Filmfest München 2008: Class and the Common Touch
By Leslie Weisman, DC Film Society Member
Fresh from its victory at Cannes, The Class (Entre les murs, Laurent Cantet, France 2008) opened this year’s Filmfest Münchenin both grand and unassuming style. The engrossing docudrama of one day “between the walls” of an actual high school classroom in Paris was both the first film of its kind to open Germany’s most important summer film festival since its inception, and the first French film to win the coveted Palme d’Or in two decades. A perfect choice, true to the spirit of Filmfest München, a festival renowned for the caliber and diversity of its program and stars (who this year included Julie Christie, recipient of the 2008 Cinemerit Award) and one that takes special pleasure in the warmth and congeniality that make it “the film festival for everybody.”
Director and cast members of The Class, the opening night film.
Audiences (63,600) and professional visitors (2,500) at Filmfest München saw 237 films from 41 countries — all German premieres. Films are screened from 10:00am (for press) until past midnight in six theaters along the “Isar Mile,” for a total of fifteen screens. Many screenings featured director and actor appearances with audience q&as as well as 40- to 60-minute podium discussions.
The French section, or “Nouveau Cinéma Français,” is a traditional favorite among Filmfest audiences. This year was no exception; indeed, the section may have even gained new devotees with the unusual diversity of its program and the prestige, visibility and accessibility of The Class as opening night film. Neither documentary nor docudrama, The Class really is in a class by itself: According to director Laurent Cantet, it is a “documented film” of a school year that took a year to film, an “anti-Dead Poets Society” based on the autobiographical novel by François Bégaudeau, a critic for Cahiers du cinéma who plays the teacher in the film. Cantet, who knew him before, felt he’d be a natural in front of the camera: after all, “To be a good teacher, you have to be a good actor,” able to make facts and figures come alive and have meaning for a sometimes bored and blasé audience.
François teaches French to a class of immigrant and second-generation students. He attempts to navigate the sometimes treacherous waters between maintaining discipline and engaging his students’ interest by insisting on academic rigor while agreeing to stop using “honky names” like Bill in examples; assuring an Asian student who stumbles over the definition of “Austrian” that “Austria could disappear off the face of the earth and nobody’d notice”; treating mistakes as opportunities to learn, rather than occasions for criticism. Both the teachers and the students are representative, as well as memorably individual; most of the cast were nonprofessionals. Although the film seems brilliantly improvised, the entire script was written beforehand, Cantet told us. Rather than give it to his cast members upfront, he instead gave them the storylines, with free rein to contribute their own experiences to help personalize the characters and make them more real to them.
The film is filled with small and large truths, from the introductory scene as teachers introduce themselves to each other with varying degrees of levity and frankness (experienced teacher to neophyte: “He’s nice, he’s OK, he’s not good — he’s really not good — watch out for that one...”) to the haunting observation by a quiet girl at the end of the film, when asked to tell something she learned, that she learned absolutely nothing. “Our lives are boring,” another says languidly in response to the assignment that they write an Anne Frank-like diary. “We wake up, we go to school, we go home, we go to sleep, we wake up, and it starts all over again.”
But there are epiphanies: We watch the students at computers, creating and illustrating their life stories with photos their teacher encourages them to caption, discovering with surprise, excitement and pleasure abilities and interests unknown until that moment even to themselves. On the other side of the “eureka!” divide, the parent-teacher conferences are small gems: There’s the professional mother who fears her kid will get held back by the slower students, and wants him transferred to a more elite school; the student whose mother, dressed in the colorful garb of her native land, comes with his older brother, who serves as interpreter, because his father has neither time nor interest. But there are, too, the parents who want to make sure their son is doing well, are pleased he’s learning, grateful for the teacher’s corrections, and apologetic for their limited knowledge of the language. We later learn that the woman has been arrested for being in the country illegally; the teachers, who know how hard the boy works and what a good kid he is, take up a collection to help pay for a lawyer.
Documented film, autobiographical novel — the movie, like the book it is based on, combines genres with remarkable effectiveness and leaves the viewer with lasting insights into the day-to-day challenges of high school teachers and students. It also leaves you uncomfortably uncertain about how the issues it raises can be effectively addressed, in real life as much as in reel life. (Hollywood, take note: See the Washington Post article.
Combining genres was a challenge taken on by several filmmakers, and none with more deliriously crazed caricature than Dutch-French director Jan Kounen, whose 99 Francs (France, 2007) is a technically, creatively, wildly variegated ode to the (posited) infinitely immoral ambition of those in the ad biz. There’s not an innovation Kounen doesn’t use, an excess he won’t exploit — much like his nemeses, in whose labyrinths he once toiled — all in the name of sending them up. But the points he makes are valid, and the mania gives way at the end almost to a dirge, with a sobering, simply printed observation, complete with frightening statistics, on the enormous and unconscionable waste of resources perpetrated against the planet in the name of advertising. A wake-up call, indeed — and one that leaves you looking for a quiet place to lie down.
One couldn’t find a better place for relief from the color- and graphic-saturated madness than in Polish filmmaker Dorota Kedzierzawska’s Time to Die (Pora Umierac, Poland, 2007), one of several films to deal with age and aging. Commenting on the phenomenon, festival director Andreas Ströhl recalled the truism that “everybody wants to grow old, but nobody wants to be old.” Time to Die, however, sheds an unexpected and illuminating light on this assertion.
In this elegiac but deeply human, and at times wickedly humorous black-and-white ode to age, dignity and common sense, 91-year-old Polish film icon Danuta Szaflarska, for whom the role was created, shows us with clarity and simplicity (and not a shred of morbidity) how to live, and how to die. Whether putting a middle-aged, hard-boiled female doctor — who, without even an upward glance, repeatedly commands her to “Get undressed and lie down” — in her place with a swift “Kiss my ass!” over her departing shoulder...
... or caustically taking on a modern-day Huck Finn, who climbs up the trellis into her bedroom, explaining that since she’s rich and lives alone, she doesn’t need all that stuff, then watching him scramble back down, his arms full of “treasures,” and wondering as he leaves whether she also should have given him the “five-spot” he asked for...
... or glorying in the flashes of lightening as she immerses herself in a torrential rain, exulting that it “makes you feel alive”...
... or engaging in thoughtful conversation with her beloved dog (after having given up on the supposedly more intelligent homo sapiens she knows), whose astonishingly knowing, adoring eyes absorb every word, and who will be there when she makes her final, irrevocable decision —
this nameless woman is drawn in black-and-white with ten times the character of characters in many a Fuji with ten times the budget. (Though there were characters and character aplenty in many a full-color film. More on that anon.)
Color and character are not the exclusive property of films with live actors, however, as Ari Folman’s animated Waltz with Bashir (Israel-France-Germany, 2008) amply demonstrates. This is a film that grabs you by the throat from the first frame: A pack of howling, drooling, rabid German shepherds barrel headlong into the camera, yellow eyes satanically electrified, thirsting for blood. (Interestingly, although this remarkable film was made with state-of-the-art technology, it thrusts the viewer back a century, when the Lumière brothers’ legendary L’arrivée d’un train à la Ciotat had its terrified audience heading for the exits.) It is the recurring nightmare of a veteran of Israel’s 1967 Six Day War, and — more to the point — of the massacres of Arab refugees by Christian militias at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon. Having repressed their horror from memory, he is now attempting, with the aid of friends and fellow soldiers, to bring it back, hoping the truth will bring peace to his troubled mind. But this proves to be as elusive as peace on the scarred, bloodied ground.
