Off-Screen

January 18-28, 2007

In spite of a creeping feeling that Sundance 2007 was not a great vintage, there were some really good films – albeit sprinkled in different sections. The inaugural edition of “New Frontier” – designed to “celebrate experimentation and the convergence of film in art as an emerging hotbed for new cinematic ideas” – attracted a lot of attention and was an interesting combo of offbeat narrative films from South Korea (Roh Gyeyong-Tae’s The Last Dining Table), Denmark (Christoffer Boe’s Off-Screen) and the USA (Anthony Hopkins’s maiden directorial effort, Slipstream), an homage to French artist Pierre Huyghe, two experimental documentaries (Lynn Herschman’s Strange Culture and Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait by artists Philippe Pareno and Douglas Gordon [see below]) – the line-up being crowned by the scintillating premiere of Nina Menkes’s Phantom Love.

This was a much-expected event, as Menkes, known for a series of highly personal experimental narrative features, had not been able to complete a film since The Bloody Child (1996). Menkes’ films revolve around what she once termed the “crazy bloody female center” (this is actually the title of a DVD compilation of her earlier work). In her films, an alienated female protagonist wrestles with inner demons while engaging in a metaphorical journey of self-discovery. She mixes surreal imageries and a plot (of sorts) that follows the inner logic of dreams with masterfully captured images of real, yet oppressive landscapes: a middle eastern desert in The Great Sadness of Zohara (1983); streets and dance halls of East Los Angeles in Magdalena Viraga (1986); the dry outskirts, seedy motels, dusty streets and casinos of Las Vegas in Queen of Diamonds (1991); the Mojave desert and the 29 Palms GI station in The Bloody Child (1996). Phantom Love continues, expands and enriches Menkes’ themes and aesthetics – and one of the pleasures offered by the film is to discover echoes of her previous work – but, in more ways than one, it is also a stark departure point. As usual, Menkes designed the shots and operated the camera (no mean feat considering she’s been shooting in 35mm since 1991) but, having to work faster than usual, she collaborated with DP Chris Soos, who was in charge of the lighting and the technical aspects of the photography. This was the first time she was experimenting with black and white, and the results are stunningly beautiful. This was also the first time that Tinka Menkes, Nina’s sister, who had worked as a main collaborator and actress/alter ego on all her productions since her first super-8 short, A Soft Warrior (1981), was not involved. On the other hand, the theme of sisterhood is at the centre of Phantom Love, culminating in a moment à la Persona in which the face of Nitzan (Juliette Marquis) is superimposed in transparency on that of her sister, Lulu (Marina Shoif), who is tossing and turning in bed.

Lulu, a beautiful but isolated and angry woman, is first seen in bed with her lover (Bobby Naderi); the scene, which reoccurs several times, with multiple variations (recalling the equally intense and desolate sex scenes that punctuate the life of the prostitute in Magdalena Viraga), is shot in tight close-ups, showing details of the action: the small of the man’s back, hairy and sweaty, the gentle ripples of his muscles, Lulu’s face, emerging from under her partner’s body, expressing this fine line between pain, wonderment, boredom and irrepressible sadness that so many of Menkes’ protagonists experience in bed. The film is too rich, multi-layered, complex, fragmented, to open itself to easy interpretations (even after a second screening) – but the key to Lulu’s alienation, as it unfolds, seems to be that she has been seeking mirror images of herself in others instead of delving into her inner truth. Sex and love, the reassuring image one could hope to find in one’s lover’s eyes – are the first deceiving level; as Virginia Woolf stated, and as Menkes’ heroines find soon enough, it is men, not women, who can hope to find such reassurance in their partner’s gaze – they usually don’t return the favour.

The second mirror image is that of the absent mother (Yelena Apartseva), who calls from time to time with the intention of arriving into town and moving in yo Lulu’s apartment. The mother appears in inserted shots, some of them in which she is holding a mirror reflecting Lulu’s face; then, as the latter starts her descent into darkness, she has extremely disturbing nightmares during which she is physically (and even, in a truly frightening shot, sexually) assaulted by her mother. The third mirror is the one created by Nitzan, who lives alone with her two dogs, in an unkempt apartment, on the verge of a psychotic breakdown.

