Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Film Actresses Find Second Lives on TV

Whatever happened to Katharine Ross?

“Katharine who?” you might ask.

Remember “Elaine,” “Mrs. Robinson”’s daughter, in “The Graduate”? The gorgeous young woman “Benjamin” traveled back and forth between L.A. and U.C. Berkeley (erroneously driving across the Golden Gate Bridge to reach the East Bay from San Francisco!) to visit.
Within months, Ross became America’s sweetheart, which led to starring roles in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” and “The Stepford Wives” (the original version, before Nicole Kidman and Christopher Walken camped-up the remake in 2004). Soon after the release of “The Graduate,” both actor Dustin Hoffman and director Mike Nichols became (and have remained) household names. But, unless pressed, who can recall the spunky, diminutive, long-auburn-tressed actress, who turned 68 in January (and remains a true Hollywood anomaly: an actress whose body is a plastic surgery-free zone).

Hollywood history is filled with examples of many a talented actress, who often shared a similar fate. (Although, no doubt until her dying day, Meryl Streep will continue dazzling movie audiences with her verbal gymnastics of obscure languages and her ability to learn yet another musical instrument.) But, I believe, the summer of 2007 may be remembered as the year cable television discovered movie actresses of a certain age and cast them in their own weekly-serialized dramas.

I hope you haven’t missed an episode of the riveting “Damages” on FX (Tuesdays at 10 PM), starring 58-year-old Glenn Close, the actress audiences love to hate (“Fatal Attraction,” “Dangerous Liaisons,” “101 Dalmatians”). Nominated five times for Oscar’s Best Actress Award, Close –– with her scary smile and demonic stare –– once again makes your skin crawl as Patty Hewes, the cold-blooded New York litigation attorney. But, unlike “Fatal Attraction”’s Alex Forrest, who boils bunnies for fun, Patty’s own Machiavellian tendencies are tempered by trouble at home. Namely, a son who purchases hand-grenades on line and delivers them, courtesy of Uncle Sam’s postal service, directly to Mom’s office. Yes, that could give even the most hard-bitten, unsentimental parent pause for thought.

Holly Hunter, the versatile 49-year-old Oscar winner for “The Piano,” assumes the titular role (and a producing credit) in TNT’s “Saving Grace” (Mondays at 10 PM). Grace Hanadarko (“darko” … get it? she’s a badass.), a police detective working in Oklahoma City, drives a beat-up old Porsche –– as she swigs from a whiskey bottle, sleeps with a married man, and disputes the existence of God with a (what else is new these days?) crusty angel, who drinks beer day and night, “chaws tobacca,” and could double as a country-Western singer. Hunter is ever watchable, even though, as Grace, her performance is a few notches below what we’ve come to expect from the quirky skills she displays in “The Incredible,” “Thirteen,” “The Firm,” and “Raising Arizona.”

If you’re a fan of Indies, you’re probably familiar with Lili Taylor (“I Shot Andy Warhol,” “Dogfight,” “Household Saints,” “Casa de los babys,” “Factotum,” as well as HBO’s “Six Feet Under”). In Lifetime’s “State of Mind” (Sundays at 9 PM) Taylor (at 41, the baby among the trio) plays psychiatrist Dr. Ann Bellowes. Although the series was created by Amy Bloom, a writer and psychotherapist –– without being too self-referential here –– Bellowes bears not the slightest resemblance to any psychiatrist I’ve ever met. She’s too “normal,” for starters. Taylor has a sweet way about her, but the series tries to do too much and with too many characters. By the third episode, I’d already lost interest.

Cable’s efforts to identify the segment of an audience that mirrors their leading ladies “of a certain age” –– just as “Sex in the City” appealed to women in their 30s –– is working.

Perhaps next summer they’ll even surprise us with a new drama, starring the still effervescent and natural Katharine Ross. Now that’s a series I’d look forward to.

