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First Week at the 5th Annual First Look Festival

I Am the People

At the historic Kaufman Astoria Studios complex, where hundreds of silent and early sound era films were produced in my New York City home borough of Queens, the fifth annual First Look Festival at the Museum of the Moving Image (36-01 35th Ave, New York, NY) is an adventurous showcase for cinéphiles of almost 50 contemporary and influential international shorts and features, with many filmmakers in attendance each weekend in January.

Opening with the U.S. premiere of Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov's Venice Film Festival award-winner, Francofonia, a rumination on the survival of the Louvre’s art during war that Music Box Films will release theatrically this spring, the uniting theme of the array of documentaries, portraits, experimental explorations, new restorations, and visual essays was the loose theme of artists’ self-conscious look at film as a medium.

The First Weekend & New Films by Ken Jacobs

How thematically apropos that legendary avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs returned to MOMI to personally premiere new 3-D shorts and his meticulous restoration of his first film, Orchard Street, to the full 27 minute original version. Not seen since 1955, when what he described as an “arty intellectual” audience disparaged his cinema verité tour of the Lower East Side’s lively shopping district, he had been so discouraged that he had cut it down to a 12 minute short and never succeeded in reaching out to a musician for a score. Though it was silent, I was imagining the buzz of multi-lingual conversations and music by the Klezmatics, Steven Bernstein, or John Zorn to accompany this resonant look at crowded blocks on the cusp of change from a Jewish pedestrian space for selling a cornucopia of cheap goods to a car-destination for sentimental suburbanites seeking discounts.

ken jackobs orchard streetJacobs recalled filming over several months near his apartment, in rain and shine, with a heavy World War 2-era Bell & Howell camera – and stood up to demonstrate how he would make a movie of the Museum’s Astoria neighborhood, or in the theater itself: "There's films all around us!" His debut film captured one of the last push carts as relegated to rubbish removal and diverse walkers of all ages packed into sidewalks hemmed in by big cars. Just as much as he lovingly lingered on piled displays of colorful produce, clothes (“pants to order” says one sign), and tchotchkes, he also settled on faces -- of serious shoppers, of children, bemused watchers on the upper floors looking from on high over their laundry lines to the surging humanity– and lots of cats. Too often, commentators stereotype this view as just the old Jewish neighborhood, what with glimpses of knishes and the occasional Hassid, but this is a melting pot of bargain hunters. I did spot a couple of signs and stores still there today! Jacobs confessed to staging one repeated shot – of him kissing a young woman by a window. In a contemporary looking sequel, Jacobs last year went back to observe vestiges. He world premiered I’m Telling You, a 12 minute short of one old heckler crassly haranguing another in front of Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery about his dissatisfaction with the changes that have happened around him.

The octogenarian Jacobs was enthusiastic to an appreciative audience (including his nonagenarian colleague Jonas Mekas) about returning to his love of painting by making new 3-D films DIY “with this little Fuji” camera he bought on sale. But the manipulated images by computer-generated special effects can now be easily achieved with off-the-shelf software (and his editor daughter Niri’s programming assistance), both on the street and in his 19 minute subway trip The Lackadaisical Speed of Light, so that despite his iconic reputation as an experimental filmmaker, the looks veered toward gimmicks.

In contrast to these very urban experiences, his new Hydroelectric Dam was a mesmerizing 25 minutes in its 3-D world premiere as an intense immersion into raw nature. With occasional split screens and reverse flows, water and waves are a roaring force. My mind kept playing Woody Guthrie lines, like "Your power is turning our darkness to dawn" saluting the Grand Coulee Dam, let alone associations to the threat of breaking free to flood. But when the camera pulled back to drive away, this fearsome beast turned out to be contained under a bridge in the middle of Quebec.

