As many had expected, Benh Zeitlin’s first feature, Beasts of the Southern Wild, won The Grand Jury Prize, as well The Excellence in Cinematography Award (for Ben Richardson’s magic-realist imagery) in the US Dramatic Competition. On stage, six year-old Quvenzhané Wallis was smiling without being coy, kept asserting her desire to speak, and, when asked if the movie had changed her life, said no, that she still had to go to school and try and get As, which is really hard. It is this rare case when, even though the film is finely structured and scripted, Wallis and the protagonist Hushpuppy are one and the same thing: an incandescent presence that upsets narrative continuity.

Indeed, Zeitlin’s project was based on such transgressions, such upheaval of “normal” cinematic forms, as it takes the viewer on a surreal journey through the bayous surrounding New Orleans. Part of a disenfranchised yet vibrant black community living in shacks and surviving through fishing and farming, Hushpuppy has created a world of her own, that involves her relationship with her charismatic and hard-drinking father Wink (Dwight Henry), her resilience (she survives the fire she caused by lighting the stove with a soldering torch), and her charmed fantasies about the world (visions of melting glaciers and roaming aurochs). The lines between the real and the surreal are soon eradicated by an Apocalyptic-like event – a hurricane that sweeps off the roofs and batters the fragile walls, a deluge that swallows everything on its wake, forcing residents on their roofs or, if they are lucky like Hushpuppy and her Dad, on their boats with some of their beloved animals as in Noah’s Ark.

This is when the film becomes political. Transfigured either by Hushpuppy’s imagination or the filmmaker’s craft, the catastrophe that strikes the bayou is nothing but Hurricane Katrina. Rescue teams arrive, and bring the bayou residents into a shelter, where they have to behave appropriately. Hushpuppy is made to wear a dress; Wink, sedated and medicated after an altercation with social workers, is diagnosed with terminal cancer. The girl organises a break-out, bringing a bunch of children and neighbours, along with Wink still in his hospital gown, back to the bayou. There, another ecological catastrophe awaits them – the sea water, now receded, has killed the vegetation and the fresh-water fish. According to his wishes, Wink is laid to rest in his boat set afire to drift on the river. Then, with the children, Hushpuppy embarks on another trip, that leads her on a shrimp boat; to a warm-and-seedy rest-stop for sailors replete with music and hostesses with dancing and culinary (not to mention motherly) skills; and a final, magical confrontation with the aurochs unleashed by the ecological unbalance.

Another six year-old heroine is the eponymous centre of For Ellen, So Yong Kim’s third feature (and third Sundance entry) after In Between Days (2006) and Treeless Mountain (2008). Both films described the displacement of young Korean female protagonists (some as young as five and six), with a zest for capturing minute gestures and unexpressed feelings. In For Ellen, Kim explores an unknown territory, the psyche of a troubled North American male, which she charts with reliable buoys: the first-rate performance of Paul Dano (Daniel Day-Lewis’s double and unpredictable nemesis in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 There Will Be Blood) in the role of hard-rock musician Joby Taylor, and an ending borrowed from Bob Rafelson’s 1970 Five Easy Pieces (leaving a clinging girlfriend behind, the disillusioned protagonist hitches a truck ride.)

Always imbued with a sense of space, Kim starts her film on an icy, snowy road, in Upstate New York near the Canadian border, where Joby loses control of his car and remains stranded. While the members of his band are having a hard time (and want to kick him out for unreliability), he has to meet his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Claire (Margarita Levieva) to sign divorce papers. Two things hang in the balance: the proceeds of the sale of the house – and Joby is strapped for cash – versus the custody of the embattled couple’s daughter, Ellen. Constantly on the move, nervous, insecure, charming in a slightly pathetic way, Joby’s character is pitted against the flawless composition of Shaylana Mandigo as Ellen, who remains unfazed, cool but sympathetic, during each instance of their uneasy reunion. As part of the bargain, Jody obtains the right to take out the daughter he has hardly known and never seemed to care about before. It is at the moment he admits that he’s going to lose her forever that Joby becomes “a father” to the girl. Kim’s light directorial touch, long takes and meditative rhythm, occasionally broken by precious moments of humour (Joby’s dinner at his lawyer’s house, Joby dancing in the bar), espouse the delicate dynamic of this long good-bye.

LA Confidential

Out-of-the-beaten path LA neighbourhoods also provided solid ground for unlikely heroines to flourish. Raised in the African American community of Compton in South Los Angeles and a UCLA graduate, filmmaker/distributor/publicist Ava DuVernay (1) had already directed two films in the City of Angels. The documentary This Is the Life (2008) was an homage to the Los Angeles hip-hop movement of the 1990s, while her first narrative, I Will Follow (2011) explores a black middle-class dilemma in the “bourgeois-bohemian” suburb of Topanga Canyon. DuVernay’s second feature, The Middle of Nowhere, is geographically posited in this “in-between” inhabited by residents without car who have to make their way through the city by bus. The protagonist, Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi) goes from her Compton home to the hospital where she works as a night nurse, and another longer bus ride takes her, on visiting days, to the prison where her husband, Derek (Omari Hardwick) has been sentenced for eight years. Emotionally, it starts in this grey zone in which Ruby’s life seems to have been confined. To keep her marriage alive, she put her dreams on hold, dropped from medical school and spends her free time between her single-mother sister (Edwina Findley) and her formidable mother (Lorraine Toussaint) who raised two daughters by herself, and cringes at the “bad choices” that they subsequently made in life.

Shot by Bradford Young, the DP of two African American films noted during last year’s Sundance (Dee Rees’s Pariah and Andrew Dosunmu’s Restless City), and awarded the US Directing Award for Dramatic Feature (the first instance for a black woman), The Middle of Nowhere starts slowly, with Ruby having no other identity than being a “prison wife”, her eyes permanently on the prize of a possible early parole for Derek. Subtly, DuVernay suggests that things are more complex. Ruby gathers strength from the women around her, even in adversarial situations – the best moments being her confrontation with the ace white lawyer she’s hired (Sharon Lawrence), or the anger that tinges her exchanges with her mother. And she only has been able to play the devout wife of an incarcerated felon because she was blind to what was going on in her husband’s life – the events that led to his arrest, and now his social and sexual behaviour in jail. When Derek is denied parole, Ruby comes of age and starts, tentatively, agonisingly, then superbly, to turn her life around. Change first comes from the bus, when she finally notices the kind driver (David Oyelowo) that has taken her to and from the hospital all these years. Yet it is in the seamlessly directed finale, when Ruby reconciles to the fact that no Prince Charming will save her, and that loving a man may also lead you to say a proper good-bye to him, that she becomes a true warrior. Wearing a sexy dress, defying prison regulations and walking out. Alone.

