17–27 January 2008
The shadow of the seemingly never-ending writers strike was looming over Sundance this year (we didn’t yet know it would end just on time for the Oscars!), and, when we were turned on CNN in our hotel rooms at night, all we could hear was, in addition to the Presidential campaign news, worrisome facts about the incoming recession (these threats are still with us, just worse)… Buyers were cautious, especially since a number of them had been guilty of bad judgment last year, paying inflated prices for certain “products” that did not behave well at the box-office (such as James C. Strouse’s soapy Grace is Gone). Like most successful film festivals, Sundance is operating under the tension between being, de facto, a market, and providing a testing ground for adventurous cinema. The continuous attention paid to documentaries (whose section is always listed first, both for the US and the international competitions), as well as the opening, a few years ago, of the “Frontier” section for more experimental films, videos and installations, are elements that seem to keep the balance (it has to be noted, however, that documentaries and “Frontier” films are usually shown in the smaller-size theatres of the Holiday Cinema complex, while the largest venues, such as the Eccles and the Raquet Club, are reserved for the dramatic competition and the commercial “premieres”). Another positive sign: like last year with Christopher Zalla’s Padre Nuestro, the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize was awarded to a small, disturbing, well-crafted independent film by a first-time director, Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River. In her acceptance speech Hunt thanked the Sundance programmers for helping the film find “a perfect audience: without [them], this film could easily have been lost.”
Films like Frozen River and Padre Nuestro fare well with juries and critics due, in part, to their intricate mixture of documentary and fictional elements. Often, however, their commercial future is less promising. Padre Nuestro – retitled The Blood of My Blood – acquired by IFC, is timidly starting its commercial career in the US; the future looks more promising for Hunt’s film, as it was acquired by Sony Classics in the US and by Rézo for the international rights. Another high point of the festival was the much-expected Trouble in Water by Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, which, unsurprisingly, won the Documentary Grand Jury Prize. At a time of crisis within American society, the film revisits one of the biggest failures of the Bush administration’s domestic policy, the Katrina Hurricane, thus creating a collective catharsis which most festivalgoers could identify with (as both Hollywood and the “indie scene” usually posit themselves in various shades of the left). Danny Glover, who has been using his fame to promote and advocate causes or films he deems important (such as Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako or Andres Alegría and Claude Marks’ Legacy of Torture: The War Against the Black Liberation Movement, to mention some of his most recent interventions) is the executive producer. Deal and Lessin (who are white) have solid credentials in politically conscious documentaries – having collaborated, in various capacities (from producer to chief archivist) on several of Michael Moore’s projects (Farenheit 9/11, Bowling for Columbine) as well as on Scorsese’s Dylan documentary (for Lessin), while Deal worked on Christopher Quinn’s God Grew Tired of Us: The Lost Boys of Sudan which had won the Grand Jury Prize and the audience prize at Sundance in 2006. Yet, the strength of Trouble in Water is to function as an implicit critic of the politics of media representation in the US, as its contradictions were displayed during the hurricane. One of the shocks of the images presented on TV in that fatal August 2007 is that we had never seen so many black people in the news! As the levees broke and the 9th Ward flooded, it became clear that it was New Orleans poor neighbourhoods that were destroyed, and that a pretty stiff racial line was dividing the quarters. African Americans were represented as victims, stranded on their rooftops, walking through water – and quickly became offenders: people gathering baby food, water bottles and diapers from half-flooded stores were portrayed as rapacious looters. Then they were packed in the simmering hell of the Superdome, or hidden away in shelters outside the city – and, as soon as possible, white faces reinvaded the screens, and we were treated to many stories of heroic Caucasian families battling insurance companies to rebuild their homes, and asked to rejoice because the French Quarter had reopened its cafés. Passing objects of the national grief, African Americans became Ralph Ellison’s invisible man again – without being given the chance of become the subjects of their own representation.
This is where Trouble the Water breaks the mold, and why it’s an important film. Deal and Lessin collaborated with Kimberly Rivers Roberts, a young rap artist living with her husband Scott (and two dogs) in a congenial black neighbourhood in which old ladies were sitting on their porches watching the street and gossiping and homeless drunks were treated as part of the family. A few days before the hurricane, Roberts bought a camera, and then endeavoured to record the catastrophe and its aftermath (there is a harrowing moment when the local drunk is found dead – off-screen – by Roberts’ husband, in a collapsed house), the devastation of the neighbourhood, the good Samaritan wading though several feet of water, the displacement, the futile and often disheartening fight to get assistance from both the National Guard and FEMA, the flight to a relatives’ home in Memphis, the interaction with other similarly uprooted and disenfranchised residents. Again these are faces that we are not used to seeing on our screens – the faces of ordinary black folks, neither victims nor saints nor heroes, young and old, handsome or plain – and their fate is intimately intertwined with that of the “accidental” (yet competent) cinematographer. She and her husband love New Orleans too much to be able to make a life for themselves somewhere else, and, after their attempt at relocating, come back. It is at this juncture that Robert bursts into an exhilarating rendition of a rap song she has composed about her life, (I am) Amazing.