Phantom Love

The three women speak with more or less an accent – and sometimes even in Russian – emphasising their immigrant origin. In the tradition of early expressionist cinema, mother and sister are uncanny doppelgangers to Lulu – they are her doubles as well as representations of what she does not want to be. A self-composed professional woman, she favours tight black dresses, and works as a croupier in a Koreatown casino (echoing the job of the heroine of Queen of Diamonds). Yet chaos is all around her: television is flooded with news from the war in Iraq; in the street a cop arrests a young Latino man; in a back alley a baby is left in a wicker basket; every time she goes though her hallway, Lulu has to pass by an enormous boa that lazily uncoils on the carpet. The soundtrack itself would deserve to be listened to on its own, creating an alternative universe in which the inside and the outside, off- and on-screen sound, chaos and stasis, ambient street noise and discrete percussions are intertwined into a rich tapestry, suggesting the complexity of Lulu’s psychic life and the issues she struggles with.

Phantom Love is also impregnated with homages to the films Menkes has loved through the years, but any “quote” is integrated into her personal alchemy. She reproduces a moment of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast during which a white horse, “Le Magnifique”, will carry the heroine to the magic castle (but wasn’t there a white horse, already, in The Bloody Child?). The “passage” of the heroine from one world to another is suggested by her crossing a suspended bridge in India. At the second crossing, as in Murnau’s Nosferatu, “ghosts came to meet her” – except they are not ghosts, but Indian people on their way to and from the Zen Buddhist Centre on the other side of the bridge.

Yet, the crisp, seductive use of black-and-white allows many connections with the tropes of silent cinema – and Menkes actually treats us with a moment in which a sleeping Lulu is lifted from her bed, floats across the room with her hair flowing down and then explodes. Menkes says she conceived the film after a series of dreams – and she masterfully posits her mise en scène at the crossroads between the ever-intimate hold dreams have over us and the power that cinema has to elicit parallel universes for an audience while being anchored in the mechanical reproduction of reality. The grain of the film (not unlike Barthes’s grain de la voix) is the vector magnificently carrying us through these different planes of reality.

New Frontier ambitiously expanded beyond the frame of the flat screen, into a performance/exhibition space on Main Street that included installations by R. Luke Dubois (Academy), Eric Dyer (Copenhagen Cycles), klipp/collective (Ricardo Rivera and Nicola D’Amico) and James Graham, as well as the corky autodidact, irreverent animator Martha Colburn (Meet Me in Wichita); various video and digital projections experiments by Paul Chan. R. Luke Dubois; an unabashedly marxist-leninist ranting-and-raving multi-media performance about the military industrial complex, appropriately titled Soapbox Agitation # 1: Proving Ground by experimental/political filmmaker Travis Wilkerson; and finally another collaborative “soapepisodic” extravaganza using a battery of cell phones, kiosks and computers by Web nomad and trouble maker extraordinaire Shu Lea Cheang – which unfortunately culminated into a MobiSlam party after my departure.

Padre Nuestro

Yet – let’s face it – while Sundance is “not a market, but a festival”, as its founder Robert Redford carefully stated, the reason for which “the industry” relocates to Utah ten days a year is not to attend the “New Frontier” event, but to check out the Competition films. And, while a few high-figures deals were concluded (in particular for James C. Strouse’s Grace is Gone and Adrienne Shelley’s Waitress), there were no spectacular discoveries. The film that – unexpectedly – won the Grand Jury Prize, Padre Nuestro by first-time director Christopher Zalla, was, however, a genuine find. Displacing the “gritty realism” tropes usually called upon to deal with the “hot subject” of Mexican immigration – yet working with Mexican actors who speak Spanish in the film – Zalla plunges into an almost abstract world of grey tones, improbable spaces carved out a claustrophobic urban nightmare (abandoned warehouses, construction sites, crawl spaces under buildings, desolate streets) and Dostoyevskian ethical ambiguities. In the sealed truck that carries him to New York, 17 year-old Pedro (Jorge Adrían Espíndola, who played a cowboy in Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) unwisely confides a young thug, Juan (Armando Hernández – previously seen in Fast Food Nation), that he’s on his way to meet his rich father. Before dying, his mother had given him a letter (which, being illiterate, he can’t read) for the man – with the address. Waking up in New York, Juan finds that his bag has been stolen. With only the memory of an address in Brooklyn, he enlists the reluctant help of a street urchin/crook/part-time prostitute, Magda (Chicana actress/director Paola Mendoza). Meanwhile, Pedro manages to locate Diego, who is not a restaurant owner but a dishwasher – and introduces himself as his long-lost son. Intensely played by the multi-talented actor/director/writer Jesús Ochoa, Pedro is a sullen, emotionally closed man who lives alone in a cold-water dive. He does not drink, have fun with his co-workers or chase women – at night he makes artificial flowers, so beautiful the contractor thinks they are done “by a woman”. Pedro, who seems to bear a deep-seated grudge, just stashes his hard-earned money in a secret place. He is less than happy to meet the fake “Pedro” but has to put him up for a while and deal with him, as the latter has no other place to stay.