Michael Olmos’s and Youssef Delara’s second directorial collaboration Filly Brown springs another heroine from South Los Angeles; Maria Jose (“Majo”) Tonario (in an impressive turn by newcomer Gina Rodriguez) has grown in the Latino barrio with her father Jose, a small construction foreman (Lou Diamond Phillips), and her younger sister Lupe (Chrissie Fit), since her mother Maria (Jenni Rivera) is in prison on drug charges. A fighter, she defies her father’s orders and secretly visits her mother in jail, trying to find money to revisit her case but also to cater to her unexplained requests, all the time struggling for her new identity as “Filly Brown”, a raising star of the Latin hip-hop scene.

Anchored in Rodriguez’s formidable presence and screen charisma, the film is at its most successful when taking the spectator on a journey through the different “scenes” of Chicano life – from the minute compromises Jose has to strike between his snotty “Anglo” clients and the working-class ethnic identity of his crew, to hip hop clubs and storefront radio stations, DJ Khool Aid lending her pink air and banter as an added touch. The music feels real, so does the energy, as well as Majo’s dilemma between the different roles she has chosen or that have been thrown upon her. The film, however, makes a compromise, in the hope, I suppose, of reaching a larger audience. While the lyrics of Latin Rap are a colourful and imaginative mixture of English and Spanish, all dialogue here is in English, including Jose’s conversations with his workers from the ‘hood, which is questionable. Executively produced by Michael’s father, Edward James Olmos, Filly Brown includes a soulful performance by the veteran actor, as a sceptical lawyer.

Aurora Guerrero’s deceptively simple debut feature, Mosquita Y Mari, casts her teenage heroines at the boundary between two languages and two cultures, looking for a precarious equilibrium; a single mistake and they could fall into the traps society has prepared for them, such as homelessness on Skid Row, a short drive from the Latino community of Huntington Park. “We don’t need to leave Los Angeles to see what poverty is,” says Yolanda’s father as a cautionary remark when he thinks his daughter has lost interest in school. An A student, whose possible academic future encapsulates her hardworking parents’ dreams, Yolanda (Fenessa Pineda) is unhinged, seduced and delighted by the arrival of a beautiful, troubled student, Mari (Venecia Troncosa) to whom she becomes Mosquita (“little fly”). The girls strike a friendship, sign a pact in a junkyard, play truant together. All the while they’re wrestling with unspoken inner desires and fears. For Mari, raised by a single mother who can hardly pay the rent, the precariousness of growing up too fast in dangerous streets brings dangerous temptations. What price can a young body reach, when you really really really need the money? For Mosquita, friendship evolves into something stronger, sweeter, but also frightening.

Mosquita Y Mari does not completely outgrow the tropes of the successful indie genre – ethnic queer coming of age – which can be spotted, from time to time, at Sundance, but it reveals Guerrero as a compelling female voice in Chicano cinema. (2)

Down the Winding Path

Heroines can be warriors, or they can be flawed, and endearingly so. Still from the rich urban mosaic of Los Angeles, the producing team of Andrea Sperling and Jonathan Schwartz (that was to receive a US Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Excellence in Independent Film Producing) presented two films shot against the grain of the traditional cinematic representation of LaLaLand. James Ponsoldt’s Smashed takes place in the mixed neighbourhood of Highland Park (immigrants + students + bohemian middle class) and Ry Russo-Young’s Nobody Walks in the gentrified enclave of Silver Lake. Since 1992, when she started working on Gregg Araki’s landmark gay film, The Living End, Sperling has significantly shaped the landscape of independent film production in Los Angeles. A few years ago, she was invited by Jonathan Schwartz to join his company, Super Crispy, as he was getting into smaller budget films. Together, the pair produced Gregg Araki’s foray into the “teen horror sexy genre”, Kaboom (2010), shown at Cannes, (3) and Drake Doremus’s third film, Like Crazy (2011), that won the Grand Dramatic Prize at Sundance that year.

The two Super Crispy films explore the “East Side” of Los Angeles, away from the shadow of the classical entertainment industry; the protagonists are seen bicycling or walking, and, while doing so, they look around, they think, they experience emotional transformations (something which is virtually impossible when you drive a car on the freeway). Smashed is the most successful in that respect, as its open-ended structure reproduces the transformation of the gait of the protagonist, from charmingly drunk to hesitantly sober.

Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Charlie (Aaron Paul) are happily married. Kate is a charismatic teacher in a posh elementary school. Aaron is into music; we later learn that his family has money, and this how he was able to buy their house. Kate, who he met at a party, was his dream girl. Their chemistry is drenched in sexual attraction and alcohol. They drink together. A lot. At parties with their musico friends, at home, in the car, when they bicycle through the neighbourhood, when they wake up, when they go to bed, before they have sex. Things start getting out of whack for Kate when she meets a drunken girl at a bar who asks for a ride, and later offers her “a smoke”. Mixing crack cocaine and alcohol does not work so well, and the next morning Kate wakes up on a discarded couch on Skid Row. She has to pull herself together and, still hungover, get to school and teach. In the classroom, in front of the children, she pukes. “Are you pregnant, Ma’am?” asks one of the wise-ass little kids. Kate will spend the next third of the film trying to extricate herself from the consequences of her lie.

In the meantime, she continues to drink, and, one night, finding out there is no more booze left in the house, and desperate for a fix, she bicycles down Figueroa Street (Highland Park’s main thoroughfare, lined with Chicano shops and businesses) to go to an all-night convenience store. The clerk knows her well, but it’s 4:00 am; California law prevents the sale of alcohol at that time and he may lose his job for doing otherwise. Kate becomes obnoxious, unreasonable, abusive; finding out that not only the fridge containing beer but also the restroom is locked, she lets herself go and pees on the floor, then snatches a bottle of red wine and storms into the night. Later, at an AA meting, she will say: “Alcohol made me adorable. I was this adorable girl, even when I was pissing myself.” Adorable, yes, and certainly to Charlie, but not to the clerk who had to mop the floor.