The film, an early favorite at Cannes the month before and ardently campaigned for by Filmfest München programmers — “On no account did we want to miss out on this one,” said Ströhl — is based on Folman’s own experiences, and employs a combination of Flash animation, classic animation and 3D. Folman emphasized that his film is not the product of rotoscope animation, in which artists trace over video images, but was drawn from scratch — all, that is, but the last few frames. In these, animation is replaced by video images of the actual horror recorded by TV crews. Asked by a reporter what his feelings are now about the war, and about war in general, Folman — who hoped to exorcize some of his own demons in making the film — said while there was a temporary relief as long as production was under way, in a larger sense, making it brought home to him the utter futility of war. “It’s nothing like you’ve seen in American movies. No glam, no glory. Just very young men going nowhere, shooting at no one they know, getting shot by no one they know, then going home and trying to forget. Sometimes they can. Most of the time they cannot.”
In a podium discussion, Folman spoke of the process of making the film and of how he conceived it. This is not his first documentary about war, but the first that draws so heavily upon his own experience, he told us. But it is one not uncommon to Israeli soldiers, as he would discover when he visited an analyst at the behest of his commander in the reserves, and later, when he interviewed his former fellow combatants. You start out with a romantic view of war, said Folman, then comes the reality of it, and then, for many, a traumatic event so horrible that you sublimate the memory of it — until, one day, it comes back.
How to deal with those memories? For a filmmaker, the answer often lies in making a movie about the experience. But “There’s a limited amount of films you can make in your life, and I wouldn’t waste it on a war movie.” And, too, the memories of those events were still too raw for Folman to entrust their portrayal to live people. The drawings, however, “gave me all the freedom I wanted.” Only the second animated film to be done in Israel since 1960, Waltz with Bashir took four years to make. “War is so surreal, like a very bad acid trip,” he said of the eerie, even ghastly images and colors. “And I wanted the film to reflect that.” Of the nine characters, seven are based on real people who voice their characters’ lines. “The character I play is a better-looking guy,” said Folman to laughter, “but (the artists) had no choice — I paid their salaries.”
How was the film received in Israel? To Folman’s surprise, there was little criticism from a country where speaking one’s mind bluntly is part of the national character. Indeed, overall, the reaction has been very warm — people of all political stripes “took it as is; they were more mature than I was” — supporting his contention that sometimes films “underestimate the audience.” Folman hypothesized that maybe the second Arab-Israeli war made them realize that “the king is naked.”
The unique savagery of the Middle East conflict follows victims and perpetrators on both sides relentlessly, try as they may to escape it — a fact brought vividly to life in a film about Arab immigrants trying to build a life far from home, the Danish Go With Peace Jamil (Ma salama Jamil – Gå med fred Jamil, Omar Shargawi, Denmark 2008).
The film draws for us — and draws us inexorably into — a 12-hour span in the Arab immigrant community of Copenhagen, where Sunnis and Shi’ites battle as savagely and as unyieldingly as in their native lands. We see a quiet, intelligent young man, who we later learn is Jamil, in a warm family setting with his wife and cute-as-a-button young son, who like four-year-olds everywhere, is glued to the tube and wants his daddy to buy him what he sees there. But Jamil has other immediate concerns, and tells his wife to lie for him, should someone ask where he is: just say I’ve gone to visit my father. And he will; but he will continue to reject the older man’s hard-earned wisdom, which is based on the Koran — but not the part that has Jamil in its thrall: Jamil has killed a man to avenge the death of his mother. Of course, this sets off another round of retribution, and the order goes out: Get Jamil — alive. Jamil makes his father promise to protect and care for his little boy should anything happen to him.
Go With Peace Jamil puts a very human face on the disturbing headlines coming out of the Middle East. The use of frequent quick cuts and close-ups intensifies the tension that already permeates every frame, many of which seem to exude the sweat, fear, and fervor that drive its protagonists. Attempting to escape certain death at the hands of the two men who have come for him, Jamil is shielded by his closest friend, who winds up taking a bullet for him — turning his world upside down yet again. Rather than being relieved of the burden of his mother’s murder and his perceived obligation to avenge it, Jamil finds that it has only increased: He must now avenge the death of the friend who died for him, as well as care for his widow and children. The heartbreak amid the horror is that, even while he recognizes the absurdity and futility of it all — “I’m trapped in a game of hell between men who should be brothers” — he cannot put an end to the cycle of violence, and is doomed to be its victim.
In a q&a after the screening, director Omar Shargawi, perhaps in part to lift the cloak of gloom that suffused the theater, bantered with audience members. This film is very critical of people who are known to be dangerous, someone asked. Has anyone threatened your life? “Only my father,” he laughed, who plays Jamil’s father in the film and did not always take kindly to being directed by his son. As to why he made the film, which he also wrote, Shargawi said that he wanted to explore the apparent contrariety of religious people — people of peace — being actively involved in violence. How did he find his actors? As in the film, and as in life, contradictions abound: the actor who plays the worst villain works in a library. “And nobody ever turns in a book late,” Shargawi noted.
Similarly, if the protagonist of Paolo Sorrentino’s exposé of rampant corruption at the highest levels of power by Italy’s 44-year ruling party ran a library, the word “late” would be read in two ways. Il Divo: The Spectacular Life of Giulio Andreotti (Italy, 2008), which won the Prix du Jury at Cannes this year and has been called both “a touchstone” and “a masterpiece” by Variety, portrays a slippery chameleon and consummate politician who served as Prime Minister of Italy on three separate occasions and held three Minister posts, regardless of continued rumors, accusations, and evidence of venality, vice, and the iron enforcement of omertà. Despite concerted efforts by justice officials over a quarter of a century, the “Divine Julius” repeatedly managed to wriggle out of their grasp.
“I always wanted to make a film about Andreotti,” said Sorrentino. “But when I began to research him, I found myself confronted with so much contradictory literature, my head began to spin... The picture of Andreotti as the embodiment if ambivalence was not only drawn by academics, journalists, and the public, but was also cultivated by Andreotti himself, as he continually played upon this ambiguity and used it for his own ends... He has admitted that his favorite film is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
Sorrentino’s film begins with a Machiavellian voice-over, in which Andreotti (Toni Servillo) smoothly reports that everyone always predicted his early demise, but he’s outlived every one of them — including his doctors. Elected seven times, Il Divo lightly advises that he never presses charges against those who insult him, because he has a sense of humor — and a large archive. “In crime novels they always find the culprit,” he said in 1981. “It’s different in real life.” It certainly was for Andreotti, who, we glean from this fascinating film, if not for his political positions and connections, would have a rap sheet as long as the river Po. (Servillo looks eerily like Richard Nixon — hunched shoulders, fingers linked across the abdomen — and has the demeanor of Henry Kissinger. Whether this was intentional or coincidental — and whether Sorrentino ever saw “Nixon’s Nixon,” which is a less likely, but still irresistible, possibility — we do not know.)