Collaboration, indeed, is the key to the success of the film – aesthetically, politically and emotionally. That the makers of documentary films could gain a lot of insight if they shared the camera and directorial responsibility with their “subjects” is not a novel idea, but one that is harder to implement that it seems. Not only because it involves a reversal of the master gaze, a different equation between the supposed-unknown (the life of the “subjects”) and the knowledge the film is designed to bring the audience – but for the simple reason that it takes time. As the printed press (or what’s left of it) packages the news by the square inch and the media presents them in items of standardised length and format – speed is crucial, and messiness to be avoided. What the represented subject introduces in the filmic discourse is disorder, disruption, a “slanted gaze” that comes from looking from the inside – and some of the best experiments in the matter (1) bring this disruptive elements to light – while trying to make sense of it. The “director” of the piece is then turned into an editor faced with masses of “raw material” – a situation which is not without raising ethical issues at another level. (2)
On the extreme end of the spectrum comes Nerakhoon (The Betrayal), in which directorial credits are shared between Ellen Kuras and the community organiser/filmmaker Thavisouk (“Thavi”) Phrasavath, who is also the subject of the piece. One of the few female cinematographers to have reached international currency (known for her award-winning work with such luminaries of the independent film scene as Ellen Bruno, Tom Kalin, Rebecca Miller, Spike Lee and Michael Gondry), Kuras had met Phrasavath 23 years ago, as she was looking for someone to teach her Lao. The stories told during their conversations became the inspiration for the film, leading to a true professional collaboration, with Kuras shooting her usual lush, moody, intimate images and Phrasavath editing. Indeed, such a project can take place only one time in an artist’s life and co-exist with other professional activities. That’s why Nerakhoon is such a precious, singular document not only of a family’s travails or the unfolding of our recent history, but of the documentary process itself. This is the first film directed by Kuras, and, at some point, she asked Phrasavath to put together the sequence recounting his family’s escape from Laos – an event that had taken place years before their original encounter. The issue was to shape memories, documents and voiceover, while integrating additional moody shots brought back from Laos by Kuras, that suggest loss and nostalgia. Such an intimate experience of displacement could only be communicated from the inside out – and for this Phrasavath (a trained electrical engineer by profession and a community organiser by choice) taught himself editing.
This sequence is key and gives its tone to the rest of the film. Phrasavath’s father, an officer in the Lao Royal Army, had been recruited by the CIA to do intelligence work against the Vietcong. When the Communist Pathet Lao seized power, he was arrested and sent to a reeducation camp, never to be seen again as it seemed, and his family constantly harassed. As the oldest son, “Thavi” escaped first to Thailand, and his mother and siblings joined him two years later – having to leave two daughters behind… Hoping to find a warm welcome in the US, the family eventually emigrated to New York, where they were dumped in a crummy tenement building, sharing the apartment with another family, next door to a crack house – realising that they were not wanted in the US, had nothing to hope from their sponsor and were now in the position of second-class citizens, barely tolerated refugees. This was the first betrayal – through which Thavi acquired a new stature as the man who keeps family and community together, who strives to keep his cultural identity while finding ways to inserting himself in America, who fights to keep his younger siblings in school, away from the temptation of the gangs. Finally, after years of waiting, the mother receives a phone call… Hope is rekindled – but this turns out to be the second instance of betrayal… In the void created, the responsibility to fully assume the role of the symbolic father fell on Thavi – and maybe this is why he became a filmmaker.
Time, and an intimate collaboration with the subject, are also the key elements in Steven Sebring’s Patti Smith – Dream of Life, shot in 16mm in an alluring combination of black and white and colour over a period of 11 years. A fashion photographer by profession, Sebring had met Smith though Michael Stipe, the leader of the band R.E.M.. As a rock icon, Patti Smith’s image is somewhat frozen as the rebellious adolescent who burst out on the East Village punk scene with Piss Factory. Sebring offers a multi-faceted, nuanced portrait of a woman in her 50s and 60s, who had gone through 16 years of withdrawing from the public eye, has been married and widowed (Fred “Sonic” Smith had died just a year before the project started) and has had two children, Jackson and Jessie (who grow up through the film). When Sebring started filming Smith, following her from Detroit, New York, Washington DC, Japan, France, New Zealand and Israel, she was just about to resume touring – while continuing her other artistic and political activities, from painting and photography to poetry and anti-war demonstrations. Sebring is not after big revelations – but after something much more precious – the texture of Smith’s day-to-day existence, how a succession of moments captured in present time shapes the life of a woman who never stops growing, and changing, and persisting in what she is and what she slowly becomes.