Zalla takes us on two parallel journeys that only intersect briefly – and tragically – at the end. On the one hand, the real Pedro charts an unfamiliar territory whose language he does not speak, treks through Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan, investigates restaurants, strikes an touch-and-go friendship with Magda. Lost in New York as a bottle in the sea, he experiences a fluidity, a new mobility and freedom he is not equipped to fully embrace. On the other hand, Juan had entered the movie “on the run” – fleeing other thugs and hiding in the smuggling truck by accident. Now his life is in stasis, gradually absorbed by the formidable passive energy exuded by Diego. At the end of Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, the heroine suddenly understands that, while she thought she was sleeping with the rich man from Northern China for his money, she was actually in love with him. Juan believes he’s courting the old man to get at his stash – in the process of trying to seduce him with his bad boy charm, he actually becomes a son to him. And, more importantly, overcoming the sordid tales of his relationship to the boy’s mother, Diego becomes a real father – even if it is of the wrong man.

Filiation is at the heart of Padre Nuestro in more way than once. For his masterful combination of realism and moody expressionism, Zalla credits the influence of one of his professors at Columbia University. A well-known cinematographer of verité films by the Maysles Brothers and others, Proferes became Barbara Loden’s collaborator for her classic film Wanda (1970) – a cult film in Europe, long disappeared in the US that is currently enjoying a revival. Like Wanda, Padre Nuestro creates beauty out of the lives of those who populate the underbelly of American society – exploring their desires, reluctances and dreams.

Snow Angels

The Pool and Snow Angels allowed spectators to revisit the work of filmmakers featured in previous years at Sundance. With Snow Angels, David Gordon Green continues to explore the emotional dilemmas of ordinary people in small-town America – as in his earlier George Washington (2000), All the Real Girls (Sundance 2003) and Undertow (2005). A “Chinese restaurant” owned, operated and patronised by white people becomes the hub where the multiple stories intersect. A recently divorced mother, Annie (Kate Beckinsale) tries to juggle her job, caring for her four-year old daughter, Tara, and fending off the advances of her ex-husband, Glenn (Sam Rockwell) who, having given up the bottle for Christianity, still pines for her and wants to get her back. She’s the former baby-sitter of Arthur (Michael Angarano), a teenager who also works in the restaurant after school and used to have a crush on her as a young boy; now he’s dealing with much more important issues: his parents (Jeannetta Arnette and Griffin Dunne) are separating, and one of his classmates, a cute-but-nerdy bespectacled would-be photographer, seems to be interested in him. Meanwhile Annie seeks diversion with a clandestine affair with Nate – who happens to be married to her best friend at work, Barb (Amy Sedaris).

A subtle, fastidious, elegantly obsessive filmmaker, Green keeps delving into the same themes: the difficult emotional growth of young men, the difficult plight of the single mother – and their corollaries: the elusive bond between mother and son, the inefficiency of fathers (so why would you want to grow up to be like them?), and, beyond the image of the mother, the mystery of femininity itself. In a small town it takes a grand tragedy – the disappearance of a child, a murder-suicide – to involve everyone, forcing them – and the audience – to take a second look at their lives.

If Zella explores fatherhood and Green draws exquisite portraits of women-as-mothers, it is the society of orphans that interest Chris Smith, the joyfully versatile filmmaker who started his career with American Job (Sundance 1996) – a narrative film shot like a documentary that followed a disenfranchised character (played by Randy Russell, who had written the script, based on his own experiences) as he takes on a series of menial jobs, as dishwasher in a hamburger joint, or mover in a warehouse in the heartland of America. Smith followed this first achievement by a couple of “real” documentaries: the exhilarating American Movie (Grand Jury Prize, Sundance 1999), Home Movie (Sundance 2001) and The Yes Men (2004). With the last two films, he had taken his camera abroad and travelled throughout several continents; with The Pool he challenges himself further and crafts an alluring narrative feature shot entirely in Hindi – yet based by a short story written by Russel and originally taking place in Iowa. Like American Job, The Pool casts an empathic look at the lives of the working poor. Having left his widowed mother and younger sisters in their tiny, distant village, 18 year-old Venkatesh (Venkatesh Chavan) works as a “room boy” in a tourist hotel in Panjim, Goa. He supplements his income by selling plastic bags on the market with his friend, a young orphan boy called Jhangir (Jhangir Badshah). One day, as they’re roaming about the city, Venkatesh sees a luxurious, yet deserted villa, with the water of a swimming pool glittering among the trees, and becomes obsessed with it – in spite of Jhangir’s gentle mockery: “The closest you’ll get to that pool is to clean it.”

