Out of Africa
We viewed a few of the films from the Africa Stories series and attended a fraction of a panel discussion about films about Africa. (We would have stayed for the whole thing, but somehow people talking on screen is so much more interesting than people talking on stage.)
What Rhymes with Banal?
Panel. Well, sort of. Having suppressed cringes for multiple decades in the hallowed halls of academe, our fair-weather historian recognized immediately the dead pulse of formal, self-important symposiasticism. People who are put in the position of being public authorities on something are incapable of actually talking to one another. Instead, each person voices some idea that he or she has already formulated well in advance of the “discussion”, then acts as if that idea is part of a dialogue.
One thing everyone agreed on was the need for films about Africa to be made by Africans, a point which made everyone a bit uneasy because all of the Africa Stories films were made by non-Africans. Each of the filmmakers on the panel also claimed to be discarding the old stereotype of Africa as a continent of suffering and victimization, and replacing that with images and stories of Africans actively creating their own realities. Have we witnessed the birth of a new stereotype?
War/Dance, directed by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine, was clearly a crowd favorite, but not necessarily ours. The film follows three adolescents, Dominic, Nancy, and Rose, from the Acholi tribe of Northern Uganda, who were forced into refugee camps by marauding rebels from the Lord’s Resistance Army. The central thread of the film is a national music and dance competition for which the kids are training to compete.
In many ways War/Dance tells a story we have seen many times: a group of underdog kids struggle against the odds, pull it together, achieve a moment of greatness and get to feel really good about themselves (think Mad Hot Ballroom, which follows inner-city kids as they reach unimagined heights of dignity and success by competing in ballroom dance competitions). But in this case, the “odds” consist of the effects of devastating warfare in which family members are brutally murdered, children are abducted and forced into the military, and communities are displaced into refugee camps. This juxtaposition of familiar adolescence with unimaginable suffering and loss structures the entire film.
War/Dance earned a hardy standing ovation at Full Frame. In part, this was because the film offers a highly aestheticized portrait of its subject. We are immersed in lush, evocative landscapes and beautiful high-definition close-ups of the characters. Slow motion sequences, an ethereal soundtrack, and posed portrait compositions give the film a coffee-table book visual quality that almost makes you want to reach out and touch it.
Despite the very real horrors experienced by the Acholi children and their families, this film is ultimately a feel-good production that swells with pathos at the end as the kids seem to overcome their trauma through the salving pleasures of music and dance. It is effective at stimulating noble sentiments, but we couldn’t help but feel emotionally railroaded by the obvious technical devices used to manipulate mood. After the mood wore off, there was a serious discussion among our crew about the distinctions to be drawn between documentary and fiction films. While all films are shaped by their creators, documentaries often leave sufficient traces of unprocessed reality to afford a range of plausible responses. Everything you will feel when watching this film, and you’ll feel a lot, has been choreographed for you.
We expect that War/Dance will enjoy a big mainstream release (in relative terms, for a documentary) and a positive popular reception. If it is successful in bringing attention and aid to the issues it raises and the people who need it, then we’re all for it.
War/Dance - Trailer
War/Dance - Interview – from Sundance Channel
The other African Story we caught (and which caught us) was Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern’s, The Devil Came on Horseback, about genocide in Darfur. Unlike their previous film, The Trials of Darryl Hunt, which took over 10 years to complete and won Full Frame’s Audience Award last year, The Devil Came on Horseback was made in under a year because of the timely nature of the subject. The filmmakers were in high demand to answer questions about the political situation in Sudan during the Q&A following the screening, and we were exceedingly impressed with their knowledge on the subject and their patience for informing their eager audience. Sundberg could be seen outside the theater for at least a half-hour after the Q&A surrounded by a mob of high school students.
The Devil Came on Horseback
The genius of this film lies in its focus on former Marine Brian Steidle as a witness and spokesman for the Darfur cause. Steidle spent six months in 2004 working for the African Union and documenting atrocities. He returned to the US with three fat binders of photographs, and an unwavering determination to tell the world what he saw and to urge governments and compassionate individuals to help put a stop to it. American audiences, at the very least, will identify with Steidle as one of their own and perhaps, feel compelled to turn down their iPods long enough to listen to his story.