NOTE: This article originally appeared in Cathleen's Cinema and Culture Column in the “The Santa Cruz Sentinel” on 24 August 2007.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Hidden Half: Images of Women in Middle Eastern Cinema

What are women’s lives like in other parts of the world? This question can be answered in three primary ways: through travel and personal experience, through the news media, and through literature and cinema. At Toronto (2006), Sundance, and the San Francisco International Film Festival this year, a spate of excellent Middle Eastern documentary and narrative films shed light on the subject; and all but one of them was directed by a woman. Bay Area audiences have additional opportunities to catch Middle Eastern films about women at the upcoming Arab Film Festival (October 18–November 4,, the Global Lens film series (November t.b.a.,, and the United Nations Association Film Festival (October 24–28,

Rise Up, Spiral Down ...

In "Offside," Jafar Panahi, the director of well-known Iranian films such as "The Mirror," "The Circle," and "The White Balloon" (all of which tell stories about women and girls), follows a group of young women as they wrestle, deceive, and otherwise attempt to finagle their way into a soccer finals match in Tehran. Iranian law bars women from attending sporting events. During my interview with Mr. Panahi in Toronto, he mentioned that the inspiration for the film arose out of his own 15-year-old daughter’s attempt to sneak into a match wearing a male friend’s robe (she was caught and tossed out). When I asked if he thought the law might change, he replied, “In Islam, women are forbidden to look at men’s bare legs. There is nothing we can do about the religious laws because they are etched in stone, so we can forget about changing the laws.”

"Women’s Prison," directed by Manijeh Hekmat unfolds in a setting more sinister than a sporting arena. Banned in Iran, the film traces the story of women in Iranian society since the Islamic Revolution, through the ordeal of women behind bars. This fascinating drama offered by Global Lens, hinges on the struggle between an independent reform-driven prisoner and a determined warden, compelled by her Islamic beliefs.

"Mainline," by Iranian director Rakhsan Bani-Etemad (co-directed by Mohsen Abdolvahab), dramatizes a young middle-class woman’s downward spiral into heroin addiction. According to the directors, young people under the age of 30 comprise 70 percent of Iran’s population, and drug addiction among this demographic is rising to alarming heights. The filmmakers effectively use a cinema vérité approach to capture the grit and desolation of drug life and the desperate challenges of rehabilitation.

"These Girls," directed by Tahani Rached, plunges deep into Egyptian street life. The documentary follows a group of adolescents who live, suffer, rejoice, and sometimes die, on the streets of Cairo as they sniff glue, prostitute themselves, and band together to create some semblance of security and family. Rached’s empathic connection to “these girls” creates a compassionate film that leaves a lasting impression on the viewer.

Dark though these films are, they signal a new era in the complexity of representations of women in Middle Eastern cinema, and at the forefront of the group is a new work by filmmaker Niki Karimi.

Mapping the New Interior ...

"A Few Days Later…," directed by and starring the well-known Iranian actress and director Karimi ("One Night," "Two Women," "The Hidden Half"), is a minimalist portrait of an educated, professional woman dealing with pressures in all aspects of her life. Shahrzad, a graphic designer, artist, and university professor living in Tehran, is besieged by a demanding boss, a disapproving mother and friends, an obnoxious neighbor, and an indecisive lover.

When I interviewed Karimi at Toronto, I noted that her film—with its melancholic atmosphere, gorgeous landscapes, and a main character who drives (sometimes aimlessly) as she pursues an existential questioning of life––approximates a feminist version of Abbas Kiarostami’s "Taste of Cherry" (1997). “Really!” she laughed, pleased at the comparison. Karimi has, in fact, worked as Kiarostami’s assistant, and he produced her first directing effort "To Have Or Not to Have" (2001). I asked what her impetus was for making her latest film and she suggested, “The film is about things that are happening in society to women my age. I felt that there were few films about the experiences of women. I call this ‘personal cinema,’ not cinema from the commercial film industry. I wanted to show a woman trying to earn money, be on her own, and how many problems can surround her. I wanted to show the distance that she has from society. Because of that, she’s living out of the city. And each day she travels on the road and looks at the city and asks herself, ‘What is this place I’m going to?’”

I mention that Shahrzad appears to lead a very privileged life in comparison to other representations of Iranian women that I have seen on film. While the character may be privileged, Karimi points out, “She is not ‘upper class.’ I mean, she is middle-class: she is working, she is an artist, she is also a professor at a university. She is not very rich, but she is taking care of herself. She is typical of Iranian women. We have so many women lawyers, artists, professors, especially in the last 20 years, we have so many women who have graduated from university. They work, have houses, marry, and divorce, like women in the West.”