The question that emerges, when Kate struggles to remain clean, is the nature of the bond that connects her to Charlie. Love means many things to different people. Charlie wanted a friend, a wife, a sex partner but also (mostly?) a drinking companion. The equilibrium of passion, affection, habit and comfort woven between us won’t resist Kate’s new determination. While Winstead’s performance is engaging and admirable, and while the script (co-written by Ponsoldt and comedienne Susan Burke) hits the right marks during the first two thirds of the film, one could regret that the last third is, comparatively, elliptical, not as rich in details, and, consequently, not as interesting (Kate finds her life “boring”). Ponsoldt caught the bond between Kate and Charlie mid-stream, and so he took it for granted. The truth of a relationship is often revealed in its unravelling, but we are given a rather perfunctory look at what really happened between the protagonists as she drinks less, and he drinks more, as she loses him, as he loses her. Smashed comes tantalisingly close to investigate the subterranean layers of mutual dependency, need, longing and maybe hatred that make a woman desirable to a man – to an alcoholic man to boot – but remains on the threshold.

Ry Russo-Young seems better equipped to address this question, as her previous film, the breakthrough You Wont Miss Me centred on a young woman, Shelly Brown (Stella Schnabel), so afraid of being rejected that she did everything to make herself unacceptable and undesirable. Shot in New York, the film documented her fractured relationship to reality, her spiralling downward. Martine (Olivia Thirlby), the heroine of Nobody Walks, is more poised and self-sufficient. An experimental filmmaker and installation artist, she has found her niche, even though she is still struggling with problems such as sound design… and expects men to solve them for her. Like Shelly, she has crafted a façade to mask the emotional void inside her, her insecurities, her fragile identity. The seduction of others is something she accepts as matter of fact, neither prompting it nor rejecting it.

Russo-Young catches her at a moment of physical vulnerability: a transplanted New Yorker who comes to Silver Lake to work with sound designer Peter (John Krasinski), she does not drive, so her life is entirely dependent on the people who host her, give her a ride and take care of her. The best way to deal with unavoidable frustrations is to simply go with the flow – and that’s what Martine does, even if it involves going to bed with the men around her. A moment of quiet catharsis, though, happens when she leaves the house shared by Peter, his psychoanalyst wife Julie (in a marvellous performance by Rosemarie DeWitt) and her 16 year-old daughter Kolt (India Ennenga, revealed as John Goodman’s and Melissa Leo’s daughter in the HBO TV series Treme), then walks in the neighbouring streets. Yet it’s too late in the story to become a real turning point, too late to repair the relationship between Martine and the women “This is the last you will ever see of this family”, says Julie in guise of a good-bye.

The structure of the film, so lightly outlined as to become almost evanescent, is to pit Martine’s relationship to male desire (an apparent acceptance which amount to a flight forward) against the positions occupied by Julie and Kolt. Julie is the most complex character here – having been married a first time to a rock star, she has now to fend off one of her patients’ erotic transference. Unsettled by Peter’s infidelity, she commits one slip during a party, and then returns to professionalism with a renewed rigour. Meanwhile Kolt harbours a crush for Peter’s assistant, David (who sleeps with Martine in the first fifteen minutes) but holds her own with a considerable amount of wit and strength when her Italian tutor behaves inappropriately (maybe the best, most sarcastic scene in the film). Nobody walks, nobody wins, Julie knows she won’t cure Peter’s longing for the younger woman and it will get a while for Kolt to get over David. Russo-Young adds another piece to the infinite check-board of the sexual impasse.

Melancholia is the tone chosen by Laurence Thrush in The Pursuit of Loneliness and his heroines are almost invisible. An old lady whose existence is gradually eradicated in front of our eyes. A nurse called in the middle of a night. A pharmacy clerk who did a favour to an elderly client she barely knew. A county investigator trying to locate the relatives of a deceased person. Shot in nostalgic black and white in yet another East side neighbourhood of LA, where people still walk, the film is constructed as an intriguing puzzle, as well as a mood piece with William Basinski’s avant-garde composition functioning like an echo chamber.

Through small details – a wrist watch, the fabric of a dress – we understand that the frail lady walking her dogs and warding off the summer heat is the same whose cold body lies in a hospital bed, whose belongings (hoarded through years of isolation) have to be disposed off by the county, since no next of kin is to be found. The investigator tries to make the most of modest clues – a Christmas card dated 1978, the address of a man who remembers nothing, neighbours who were never invited in the house and never saw anyone else coming in. As the investigation progresses to nowhere, Thrush re-inserts shots of the woman walking down the street – these flashbacks cast a shadow on the present. She is not the only one. Every day, lonely elderly citizens are taken to a medical institution, leaving behind mountains of old letters and bills, piles of clothes, unusable furniture and mementoes whose meaning is gone with the wind of time. (4)

Even stranger territories

The heroism of women often remains unsung because it is revealed though minute, small actions. Holding the fort is more important than planting the flag on it. It was significant that Sundance chose to showcase the restored version of Julie Dash’s landmark feature, Daughters of the Dust (1991). The film had premiered in Sundance twenty years ago, and won the Excellence in Cinematography Award for Arthur Jaffa’s groundbreaking visual experiments. More recently, the UCLA Film & Television Archive produced a remastered version with a better soundtrack than the one that had been available all these years, and it was the Opening Night for the comprehensive series the Archive dedicated to the filmmakers of the LA Rebellion in the fall 2011. The program rekindled attention to the way African American filmmakers who had studied at UCLA in the 1970s and ‘80s – Charles Burnett, Ben Caldwell, Larry Clark, Zeinabu Irene Davis, Jamaa Fanaka, Haile Gerima, Barbara McCullough, Alile Sharon Larkin, Billy Woodberry, etc… – changed independent cinema and the way their community was represented on the screen. (5)

Among this group of extremely talented filmmakers, Dash’s approach has been a unique mixture of realism and history bordering ever so slightly on the mythological. Her best-known short, Illusions (1982) was a black and white deconstruction of the “illusions” produced by Hollywood in the 1940s – fantasy romance and musical comedy synching images with sounds produced by unseen “Negro” performers; the hope that “the industry” was going to change after the war; the belief that a smart black woman passing for white could enter the centre of decision-making and implement these changes. With Daughters, her first feature, she espouses another form of hope, and explores her Gullah ancestry at a moment of critical choice. The descendants of slaves who had remained on the Sea Islands off the Cost of Georgia and South Carolina after emancipation, the Gullah were faced, at the turn of the century, with the decision of getting involved or not with the Great Migration that led six millions African Americans from the South to the Northeast, the Midwest and the West from 1910 to 1970. For the Gullah, that meant living behind traditions, culture and language that were still very close to their African roots.