One by one, in a ludicrously humorous montage that would be disturbing were it not shot as a rapid-fire series of “moments,” we see officials off themselves or get neatly eliminated in the wake of corruption charges and perceived betrayals. But Andreotti is a master at the game and is never convicted, at least not in a way that sticks. His power is not absolute, however; he could not keep this film from being made, even if he wanted to. Indeed, it was even screened for him by the filmmaker. “The eternally composed man with the sad eyes behind large glasses erupted in a fit of rage,” reported the Munich newspaper Abendzeitung, “only to bring himself under control in the next moment. ‘In my two conversations with [him],’ recalled Sorrentino, ‘Andreotti was exactly like the man you see on television. Motionless, with an easy, mordant wit, in the end elegantly evading all questions, at once eerily serious and utterly unapproachable’.”
On the opposite end of the celebrity spectrum,“utterly unapproachable” are the last words one would use to describe the winner of this year’s Cinemerit Award, the charming, forthright Julie Christie, whose vigor, appearance and enthusiasm delightfully belied both her calendar age (birth year: 1941) and her impeccable, award-winning portrayal of an Alzheimer’s victim in 2006’s Away From Her.
“What I fear most,” fest director Andreas Ströhl had told Blickpunkt Film as the festival was getting under way, “is that the Germans will reach the finals in the European championship [thus drawing audiences away from Filmfest]. And what I most look forward to, is the moment when Julie Christie steps out of the car.” As it turned out, the notoriously publicity-shy Christie not only would step out of the car, but would appear before eager Filmfest audiences twice, and grant at least three interviews to local reporters.
Festival director Andreas Stroehl presents the Cinemerit Award to Julie Christie
In a wide-ranging conversation in the Gasteig’s Black Box, Christie seemed to take pleasure in deconstructing some of the myths that have grown up around her. “You’re perceived as all these things that you don’t feel sometimes,” she said, responding to the statement that she was renowned for her independence. As for her distinguished career in film, Christie confessed that she was “very snooty about film” as a girl, seeing it as a place for stories “about war and soldiers and the women waiting for them,” which she had no interest in, and preferring the stage.
Which of her films does she like best? Surprisingly, not Dr. Zhivago — “I know it’s a very much loved film; it’s just not my kind of film. But I’m very glad I made it. I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t made that film.” Conversely, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, which she credits with starting a new movement in Hollywood spearheaded by its director, Robert Altman, is a personal favorite.
Asked about François Truffaut and Fahrenheit 451, in which she played two archetypal opposites, Christie said that “I don’t think I did the little rebel very well. I wish I could do it again,” then added, “but François is gone, and I’m gone.” In an interview with the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung published the same day, Christie hypothesized that Truffaut chose her for the role “because he liked pretty girls. The way Truffaut directed was something very special. He taught me his own language.”
Christie had nothing but praise for the young director of Away From Her, Sarah Polley, a noted actress in her own right whom Christie called “very sensitive, almost a magic person” whose influence was so strong, “what I saw is me acting like Sarah Polley.” In an interview with Abendzeitung, Christie expressed despondency over the smaller European films that are seen, sometimes to great acclaim, in festivals but don’t pick up distributors: “You can’t see these works of art in cinemas anymore, and that breaks my heart.”
There were plenty of them at Filmfest München, some of which happily have found distributors, and — fingers crossed — may find their way to DC cinemas. One of these, Silent Light (Stellet Licht, Carlos Reygadas, Mexico-France-Netherlands, 2007), has won prizes at (so far) nine international film festivals, including the Jury Prize at Cannes, the Gold Hugo (best film) in Chicago, and the FIPRESCI Prize in Rio.
The story of a Mennonite community in Mexico, Silent Light is unexpected in other ways as well. At its simplest, the film can be seen as yet another take on the classic he-done-her-wrong: devoted family man falls in love with another woman, with bitter consequences for all involved. But the unique setting in which it plays out, like the tale it portrays, is both breathtaking in its visual splendor and capable of making a viewer check his breathing with its extended sequences of uncompromising stillness, solitude, and emptiness.
And yet, this film is alive. You both hear and see the crunching of Johan’s feet through the grass and weeds as he approaches his lover; their two-minute (yes, you read that right) embrace is so palpable as to approach the pornographic — though they’re both fully clothed, in Mennonite garb to boot... and all they do is kiss. This is followed by another extended scene, of Johan and his wife bathing their children in the lake, the buckets and cups poured with richly opaque, molasses-like slowness, accompanied by lusciously amplified sounds of waves of water as they cascade down the children’s bodies.
Needless to say, the narrative, despite (or perhaps because of) its eccentricity — I will say only, to cite an example, that it includes a wake during which the subject actually wakes — while raising contemplation-worthy questions (Does religious belief make us more or less moral? Does it guide us, or does it excuse us? Does “true love” excuse betrayal if we get the betrayed one’s OK?), is secondary to the film’s visual poetry and tonal glories. It ends with an extended, panoramic shot of the plains, illuminated by a shaft of light that slowly, over a period of several minutes, dims. The sky darkens, the stars come out; it is night, and the gentle chirp of crickets accompanies the rich symphonic strains of the closing chords. All is right with the world? Yes; and yet...
From the silence of the Mennonites to the stridence of the Manhattanites: New York was, as always, a favorite setting for Filmfest fare, and Munich a favorite venue for visiting filmmakers to chat up their works and test the waters. Two of the best this year were Henry Bean’s Noise (USA, 2007) and Abel Ferrara’s Chelsea on the Rocks (USA, 2008).
As we begin Bean’s tale, which is either inspiring or disturbing, depending in part upon which side of the issue you find yourself, the camera pans across a sweeping view of the New York City skyline to a gently melodic threnody, lulling us into a state of pleasant contemplation. No sooner are we firmly anchored in this mellow mood, however, than we are sprung out of our seats by the ear-splitting cacophony of jackhammers and sirens, disco, rap and radio commercials played at full blast, traffic, car horns, car alarms — the scourge of the city dweller. Our narrator tells us that in Manhattan, car alarms, whose deafening monotone comes to a merciful end only when somebody turns off the blasted thing, so often go off erroneously or accidentally at all hours of the day and night that the cops have come to simply ignore them. While that may save time for New York’s finest, it does little for the little guy, whose sleep is disturbed, whose conversations become shouting matches, and whose sex life threatens to become but a memory. Enough!
Time for action from: The Rectifier. Imbued with a sense of mission and the can-do American spirit, armed with gumption and a tire iron, our hero takes it upon himself to “fix” the problem. His common sense perhaps atrophied by lack of sleep and... well... affection, he prowls the streets of his neighborhood, smashing car windows and disabling car alarms, becoming a small-time vigilante who soon extends his enterprise across a wide swath of the borough, earning the enmity of his victims — and the admiration and gratitude of just about everyone else.
Well... maybe not. At the podium discussion, Henry Bean confessed to having based the film partly on his own experience as a fed-up New York resident. Frustrated with unattended car alarms that would rend the night for hours on end, Bean began, in what seemed at the time like an act of justifiable self-defense, seeking out the offending vehicles and disconnecting their battery cells. Sent to the slammer for the night, Bean made good use of his time by conceptualizing what had happened to him in film terms, imagining what would happen if someone became obsessed with doing what a temporary meltdown had led him to do (“I’m interested in fanatics”). Bean’s wife, meanwhile, thought it was funny that he was arrested, and got him a lawyer... by the name of Eliot Spitzer. (There’s probably a story there, too, but in the interest of time and relevance, we let it lie.)