Yet, by returning to the estate again and again and spying from the surrounding trees, Venkatesh manages to meet its owner (played by the famous Indian actor Nana Patekar, the only seasoned professional in the cast) and his daughter, the sullen teenager Ayesha (Ayesha Mohan) who spends her time engrossed in the reading of Candy by underground Shanghaiese writer Mian Mian – a tale of alienated youth. (1) Soon enough Venkatesh secures a job as a gardener in the estate, gets a glimpse at the tragedy that torn the family apart, and a father-son bond develops between him and the owner – a bond which, however, seems to be more important to the man than to the lad. Venkatesh prefers the company of his peers, and organises outings with Jhangir and Ayesha, who warms to the boys. When the time comes to make a choice between a future as an almost adopted son in Bombay and staying in Panjim, Venkatesh hesitates, wavers, and finally decides to stay. In the absence of the family, he becomes the custodian of the estate – and sits looking at the pool, without ever daring to take a dive into it.

As the two boys couldn’t read, Smith resorted to changing the Hindi dialogue on the set every day (with the help of a translator) and modifying it as they came along. Shot with a hand-held camera, in long shots, with a rhythm that respects the tropical mood of these long afternoons in Goa, the film implicitly acknowledges the influence of Satyajit Ray and, more accurately, Jean Renoir’s The River. As in American Job, but this time getting a taste of culture not his own, Smith strikes an alluring balance between documentary and fiction. And maybe the last image of Venkatesh looking at the pool is an accurate metaphor for Smith’s position as an outsider: you don’t need to be in the water to love and respect it.

Fay Grim

The “Spectrum” section was de facto paying homage to the world of sassy one-liners and corky plot development created by Hal Hartley. The director of Trust seems to have fallen off the radar in the last few years and it’s a pity because more than ever we need his brand of irreverent fiction. His most visible film of last was the epic Henry Fool that played at Cannes in 1998 – and Fay Grim has been conceived as a sequel, reuniting the same actors: Thomas Jay Ryan as the garbage collector/writer Henry Fool, Parker Posey as his wife, James Urbaniak as his brother-in-law the poet Simon Grim, and Liam Aiken as his teenage son Ned. The film is very much Posey’s – who as an actress has incredibly matured from the mannerisms of Party Girl to more complex characterisations (even though, if badly directed, she can deliver a shallow performance as in Zoe Cassevetes’s sorry Broken English, shown in competition). It is also her film, because it is about Fay Grim’s quest to find her missing husband. Implicated in a murder, Henry fled the country with the complicity of Simon, who’s now serving a heavy jail sentence for it. One day, a lovely pornographic toy from Turkey (!) is sent anonymously to Ned – resulting in his being expelled from high school. A series of unexpected twists and turns ensues. At the time of his disappearance, Henry was working on his Confessions – the work of genius for some, an indescribable gibberish for others. What if it was neither – but a coded text revealing National Defence secrets of some industrialised nations? FBI agents visit Fay’s modest apartment in Queens, NY and offer her a deal: Simon’s early release in exchange for the Confessions. As Henry is supposed to have died somewhere, she is the sole owner, to whom the manuscripts, now in Paris, can be released. On these extravagant premises, Hartley constructs a plot in which Posey travels from Paris to Istambul, is hijacked, threatened with guns, romanced by men who are only after the manuscripts, shuttled from one secret location to the next by different groups of secret services, begged for help by an illegal Russian immigrant who had a brief affair with Henry (another Hartley regular, Elina Löwensohn), running in an elegant couture coat open so high it reveals her garter belt. As the turn of events become more and more confusing for her (and for us), Fay acquires an even larger stature, a single-mindedness of project. She is not doing this, as she claims, so a liberated Simon can act as a father to her teenage son; she is doing this because she is still in love with Henry. Her performance, both retrained and simmering, borrowing some from early serials such as The Perils of Elaine, is a beautiful thing to watch. Then, late into the film, Henry appears – this time not as the cipher of international intrigue that the Confessions are supposed to encode – but as a walking signifier of the “sexual impasse”.

