupe of burlesque dancers to try to get back on top in this amiable, improvisational comedy. (France)

Circus Kids: The St. Louis Arches youth circus travels to Israel to join forces with the Galilee Circus to help bridge the gap between Arabs and Jews in this optimistic documentary. (Israel/USA)

The Matchmaker: Magical coming-of-age drama in which a teenage boy learns a message of love and tolerance from a Holocaust survivor. (Israel)

Ten Winters: Emotionally honest and lyrical study of a man and a woman whose initial attraction goes through many changes as they experience 10 years worth of living. (Italy)

Certified Copy: Elliptical tale of seduction by renowned director Abbas Kiarostami in which two strangers pretend to be a married couple in crisis. (Iran/Italy/France)

The Princess of Montpensier: The French Catholic persecution of Protestants forms the backdrop for this period drama about the travails suffered by a beautiful noblewoman desired by four men. (France/Germany)

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff: Legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff and others who knew him discuss his career, including such highlights as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. (UK)

Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)

The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)

10th 10 - 2010 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2010: Circus Kids (2010)

Director: Alexandra Lipsitz

2010 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Growing up in Chicago has given me a great many advantages. I’ve had access to some of the world’s best cultural and scientific institutions, a very ethnically diverse population that exposed me to other languages and cultures, and many clubs and political organizations that bring like-minded people together to work actively for the causes in which they believe.

For all that, one thing I missed out on during my formative years was a trip to the circus. Perhaps as a result, I’ve long had a fascination with this seemingly archaic institution that persists to this day. Therefore, I was eager to attend the world premiere of Circus Kids, a documentary by Alexandra Lipsitz whose maiden directorial outing, Air Guitar Nation (2006), has a boatload of fans. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, and I got more than I bargained for.

Jessica Hentoff is a former circus performer who runs the St. Louis Arches, a youth circus group that has performed with a number of professional circuses in the United States. As she puts it, she is the biological mother of three circus kids—Ellianna, Keaton, and Kellin—and the circus mother of 13 members of the Arches. Lipsitz lets a number of these kids introduce themselves, focusing her camera on their still forms, going to their homes, and letting them talk a little about themselves. We’re not terribly surprised when meeting Iking Bateman, a black teenager from a rough neighborhood whose mother is dead and whose father is incarcerated. We expect programs like youth circus to reach out to “at-risk” kids. It is perhaps a bit more surprising to meet middle-class, college-bound Matthew Viverito, who never found a sport he liked until he discovered circus. Both Iking and Matthew are very talented tumblers, and reflect the diversity of the St. Louis metropolitan region that is caught in microcosm in the Arches troupe.

Hentoff hopes to bring social change, a kid at a time, to the world by building fellowship through circus. Thus, it is not surprising that when Rabbi Mark Rosenstein proposed a cultural exchange to Hentoff, she decided to make it happen. Rosenstein started the Galilee Circus following rioting in the Galilee region of Israel in 2002 to bring Arab and Jewish youth together, and he thought it would help move his mission forward to broaden it to include circus youth from other parts of the world. The film deals primarily with the Arches’ trip to Israel and how the mixing of the two troupes changed the lives of all those involved.

The logistics of getting the kids packed and on the plane starts the journey, and we get to experience their jetlag on landing in Tel Aviv and being whisked immediately onto their coach to meet the Galilee Circus members and travel to a kibbutz that will be their first stop on the tour. The groups are disparate in skills, with the Israeli kids more adept at juggling and stilt walking, and the Arches at acrobatics. Trying to put the skill sets together, while dealing with a language barrier and the Arches’ unfamiliarity with and dislike of the food and kibbutz living, is a challenge. Their first joint show, assembled in a day and a half, is sloppy and full of flubs. This bumpy start is exacerbated when two of the Arches get into a nasty fight in which the “n” word is uttered, right in front of the Israeli kids. There are some real concerns about whether the experiment will be a dismal failure.

However, over the two weeks the two circuses travel and perform together, the hoped-for cultural understanding starts to take hold. Ellianna, who seems to be complaining about everything, and Riana, a troubled girl with learning disabilities, watch and then join in when a group of Arab girls at the home of Galilee Circus kids, Manar and Manal, belly dance to some records. Riana especially is enthralled by the way they move, their coin-clad hip belts shimmering and sounding as they dance.

There isn’t much the Arches don’t experience. They sleep in a bedouin tent in the desert (not a happy experience), they ride a camel, they attend a birthday party with a cake, candles, and a song that is not “Happy Birthday.” The feasts they are offered for everyday meals leave the Arches bewildered.

A visit to Jerusalem is a profound experience for the Arches. Matthew talks excitedly about actually being at the Dome on the Mount, which he had only seen in his history book, “and the picture I took is better than the one in my history book!” Michel, whose parents initially were worried about him traveling to a war zone (his mother, not knowing where Israel is, says, “Israel better be in St. Louis!”) is thrilled about being at the Western Wall and inserting a wish into a crack. “I’m so happy!” he enthuses.

When the tour comes to a close, the combined circus is running like a well-oiled machine. Manal is excited that she learned how to do tricks on a stationary trapeze, Keaton got his first kiss from Israeli beauty Shirell, and everyone is crying at the airport.

The film concentrates on the growing bonds that form between the Arches and Galilee troupe members, but there are some disturbing moments. Ali, one of the Arab performers, is unhappy with the way the girls are behaving. “They should be beaten,” he says. Two of the male Arches also talk about punching girls who they imagine are their girlfriends. In the Q&A, we learn about an incident in which one of the Arab kids was thrown out of a shop after being accused of stealing—a bit of this was included in the trailer for the film, but not in the final movie. Keaton said in the Q&A that the presence of the Arches seemed to have broken down barriers between the Arab and Jewish members of the Galilee Circus, and Jessica Hentoff said that change like they hope to bring is a drop in the bucket, but that she expected those drops to accumulate.

I hope she’s right. Some changes have come to some parts of the world with persistent, peaceful efforts such as this one. By planting the idea that the Arches were peace ambassadors to Israel, Hentoff opened their minds to new possibilities, and the continued cultural exchange—both groups continue to travel between each other’s countries—will keep those minds open. I’d like to see some work done on bringing peace and equality not only to Arabs in Israel, but to women in both countries. Circus Kids is a movie that is determined to plant hope. While I think it would have benefited from revealing some of its sharper edges, it is an entertaining and revealing film that deserves a wide audience. l

Circus Kids will screen Sunday, October 10, 1:30 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous CIFF coverage

The Matchmaker: Magical coming-of-age drama in which a teenage boy learns about love and tolerance from a Holocaust survivor. (Israel)

Ten Winters: Emotionally honest and lyrical study of a man and a woman whose initial attraction goes through many changes as they experience 10 years worth of living. (Italy)

Certified Copy: Elliptical tale of seduction by renowned director Abbas Kiarostami in which two strangers pretend to be a married couple in crisis. (Iran/Italy/France)

The Princess of Montpensier: The French Catholic persecution of Protestants forms the backdrop for this period drama about the travails suffered by a beautiful noblewoman desired by four men. (France/Germany)

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff: Legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff and others who knew him discuss his career, including such highlights as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. (UK)

Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)

The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)

30th 09 - 2010 | 8 comments »

CIFF 2010: Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (2010)

Director: Craig McCall

2010 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

There is no cinephile worth his or her salt who doesn’t know the name Jack Cardiff. A true artist with a camera, Cardiff was responsible for some of the most stunning films ever made, including three certified masterpieces from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger—A Matter of Life and Death (1946), The Red Shoes (1948), and Black Narcissus (1947). Cardiff was also a fine director, as evidenced by the success of his fourth feature, Sons and Lovers (1960), which garnered seven Oscar nominations, and one win for cinematographer Freddie Francis.

Cardiff was 95 when he died in April 2009, and a very worthy subject for a film biography. Sadly, while Cameraman has some interesting tidbits of information and a generous sampling of Cardiff’s reflections on his own work garnered when director McCall followed him around over a 13-year period, the film gives too much time to extraneous interviews with stars who had little to offer but admiration, spends an inadequate amount of time actually delving into his cinematic compositions, and gives almost nothing of the life the film’s title promises.