Bean spoke admiringly of William Hurt, who in the role of the mayor (modeled on Giuliani) must spit out statistics with machine-gun rapidity and precision. Hurt “has an amazing power of recall,” Bean told us, able to transfer number-laden lines on the spur of the moment from one scene to another without missing a beat. (He also paid for his own toupee.) Bean made good use of his own power of recall in writing the script, incorporating things people actually said into lines spoken by his characters. One of the best was spoken by a policeman who, when asked what would happen if everyone went around smashing cars and ripping out their alarms, responded: “They’d get rid of the damn alarms.” We exited thoughtfully from the theater.
Alarms of another sort are set off in Chelsea on the Rocks, Abel Ferrara’s documentary on Manhattan’s legendary landmark hotel for which the word “bohemian” may have been invented. “The day you walked into this hotel is the day you were born,” Ferrara’s narration begins. “The energy of this hotel is greater than that of anyone who ever stayed in it” — and that’s saying a lot, considering its denizens have included Janis Joplin, Sid Vicious and his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen (who was found stabbed to death there), Dennis Hopper, Ethan Hawke, Grace Jones, Milos Forman, and countless other creative artists who have called it home, many of whom share their recollections with Ferrara. For many, it has also been a jumping-off point — literally: Its storied century-and-a-quarter history includes several “storeyed” leaps, as people have come to the Chelsea to plunge from its windows out onto West 23rd Street below.
The film artfully blends interviews with staged recreations. Ethan Hawke, who has lived there for years, is a particularly engaging raconteur, at one point recalling the proprietor telling him about playwright Arthur Miller’s unbending order not to be bothered, no matter who wanted to see him. Which is fine with Stanley Bard, until the day a desperate blonde woman approaches the front desk: “Please, Stanley, I’ve got to talk to Arthur.” Weighing the situation, he places a tentative call to Miller, telling him that Marilyn Monroe is there to see him. “I told you not to bother me!” roars Miller.
We watch a dramatization of the night of Nancy Spungen’s murder. (Vicious, who died of a drug overdose just four months later, “was very upset that we left” the hotel after filming was completed, Ferrara told us at a podium discussion.) And we listen as another famous resident tells of coming to the Chelsea to “exorcize bad karma,” which visits soldiers when they kill without having to. Echoing the painful wisdom heard in Waltz with Bashir, he tells in an emotionless voice of killing “a young guy who did absolutely nothing to me. I had no reason to kill him. But you learn how to kill, you’re told to kill, and it becomes easy. You don’t even think about it. Until you come face to face with the person you kill.” And then, his haunted gaze voicing what his words cannot, you can’t stop thinking about it.
The Chelsea has seen better days, and there is a move to modernize it and clean it up a bit — even (yikes!) to put a bar on the roof. This does not sit well with the old-timers, who consider it a form of sacrilege. Milos Forman, who has lived there on and off for years, tells a delightful tale of being awakened in the wee hours by a fire alarm. Still woozy from sleep, he dashes out of his room, clad only in a t-shirt — as the door slams (and locks) behind him. Across the hall, his neighbor has emerged, her eyes traveling to the neighborhood where the shirt ends, and offers him assistance. Unfortunately, the only thing she has that will fit him is a skirt. Thus clad, he runs down the stairs; by now, there’s a party going on, and everyone’s mellow. That is, until a water pipe explodes, and a dead body is discovered, and an elderly resident drowns in the water, which has reached several feet, and... All I can say is, the Chelsea Hotel has found a place on my list of Manhattan must-sees. It may be “on the rocks,” but we can just look at that as another way of anticipating that bar on the roof.
A film from the other side of the world — both graphically and geographically — is quite literally “on the rocks”: Frozen (India, 2007), an emotionally spare, first directorial (and screenwriting) effort by master photographer and passionate mountain climber Shivajee Chandrabhushan. While the story, filmed in the Himalayas, is elliptical, the shots are composed and framed with masterly precision: rarely will you see such visually stunning, Ansel Adams-like shading in a contemporary, black-and white film. The principal storyline is that of a man and his “problem child” teenage daughter, who are told they must leave their ancestral home because the army needs it as an outpost. The girl also has a little brother who tags along, and who may or may not be real; he is based on an imaginary friend the director had as a child, he explained after the screening, with a touch of Calvin & Hobbes: “The boy is your inner self, the one you talk to.”
“The film is about the conflict between two rights,” said Chandrabhushan. “The army guy says it’s his duty: ‘We have to have the army at the China border.’ When he says he’s going to move the man to a safe place — your home is where you feel safe. If they say they have to move you to build the Metro, do you want the Metro? Or do you want your house?”
The director, a lifelong mountaineer who has been climbing the Himalayas since his early teens, took pride in the film’s successes from Toronto to Estonia, but was pained that it could not be released in his native India. He apologized with deadpan humor that it was not in color (“yes, it’s true, I am Indian, but this film is in black and white”) and said he would understand “if you want to walk out, but please, do it in the middle, because I don’t want you to miss the end. It’s really something very special.” (It is indeed.) The film was shot in January, with temperatures hovering around minus 25 degrees Celsius, but “in hindsight, that was a cakewalk, compared to trying to get the film released in India.”
The fact that a film gets released in a director’s homeland is, of course, no guarantee that people will come see it, or — even for a world-famous director with a legendary editor and an internationally renowned cast — that the critics will like it. Such could be said of Youth Without Youth (USA-Germany-Italy-France-Romania, 2007), the latest work from Francis Ford Coppola, which screened in DC last January.
The film, based on a 1976 novella by Romanian author Mircea Eliade, with its story of a 70-year-old linguistics professor in 1938 Romania who is struck by lightening and finds that, like Hamlet’s crab, he can go backwards in time, is very personal to Coppola. In production notes, he writes of the frustration of the creative artist who finds that age, rather than increasing his abilities and with them, his fame, seems instead to diminish them both. “Originally, I didn’t intend to make more than one Godfather film; yet the economic forces at the studio were insistent... But the first film expended most of the arrows in my quiver or, more aptly, the slugs in my revolver...
“The successful artist has to contend with economic issues and questions of fame that the younger artist can only fantasize about. Should I do it to make the big money or because it will make me even more famous? Those are very dangerous questions not often compatible with doing great work...
“I’ve begun to think that the only sensible way to deal with this dilemma is to become young again, to forget everything I know and to try to have the mind of a student. To re-invent myself by forgetting I ever had any film career at all, and instead to dream about having one.” And thus: this film about youth, age, and the consequences of conflating them. It has been faulted for undue complexity but its kaleidoscopic telling of a tale with romantic love and the love of learning at its core, dizzyingly catapulting the viewer in time and place, is richly and adventuresomely rendered.
In an interview with Abendzeitung, Alexandra Maria Lara, who plays the object of the professor’s desire, recalled the words of Sean Penn (who sat with her on the jury at Cannes) to the effect that sometimes, after a film, we have a feeling that can completely change two days later. “That may explain why [this] film has divided people,” she said, adding that at the premiere in Los Angeles, Coppola told the audience that his exemplars, among them Fellini, made films that you didn’t understand in every detail, but that left you with a strong feeling. “I think,” said Lara, “this film can do that, too.”
