The Tale of the Floating World

Festival website: www.azfilmfest.com

The theme of the 11th annual Arizona International Film Festival (AIFF), held April 11-21 in Tucson, was “Bridging Cultures”. For ten days and nights, film fans chose from a slate of nearly 150 features, shorts, documentaries, and experimental pieces from around the world, which overall lived up to the bridging cultures theme.

The tradition AIFF is to serve independents and educate potential filmmakers. With that in mind, workshops and panels were presented this year on free speech, copyright, screenwriting, directing, indie production, indigenous film, and documentary filmmaking. The Festival-in-the-Schools program sent indie producers and directors into Tucson public schools to introduce students to filmmaking

Opening night of the Festival – April 11 – was also the 6-month anniversary of September 11. And so, the opening night screening was dedicated to the “courage of independent filmmakers who found strength to focus on the unfolding events and capture unique perspectives for the screen.” Five films about 9/11 featured in the opening program: Yada Yada (Bennie Klain, 2001), Site (Jason Kliot, 2001), Cookie Girl in the Hot Zone (Skip Blumberg, 2001), My Left Arm (Steve Hamilton, 2001), and From the Ashes – Ten Artists (Deborah Shaffer, 2001). These films were shown a second time on the first full day of the Festival.

From the Ashes – Ten Artists explores the question of how 9/11’s shattering events affected those artists living around the World Trade Center area. Performance artist Laurie Anderson claims: “My obligation is to find out more, to find out who they are and what could create this hatred and horror.” The film ends with a lingering shot of a long line of artists all dressed in black holding hands as they stand together on a New York City street. They are silent and each wears a placard around his or her neck that says, “Our grief is not a cry for war.”

Daughter from Danang

It is fitting that the first film to follow the 9/11 films was Daughter from Danang (Gail Dolgin/Vicente Franco, 2002). Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at Sundance this year, this film is about a woman who, at seven years of age, was taken from her Vietnamese mother and sent on an airplane to America as part of the “Operation Babylift.” She grew up in Tennessee. Now known as Heidi Bub, she returns to Vietnam to be united with her Vietnamese mother. A happy reunion is where most filmmakers would end the story, but Dogin and Franco show us what happens next. Heidi Bub goes into absolute shock as she confronts a culture and family very different from the one she’s known in small-town America. She is, like many Americans, fairly clueless about other cultures, and she becomes quite alienated from her new family. The result is fascinating, and the filmmakers’ regard is both insightful and compassionate.

With the 9/11 films and the documentary Daughter from Danang, the tone was set for the Festival, and film viewers were ready to bridge cultures in a way that Heidi Bub couldn’t.

Indigenous Cinema from the Americas

AIFF added a new program this year – Indigenous Cinema. We were lucky to see indigenous films from Australia as well as the Americas. Festival director, Giulio Scalinger, has promised that indigenous film will become a regular part of the Festival.

Alexandra Halkin, director of the Chiapas Media Project was in Tucson for the Festival to present The Silence of the Zapatistas (2001), a group project made by members of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in Chiapas, Mexico. The film has clear political goals – to tell the story of indigenous people in southern Mexico and their struggle for survival and autonomy against powerful sectors of Mexican society determined to oppress them. The Chiapas Media Project is a joint American and Mexican venture and is involved in training indigenous filmmakers.

Also at the Festival were Ivan Sanjines, founder and coordinator of CEFREC (Cinematography Education and Production Center) in La Paz, Bolivia, and Jesus Tapia, president and coordinator of CAIB (Indigenous Audiovisual Coordinator of Bolivia). Speaking in Spanish with translation, both presented a set of films from Bolivia and Brazil made by indigenous filmmakers. The organizations these men represent are supported entirely by private sources and receive no money from the Bolivian government. They are dedicated to using the best technology to train indigenous video producers and directors so that their videos will not be rejected by government television on the grounds that the product is “not good enough.”

There is still considerable prejudice against indigenous people in Bolivia despite the fact that 75% of the Bolivian population is indigenous. Because the indigenous population speaks 36 different languages among them, there is little cooperative effort. Sanjines and Tapia work to educate indigenous filmmakers so that they can communicate with each other. Their work is primarily video and is focused on cultural preservation and cultural transmission. Villagers create videos which they send as video cartas (video letters) to other villagers.

Two feature films from Latin America presented by Sanjines and Tapia were Vest Made of Money (1998) from Bolivia and The Rainy Season (1999) from Brazil. Vest Made of Money was made by local residents of a village in the Bolivian highlands. There was no director. The story is a traditional morality tale about a man who hoards money in his vest pockets. When he dies, a friend who knows about the money-filled vest digs up the man’s body and steals the money. The dead man returns as a ghost and haunts the grave robber. Filmed in Quechua, the work has English and Spanish subtitles. The Rainy Season (1999) from the Ashaninka people in the Amazon basin is also a village group production. Put a camera in the hands of a local villager and you get a really intimate portrait of the daily life of the village and its people because, after all, the cameraman is one of them. The results, in this case, were endearing and humorous.