Dash follows twenty-four hours of the Peazant family, a matriarchy dominated by Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day), her daughters, daughters-in-law and grand-daughters (Kaycee Moore, Alva Rogers, Bahni Turpin) and the straying Yellow Mary (Barbara O Jones) who returns, female “travelling companion” in tow, after mysterious years spent up North (during which she was, among other things, a wet nurse in a white family). It’s the women who hold the family together, who decide if they’re going to partake in the Great Migration or stay on the islands with Nana. As we see the splendour of the light changing on the shore, the wind blowing sand and seaweed, the dignity of these women in their fineries preparing gumbo for the whole family, a shadow pass in front of our eyes. We have seen what happened after the Great Migration. Poverty-ridden ghettos, riots in Harlem and Los Angeles, homelessness on Skid Row, segregation in the meat-packing and the steel industry, the murder of Fred Hampton, the eradication of Black Power safe houses, crack cocaine in the streets, the prisons filled with black men, Mumia Abu-Jamal on death row… Yet, hope was possible, and Dash captures this moment of grace where history is at a standstill, and memories, dreams and reflections can take over.

The story is told from the point of view of the unborn daughter of Eulah Peazant (Rogers) who has been raped by a white plantation owner, while her husband Eli (Adisa Anderson) struggles with his doubts as to whether or not the baby is really his. Elegantly, Dash makes us privy to the secret alchemy that takes place within the characters, transmuting Eli’s anger and torment, influencing the decision to stay, or to go. A boat leaves, a young woman hops on a horse, a man embraces his pregnant wife, an unborn girl celebrates the years of wisdom to come, a matriarch looks inward, at an African past that is slowly disintegrating into dust. Of this dust, Dash makes a timeless masterpiece.

Another unsung heroine is Nannie Jeter, a black woman who left her family behind when the white family whose children she was caring for moved from New Haven to upstate New York. She now thinks she might have made the wrong choice – left to their own devices her kids didn’t do so well, and she lost her son James to a drug overdose. Meanwhile one of her wards became the documentary filmmaker Eugene Jarecki, and, in his last film, The House I Live In (winner of the Grand Prize for Documentary), he follows an elegant arc interweaving Nannie’s trajectory through the US, the history of his own family and the testimony of a number of experts – such as a formidably articulate David Simon (the journalist who created the HBO series The Wire as well as Treme), Columbia University Psychology Professor Carl Hart (who has to deal with the cocaine conviction of the son who never grew up with him), historian Richard Lawrence Miller and Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow. (6) He also interviews dozens of men and women incarcerated on drug charges, their families and lawyers, police officers, prison guards and judges. Outwardly, the film is about the War on Drugs that the US have waged since 1971 (starting with Nixon’s declaration that drug was the Number One Enemy), that has cost over one trillion dollars and resulted in more than 45 millions arrests without lessening drug use in the country. In fact, it is about much more – whether or not the US can still be called a democracy – as alluded by the title, which comes back as Lewis Allan’s utopian song (“a certain word: democracy… This is America to me!”) (7) over the end credits.

Jarecki starts by acknowledging his own debt to history – as the sons of parents who fled the Eastern European pogroms and the Nazi Holocaust – and how it is intertwined with Nannie’s fate, who became part of the “Great Migration” and fled the South, “because [she] had to”, after a rape that, as a black woman, she could neither discuss nor report. Accumulating testimonies, archival footage and evidence, he makes it clear that the War on Drugs is a war against the poor and the immigrants. Opium was legal until California legislators thought that criminalising it was a good way to keep the Chinese railroad workers in check. Cocaine became associated with “Negro criminality”; marijuana with Mexican farm workers; crystal meth with “white trash”. Yet, there is more. Both Simon and Miller make a compelling case, the War on Drugs is a “Holocaust in slow-motion”, class-based rather than race-based. Not only do the US put more of its population in jail than any other country, but, with the transformation of the economy, the outsourcing of blue-collar jobs, the bottom layers of the population are no longer necessary. So, while the War on Drugs has not worked to eradicate drug trafficking and consumption, it has worked very well to create a self-sustaining, highly profitable judicial/police/jail/ industrial system that makes money our of putting poor drug addicts in jail. In the last 40 years, anti-drug laws have become tougher, eradicating the independence of the judicial power with the notion of mandatory sentences (that are 100 times more severe for possession of crack than possession of cocaine) (8) and life without parole for a third-time offender. The propaganda machine has worked so well that it is virtually impossible for a politician to get elected or to stay in office if he/she is perceived as “soft on drugs”.

Yet, there are still heroes and heroines battling the case, lawyers working pro-bono, judges resigning in protest, activists organising petitions and writing books. And then there is Nannie. Jarecki concludes the film as she watches Obama’s election. She has made mistakes, maybe she should have been more involved in her country politics. Yet she did a lot. She took her children out of Jim Crow’s South; she raised two families, one black, one white; she speaks her mind, she’s nobody’s fool. As long as there are women like her, the battle is not entirely lost.

