Tuesday, April 24, 2007

SFIFF 2 LATIN AMERICAN FILMS

As I'm finishing up a couple of interviews with directors today, I thought I'd post two Film Notes I wrote for this year's Festival catalogue.

THE 12 LABORS (OS 12 TRABALHOS)

CITY OF GOD and BUS 174 (SFIFF 2003) gripped viewers with their chronicling of the poverty, violence, injustice, drug addiction, child abuse, and police brutality that two million homeless children endure daily in the urban jungle of São Paulo. The less edgy, but eloquent, 12 LABORS could be seen as a “prequel” to BUS 174. “Neighborhoods denote classes, streets denote who you are. Man, depending on where you were born your story is written even before it starts.” Thus begins the account of eighteen-year-old Heracles (Sidney Santiago), just out of a FEBEM reform school, who, on his first day as a motorcycle courier (and like his Greek demi-god namesake), must overcome 12 hurdles of increasing difficulty. Fortunately, he receives the help of sympathetic characters who, much like mythic deities, appear when he most needs assistance. His struggles render Heracles a faithful embodiment of what the Greeks called pathos, the experience of virtuous struggle and suffering which leads to, if not fame and (in Hercules' case) immortality, self-respect, confidence, and a sense of possibility.

In a metropolis whose congested arteries run thick with 300,000 motorcycle delivery boys, Heracles’ own existence reflects the city’s chaos and its youth in crisis. The film’s lyrical omniscient voice-over narrative counterpoints the hip inner-city soundtrack and energy-infused urban cinematography. And young thespian Sidney Santiago, who deservedly won the Best Actor Award at last year’s Rio International Film Festival, perfectly personifies the somber Heracles whose imagination, poetic sensitivity, and artistic talent may be his sole salvation.

DIRECTOR BIO:
Ricardo Elias, born in São Paulo in 1968, studied cinema at the University of São Paulo. His work includes TV specials, documentaries, and dramatic films. DE PASSAGEM (2003), Elias’ first film, won several awards at the Gramado (Brazil) Film Festival, including: best film, directing, supporting actor, and the critics’ prize. THE 12 LABORS was awarded the Best Film of the Horizon section at the 2006 San Sebastián Film Festival, in Spain. About THE 12 LABORS Elias says, “The myth of Hercules is a reference point used to discuss issues relevant to the difficulty of finding a job in [today’s] globalized world.”

THE 12 LABORS (OS 12 TRABALHOS)
Dir. Ricardo Elias
Brazil, 2006, 90 min.

Sun April 29 9:30 Kabuki
Mon April 30 7:00 Kabuki
Sat May 5 4:30 Kabuki
Mon May 7 9:15 Aquarius


AGUA

Can one man’s collapse trigger another man’s salvation? One possible response unfolds in screenwriter-director Verónica Chen’s impressionistic venture into the vagaries of identity, fate, and free will. This sophomore effort––after VAGON FUMADOR/SMOKERS ONLY (SFIFF, 2002)––demonstrates a visual and narrative sophistication generally found in more experienced auteurs. The silent opening scenes of AGUA take place in an unearthly, desolate Argentine desert landscape, where a man tangles with a thorny cactus to retrieve its succulent flesh. But this man’s isolation and physical dehydration signify a spiritual thirst. During his prolonged drive back to civilization, the hypnotic pattern of the highway’s broken dividing line, intercut with the solid black line at the bottom of a pool that keeps a swimmer on course, serve as the convergence points for the two main characters: Goyo (Rafael Ferro), a 34-year-old once-discredited contestant of the grueling 35-mile Santa Fe-Coronda River marathon, and Chino (Nicolás Mateo), 20, a long-distance indoor swimmer, with a pregnant girlfriend, Luisa (Jimena Anganuzzi). The protagonists connect to life through swimming. After Chino fails to make the national swim team, a character says of him: “Out of water, he gasps.” And because of his aggressive competitiveness, Goyo is known as “the river shark.”