The same might well be said of O’Horten (Brent Hamer, Norway-Germany, 2007), which is not, apostrophic prefixes aside, about an Irishman. Rather, the O’ stands for the protagonist’s first name, which is Odd. OK, maybe that is odd; but then, so is this gentle, humorous, melancholy and imaginative film. Odd, a sexagenarian train conductor, tells his girlfriend that after his next (and last) ride on the rails, he’s flying to Oslo. “Fly!” She exclaims. “Odd...” which brought a laugh from the audience, enjoying a pun not evident in the original Norwegian.
Things don’t begin well for Odd. The night before his departure, he finds that he needs to visit a friend, but the pass code for the apartment complex’s entry door doesn’t work. So he climbs up the fire escape, hoping to knock on a window and gain access to the building — and winds up on the wrong floor. Finding himself in a precarious position, standing on a narrow ledge several storeys above the ground, he climbs in an open window, hoping to be able to sneak out the front door and find his friend’s apartment the usual way.
Not so fast: he’s entered the bedroom of a little blond cherub, who shows no fear and asks his midnight visitor if he wants to see his car. Explaining that he doesn’t have time, Odd tries to leave, but spins swiftly around when the boy starts vociferously banging away on his drum set. Now that he’s got Odd’s attention: “Will you stay till I fall asleep?” Of course, it’s Horten who falls asleep — and fatefully misses his last train ride.
But that’s just the beginning of his misadventures. He decides to sell his sailboat to a friend, who tells him to meet him at the airport where he works. Being a loyal rail man and unfamiliar with the esoterica of airports, Odd gets caught up in every traveler’s worst nightmares, from being sent to the wrong gate — the right one being, of course, at the opposite end of the airport — to being rudely strip-searched.
After several more groan-inducing but all too real, and universally recognizable mishaps, the dispirited Odd one night comes across a man lying in the street. Rather than ignore what looks like a homeless person who’s had one too many, Odd asks him if he can get him a taxi. As if in a fairy tale, this good deed appears to turn his luck around: Turns out the man is a rich retired diplomat, who in gratitude opens his home to Odd. As they chat, Odd learns that the man was also a championship long-distance skier. “So was my mother,” Odd tells him. “And your father?” “In a way,” Odd responds. “He disappeared.”
As will in the end Odd, in a very odd and entertaining, even exhilarating way, but not before taking us into imaginative realms of light, sound and imagery that we are not at all prepared for.
American audiences would certainly not be prepared for the imaginative realms into which the subject of this year’s retrospective, the prolific Munich filmmaker, playwright, author, painter and poète maudit Herbert Achternbusch, would propel them. The 38-year filmic oeuvre alone of a man whose motto, as expressed in 1977's Bye Bye Bavaria (Servus Bayern), is “I resist,” itself resists definition, although it would seem safe to say that he is an iconoclast who both enjoys taking bizarre but well-aimed potshots at the booboiesie, and uses narrative absurdity to reveal disturbing truths about their most cherished ones. His stated influences include John Ford, Jerry Lewis, Yasujiro Ozu, Charlie Chaplin and, closer to home, Bavaria’s beloved social satirist Karl Valentin. (Valentin, coincidentally, was the subject of a new TV movie, Karl Valentin and Liesl Karlstadt, which was warmly received by an audience that seemed to contain a large complement of members of the public, in addition to the international Filmfest audience.)
Achternbusch’s own oeuvre of 27 feature films, which was screened in its entirety, includes such works as Der Komantsche / The Comanche (“An Indian returns to reality after spending years in a coma in a Bavarian sanatorium”), Das Gespenst / The Ghost (“... shows Jesus stepping down from his cross, confronting religious stereotypes and cliches, taking up with a mother superior — ‘we’re married anyway’ — and having anarchic surreal experiences”), Das letzte Loch / The Last Hole (in which he “plays a private investigator out to discover the truth about the extermination of the Jews in World War II, but the people he interviews seem unwilling or unable to remember back that far”), and Rita Ritter (which “focuses on a couple who have separated but they meet again in Paris, find they are still in love, and go out to enjoy the city. The hitch is that one of them has had a sex change operation and is now a lesbian”).
The one Achternbusch film I got to see was the silent I Know the Way to the Hofbrauhaus (Germany, 1992), which features a mummy that comes to life in Munich’s history museum, plodding lifelessly about like a proto-Abominable Snowman as an industrious Achternbusch soaps and blow-dries a statue of the Egyptian goddess Isis. The mummy slogs by, looking worried; the intertitle reads: “I’m not wrapped too tight.” Which is true in more ways than one: his gauze is coming undone. Meanwhile, Achternbusch sets a photo of the Egyptian god Osiris against the statue’s chest (“Can you get me a date with her?” it says on the back), but the mummy expropriates it and hobbles off. A sexy, dark-haired woman with blood-red lips, coal-streaked Cleopatra eyes and siren-worthy clothes enters: “Telepath — ah, telephone!”
Next, a snake crawls down Achternbusch’s head and face to the sound of a dirge-like Egyptian chant, and bites him; he falls down dead, foaming at the mouth. Death is only a temporary respite, however, and we soon see him walking through Munich’s famous Hofgarten (court gardens), carrying a long pole with a boot hanging from it. An African American woman asks him if he knows the way to the Hofbrauhaus, and he obligingly points the way. A group of tourists likewise ask him, and he likewise obliges; as with his mummy friend, though, his directions aren’t wrapped too tight, and the little group go blithely on, never reaching their destination, but having a blissfully ditsy time on the way.
To the accompaniment of Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun,” as he sits on a bench in the Hofgarten people give him coins, and people take them away; girls rub his bald head; a woman observes the mole on his face and pronounces it cancerous; another announces she was at his interment. A girl walks by wearing one white sneaker and one white boot — the mate to the one hanging from his pole; and the mummy happens by and joins Achternbusch in window shopping along one of Munich’s main streets. Both wind up at the Hofbrauhaus, where the mummy is the object of rude jokes and roughhousing, getting bonked on the head with beer mugs as a melee ensues. Achternbusch carries him, wounded, back to the Hofgarten and tries to sit him on a bench, but the mummy keeps sliding off; whereupon Achternbusch unwraps him — and finds the dark-haired woman, who emerges not in her sexy goddess garb, but in a simple white frock. At this point, my mind was blown; but I think they go off together, and the film ends.
“No one can say that my films are carelessly made,” says Achternbusch. “They are unconventional, you can reject them, but no one can say that they are sloppy or that the continuity is not right. In themselves they are perfect.”
But the perfervid pursuit of perfection can be vicious, and for some, destructive. So learned filmmaker Christopher Bell, whose autobiographical Bigger, Stronger, Faster (USA, 2008) was nominated for this year’s Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. In making it, Bell turned the camera on himself and his family, including his two brothers who, like him and millions of American kids, grew up worshiping — and, as it often is with kids, wanting to grow up to be — Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Incredible Hulk, and Sly Stallone.
In what is both an eye-opening exposé of the steroid culture in our country and a moving portrait of a family coming to terms with its impact on their lives, Bell recounts how he, driven to become a chick-magnet muscleman; his older brother, the only student in his high school’s history to reach the heights of Division One football; and his younger brother, who dreamed of being a professional wrestler, each got on the “juice” to make it happen.