Cardiff was born in 1914 in Yarmouth, England, and began his career as a child actor in 1918 on a picture called My Son, My Son, following in the showbiz footsteps of his parents. He climbed behind the camera in 1928 as a glorified errand boy on The Informer, in which his father was cast. He worked as a camera operator through the 30s on such films as As You Like It (1936) and Things to Come (1936). A seminal experience he had was working as a camera operator on the Marlene Dietrich vehicle Knight Without Armor (1937). He talks at length about her excellent knowledge and command of lighting, saying she would have made a great cinematographer. In a close-up still photo of her he shot—he photographed many of the actresses he worked with—he shows how she put white on the inside of her bottom eyelid to catch light properly. “It must have been painful,” he supposes.

His work on the second unit of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)—he was responsible for the scene of multiplying animal heads that appear rapid-fire on the walls of Clive Wynn-Candy’s study—brought him to the attention of director Michael Powell and sealed his glorious future as a cinematographer, as Powell hired him to be the cinematographer on A Matter of Life and Death.

Working with The Archers unit during this period was excellent training for Cardiff. They were allowed to work independently by their parent studio, Rank, and experimented a great deal. He shot the dance sequences in The Red Shoes as they might have felt for the dancer, tidal waves of emotion becoming a literal wave from the audience onto the stage, and what she might have seen, for example, the audience spinning around as she pirouettes on stage. Martin Scorsese, a perennial interviewee in films of this type, remarks that this POV shooting influenced the way he shot the boxing sequences in Raging Bull (1980).

What many, myself included, consider Cardiff’s masterwork is Black Narcissus. Shot at Pinewood Studios, it’s a miracle how he and production designer Alfred Junge managed to make the convent in which the action takes place appear to actually be on a mountaintop in the Himalayas. Beautifully constructed and painted plaster mountains, lighting Cardiff said was in imitation of the works of Jan Vermeer, and raked camera angles lent dimension to the proceedings. Kathleen Byron, who plays the unhinged Sister Ruth, says Cardiff gave her half her performance by the way he lit her. Unfortunately, J. Arthur Rank thought Black Narcissus was a horrible film, and The Archers’ independent era came to an end.

Cardiff mentions his indebtedness to the American camera crews that came to England to teach the Brits about Technicolor, and Cardiff shows the inside of a Technicolor camera and explains how light is captured on the various strips of film that will be melded to produce a full-color image. The cameras are huge, and one appreciates the difficulty of shooting a location film like The African Queen (1951) in Technicolor. Lauren Bacall gives some insight into the shoot of that picture and how much Cardiff and John Huston admired each other. Other films Cardiff discusses include The Barefoot Contessa (1954), The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985). He said his greatest achievement was shooting Alfred Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn (1949), a nightmare of logistics to create the continuous shot that Hitchcock was still enamored with from Rope (1948), and he talks extensively about the effects he created for The Vikings (1958). His reminiscences about the stars he worked with aren’t earth-shattering—Marilyn Monroe had a lot of problems, Errol Flynn had the timing of a real stuntman when he did his own stunts, Humphrey Bogart didn’t want the lines in his face erased by lighting—but some of his memorabilia (a photo of himself and Monroe with funny lines written by her and her husband, Arthur Miller) and his own exquisite photos, “home” movies of the shoots, and paintings are delightful.

Unfortunately, his life is kept private and very little about his day-to-day work, aside from how he used his ingenuity to create effects, is explored. He said that modern special effects had taken a lot of the fun out of filming that required creating solutions on the fly, and one senses that despite his admiration for the abilities of today’s cinematographers and his wish to drop dead on the set, the work wasn’t as fulfilling for him at the end. When Cardiff isn’t speaking, the film drops to the ground from the weight of the talking heads with little to say, like Charlton Heston, Raffaella De Laurentiis, and Kirk Douglas. Even Thelma Schoonmaker failed to say anything to make me sit up and take notice. It was lovely to see Moira Shearer interviewed for a brief moment, but she wasn’t more than an aged, beautiful face among the many Cardiff took a lot of time to admire. We learn about Monroe and Dietrich’s upturned noses, Audrey Hepburn’s eyebrows, Sophia Loren’s eyes, all of which, of course, required Cardiff’s magic lights to look their best.

I had a sneaking suspicion while I was watching Cameraman that it had been produced as a tribute, perhaps for BBC-TV or the Cannes Film Festival, after Cardiff’s death. The film is only 86 minutes long and is an expanded version of McCall’s short documentary Painting with Light that is included as an extra on the Criterion DVD of Black Narcissus. That DVD was released in 2001, and it appears McCall dusted off the old footage and didn’t do too much additional shooting, given the large number of interviewees who are dead. While it is a great pleasure to revisit Cardiff’s artistry through clips of some of his greatest works, as well as hear from the man himself, this film was too shallow for my tastes and pleases mainly for its “gossip” value. l

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff screens Friday, October 15, 4 p.m., and Sunday, October 17, 1:30 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous CIFF coverage

Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)

The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)

28th 09 - 2010 | 10 comments »

CIFF 2010: Waste Land (2010)

Director: Lucy Walker

2010 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Going green has become a fad again in the United States. Since we produce 30 percent of the world’s solid waste, making our country the No. 1 garbage generator on the planet, it would be great if this newest marketing scheme could signal sincere progress, but let’s just say I’m not holding my breath. One country that isn’t even among the top 30 nations in solid-waste generation, but has a recycling industry that has become much more high profile is Brazil. This heightened interest can be traced directly to Vik Muniz, a fine-art photographer who likes to compose subjects out of mixed materials (for example, covering parts of photos with sugar and then rephotographing them) and who is the guiding force behind the project chronicled in Waste Land. Muniz embarked on a two-year project at Brazil’s Jardim Gramacho dump, the largest landfill in the world, where he chose several “pickers” to photograph and then created his mixed-media photos using materials from the dump itself. In the process, both he and his subjects were changed for the better.

Pickers do what almost no environmentalist would conceive of doing—they wait for dump trucks to deposit their loads, dig through the garbage for recyclable materials, and sell it by weight to recycling plants that send their trucks to the dump to haul the materials away. The job is, obviously, dirty and physically demanding. It can be dangerous—Tiao, a young, idealistic picker, had a dump truck hatch fall on him, breaking three limbs and causing gaping wounds that are now deep scars. The work can also be soul-wrenching—Suelem, a mother of two who has been picking at Gramacho since the age of 7, vomited when she found a dead baby among the garbage. Indeed, dead bodies aren’t all that unusual at Jardim Gramacho, which is surrounded by rival gangs that go to war periodically. The presence of vultures at Jardim Gramacho very graphically emphasizes that pickers work among mortal remains of all kinds. And yet these people prefer this work to the only other choices open to them—selling drugs or becoming prostitutes.

Muniz, who grew up poor in São Paulo, understands the great divide in Brazilian culture. “Some people who live here really do think they’re better than other people,” he says incredulously. For his part, he is looked at askance by the pickers, who can’t understand what he’s up to. He’s not exactly sure himself what possibilities will present themselves, but he grows used to the dump’s stench quickly and begins to make friends with some of the pickers who will become his photographic models.

Valter, the elder statesman of the pickers, has been working at Jardim Gramacho for nearly 28 years. His illiteracy kept him from finding other work, but he’s proud of the fact that he is helping the environment: “If you save just one can, 99 is not 100.” Many of the pickers try to keep this upbeat frame of mind about what they have to do to survive; Zumbi, who went to work at the dump to support his family after he lost his job, says he’d be proud if his son became a picker, but hastens to add that he would rather his son were a doctor who could care for the pickers or a lawyer who could represent their labor demands. Magda exclaims that the people on the bus she takes home sniff at the odor coming off her, but she reminds herself that she’ll shower when she gets home and sleep comfortably knowing she does honest work. Only Isis is frank about how much she hates working in the dump.

The most dynamic of the pickers is Tiao. He can read, and picked Machiavelli’s The Prince out of the garbage, which gave him the idea to organize the pickers union. Muniz, perhaps inspired by Tiao’s activism, decides to photograph him in imitation of David’s painting The Death of Marat, and we watch as Tiao and Zumbi carry a discarded bathtub out of the piles of garbage and Tiao, guided by a picture of the painting, assumes the pose of the slain Marat.

Once Muniz chooses the photos he wants, he projects them many times their original size onto the floor of what looks like an airplane hangar. He purchases recyclable materials from the pickers who he instructs, using a red penlight, where to place the objects to highlight the shadows and objects in each photo. Once they are done, he takes a large-format photo of the finished product. The photos will be auctioned in London, with all proceeds used however the pickers deem fit.