Water, especially the ominous, serpentine jungle river, interweaves the destinies of these men in profound and surprising ways. “How do you cross the bridge to the real world?” Chino contemplates. AGUA is a meditation on living in the present, rather than in one’s past glories or grievances, or in future promise.

DIRECTOR BIO:
Argentine director, writer, editor, producer Verónica Chen was born in Buenos Aires in 1969. She studied Classical Literature and Cinema. Her first film VAGON FUMADOR/SMOKERS ONLY screened at SFIFF in 2002. AGUA won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and the Youth Jury Award at the Locarno International Film Festival in 2006, in addition to the Special Jury Prize for New Voices/New Visions at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in 2007. About the river featured in AGUA, Chen says: “The river for me is the jungle, far from the idea of the 'idyllic' Nature like Rousseau depicts. It’s like hell, the dark side.”

AGUA
Dir.: Verónica Chen
Argentina, 2006, 89 min.

Sat May 5 12:30 Kabuki
Sun May 6 4:30 Kabuki
Wed May 9 8:50 PFA

Sunday, April 22, 2007

SFIFF FLANDRES


In FLANDRES, Bruno Dumont returns to the land of his childhood in northern France, the setting of his first two films LA VIE DE JESUS (1997) and L’HUMANITE (1998). Both of these films, as well as FLANDRES, won special Jury Prizes at Cannes. French provocateur Dumont’s last film TWENTYNINE PALMS (2004) was, by all accounts (including my own), an over-the-top, shock-for-the-sake-of-shock brutalizing of the viewers senses (in the same vein as Gaspar Noé’s IRREVERSIBLE (2002), another Cannes winner, but even more eviscerating).

Here Dumont raises his usual concerns about man's inhumanity to man, the complexity (pathology?) of the man-woman relationship and an inability to connect in a genuinely loving way, the animalistic nature of sex, the meaning of existence, and the randomness of evil. André Demester (Samuel Boidin), a brooding, frighteningly inarticulate young farmer (whose character makes an excellent case that Neolithic impulses remain ingrained in many of our actions) secretly loves Barbe (Adelaide Leroux) his childhood friend. Barbe’s emotional instability and sexual promiscuity apparently are exacerbated by Andrés inability to do much more than grunt during their coitus in the woods and offer her rides on his tractor (there’s also a hint, which remains undeveloped, that she “takes after” her deceased mother).

Dumont’s often breath-taking mastery of his characters’ nuanced emotions and expressions brings an immediacy to both his observational filmmaking and the viewers’ experience of the film as a sense of eavesdropping. The usual boundaries of time, place, and medium dissolve, and one forgets one is sitting in a theatre watching a movie. The characters’ reality becomes one’s own. This is a rare talent. Kubrick had it, as did Bresson, and occasionally Iñárritu. The fact, then, that Dumont elicits this caliber of fearless performances from nonprofessional actors is nothing short of astonishing.

In FLANDRES, Dumont extends his battleground of human psychology to an actual combat zone. The fact that war is hell and that it changes you is not a new theme, but by leaving the desert locale unnamed (it was filmed in Tunisia) and the enemy unspecified (although the site is clearly Middle Eastern, there is mention neither of Iraq nor of complicated geopolitics), Dumont economically tells a very personal story about war's atrocities on the frontlines and the concurrent emotional damage to loved ones at home.

Dumont is a difficult filmmaker. Don’t look for linear plotlines or explanations for characters’ behavior. His settings are austere and abrasive and his characters' actions are often vile. And yet I know that his is an important artistic vision––a desolate, despairing one, without doubt, but nonetheless, a voice crying out about the wilderness that is humankind, and our fate.

FLANDRES
Dir/Scr: Bruno Dumont
France, 2006, 91 mins.