Bell was disappointed and disillusioned when he found out his heroes used steroids. But it was when he learned that both of his brothers used them too that his illusions took a real tumble — and the larger questions began to raise themselves up. “My brothers and I needed to find a way to become bigger, stronger, and faster — and we did, but at what cost? ... Is that what it takes to be an American Hero? ... (W)hat does the use of steroids by so many of our heroes say about ethics in our culture? Is this a problem unique to the athletes and gym rats, or is it a sign of a much bigger issue?”
Bell is exhaustive and unsparing in his portrait of a culture of denial where winning is the only acceptable outcome, and the question of how you get there isn’t even on the charts. In most cases, it is the coaches who either explicitly insist on steroids, or implicitly demand it by not accepting performance that for most athletes is simply not achievable without them, no matter how gifted and committed they are, or how long and how hard they train. Bell’s golden-boy older brother, confronted by the huge differences in size and strength that set him apart from the other players when he got to Cincinnati, like his younger sibling turned to professional wrestling, which had been a childhood dream — only to find himself relegated to “jobber” status. In despair, he attempted suicide.
Bell gathers an impressive assembly of experts from both sides of the playing field, including Dr. Charles Yesalis, a consultant for the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy with a 25-year history of research and publication on the non-medical use of steroids, who has testified three times before Congress; Scott Reid, who led a team of three reporters whose findings led to the 1988 exposure of Olympic sprinter Carl Lewis’s taking of banned stimulants; sprinter Ben Johnson, whose own gold medal had been previously taken away for similar reasons and given to Lewis; and major leaguer Barry Bonds, who was indicted for perjury last year for denying that he knowingly used performance-enhancing drugs. Bonds is unabashed, and his father backs him up. “Look at the Bible,” says his dad. “It tells you that cheaters never prosper. But in America, cheaters always prosper.” In a culture where second place means about as much as last, “the real winners are those who win at any cost.” As if to underline this disquieting conclusion, the film ends with a clip from George C. Scott’s performance as as Patton, roaring that winning at all costs is quintessentially American.
But it is Bell’s parents who, responding with quiet, painful honesty to their son’s questions, go right to the heart of it. His father states frankly that he expects one of his sons to wind up dead; his mother asks simply, “Why didn’t our boys ever feel that they were good enough?”
That’s one question which, it’s probably safe to say, the parents of POTUS never had to ask themselves. And while others may beg to differ, most of the residents of W’s adopted town have jumped on the bandwagon with both boots. Crawford (David Modigliani, USA, 2008), a first film by a young Harvard grad who began researching it under a fellowship from the University of Texas at Austin, made its smash debut at the SXSW film festival and has been universally praised by press, pros, and public alike in its journey through the fest circuit. A documentary with a difference, it is an unbiased, sharply observed trip through the town that George W. Bush calls home — at least on paper.
“When a friend told me that Bush had moved into Crawford in ‘99, just before announcing his candidacy for President, I realized how well his political stagecraft had worked; I’d bought the folksy narrative — hook, line and sinker,” says Modigliani. “I wanted to see this town he’d made into a symbol — his Western White House.” And see it he did, spending three fruitful years interviewing its residents; observing their rituals, celebrations, and daily life; reading their newspapers, watching their TVs, and listening to their radios. And did he ever get an earful.
The population (705) of Crawford, we read in the local paper, watch Fox news religiously, and believe everything they hear. This makes it an uphill battle for one of the teachers at the local high school, who finds her “liberalism” challenged at every turn by parents who feel their authority is being usurped when she tells her students to think for themselves and not believe everything the media or their elders tell them. We hear from farmers drinking their morning coffee outside a gas station, families gathered around a table, students on both sides of the religious and political divide, winners and losers, belongers and loners.
Despite the prevailing conservative ethos, Crawford has become an unlikely hotbed of protest. The meticulously evenhanded camera of Crawford and his four co-cinematographers records the serendipitous arrival of Cindy Sheehan, showing equal attention and and respect to the protesters and to the anti-protesters (including a few of the latter who paint not only their faces but their horses with rabble-rousing slogans).
In the post-screening q&a, Modigliani told us how he’d hoped to get the President in his film, and even thought it might be possible — until the day he received an e-mail from POTUS’s people in Texas: no subject, no text; just a photo of Modigliani at the 2004 Democratic convention, listening intently to a speech by John Kerry.
But Modigliani is not a Bush-basher using film to promote a political agenda or wreak a personal vendetta. Rather, he is, first and foremost, a documentary filmmaker: “I’m very sick of the Michael Moore type of documentary where they try to shove a particular political position down your throat. I just wanted to give everybody a chance to say what they really felt.” When he showed it in Crawford, projected on a fifty-foot inflatable screen, the town’s residents gave it a thumbs-up.
Of course the first question was: How did he get the town to trust him? How did he get the people to be so honest and forthcoming? “I never forced my opinions on anyone, was never combative or imposed my point of view, or made them feel threatened,” he said. “I cultivated their trust, and they gave it to me.” The teacher, he added — the woman who refuses to give up, and who cultivates her students’ natural curiosity and “better natures” by engaging their minds with the ideas of the world’s great thinkers, past and present — is his hero.
At the podium discussion in the Gasteig, Modigliani described his approach and methodology as a combination of the classic opposites, subjective and objective filmmaking. Over the course of his three-year stay, Modigliani got to know the people as he lived with them, filming them going about their daily lives almost unnoticed, as a friendly fly on the wall. He then edited the film objectively, as a filmmaker (perhaps the documentarian’s version of Truffaut’s famous apothegm about Orson Welles’s films being “filmed by an exhibitionist and edited by a censor”).
Modigliani initially went into the project with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, having been led to believe that Crawford was Bush’s home away from the White House and feeling duped to find it that in name only. His resentment at having been had found its match in the townspeople’s anger at having been roundly and, they felt, unfairly portrayed by the media as hillbillies and rubes. While this honest film does not shrink from showing those aspects of the town and its inhabitants, its determination to go beyond caricature and plumb beneath the surface of the people it portrays should quickly dispel those myths for anyone seeing it.
Myths are, on the other hand, the order of the day in another southern state, as seen in Margaret Brown’s similarly knowledgeable and evenhanded documentary The Order of Myths (USA, 2008) about Mobile, Alabama’s Mardi Gras. But where Modigliani’s film is personal, driven by his desire to expose a spurious claim that threatened to make fools of him and others who believed it, and his findings sometimes reflect the reality of a still-perceptible racial separation, Brown’s — which won this year’s Cinematic Vision Award at Silverdocs and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance — is personal in the most intimate sense: her mother was once Mardi Gras Queen. And her investigation of the traditions surrounding this three-century-old celebration finds complex implications that reach deep into the national subconscious, going beyond a tacitly accepted separation of the races to touch, and ultimately encompass, the undead ghosts of legally mandated segregation.
More than forty years after incoming Gov. George Wallace vowed “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” Mardi Gras, with its Black and White balls, remains one of the last bastions in the nation of that virulent, and violently discredited belief system. As with most things, though, there is more here than meets the eye; and Brown, like Modigliani, comes not to judge, or to document already established convictions — which, perhaps less like Modigliani, she did not have — but to explore, and as did her fellow filmmaker to document, without subtext or subterfuge, what she found.