An interesting conversation takes place between Muniz and his wife Janaina Tschape in which she argues that if the pickers are exposed to the good life for the short time they will be in the world spotlight and then left again to their own devices, it would ruin them and leave them worse off than before. It’s an oft-voiced concern in fish-out-of-water scenarios, but such reservations tend to be self-serving and deterministic. The pickers aren’t generally ashamed of the work they do, but they aren’t deluded. They’ve been forced by necessity and lack of skills to do what they must to survive, and some of them are not doing very well at all. Many people like them would make a go of a better opportunity if only they could catch a break (think of where the middle-aged, unemployed, homely songstress Susan Boyle is now after finally getting a chance). After hearing this conversation, it did not surprise me to learn in the “where are they now” wrap at the end of the film that Suelem, the most troubled and vulnerable picker, had dropped off the map; the rest of the pickers had gained enough motivation and self-respect to better their lives through literacy and job-training programs, some made possible by the auction funds; and Muniz and his wife had divorced.

The community Muniz and documentarian Walker focus on is tight-knit because they must be. Their lives are hard, their status close to that of untouchables, and their options very limited. But their humanity is intact, and it is a huge pleasure to see them blossom when they go to an art museum for the first time in their lives to see their photos being displayed. Times are hard in America, too, and we’re likely to see more and more people dumpster-diving for food and recyclables they can sell. Let’s remember that we are all people with the potential to become our best selves if only others will see us and give us a chance. I’m very, very glad I got the chance to meet the pickers of Jardim Gramacho and a gifted and generous artist like Vik Muniz in this uplifting, informative, and humane film. It’s one of the year’s best.

Waste Land screens Sunday, October 10, 4:30 p.m., and Monday, October 11, 8:40 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous CIFF coverage

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)

The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)

31st 08 - 2010 | 4 comments »

Every Little Step (2008)

Directors: Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern

By Marilyn Ferdinand

One of the great mysteries of life is the act of creation. Many people consider the creation of life a miracle, and teasing out the artistic muses is a delicate and clandestine act of faith. The muse Terpsichore has gotten a lot of attention lately, with the TV series So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars runaway hits, and La Danse (2010), about the Ballet de l’Opera de Paris by renowned documentarian Frederick Wiseman, the latest in a steady line of nonfiction films focusing on dance. When a revival of the landmark musical A Chorus Line was announced in 2005, directors Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern seized the chance to discover what strange brew must be mixed to recreate the 1975 “singular sensation.”

A Chorus Line was a truly special musical. The first major production to be developed over months using a workshop format, it told the real backstage story of chorines and chorus boys—not overnight fame when called upon to replace an injured star, but rather constant rejection for everything from their actual talent to their physical attributes, career-threatening injuries, and always an overwhelming love of dancing that kept them in the game when prudence would dictate a change in direction. This approach made the smile and frown of the comedy/tragedy masks real, and audiences responded to the human drama in a way perhaps no one but the man who conceived the idea—dancer/choreographer Michael Bennett—expected.

The film begins with a shot of a reel-to-reel tape recorder and the recording of the conversation that took place between Bennett and a group of Broadway show dancers that formed the basis of the show. Various talking heads, mainly Bennett’s longtime friend and collaborator Bob Avian, explained the process. Bennett encouraged the dancers to open up about their lives and their art by sharing his own story. One Asian dancer (Baayork Lee, who became “Connie” in the musical and was part of the production team of the revival) was hampered by her short stature, while another dancer (“Val”) couldn’t get work until she had her breasts enlarged. One young man (“Paul”) faced the shock of coming out as a homosexual to his parents when they unexpectedly attended his performance at a drag club and saw him dressed as a woman. From these and other stories, James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante fashioned a book for the show, and Oscar-winning composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Edward Kleban were engaged to write the music and lyrics. Bennett provided the choreography; the part of Cassie, a featured dancer in a career drought, was written especially for Bennett’s longtime muse Donna McKechnie.

The eight-month-long audition process begins with an open call that attracts 3,000 hopefuls. Del Deo and Stern telescope this beginning process by showing whole groups of dancers being dismissed after a brief show of their technique. They also focus on one unknown from New Jersey named Jessica Lee Goldyn who says she doesn’t have a fallback plan if dancing doesn’t work out because “if you do, you’ll fall back.” That determination—and rigorous training and preparation—will get her all the way to the finals.

Del Deo and Stern narrow their focus to only about half a dozen of the characters being cast and those in the running to play them. Auditions for Val, the dancer who got breast augmentation, take up an inordinate amount of screen time, perhaps for not-so-noble reasons. We see one dancer after another shaking and squeezing her ta-tas at the panel, and it does get rather grating. For other characters, the directors seem content with producing short vignettes, most amusingly, the casting of Maggie, the character who must reach a crescendo in the song “At the Ballet” that is beyond the reach of most of the hopefuls. Quick cuts through the missed, shouted, and croaked vocalizing, matched with the winces of the casting panel, add humor to a rather humorless process, and we are left with a final shot of a young woman who hits the high note just right. At the end of the film, we see that our assumption that she got the part is correct, but until then, she vanishes from the screen.

After Cassie, the role of Paul is the most important, with Paul’s monologue about growing up gay an emotional centerpiece. The casting panel flips through cards, rejecting numerous candidates for the role until Jason Tan steps in. The panel is reduced to tears by his rendition of the monologue, and after they compose themselves, Avian simply says “Sign him up.”

Of course, not all the tryouts are with unknowns. Phone calls are made to successful Equity members, like Alisan Porter, auditioning for the part her mother played in the first national touring company of A Chorus Line, and Charlotte d’Amboise, daughter of famed dancer Jacques d’Amboise. Lacking any context from the documentarians and based on how many of them greet each other with hugs and kisses, it appears that these A-list dancers comprise the largest share of those in the finals. I’d really like to believe Charlotte d’Amboise when she says she has suffered the kinds of knocks that qualify her to understand the role of Cassie, but when someone’s very talented AND born into the showbiz elite, it’s hard to believe no one would hire her.

And this is the biggest flaw in Every Little Step—Del Deo and Stern barely scratch the surface of the dancers they showcase. When d’Amboise says she has suffered setbacks, the next questions should be “when?” and “what kinds of setbacks?” Instead, the statement is left to stand alone, and the directors fill the screen with an interview with her father. Now, I’m as big an admirer of Jacques d’Amboise as the next dance fan, but what does he have to do with A Chorus Line? He’s not auditioning for the show or choreographing it. He’s not one of the original dancers on whom the story is based. He was, in fact, a very successful ballet and featured show dancer, not a chorus boy. I have to assume that Del Deo and Stern simply think he’s interesting and able to add some star quality to this tale of a musical about nonstars—a sad betrayal of the aims of the show and its creators.

The musical numbers in A Chorus Line are marvelous, but aside from archival footage of McKechnie dancing part of her solo “The Music and the Mirror,” we barely get to see them. The other strength of the musical is its personal stories, but we learn next to nothing about those auditioning or those who finally get hired. Deidra Goodwin, who wins the part of Sheila, says she almost gave up but learned from a psychic that she was meant to keep entertaining people—and that’s all she wrote about Deidra. Her rival for the part, Rachelle Rak (above), gets comparative mountains of screen time, but it is only through offhand comments she makes that we learn that she was in Fosse for more than two years and that she broke up with her boyfriend during the first round of auditions. How was Jason Tan able to move the casting team so much? We get absolutely nothing about him.

Nonetheless, Every Little Step does have some value. The production history as told by those who made it is very interesting. Hamlisch talks about how he had just won two Oscars and how he had to break the news to his agent that he was turning down the lucrative offers in Hollywood to return to New York for a job paying $100 a week. McKechnie and Avian talk a great deal about Bennett’s background, career, and ambitions. The rigors of casting a show are seen in meticulous detail, though the proliferation of talent competitions on television has removed the novelty of this inside look at the judging process. And if you’re a theatre fan or a lover of Hollywood’s backstage musicals, the documentary has its own inherent appeal.

Ultimately, though, I wonder how much any person can get out of a film about the creative process. There have been many, many films that show individuals in the act of creation, but none of them are really able to articulate the process in any satisfactory way. The discussions the casting team have in this film about what they are looking for or what is needed for a particular role sound clichéd or imprecise. What does it mean to be an organic dancer? What exactly is a tough sweetheart supposed to project? How do they know when they’ve got “it”? We can see the result, but the mystery of creation is something no documentary will ever be able to capture.