The film plays as a political thriller because the audience observes the impact that witnessing genocide in Sudan has had on Steidle and his heroic efforts to get the message out. The filmmakers used varied editing techniques to capture the disorienting and terrifying experience of walking through villages in Darfur just after government-sponsored militias decimated them. The style and pacing of the film then changes to represent Steidle’s new mission: disseminating his photographs and stories through the press, radio and television programs, and congressional and international investigations.
Steidle’s open earnestness and the rapt conviction with which he brings his message to a succession of audiences allows The Devil Came on Horseback to be true to the seriousness of political documentary and to capture the high drama of a commercial thriller. It goes even further than this by meditating on the relationship between media and politics. We have access to the reality of Darfur through a collection of photographic images, which circulates through various press outlets. And as powerful as those documents are, as relentless as Steidle is at spreading the word, we see a succession agencies and political forces in a position to do something lulled into platitudes and inaction.
The Devil Came on Horseback - Trailer
The Devil Came on Horseback - Interview from Sundance Channel
Who’s Afraid of Iraq?
Both of these films, and several others in the African Stories series, exemplify the documentary as a form of political or humanitarian advocacy. Such films attempt to use the power of documentary footage to engage the audience in the political issues of the time. The war in Iraq is obviously one of these issues, and with that in mind we decided to catch Meeting Resistance, by Molly Bingham and Steve Connors, which centers on a series of interviews with people in Iraq who are actively resisting the US occupation. The theatre was packed for obvious reasons.
Think about this for a minute. The US has been engaged in pretty serious combat in Iraq for the past four years. Over 3,000 US troops have been killed there. The US government is currently sending in many thousands more to keep trying to do what it has not been able to do over the past four years: establish basic security.
Now, most mornings we take our coffee with the New York Times and it seems pretty clear that the US government does not really know a) who these people fighting back are, or b) how to stop them. And yet, from a cinema in Durham (one which is perfectly climate controlled) we can listen to a cross section of this group discuss what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how they are doing it. This is clearly a documentary moment worth watching.
So what do we learn that, it seems, the US government is incapable of learning? There are a few ideas that the film hammers away at. One is that this group is diverse. We hear from an array of people: Iraqis, non-Iraqis, the religious, the secular, career fighters, and the recently outraged. Another idea that stands out from this material is that there is no single coherent ideology that motivates these fighters. Religion, nationalism, patriotism, revenge, pan-Arabism are all interconnected and jumbled together.
One of the resistance fighters comments that he hated Saddam Hussein until the US invaded, at which point he decided that the deposed ruler was a national hero and symbol of Islamic pride. Oops. But overwhelmingly, the film presents the idea that the resistance movement is so committed to its opposition that the US government cannot achieve its goal so long as it is an occupying presence in Iraq.
There is no question that this material is fascinating and important, but there is a question about the film’s lack of independent perspective. Meeting Resistance lets its subjects advocate their own position, and obviously the insurgents want to be seen as unstoppable. But the audience gets nothing else with which to evaluate the images of the insurgents that they promote for themselves.
There are also some odd visual difficulties with this film. Its format is basically the tried and true “talking heads” addressing the camera, but in this case the heads don’t want to be seen. The major characters of this film alternately show up as hands with cigarettes, shadows on the ground, black outlines, shoulders, or blurry colors. Pretty poor use of a visual medium.
The Rape of Europa
Remembrance of Wars Past
Speaking of visual medium and political crisis, The Rape of Europa, directed by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen, and Nicole Newnham, takes a comprehensive, rich and somewhat drudging look at the plunder of fine art over the course of WWII.
Walter Benjamin said that every act of civilization is also an act of barbarism. The devastating effects of Second World War, on the eve of which he committed suicide, proved his point. To the victor go the spoils.
In the ‘40s, Europe was stuffed with the spoils of civilization and was home to a few serious barbarians. You may have known that Hitler was a failed art student, but it is interesting to learn that as an authoritarian despot he kept precise lists of thousands of specific pieces of art around Europe to be plucked by his invading forces. Some 59,000 pieces of art were plundered from Poland before the Nazis even made their way into the culture-rich center of Paris.
The Rape of Europa - Trailer
This is a serious film on a very interesting topic. A lot of the art gone missing has never turned up. A mysterious painting of a young man by Raphael (worth millions) may, it is suggested, have been painted over to conceal the treasure, then lost under the new surface. You might want to check those thrift store paintings before throwing them out.