In the same section, Waitress was the third, and, as it turns out, the last, film directed by the spirited actress Adrienne Shelley, who had first attracted attention in Hartley’s first two features, The Unbelievable Truth (1990) and Trust (1991). Shortly after submitting the film to Sundance, Shelley was murdered in her Manhattan apartment. In Waitress, she develops a post-Hal-Hartley style of witty writing and casts herself as the second fiddle (a bespectacled young woman who seems to be always dating boorish men) to the heroine, Jenna (Keri Russell). In a sleepy southern town, three waitresses work a Joe’s Pie Diner. Stuck in a loveless marriage with the tyrannical and childish Earl (the kind that beats you up and then starts crying “don’t leave me”), Jenna discovers, simultaneously, that she is pregnant and attracted to the new gynaecologist. Ensues a series of irreverent situations in which Jenna fights, then yields to her desire to the attractive MD, dodges Earl’s jealousy, and eventually fights for her independence as a single mother. A light, upbeat, humorous film without a pat happy ending (Prince Charming is not a-coming), the film was very much a reflection of Shelley’s luminous, smart and off-beat personality. She will be missed.

Tuli

The most beautiful film I saw in “Spectrum”, though, was Tuli, the second feature by Filipino director Auraeus Solito, revealed last year by The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros. A self-proclaimed Indigenous Peoples’ Rights advocate (he’s a member of the Palaw’an nation), Solito leaves the Manila slums to film the survival of indigenous rites in the splendid, lush countryside of The Philippines’ South Palawan. As in most of The Philippines, the villagers partake in an intriguing mixture of early religion and Christianity (during the Holy weeks, rituals of self-flagellation take place, as well as pageants staging the Passion of Christ, with a local boy attached to the cross for hours). Circumcision (tuli) plays a central role – but the village’s circumciser is a violent man, who drinks too much and is abusive to his wife and daughter Daisy (Desiree del Valle), whom he wants to marry off to a local rich boy. Daisy spends a lot of time with her girlfriend Botchok (Vanna Garcia), and, during an outing by the river, in the middle of the forest, in a sensual scene that reminded me of a similar moment in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Blissfully Yours, she watches Botchok being seduced by a young neighbour. When the man dumps her, cast out by her angry family, Botchok seeks shelter in Daisy’s house.

So far, we are still within the tropes of the Filipino’s “suffering woman” melodrama. What follows is less predictable, as Daisy reveals her love for Botchok, the latter gently accepting it, and the pair living happily together under the approving gaze of Daisy’s Mom. The villagers are less happy, and start attributing any illness that may befall their children to the evil spell of the “perverts”. Meanwhile, to strengthen their bond, Daisy decides she and Botchok should have a child, and she endeavours to get pregnant with Nanding (Carlo Aquino), the only boy who has not gone through circumcision rites (a non-macho, gentle, almost feminine kind of man – like a third lesbian in the circle, but with a dick – for some, a dream come true).

In spite of the violent posse organised by the villagers against the love nest – repelled with courage by Daisy’s Mom – there is a true utopian quality in the second half of Tuli – structured around lesbian desire, the tender bond between mother and daughter and then mother-biological father-and-baby (even though Botchok feels a bit slighted at the Baptism ceremony), the alternative family thus created under the nose of the village elders. Already in Maximo Oliveiros, Solito pursued this utopia, albeit combined with harsher overtones of urban violence: a queer little boy could survive and “blossom” as what he truly was. Here Solito injects queer content within his loving depiction of indigenous culture, spirituality and sensuality. This alone should turn Tuli into a landmark – but it is only one of the remarkable traits of this exquisitely shot, composed and directed film.

Banished

One of the joys of being at Sundance is that it is a festival in which documentaries are treated seriously. The Documentary Competition, though, often contains films whose main interest lies in their subject, not in their formal approach – and, as a result, they become predictable, boring, if not ideologically skewed. Television aesthetics might be the culprit, as, for the majority, cables will be the only outlet for these projects that may have taken years of research. Marco Williams’ Banished examine three cases of African American communities forced out of their homes by their white neighbours in the 1920s and ’30s: a great subject, treated without much cinematic imagination. With White Light/Black Rain veteran Asian American director Steven Okazaki revisits the stories of the hibakusha (atom bomb survivors, out of which 200,000 are still living today). Their testimonies, their memories, the traces left on their bodies are harrowing, their courage in trying to rebuild their lives commendable – yet the film falls short: short of a real political analysis, of a contextualisation, of a more radical anti-war approach. Even more questionable is Nanking, commissioned by Ted Leonsis (Vice-Chairman of AOL) and co-directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman. Having chanced on the horror known as “the rape of Nanking” (2) through a newspaper article, and blissfully unaware of earlier documentaries coming out of the Asian American community – such as the remarkable In the Name of the Emperor (1995) by Nancy Tong and Christine Choy – Leonsis reproduces the tropes of a 1950 Hollywood movie about “the war in China” by focusing on a group of noble Westerners caught in the storm. There is nothing wrong in retelling the story of these American missionaries, this courageous headmistress from Illinois, this German business man, who all created a “Safety Zone” to shelter some 200,000 inhabitants of Nanjing too poor to have been able to escape the arrival of the Japanese and to protect them from the ensuing atrocities perpetrated by the occupying army – but the film should have made it clear at the outset that it was going to focus on that part of the story. Similarly, there is nothing inherently wrong, in the absence of recorded testimony, to have actors read letters and documents left by the Safety Zone Committee members and to re-enact memories by composite Chinese or Japanese characters – except that casting Woody Harrelson, Mariel Hemingway, Stephen Dorff, Rosalind Chao reeks of a publicity stunt and is highly distracting. Worse even, interviews with real survivors are all staged in the same beautiful historical palace in Nanjing rather than in their homes or the places they are familiar with.