Sebring wanted the film to be “almost an extension of Patti’s mind” (3) – a mind that is as intense and complex as it is profoundly original. Alternatively a sketchbook and a diary, a blueprint for future collaborative projects between Sebring and Smith and an elliptic record of the transience of time, the fabric of the film is woven as a seductive to-and-fro between mundane occurrences and “the dream of life” alluded in the title – the ineffable interior landscape, the secret garden glanced at through what a programmer called a “hypnagogic plunge.” (4) A conversation about gardening and hamburgers with her elderly parents (who passed away during the shooting) or shots of industrial cityscapes are intertwined with memories of childhood (the little dress she holds in her hand), a trip to Charleville to discover the traces left by Arthur Rimbaud (5) or images from a trip to Israel where she refused to cancel a concert when she received news of her father’s critical condition back home (“He would have wanted me to perform. This was important.”)
The representation of the intimate or the singular is also at the heart of Li Ying’s Yasukuni – not a small feat if one considers that the documentary deals with a highly controversial chapter in contemporary world history: Japanese militarism, and its after-effect on Sino-Japanese relationships. In the growing Chinese documentary field, Li has constantly asserted an original point of view. For one thing, this former CCTV (Chinese Central Television) documentarist has worked and lived between Japan and China for the last 11 years, and his first film, 2 H (1999) looked at the friendship between two lonely people – a 95 year-old former general who had defected from China to Japan and a Chinese artist living in Japan while trying to get pregnant. Dream Cuisine (Aji, 2003) offered insights in the life of the 78 year-old cook Sato Hatsue, who, born in China where her Japanese father had opened a trading company, lived there until she was 23. Back in Japan, she still feels nostalgia for her Chinese youth – and the taste and smell of Shandong cuisine! Li’s two other documentaries – Fei ya fei (2001) and Mona Lisa (Meng na li sha, 2005), a remarkable mixture of documentary and fiction – were shot in China, while Li’s production company, Dragon Films, is located in Tokyo. His multi-faceted involvement with Japanese culture – he was a Guest Artist Researcher at Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs, and Yokohama Mary’s director, Takayuki Nakamura, was his assistant for Dream Cuisine – is not without contradiction. (It is not without similarities to the plight of a young French Jew who’d fall in love with German culture…) Years ago, Li even thought of making a documentary on the “rape of Nanjing” – perpetrated by the Japanese army onto the civilian population in 1937-38 – an event that remains high in Chinese historical/political consciousness, yet still denied as “fabrication” or “propaganda” by a large number of Japanese citizens. Yet a number of films, either documentary and fiction, (6) had already treated the subject, some of them in rather exploitative manner, and Li recentred his efforts onto the Yasukuni Shrine, in which the remains of 2.5 million enlisted fighters who had died for Japan since the Meiji Restoration are enshrined. In the 1970s, Yasukuni became an object of sharp controversy within the international community (especially in China and Korea) – as the ashes of 14 war criminals who had been executed were brought to the shrine, and that the Emperor, his ministers and other government official frequently came there to worship in public.
Li spent ten years working, on and off, on Yasukuni, and creates a multi-textured, meditative film that opens up with the shot of a 90 year-old man, Kariya Naoji, the last surviving Yasukuni swordsmith, in the process of fabricating one of the fine blades he is famous for. Li keeps coming back to the footage of the venerable gentleman, through the film, and an intimate space is created between the filmmaker and his subject. Kariya is a man of few words, acutely aware this his interlocutor is a young Chinese man, and, sometimes, misunderstandings, slips and gaps come to complicate the exchange, at the end of which a sword is produced. Apart from the montage of pictures and footage at the end – accompanied by Symphony No 3, Opus 36, Des Chants Plaintifs by Goreki – conversations with Kariya are the only moment history is invoked directly. Swords are an intricate part of the Japanese “samurai” identity – they are exquisite art objects, but also machines of death, used, in particular, in a gruesome “beheading contest” waged between young officers during the Sino-Japanese war (the winner boasted of more than hundreds beheadings; later he was executed).
The other sequences capture moments at the shrine – the beauty of some rituals (a white procession in the middle of the night) alternate with the ugliness of some confrontations between partisans and detractors of the shrine. There is even an instance of high comedy: a totally clueless Yankee who has come to demonstrate his support to the Prime Minister Kuzumi is told that displaying an American flag is really not a good idea, and is removed courteously but firmly from the grounds. Some incidents are more violent. A young man who has come to protest Japanese militarism is called “a dirty Chinese dog,” and severely beaten by a mob (as it turns out, he’s Japanese). The most poignant moments involve the relatives of those enshrined. On the one hand, a couple of older women still hope to obliterate the shame of the verdict passed against the men in their family at the Tokyo trial. On the other, a group of people come to demand that their relatives are taken out of the shrine – and are not listened to. One of them is the spokesperson for the indigenous Atayal people of Taiwan, Chiwas Ari, who, under the name of Gaojin Sumei – or May Chin – had a brilliant career as a singer and actress before getting involved in politics (she was the spirited “faux bride” Wei Wei in Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet, 1993). As Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945, the inhabitants of the island were forcibly enlisted in the Emperor’s Army. Another activist who wants his father’s ashes removed as well is the Buddhist Priest Sugawara Ryuken. A priest himself, his father was forced to join the army, which was the equivalent of “a moral bankruptcy.”