Some of the footage in this film is extraordinary. There are shots of the Louvre being packed up before the Nazis got to it, its individual pieces carried through the streets of Paris and carted around to various summer homes in the south of France. The “Winged Victory of Samothrace” is lowered precariously down the stairs. The “Mona Lisa” is wrapped in paper and slipped into a secret drawer in a parlor room. In a stunning sequence toward the end of the film we get taken down a quarter of a mile into a salt mine where the Allies found Hitler’s personal stash: some 6,500 paintings among the loot.
The Rape of Europa begins and ends with a case study in the ambiguities of war plunder and the problem of who owns cultural treasure. We are introduced to the niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer who posed for a painting by Gustav Klimt, which was, much later, reproduced on posters for college dorm rooms across America. The painting, along with several other Klimt’s, was taken by the Nazi’s for their museum, and after the war it found its way to The Austrian National Gallery.
The niece wanted the stolen paintings returned to her while the Gallery felt it was the rightful possessor of Vienna’s “cultural heritage”. Then we learn that Adele had stated in her final will that the paintings should go to the National Gallery, even though she didn’t specify that they should be stolen by the Nazi’s in order to get there. At the end of the film we return to this sub-story; the niece gets the painting of her aunt and it becomes the cultural heritage of New York City. To the victor go the spoils.
The Rape of Europa
Whatever Happened to that Girl from Ipanema?
Countries at war are obvious places to direct the lens of a political / humanitarian documentary. But even countries at peace, even countries commonly associated with the pleasures of sunny beaches and skimpy bathing costumes, have their own crises worthy of documentary attention. Manda Bala (Send a Bullet) by Jason Kohn takes us to the mean streets of Sao Paolo to confront an epidemic of street crime and kidnappings for cash.
We had somewhat mixed feelings about this film. It was the third film of the day and we were definitely ready for a drink afterwards. Somehow Greer ended up with a beer in his hand before we even cleared the lobby. The film is very slick and it’s fun to watch. It moves at a quick tempo, the imagery is taut and vibrant, as is the soundtrack, and the characters are unforgettable.
Manda Bala - Interview
There is the rich boy computer entrepreneur who shows off his fleet of armored luxury cars and takes the film crew to his class on how to drive to and from the garage without getting shot in the head. There is the pious plastic surgeon doing brisk trade turning rib cartilage into ears for those abductees with families needing extra incentive to pay the ransom. There is a Senator who raises a fortune to help his poverty-ridden state and pockets, not some, but all of the money. There is a commando Robin Hood in a ski mask who coolly recounts techniques for dismemberment, explaining that this is the only way he can earn his pay to feed his 10 children.
While it provides some social and historical context to explain how Brazil came to be so brutally unequal and corrupt (the Portuguese never had intentions of building a civilization; their sole aim was to get rich), the film shows the downside of trying to exploit the excitement of dramatic film technique within the candor of documentary. It feels a bit like a video game: lots of (suggested) action, motorcycles, guns, car chases, but in a way that is more gratuitous than revealing.
Manda Bala also develops metaphors and then bludgeons the audience with them. The film opens in a frog farm with vats of teeming fist-sized frogs all piled in a heap. The owner tells us that in such conditions the frogs will cannibalize each other (a fact we get to see in close up). Then we get an aerial shot of the high rises and sprawling slums, 20 million thick, of Sao Paolo. Throughout the film we return to those frogs. We see them being skinned and deep-fried in oil. And at the end of the film we get a rather extended sequence of the leisure class slurping those frogs down their oily gullets. Get it?
A crowd pleaser, whether despite or because of it’s faults, Manda Bala won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year, and it’s sure to be a popular success.
After seeing seven films collectively we were too spent to go the filmmaker party. For this, we were gravely disappointed in ourselves because the festivities were being hosted at a great, though not Southern, restaurant (Tosca Ristorante Italiano, not even southern Italy). We had fond memories of this place from last year’s festival. It was there that we learned about libertarianism from Barry Goldwater’s grandson over tiramisu and heard a great (delivery of a) joke, delivered in a very vaudevillian manner by Albert Maysles (another direct cinema pioneer) for which the punchline was “Dick Van Dyke”. You never know who you will meet or what you may learn at Full Frame.
