Coping Strategies: The 26th Vancouver International Film Festival – Part One
Made in China
On the documentary front, two fine offerings found their directors coping with the idea of home — by turns, finding or escaping where they come from. John Helde’s Made in China details the unfamiliar story of American kids growing up in 1920s and ’30s China. Helde centers the account on his own father, who spent the first decade and a half of his life in China, despite being told by his parents that he belonged to a country he’d never set foot in. Helde, in turn, seeks out others who shared this unique experience, and after his dad’s death, makes the trek East to see the cities and villages where his father was born and raised. Made in China is a warm, heartfelt look at the often surprising places that our roots extend from.
Every Guy Maddin film is a personal affair insofar as its rendered instantly recognizable through Maddin’s idiosyncratic touch, but My Winnipeg is the Canadian auteur‘s most deeply personal effort to date, and perhaps his best, as well. All of Maddin’s usual stylistic flourishes (grainy black and white photography, rapid editing, silent film-style intertitles flashing subliminal messages) show up, but the overall tone is more wistful than wacky, as Maddin waxes poetic about, among other subjects, his mother’s persistent grip on his subconscious, sleepwalkers, snow, and the declined state of hockey in his Manitoba hometown.
My Winnipeg was classified as documentary, but — Maddin enlists Hollywood noir vet Ann Savage to stand in for his mom, while never admitting as much, outside of the credits — it’s one of two (or three, if you count the last film I’ll discuss in this piece) great films we saw at the fest that blurred the line between fiction and non. Iranian actress/filmmaker Mania Akbari also took this route with 10 + 4, her more-or-less sequel to Abbas Kiarostami’s 2002 Ten, in which she starred as a Tehran taxi driver chauffeuring her young son and several female passengers around the city.
10 + 4
Ten took place entirely inside Akbari’s cab, and was shot entirely by a pair of video cameras planted on the dashboard — one focusing on the driver, the other on the passenger. Akbari’s film picks up where Kiarostami’s left off — kind of. She’s appearing as herself, coping with cancer treatments, not the cabbie she was cast as in Ten, but the first half of 10 + 4‘s segments do occur within her vehicle and are filmed in the same less-is-more fashion that Kiarostami employed. Around midway through, however, Akbari switches gears formally: first the camera trails behind the outside of the cab she and her son are riding in; then we leave automobiles behind as Akbari and a fellow cancer patient converse in a cable car (still a mode of transportation); next, we stop moving altogether, as the scene shifts to a hospital room, then a hotel room, and finally an outdoor café. 10 + 4 is, first and foremost, a hopeful look at living with a potentially terminal illness, but it’s also fascinating as a feminization of Kiarostami’s aesthetic, and a poignant personalization of the Iranian giant’s tendency toward broader universal strokes.
10 + 4 was one of four very different films we saw in Vancouver that offered insight into the dynamics of the Islamic world. Two were surefire crowd pleasures: Dead Time from Indonesian Joko Anwar and Abdullah Oguz’s Bliss, a Turkish-Greek co-production. The former is a genre romp, mashing up noir with horror, comedy, melodrama, and martial arts (think: Christopher Gans’ muddled Brotherhood of the Wolf, though Dead Time is a much better movie). Despite the escapist, popcorn fun that’s central to its appeal, Anwar’s tongue-in-cheek thriller has interesting things to say about his socially conservative country. In a hilarious Q&A session following the screening, the director revealed that sloganeering posters inserted throughout his film translated as (I’m paraphrasing, from memory) “Alcohol is the drink of the devil” and “Don’t let your women out after 5:00 PM”.
Bliss is, implicitly, about how we as a society cope with the painful knowledge of atrocities committed throughout the world — through happy endings, of course. Oguz tells the story of a rape victim in rural Turkey condemned to die for being “impure”. She’s escorted to Istanbul for her execution, but the former military commando assigned to carry out her sentence can’t bring himself to do it. The couple goes on the run, eventually serving as deckhands for a kindly, wealthy university professor, before members of their village track them down. This is a touching, largely unconventional love story, but it’s also a best-case scenario, almost a fairy tale. Because things turn out well for Bliss‘s characters doesn’t change the fact that grimmer fates are far more often the norm in such barbarically patriarchal societies.