I was also quite keen on seeing Girl 27, the story of the first rape reported in Hollywood by a 17 year-old chorus girl, Patricia Douglas, in 1937. (3) Not only was the story intriguing, but the film was directed by David Stenn, the author of best-selling books on Clara Bow and Jean Harlow – who had published a story in the April 2003 issue of Vanity Fair: “It Happened One Night… at MGM”. As MGM studio bosses organised a “stag party” for 300 of their sales reps, 120 chorus girls were summoned to show up – naively thinking it was a shooting call. As the party became more alcoholised and rowdy, one of the guests, David Ross, brutally raped her. A first for its time, Douglas courageously pressed charges, but the DA was one of Louis B. Mayer’s friends, and the studio bought off witnesses, and possibly the defence attorney and the plaintiff’s mother to kill the case. Stenn eventually found the 86 year-old Douglas living on welfare in Las Vegas, aware that her life (and her relationship to men) had been permanently damaged by the ordeal, but willing to break her 66 year long silence to be vindicated.

The most interesting aspect of the film are Stenn’s investigation into studio history and politics, as well as the issue of the representation of rape in the 1930s – which he does by showing excerpts of such rare classics as John Francis Dillon’s Call Her Savage (1932) with Clara Bow and Stephen Roberts’s highly controversial adaptation of William Faulkner’s The Story of Temple Drake (1933) with Miriam Hopkins. Yet Stenn ruins the film by attempting to play his own version of Nick Broomfield – flaunting his celebrity connections, pacing up and down in his hotel room before meeting with Douglas. These (irritating) moments feel as much as unnecessary padding. A few weeks later, though, I had the opportunity to meet Stenn at a UCLA screening of restored films starring Clara Bow and Jean Harlow, and I warmed up to him. A sincere historian and preservationist, he’s investing the money made through the sales of his books to restore supposed lost films. I don’t question his motivations – he just should stay with the pen (or with his laptop) and not make films.

At the other end of the spectrum, award-winning documentarist Rory Kennedy directed a solid, challenging film on one of the worst aspects of the war in Iraq, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib. Being prevented access to the three main perpetrators of the abuses – Specialist Charles Graner, Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick and Army PFC Lynndie England – because they are confined to military prisons, Kennedy was however able to interview MPs and MIs having received lesser sentences (Javal Davis) or rank reduction (Megan Ambuhl), and some who had simply been witnesses (Israel Rivera) – as well as Brigadier General Janis Karpinski (demoted to Colonel and “retired” after the scandal) and former Iraqi detainees (whom she was eventually able to meet in Turkey via the assistance of a law firm representing them, and who are only presented under an alias). The result is a devastating, necessary document not only on the contagion of “ordinary evil” but, more importantly, of a chain of command designing “a culture of torture and humiliation that was sanctioned by the Pentagon and the Bush administration” but has yet to be indicted.

Zoo

Zoo is one of these rare films that manage to tread gracefully between documentary and fiction, between the inescapability of facts and the protagonists’ inner landscape. The director, Seattle-based Robinson Devor, had already left his mark with two wonderfully off-beat narratives, The Woman Chaser (1999) and Police Beat (2004) – both shown at Sundance. (4) Police Beat had been inspired by a column written by the writer/journalist Charles Mudede, and the pair teamed up again on Zoo. Based on a “scandalous” news item – a man bleeds to death of a perforated colon, bringing to light the workings of an underground zoophilic culture – Zoo succeeds in dealing with its subject with dignity – whether they are the men gathering at this isolated horse farm to pursue their sexual dreams, or the beautiful Arabian stallions that are the objects of their interest. To create the moody tone of the piece, enter into the protagonists inner lives, communicate the beauty of the place, the bond and affection uniting the men, Devor acknowledges drawing his inspiration more from The Mirror and Happy Together than other documentaries. Crucial moments of the life of “Mr. Hand”, the dead businessman with a double life, are re-enacted with elegance and flair – focusing on the desperate need to connect that motivated his secret sexual desires.