Sun, May 6 5:15 PFA
Tue, May 8 9:00 Kabuki
Wed, May 9 9:30 Kabuki

Thursday, April 19, 2007

SFIFF: THE OLD GARDEN


If you appreciate the films of South Korean master director Im Kwon-Taek (CHIHWASEON, 2002; CHUNHYANG, 2000; TAEBAK MOUNTAINS, 1994; SOPYONJE, 1993; THE SURROGATE MOTHER, 1987), be sure to catch Im Sang-Soo's THE OLD GARDEN. Sang-Soo served as Kwon-Taek's assistant director before taking on his own projects (GIRL’S NIGHT OUT, 1998; A GOOD LAWYER’S WIFE, 2003; THE PRESIDENT’S LAST BANG, 2005), and it shows. THE OLD GARDEN spans a turbulent 17-year period of South Korea’s recent history, which begins in 1980 with the actual Gwangju Massacre in Seoul on May 27. To set the context: A 1979 coup led to a military dictatorship. In a more devastating outcome than our own Kent State Shootings on May 4, 1970, Gwangju occurred during the rule of dictator Chun Doo-Hwan, whose military and police force crushed the leftist student-led protests with a lethal force that slaughtered several hundred students. (The public reaction against the Gwangju incident eventually fostered a democratic government in the late 1980s.) Knowing this fundamental piece of history before viewing the film will aid the American viewer, who, like myself, may be unfamiliar with this Korean saga.

Based on an internationally prize-winning novel by Hwang Seok-young (LE MONDE selected it as one of the "Books of the World" in 2005), who spent the 1980s in exile, and then served five years in prison in the 1990s for an unauthorized visit to North Korea, director Im Sang-soo mixes politics and melodrama in a story about a country in crisis and the “personal is political” stance of its protagonists: predestined doomed lovers––on-the-run socialist student activist Hyun-Woo (Jin-hee Ji) and the beautiful art teacher Yoon Hee (Jung-ah Yum), who provides food and shelter in a distant mountain village and, eventually, her love. When the film’s hero Hyun-woo is released from prison in the late 1990s, he returns to visit his mother, who has benefited from the economic boom, and his former political friends, who struggle with their old idealism.

The heart of THE OLD GARDEN is a series of seamless flashbacks that reveal the love story and heartbreak between the activist and the artist. The film’s visuals––a series of gorgeous tableaux, reminiscent of Im Kwon-Taek’s incomparable imagery––provide an emotional underpinning to the love story. Hyun-woo revisits the mountain hut he shared with Yoon Hee to discover that she died from cancer ten years into his prison term. Through a series of her voice-overs, we hear her letters to him, which he never received. Yoon Hee’s paintings (photo-realist drawings, really, on large stretched canvases), which he finds, narrate another part of her story; a final self-portrait reveals a female Buddha: compassionate, forgiving, eternal. THE OLD GARDEN communicates a truth about memory: those few indelible moments, experiences both ecstatic and tragic, are what, in the end, give our lives meaning.


THE OLD GARDEN
Dir/Scr: Im Sang-Soo
South Korea, 2006, 112 min.

Thu, May 3 12:30 Kabuki
Sat, May 5 9:00 Kabuki
Wed, May 9 6:00 Kabuki

Sunday, April 15, 2007

THE LAST DAYS OF YASSER ARAFAT

In a poignant image, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is dressed in his pajamas, an overcoat thrown around his emaciated shoulders, and his eyes sunken beneath a sheepskin hat sliding down his skeletal head. In the middle of hordes of worshippers the weakened warrior is whisked from a Mercedes limo onto a waiting helicopter, rotating blades churning up dusty memories of past glories and clouds of an unknown future. We know, and perhaps he did as well: this is the last time he will see his beloved home country to which he was both savior and scourge. Arafat has fallen mysteriously ill and submits to hospitalization in Paris, where he will suddenly die––cause forever undisclosed.

Timing is everything in life, and Palestinian-Australian documentary filmmaker Sherine Salama knew the importance of following her prescient dream in August 2003, the morning she awakened convinced that Arafat was going to die, and soon. Although by nature she is “not a very political person–I’m usually much more interested in the struggle of ordinary people than in leaders,” Salama felt “a kind of duty to make a film about him before he died.” A few weeks later Ehud Olmert, then the deputy Prime Minister, threatened to assassinate or expel Arafat, and she knew she had to act swiftly.