Li films these multiple, discrete events at eye level, with an intimate, sympathetic gaze, limiting the soundtrack to ambient sound (wind, footsteps) and sync sound conversations. The complexity of the issues is conveyed by contrasting the mundane, noisy, often garrulous texture of these encounters on the grounds of the shrine, with the space of beautiful, albeit ambiguous, quasi-silence created between the filmmaker and the swordsmith. The hostile reactions currently generated in Japan to the upcoming release of the film, while predictable, are missing the mark. Yasukuni offers a rare, non-judgmental glimpse of what constitutes Japanese nationalism. Li maintains a difficult balance through and through. He is present, as a Chinese man, in his encounters with Kariya, then becomes a fly on the wall when shooting the worshippers at the shrine. He does not comment, patronise, nor draw conclusions. For him, the film will not be “finished” until there is a commercial run in Japan.
Lisa F. Jackson, the director of The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo would have benefited from seeing Yasukuni before embarking on her project. This part of the text is rather difficult for me to write. I am quite aware (especially as a woman) of the crucial importance of the subject – and the film was generally well-received. I learnt things from it. Yet, I do not believe that, even in this case, the content justifies the form. We have a searing example of “the Jane Fonda syndrome”, as astutely deconstructed by Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin in Letter to Jane (1972). A white woman goes to a Third World country where an ugly war takes place and takes position against the atrocities inflicted onto the civilian population. But, when she’s photographed (in the case of Fonda) or makes a film (in the case of Jackson), she is the one in the foreground, not the subjects whose cause she’s supposed to embrace.
Not only is Jackson visually present (camera in hand, trekking through dangerous areas, sharing girlish moments with her interviewees), but she is a constant presence on the soundtrack. Adhering to a naïve vision of “the personal as political”, she was moved to make a documentary about mass rapes in the Congo because she remembered being gang-raped as a young woman in Washington DC. She carries this past experience as a badge of honour, as a way of gaining the confidence of the women she interviews. She is so totally clueless, though, that she fails to understand what lies in the question she is posed in return: “They asked about the war that has been happening in my country.” I am not belittling the gravity of Jackson’s experience – I disagree with its relevance in a film documenting an entirely different phenomenon: serial rape in time of civil war. As some of the people she meets testify – before the war, there was no rape in the Congo. In order to understand what is at stake, is it not enough to interview some former rapists who give her stock answers (I am in need. I’ll ask [the woman] and if she says no… I must take her by force. If she is strong, I’ll call some friends to help me). You need an analysis of the causes and development of the civil war, of ethnic rivalry, of rape and sexual mutilation as a mode of ethnic cleansing or population control – but Jackson, melting in her humanistic and sisterly approach to the victims, only provides (on the soundtrack) a cursory crash-course in Congolese history. On the other hand, what she’s very good at is talking to the women in the shelter. So she thinks. Because, you see, she has brought little gifts for them – soaps, sample perfume, lipstick, nail polish. And, while berating herself (that’s “the personal”) for bringing gifts that “seem meager and a little pathetic”, she can’t resist (that’s “the political”) taking shots of the noble savages playing with these new toys, putting on lipstick and nail polish. The violence of my own disgust at the colonialist implications of these shots surprised me – until Akosua Adoma Owusu, a young Ghanean artist and filmmaker, updated me on research she had conducted on the Victorian ideology of bringing soap and other toiletries to the African jungle (such commodities were being brought to Africa as part of the triangular trade). (7)
When Jackson was raped in Washington DC, she was in a country with a full infrastructure – police and doctors she could go to, a family and a job she could return to. Her body was not systematically, horribly, mutilated afterwards, her family and community did not ostracise her, leaving her without means of survival. Yet she still thinks that telling these African women that a white woman can be raped too was making them feel better. Why should white womanhood be the gauge through which the suffering of other women be measured? The most upsetting for me was that Jackson turns The Greatest Silence into a mise en scène of her persona (the heroic independent filmmaker who goes through the jungle of the Congo and even interviews rapists!). The “victims” (interestingly enough, their identity is reduced to their victimisation) are in the background, putting lipstick on, singing African songs or giving stock answers to questions that did not construct them as subjects (I want to be a nurse or a nun) – as, years ago, the Vietnamese man in Jane Fonda’s photos. As Godard and Gorin said “We have to produce images in a different way – or at least show them in a different way.”