Some of the most interesting documentaries were also shown in other sections. “Spectrum” showed Laura Dunn’s The Unforeseen, a detailed account of real estate development in Austin, Texas, the resulting environmental damages and the ongoing community battle against it. New Frontier organised the US premiere of the highly successful French film, Zidane, un portrait du XXIème siècle (Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait) in which visual artists Philip Parenno and Douglas Gordon turned seventeen 35mm cameras on the star soccer player during a match to create a strangely abstract, sometimes static, sometimes silent, portrait. One of the most challenging visual document of the last few years, Zidane is a reflection on fame and media in abstentia, as well as a meditation on the spirit of soccer itself, and what constitutes greatness on the field.

It is, however, in the “World Cinema Competition” that I found the most exhilarating entry of the festival: VHS-Kahloucha, the first feature-length film by Tunisian director Nejib Belkadi, follows the shooting of Tarzan of the Arabs by a middle-aged house painter, Moncef Kahloucha, in the lower-class district of Kazmet in Sousse, Tunisia. In love with Hollywood genre cinema of the 1970s, Kahloucha attempts to emulate his model by writing and directing endearing action flicks shot on video and star-studded with his neighbours – including a 70 year-old woman who has to play hide-and-seek with her boorish husband who has forbidden her to be on the set. Kahloucha (who plays himself the role of Tarzan, dolled up in a leopard-skin loin-cloth) stops at nothing to get his film done: for the final scene, during which thugs massacre the family that has sheltered Tarzan into civilisation, he convinced his sister to get rid of her tenant and lent her house (that will eventually be set on fire!) which he fills with objects bought in the soukh to be smashed during the fight: a TV set, glasses and pots… VHS-Kahloucha is also a loving portrait of the neighbourhood and its inhabitants, including its social problems. Because of poverty and unemployment, many residents immigrate illegally to Italy, where a small community of exiles from Sousse watch Kahloucha’s tapes together… His own brother is in jail there – and their mother, denied a visa, crossed illegally several frontiers to be sure she’d be in the courtroom at the moment of sentencing, crying to convince the judge to be more lenient… At home, one of Kahloucha’s sons is also in jail for delinquency – as are some of his friends or friends’ children. When Tarzan of the Arabs is completed, Kahloucha does his own publicity, rents a bar to show the tape – and Belkadi captures the joy of the spectators at seeing their friends and neighbours acting in a genre film. There is a hitch, however: women can’t go to bars, so female spectators are barred from the spectacle, and protest loudly!

VHS-Kahloucha

To Sundance spectators, VHS-Kahloucha will remind them of the epoch-making American Film, in which Chris Smith was following the efforts of a divorced funeral home attendant, living in his parents’ basement, to manufacture horror movies. Yet, it is even more fascinating when it is in non-Western countries that people de facto excluded from the means of cinematic production articulate their desire to reclaim genre filmmaking for themselves. In 2002, Moslem Mansouri’s Trial (Mohakeme) documented the super-8 activities of the brick-maker Mantini in his remote Iranian village, who had directed more than 18 films without the permission of the government; surprisingly, one of his main actors was Hoossein Sabzian, whose obsession for cinema had prompted him to impersonate Mohsen Makhmalbaf – an odyssey recreated by Abbas Kiarostami in Close-Up. In 2003, Zheng Dasheng directed DV China, showing the multifarious efforts of Zhou Yuanqiang, a cultural worker in Jingdezhen (Jiangxi province), China’s porcelain capital, who, gathering his crew and extras (by the hundreds!) among the local peasant population and with money begged piecemeal from his superiors, directed no less than 18 “TV” series, from revolutionary stories to peasant comedies to martial arts flicks. These filmic documents are precious – evidence of the role played by cinema among powerless, disenfranchised populations, how, through their enthusiasm, and in spite of their technical and financial limitations, they feel that “the dream” belongs to them.