We took the chance of missing another edutaining dessert session for an evening at our favorite club, ahem, Sheets and Pillows. Besides, we knew we could rely on Hustler D. for a report on anything of note, including his own doing. We planned to catch up with him at the Press Breakfast the next morning, bright and early.
Not surprisingly, we overslept and missed the press breakfast entirely, but heard no talk about it, or the previous night’s party for that matter. We did learn from Hustler D. that he’d presented HBO documentary film President Sheila Nevins with his business card and told her to look out for him. Apparently, she seemed amenable. Great strides, great stuff. D. broke his method down for us: Simply go up to someone and ask questions, eventually they will ask them back of you and then you can make your play.
Shortly after this exchange, we made our own play for an interview with Ross McElwee and without hesitation he agreed to talk to us before his awards ceremony that very afternoon. So we holed up in the hospitality suite to drink free coffee and write up questions that would seem meaningful to an international audience as well as appease our own (Gunther and Miller’s) zest for McElwee’s work.
While brainstorming, Greer was reminded of Gunther’s failed attempt at getting Sydney Pollack’s digits in the very same spot the previous year, and she reminded him back that the year before that he photo copied his press pass for a friend, and doesn’t he feel a bit bad about that now, seeing as Full Frame’s been so good to him?
It was then, (to Miller’s relief) that Walter Mosley broke up the bickering when he moseyed on up to us casually, wearing his signature Fedora, and a gaudy, rather Gaudi-esque looking gold ring. He sat amongst us and confirmed our suspicions about The Power of Ten theme by saying of the concept that, “It doesn’t mean anything, anywhere, at any time”. There was no negativity in this expression, however, and we took it simply as a fact. He then laid on us his belief that “the older you are the more you live in the past,” which depressed everyone but our historian, who shed a happy tear of vindication.
Despite his moment of depression, Greer did not let this opportunity go amiss, and was able to get Mosely to commit to come to the high school Greer opened this year in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, and speak to the kids about his work, which focuses on black male heroes.
Before Mosely stepped away we asked him what he thought of the film we were about to go see, La Vie Commence Demain, D.A. Pennebaker’s Power of Ten pick. Mosley said he thought that it was the inspiration for Penne (his affectionate name) to become a filmmaker. He also added that La Vie Commence Demain director, Nicole Vedres, must’ve been really, really hot to get all those important guys to commit to being in it. You’ll see what he means presently.
The Day Began 10 Years Go
La Vie Commence Demain (Life Begins Tomorrow) (1950) by Nicole Vedres, was by far the oldest selection for a series focusing on the past decade. The film is part fiction, part Unesco propaganda, and once cult favorite about a guy who (in 1949) is generally sour on the state of the world and is hitchhiking into Paris to see some great monuments from the past. No cars are stopping, but happily a helicopter lands containing a writer (Andre Labarthe) who tries to convince this tourist that the future will be much better than the past, so forget visiting all those historic sites. Over the course of the film, our hero is converted to the future through a series of casual run-in encounters with the likes of Sartre, Rostand, Le Corbusier, and Picasso.
The film is funny in a hokey sort of way: a drop-in at Sartre’s home, a nap in Corbusier’s apartment of the future with Corbu himself sitting next to the bed. The end of the film turns to the somewhat darker possibility that the world of tomorrow may turn into a nuclear inferno, but the choice lies in our hands to turn modernity toward the salvation of the human race.
It was pretty hilarious to see these French cultural titans, though staged, voicing their own thoughts and theories, and essentially playing themselves. But we were also somewhat perplexed as to why Pennebaker chose this film for The Power of Ten series. Pennebaker himself seemed a little nervous in front of a packed auditorium. He said that he hadn’t seen the film since 1952, that he barely remembered it, and that it would be okay to stone him afterwards if it didn’t turn out to be as great as he thought it was. He did say that he was taken with the idea of how to gain access to people who knew something (Sartre and the gang) and get them to tell you what they know, which is still the basis of his filmmaking today.
Ross McElwee’s take on Penne’s pick was that it was fascinating to see these characters operate, what kind of cigarettes Andre Gide smoked, how Picasso threw together a statue then swam with his family on the beach. This comment resonated with Pennabaker’s description of La Vie Commence Demain as a template for the documentary film of the future and for what was to become mainstream television. The film captures something about the beginning of an “information age”, when the camera would leave the studio and start poking into everyone’s lives. Cinema would drift into the real world and the real world would become a movie. YouTube and Vlogging, rather than utopia or nuclear inferno, were the real future indicated by this film.
