South by Southwest Film 2005: A Field Journal

[16 March 2005]

By Tobias Peterson

A Life Without Pain

Let’s face it. The festival circuit can be a cynical place. In a world of after parties, red carpets, and networking, networking, networking, it’s not surprising that the films often take a backseat to the relentless hype machine that is South by Southwest. Now this is not to champion some vague notion that SXSW be “about the art,” whatever that might mean. But there are, in fact, meaningful, compelling stories on offer here—if one could only step away long enough from the plush confines of the VIP room.

One such story is told in the documentary A Life Without Pain (directed by Melody Gilbert). The film investigates the effects of a genetic disorder called CIPA—Congenital Insensitivity to Pain with Anhidrosis. If you haven’t heard of it, you’re not alone. Essentially, this very rare condition stops the transmission of pain signals to the brain and also affects the body’s ability to regulate its core temperature. At first thought, it doesn’t sound like such a bad thing. But, as the film demonstrates in the cases of three young girls (one in Norway, one in Germany, and one in Minnesota), pain is vital to protecting the body. We learn, for example, how Gabby—the girl in Minnesota—tried to iron her hand to remove the wrinkles from her palms. She simply didn’t feel the damage she was doing to her body, nor did she learn to avoid the iron in the future. Pain, the film points out, is a great teacher. Children with this rare disorder repeatedly suffer damaged joints by sitting incorrectly, broken bones while playing, scratched corneas by rubbing their eyes excessively, and a whole host of other traumas that they never notice. CIPA essentially turns these otherwise normal kids into their own worst enemies. As a consequence, their parents must assume a kind of manic vigilance to maintain their children’s well being, while fending off allegations of abuse from outsiders who find it impossible to believe that the youngsters are inflicting such damage on themselves. A Life Without Pain, then, is an important tool in spreading awareness of this disorder, acting as a kind of cinematic advocate for the victims and their families. By showcasing the frustration and pain caused by this mysterious illness, the film pushes for a cure that, one day, might relieve the suffering that it documents.

The Dreams of Sparrows

Another kind of suffering is documented in The Dreams of Sparrows, directed by Iraqi filmmaker Hayder Mousa Daffar. Daffar turned his camera on Baghdad and other parts of his country to record the condition of the Iraqi people under the US occupation. The film spends equal time interviewing Iraqis who love the Americans and are grateful for the removal of Saddam Hussein (one of Daffar’s friends even carries a picture of George Bush around in his wallet as if Bush were a high school girlfriend), and those who vehemently oppose the US presence in Iraq and openly wish for Saddam’s return. If it does anything, The Dreams of Sparrows is an important and stark reminder that the term “Iraqi people” is never as homogenous as our politicians might have us believe. But the film does much more than that. It also shows what Iraqis have in common under the occupation: misery. Gas shortages, a shattered infrastructure, war profiteering, and the ever-present threat of deadly violence are a part of every life that Daffar’s camera documents. In short, “Baghdad is hell,” as Daffar tells us in one scene as he speaks into a mirror. To illustrate, the film moves through the streets of Baghdad, as well as Falluja, spending equal time in smoky cafes, mental asylums, and graveyards—now overrun with fresh markers—in an effort to capture the deteriorating condition not just of a country, but also of a people. What’s most evident in The Dreams of Sparrows is that the American overthrow of Saddam Hussein has not brought change for Iraq, only exchange: one kind of violence and oppression has simply replaced another. This is perhaps most meaningfully illustrated at the film’s conclusion when Sa’ad Fakher, a friend of Daffar’s who donates his car to help in the making of the film, is shot 15 times and killed by US soldiers while trying to drive through a checkpoint. Dedicated to Fakher’s memory, The Dreams of Sparrows memorializes more than the director’s friend, it’s an elegy for a country so ravaged by violence that peace seems nothing more that the stuff of the dreams invoked by the film’s title.

Drop Dead Sexy

The gravity of Daffar’s film is enough to make the other screenings at SXSW seem almost flippant by comparison. The locally financed and locally shot comedy, Drop Dead Sexy (directed by Michael Philip), certainly offered all the more levity in the wake of The Dreams of Sparrows. Starring Jason Lee (Chasing Amy, Almost Famous) and cult icon Crispin Glover (The River’s Edge, Back to the Future), the film is a buddy flick that follows Frank (Lee) and his gravedigger buddy Eddie (Glover) as they attempt to rectify an illegal smuggling operation gone horribly awry. On the hook for 250 thousand dollars to a local hood named Spider (Pruitt Taylor Vince), Eddie and Frank decide to dig up the recently deceased trophy wife (played by Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Melissa Keller) of a local millionaire named Harkness in order to trade her funeral jewelry in and square the debt. When they don’t find the jewels, however, the pair improvise by holding the body for ransom instead. What follows can be best described as a sexualized version of Weekend at Bernie’s, in which Frank tries to negotiate the ransom while Eddie is charged with keeping the body out of sight. Glover’s character is left to resist his mounting attraction to the late Mrs. Harkness in a series of scenes that act as the driving source of the film’s comedy. The film, essentially, is banking on audiences finding necrophilia funny (there’s also a coroner in the film who performs an autopsy on another voluptuous dead woman to candlelight and chilled wine) and seems to revel in this ordinarily creepy premise. Drop Dead Sexy, however, may be asking a bit much of its viewers. Of course, it’s a matter of subjective opinion, but it’s tough to laugh at Crispin Glover, replete in his tighty-whiteys, sharing a bed with a cadaver in a prom dress. As I left the theater, I found myself shivering—more at the film’s morbid kinkiness, though, than at the cool of the evening.

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