Indigenous Cinema from Australia

The Australian films turned out to be some of the very best of the entire Festival. Films by and about Australian Aboriginals included One Night the Moon (Rachel Perkins, 2001), Confessions of A Headhunter (Sally Riley, 2000), Road (Catriona McKenzie, 2000), Wind (Ivan Sen, 1999), and Two Bob Mermaid (Darlene Johnson, 1996).

Julie Janson, playwright, screenwriter, and scholar at the University of Technology, Sydney, curated the Australian indigenous program for the Festival. I had a chance to talk to her about the current state of affairs for Australian Aboriginal filmmakers. She began by pointing out the commonalities between Australia and America in terms of the treatment of indigenous people.

Janson was in Arizona both for the Festival and to conduct research on her screenplay Satan’s Desert. This screenplay is about an Aboriginal woman who meets an American country singer in the Australian bush and ends up going with him to America. The two embark on a road trip, which takes them to the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona.

Janson openly states that the story involves her personal search for identity and her own attempt to find her Aboriginal roots. Her interest in her origins began in childhood. “I grew up in a family where my father was very dark and looked Aboriginal. But no one spoke about it.” To refer to him as Aboriginal was seen as something of a family joke. As a child, Janson herself was sometimes teasingly referred to as a “little black fella” because her family thought she could run like an Aboriginal. She says that many old Australian families, families like hers that go back for five generations, have Aboriginal blood in them. Many families have denied this heritage.

“I have great pride in knowing about it, wanting to uncover it and to get my family to acknowledge that it’s true. It’s important to me because I think it is racist to go on saying that none of us have any Aboriginal blood.” She researched her own family history and found evidence of her Aboriginal roots.

Janson’s first visit to the American West was to attend the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. Because of her interest in Aboriginal issues, she and her family decided to tour the Southwest and visit native American reservations. One of the places that Janson went was the Navajo (Diné) lands in northern Arizona. “We went on a couple of tours with Navajo guides. This young man who took us down into Canyon de Chelly was studying anthropology at university. He was very articulate and knowledgeable about his people… I could identify with where he was coming from.”

Janson was struck with the similarities between central Australia and Arizona, both in their Aboriginal heritage and place names, and the desert landscape. “I became very interested in how landscape impacts upon a creative work. I went away and wrote a play called “Satan in Arizona.” Later when she attempted to adapt the play into a screenplay called “Satan’s Desert,” she found herself very frustrated. She went to talk to her supervisor at the University of Technology. “She kept looking at me deeply,” Janson says of her supervisor, “and saying, ‘But what are you searching for? What’s driving you as a person?’…I see [the screenplay] as a search for this identity in myself – and that’s what the film is about!” Up until that time, Janson had seen her work as an adventure story and a road movie. “It was a moment of great revelation,” she said. “Everything clicked into place… and suddenly I could write in a way I hadn’t been able to before.”

Janson is not alone in her search for her roots and her identity. Australia is currently confronting its denial of its Aboriginal heritage and legacy of racism, she says. For the last 30 years the government has made a concerted effort to improve Aboriginal access to education, including the areas of filmmaking and media arts. Quite unlike the situation in Bolivia, the Australian government provides financial support for filmmaking in the aboriginal community.

One Night the Moon

“I’d say that every Aboriginal film is made with complete government support,” Janson said. “It’s a very recent initiative of the Australian Film Commission (AFC) which set up an indigenous unit… I’d say about five years ago. The Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) was the first to have an Aboriginal unit. It wasn’t just films about Aboriginal people (that they supported). The ABC was proactive in making sure that they trained Aboriginal people to run that unit and to be the artistic directors. Now the AFC has an indigenous unit and its sole purpose is to give money to indigenous filmmakers.”

Aboriginal filmmakers gained access to higher film education only recently. Rachel Perkins, whose film One Night the Moon (2001) screened at AIFF, was the first to win an indigenous scholarship to the prestigious Australian Film, Television, and Radio School (AFTRS) in Sydney. That was in 1995. The AFTRS now provides two places for Aboriginals each year.

“It’s been difficult for Aboriginal filmmakers to access mainstream or quality education. It’s been very recent so we’re actually waiting for this young generation of the late 20 and 30 year olds. They are the ones who are doing it.” Ivan Sen, another young Aboriginal filmmaker and director of Wind (1999) which screened at AIFF, is part of this young generation and also trained at AFTRS.