I Am the People (Je suis le peuple)

It seemed like the whole world’s cameras were watching Egypt as Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign was overthrown in 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Muhammed Morsi was elected the next year, and then General Abd al-Fattah Al Sissi cemented a suppressive counter-revolution through 2014. But the media attention was on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, reflected in the Oscar-nominated documentary The Square. Even “Arab Spring” profiles included some rural folk, such as across six countries in The Trials of Spring [http://filmfestivaltraveler.com/film-festivals/features/3059-human-rights-watch-film-fest-15-nonviolence-revolt], the activists had left for the main protest cities. The voices of the one-third of Egyptians who work on farms, the fellahin who used to be the backbone of the country’s economy, were not heard.

Not only does director Anna Roussillon provide an outlet for these voices, but a unique longitudinal look because she was already embedded with hard-working Farraj and his family on their farm in the Nile Valley when the Egyptian revolution exploded in the city where she grew up, 435 miles to the north. Exchanging fond teases with them in the pastoral prologue, she was documenting their barely modernizing agricultural methods and social traditions slowly playing out against the backdrop of lush palm trees, flying ibises, and the ancient temples of Luxor in the distance. She would come to visit every few months and stay awhile, as he spent long days knee deep in mud in the hot sun and trying to repair an old irrigator, the female folk pound flour into bread, and his kids did their school homework. (Who is in the extended family or are neighbors is a bit confusing.) Though Farraj had returned from a university education back to the land, he hopes for better for them, including his daughter. At night, they relax watching soccer and music videos on TV, through the periodic electrical black-outs (The title comes from a song by his favorite actor/singer Oum Kalthoum).

Farraj cynically has no great expectations when the government first disparagingly reports on the demonstrations in Tunisia, and his kids, significantly, see no potential connection to their daily lives. Though Roussillon claims she was just capturing what played out around her, she has a profound influence on him when she hands him her laptop with uncensored news from Cairo. Taking over the TV, he eagerly gets more and more involved in watching the satellite channels and enthusiastically buys bigger and better configured equipment. His elderly neighbor still believes the propaganda on the only channel he sees, and Farraj is sympathetic that the political turmoil is hurting the tourist trade the people of Luxor need. But as happy as he is by the birth of another child, he looks more excited at the novelty of a village pre-election parade that proves the revolutionary fervor extended to rural areas. Confessing how discouraged the farmers were by years of sham democracy, backed by the U.S. and Europe he pointedly notes, when no one bothered to vote yet corrupt local leaders would declare huge victories, he supports whoever is the least associated with the past government, which is the Muslim Brotherhood.

It just takes the image on TV of the general taking over to reinforce that Farraj’s cynicism was unfortunately well-founded, even before the satellite channels were shut down in 2013. Roussillon successfully crowdfunded to finance Farraj’s first trip out of the country in January to accompany her at screenings around Paris. I’m sure he appreciated getting some good news in this sad year for Egyptian politics. But, to appropriate an Arab image, Roussillon intimately convinces us that the genie of revolution will not easily be put back in the bottle.

João Bénard da CostaOthers Will Love the Things I Have Loved (Outros amarão as coisas que eu amei)

others will loveThe genie for director Manuel Mozos is his friend and colleague João Bénard da Costa, the long time director of the Portuguese Cinémathèque, who died in 2009. Unlike fond tributes to influential champions of film in other countries – France’s Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinémathèque (2004) and Celluloid Man (2012) about P.K. Nair, the founder of the National Film Archive of India – there are no famous talking heads or relatives recalling anecdotes to beautifully trace the making of a great cinéphile. His son João Pedro Bénard sonorously reads his father’s autobiographical writings “to lead you through images and memories.” The camera follows his early influences, described as intimate connections with a large home filled with family photographs and a museum full of portraits. What an unusual little boy whose favorite gift was a beloved book of medieval and Renaissance art prints redolent with symbols of the lives of saints. (Marie Losier’s preceding 19 minute colorful drag fantasy L’Oiseau de la nuit is set in some of the same Lisbon locales he trod for a more carnivale effect.)