As evidenced – in totally opposite ways – by Li’s and Jackson’s films, real and symbolic frontiers (between nations and cultures, between the First and Third World, between the self and others, between documentary and fiction) constitute a terrain where the ethics of representation are the most severely tested. Under the Bombs (Sous les Bombes), a small Franco-Lebanese production, written by a French Jew (Michel Léviant) and directed by a Lebanese man (Philippe Aractingi) passes the test with flying colours – and true melancholia. Shot in an emergency situation, with the screenplay written (and re-written) as the filming went along, it was the immediate, emotional response to the relentless bombing experienced by Lebanon during the last war, in the summer of 2006. Ten days after the beginning of the conflict, as the bombs were still falling, in the midst of the destruction waged around him, Aractingi devised the story of a middle class Shiite woman, Zeina (the soulful actress Nada Abou Farhat), in the throes of a messy divorce, who comes back from Dubai looking for the young son she has entrusted to her sister in her home village in the South. She has money and willpower, but no taxi driver wants to go to the ravaged South. Until she meets Tony (played by one of Lebanon’s greatest male stars, Georges Khabbaz), a cynical hustler ready to do everything for a buck – and not unmoved by the distressed mother’s sex appeal. Tony is a Christian Druze, with a complex family history (his brother lives in Israel and would face trial for treason if he came back) and a chip on his shoulder. Abou Fahat and Khabbaz were the only two professional actors as Aractingi cast real people (villagers, children, soldiers, journalists, militants) as themselves (and in some case replaying their own tragedies) as the story unfolded and the taxi went deeper and deeper into the South. Mistrustful and angry at each other – as Tony keeps raising his fee and protesting the hardships the trip exposes him to, and Zeina has not intention of letting him bully or intimidate her (she is paying, that’s it) – the protagonists see the self-centeredness of their initial goals being superseded by the magnitude of the situation. Zeina’s purpose (finding her childhood home, her sister, her child) is more “noble” than Tony’s – but the film discovers a new ethical centre at the moment the narration changes its axis. It is the plight of Lebanon, rather the fate of this one child named Karim, that is at stake in the film. Here Léviant and Aractingi take position against what I call “the Schindler’s List syndrome.”
We remember the situation. A group of sixteen Jewish women arrive at a death camp. They are stripped of their clothes, and thrown into a room to “take a shower.” Protagonists and spectators expect the worse. Then we hear the sound of gushing water, and cries of surprise (the water is cold) and joy (it is really water, not gas). So, sixteen women are saved – the narration is built so we rejoice – obfuscating the fact that six millions died. In Under the Bombs we rout for Zeina, we want her to find Karim – yet the film opens up the space of reflection and questions our desire to have this particular (fictional) child found, while so many ended up under gravel, ruins and rocks or in unmarked mass graves.
The suturation of a happy ending is also missing in Frozen River. The river of the title is the Saint Lawrence, which separates Quebec from Upstate New York, and also runs through the Mohawk Reservation. In winter, its frozen waters are used as a way to smuggle illegal immigrants into the United States. In her first feature, Courtney Hunt does not shy from showing the dire conditions under which the smuggling takes place – two or three people squeezed into a small trunk, the middleman (a fantastic cameo by Mark Boone Junior) terrorising his “customers” into submission, luggage thrown out of the car if deemed too heavy. Yet the real division that runs through the film is not that of geographic boundaries – but the difference and mistrust between the two female protagonists (played by two terrific, so-far underrated actresses) who must work together. Ray (Melissa Leo) is white trash – she lives in a run-down trailer with two sons she feeds with popcorn and Tang, surviving on a part-time job at the Yankee One Dollar Store, and her gambler of a husband has gone AWOL in the direction of Atlantic City. She desperately needs to make the monthly installment for a new trailer. As she tries to recover the car left by her husband at the bus station, she fights with a Mohawk woman, Lila (Misty Upham) intent on stealing it. Also living in a trailer (albeit a smaller one) on the Reservation, Lila is desperate for a car: she needs money to regain custody of her child, and has been offered by a shady acquaintance to take part in a smuggling operation, but, disapproving of the plan, the tribal elders forbid anyone in the community to rent or sell her a vehicle. Lila has the connection; Ray has the car. In sub-zero temperature, covering long distances at night, the two single mothers start an uneasy partnership.
While Frozen River is, in part, a road movie with two females at the wheel, this is no Thelma and Louise. Ray and Lila are two of the most original, complex and credible working-class women portrayed on the screen in a long time. They are not on a crusade “against male domination”. Men left them holding the bag, and, like millions of women in the same situation, they had to make do – that’s all. Hunt’s camera inhabits the icy landscapes relentlessly travelled by her protagonists with the unexpected overtones of a film noir and the density of a thriller. The snow fields are a harsh, hostile universe, where you could get lost or get trapped, yet their quasi-magical beauty sometimes overwhelms us. There is even room for a small miracle – that does not seem improbable nor corny – especially as it follows a moment of callousness: an East Indian baby hidden in a travel bag and thrown on the snow in the middle of the night is found and brought back to life. The second miracle is more intimate. As everything is lost, and the social order ready to reinstate itself – the Mohawk woman will pay the full price of her transgression, the white woman will be allowed to get off – Hunt’s heroines display their maturity, open a hole in the social fabric and undermine the expectations of those around them. The realism of the film is not one of desperation, but a straightforward display of the conditions in which the two women have to struggle.
