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Rediscovering Cinematic Pleasures

Ellise Fuchs

Torino hosts a series of intimate film festivals, including Cinemambiente and Festival Cinema delle Donne. Younger filmmakers are especially well received, with public school screenings and student juries at both festivals.

In Italy's northwest corner lies an industrial city. Once the nation's political capital, the film center, the fashion hub, Torino is now best known only as the fourth largest city and home to automaker Fiat. But the city is quietly blooming. Immigration has enlivened the community and the upcoming winter Olympics have inspired an overdue facelift to the Baroque bazaar of buildings and streets.

Home to the Torino Film Festival, an established showcase of new and independent films, Torino also hosts a series of more intimate festivals. These include Cinemambiente and Festival Cinema delle Donne. Both feature international competitions for shorts and full-length features, though documentaries garner the most attention. Younger filmmakers are especially well received, with public school screenings and student juries at both festivals.

The Environmental Film Festival (Cinemambiente), which took place from September 30-October 5, carries the subtitle, "Cinema that Reflects." It is a venue for debates and discussions focused on the environment. Beyond the competition sections, the Festival includes special guests and out-of-competition categories. As a City Councilor noted during the opening ceremonies, "Torino has transformed from an auto city to a city of development regarding the future of transportation and innovation."

Torino hosts a series of intimate film festivals, including Cinemambiente and Festival Cinema delle Donne. Younger filmmakers are especially well received, with public school screenings and student juries at both festivals.

Every year, "Global Vision" section screens films about a particular part of the world. In this year's eighth edition, the focus was on Africa, and the festival dates were moved up from its usual late October date to the beginning of the month to coincide with the Third World Environmental Educational Congress. Cinemambiente Director Gaetano Capizzi underlined, "The Festival has enjoyed successful growth, focusing on dramatic themes of current importance. There is a great increase in the production and quality of films dealing with ecological problems both in a direct and metaphorical way. Furthermore, we can see an increase in manifestations based on the model of our festival."

Similarly, the Women's Film Festival (Cinema delle Donne), following on the heels of Cinemambiente, from October 7-October 13, hosted a rich menu of international films. The atmosphere is friendly and informative and most of the filmmakers are present for questions and conversations. Already in its 12th year, this Festival is aptly subtitled, "On a Voyage with Us," reflecting its lively audience participation. Festival Director Clara Rivalta declared,

The Festival aims to be a tour in which a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural atmosphere is breathed, in which pleasure in film is rediscovered, a new, exciting voyage of knowledge that provides a deeper understanding of the state of the world. On this voyage, we are accompanied by images of women and images made by women, and we discover the limits, the taboos, the barriers, the enemies both inside and outside of us and to press forward the challenge to "give voice" to all women, to soar together continually towards new horizons and other potentialities.

While the quality of the films was high at both festivals and in all sections, this article will focus on documentaries. The Environmental Festival screened Conflict Tiger (UK, 2004), directed by photographer Sasha Snow. It won the jury's Special Mention for "its impressive way of telling a complex story about a wide space of and between men and animals." The jury also cited the "brilliant narrative structure and excellent use of the camera." The story is told from the perspective of Yuri Trush, a professional tiger hunter in the Siberian forests, a stretch of 600 miles between Russia and China. He explains that the population of this small coal mining town has had no work since the fall of Communism. Hungry and desperate, the people have turned to cutting down trees and hunting both tigers and their prey, creating an unforeseen aggressiveness in the striped beasts. Conflict Tiger is a type of docu-thriller, showing Trush's hunt of one particular tiger, who stalks an amateur hunter to his death over a series of days.

It includes recreations and set-up shots, along with archive material shot by Yuri himself. A scrupulous investigator who videos all his hunts and victims, feline and human, he is conflicted about the issue. He defends the tigers, saying the locals should not take it upon themselves to hunt them. Villagers appear in dramatic side-lit interiors as they comment on the changes in their once peaceful lives. One older man states frankly, "If the tiger disappears, then this ecological niche goes too. What was good about the Communists is that we all had work. Why has man become like this? Because there is nothing to live on. I am sorry for the children, for the future."

The film mixes handheld images in a vast wintery forest, along with warm, studio-lit cabin interiors, focusing on human faces and words, to create one riveting story. As is becoming more common in documentaries, it was broadcast on TV and screened at festivals, and sent to the Russian Parliament, to make the case for political change.

Leonard Retel Helmrich's The Shape of the Moon (Stand van de maan, Holland, 2004) won Cinemambiente's Jury Prize for Best Documentary. This film is the second episode of a trilogy about Indonesia, along with Eye of the Day (À la hauteur du soleil) and the work-in- progress, The Position of the Stars. It also won the first ever World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. Hetty Naajikens-Retel Helmrich, the film's co-writer and producer and sister of the director, presented the doc at Cinemambiente with the words, "Look at this film as if it is a feature. It is not -- but follow it as a story. My brother was always there with this old woman. It has not been played at all. It is all one take, all reality."