Setting up a cinema club while teaching high school, João Bénard da Costa delighted in the power of the silver screen’s figures to be ghosts who could achieve immortality. Threaded throughout the ruminative biography are his favorite clips which Mozos re-watches in the Cinémathèque’s archives to emphasize the magic of the movies to defy reality – time in William Dieterle’s Portrait of Jennie (1948), faith in Carl Dreyer’s Ordet (1955), love in Joseph Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), and words in Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner. Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) is held up as the epitome of perfection; the Museum included a showing of a 35mm print in the festival. There’s also visual references to filmmakers who were his contemporaries and sometime collaborators, the late Manoel de Oliveira and Raoul Ruiz.

Even as he is also seen living in the real world, with family snapshots from a long marriage and playful beach vacations with children and grandchildren, photos show him happily welcoming to Portugal the likes of Lauren Bacall, Catherine Deneuve, and Kirk Douglas. A montage of his monographs on auteurs and articles in such publications as the Cahiers du Cinéma, on Buñuel, Hitchcock, Ford, and Lang, places him alongside the most influential film critics of post-war Europe. Though his work is not easily available in English, this dreamy appreciation makes a wider circle of those similarly infected with cinéphilia aware of his influences, interpretations, and impact – just the sort of fans coming each weekend of the First Look Festival.

Human Rights Watch Film Fest '15: Violence & Vigilantes

The Look of Silence

The New York stop of The Human Rights Watch Film Festival, June 11 to 21, 2015, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the IFC Center, provided intense, close-up views of some of the worst problems people inflict on people in the United States and around the world, while seeking solutions, justice, and attention. One unifying theme of many of the worthwhile feature documentaries is the scourge of violence, both in the present and how it reverberates from the past.

VIGILANTES

3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets

In its New York premiere, this timely, intense examination of one killing of an unarmed African-American teenager serves as a revealing case study of justice grappling with the lethal intersection of racism and guns, and the intimate impact on all those involved. The Black Friday 2012 killing at a Jacksonville, Florida gas station made national headlines. Did white, middle-aged Michael Dunn really kill 17-year-old Jordan Davis for playing music too loud? With his story changing a few times, Dunn justifies himself during police interrogations after his arrest the next day, that with the radio blaring hip hop and the four teens mouthing off to him, he was sure he saw one reaching for a weapon and claimed his hail of bullets into the SUV next to his car, in the titular three-plus minutes, was in self-defense because he feared for his life.

3 ½ MINUTES TEN BULLETS IMAGE 6 - Ron Davis and Lucia McBath at RallyFlorida is fertile territory for observing the culture wars, what with its Southern redneck traditions, large minority population, aggressive gun ownership, and “Stand Your Ground” laws (that have now spread to 32 other states), plus the state permits cameras in the courtroom, even allowing director Marc Silver’s additions to the regular media pool. The trials are suspenseful, as the defense lawyer hones in on Dunn’s perceptions, creating reasonable doubt that just because the police didn’t find any weapon doesn’t mean the teens didn’t have one.

Outside of court, Silver delves beneath the stereotypes that touched off the fatal encounter, including emotionally revelatory phone calls between the imprisoned Dunn and his fiancée, who becomes a traumatized witness. Contrary to Dunn’s assumptions, Jordan’s friends provide important peer context as we get views the jury doesn’t of their home suburb. His devastated parents are extensively interviewed before, during, and after the trial, though Abigail Disney’s parallel The Armor of Light, which world premiered at the recent Tribeca Film Festival, also focused on their same grief-stricken memories, family photos, and determined drive for justice.

But both wrenching, tearful documentaries on the same case pull their punches by not challenging a general audience directly. While Jordan’s heartbroken father replays his happy son imitating his favorite rap video, the piece that so antagonized Dunn is not played, nor any other hip hop. What if instead of the beautifully emotive jazzy score by Todd Boekelheide, the audience heard the profane lyrics that set off Dunn to confuse the teens’ enthusiastic sing-along as loud threats to his racist paranoia? Do they not trust the audience to still be sympathetic to the victim? (A Participant Media release)

Cartel Land

The organized violence by cartels on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border has generated organized vigilantes frustrated by government response. Director Matthew Heineman embedded for five months with their quasi-military activities to reveal up-close, in what he calls “run-and-gun verité”, capturing both the positives of their grassroots community organizing and their far scarier prejudices and resulting anarchic corruption. At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Heineman was awarded for Directing and Cinematography in the U.S. Documentary competition.