26th 08 - 2010 | 8 comments »

Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing (2006)

Directors: Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Barbara Kopple has done it again. The preeminent documentarian of the American experience and Cecilia Peck, her codirector (and daughter of Gregory Peck), have turned their compassionate beam on the three gifted and courageous women whose idea of being patriotic created the greatest crisis of their professional lives. Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing takes us along with this phenomenally successful band from the night in 2003 lead singer Natalie Maines told a British audience that the Chicks were ashamed that the President of the United States was from Texas to the recording of their album, Taking the Long Way, an angry and emotional chronicle of their experiences.

Before 2003, country music fans made the Dallas-based Dixie Chicks the top-selling female group in history. Natalie Maines and sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison were selling out stadiums and living the life of millionaire recording artists and peformers, though they were not yet on the radar screen of most Americans. The film opens with the band getting ready for their concert in Shepherd’s Bush Empire theatre in London to open their Top of the World Tour. A television playing in the background shows then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s WMD dog-and-pony show at the United Nations, and President Bush’s warning to Saddam Hussein to disarm within 48 hours or accept the consequences. Soon thereafter, the Chicks take to the London stage and Maines utters her famous statement to thunderous applause: “We don’t want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”

Within hours, the comment has made news in the States. Disappointed fans don’t understand how Maines could be so disrespectful and unpatriotic. Country music stations stop playing the Dixie Chicks on the air. A couple of right-wing organizations organize CD destruction events, and an apology by Maines gets no traction. The mainstream media sit up and take notice. Eventually the Chicks are interviewed by television journalist Diane Sawyer and make the cover of Entertainment Weekly.

The film captures the intense debates between the Chicks and their stalwart manager Simon Renshaw about how to respond to the controversy. Maines, the most vocal of the band members, is adamant about sticking it to country radio, offended that they refuse to play the group’s music—not even their runaway-hit single. The backlash intensifies as country singer Toby Keith exploits their problems by writing a song criticizing them and whipping up his audiences to oppose them. We are in on the Chicks’s bull-session about how to respond. Maines famously hits the stage wearing a T-shirt that has the initials FUTK on the front. Anti-Chicks forces respond with an FUDC T-shirt. We hear Martie quip, “What have they got against Dick Cheney?” Eventually, we share the tension when the Chicks bring their Top of the World tour to Dallas. They have received a death threat, and their fear is palpable. Although Maines tries to lighten the mood with a joke to the camera crew before going onstage (“I’ll see you in four hours, if I’m not shot.”), her black humor conveys just how horrifying the lives of these American successes have become.

All of the film footage up to 2005 was shot by a variety of people. Kopple and Peck meticulously assembled it and added to it with video footage of their own in a film that looks visually coherent and surprisingly crisp. Their own footage concentrates on the private lives of the Chicks and their recording session. We meet Natalie’s father and learn how a tape he made of her for her application to the Berklee College of Music in Boston eventually ended up with Maguire and Robison and landed her the gig with the Chicks. They chronicle Martie’s pregnancy and delivery of twins, and listen as she and Emily talk about their struggles to become pregnant. This struggle will become the song “So Hard.” We watch as the band decamps to Los Angeles to write and record Taking the Long Way with famed producer Rick Rubin. Natalie’s rendition of “Not Ready to Make Nice” shows that the war against the hate of the fans who rejected the Chicks and the government that ignores the wishes of a wide swath of the American electorate rages on:

I’m not ready to make nice
I’m not ready to back down
I’m still mad as hell and I don’t have time to go ’round and ’round and ’round
It’s too late to make it right
I probably wouldn’t if I could
‘Cause I’m mad as hell
Can’t bring myself to do what it is you think I should

I made my bed and I sleep like a baby
With no regrets and I don’t mind sayin’
It’s a sad sad story when a mother will teach her
Daughter that she ought to hate a perfect stranger
And how in the world can the words that I said
Send somebody so over the edge
That they’d write me a letter
Sayin’ that I better
Shut up and sing or my life will be over.

It is fascinating to see how these women create their lives, make their music, rejoice in their triumphs, and seem to be made stronger in the crucible of public controversy. They are loving parents and spouses, shrewd businesswomen, incredibly funny and warm, and principled in a way that few entertainers with so much to lose could be. And they do take a real hit. Although their CDs continue to break sales records, their concert sales are sluggish, and schedule changes must be made.

While I’m sure Cecelia Peck contributed a lot to this film (she and Kopple previously collaborated on A Conversation with Gregory Peck, with Peck producing and Kopple directing), it is veteran director Barbara Kopple who must have led the way. The film has the kind of intimacy she is always able to achieve, and the perfect pacing and judicious editing of hundreds of hours of footage to find exactly the right images and tone to tell the story.

While Kopple’s subject matter usually has a liberal bent, if you did not know her body of work, you would not be sure of her politics. Her genius is in letting her subjects tell their own story. Even the actions of the “villains” are simply presented. A consultant from the Lipton Tea Company, which sponsored the Top of the World Tour, is shown frankly explaining the company’s discomfort with their political stand. Maines tries to explain that it was just a comment in the heat of the moment designed to rouse the crowd, but over time, her own simple faux pas seems to radicalize her.

Maines, with the support of her bandmates, let out the dirty little secret that some all-American girls from the South are liberal and can distrust and dislike a right-wing government. This revelation is educational for both the super-patriots from country music’s stronghold states and liberals in other parts of the country who look at the South as a land of rednecks. Let’s not forget that the original American protest singer, Woody Guthrie, was from Oklahoma; it appears that the Chicks from neighboring Texas, who are still stumping for basic human rights as they continue to make music, are following in a tradition much older than the radical right claims to represent.

20th 06 - 2010 | 9 comments »

Murder on a Sunday Morning (Un coupable idéal, 2001)

Director: Jean-Xavier de Lestrade

By Marilyn Ferdinand

One Sunday morning in May 2000, the Stephenses, a Georgia couple in their 60s who were vacationing in Jacksonville, Florida, left their room at a Ramada Inn for some coffee. They were confronted by a man who demanded money and, tragically, Mrs. Stephens was shot and killed. With little to go on besides a description of the killer—young, skinny, black, wearing dark shorts and a t-shirt, and carrying a Derringer-type weapon—police stalked the neighborhood near the motel for someone who fit the bill. Patrol officers spotted 15-year-old Brenton Butler, skinny and black, walking on the street and decided to stop him. They asked him if he lived in the area (yes) and if he would mind talking to the investigating officers to offer any information about the neighborhood he might have (no). Butler got into the squad car and was driven to the motel. Mr. Stephens took one look at Butler seated in the back of the squad parked 50 feet away and identified Butler as the killer. Police brought Butler closer to Stephens and asked him if he was sure. “Yes. I wouldn’t send an innocent man to jail.” That ended the police investigation. Butler signed a confession and was put on trial for first-degree murder and armed robbery.

When news of the arrest was broadcast, Jacksonville public defender Patrick McGuinness was driving to his office. He recalls thinking that this young man had thrown his life away and the life of his victim. But McGuinness would soon have a change of heart: “As I learned more, I became increasingly angry.” He and Ann Finnell, a 23-year veteran of the Jacksonville public defenders office, made righteous use of their anger to defend Brenton Butler to prevent a travesty of justice from taking place.

Murder on a Sunday Morning, winner of the 2002 Oscar for best feature documentary, poses the kind of story that must have had a natural attraction for French director De Lestrade, sharing as it does similarities with Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s classic tale of criminal justice run amok. Of course, the fictional Jean Valjean, who is hunted relentlessly by police inspector Javert when he escapes from prison, did commit a crime. But, his crime (stealing bread for his starving family) and his punishment (eventually, a death sentence when his escape attempts were taken into consideration) reflected a repressive society that was willing to condemn a man just for being poor and trying to take care of his family. In the Stephens case, Brenton Butler was brought into the criminal justice system for the crime of being black near the scene of a crime, thus, the more ironically apt French title, The Ideal Culprit.