The Political is Personal ...

Many of the films I saw this year are suffused in political upheaval, whether it is an undercurrent or the main issue. Malalai Joya, subject of Danish filmmaker Eva Mulvad’s documentary "Enemies of Happiness," is dedicated to improving the lives of her countrywomen. The film follows Joya, a 28-year-old delegate in the Afghanistan parliament, as she campaigns for election, receives threats on her life (there have been four), and subsequently leads a political life where she must remain in hiding or be protected by armed guards in public. "Enemies of Happiness" provides a unique insight into today’s Afghanistan, a society destroyed by war and still ruled by tradition. Joya is a controversial leader for a people who have been promised peace and prosperity, but who continue to be ravaged by war. She successfully negotiates with clan leaders and opium kings, and on behalf of despairing adolescent girls, promised in marriage to men old enough to be their grandfathers. This radical freedom fighter for women displays courage and fosters the belief that one person does make a difference.

The Arab Film Festival recently screened two documentaries about Iraqi women and life in Baghdad during the U.S. occupation. In "The Tenth Planet: A Single Life in Baghdad," by Melis Birder, a young Baghdadi woman describes herself thus: “There are nine planets in the universe and I am the tenth one.” Her name means “planet” in Arabic and she is indeed a world unto herself, unafraid to speak her mind about sex, love and politics. "Baghdad Days" is by and about Heba Bassem, a young student from Kirkuk, who returns to Baghdad after the war to finish her film studies at the Art Academy. For her final project, Heba captures her struggles to complete her studies in the semi-destroyed city of Baghdad, where nothing remains the same.

One film, from Global Lens, offers a stunning look at two women’s experiences in Algeria. "Enough!," by Djamila Sahraoui, takes place in the 1990s, and follows a nurse and a doctor; the husband of the latter has been abducted by rebel forces unhappy with his reportage. The women, anachronisms in Islamist Algeria, reflect on earlier times as they confront contemporary religious limitations imposed on females.

"Kiss Me Not on the Eyes," by Lebanese writer-director Jocelyne Saab reveals the conflicts for women in Egyptian culture by juxtaposing female sensuality with female circumcision; love of poetry with religious repression; emancipated dance with physical restraint. Amid the lavish color, intoxicating music, and historical architecture of contemporary Cairo, Dunia, a free-spirited, belly dancer, studies Arabic love poetry at the university as she maneuvers her way through a repressive society. But once she marries her ardent long-term boyfriend Mandouh, he constricts Dunia’s independent nature. Instead she finds philosophical nourishment in her relationship with her professor. "Kiss Me Not" explores cross-cultural concerns about ownership of women’s bodies and, by extension, the inherent pleasure within them.

In August 2003, Palestinian-Australian documentary filmmaker Sherine Salama, awakened convinced that Yasser Arafat was going to die, and soon. She recognized the importance of following her prescient dream and "The Last Days of Yasser Arafat" resulted. During our interview in San Francisco, Salama told me she is not, by nature, a very political person, but she felt “a kind of duty to make a film about Arafat before he died.” 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 to get an interview with him. 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 is engaged. Within a month, after Arafat’s death, Salama realizes that hers is the ultimate interview. By following her instincts she provided the world with a final glimpse of one of the most controversial leaders of the 20th century. I urge you to check out this film and the others featured in this article for an unforgettable look at women’s lives in the Middle East.

NOTE: This article was first published in the July/August 2007 issue of "Release Print."

Cathleen teaches a six-week course, Faces of Women in Middle Eastern Cinema, begining this October (2007) at UC Santa Cruz, Extension in Cupertino.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

An Interview with Steven Okazaki, Director

WHITE LIGHT/BLACK RAIN premieres on HBO on Monday, August 6, 2007

At this year’s Sundance Film Festival I viewed, back-to-back, films about the making of "Dr. Atomic," the John Adams-Peter Sellars collaborative opera (which I was lucky enough to see during its San Francisco debut in 2005), and "White Light/Black Rain," Steven Okazaki’s heartbreaking and sobering series of interviews with survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The two films (rich, but difficult viewing) served as bookends on a horrific subject: the creator/destroyer Robert J. Oppenheimer’s engineering of the first atomic bomb, its testing at Alamagordo, and the ultimate detonation in 1945, on August 6 and 9, of “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” on unsuspecting Japanese citizens of, respectively, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