In “Last Days” Salama accomplishes the daunting task of humanizing the typically demonized president. Much of the documentary’s action revolves around her attempt to break through the inner sanctum of aids, bodyguards, and press secretaries surrounding Arafat's compound at Ramallah. It takes more than a year, but she finally ingratiates herself and her interview is granted. When the documentarian meets the despot their conversation is amiable and Arafat engaged. She’s waited so long and she has so many questions, but after a few minutes the interview prematurely concludes. Within a month, after Arafat’s death, Salama realizes that hers is the ultimate interview. By following her instincts she provided the world a final glimpse into one of the most controversial leaders of the 20th century. As Bashir Anastas writes in the catalogue film note, the film “is a must-see for anyone even mildly interested in the ongoing saga of the Middle East.”

THE LAST DAYS OF YASSER ARAFAT
Australia/Palestine, 2006, 77 min.
Dir./Prod./Camera Sherine Salama

Wed., May 2 1:15 Kabuki
Sun., May 6 6:15 Kabuki

Friday, April 13, 2007

THE ISLAND


THE ISLAND and THE MONASTERY make an ideal double feature. By pure serendipity I viewed THE ISLAND the day after I saw and wrote about THE MONASTERY (see 4/11 post). Part Tarkovsky, part early-Bergman, Pavel Lounguine (THE WEDDING, 2000; TAXI BLUES, 1990)’s stunningly beautiful film takes place in Northern Russia on a minuscule island in the White Sea. In a prologue, set in 1942, a half-mad young soldier is forced by Nazis to murder his commander, in exchange for his own life. Thirty-four years into the future we find the same man––now bearded and bedraggled in a tattered ebony monk’s robe––living the punitive life of a hermit in a Russian Orthodox monastery on his eternal quest for redemption. Father Anatoly (as he is now known) divides his time between performing the Sisyphean task of shoveling coal into the monastery’s insatiable fiery boiler, and dealing with pilgrims who consider him a holy man and seer, and bring their troubles and injured children to him for healing. The director wavers back-and-forth, leaving us to decide: is Anatoly a lunatic or a saint? In an interview, Lounguine says, “This is a film about the fact that God exists. There comes a time in life when this becomes an important issue. Besides, I am trying to open up new genres in film, in this case the genre of the lives of saints.” Apparently, the lead actor Pytor Mamonov (a well-loved former Russian rock-and-roll star, of all things) “changed” after portraying Father Anatoly. Mamonov (who resembles a genuine madman, German actor and Werner Herzog-alter ego, Klaus Kinski) said that he now “felt an enlightened quietness.”

In these consumer-driven, individualistic, even apocalyptic times, Lounguine’s parable considers our most profound concerns: the existence of God, personal and collective guilt, responsibility to each other, the possibility of redemption.


THE ISLAND/OSTROV
Russia, 2006, 112 min.
Dir. Pavel Lounguine
Scr. Dmitry Sobelev

Sat., April 28 4:15 Kabuki
Weds., May 2 6:45 Kabuki
Thurs., May 3 3:30 Kabuki

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

THE MONASTERY

"Always expect the unexpected. Adapt that as a rule," advises 86-year-old Vig, the retired priest and university librarian who, in his truly catholic religious affiliations appoints his castle with Zen Buddhas, Tibetan tankas, crucifixs (he refers to Christ as a “chap”), Russian ikon paintings––gifts from Sister Ambrosija, and even his antique Chinese opium bed––which promises its own form of nirvana. A few days ago (see April 8 post), I mentioned that this unexpectedly beautiful and touching Danish documentary came very highly recommended from friends, whose sensibilities mirror my own. Their only lapse was not insisting that I see THE MONASTERY at the very next showing. Well, I just finished watching a screener and fully expect the film to be a triumph of this year’s Festival. Imagine the contemplative quality of last year’s INTO GREAT SILENCE (now in theatrical release), but with humor and deep emotion in place of a cerebral remove. Sensitively filmed––with stunning cinematography that discerns both a fairytale and "dust-to-dust, ashes-to-ashes” awareness, and a penetrating soundtrack, Pernille Rose Grønkjær’s directing skills transcend her youth and belie the fact that this is her first feature documentary.