As Finnell eloquently puts it near the beginning of the film:

Officer Martin came in and candidly admitted that the only reason Brenton Butler was even stopped that morning was because he happened to be a black male walking in the neighborhood. Now think about that. That means for every African American in Jacksonville, Florida, if they happen to be walking down the street lawfully going about their own business, not doing anything wrong, that they are subject to being stopped and asked to get into a police car, and driven away from what they’re doing, and subject to being shown to the victim of a crime with the possibility that that victim would identify them under the most suggestive of circumstances, that being that they happen to be sitting in the back seat of a police car and most victims would think that they wouldn’t be sitting in the back seat of a police car unless they had done something wrong, right? So that’s where we are today in Jacksonville Florida, and I personally find that to be disgusting and reprehensible.

The film offers straightforward coverage of the pretrial preparations and trial itself from the point of view of the defense. McGuinness and Finnell are shown examining evidence collected at the scene of the crime, questioning the man who found Mrs. Stephens’ purse in a dumpster on his daily rounds of collecting aluminum cans for recycling, marking the time it would take for Butler to get to the crime scene from his home based on when his family saw him in the morning, and so forth—in other words, conducting their own investigation. The police didn’t check the purse for fingerprints, and they never recovered the murder weapon. Butler’s attorneys also tore into the confession, wondering why a young man on his way to fill out a job application at a local Blockbuster would bother after just making off with $1,200 of the Stephenses’ vacation money. Nothing added up.

De Lestrade takes us seamlessly through the knowledge and logic the defense attorneys used to reconstruct what happened after Mrs. Stephens died. Tourist killings in Florida were making the news domestically and internationally (no doubt, this is why De Lestrade learned of the case), and the police needed to put people in jail to protect the tourism industry. With a witness ID, the system could move swiftly to conviction and incarceration. Lazy, more inclined to believe a white witness than a black defendant, and skilled at getting confessions through intimidation from black defendants through a black enforcer, Det. Michael Glover, the police acted with impunity to railroad Brenton Butler. Their shoddy work and cruelty—including a beatdown by Glover of Butler—make McGuinness’ disrespectful attacks on their professionalism and character a pleasure to watch.

Particularly satisfying is McGuinness’ cross-examination of Det. James Williams, who wrote the confession that Butler signed, one that he claimed was in Butler’s own words but finally was forced to admit was his own creation. McGuinness relates in one of his typically interesting and caustic comments to the filmmakers that he and Williams talked before the testimony in the hallway. Williams, no fan of the public defender, sarcastically remarked on McGuinness’ smoking “another one of your cancer sticks.” McGuinness replied, “I always like a cigarette before sex,” accurately predicting that he was going to screw Williams in the courtroom.

It’s sad and sobering to see the Butler family deal with their ordeal. Brenton is stoic until his mother takes the stand to testify to his whereabouts on the morning of the murder. As she starts to cry, the camera moves to her son, his face wet and streaming with tears. His father prays with him from across the thick glass in the prison visitors room and says, “God don’t make mistakes,” a belief that many people, including me, would find hard to take given the circumstances of this trial. Frighteningly, the indifferent police work meant a real killer was still out on the streets able to kill again. Again, McGuinness makes this point for us. I admit, I’ve gotten so used to documentary directors narrating and inserting themselves into their films (the curse of Michael Moore), that I was jarred—in a good way—by De Lestade’s decision to let his subjects do all the talking for themselves.

Since Brenton Butler was tried and exonerated in less than an hour, we’ve seen some big changes in race relations in the United States. But the pushback has been hard, and this case is sadly echoed in the recently passed Arizona law that could see a lot of innocent people stopped, like Butler, for walking while Latino. The question of police torture and forced confessions is alive, if being given a low profile in the cowed media, in Chicago, as the trial of former Area 2 Commander Jon Burge for allegedly torturing more than 200 criminal suspects (many of them black) between 1972 and 1991, to force confessions is underway. The judge in Butler’s case, when thanking the jury for its service, called the U.S. criminal justice system the best in the world. That may be true on paper, and the judiciary worked in this case, but we’ve got quite a ways to go before we can truly claim that reputation.

4th 05 - 2010 | 5 comments »

Windfall (2009)

Director: Laura Israel

The 2010 Talking Pictures Festival (May 6-9)

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Just a few days ago, The Daily Beast and the Transparency International (TI), a global anti-corruption research organization, examined 500 global companies to determine how corrupt they might be based on their ethics and anti-corruption policies. They found, perhaps surprisingly, that utility companies had the fewest protections against corruption of any industry they examined, including the investment sector.

In case you think The Daily Beast and TI might be mistaken, consider how you feel about wind energy. You’ll certainly never have to clean up an oil spill from it. Or might you, indirectly? Industrial-size windmills are the only form of energy that uses energy from the grid—which runs on natural gas and fossil fuels—and there are no data on whether they return more energy than they use. It’s safe for people, of course. Except that numerous health effects have been noted, including ringing in the ears, interrupted sleep, and headaches that have driven people from their homes. The turbines also throw ice from their blades that can injure and kill, and they have been known to fall over or catch fire from lightning strikes and shed debris. It’s good for the environment—except for birds who fly too close to the 7-ton blades of the 400-foot-tall towers and bats, whose lungs literally explode because of an air vacuum that the blades leave in their wake.

Wind energy on an industrial scale is hazardous, unsightly, a noise polluter, and probably consumes more energy than it generates. But most people don’t know that, and that’s by design. The citizens of the tiny, impoverished town of Meredith, New York, certainly didn’t when the wind energy salespeople came to town to offer financial relief in exchange for leases to build wind turbines there. The people of Meredith went from naïve nature lovers to big-time skeptics, and from neighborliness to bitter division. Windfall is a cautionary tale of underhanded business dealings, small-town corruption, and laissez-faire citizenship that had to give way under the imminent threat of an irreversible intrusion into their rural idyll.

Meredith is a community in upstate New York that has seen its thriving dairy farms go from more than 1,000 to less than 10. When the energy companies came to town, they made offers to lease land, primarily to the largest landowners because of the need for at least 15–30 miles for a profitable siting. They offered a profit split to the town. A few people got on board, but had to sign confidentiality agreements that they would not discuss the deal with anyone but their attorney.

Nonetheless, word leaked out that wind turbines would be coming to Meredith when a test tower went up on John Hamilton’s property; Hamilton, one of the few dairy farmers still left, felt villified by the wind energy skeptics, who organized The Alliance for Meredith to do fact-finding on the commercial proposals and consider a town-owned commercial wind project by which all the benefits from a single turbine would accrue to the citizens of Meredith.

As this film shows through interviews, footage of planning board and town board meetings, a visit to a neighboring town that rejected wind energy and one that accepted it and saw the project balloon from a planned 50 turbines to 195 with none of the benefits to the town they expected, the fight over wind power is a painful and difficult process. Because of tax credits for alternative energy offered by the national and state governments, and a complete lack of regulation, wind energy is incredibly profitable for investors and energy companies. Lessors get about $5,000 and neighbor agreements go for $500. Municipalities get about 1–2% of the profits—when all is said and done, local governments might get enough money to buy a single fire truck.

We also see how Meredith’s town board, comprised of the largest landowners, could pass laws that would personally benefit them financially. Instead of accepting the findings of the planning board, per usual, that wind turbines should not be sited in Meredith, the town board chose to establish a Wind Energy Review Board appointed by and answerable to them alone. This show of arrogance inflamed the citizens of Meredith and set up an election season that for the first time in a long time, was a real horse race.

Windfall is a comprehensive look at a largely misunderstood technology. It is must-viewing for environmentalists and for small towns who might find an energy worm burrowing into their midst. Clean, safe energy is everyone’s wish. Let’s just make sure we don’t jump at the first carnival barker with a miracle solution. l

The May 7 screening of Windfall is sold out. A second screening has been added on May 8 at 11:00 a.m. at Next Theatre at Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes Street, Evanston, Illinois.

2nd 05 - 2010 | 2 comments »

The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court (2009)

Directors: Pamela Yates, Paco de Onis, and Peter Kinoy

The 2010 Talking Pictures Festival (May 6-9)

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Crimes against humanity are nothing new among the peoples of the Earth. It was in the 20th century, however, that the scale and rapidity of such crimes seemed to concentrate. The 1915 genocide of 1 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks was dwarfed by the Nazi slaughter of perhaps as many as 20 million Jews, Romy, homosexuals, Slavs, and other “undesirables.” The scale of the massacre caused the world community to establish a court at Nuremburg to try these masterminds of crimes against humanity. They not only hoped to bring a measure of justice to the victims, but also to demonstrate that the world will stand together and hold even heads of state accountable for the evil they do, thereby preventing such evil from taking place.