CartelLand PosterIn the U.S., he follows Tim "Nailer" Foley, a hard-bitten, tattooed vet, who heads the armed volunteer Arizona Border Recon, found through a Rolling Stone story on Border of Madness. While first Foley is out on night patrols in the desert to stop illegal migrants, who he refers to in colorfully derogatory terms, let alone what he thinks of the Federal government, he visibly softens to the pitiful individuals and turns his wrath on the cartels profiting off their hopes and miseries, and the drug violence they are bringing north. Though these scenes are formless and wandering, it is fascinating as he explains, in military tactics and strategic terms, how he seeks out the spotters who navigate the routes and carries out blocking them to impact them financially.

In the Mexican state of Michoacán, there is even more frustration over the toll from drug violence, specifically the powerful Knights Templar drug cartel, and more disgust at the government’s impotence, what with assassinations of officials who do try and stop them (and thousands of civilians caught in the middle). Up rises a towering, charismatic, cinematic hero, Dr. Jose Mireles, as first profiled in The Wall Street Journal. He sweeps into towns with his armed Autodefensas, as well as T-shirts and the kindly medical clinic services he provides as "El Doctor." Then they all together forcefully hunt down cartel members and chase them out – rarely peacefully (and Heineman is right there when bullets fly). But just when you start thinking that maybe his extreme measures could be justified, he flaunts his above-the-law lack of ethics and morals so brazenly to the camera that the dangers of vigilantism become frighteningly clear. (The Orchard will release it in theaters on July 3.) And if you think nonviolent efforts should be tried, Bill & Turner Ross’s Western, shown in New York at New Directors/New Films, of Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art and still making the festival rounds, shows people on both sides of the border who are risking their lives for peace and progress -- with similar results.

ECHOES OF VIOLENCE

Violence magnifies Faulkner’s warning that “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” in three documentaries for the people caught up in wars.

The Look Of Silence

Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to his eye-popping Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing (2012) moves from those braggart perpetrators of Indonesia’s mid-1960’s wholesale murders of any opponents of corrupt authoritarianism to the victims. Families, literally step-by-step, track their relatives from their arrests, to prisons, to torture chambers, to killing fields and rivers of drowning. Even more detailed and more contemporary than similar films that look back at the genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda, here are witnesses, many complicit, who are still their neighbors or are still in power, who can describe the horrors in (matter-of-fact) detail, and even identify the individual murder and murderer. The focus is on one quietly determined brother, Adi, whose parents considered him a “replacement” for their well-known dead son, as he contemplates not just the facts, but the soul of his country, where his children are growing up amidst lies and a faked history. Oppenheimer’s documentaries not only bravely challenge Indonesia to take responsibility, but inherently demand that the international community press for civilized justice. (A Participant Media release)

Of Men And War

OMAW image 4 HD copyright Alice FilmsSo many recent war films -- fiction features and documentaries -- talk about U.S. veterans are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress from America’s longest war. But French director Laurent Bécue-Renard shows someone actually doing something effective about it – of veterans, for veterans, and by veterans. At The Pathway Home, in northern California, therapist Fred Gusman finds intensive sessions of peer group therapy can help them work out their demons into individual therapy, and prepare for smoother re-integration in society they all desperately want to achieve. Key is how they share and break through the stoic military ethos that is antithetical to opening up to heal. In riveting emotional turns, they recount, for the first time, what they went through, and admit how the violence haunts them, whether what they had to do, or what was done to them and their friends. For some it takes several tries to even stay in the room. In this second of his “Genealogy of Wrath” trilogy, Bécue-Renard was inspired by his grandfathers’ emotionally damaging silence about their World War I experiences and hope that other families won’t have to suffer. When I saw the North American premiere at the Museum of Modern Art’s Documentary Fortnight, one of the grateful participants attended in his full dress uniform to proudly demonstrate that the therapy enabled him to continue to serve in the Reserves.