No pat ending for “Sugar”, the eponymous protagonist of the second feature directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck – of Half Nelson fame. A Dominican teenager, Miguel Santos (newcomer Algenis Perez Soto) owes his monicker (“Azucar” in Spanish, which means “Sugar”) to his suave disposition – or maybe his fondness for sweets. His talent at playing baseball is a sure ticket to get out of the island and into the United States (historically, some of the biggest names in US baseball, such as Sammy Sosa, Pedro Martinez, David Ortiz and Sammy Sosa, were Dominican imports). At 19, he’s picked by a minor league and is shipped to a small community in Iowa, where at first his outstanding pitching kills make him the new star of the team. Shot mostly in Spanish, Sugar makes the best of the subtle and not-so-subtle misunderstandings that result from Miguel’s poor English and lack of familiarity with Anglos-Saxon mores. A kind waitress explains to him how to order breakfast, but the pretty daughter of his host family is unable to acknowledge the emotions stirred in him by her stock “friendliness”. Following the plight of one of his teammates, Jorge, put on the sidelines and then cast away after an injury that won’t heal fast enough, Miguel realises that baseball players brought over from poor Latin American countries are the true modern gladiators – bought, sold and expandable. The impossibility to meet girls to even talk to, the hostility of local jocks at a nightclub, the loneliness in an unfamiliar landscape increase his feelings of alienation.
Intelligently, Sugar shifts from a baseball success story to a tale about the hardships inherent to immigration to much deeper concerns. Fleeing to Queens, New York, Miguel starts again at the bottom, staying in a seedy hotel next door to a prostitute and working in a small restaurant. Then he strikes a hesitant friendship with a Latino carpenter who, reluctant at first, agrees to let him in his workshop. This is a way for Miguel to reconnect with his roots, as well as with what he’s good at outside baseball, and find his bearings; before dying, his father, a skilled carpenter himself, had passed him some of the tricks of the trade. The bittersweet conclusion takes the former teenage sport star to a baseball court where local kids practice in his new neighbourhood. Throwing the ball in a non-professional setting might make the game fun again…
A female spectator at the Festival congratulated Tom McCarthy for “one of the best endings in the history of cinema,” and I have to agree with her. In the last shot of McCarthy’s second feature, The Visitor, a well-dressed, elderly gentleman (wonderful Richard Jenkins) gets into the New York City subway, carrying a huge African drum with him. On the middle of the platform, he finds a bench to sit on, and starts playing with his instrument, erratically and almost shyly at first – then the rhythm more frenetic, the tapping louder and louder, the droning sound incongruously invades the space of the station – as the player is clearly expressing some rage, or sorrow, or tension too powerful for words. Indeed, Jenkins’ character, the semi-retired economics professor Walter Vale – is at the end of a long journey in which he has lost the few things that were making life interesting again: a new friend, his fight against the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) and even the possibility of romance with an exotic woman.
In his first, critically hailed, film, The Station Agent, McCarhy started with the assumption that every man (or woman) is an island, and then spent the rest of the narration playfully establishing bridges between these islands, even though his protagonists were sometimes too shy, or pig-headed, or absent-minded, to think of how simple and fun it would be to cross the water. Walter is your typical crusty professor, probably called “old fart” by his students and maybe even his colleagues. He does not care anymore. His wife, a talented concert pianist whose recordings he listens to with melancholia, died a few years earlier. Then on his way to a conference in New York, opening the door of an apartment he keeps in the city just in case, his life is subjected to disorder. There is a (screaming) woman in his bathtub. Moreover, she’s young, beautiful – and black. She comes assorted with a handsome brown-skinned boyfriend, who does not know if he should slug the intruder or try to understand the situation. Reason prevails, talk is exchanged. Tarek, an artist and musician from Syria (Haaz Sleiman), and his girlfriend, the Senegalese Zainab (Danai Gurira), victims of the housing shortage and – as we’ll hear later – of their precarious status, have given finder’s fee and rent money to a crook who provided them with the keys to Walter’s apartment. Walter is bored, the unexpected guests are charming, Zainab is a great cook, and Tarek’s drums are intriguing. Walter lets them stay while wasting his days at an economics conference he couldn’t care less about – and he starts developing a friendship with Tarek.
The key to this relationship lies in the shared practice of music – which is a complex operation for Walter: not only is he a bad (albeit enthusiastic) drummer, but African music is on the opposite pole of the classical tunes in which he had enshrined his dead love. He does not resolve the contradiction – and McCarthy does not either, mercifully – but the two men start “jamming” together in various parts of the city. One day, in a turnstile in the subway, Walter’s drum gets stuck; Tarek tries to help him, but the police, assuming he was trying to get in the subway without paying, arrests him. Walter still does not get it. He thinks it’s a simple misunderstanding – that his testimony will free his friend. No, explains Zainab, in tears, he’ll get deported. We’re here illegally.