After a succinct opening, a ninety-second historical overview of events leading up to the dropping of the bombs, "White Light/Black Rain" makes a statement by asking a question: “What historical event occurred on August 6, 1945?” the filmmakers randomly ask young people walking on the streets of Hiroshima. “I don’t know,” each teenager responds. “Did something important happen?” asks one. “An earthquake?” asks another. Okazaki says that they had planned to ask thirty or more people this question, but stopped after the first ten, when the responses were the same. If this is what the younger generation knows about the most significant event in Japan’s history––if, indeed, not the world’s––it’s chilling to consider that seventy-five percent of Japan’s population was born after 1945.

Steven Okazaki, the recipient of three Academy Award nominations ("Days of Waiting," a documentary short, about Estelle Peck Ishigo, one of the few Caucasians interned with Japanese Americans during WW II, won both an Oscar and Peabody Award in 1991), was born and raised in Venice, California. As an American of Japanese lineage, he was in a unique position, perhaps, even, the perfect person, to make a film on this topic. Did he feel a primary sense of loyalty to either culture? I asked, when we met, first at Sundance, and later, in Berkeley, California (where he lives with his wife, writer Peggy Orenstein, and their daughter, Daisy Tomoko), at his offices in the Saul Zaentz Media Center.

“I’ve always felt a certain distance from both cultures,” Okazaki replied. “I’m an American, but my grandparents, parents and I were treated as lesser because of the way we look. My grandparents lost everything [during the war]. My parents were squashed and oppressed. And I have had to fight twice as hard for my opportunities. But I’m not Japanese. If I don’t open my mouth when I’m in Japan, then I fit in. But as soon as I do, then I’m a foreigner, an outsider. I understand the culture, but I’m not part of it and don’t want to be. I guess I always feel like an outsider, even among peers, in my community and at family gatherings. So, yes, I think I am a good choice to make this film, because, although I know both cultures extremely well, I am ‘the other’ to both.”

For 25 years, since the first time he visited Japan, Okazaki had wanted to make “a great film about Hiroshima and Nagasaki--an ambitious, comprehensive, powerful film.” But at the time, he felt he lacked “the skill to pull it off.” Later, he recalls, he “faced a wall of censorship from both Japan and the United States,” then, he couldn't find the funding. He put “The Big Film” on hold and made the documentary short "The Mushroom Club" in 2005, which was nominated for an Academy Award. The film is “a little tribute, a bow and a thank you, to the people of Hiroshima,” explains Okazaki, “to pay off the debt I felt to them for sharing their stories with me.”

During post-production, Sara Bernstein at HBO Documentary Films ("White Light/Black Rain" airs on HBO beginning August 6 at 7:30 P.M.) called and asked him if he was interested in doing “a big, ambitious film” about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Okazaki sees "The Mushroom Club" as a “kind of introduction” to "White Light/Black Rain." The first film “takes the viewer by the hand,” he says, “and slowly you see the city, meet the survivors and hear bits and pieces of the story. It is very consciously small and personal. I wanted to say, ‘Come with me, don't be afraid, just watch and listen.’ "White Light" is his “big film, it moves forward, very determined, doesn’t hold anything back, and tells the whole story. It says, ‘Pay attention, these people have something important, disturbing and amazing to say.’”

The film is vividly impressionistic and deeply moving. In addition to a series of captivating interviews with survivors (known as hibakusha––people exposed to the bomb and subsequent radiation) and three American soldiers, who carried out the bombing mission, White Light’s rich texture, both visually and aurally, combines painfully disturbing archival footage, survivors’ drawings of their memories of the horrific event, animation, and an intriguing soundtrack that includes several tracks by the Scottish band Mogwai. To come up with the look of the film, Okazaki says he took his “cues from the subjects. They are warm, intelligent, shy people with great dignity. The visuals and the music serve their stories, and never overwhelm them, but also hold our attention when we need a break from the intense drama of the stories.