(T)error

The government’s palpable fear that the violence of war can hit home gets very personal in this startlingly intimate portrait of an informant honing in on a potential terrorist, like we’ve only seen in fictionalized features on undercovers with gangs and organized crime syndicates that have actual records of violence. It’s not only eye-opening how the man who calls himself Shariff follows FBI instructions to not only insinuate himself with a Pittsburgh mosque attendee who is suspected of Al Qaeda sympathies, but to do so where he can be taped, very much like the informant heard leading on four young black men in last year’s The Newburgh Sting. But debut feature directors Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe go further in delving into the sixty-three-year-old’s incredible journey from the Black Panthers to serial provider of questionable evidence on Muslims who trust him too much, and may or may not have violence on their minds.

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

pantherDirector Nelson George’s unique history, the Closing Night selection, is useful and informative background for insight into how a former Black Panther like “Shariff” could go through such changes, and how government informers impacted The Movement, foreshadowing their questionable function now. In addition to finding an extraordinary range of archival footage and rare illustrations, the frank narration is all interviews with former, gray-haired Panthers from across the country. The big revelations in what have been forgotten are the important role of distinctive graphics in their printed materials, and of women for recruiting, organizing, and running community programs, including the popular breakfasts for children, as described here by such activists as Kathleen Cleaver and Ericka Huggins. Even the most idealistic sadly recall how the leadership changed direction under relentless siege from the FBI and local police departments, with dominating male egos turning more sexist and violent in reaction. (Just this week, newly released FBI files uncovered even wider covert activities in the San Francisco Bay area than previously known.) While many of the participants have written their own memoirs, as collective eyewitnesses they provide powerful immediacy.

Human Rights Watch Film Fest '15: Nonviolence & Revolt

The Yes Men Are Revolting

The New York stop of The Human Rights Watch Film Festival (June 11 - 21, 2015) at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the IFC Center, provided intense, close-up views of some of the worst problems people inflict on people in the United States and around the world. The most hopeful feature documentaries seek nonviolent solutions, justice, and perseverance against all odds.

Nonviolent Protest and Working Within The System

The Yes Men Are Revolting

“Why are revolutionaries so grim?” was asked of leftist philosopher Herbert Marcuse at a lecture I attended in the early 1970’s. He sneered a response. But for 20 years, “The Yes Men” have creatively wielded humor and chutzpah to confront capitalism. In their 2003 eponymous debut, they infiltrated corporate meetings as if they were World Trade Organization representatives with a radical message. In The Yes Men Fix The World (2009) they joined with environmental organizations such as Greenpeace to focus their lively pranks on corporate-created catastrophes, such as the chemical disaster in Bhopal, and profit-taking from Hurricane Katrina. Now in their ‘40’s, they are here helped by co-director Laura Nix to seriously document how they face personal and professional challenges to continue their brazen style of activism. From each of their hometowns, there’s the revealing perspective that their parents’ and grandparents’ Holocaust experiences inspired them to question authority from their youths. They now struggle with changing relationships (Jacques Servin, from Tucson, AZ, known as “Andy Bichlbaum”, lets startled environment activists in homophobic Uganda know he’s gay) and a growing family (Igor Vamos, a.k.a. “Mike Bonanno”, transplants from upstate NY to his wife’s Scotland), as well as each other. Will they manage to, um, capitalize on a new generation of activists around the world, as seen in 99% – The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film, and the rise of social media to mobilize and dramatize climate change? This informative and entertaining joint portrait is an encouraging start. The Orchard theatrical release rolled-out on June 12

The Wanted 18

wanted18Canadian filmmaker Paul Cowan and Palestinian artist Amer Shomali (whose visa problems with the U.S. and Israel prevented him from attending the premiere) use humor in the most unlikely place – the occupied West Bank. A narrator adopts the tone of “Once upon a time in Beit Sahour” a town of 10,000 people near Bethlehem, to tell the story of an effort at nonviolent resistance during the First Intifada in 1988 that turns into an absurdist comedy in the spirit of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Archival footage, interviews with now-older participants, reenactments of their younger selves filmed on site in the same locations, drawings, and amusingly anthropomorphic talking animals in stop motion animation (benefitting from the resources of the renowned animators of the National Film Board of Canada) are creatively edited into a multi-media collage.