It didn’t work. Millions more would suffer and die in the Soviet Union, Guatemala, Cambodia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Bosnia, and on and on through the hyper-lethal mixture of human depravity and modern weaponry. In 1998, the heads of state of 140 countries and leaders of nongovernmental organizations interested in human rights decided they had to act. They met in Rome to consider setting up a permanent international criminal court to prosecute individuals for crimes against humanity. After much discussion and negotiation, a treaty was overwhelmingly ratified to establish the ICC and allow it to step in, investigate, and prosecute cases that member nations cannot or will not bring on their own. In 2002, the ICC building in The Hague was finished and opened for business.

Directors Pamela Yates, Paco de Onis, and Peter Kinoy follow Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC prosector, and his team as they go about their work of bringing those most responsible for unspeakable atrocities around the world to their day of reckoning. Ocampo, who thought his prosecutions of the military leaders responsible for killing 20,000 civilians in his native Argentina was the highlight of his career, said that case was training for his work at the ICC.

The film covers four different cases the ICC has taken on. The first, and most important in terms of showing the ICC can make a difference, is in Uganda, where the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a Christian militant group led by self-appointed messiah Joseph Kony, has been waging war against the Ugandan goverment for more than 20 years. The LRA abducts children to act as soldiers; part of their training is that they are made to kill someone in their own village—perhaps their own mother or father—to separate them from the community. ICC investigators moved rapidly, conducting 50 missions over 9 months, documenting 2,200 killings and 850 attacks. On July 8, 2005, the ICC issued arrest warrants for Josephy Kony, Vincent Otti, and other top LRA commanders.

The ICC has no police force to bring in the suspects. It is up to the member states to reach consensus on trying a case and then to execute the warrants. The LRA, showing some nervousness about the power of the ICC, went on a village-to-village campaign, promising peace in return for a lifting of the warrants; Ocampo had to return to Uganda to make a case for keeping them in place. None of the suspects has been arrested, though at least two of the five wanted LRA leaders, including Otti, have since been killed.

Congo, the next, more dangerous focus, has been plagued with mass atrocities by different warring factions with shifting alliances. Alice Zago, an ICC investigator, said “Danger is part of our work.” The UPC Militia, specifically Thomas Lubango Dyilo, the leader of this most dangerous militia in Congo’s Ituri Province, was the first focus. Because of the danger inside the country, investigators built a case with documents and videotaped eyewitness accounts and evidence. “We can’t be at peace until they stand trial,” said one Congolese civilian. Thankfully, the government of Congo cooperated with the ICC and handed Dyilo over for prosecution.

Six decades of war in Colombia have made it one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Paramilitaries working with the Colombian army have killed thousands of civilians, and 30 members of the Congress are connected with paramilitaries. The ICC is keeping the case at the intensive analysis level—the step before investigation—to provide some pressure (“a looking- over-the-shoulder function”) on Colombia’s attorney general to do more. Unfortunately, the extradition to the United States of 14 paramilitary leaders on drug-trafficking charges has complicated the investigation.

American viewers of this documentary may not be very surprised to learn that Russia and China have not joined the ICC, but they may be more surprised to learn that the United States is also a holdout. In fact, the administration of George W. Bush actively worked against the ICC. John R. Bolton, briefly the acting U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who was not confirmed for permanent appointment, said he made it his special mission to get the court to wither and collapse. “Tangible American interests are at risk. Our main concern should be for the President,” he said, and to protect American citizens from being investigated by an international body. Bolton, speaking in the violently aggressive language for which Americans neocons have become known, obviously believes that might makes right.

According to David Scheffer, head of the U.S. delegation to Rome, the active hostility to the ICC, as well as calls to investigate American atrocities in Iraq that the ICC does not have the authority to investigate, have sounded “a death knell to our leadership in human rights.” The Yugoslav and Rwandan tribunals were things the United States was proudly part of. Ocampo says dismissively, “We represent interests that are much broader than the United States.” Good for him.

Darfur is the final conflict the film covers. Although Sudan is not a signer of the ICC treaty, the case was referred by the United Nations to the ICC. The court investigators easily established a pattern of genocide against non-Arabs by the Sudanese government and a paramilitary organization called Janjaweed. The ICC named the Minister of the Sudan, Ahmad Harun, and Janjaweed militia leader Ali-Kushayb as the most responsible for the genocide and issued arrest warrants in 2007. Sudan’s president Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir defied the warrants, and he was slapped with one, too. This left it up to the UN Security Council to enforce them. With the United States, Russia, and China on the UN Security Council, what are the odds anything will be done? How scary a precedent must it be for these powerful nations to recognize that they might have limits imposed upon them, too?

Ben Ferencz, the prosecutor at Nuremburg, believes justice will prevail. By ending impunity—a word that comes up over and over in this film—he and the people who do this righteous work believe they can contribute to ending the violence. There are more than 120 ICC member countries that agree with them and that look to the ICC for justice in an unjust world. Although this is a very painful film to watch, it provides a well-organized lesson and wake-up call to audiences—particularly Americans—to open their hearts to the desperate plight of people around the world and hold the monsters who kill and subjugate them accountable. l

The Reckoning will be screened on May 9 at 12:30 p.m. at the Hinman Theater on the 9th floor of the Hotel Orrington, 1701 Orrington Ave., Evanston, Illinois.


30th 04 - 2010 | no comment »

The Liquid of Life (2008)

Director: Pini Schatz

The 2010 Talking Pictures Festival (May 6-9)

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The Liquid of Life is a 50-minute Israeli documentary with a subtitle: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Blood. Quoting from one of the most mordantly funny films ever made is both audacious and a signal that we’re not in for a boring Red Cross lecture—or should I say Red Star of David, which is the more appropriate symbol the Israeli bloodsucker organization uses. I learned that and a few things more from this jittery survey of what blood means to director and narrator Schatz, the Jewish people, and, of course, to horror movie fans.

Shatz lets us know at the outset that he’s a filmmaker who hasn’t made a film in eight years. Becoming a father has taken most of his time and interest away from his craft. Shatz’s lifelong attraction to horror movies—particularly vampire movies—seems to have prompted his choice of subject for breaking his cinematic fast. We are liberally treated to snatches of vampire movies, starting with the most famous—Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. Shatz points out something I never noticed before: Lugosi wears something that looks like a Star of David on his chest in some scenes. This revelation takes us into a historical exploration of one aspect of anti-Semitism: that Jews use Christian children as blood sacrifices for their rituals, a medieval urban legend that arose from stories about one cultish Jew who killed children. Leavening this unappetizing matzo of a fact, Shatz offers a sarcastic scene from Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers: when faced with a crucifix brandished by his next meal, Shagal the Vampire snickers, “Oy vey, have you got the wrong vampire!”

Shatz grows more serious when he discusses the death of his father of leukemia at the age of 53. We observe a series of blood donations in progress—including the wince-inducing insertion of needles into veins—and an explanation of the components of blood narrated by a physician and illustrated with some crudely funny cartoons. The horrors the sister of one of the donors went through to try to cure her cancer—a travesty of healing that ended up killing her anyway—are wrenching. On the absurd end of the spectrum, some wacko theologian/psychologist offers that more men than women donate blood because they fear and envy a woman’s ability to give birth, and enact their own bloodletting as a symbolic usurpation of the menstrual cycle. At least, I think that’s what she said.

Another wince-inducing moment—be forewarned, gentlemen—is when Shatz recounts his own underground circumcision when he was a baby in his native Estonia, which was then part of the officially atheistic Soviet Union. He talks about the clandestine smuggling of a mohel from a neighboring country, and shows us an actual circumcision—one of several bloodlettings in his own life. The final scene shows how he reenacted the execution of his grandfather by a single gunshot to the head. The packing of the blood package and the way the concussion of the blank in the prop gun actually explodes the package was really very interesting.

The festival blurb characterizes The Liquid of Life as “a rapid fire ‘essay’ film that prompted Canadian auteur Guy Maddin to state: ‘A fantastic idea for a film, maybe the best idea I’ve ever heard.’” It is a good idea, but calling it “rapid fire” is a nice way of saying it’s kind of a random mess; like any essay, it needs an editor’s hand to shape it into a logical whole. Nonetheless, The Liquid of Life is an enjoyable mess created by a genuinely funny director I’d be happy to spend time with again. l

The Liquid of Life will be screened on May 8 at 9:15 p.m. at the Hinman Theater on the 9th floor of the Hotel Orrington, 1701 Orrington Ave., Evanston, Illinois.