The third act of The Visitor gives new meaning to the title. Alternatively, each of the characters could have been “visiting” – but this time it alludes to the word that you see at the entrance of each US airport, that separates “US Citizens and Permanent Residents” from “Visitors” – those who can (still) enter the country without too much hassle, and those who are fingerprinted, questioned, suspected (especially if their skin is not of the right colour), sometimes strip-searched, detained, deported. Tarek and his mother were fleeing political repression in Syria, yet were denied political asylum in the US, The film takes a near-documentary turn, showing Walter’s repeated trips to the INS detention centre, his attempts to find a legal solution, his discovery of the bureaucratic maze and the bad faith that surrounds any decision made about “illegal aliens”.
The fourth act quietly opens an unsuspected dimension, the world of stubborn, elegant, seductive and strong-willed Middle Eastern motherhood – world of mystery, seduction, comfort and loss whose sesame is the arrival of Tarek’s mother, Mouna Khalil (Hiam Abbas, the belly-dancing Mom of Raja Amari’s Satin Rouge, among others). Unlike Zainab, who moves out of Walter’s apartment as soon as Tarek is arrested, Mouna is so secure in her sexuality, her boundaries, her charisma, that she has no problems staying there – even having a sincere, intimate friendship with the Professor without transgressing the rules of propriety. She may be the ultimate Visitor, the one who won’t stay – whose too-brief presence offers Walter a glimpse of these other worlds he had forbidden himself to explore.
So, one grey morning in Manhattan, he brings his drum along and starts playing, as if he wanted to drown the entire subway system in these noises visiting from distant shores.
The Visitor from afar, the avant-garde apex in the gamut of work offered by the “Frontier” section – should have been the Chinese artist/filmmaker Yang Fudong. But, notoriously media shy (even though he’s a star of the international art world, represented by galleries in Shanghai, New York and Paris) and committed to the shooting of another project, Yang cancelled his trip to Sundance, which is a pity, because the film world is still reluctant to appreciate his work. Born in Beijing, trained as a painter at the Hangzhou Art Academy – famed for the open-mindedness of its teaching – Yang moved to Shanghai in the mid-1990s where he soon became famous for his photographs, collages and videos that cast a singular, witty, often disturbing glance on the bodies and gestures of young people caught between modernity and a certain sort of void, or absurdity. Yet Yang was also pursuing a dream of cinema, and finally yielded to his fascination for the crisp, moody, black and white 35mm cinematography, that was later to become his trademark. In 1996-97 he started shooting An Estranged Paradise (Mosheng Tiantang, 2002 – the film took five years to edit) that evolves from a meditation on the composition of space in Chinese painting and calligraphy. The (non-narrative) tension felt in Yang’s filmic oeuvre comes from the desire to combine ancient Chinese aesthetics with his fascination for certain aspects of the filmic tradition: here Yang’s influences lie with the “Golden Age” of Shanghai cinema in 1930s and 1940s, the French New Wave and Jim Jarmusch’s early black and white films (he even partially borrows the title of Stranger than Paradise!). (8)
One of the themes that has haunted Chinese classical painting as well as early Shanghai cinema is the role of the intellectual in society – an issue that has experienced many a landslip since 1949 and that Yang started addressing in his first conceptual works. The five-part piece Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest is an allusion to a group of intellectuals who retreated in the wilderness during the Wei and the Jin dynasties (third century). Yang chose seven young people, all friends and non-actors (some of them changed during the project), and dressed them, a bit oddly, in slightly outdated Western formal wear found in a film studio costume shop. As the project has evolved, so has the form. Part 4 and 5 are now solidified in semi-feature length pieces, entirely devoid of voiceover or sync dialogue, but inhabited by a fascinating texture of ambient sounds. A recurring trope, though, is the role played by nudity in the pieces. Already, in Part 1, the intellectuals were calmly taking their clothes off, for no apparent reasons that, as Yang said, “naked bodies are beautiful.” As such they become found objects, elements in a still-life compositions, shapes and lines, beautifully photographed, merging or in contrast with the décor.
Part 4 (the first to be shown at Sundance) starts with a series of long shots during which the intellectuals are carrying heavy suitcases through a dilapidated urban landscape – before sailing to an island, in which they live the simple, arduous life of peasants and fishermen. The composition of each image is outstanding and mysterious – as elements from different era (the antique outfit of a poor fisherman, and a fuel-powered machine) coexist in the same shot. In Part 5 (the second shown at Sundance), they return to the city, staying most of the time in an Art Deco Hotel, a remnant of Shanghai’s splendid colonial architecture. Turning away from the minimalism, the suggestion of hard work and reduced living conditions that made up Part 4, Yang seemed to have had a lot of fun there. He keeps starting, then aborting, possible melodramatic lines – around issues of seduction, rejection, and betrayal, with beautiful young women dancing naked in bed for a potential lover, or men sharing a moment of relaxation in a bathhouse. He also keeps changing the number of protagonists, adding cameos here and there, so we completely lose track of who the seven intellectuals are, especially in the final sequence, in which stars of the underground entertainment scene (such as the famous drag queen/singer Coco) come and present a number or mix with the audience, girls in party dress appear and disappear, and an army of young chefs (about 100!) wearing the traditional white hat invade the space in a Busby Berkeley fashion.