Also bringing unseen heroines to the forefront, Kirby Dick’s 9th documentary feature, The Invisible War – one of the hottest tickets of the Festival, it went on to receive the Audience Award for US Documentary – upsets the idées reçues of pacifists like me who still find it puzzling that women may choose the military as a career. Yet, many women do, and as it became clear in the early days of the anti-Iraq-war movement, the Left has to learn how to speak to the military personnel and their families. So, whatever their reasons are, a growing number of women serve in the military, but their stories do not end there. The place where these soldiers need to display the greatest amount of heroism is not in combat, not avoiding an unseen sniper, a land mine or dealing with a hostile local population – but in the barracks, warding off the unwanted advances of “the boys”, suspecting their drinks to have been spiked off with drugs, locking their doors against the attacks of their commanding officers. And, more often than not, their efforts, their fortitude, their courage amount to nothing. Drunken gang rapes do take place, drinks are forced upon them, and the commanding officers have their way, no matter what. And what happens when the victims (estimated in the hundreds of thousands) file a complaint? They are immediately suspected of wrong-doing, often demoted to a lower rank, their file lost, the case dismissed, and, in many instances, the perpetrator is the man with judicial power over them.

Over the course of his research, Dick uncovered how pervasive a culture of sexual violence is in the military. Men are not spared, but only a small number of male witnesses accepted to talk. Women were more forthcoming, even though speaking up required real courage, as the victims are still suffering from physical and psychological trauma, and the documentary gives them the floor, exposing their stories, their grief, the ordeal they continue to endure. Some details are telling: a woman serving in an elite Washington-based Marine unit was advised in no uncertain terms not to wear make-up for “the men will think you want to sleep with them”. Another is told: “What did you expect, walking in a hallway filled with drunken cadets?” (She had been summoned at a military convention). A third one, a sergeant in charge of criminal investigation, is constantly rebuked for being “too sympathetic to the women”. Later we learnt that she was a rape victim too.

Dick and his producer, Amy Ziering, patiently identified, spoke to and eventually interviewed dozens of rape victims who had failed to obtain justice, and gave them the floor. Some of them recorded video diaries and sent them to the filmmakers. Eventually, a group of these women filed a lawsuit against former Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former Secretary Robert Gates, that was dismissed by the Federal Court in a historical ruling: “rape is an occupational hazard of military service”. (9) Welded to the cases they knew so well, Dick and Ziering remain effectively at the level of compassionate rage and militancy to make things change in the US military. Their film, however, begs the question: can rape be totally eradicated from military culture? What happens to a population that is routinely trained to kill, to dehumanise the Other, to get desensitised to human suffering, to think that “God is on our side”? At another level, their approach is more than relevant, it is urgent: a democracy needs a military obeying the rules of democracy. Or else…

Let Us Know Praise Famous Men

Alison Klayman’s documentary, Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry, starts on the close-up of a cat, playfully dismantling a complex and fragile construction on the Chinese artist’s drawing board. The assistants try to intervene. “Don’t worry,” says Ai, “this cat is not going to destroy the work”. This serene acceptation, vintage Ai WeiWei, explains why he has become such a symbol, and why he is still fighting. In a country where the state continues to regulate minute aspects of the citizens’ lives, what Chinese people want more than anything is to be left alone.

In 1981 Ai had moved to New York where he was making conceptual art from the collaging, sewing and altering of mundane objects. It’s from there that he witnessed the events of Tiananmen Square on television. He returned to Beijing in 1993, to be with his father, the poet Ai Qing (1910-1996) who had been persecuted during the anti-Rightist campaign of the 1950s. He started working in performance art, artist book publishing, and various conceptual art projects, often in collaboration with his wife, the artist Lu Qing. His life took a definitive turn in 1999 when he and Lu moved their studio to the area of Caochangdi, a village in the North-East of Beijing. Ai designed their new space – a modernist variation on the courtyard house, with streamlined buildings surrounding a green patch – as well as a number of artists studios in the neighbourhood (Caochangdi has now become a thriving artist colony, with new galleries opening now and then). This was to put him on the path of architectural design that culminated in his involvement as an artistic consultant in the “Bird’s Nest” for the 2008 Olympics – even though he was quite critical on the way the Chinese government was handling the event.

It is through architecture and grand-scale projects, such as the Sunflower Seeds Project at the Tate Modern in 2010 (one hundred million hand-painted porcelain seeds scattered on the exhibition floor) that Ai became internationally famous, and Klayman, a journalist who lived several years in China, starts following him in 2008, at a time when he becomes a major figure. To his fellow countrymen, Ai is mostly known for his blogging and tweeting activities, as well as the militant videos he used to post on the internet. In 2008, he became very virulent about the responsibilities of corrupt local powers that had allowed the use of substandard materials (tofu-dreg architecture) and joined efforts with other artists and activists to track down the names of all the schoolchildren who had died in the Sichuan earthquake.

In August 2009, while traveling to Chengdu to testify at the trial of human rights activist Tan Zuoren, Ai and his assistants were harassed by the police who forced their way into their hotel room and beat him up so severely that, a few months later, he had to be operated in Munich for brain haemorrhage. Ai was unable to testify for Tan (who was sentenced to 5 years in jail), but he started a long procedure to document and protest the violence done to him. The video of his beating was posted on the net; he went back to Chengdu to deposit a formal grievance at the local police station; he started judicial procedures. All the while, to Klayman’s camera, he insists how important it is to take such time-consuming bureaucratic steps, even though they will lead to no tangible result, in order to confront the Chinese state with its own illegality.

Ai’s persistence landed him in even greater trouble – first his house arrest in November 2010 while his newly-built Shanghai studio was being demolished (his assistants organised a monster party and documented the destruction on tape) – then his April 3, 2011 arrest at Beijing airport, followed by the arrest of his wife and some of his closest collaborators. He was eventually released on bail on June 22, charged with 12 million yuan in tax evasion. As Ai cannot make statements nor speak on camera for the time being, Klayman documents another phenomenon: hundreds of thousands of Chinese people from all walks of life sent money to help him pay his “debt”. Some of the poorer people simply folded bills and flew them over the wall of his compound.

Completing the vérité footage accumulated over a period of three years, Klayman also interviews people who have known Ai at various stages of his life, from his mother, Cao Ying, to the Taiwanese-born performance artist Hsieh Tehching who met him during his New York years. While mainstream Chinese media have attacked Ai as a plagiarist and somebody whose entire work is done by assistants, Hsieh is quick to specify that, when he was fabricating ready-made collage objects in New York, “he could do everything by hand himself.” Yet, the best witness, the best raconteur is still Ai, whether he comments on the habits of the 40-odd cats that roam contentedly in his studio, or confesses his own flaws and contradictions. While remaining with his wife, Ai fathered a child with filmmaker Wang Fen, (10) recognised him (he even took him to the Tate Modern, where the boy happily plunged into the layers of porcelain seeds), and considers him a “precious gift”, but smilingly admits: “This is not something that should have happened”. Ai may be as admirable in these moments as when he is fighting the powers-that-be – but this all stems from the same generous principle: let cats be playful and human beings make their own mistakes – without government interference.