In interviews with everyone from the Black and White Mardi Gras king and queen — whose financial and social disparities make the $20,000 price tag for the required festival accouterments a cause for disproportionate doses of family pride and community effort; to her grandfather, a member of the two oldest “mystic” organizations, whose influence gained her access into a still very shrouded society; to the Black Ball’s dressmaker, whose infectious enthusiasm (“I just love that dazzle”) speaks to the magic that is Mardi Gras — Brown takes us into a world of dichotomy.
On the surface, everything seems cool: “In Mobile,” says a masked debutante mom equably, “we have no white-black problems; the whites go to the black balls, and the blacks go to the white balls.” As if to confirm her assessment, the Black Ball’s king asserts that he represents “not just the black residents of Mobile, but the whole city.” And perhaps things are changing. Yet the undercurrents are still there, and Brown does not attempt to hide them. But she also discovers an enormous pride that both sides take in their separateness; both celebrations are deeply rooted in history. And while it may not always be a comfortable one, it is theirs.
History and filmmaking converge in quite another way in Eric Rohmer’s Les amours d’Astrée et de Celadon (The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, France-Italy-Spain, 2007). Based on a novel by 16th-century French writer Honoré d’Urfé and set in provincial 5th-century France, Astrea is at once a charming period piece and a small masterpiece that gives every reason for us not to see it as either. Part of the problem may have been the copy screened, which gave the appearance of having been shot on video (shots reproduced on the Web do not give this appearance). It presents a story and characters far removed from our own experience who speak in verse, and yet with facial expressions and attitudes that sometimes appear incongruously, and because the disconnect so disorients us, disturbingly contemporary.
But the film slowly casts a spell, both because and in spite of itself; and the viewer finds himself going along for the ride, transported back to a time and place where men and women played at the same, age-old games of love and betrayal, but where words were taken far more seriously, and a vow once taken could be broken only by death. There is humor in it, too, and some kicky cross-dressing, when the hunky male lead dons ladies’ clothes to get close to his lady fair (who, in a fit of unjustified jealousy, had banned him from her sight forever), and is assigned to sleep in the girls’ bedroom.
Introducing the film at the pre-fest press screening, the Filmfest programmer recalled his last interview with the octogenarian Rohmer, who “looked very fragile” and every year his age as he entered the room. No sooner did the interview begin, however, and he was caught up in the excitement of talking about film, than the years fell away: vital, quick-witted, his vigor and acuity restored.
Quick-witted repartee was the hallmark of one of the fest’s most delightful (and Rohmerian, with a touch of Woody Allen) films, Un baiser s’il vous plaît (Shall We Kiss?, France, 2007) featuring its director, Emmanuel Mouret, in one of the leading roles. “Raoul Walsh said a good film has three things: Action, action, and action,” Mouret told us. “My film has three things: desire, desire, and desire. If you are sensitive to that kind of stuff,” he continued, “I advise you to leave the room now.”
The film is a confectionery morality tale (if there can be such a thing) involving a story within a story: An attractive young woman in town on business takes a lift from a young man; they find each other sympathique; as he lets her off at the station, he shyly asks for a parting kiss. I’d love to oblige, she responds; but you never know where those things can lead... and the film takes off as she tells the tale of a friend, who made the mistake of giving another friend “just a kiss,” setting off a hilarious chain of unforeseen, and life-altering, events. After this kiss, you see, the friend asked the recipient — his closest woman friend — to teach him how to make love...
In the post-screening q&a, Mouret emphasized that he had not made a moral film: rather, it’s “a film where people ask moral questions. The characters are tossed to and fro in the moral waters. Maybe,” he suggested, “I’ve made a film to help friends help friends.”
That might also be said of another French film screened here, one that also expands the definition of friendship into regions rarely breached in cinema, let alone in life — but here, morality and love emerge as counterpoints to the driving force: death. Le tueur (The Killer, Cédric Anger, France, 2008) posits a relationship between a hit man and his victim — a relationship initiated by the latter after he learns that he is the intended target, and decides to propose a deal.
The tension builds from the first frame, as the camera follows a man whose barely visible apprehension is intensified by the jump cuts and noir-ish camera angles that shift without warning from medium shot to heart-stopping closeup. In such an atmosphere, everyone’s a suspect, everyplace a potential hiding place; the sense of paranoia is subtly intensified by the dull, menacing, rhythmic throb of the timpani on the soundtrack. (The scores of both this film and Un baiser are deeply affecting, alternating with intelligence and sensitivity original music with excerpts from classical masterworks.) We cut to a bearded, mustachioed young man in a hotel bathtub, smoking a cigarette, eating and drinking, tossing the remains on the floor.
Our jittery friend, we learn, is an investment banker whom the blasé tub dweller comes to visit for financial advice. Something about him doesn’t quite sit right with the banker, whose anxiety grows when he notices the man standing at the back of the elevator hours later as he is leaving for home. Both men head for their cars; night falls; and as the last car pulls out of the lot, the banker takes a deep breath, gets out of his sedan, and approaches the other man’s rattletrap.
He knows why the young man is there: He is a contract killer, hired by a disgruntled underworld client to kill the banker. But what the client doesn’t know, is that the banker is ready to make a deal with the killer that will both fulfill the contract’s terms and thwart its goals, while adding a bonus that the banker will savor, if not in the afterlife, then surely in his last moments in this one.
Morality was also on the menu in François Delisle’s You (Canada, 2007); but in this film, it is, like revenge, a dish best served cold. You, we were told at the outset, was very controversial in its country of origin. It takes only a few minutes to find out why.
It begins with two nude people, a man and a woman, in full view, engaged in what may be the most routine, mechanical act of sex ever filmed, without the slightest hint of enjoyment, much less passion. And as for love... not.
At lunch with a friend, she hears the story of a couple who visited a third friend, each seeking her advice on an experience that had disturbed them both: namely, their failed attempt to make love. The woman blamed herself, her looks, her attitude — whatever she must have done or not have done to turn him off. And the man? He quietly admitted to the friend that at the crucial moment, he simply couldn’t perform: As they lay in each other’s arms, he suddenly realized that he was in love with her. And he would not, could not use her like a whore.
The man with whom we see our heroine next, clearly has no such compunction. But what is most interesting about this scene is that it is the polar opposite of the first one; not only is she responding, but the violence of the sex act is hair-raising. And yet the two of them are fully clothed, and we see them only from the waist up. “Obviously, the first guy was her husband,” someone murmured behind me.
The truth of this observation would be borne out by the woman’s declaration / confession to the first man that she is in love with another, and wants a separation. And herein lies another reason the film may have aroused such controversy: She tells her husband to keep their son with him. He will not fit in her new life; it wouldn’t be fair to either of them. Her decision tears all three of them apart, each closed off in his and her own private hell of loneliness, guilt, despair.
“You is, in a way, ‘Anna Karenina’ for the 21st century,” writes Zoran Gojic, director of Filmfest’s press office. “A film that hits you right in the pit of the stomach and forces you to take a stand.”
When it comes to punches in the gut, few films deliver one as memorably as the Moroccan Burned Hearts (Al Quoloub al Mouhtariaqua, Ahmed El Maanouni, 2007), a 14-year labor of love by the noted director of Trances. The latter was selected by Martin Scorsese last year at Cannes as one of the films that would introduce his new World Cinema Foundation, an organization “dedicated to the preservation and restoration of neglected films from around the world.” Like many of these films, this one will probably not be coming to a theater near you anytime soon. But its power and its provenance make it worth noting, at least in brief.