Lest one think that all is easy for Aboriginal filmmakers in Australia, Janson adds, “What often happens is that some money is available but it won’t be enough for a feature film. So they go out and make the film anyway and show it and hope someone will be impressed and pay for it to be converted to 35 mm.” Finding backing continues to be a problem when making a film with an indigenous theme. “‘Oh, Aboriginal film – kiss of death,’ they say,” Janson explains. “I know a number of screenwriters both from indigenous and non-indigenous backgrounds who’ve had this response from producers… Rachel [Perkins] broke through that barrier with her work.”

Janson refers to the film Radiance (Rachel Perkins, 1998), a screen adaptation of a play by Louis Nowra. The film tells the story of three Aboriginal sisters who go home after their mother has died and the family dynamics this situation produces. “Any person of any race would have identified with that story,” Janson says. “The fact is that Perkins can tell a good human story. The fact that it is Aboriginal is secondary.” Radiance is now available in some American video rental stores.

“I think maybe we’re at a crossroads in Australia now because of Phillip Noyce’s film Rabbit-Proof Fence (2001),” Janson says. “Here you have an internationally acclaimed director, one of our own, and he’s gone off into the great world, and now he’s come back and … he’s made this film, and many mainstream Australians have gone to see it. Now a film (One Night the Moon) made about an Aboriginal issue by someone like Rachel Perkins, made on a small budget with little to promote it, goes ignored,” Janson said. “So it takes someone like Phil [Noyce] to make it in America and to come back and make us look at our own story. And it’s a beautifully told story because it’s written from an Aboriginal perspective based on a story written by an Aboriginal woman.”

Janson says that Rachel Perkins is now filming documentaries. When Perkins told her this, Janson said, “I thought to myself, ‘Oh come on Australia! There’s got to be the money there for this woman because she’s really quite wonderful… She really should be making features.” Many who saw One Night the Moon at AIFF agreed with Janson’s assessment that Perkins is a talented director. Her film, described in the Festival program as a “post-musical” because of its use of song to unfold plot, is excellent. Racial prejudice is the most obvious theme in this film, what one might expect from an indigenous filmmaker telling a story about oppressed people. But Perkins’ goes further and deeper by intertwining themes of race, gender, and connection to landscape in a unique, poetic and universal manner. In addition, she gives more than just the obligatory nod to landscape in this film, which becomes a veritable character. The shadows of clouds passing over arid mountains, a violent rainstorm, wind, deep craggy rocks, and moonlight calling to the child all come together to deeply ground this film in the natural world. The landscape is rather similar to the sky islands (mountain ranges) of southern Arizona though lacking our unique plant life of saguaro, ocotillo, cholla, and nopales. We learn a lot about the human characters in One Night the Moon through how they perceive the landscape. The father says, “This land is mine” and the tracker replies, “This land is me.”

Landscape is also a significant aspect of Ivan Sen’s foreboding and intensely suspenseful film, Wind,set during the 1860s in Australia’s Blue Mountains. The film’s most haunting and riveting moment is when the young Aboriginal tracker, caught between two worlds, places his hand on a rock wall painting of a hand left by Aboriginal artists. The young Aboriginal tracker is terrified by the overwhelming spiritual power of the act. He pulls away and flees.

Catriona McKenzie’s Road (2000) is a fast-paced, poignant account of the urbanized Aboriginal youth who spend most of their time evading police and trying to stay alive. A meaningless and violent encounter with a taxi driver eventually leads to tragedy for these two young men caught in urban Australia mean streets.

Cine Chicano and Cine Latino

Tucson, Arizona, and surrounding Pima County has a population of roughly one-third Latino and Native American. Spanish is heard almost as often as English on the streets of Tucson. The city, home to the University of Arizona, is only 65 miles from the border with Sonora, Mexico. Bridging cultures is a real-time activity in southern Arizona. AIFF has long presented films that reflect the region’s cultural heritage. Cine Chicano (Mexican-American films) and Cine Latino (Latino, including Latin American films) are both regular programs in the Festival.

Cine Chicano included eight films this year. Among the best in this program was the multi-award winning documentary Cada Cabeza Es Un Mundo (Margo Segura/Marine Dominguez, 2001) which confronts the problems that Chicanos have staying in school. The film has a soundtrack of original music from Carlos Santana. Also of interest was Pablo Toledo’s Runnin’ At Midnight (2001) about the escape young men make from tough urban streets by playing midnight basketball. There was also an inspiring short The Test (Edward Ornelas, 2001) in which 16-year-old Ulises Sandoval shares his struggle to study for the college-entrance exams. Many Chicano films were filmed in English or “Spanglish” (that unique combination of Spanish and English common in the borderlands). La Balada del Soldado (Keenan Valdez, 2001) explores the last day a young man spends with his family before he goes to Vietnam. This film is based on a short story by Luis Valdez.