Heroes of the Frontier

Some of the most exciting entries were in the non-competitive programs. In the section “Next”, Erin Greenwell’s My Best Day coins different kinds of unlikely heroes in a small Pennsylvania town. In Greenwell’s skilled hands, queer culture alluringly morphs into a bemused acceptation of personal foibles and idiosyncrasies, gay or straight, an eradication of the boundaries between “normal” and “unconventional” relationships. Our heroine, Karen (Rachel Style, with an impeccable dead beat comic timing) has to work in her refrigerator-repair store on a gorgeous 4th of July, when she receives a phone call from a man she believes to be her estranged father. She enlists the help of her friend Meagan (Ashlie Atkinson), a forceful butch who has just spent all her money buying a motorbike to impress a blonde siren, while her regular squeeze, Laura, is in on duty at the local hospital. When Karen and Meagan arrive at the trailer park, Sebastian, the caller, is nowhere to be found, but they find, instead, a socially maladjusted little boy, Ray; a drifter who has elected to stay on Sebastian’s couch, Eugene (award-winning theatre/film actor Harris Doran)… and a refrigerator that would work perfectly well if it had not been unplugged (by whom?).

Karen entreats Meagan to pretend that she’s indeed “repairing” the contraption, while she snoops around and hopes that Sebastian will turn up. Instead, a distraught young woman barges in, asking for money to feed her gambling habit; Karen recognises Stacy, the half-sister she had been separated from. In the meantime, Eugene, who turns out to be Sebastian’s lover, is sent to buy non-meat hamburgers to please Ray’s love interest, a vegetarian girl who works in her Dad’s grocery store. The expressions of the local shopkeepers when asked for such an item are priceless. Hanging out with Stacy has its drawbacks too, and Karen ends up in jail, romanced by a Chicano cop wearing an Anglo name, while the phone conversations between Meagan and Laura provide a hilarious yet dead-on accurate comic relief. As the town finally celebrates the evening, though scattered barbecue parties, vegetarian or not, Karen starts walking away…

In the “New Frontier” sections, films tend to be more offbeat and/or experimental. The popular success of Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 was a welcome surprise. Is the film a fiction, a documentary, or, inspired by Borges’s formula, filmic erudition that becomes “a new form of the fantastic”? Probably all of this, as well as a witty deconstruction of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) through the grid of interpretative conspiracy theory or sophisticated cinematic analysis, some zany, some quite unsettling. To some experts, The Shining is permeated through and through with allusions to the genocide of the Native Americans (these Indian logos on the boxes of baking soda…); to others, it was a way for Kubrick – who had tried for years to make a film about the Shoah, but eventually gave up after Schindler’s List (1993) – to express the unthinkable character of mass murder, by focusing the horror on a small family unit; the Outlook hotel mirrors the sanatorium in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924) while the number 42, in various codes and cyphers, appears throughout the film (1942 being the year the Final Solution was officially implemented). Or Kubrick had designed the film as a way to let the world know, albeit covertly, that he had been hired by the US government to fake the footage of the Apollo crew landing on the moon (if not, why would Danny have a T-shirt that read “Apollo”?)

More intellectually stimulating are architectural or mise en scène analyses (one scholar reconstructed the floor map of the entire hotel) that bring to the foray the incredible amount of details that Kubrick designed to create an off-kilter atmosphere. There is too much luggage in the lobby; it takes a man too long (or not long enough) to go from point A to point B while being off-screen. The manager’s office has a window that does not fit with the general lay-out of the hotel. Danny’s tricycle drive through the hallways is an impossibility, as his trajectory combines locations on different floors. The pattern on the carpet in the hallway is inverted from one shot to the next. New meanings are discovered when the film is run backward and forward in superimposition. Jack’s conversation with the ghost butler Grady, who may or may not have killed his family, is juxtaposed with Jack threatening Wendy and Danny with an axe. The twin girls, previously analysed by a scholar as an “echo” to Wendy in Danny’s mind, indeed appear under an image of Shelley Duval… To thicken the plot, Ascher interlaces the whole with images of Eyes Wide Shut (1999 – another film with a set of controversial interpretations) as well as horror films from the silent era (Dreyer, Murnau, Lang and others I couldn’t recognise since the final credits only say: “excerpts from movies in the public domain”.) Whatever ultimate meaning can be deciphered, constructed or overlaid, Room 237 is wicked fun and gives you the desire to revisit The Shining, with eyes wide open this time.

Terence Nance’s An Oversimplification of Her Beauty is another paean to the power of cinema, albeit in a lyrical, fractured and surprising form. A young black man (Nance) lives in semi-poverty in the Bed-Stu section of Brooklyn. He is sweet on a girl (Namik Minter), who lets him sleep in the same bed as her, brotherly style, for she is romantically involved with another man. They like each other, but remain stuck in the grey zone between “like” and “love”. Nance involves the object of his affection, Minter, herself an artist and a filmmaker, to try and make senses of what really happened – or not – between them.

As the story extends and protracts over several years, as feelings are fluid and unpredictable, a multiplicity of approaches are chosen, from performance art to documentary footage to a replay of sequences from Nance’s 2006 short How Would You Feel? (and shots of Malik’s reaction to the film in which Nance reveals that he loves her), excerpts from home movies (“I had an extremely happy childhood”) to animation, poetry, humour, soliloquies. Trained as an artist and musician, Nance conceived the project as you would a blues tune: bringing something extremely small (a rejection; the vagaries of an unconventional relationship) to epic proportions. An Oversimplification of Her Beauty is a joy to behold; seduced by its visual imagination and structural boldness, you delight at discovering a new magician of cinema.