Confessions of an Innocent Man
The third examination of Islamic culture painted a considerably less optimistic picture. David Paperny’s Confessions of an Innocent Man documents the true story of Canadian expatriate Bill Sampson, who suffered three years of torture and solitary confinement in a Saudi Arabian prison after being forced to confess to a crime he didn’t commit. Paperny and narrator Martin Sheen call Canada’s mostly sterling international reputation into question as they details Ottawa’s inaction regarding Sampson’s wrongful imprisonment. Audible derision from the Vancouver audience greeted on-screen appearances by Canadian government officials (former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, among others). Confessions relies too heavily on dramatic re-enactments and Michael Moore-style technical tactics (over images of Western expats partying hard in dry Riyadh we hear Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping”), but the articulate, admirably defiant Sampson is a compelling subject, and the film makes a strong case against the West’s close economic relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Great World of Sound
Also from North America are a pair of strong, if flawed, films about coping with guilty pleasures. The festival program described Great World of Sound as “American Idol with a conscience”, and I, for one, can’t think of a better tagline for Craig Zobel’s debut feature. Equal parts road movie, black comedy, and cautionary fable, the film follows a couple would-be talent scouts for the titular fly-by-night Charlotte, NC record label on shoe-string budgeted recruiting trips through the American Southeast and Midwest. Initially, the pair enjoys the job and laughs at the William Hung types they encounter along the way. Progressively, as the label’s dubious legitimacy becomes apparent, their consciences get the better of them. Zobel’s tonal shifts feel rather abrupt and virtually all of the secondary characters are underwritten caricatures, but Great World of Sound would be worth checking out for Kene Holliday’s charismatic, awards-worthy performance alone.
South of the border, Simón Bross’s Bad Habits should both benefit from and contribute to the current popularity of cutting-edge Mexican cinema. A seemingly unlikely subject for a multifaceted morality play, food is front and center in Bross’s debut feature. The cast includes a dangerously anorexic mother desperate to eliminate her preteen daughter’s baby fat, her architect/professor husband, the chubby student with whom he’s having an affair, and their niece, a nun fasting for spiritual purposes. On paper, these characters would probably seem suspiciously one-dimensional, but Bad Habits works, thanks to uniformly fine acting and to Bross’s uniquely (lapsed?) Catholic vision of contemporary Mexico City. CGI has rarely been used as startlingly and purposefully as it is here, in the nun’s starved hallucinations of Christ walking towards her over deep floodwaters.
Last but not least, there’s the best North American film I saw in Vancouver — in fact, the best film, period, not only of the fest but of the year and quite possibly the young millennium. The movie I’m referring to is actually hardly a movie at all in any conventional sense. It’s a mixed media piece of incendiary meta agitprop. It’s a dead-on encapsulation of the zeitgeist through harrowing images and sounds and ideas. It’s the latest product of one of the world’s most erratically hit (Carlito’s Way, Femme Fatale, The Untouchables) or miss (Snake Eyes, Mission to Mars, Scarface — sorry, gangsta rappers) filmmakers.
Right, I’m talking about Brian De Palma’s Redacted, which has provoked heated debate since its Venice Film Festival premiere (where it received a 10-minute standing ovation and a best director prize) and, in terms of courting controversy, seems bound to make Fahrenheit 9/11 look downright middle-of-the-road. No other film understands the fractured, problematic times we’re living in better than this one, which combines a conventional war film narrative, faux-documentary footage, a simulated soldier’s video diary, news network coverage, surveillance recordings, Internet clips, a YouTube-style protest rant, and, finally, actual photographs of mutilated corpses in detailing the true story of the rape and murder of a 15-year-old Iraqi girl and her family by U.S. soldiers in Samarra.
Like Jarhead, Sam Mendes’s underappreciated (and largely misunderstood) Gulf War film, Redacted clearly understands pop culture’s real-life effect on soldiers serving in the post-Vietnam era. They’ve all seen Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter (and perhaps De Palma’s own Casualties of War), and subsequently conform to archetypal war movie roles: The Sensitive Loner, The Trigger-Happy Loudmouth, The Brooding Psychopath, The Conscientious Objector, etc. It’s a bit like watching later seasons of MTV’s The Real World, and spotting the most recent incarnations of Puck and Pedro and Judd.
De Palma, however, takes this post-modern concept much further, into the age of the Internet and the current quagmire in Iraq. “Do you support the troops?” one soldier quizzes another. It’s obviously a loaded, quasi-rhetorical question, and one all too familiar to Americans opposed to the war. The soldier who poses it proceeds to commit unspeakable atrocities without so much as blinking an eye. In this regard, he has something in common with De Palma — whose approach is aggressively unflinching — if not the audience, who often covered their eyes or looked away from the screen.
In fact, there were numerous walkouts at the film’s packed prime-time showing — certainly more than at every other screening we attended combined — with comments like, “That’s fucking disgusting!” and “I’ve had enough of this”. After the montage of photographs (horrifying images you would never see in the mainstream American news media) that closes the film, the stunned audience sat silent in their theatre seats as the credits rolled — no applause, no one rushing toward the exit doors. Completely floored by the power and brutal honesty of what I’d seen over the past hour and a half, I began clapping and others followed suit.
Days later, I’m haunted by virtually every blistering frame of Redacted, but particularly by one soldier’s (the effective audience surrogate, assembling a video diary of his tour in Iraq in hopes of applying to USC’s film school) guilt-ridden admission to an army shrink: “Just because you’re watching, doesn’t mean you’re not a part of it.”
Coping Strategies: The 26th Vancouver International Film Festival – Part One