Speaking about his motive for creating a monastery, Vig reasons, “theologists can’t help being interested in monasteries,” and admits that it’s an old ambition to create something enduring. When the filmmaker says she doesn’t understand, the elder eloquently asks, “Wouldn’t you like to make a film that went down in history…to make something of quality?” Her response is THE MONASTERY.

Thurs. May 3 4:30 Kabuki
Fri. May 4 7:00 Kabuki
Sun. May 6 1:00 Kabuki

Monday, April 09, 2007

PROTAGONIST












The protagonist is of central importance in the classic
story structure of Greek tragedians. Academy Award-
winning filmmaker Jessica Yu invents an unconventional
story told through the prism of four seemingly unrelated
men––a former German terrorist, an “ex-gay” evangelist,
a bank robber, and a martial-arts student––who create a
new nightmare in an attempt to escape from an old one.

Yu’s previous feature film IN THE REALMS OF THE
UNREAL, which examined the life and work of outsider
artist Henry Darger, was so odd and inspired, when I saw
it in 2005 I immediately sat through a second viewing.
I’m expecting similar quality and surprises in
PROTAGONIST.


Sat. April 28 6:15 SFMoMA
Mon. April 30 4:15 Kabuki
Tues. May 1 9:15 Kabuki

Sunday, April 08, 2007

SFIFF 2007 Women-Directed Documentaries, Part 2



THE MONASTERY
Four docs look particularly promising: THE MONASTERY, PROTAGONIST, THE LAST DAYS OF YASSER ARAFAT, and A WALK TO BEAUTIFUL. At Sundance I missed THE MONASTERY and PROTAGONIST, two films two respected friends raved about, so I'm grateful that SFIFF Programers Linda Blackaby and Rod Armstrong selected them for SF. THE MONASTERY (director Pernille Rose Grønkjær’s first feature documentary),

filmed during a five-year span, follows Mr. Vig, an 86-year-old virgin former parish priest living alone in a dilapidated castle in the Danish countryside, which he’s always dreamed of turning into a Russian Orthodox monastery. Sister Ambrosija, a young, ambitious, headstrong nun arrives on the scene and life changes for both of them. The catalogue describes the film as “a deeply satisfying work of intimacy and grace, it leaves us pondering which is the better measure of our time on earth––how we live or what we leave behind.”

Thurs. May 3 4:30 Kabuki
Fri. May 4 7:00 Kabuki
Sun. May 6 1:00 Kabuki

Saturday, April 07, 2007

SFIFF 2007 Women-Directed Documentaries, Part 1

THE DEVIL CAME ON HORSEBACK
(Brian Steidle)


I’m delighted to report that fifteen of the 25 feature-length documentaries screened at SFIFF this year are directed by women. The U.S. film THE DEVIL CAME ON HORSEBACK (Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern, co-producers and co-directors of the 2007 Academy Award-nominated documentary THE TRIALS OF DARRYL HUNT)
(Annie Sundberg)

is a devastating exposé of the genocide in Darfur; and Sundberg and Stern are excellent examples of social activism through cinema. This superb doc, which I first saw in January at Sundance, follows the young hero Brian Steidle, an ex-Marine who is learning to change the world through peaceful means, as he witnesses and photographs the worst imaginable atrocities.

(Ricki Stern)
(Brian Steidle)
Nicholas Kristof, the “New York Times” columnist writes about the situation: "It's as if history gives us a chance to redeem ourselves after Rwanda, and yet we are failing again."
During the after-film Q&A at Sundance, Brian said modestly. "I'm just a guy who tried to wake up the conscience of a bunch of people." Since 2003, 450,000 innocent people have been massacred (300 die each day) and 2.5 million have been displaced to Chad. Every seat in the house should be sold out for the three Festival screenings.

Sat. April 28 3:30 SFMoMA
Sun. April 29 1:00 PFA
Wed. May 2 6:15 Kabuki