The most conceptually ambitious project of “New Frontier” also came from the boundary between art, installation, sculpture, video and film. Eve Sussman’s whiteonwhite: algorythmicnoir, produced in collaboration with The Rufus Corporation (a collective of artists from various disciplines) presents a different version every time it is screened. A custom-program computer, “The Serendipity Machine”, uses an algorithm to edit a narrative strand from 3,000 visual sequences, 80 instances of voice over (in English and Russian with English subtitles) and 150 pieces of music. The noir aspect comes from the feeling that the protagonist, Holz, a geophysicist with a corky interest in disappearing languages, as well as the audience, have of being unable to make sense of the succession of events. In the perplexing City-A, mysterious orders are received, a disembodied female voice gives instructions on the phone, the urban layout is confusing, a driver is sent to pick you up… or to make you disappear. One is reminded of how the Surrealists liked to watch the badly subtitled films noirs that invaded French screens after the war: they would enter a movie theatre after the film had started, leave after fifteen minutes, see another quarter of an hour of another movie nearby, ten minutes of a third one, creating a “cadavre exquis”.

As Sussman and her collaborators shot in Central Asia, mostly Kazakhstan, the overall, fractured narrative seems to be a melancholy outlook at the fall of the Soviet Union. City-A was once a socialist utopia, the projected image of a radiant future. Now this utopia is in the past, antiquated, rusty, greyish, outmoded, but terribly resistant. Industrial and political detritus clutter the drab landscape. A power devoid of meaning continues to function, invisible, disconcerting, at the juncture between the sinister and the comical. Who is in charge? Who has the right to speak? Is there an end to Holz’s quest, or is he trapped in a loop of eternal return? Haunting and engrossing, whiteonwhite is also a meditation on this object we call “cinema”, pushing its threshold a little further into the digital age.

Heroes of the African Diaspora

Ten days later, the 20th PanAfrican Film and Arts Festival (PAFF) was taking place – having moved back to its former home, in the middle-class African American enclave of Crenshaw. The former Magic Johnson Theatre, now called Rave, changed hands, a new plaza was designed, and the African Market of Arts and Craft returned to the centre of the gigantic shopping mall. In addition, PAFF, that functions on a tiny budget, had received a shot in the arm in the form of a grant that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences disbursed this year to a number of alternative screening spaces in Los Angeles. Was it the reason I found the Festival better organised this year and really enjoyed the quality of the selections? The main problem is that Western Africa, once a vibrant hub, now struggling with various instances of unrest, is producing less films these days – but then the Caribbean and South Africa were quite present, as was a large array of African American projects. Veteran documentarist Sam Pollard’s Slavery by Another Name, originally produced for Public Television, was shown both at Sundance and PAFF. After the Emancipation Act, as black people started to enjoy their freedom in the South, strategies were designed to keep them in bondage. One was the systematic “criminalisation of black life” (walking alongside the railroad could land you in jail) and the institutionalisation of “convict leasing”: a plantation or factory owner could purchase the work of convicts from the state or county (as Jarecki’s The House I Live In underlines, this continues in the modern prison system, generating hefty profits). The practice of peonage – later outlawed – allowed forced labour to pay off debts, real or fabricated. Pollard patiently revisits archival material, bringing the strands of a hidden African American history before it’s too late, before we forget, to make sure something is done about it. (Slavery Under Another Name won the Festival Programmers Award: Documentary).

One of the most anticipated events – and one of the best attended – was the screening of Philippe Niang’s two-part television film, Toussaint Louverture, on the life of the legendary Haitian leader. It was awarded three prizes (Best Narrative Feature, Audience Award for Narrative and Best Actor for Jimmy Jean-Louis), which exhilarated the Los Angeles Haitian community. Produced by a Martinique-based company, Eloa, the film received additional funding from the state television France 2, where it was broadcast in February 2012. The historical and political significance of this event cannot be denied, as France has systematically refused to pay reparations to Haiti for the damage caused during colonial occupation. Having Haitian-born Jimmy Saint Louis lend his good looks and charisma to Louverture was a political act too. There are no two portraits of Louverture that are alike, so one can infer that most of them are caricatures, inspired by contempt and fear. In one of them, he is even endowed with ape-like features…

Born a slave in 1743, Louverture was eventually emancipated by his master and remained on his plantation as a salaried employee. When the aftershocks of the French Revolution reached the colony of Saint Domingue (as Haiti was called then), a revolt of slaves started in 1791, which Louverture eventually joined. First he and his troops rallied the Spanish army that threatened the French colony, then, having understood that the Spaniards would never abolish slavery, in 1794, he switched allegiance to the French army, where he was granted the grade of general.

The film takes some liberties with historical truth, and compromises with the tropes of mainstream (cultural) television. The story is book-ended with a fictional romance between an innkeeper’s daughter and a young officer of Bonaparte having mission to interrogate Louverture in his cell; the majority of the dialogue is spoken in French rather than in Creole. Yet the characters – played by excellent diaspora actors such as Aïssa Maïga (who won a César for her role in Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako, 2006) as Louverture’s wife – are three-dimensional. The film successfully conveys the complexity of Louverture’s character, the contradictory layers of Saint Domingue’s colonial situation and the intricacies of the relationships between blacks, whites and mulattoes. The rhythm of the fiction espouses the arrival and departure of ships to and from the metropolis, bringing news, orders, new administrators, supplies, troops – a trip that would take a good six weeks – suggesting the poignancy of this utter dependence on a power so alien, so far away. Against the wishes of some of his supporters, against the orders of the French commissioner Sonthonax who despised the aristocrats of the Ancien Régime, Louverture brought back the white planters as being the ones who could re-start the economy. Then, in 1801, he promulgated a constitution for San Domingue that definitely outlawed slavery (as there had been talk that the new French government might reinstate it) and named him governor for life. Napoléon, then First Consul, sent French troops to arrest and deport Louverture and his family. He was confined in the fortress of Fort-de-Jou where he died, basically of cold, in 1803. His lieutenant, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, eventually defeated the French forces in 1803, and proclaimed independence. As delighted spectators kept reasserting during the Q&A, Haiti was not only the first former slave colony to assert its independence, but also the first Republic in the area.