The beauty of Yang’s images, the mastery of his compositions, his subtle command of cinematic signs, his dedication to black and white 35 mm stock, his rejection of conventional realism for a sense of poetry that could make him a distant heir of Cocteau – all of this put him in the margin of the discourse on “New Chinese Cinema” that has somewhat congealed by now. Indeed the travails and avatars of modernity, the painful dislocation they impose on the lives and the minds of the young Chinese of Yang’s generation are as much the subject of his films as they are of his other artwork. The “bamboo” is a good signifier for this: it is an age-old Chinese trope, featured in classical representations of nature, in the landscaping of gardens, as well as in Taoist poetry and Buddhist philosophy; it is also the sturdy and flexible material that you find all over China and Hong Kong used as scaffolding around buildings being demolished or built. Yet, I believe that what Yang is looking for in the film medium is something that goes beyond the capability of articulating metaphors. The opacity of his images – and his refusal to produce a discourse about them – is a choice, not an accident. The object of his passion may be “the grain of the film” (as Barthes talked about the “grain of the voice”). This is the real reason for which they can express our modernity. For cinema – and all its material aspects, the image, the frame, the emulsion – has produced a new level of existence, the one in which we are trapped, for our horror and delight, like the intellectuals in their endless search for the bamboo forest.
Sundance Film Festival website: http://www.sundance.org/festival/
- They include Chain Camera (2001) for which Kirby Dick gave cameras to various students in a multi-racial Los Angeles high school, and his subsequent Twist of Faith (2004) in which one of the former victims of sexual abuse by priests is lent a camera to record private moments of his life; Flying – Confessions of a Free Woman during which Jennifer Fox “passes the camera” to various women – friends, relatives and strangers – met during her travels around the world (see my report on Sundance 2007); Iron Ladies of Liberia, for which US filmmaker Daniel Junge collaborated with female Liberian journalist Siatta Scott Johnson, as well as with the subject of the film, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who gave the team access to the first year of her presidency; China Village Self-Government Project for which documentarists Wu Wenguang and Jian Yi taught video workshops to villagers so they can report on the progress of local democracy in their communities.
- For example, questions were raised by student spectators after a screening of Chain Camera – about whether Kirby’s editing was a reinterpretation of the “authentic voices” of the students who had contributed footage. The villagers involved in the Self-Governing project worked on the editing in collaboration with a professional editor, but some expressed frustration at the fact that, to fit within a feature film, their segments had to be no longer than 10 minute each.
- Steven Sebring, production notes for the film.
- Caroline Libresco, Sundance 2008 catalogue, p. 91.
- Here it is not insignificant to notice that Smith’s first collaborator on Piss Factory was the musician Tom Verlaine.
- Among these films, one must mention Frank Capra’s documentary, The Battle of China (1944); Taiwanese director Mou Tun Fei’s The Nanjing Massacre (1995); Nanjing 1937 (1995), a fiction by Chinese mainland director Wu Zinju; a US independent documentary by Christine Choy and Nancy Tong, In the Name of the Emperor (1995); Tokyo Trial (2006) by Gao Qunshu; and the questionable Nanking (2007), by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman (see brief comments on the film in my report on Sundance 2007). The film, that centres on the Westerners living in Nanjing at the time, uncovers issues of ethics and the unbalance of representation that are not dissimilar to the ones I identified in Lisa H. Jackson’s The Greatest Silence (see below). Some other films on the subject are in the making, either in Japan (to assert it didn’t happen), China or the US. Is “Nanking” becoming a franchise?
- “Soap was credited for bringing moral and economic salvation to British colonies, the unwashed people and ‘magically embodying the spiritual ingredient of the imperial mission itself’.” Akosua Adoma Owusu, Program Notes “About My Work,” Exhibition at the California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, California, February 2008.
- It should be stated here, for record’s sake, that I have shown Yang Fudong’s first feature film, An Estranged Paradise (Mosheng Tiantang, 2002) at the UCLA Film & Television Archive in April 2005, in a program co-curated with Cheng-Sim Lim, as well as the first two installments of Seven Intellectual in Bamboo Garden (2003 and 2004) and the short film Liu Lan (2003) at REDCAT in Los Angeles in November 2004 – and that I was among the people who advised Shari Frilot, Curator of “The Frontier” Section, to bring Yang Fudong’s work to Sundance.