Idealistically impractical, a peacenik on an Israeli kibbutz sells 18 cows to the townspeople who are used to being goat shepherds and have no experience with cows, as becomes obvious to the perturbed (English-speaking) cattle, including Goldie, Ruth, Lola, and Rivka, each with a distinctive personality. Determined to boycott Israeli goods, a calamity of slapstick errors keeps thwarting the villagers’ avoidance of Tnuva, an Israeli cooperative with a milk distribution monopoly. Worse, the military governor (who shrugs through his essential interview) links this economic issue with political resistance to the occupation and declares “These cows are dangerous for the security of the state of Israel." Ironic hilarity ensues as the town unites to try to hide the cows and their "Intifada milk" from soldiers, that reminded me of Norman Jewison’s 1966 Cold War comedy The Russians Are Coming, with a much more rueful ending.
Kino Lorber theatrical release rolled-out June 19.

The Trials of Spring

trials of springThe “Spring” is “the Arab Spring” of 2011 and the title covers the launch of a multi-media project, produced by Abigail Disney, Sally Jo Fifer, Gini Reticker and Regina Scully, of international social media outreach, a feature documentary, and a series of six very moving short films (streaming at http://www.nytimes.com/video/trials-of-spring), each focusing on, through interviews and news footage, a different woman activist about what brought her to protest in 2011 and what has happened to her since – from tragic to exile to continually inspiring:

  • Bahrain: Our Oath - directed by Lauren Feeney about Dr. Nada Dhaif;
  • Egypt: Life’s Sentence - directed by Dalia Ali and Feeney about Hend Nafea;
  • Libya, Wake Up Behghazi! - directed by Cameron Hickey and Zainab Salbi about Salwa Bugaighis;
  • Syria: Brides of Peace - directed by Feeney about sisters Kinda and Lubna Zaour;
  • Tunisia: Keeping the Promise - directed by Mona Eldaief and Feeney about Ghazala Mhamdi; and,
  • Yemen: When Is the Time? - directed by Feeney and Sarah Ahmed about Belquis Al Lahabi

In the project’s centerpiece premiere, Reticker followed-up and expanded on the report from Egypt to include more detail on the political evolution of the now 23-year-old brave and stubborn Hend (featured in a 2012 New Yorker piece), and the people who have replaced her disapproving family in her life for crucial solidarity– a maternal older mentor, a young woman supporter, and her legal team. Each tells their story of the protests and the personal aftermath. This is a sobering look at the impact on women, in particular, beyond the slew of too-quickly optimistic documentaries about the “revolution”, such the Oscar-nominated The Square (Al Midan). She step-by-step walks through her changes from Tahrir Square, to the “double revolution” she staged at her rural village home when her family locked her up, to her brutal treatment by police and the courts, and copes with a life sentence hanging over her. We see her grow in confidence as she works for the legal rights organization that takes up her case and many, many others, and passes on to their clients her hard-won knowledge and empathy. A post-filming update: her lawyers have now recommended that she go into hiding while they still hope to ameliorate her harsh sentence.