Jennifer Fox is another idiosyncratic dreamer who has made cinema work for her. Having founded her own production company in 1980, she gained international fame with her first feature, Beirut: The Last Home Movie (1987) in which she followed, in camera verité, the life of an upper-class Christian family staying in their mansion even when bombs dropped in the middle of the war. She then was hired to videotape the world tour of the Tibetan Buddhist Lama, Namkhai Norbu Rimpoche and his friend, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, for Buddhist archives in Italy – before embarking on the mammoth project of An American Love Story, for which she shared the life of a multi-racial family in Queens, New York, for seven years, editing the footage down to a 10-hour series. She returns to the serial form with Flying: Confession of a Free Woman, whose six one-hour episodes were shown as a “Special Screening”. Having turned 42 at the beginning of the shooting, Fox turns the camera on herself to examine her life, and, beyond it, the lives of dozens of women she has come in close contact with across the world, from South Africa to India to Afghanistan to New York City. As she develops the technique of “passing the camera” between her and her interlocutors in the middle of a conversation, the series becomes a multi-faceted portrait of the contemporary female condition.

Flying: Confession of a Free Woman

What had prompted Fox to start her investigation was the question of whether or not she should/could have children. And it was not only a question of “biological clock” – but a question of professional commitment versus raising children – the fear of reproducing the lives of her mother and grandmother – and also the absence of a steady male partner. By sharing Fox’s journey, we meet a wide variety of women who are all addressing these issues in their own ways, are battling sexism, cancer and AIDS, and are having children with or without male partners. What becomes clear is that, in our modern times, wherever they live, women are working incredibly hard – just to make ends meet, to keep their families and/or dignity together, or because they are involved in a particularly demanding profession (such as filmmaking). The fractured bond between women of different generations is always at the centre, as the older women try to “pass on” what they think is better for their daughters or granddaughters to insure that they marry well, and within the tradition. Yet they actually send mixed messages – on the one hand, they want the younger women to faithfully reproduce the lives that were imposed upon them, the only lives they knew – on the other they want them to have better opportunities. In the middle, the female subject is caught in a nexus of self-doubt and ambivalence.

As she tries to find her way between two lovers – a married Black South African writer and a benevolent Swiss cinematographer – Fox cannot help but comparing her life to that of her subjects. Some of the most successful sequences involve visiting a single mother in a South African slum, an energetic Egyptian professional-cum-mother living in Paris, a group of Afghani women, and Amina, a Somali activist in London. There is a joyful disregard for class and race difference in Fox’s approach that may irritate some but actually works for her. She displays her sex life to Afghani women, prompting an unexpected confession from one of her guides, Shazia (“I am 32, I am a virgin, I am in love with someone but cannot express my feelings.”) and ending up on a discussion of female anger with the group: “-How do you express it?” “We break ceramic pots.” As Amina describes how genital mutilation is used to close the vagina and make it impenetrable until marriage, Fox jumps to what many consider unjustified conclusions – equating the physical wounds inflicted by Amina’s grandmother (one of the “perpetrators” of the ordeal) to the psychological wounds inflicted by her own grandmother. Both had the same effect: make sure the girls would be “marriageable”. Yet – this is not the whole story, as Fox had confessed, in an earlier episode, being sexually molested at 13, and still being scarred by the event. “Your grandmother wanted to make sure that what happened to me would not happen to you”, she says to Amina.

Flying is open-ended. Toward the end, after her grandmother’s death, Fox attempts to overcome her ambivalence toward her mother and discover who the woman really is. The mother’s desire, however, remain opaque: did she want little Jen to get married and be swamped under diapers and baby bottles – or did she want her to become an artist? One thing is sure – Fox has learnt a couple of things about herself and what is means to be a woman and brought essential, thought-provoking, often humorous and illuminating, sometimes tragic and infuriating, elements to the ongoing conversation about what femininity means today.

Endnotes

  1. Candy by Mian Mian, English translation from the Chinese by Andrea Lingenfelter, Little, Brown and Company.
  2. It is also telling that the producers chose the title “Nanking” and that the publicity booklet says that “Nanking is now called Nanjing”. Actually, the city was always called Nanjing; the spelling “Nanking” was a distortion of the Wade-Giles system, used in Taiwan and in Western countries until the more accurate pinyin system of transliteration was universally adopted.
  3. According to newspapers of the time, Patricia Douglas was 17 in 1937 – yet her official birthdate is 1917. Strangely, neither the film nor the original article address this discrepancy.
  4. On Police Beat see my report on Sundance 2005, Senses of Cinema No 35.

About The Author

Bérénice Reynaud is the author of New Chinas/New Cinemas (1999) and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness (2002). She teaches at the California Institute of the Arts. She edited the Senses of Cinema dossier devoted to Chantal Akerman.