Shape begins with wide shots of expanses and mountains, underlining the lushness surrounding the claustrophobic, noisy, dirty streets of Jakarta. We see villagers at ease, dancing and smiling together, before the film cuts to heated protests between Christians and Muslims, slogans and propaganda pumped into the crowded squares by megaphones and PA systems. The "old woman," Rumidjah, appears in intense close-ups, the camera panning her every body part, every imperfection, wisp of hair, wrinkle as she discusses with her son Bakti the decision to move out of the ever oppressive city, leaving her granddaughter in his care. The film tells her story while also following Bakti as he bets on fighting cocks, drinks himself into near unconsciousness, and, along with other volunteers, fights an all-night fire that takes out whole blocks of housing.

Rumidjah is a practicing Christian with crucifixes and religious icons throughout her apartment. She works hard to raise her granddaughter, Tari, as a good Christian with some dignity despite their poverty. As Rumidjah comes closer to her decision to move, Bakti informs her he will be converting to Islam in order to marry his Muslim girlfriend.

The mother is devastated, her conflict frequently indicated by metaphors on film. During an argument between Rumidjah and a money lender, there are numerous cuts to two lizards wrestling for their lives while clinging to the apartment wall. One bites the head of the other and takes in the body as well. The camera cuts back to the bitchy lender, who begins looking for money hidden behind pillows and on shelves. Nonchalantly, she picks up a tin of crackers and helps herself, while insulting and threatening Rumidjah for not paying back her loan. Several days later, a team of silent men enter Ramidjah's house unannounced and march the unpaid-for modular sofa pieces out the door.

The old woman eventually returns to the country where she grew up. When Tari hears the news, she collapses in tears and must be peeled away from her grandmother's embrace. The film concludes with the two women living their separate lives, one urban, one bucolic, both difficult. But the film never pities them: they are part of life's cycle, enduring moments of growth, beauty, and decline. As she collected her award, Helmrich underlined the importance of recounting the story of this country, its deep religious conflicts and a poverty level that has been around long before last year's tsunami placed Indonesia on international radar. She also mentioned that part of the prize monies go to the family.

The Women's Film Festival screened What I Want My Words to Do to You (U.S., 2003), directed by Judith Katz and Madeline Gavin, which won the Second Prize/Silver Plate for "its exceptional ability to present a unique issue, its rare combination of intelligent script writing, sensitive shooting and perfect editing." It shows the inner workings of a writers' workshop run by playwright Eve Ensler within the walls of the high security Bedford Hills Prison. The women read and discuss their writing, touching on their own guilt, their victims, and their hope (or lack of same) of being released.

Some are serving life sentences and have little experience writing or discussing their feelings. Eventually the prisoners' words were transformed into monologues that have been performed by Glenn Close, Hazelle Goodman, Rosie Perez, and Marisa Tomei. As the inmates watch a performance, they appear in the film crying, laughing, and applauding their own words. We see them stripped of their outer shells, as they tell their own stories. Though some of their victims are dead, the inmates keep them "alive" with vivid language and memories. Katz, who was present at the screening, explained that she continues to see these women, bring them food and chocolates. She read some letters written for the Torino audience, and encouraged viewers to write back to the inmates through a prison website. Katz said she believes that each inmate has no intention of ever hurting anyone again and that most should be free.

Though My Beloved Child (Mitt elskede barn, Norway, 2004) deals with an alleged murderer, it focuses on the days leading up to the imprisonment of its female protagonist, Sigrid Beate Edvardsen. Instead of recounting the murder details, director Britt Hundsnes gives a close-up look at Sigrid's final hours outside jail. We are introduced to her mother, her partner, her son, and one of her former grade school teachers. The film intimately records Sigrid's description of the years of incest she has experienced, beginning at age six. She makes clear, without self-pity, the profound damage this abuse had on her. Through the use of family photos and soft focus recreations of winter walks, pony and sleigh rides, a broken life is reconstructed.

Sigrid's father was a cold, hard-drinking man who would often call his blonde braided daughter out to the barn to visit with the animals she loved; he secretly molested her. She nearly broke off her marriage after experiencing a prolonged post-partum depression. Though she was convicted, the film suggests it's unclear that she was the one to stab her father. On the evening of the murder, she was with her mother and her drug-addicted sister. She was condemned, without appeal, to a serve a seven-year sentence. During the closing credits, it was revealed that in Norway alone, one in 10 children is the subject of sexual abuse "by adults emotionally close to them."

Following the screening, Hundsnes said the film was originally her thesis project, and that she cropped out the face of the father so as not to give too much emphasis to his physical appearance and to spare family members further pain. At the awards ceremony, My Beloved Child was given the top honors in the Documentary Section, "for the importance and universality of its subject matter and its cinematographic technique." A tearful Hundsnes graciously accepted the award and said she wished "Sigrid could be here. She has recently been released from prison and she would be very happy." This is another example of the director living very closely with her subject, and making it her mission to keep public attention on the case.

As the curtain closed on two weeks of film festivals in Torino, one came away with the sense that documentaries worldwide are alive and thriving. It was inspiring to see so many varied productions with filmmakers adamant about bringing attention to specific problems, injustices, and crises. Barring budget cuts, we in Torino will continue to see the fruits of all the efforts that go into organizing such important venues as Cinemambiente and Cinema delle Donne.

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