Speaking of Ross McElwee
As we mentioned, the festival is honoring Ross McElwee this year and playing several of his films, from the earliest to works in progress. We also mentioned that we missed an important press breakfast this morning, but we weren’t about to miss screenings of two of his early films. McElwee was there as was the subject of one of these films: Charleen. Most of his films are first person documentaries in which the person making the film is part of the film. The sublime aspect of his work comes from the contingencies that seem to stumble onto the screen unexpectedly and then become central features of the reality being created. In Sherman’s March (1985), he set out to trace the geography corresponding to that title and ended up with a film about several women he met along the way.
McElwee’s films are tightly autobiographical. The first film we saw this morning, Charleen (1978), is about his high school teacher. The second, Backyard (1982) is about his family. Footage from both of these films was captured after his first year as a film student at MIT. It is pretty clear from watching the films and hearing him talk about them that he returned home, started filming stuff, and then sorted the footage into distinct films.
This process is more or less akin to picking a bunch of words out of a dictionary and then deciding what sort of books could be written from them. The chance for failure would seem to be high, but McElwee has such a finely-tuned sensitivity to character, detail, and subtle drama that the films become focused meditations on the social and historical intricacies of daily life. As he lamented during the Q&A, it is difficult to get funding for this type of project because there is no way to describe what it’s about. At the ceremony honoring McElwee, Michael Moore put a different spin on this dilemma. He pointed out that McElwee promoted his films as one thing (following Sherman’s march) then created them as another (his own love life). That way he was sure to please both the state funding bodies and the audience.
In fact, it’s easy to say what McElwee’s films are about, but it is more difficult to explain why they are significant. Charleen is about a woman named Charleen who teaches poetry to high school students. Or rather, it is about the character of this woman who pushes the expressive possibilities of poetry onto her poor black students in Charlotte, North Carolina. Charleen’s personality is the poetry of the film. She speaks in great waves of sentiment, pathos, and humor. There is some story arc to the film (a relationship that runs ashore, a poetry performance organized), but mostly it conveys an openness and intimacy with Charleen’s emotional reality that one rarely finds in any cinema.
Backyard documents a visit back to the North Carolina homestead as McElwee’s younger brother is about to leave home for medical school. About a quarter of the way into the film he points the camera at the housekeeper and her husband and ponders in a voiceover the fact that he was largely raised by this black couple. That’s all the commentary we get about race, but the rest of the film hovers around this issue with striking footage of a privileged white society served by an underprivileged black workforce. The dishwashers at the country club can’t understand why McElwee would be pointing a camera at them, revealing how they have internalized their own invisibility. But McElwee doesn’t create message films. Backyard only happens to be about race because the world around him bears the stamp of that reality. And the camera lingers in such a way that we can see through to the past history of racism in the South that has shaped the more subtle segregations of the present.
The Man Behind the Camera
Despite a late night partying with old friends, McElwee cheerfully honored his commitment to an interview with us. We found out that he is happy with his career, teaching part time at Harvard, and filming the rest of the year. He has been able to create exactly the films that he wants to create. This was a nice sentiment to hear after watching his early films in which he’s unsure what to do with his life and his father can’t understand how he intends to make a living by filming the family breakfast nook.
He also spoke about how his style of filmmaking developed. He considers his films as akin to writing in that they attempt to convey intimacy, interiority, and a subjective point of view. Those are obvious facts about his work, but hearing him speak about it reminded us how difficult it is to use film in this way. Film is great at capturing light and surface and texture, but how does one reach the invisible world of interior feeling?
Our interview was interrupted by Charleen pulling up a chair with lunch in hand. It was almost as if we had entered into the real world of a McElwee film. Later in the weekend we stopped in at the ceremony to honor his career achievement. The speeches were fulsome. McElwee spoke about how delighted he was that North Carolina, his home state and the background for many of his films, now hosts such a fine documentary film festival. Then he showed some home movies of his kids.
McElwee’s family is lovely and a soft contrast to some of the dark outlaws we saw flickering on the festival’s screens, to whom Greer was especially drawn.
// Moving Pixels
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