Oh my heart — torn in a thousand places — I’d have ripped you out if you didn’t keep me alive, begins the mournful chant as the credits roll against a black-and-white screen. In a manner much like Hamlet, a bearded, turbaned man ruminates on the meaning of life; as we contemplate his wisdom, the scene shifts. A welder comes to the home of a well-to-do citizen, pot in hand, demanding payment for his work (for what we understand to be the umpteenth time) from the servant who answers the door. Impassively she turns around, closes it — and does not return. Realizing he’s probably come to the end of the line and will never see his urgently needed payment, the welder walks out of the gate, closes it — and welds it shut.
These episodes serve as preludes to the very personal (and at least partly autobiographical) story of a young Moroccan architect now living in Paris who returns to his homeland to attend to the dying uncle who raised him. The man has nothing but painful memories of abuse at the uncle’s hands, but feels, as a matter of honor, that he nonetheless owes him attention in his dying days. We also sense that his time away has strengthened him, to a point where confronting the man openly will be a cathartic, even healing experience that will allow him to finally lay to rest the disturbing ghosts of his past.
El Maanouni made the film, he told us, because he wanted to share his culture — “the most important thing people can share with each other. It is only by knowing where we came from that we can know who we are, and use our knowledge to open ourselves to others, and by mutual exchange, understand each other.”
Mutual exchange and understanding are hard to come by for the characters in David Auburn’s The Girl in the Park (USA, 2007), featuring Sigourney Weaver as a woman who suffers the traumatic experience of having her child kidnaped almost from under her eyes. A successful jazz singer and mother of a 3-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son, Julia takes little Maggie to the playground one afternoon, reveling in the child’s innocence and gleeful enjoyment and playing hide-and-seek with her under the sliding board. As the shadows fall, and the other moms and kids pack up and leave, she suddenly finds that the two of them are alone and calls out to the child, who demands one more ride. Mom agrees. And in the minute it takes her to gather their stuff, the child disappears.
Fast-forward 16 years: A preoccupied guest at the party announcing her son’s engagement, Julia makes a hasty exit and winds up in a coffee shop, where she overhears a bleach-blonde twenty-something being dumped by her boyfriend and subsequently breaking down in tears. Curiously drawn to the girl, she follows her, and learns that Louise is homeless and a former foster child who doesn’t know where she came from. Julia invites her to stay, and becomes obsessed with the possibility that she is her long-lost daughter. And the guessing games (and other games) begin...
In the q&a following the screening, Auburn told us he has a daughter who was born just two weeks before shooting began, which heightened his sensitivity to the issue. But child abduction per se was not the driving force behind the film; rather, it was the question of how such an experience changes people, and how its after-effects can be seen years later. In developing the character of Julia, Auburn felt it would be interesting “to put a very knowing, intelligent, self-aware woman who realizes what’s happening to her, and lets it happen; to maintain the fiction as long as she could. As soon as she had this relationship with Louise, she felt normal again.”
Feeling normal is something The Speed of Life’s Sammer doesn’t seek. Actually, what he’s looking for is something which, to his complete indifference, makes him appear abnormal to some of the motley crew of individualists he calls friends and family, in Ed Radtke’s award-winning (Special Jury Prize, Venice 2007) DigiBeta film. Thirteen-year-old Brooklyn resident Sammer steals tourists’ video cameras, but, unlike your garden-variety street-corner crook, it’s not the hardware but the tapes he’s after: They become ingredients for his own cut-and-splice creations, letting his imagination soar above the mean streets that define his outer world by using purloined video-editing computers to redefine the things that are, and combine them with images of the things he dreams of.
The film employs numerous formats, and as many (or more) cameras: Radtke, who teaches a media workshop for inner-city kids in New York City, welcomed their ideas, and even invited them to shoot video for the film. It is this “collective filmmaking,” and Radtke’s not just willingness, but eagerness to embrace it, that gives The Speed of Life its distinctive character.
A whole slew of distinctive characters populates Rooster’s Breakfast (Petelinji Zajtrk, Marco Nabersnik, Slovenia-Croatia, 2007), which broke box-office records in its native land but, to the puzzlement of people there, has received very little notice elsewhere. (It did screen at Lincoln Center in June, where the director introduced it. His thoughtful and revealing interview with indieWire is here.)
Place: a garage / auto repair shop in a small Slovenian town. Gajas, an ex-Tito partisan who never tires of talking politics, needs an assistant, and hires a twenty-something kid to whom he teaches the ropes. On a mellow summer evening, as Gajas and his friends sit around shooting the bull over bottles of brew, another friend joins them, lamenting the stupidity of his audiences: despite serenading them with the most heart-rending hits of pop diva Severina, all they do is sit there and stuff their faces and drink. The boys invite him to play for them; so bonkers are they from the booze and the camaraderie, they think he’s sensational.
The next morning, Gajas tells the kid to buy every record of Severina he can get his hands on (“I don’t think they sell LPs anymore” — “OK then, tapes”), and sinks into a reverie of the time she came to entertain the garage mechanics union. In a moment of sheer transcendence she descended the stage, walked past hundreds of screaming fans — and placed a kiss upon his forehead... The kid, of course, is clueless. “Well?” he demands. “Did you get any action?” Gajas glares at him with a contempt that borders on violence, then softens into wistful sadness: “Kid, you’re a fool, and you’re always gonna stay a fool. That was the most beautiful moment in my life.”
The kid has other ideas, of course, but they’re ideas without much thought behind them: The local mob boss, who never pays his repair bills, has a sexy wife, who’s attracted to the kid, who has the hots for her in return. One thing leads to another, culminating in a roll in an idyllically spring-green field of grasses and hay, capped by a cloudless blue sky, to the accompaniment of sonorous, romantic strings... The boss finds out, of course, and becomes livid: not only has he been betrayed by his friend’s employee, but he has just gotten the friend tickets to a concert by none other than Severina herself. Gajas sees his choices, gives the kid a gun, and tells him there is but one solution. “Be like the partisans,” he intones. “Or,” he adds, “like Warren Beauty [sic] and that blonde in ‘Bonnie and Clyde’.”
“Rooster’s breakfast” is Slovenian slang for sex in the morning, and Gajas gets it from what he thinks is Severina. And the kid will come within a hair’s breadth of “getting it,” too — from the enraged capo, who finds a telltale cigarette lighter among his wife’s clothes. Admittedly, if the distribution situation remains unchanged, DC won’t be getting it anytime soon. But that is the sexy little secret of film: Being aware if it, and of some of the thousands of films at film festivals around the world we may never get to see, that win awards and break box-office records in countries we may never get to, opens a window onto the way others see the world, and we begin to get it in ways we might never otherwise. “It is only by knowing where we came from that we can know who we are, and use our knowledge to open ourselves to others, and by mutual exchange, understand each other.”
And while movies may not be the answer to world peace, in a world where every day seems to bring more and more evidence of people’s — and nations’ — failure to understand each other, they’re not a bad place to start. And Filmfest München is one of the best fests to do it.
See you on the Isar Mile!