PAAF also presented some audience favourites, such as Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal’s Oscar nominated feature-length animated love story Chico and Rita that covers forty years of Afro-Cuban music between La Havana and New York City, or another musical treasure, Mika Kaurismaki’s sympathetic portrayal of Miriam Makeba in Mama Africa. Yet, it’s the discovery of new filmmakers that makes PAFF interesting. In Ghana, a young (white) American, while on a Fullbright residency, made Sibo ne kra, Dabo ne kra (The Destiny of Lower Animals) on a screenplay written by Yao B. Nunoo (who also plays the lead). Still angry at having been deported from the United States ten years prior, Inspector Boniface Kwonsim uses all his savings to purchase a fake passport. When the latter is stolen – the poor robbing the poor – the story deviates toward a thriller version of Bicycle Thieves with a hint of Kurosawa. The quest to find his passport leads Boniface into some unsavoury situations, involving pimping and murder, but also a reconciliation of sorts with his own country. As a femme fatale, stolen passport in hand, wheels her way to the airport and to the illusory freedom of New York, the wisdom of old men, and the gaze of a beggar girl, makes him reconsider his desire to leave. For “the destiny of the Jaguar is not the same as that of lesser animals”.

Winner of the Festival Founders Award for Narrative, A Small Town Called Descent is the first feature of Jahmil XT Qubeka, who, shooting digitally with little means, makes a strong statement about the current state of affairs in South Africa. Inspired by a series of violent xenophobic crimes, and by a governmental crisis, Qubeka shot the arrival of three officers from the elite Scorpio corps, who have come to investigate the murder of a Zimbabwean man accused of rape, and the police torture of his brother. If it sounds messy, it’s because it is, as Qubeka mixes and matches colour and black-and-white, staged and archival footage, and sometimes makes unwise choices (such as casting John Savage as an excitable Christian priest) but from all these strands a real sincerity emerges, made possible by the performance of top-notch South African actors, such as Vusi Kunene, as the stoic chief of the Scorpio unit, who has to deal with the unravelling of his life, or Bubu Mazibuko as a cool and intelligent nurse more compromised in the corruption of her town that she’d like to be.

Another first film to receive a prize (Festival Programmers Award for Narrative) was Mariette Monpierre’s Le Bonheur d’Elza (Elza), a semi-autobiographical diasporic story. Raised in France by her single mother, a young woman returns to Guadeloupe to find the father who abandoned her years ago. The man she finds is a haughty patriarch married to a white woman he cheats on, distant to his children and abusive to his workers. “There is nothing for you there,” Elza’s mother had told her. It’s true, but daughters are stubborn, and Elza finds a way into the mansion as a babysitter. Moving at times (when Elza inhales the smell left by her father on his clothes), the film flounders some, loses and regains momentum. Dealing with an important subject, Monpierre is undoubtedly sincere and I wish she had the courage to stick to her original ending (Elza leaving Guadeloupe without the reconciliation she was hoping for) than slapping a contrived “happy ending”.

Also awarded (Festival Founders Award: Documentary), the ZDF-funded film The Education of Auma Obama by Branwen Okpaka, was a sympathetic and intelligent portrait of Barack Obama’s half sister – the daughter of the African wife, Kezia, Barack senior had left behind. After divorcing the future president’s mother, Ann Dunham, he brought back his third wife, Ruth, with whom he had two more sons, and Auma grew up partially with her. The film renders the complexity of family relationships – as well as the warm importance of Auma’s grandmother – in the fashioning of the young woman’s character, her ambivalent love for her father, her desire to leave that made her study in Germany, where she became a linguist, a cultural anthropologist and a frequent panellist on issues pertaining to the development of Africa. Later, she studied filmmaking, married a British man and had a daughter, got bored in England and returned to Kenya, where she now devotes herself to the education of young children.

The film contains vivid archival footage of a young Barack Obama travelling to Kenya with his then-fiancée, Michelle, to meet all his relatives, at Auma’s instigation, and is bookended with sequences shot by Okpaka of the family watching the news of the 2008 election, celebrating and making a statement for the neighbours. Whatever the fate of the Obama presidency, one cannot help experiencing a special kind of emotion. In Africa, ten years ago, nobody would have believed that, one day, a man with Kenyan roots would become president of the United States – nor that he may have found inspiration in his sister’s own distinct trajectory between black and white societies.

Sundance Film Festival
19-29 January 2012
Festival website: http://www.sundance.org/festival/

Pan African Film and Arts Festival
9-20 February 2012
Festival website: http://2012.paff.org/

Endnotes

  1. Founder of AFFRM, the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement.
  2. Disclaimer: Guerrero graduated in 1999 from the Film Directing Program of the California Institute of the Arts, where I teach, although she was not one of my students.
  3. See my 2011 Sundance report in Senses of Cinema: http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2011/festival-reports/take-the-train-and-don’t-look-back-the-30th-sundance-film-festival-and-the-19th-pan-african-film-and-arts-festival/
  4. The film functions as a narrative echo to Blue Hadaegh’s and Grover Babcock’s remarkable documentary, A Certain Kind of Death, that had premiered at Sundance in 2002.
  5. See http://www.cinema.ucla.edu/la-rebellion
  6. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, New York: New Press, 2010.
  7. A Jewish high-school teacher from the Bronx, Abel Meeropol (1903-86) wrote a number of progressive songs and poems under the pen name of Lewis Allan, in particular the anti-lynching statement “Strange Fruit” (1936), made famous by Billie Holiday. “The House I Live In” (1943) was set to music by Earl Robinson (1910-91) who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era for belonging to the Communist Party, and it became the centrepiece of a ten-minute black-and-white film of the same title, that denounced religious bigotry. Written by Albert Maltz and directed by Mervyn LeRoy (uncredited), the film starred Frank Sinatra and received an Honorary Academy Award, but omitted a crucial couplet, which infuriated Meeropol: “The House I live in – My neighbors black and white – The people who just came here – Are from generations back – The town hall and the soap box – The torch of liberty – All home for God’s children – That’s America to me.” Jarecki’s film makes use of the Paul Robeson’s version, in which the couplet omitted by Sinatra is restored. Later Meeropol was to adopt the Rosenberg children.
  8. It means that the possession of one gram of crack is punished with the same mandatory sentence as the possession of hundred grams of cocaine. The film shows Obama signing a law reducing this ratio to 18 times.
  9. An appeal has been filed.
  10. Wang Fen directed documentaries as well as the critically-praised independent feature, Xiang zi (The Case, 2007).