Spirits of Havana

The best of the Cine Latino program was Bay Wayman and Louis O. Garcia’s Spirits of Havana (2001) about Canadian jazz musicians, Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer, who travel to Cuba every year to play with Cuban musicians. The music alone makes this film worth seeing. Bunnett and Cramer’s yearly visit to a different Cuban music conservatory is moving. They bring donated instruments for the students and are accompanied each year by two technicians who repair the children’s instruments. When all the instruments are ready to go, Bunnett, Cramer and the students play together. If ever there was a bridge between cultures, music is that bridge.

Other films in the series included Trauco’s Daughter (Francisca Fuenzalida, 2001), Streeters (Gerardo Tort, 2001), and Hasta Los Huesos (Rene Castillo, n.d.), which were part of a set of Mexican animated films.

More Noteworthy Films and Prizewinners

Among the indie features at the Festival were: The Absent Phallus (Mike Davies, 2001) from Canada, A Drowning Man (Ichio Naoki, 2000) from Japan, and American films The Ethereal Plan (Clarke M. Smith, 2001), Glissando (Chip Hourihan, 2002), and Life Sentence (Andy Graydon, 2001). Glissando is based on a short story by Robert Boswell about growing up in Gila Bend, Arizona in the 1970s. It won the Festival award for Best Feature. A Drowning Man is an intriguing psychological study of a man who believes his wife has drowned but whom he still sees walking around. It becomes apparent, as the title suggests, that he is the one drowning in an everyday kind of madness.

Best Comedy award went to Puddlejumper (Dave West, 2002), a hilarious portrayal of an American tourist south of the border. He gets on an airplane and sits down next to the girl of his dreams. Not long into the flight, he suffers an attack of Montezuma’s revenge – and there’s no bathroom on the plane!

Best Documentary Feature went to the Hungarian film Children-Kosovo 2000 (Ferenc Moldoványi, 2001). Best Short Documentary was Life Shelter USA (Toshiharu Takatsuka, 2002) on the heroic efforts of animal shelter workers to save abandoned animals. The Best of Arizona award went to The Bird Feeder (John Laben, 2001) about the struggles of a young Mexican migrant working on an Arizona dairy farm. Chel White’s ethereal film collage Passage (2001) won Best FilmScape.

Best ShortTake went to the Morning Breath (Brin Hill, 2001) concerning the efforts of an African American man to resist the lure of the street. His love for a woman provides redemption. The soundtrack is a rhythmic performance poem that completely complements the elegant screen images.

Special Jury Awards went to American films Bang the Machine (Tamara Katepoo, 2001) about a video game tournament; to Border (Annette Solakoglu, 2001) an 8-minute look at a border crossing with the counterpoint of John Lennon singing “Imagine;” Native Wisdom (Yvette Fernandez, 2002) about a Native American tracker on the Tohono O’odham reservation in southern Arizona, and The Tale of the Floating World (Alain Escalle, 2001), a French/Japanese meditation on memories of the nuclear blast at Hiroshima. This last film was especially beautiful and poetic.

Finally, James Benning’s 5-hour California Trilogy screened on the last day of the Festival. For those who had the time and inclination, it was well worth it. Benning has a unique approach to what he calls “mapping” the California landscape. In three 90-minute films, he has created 35 images each shot for the duration of 2 1/2 minutes. Benning explained his approach to filmmaking at the Festival: “Film grew up quite quickly. Interest in image making gave way to narrative structure. I thought I’d go back to image making.” He warned the audience that looking at a scene for 2 1/2 minutes can seem tedious at first. “But you’ll get into it,” he added. We did. Tedium quickly became meditative and then, unexpectedly interactive.

Whereas landscape is so often merely “viewed” by a “viewer,” Benning’s process enables us to slowly relax into the landscape and become surrounded by it. What is not apparent at first “view” becomes very apparent in 2 1/2 minutes: the touch of a soft breeze on almond tree blossoms, the distant bark of a dog, the color of water in the deepest part of the lake. The three parts of the trilogy are El Valley Centro (1999) much concerned with the agricultural industry and water issues in California’s Central Valley; Los about the city of Los Angeles (2000); and Sogobi (2001) which focuses on California’s disappearing wilderness. Sogobi is the Shoshone word for “earth.”

At the end of the program, Benning said: “In those beautiful landscapes, there are hidden and scary things. If we continue to make decisions based on economic factors for corporate profits, we’re going to lose that landscape.”

Looking at the landscape that ties us all together seemed a fitting way to end the Festival.