“With most documentaries, you take advantage of every drop of drama you find,” he analyzes, but the Hiroshima and Nagasaki stories are “so emotionally overwhelming––a child walking out of a bomb shelter to discover that everyone in her school is dead; a mother watching helplessly as her children burn to death; young children committing suicide––you have to be careful about devastating the audience and losing them.”

About the soundtrack, Okazaki explains, “one of the fun things for me on any film is thinking about the music. The moment the project starts, I listen to everything I can. I usually have a fat budget item called ‘Music Research’ and I buy hundreds of CDs, listen to them, and think about the film.” He says he “can’t start editing until I have a strong sense of where I want to go with the music.” On "White Light" he collected about thirty Mogwai songs and “whenever I got to a scene I’d pop them all on until I found the one that fit.” When he finds something that works, he says, “it almost never changes after that.” He made the decision to forego period music, because it made the film feel “campy and dated. Even though the stories are 60 years old, you want it to feel like it’s happening now.”

A genuine sense of intimacy with the film’s participants as they recount their stories is one of the remarkable aspects of "White Light." Was it difficult persuading the survivors to open up about such a painful part of their lives? On the contrary, Okazaki clarifies, “they were mostly incredibly eager to share their stories and tell the world what happened. Many said that their own spouses, children and friends were reluctant to ask them about their experience, so they appreciated the chance to really talk.”

By nature, a project such as "White Light" raises emotional, moral, political and philosophical issues and questions for a filmmaker. How did Okazaki handle them? “I try to not come to a project with a set moral or political stand,” he explains. “I could be wrong and miss something because I was looking for something else. I try to stay open minded, do the research, do the filming and edit the film. That’s my job: to make the film, tell the story, not to decide the rights and wrongs, who's good and bad. I hate films where you know the filmmaker’s political or moral point of view in the first two minutes. Why bother?”
Okazaki then references "Black Tar Heroin," his first documentary for HBO, for which he followed five heroin addicts for three years. “I realized that most of what I thought I knew was wrong, and the best thing to do was to just follow the subjects. I try to be a filmmaker first. Sometimes you can’t. When you’re filming a drug addict and they overdose, you put the camera down and try to save their lives. It’s not a choice. Later on, you might think, ‘Wow, that would have been a powerful scene,’ but you have to live with yourself.”

He admits that "White Light/Black Rain" was difficult, emotionally. “I would be sitting there, listening to someone talk about reaching out to touch their mother and watching the body crumble into ashes. Later, I would worry that I wasn’t reacting emotionally to what I was hearing, but would instead be thinking, ‘Wow, this will be a powerful scene.’ But when I started editing the interviews and going through the archival footage, I would break down and start weeping, unexpectedly, every couple of weeks, not necessarily reacting to a particular scene, but the whole experience.”

"White Light" clearly goes to great lengths to be “fair”; there is little directive from the film to “take sides,” to “blame” either Japan or the U.S. (and yet, it holds both responsible for the consequences of their acts). Still, scathing revelations are made about both countries. What, I wondered, is Okazaki’s opinion about the responsibility of documentarians toward the “truth” and maintaining objectivity in their work?

“Again, I hate documentaries that simply support the prejudices of the filmmaker in the guise of exploring a compelling subject,” he stresses. “The so-called ‘docu-gandas,’ made popular and profitable by Michael Moore, but in existence since the beginning of filmmaking, would be fine as entertainment, except the audience is generally too trusting and can’t necessarily discern how the material is being manipulated. When I watch a documentary, I am very conscious of what is artistic license and what is cheating, but only the filmmaker knows for sure. I’m disturbed by the trend, but I can only be responsible for myself.”

"White Light/Black Rain" ends with the staggering statement that there are now enough nuclear weapons in the world to equal 400,000 Hiroshimas. As one of the military men responsible for dropping the atom bombs puts it in the film: “The genie is out of the bottle and can’t be stuffed back in the bottle. From now on, the world will live with the possibility of nuclear exchanges and nuclear war.”

But in person, Steven Okazaki ends on a more humanist note: “I just want people to stop arguing about the rights and wrongs of the atomic bombings, whose fault it is, who deserved it or didn’t, whether it was worse, or not as bad, as other holocausts, and just listen to the stories of the people who were there. People like you and me, our parents, our children, our friends.”

(A version of this interview first appeared in the July-August 2007 print version of "Documentary" Magazine.)