20th 04 - 2010 | 2 comments »

The Five Obstructions (De fem benspænd, 2003)

Directors: Lars Von Trier and Jørgen Leth

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In 1967, Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth released a seminal experimental short called The Perfect Human (Det perfekte menneske) that became something of a fetish film for another Danish director—Lars Von Trier. Leth’s film examines physical characteristics and capabilities of a representative man and woman (Claus Nissen and Majken Algren Nielsen), providing labels (“This is an ear. This is another ear.”) and descriptions of actions (“This is how the woman lays down.”) as though the film were a nature documentary for a bunch of anthropologists from another planet. Von Trier, one of the founders of the Dogme 95 movement, seemed both fascinated and cheesed off by the word “perfect” in the title of Leth’s film, as well as its artistry and unemotionalism. He set out with The Five Obstructions to save Leth from himself.

A statement I’ve quoted before from the Dogme manifesto is the driving objective behind The Five Obstructions:

Furthermore I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a “work”, as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations.

It is Von Trier’s contention that Leth would be a more complete and truthful filmmaker if he could let go of imposing a vision on his material. To “help” Leth overcome this shortcoming, Von Trier devised an exercise to break Leth’s normal creative rhythms. Von Trier compels Leth to remake The Perfect Human five times, adhering to strict rules Von Trier devises. Brief moments from the original film are shown as the two directors discuss what obstructions will be put in place. After each film is finished, we and Von Trier view it in its entirety.

The first set of obstructions Von Trier devises includes sending Leth to a country he has never visited (Cuba), no built sets, and edits in post-production that can be no longer than 12 frames in length. Alas for Von Trier, these obstructions, particularly the 12-frame restriction, prove to be a gift to Leth. The staccato rhythm of Obstruction #1: Cuba adds a comic objectivity to Leth’s regard of his perfect humans, and the lush use of color creates a vibrant, tropical milieu that enlivens the repetitive moments and conveys the sensuality of the surroundings that seem to have inspired him.

Von Trier decides that Leth must have an encounter that will strike fear and loathing in him, reasoning that it will be difficult for Leth to be artistic if he is shaken up. Leth confesses that a previous trip to Bombay was very disagreeable; therefore, Von Trier sends him to Bombay and further requires that he film next to something very disturbing, but must not include the disturbance in the film. Leth decides to take the role of the perfect man himself, and the resulting film shows him acting out the dining and jumping scenes from the original film in the red light district of the city. Von Trier chastises him for placing the Indian residents behind a semi-opaque screen behind him, thereby violating the rule that they must remain off-camera. Once again, the film is intriguing and tasteful—the exact opposite of what Von Trier wants.

The next two Obstructions don’t go very well for Von Trier either, as Leth proves over and over how creative he can be—indeed, the obstructions seem to heighten his ingenuity. During his filming in a Brussels hotel, in which is he charged with answering the questions posed in The Perfect Human, he overhears a couple having loud sex. With this inspiration and the French-speaking actors he has cast, the film becomes something of a French noir. Obstruction #4: Cartoon results from Leth and Von Trier’s mutual hatred of cartoons. But again, employing Bob Sabiston, the animator of Waking Life, and sending him footage from the Bombay shoot results in the most artistic and interpretive film of the series.

The final obstruction, filmed at Leth’s home in the Dominican Republic, requires Leth to read a script that Von Trier has written—a script that admits defeat. Leth’s apparent perfection as a filmmaker precludes him from letting go and becoming a mere recorder of events. I, for one, was thrilled with his victory. I really enjoyed this fascinating experiment in boundary-testing, and confirm the pleasure I get from the creative output of a director like Leth. Each of his reimaginings of The Perfect Human is entertaining and occasionally thought-provoking.

Von Trier hasn’t always lived up to his ideals, for example, allowing the expressionism of music to communicate his characters’ truth in Dancer in the Dark. Because Dancer came out in 2000, it seems rather disingenuous for Von Trier to insist that his friend Leth eschew a similar artistry. While The Five Obstructions is something of a game between the two friends, it’s not without a philosophical purpose for Von Trier. Any filmmaker who has the nerve to issue a manifesto about the direction of cinema obviously has more than a mercenary or creative interest in his work.

Von Trier is interested in human truth, thus making Jørgen Leth and The Perfect Human ideal specimens for his “nature documentary” on “The Perfect Director.” Von Trier does not seem to want to give up creative narrative entirely, thus pushing filmmaking back to its “actuality” beginnings. But he is suspicious of the manipulations of narrative, and many cinephiles join him in a distaste for having their buttons pushed. Apparently, he does not consider the approach Robert Bresson took—of filming nonactors performing the same scene countless times until all inauthentic mannerisms and inflections were bored out of them—to have been successful. Or maybe he just wants to find another way that is not so time-consuming and precise.

Since Von Trier can’t seem to tame the creative impulse in himself, I would hazard a guess that his work now seems to be pushing audiences past their boundaries, refusing to let them tuck comfortably into a story, to arrive at this truth he keeps seeking. Maybe he’ll eventually have his breakthrough. In the meantime, successful or not, his works will continue to evolve, and that’s something that should excite any true film fan. l

12th 04 - 2010 | 2 comments »

Prisoner of Her Past (2010)

Director: Gordon Quinn

By Marilyn Ferdinand

It has been a Kartemquin week for me. First, I saw No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson. Then, Kartemquin’s cofounder Gordon Quinn opened his film Prisoner of Her Past at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Both films are very personal—the first, a chance for director Steve James to learn more about his home town through the lens of what appeared to be a racial incident, the second, a son’s investigation into his mother’s tragic past. Both films range beyond the immediacy of these personal stories to explore their larger implications—that’s the Kartemquin way. Prisoner of Her Past raises awareness of a phenomenon that many thousands of people are or will suffer from during their lifetimes, thus offering hope that a correct diagnosis and follow-up treatment will help them.

During the night of February 15, 2001, a petite, elderly woman named Sonia Sys Reich bolted from her modest home in Skokie, Illinois (where I make my home), and went screaming down the streets that someone had threatened to put a bullet in her head. The police picked her up and brought her to a hospital emergency room, from which her son, Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich, retrieved her and eventually had her admitted to a nursing facility. Mrs. Reich’s delusions mixed her lifelong paranoia with strange rituals and thought fragments that seemed purposeful. For example, Mrs. Reich would take a loaf of pumpernickel bread Howard would bring to her each visit and divide it into exactly 10 baggies; she would keep half the baggies and give the other half to Howard. She also constantly complained that no one was going to turn her into a whore, and that books she was given to read had swastikas in them. What could these actions and thoughts mean?

It took about a year for Reich to receive a definitive diagnosis of what was afflicting his mother. Her psychiatrist, Dr. David Rosenberg, said Mrs. Reich was not suffering from dementia, that she was well aware of the world around her and could interact with it. Rosenberg, who has 40 years worth of experience with Holocaust survivors, said, “Your mother has late-onset PTSD with bells and whistles.” Posttraumatic stress disorder, of course. Both of Reich’s parents were Holocaust survivors. Reich put on his journalist’s cap to uncover exactly what had happened to his mother during World War II in hopes that the truth might help restore her to something of a normal life.

Because Reich’s parents had told them almost nothing about their wartime lives, all he had to go on was his mother’s mutterings, that is, until he opened a letter his mother had received from Irene Tannen, the aunt who had adopted her after the war. Irene had written a letter of concern when phone calls to Sonia’s home went unanswered. Reich barely knew of Irene’s existence. Reich, Quinn, and his crew traveled to New York to interview Irene, another survivor who remained tight-lipped, repeating what many survivors say, that there are no words to describe what they went through. She does, however, come through with a photo of Sonia and Sonia’s grandfather and cousin Leon.

Reich follows the trail to Poland, where he connects with Leon and Leon’s son Peter. They all travel to Dubno, formerly part of Poland but now in Ukraine, where Sonia’s childhood home, the old synagogue, and Leon’s old home are still standing. The people living in the homes are gracious; the pleasant owner of Leon’s home gives him a huge armful of Ukrainian apples, which Leon praises.