Burden Of Peace

Claudia Paz y Paz is what a Hollywood hero should look like! After decades of dictatorship, civil war, civilian slaughter, assassinations of prosecutors, and a rising homicide rate (a narrator solemnly intones over archival footage of the terrible numbers and horrible atrocities), an International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala demanded an open and objective process for the appointment in 2010 of the next head of the national Public Prosecutor’s Office. To everyone’s surprise, President Álvaro Colom chose Paz because she scored highest in the selection committee’s evaluations. The human rights activist and champion of the indigenous population launched a tumultuous four-year term as the country’s first woman in the post.

claudia-paz-y-pazTaking her at her word for establishing a new era of openness and transparency, Dutch filmmakers Joey Boink and Sander Wirken follow her, in intimate cinema verité, throughout her difficult and fraught term that is exhilarating and tense. The first villains she faces down are the bureaucrats in each regional office, where silent smug men sit around conference tables with arms folded. She warns they must show progress in the new uniform database of crimes, victims, perpetrators, cases brought and adjudicated -- or they won’t get paid. Reeling off the shameful stats in their jurisdictions, the petite mother, casually dressed with long red hair, insists they go after both kingpins who have killed for political and territorial gain, and drug gangs killing for market share. (“Impunity” is constantly thrown around as a jargon term for the whole corrupt system, not quite how it’s used in American English.)

When a new president is elected in her second year, another Old Guard villain out of central casting, the head of a well-funded business organization, mocks her crusade in extended interviews, and sneers at her mentor, a murdered archbishop who first investigated the regime’s crimes. In trial footage, she persists against the leader of the former military junta (cue the scornful Latin American general), and wins on the charge of genocide, a first by any domestic court anywhere. Traveling on a whirlwind schedule with security guards and special trusted police, she is tearfully embraced by families of victims and indigenous massacre survivors, as the conviction rate goes up 35%. And then the opposition really goes out after her in the media, the legislature, and the courts, shown in a torrent of clips and sound bites. For those of us not familiar with recent Guatemalan history, the suspense ratchets up – Can she persevere until the end of her term? Another term? Can she make lasting change? Heck, will she survive? This documentary has all the drama of a wrenching bio-pic!

Life Is Sacred

A lot of South American political stereotypes are shaken off in this exuberantly refreshing quest to bring that hopey changey thing to Colombia. In a country known for drug lords, Marxist guerrillas, and brutal paramilitaries, every family has been touched by violence. In 2010, college philosophy professor/former Bogotá mayor Antanas Mockus is sure his grassroots and community organizing ideas to stop the violence can be put into practice on a national level, so he runs for president. Danish director Andreas Dalsgaard tags along with him and the dedicated volunteers he inspires through the campaign and four years through to the next election.

Life is Sacred1While following in the close-access style of seminal election documentaries, from Primary (1960) to the Oscar-nominated The War Room (1993) (cinema verité pioneer DA Pennebaker was in the crew on the former and co-director of the latter), this fresh, unconventional campaign is amazingly uncynical, even as professional politicians come on board to help when it looks like he has a chance (and are more leery of the camera). Mockus seems to care less about winning and more about convincing an entire country -- one person, then one rally and another city at a time -- that civil society is possible.

Small groups with Green Party T-shirts, super-hero capes, chants, and anti-violence slogans (like the film’s title), songs, body paint symbols, and props (like pencils as in mightier than the sword) become large throngs, and they enthusiastically surge into the run-off. His support is driven by a new generation of optimistic first-time voters, like 22-year-old Katherine Miranda who canvases neighborhoods while tearfully explaining how her father’s death motivates her new career. Just when the impossible dream has a chance, the establishment hits below the belt with a political consultant’s dirty tricks buzz saw of rumors, lies, and fears straight out of Rachel Boynton's Our Brand Is Crisis (2005) and seen similarly close-up in Marshall Curry’s Oscar-nominated Street Fight (2005). It’s a rude reality check for all. Though the quixotic candidate’s joyful, artistic tactics could be (uneasily) shifted to a Fascist and/or Peronist demagogue, Mockus goes a mighty step further, even as his steps falter due to Parkinson’s. Under pressure to be ordinary, he instead uses the entire experience as a teaching moment in commitment to democracy in action for all his supporters. His shining example finally converts key professional politicians who cannily catch the peaceful wave. This is a rare upbeat selection for a usually depressing festival.

 

To learn more, go to: http://ff.hrw.org/

Cannes Film Fest 2015: And the Winner Is...