Of course, the return to Dubno reveals many of the horrors that Reich traveled to find. A woman takes Reich to a large field which she says holds two mass graves. She witnessed Ukrainian soldiers round up Jews and machine-gun them into pits. A soft snow falls like cold tears on this killing ground. Leon, Peter, and Howard go to a Dubno museum dedicated to the memory of the town’s Jews. Leon and Howard note the complete absence of bystanders in the dioramas showing how German troops rounded up the Jews.

Nonetheless, although Reich never finds out the particulars of his mother’s experience, he walks the streets where she walked, sees the window from which she and her brother escaped the ghetto into which Dubno’s 12,000 Jews were herded by the Germans, and learns a bit about the family from Leon. Sonia Sys’ home had been occupied by members of the Red Army when she was 8, and her family of four shoved into a back room. The Germans invaded when she was 10. Extrapolating from statements Sonia has made, she and her brother spent the next four years hiding and surviving as best they could, working on farms, carefully splitting whatever food they had. Was Sonia forced to prostitute herself? Reich probably will never know. When Leon makes the trek to Chicago to see Sonia, she refuses to speak with him, though both he and Howard believe she knows who he is. Her survival depends on maintaining her denial of the past, just as Dr. Rosenberg warned Howard and Leon to expect.

Quinn and Reich answered questions after the screening. Reich revealed that his mother is still in the nursing facility, and until a recent surgery weakened her, she spent every night sleeping fully clothed in a chair next to her bed. He said his sister discovered what might have triggered her PTSD—the 10th anniversary of her husband’s death. Reich said his father was outgoing, Sonia’s bridge to the world; he couldn’t point to a single friend his mother had made during her 40 years in Skokie. He said that his mother spent every night at the window in their front room, looking out into the street through a small opening between the drapes.

Interestingly, though Reich’s parents settled in the epicenter for Holocaust survivors—Skokie had as many as 8,000 survivor-residents at its height—it took a year for anyone to recognize what was wrong with his mother. Even in Israel, the disorder was not recognized; now, two large centers to help Holocaust survivors with PTSD have been opened. And Reich and Quinn traveled to New Orleans and filmed mental health workers interview girls who survived Hurricane Katrina, recognizing one girl with a flat affect as someone who might be vulnerable to delayed PTSD because she is distancing herself from her experience.

Prisoner of Her Past is under an hour long, and a number of the details revealed in this review I learned from the after-film discussion. While I admire the odyssey Reich undertook with Quinn in tow, the seven years spent on Sonia’s trail don’t come across as completely as they could on screen. I was confused about various relationships, particularly Irene’s. Reich wrote a long article about his mother for the Tribune and used the article as the basis for a book, and I filled in blanks with these two documents. Nonetheless, Prisoner of Her Past presents a touching portrait of Sonia Reich, horribly victimized and horribly haunted. It’s a great place to start learning about PTSD and the need for healing in all the scarred regions of the world. l

8th 04 - 2010 | 8 comments »

No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson (2010)

Director/Screenwriter: Steve James

By Marilyn Ferdinand

As a person who lived through the melee of the 1994 O. J. Simpson murder trial, I knew I had never seen anything like it—particularly the way blacks and whites lined up on either side of the guilty/not guilty divide—and thought that certainly there never was or would be a trial like it again.

I was wrong.

Just a year before this trial of the century, a less sensational, but no less divisive trial took place in the historic community of Hampton, Virginia. The phenomenally gifted star of the Bethel High School basketball team and future NBA great Allen Iverson and three other boys (Michael Simmons, Samuel Wynn, and Melvin Stephens) were arrested for throwing punches and chairs in a Hampton bowling alley that injured three whites, including a pregnant woman. Stephens severed his trial from the other three defendants and ended up walking with a misdemeanor conviction. Simmons, Wynn, and Iverson took a bench trial presided over by a “hanging” judge and were convicted of three counts of “maiming by mob”—a felony crime put in place to allow lynch mobs to be prosecuted—and sentenced to 15 years in prison. The town of Hampton was instantly split in two. A concerted effort by a citizens group called S.W.I.S. (the initials of the four defendants) and the fortuitous ability of Virginia’s first black governor to grant clemency because he was retiring and unconcerned about facing voters the next year enabled the three boys to win their freedom after serving about four months.

Steve James, one of the world’s most gifted documentarians, hails from Hampton, and like everyone else on “The Peninsula” on which Hampton rests, was well aware of Allen Iverson. James’ father Bill, though an alumnus of Hampton High, was a huge fan of Iverson’s. After James moved to Chicago, his father used to send him clippings from the local papers about Iverson’s accomplishments on the gridiron and the basketball court—and of course, stories about the trial. When ESPN approached James to take part in its “30 for 30” documentary series, he chose to return to Hampton to try to make sense out of what happened there in 1993.

As a Hampton insider and a natural storyteller with complete command of the cinematic form, James gives viewers the lay of the land quickly and indelibly. We feast on footage of Iverson, just barely brushing past 6 feet tall, running like liquid mercury down the football field and hanging off hoop rims after authoritative slam dunk after slam dunk. We see him sink 30-foot jump shots and celebrate his touchdowns with fancy endzone moves. We also hear about his temper, his cockiness, his fatherless home, his drug-addicted mother, the neighborhood black men who stepped in to try to keep him on the straight and narrow. And we see a narrow footpath to the shore of Chesapeake Bay as James reminds us that Hampton, the oldest, continuous, English-speaking settlement in North America, also was one of the earliest centers for the slave trade. Thus, tidily, we are prepared for a discussion of race.

And, indeed, race may have caused the brawl at the bowling alley. Most of the witnesses and the defendants contend that some white bowlers had bandied about the “n” word to incite a fight. A fragment of video footage of the brawl was taken, and the chairs flying from black hands onto white bodies looks pretty savage. Iverson supposedly had been led out of the bowling alley, away from the fight, to protect his future as a top recruit for elite college athletic programs.

Jim Spencer, a Hampton Daily Press columnist and reporter in 1993, did not think Iverson was the kind of person to walk out on a fight. He ran a blunt opinion piece at the time that said Iverson and the others needed to be accountable for their actions, denying race had anything to do with the arrests. Nonetheless, no whites were arrested and considerations about the possible verbal incitements dismissed as a “sticks and stones” situation.

James had trouble getting people—including his own mother—to agree to be interviewed for the film. Iverson did not cooperate, but James skillfully blends interviews of him while he was in a minimum-security farm-prison and other archival footage, for example, holding one of his Crossover camps in Hampton (following criticism that he had avoided coming there), talking about his devoted white tutor who used to cry when he would show up at her home late for a lesson, and graduating from high school months after his classmates had already matriculated. It is through all his triumphs and trials that we get the complicated picture that is Allen Iverson.

James also talks to some of the S.W.I.S. members, who called the incident the most blatant example of racism they had ever seen in the Virginia judicial system. There is some intimation that prosecutor Colleen Killilea had political aspirations, and indeed, she is now a judge who refused to be interviewed. Regardless of whether one feels the boys deserved some kind of punishment for their part in the brawl, one has to conclude that 15-year sentences for first-time offenders who were not unequivocally tied to the crime (Killilea told Sports Illustrated at the time, “While we couldn’t link specific people to specific acts, each defendant was responsible for what occurred,” which put the maiming by mob charge into play) was a miscarriage of justice. James says that Iverson’s fame undoubtedly worked against him at trial, but for him in winning release. Amusingly, right after James shows a scene of jubilation about Iverson’s release, he cuts to Michael Simmons remembering his reaction with a laugh: “What about me?”

James’ skilled editing provides many such laughs and evenhandedly juxtaposes the outrage of black Peninsula residents with the law-and-order uprightness of its white population. He also makes it clear that black residents who had moved on up in the world were also against Iverson and his codefendents. James shoots scenes of the well-to-do blacks watering their lawns in fashionable neighborhoods, though the suggestion of one interviewee that they simply didn’t want to lose ground in the racial divide seems a little too simple. It was, as another interviewee put it, an issue of class more than race.

James went in search of his roots in such a way as to find out more about a community he only half knew. When asked about race relations today, one of the S.W.I.S. members said it’s a tiny bit better. A middle-aged black man says it’s like watching a duck. You see the duck glide smoothly on top of the water, but you never see its legs paddling furiously underneath. James ends this superb film with a group of geese moving across a pond in Hampton.

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