Drumroll please…

lobster posterThe haze of nonstop filmgoing over twelve days in the south of France lifted on Sunday night as the 2015 edition of the Cannes Film Festival came to a close. The closing night film, Ice and the Sky, directed by Luc Jacquet, was preceded by an hour-long awards ceremony in the Theatre Lumiere. For the press corps, that means watching a live feed from the nearby Theatre Debussy. Since the stars are out of earshot, the press can be very vocal if they disagree with the jury’s choices.

The festivities were hosted by French actor Lambert Wilson, who suavely strolled the stage as he set the stage for the competition prizes. (Other sections gave out awards on the two preceding days.) This year’s jury was headed by Joel and Ethan Coen, and they were joined onstage by the rest of the jury: Jake Gyllenhaal, Sienna Miller, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, singer/songwriter Rokia Traoré, Quebecois filmmaking wunderkind Xavier Dolan, Spanish actress Rossy de Palma, and French actress Sophie Marceau.

The ceremony was fairly straightforward, but can someone tell me why the festival thought it was necessary to have John C. Reilly and the Fly Boys do a rendition of “Just a Gigolo”? It was a strange moment. The audience seemed to be sitting in stunned silence, but there was rousing applause when they finished.

Agnès Varda received the Palme d’honneur. It’s similar to an honorary Oscar (TM), given to titans of cinema who have never received the Palme d’or, and it was previously announced. She was clearly moved and spoke eloquently about the field and remember her late husband, Jacques Demy. A lovely moment. Varda is a brilliant filmmaker and this prize was long overdue.

Herewith the awards, along with commentary or personal observations here and there:

The Camera d’or for best first feature went to Land and Shade by Colombian director César Augusto Acevedo. A new award, not part of the awards this evening, was the L’Oeil d’or for best documentary. Translated as Golden Eye, it mimics the first feature award (Golden Camera) in that the winner was chosen from all the documentaries shown in any section of the festival. The same rule applies for first feature - they can be in any section of the festival. This year’s winner was shown in Critics’ Week. This new prize went to Marcia Tambutti Allende’s Beyond My Grandfather Allende.

Best Screenplay went to Michel Franco who also directed the film Chronic, the story of a home health aid (played by Tim Roth) who lives through his dying patients. Franco said that the film began when his film “After Lucia” won Un Certain Regard in 2012. Roth was on that jury and so began their collaboration. Roth was in the audience to cheer his director on.

Best Actress was shared by Roony Mara for her role as a young sales clerk who falls in love with a married woman in the 1950s in Todd Haynes Carol and by Emmanuelle Bercot in Mon Roi directed by Maïwenn. Interestingly, Bercot also directed the festival’s Opening Night film, Standing Tall. The Best Actor prize went to (I called it) Vincent Lindon for his striking turn as a middle aged man caught in the struggle to find a job and do right by his family during these terrible economic times in Stéphane Brizé's The Measure of a Man. A mesmerizing performance.

Best Director went to Hou Hsiao-Hsien for The Assassin, a beautifully wrought tale of a young woman trained in martial arts in ninth century China. The film reads like a painted scroll; too bad Cannes doesn’t give out awards for art direction. A jury prize was given to The Lobster, a strangely dark and funny with a bite film by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose film Dogtooth was a hit on the festival circuit a few years ago.The Grand Prize, which is akin to second place, was given to Son of Saul, a first feature film by Hungarian filmmaker Lázló Nemes, for his claustrophobic concentration camp horror story.

Finally, the Palme d’or went to Jacques Audiard for Dheepan about Sri Lankan refugees in France. This was a bit of a surprise, and it didn’t sit well with everyone: among the press watching one could hear a smattering of boos. Clearly other films were favorites. But Audiard happily took to the stage, bringing his two leads with him, to take the much deserved praise.

Everyone will be talking about these awards for a few more weeks, before attention turns to other festivals. And in a few more months, we’ll start handicapping Cannes 2016! Truly, it never ends.

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