SF Int’l Film Festival! pt 4

My ongoing reactions and mini-reviews… the Festival ends today and I am finally coming up for air. 36 movies! Wow!…

A Walk to Beautiful
Remarkable documentary on a type of contemporary lepers–in this case it’s young women in Ethiopia who “leak” after failed childbirth when they’re 12-13 years old and their pelvises are not ready. Stillbirth is compounded by fistula–a hole between urethra and vagina, and/or rectum and vagina, leading to incessant drainage and complete social ostracism. It mostly happens among young teens in extremely remote rural Ethiopia (6-10 hour walk to nearest road is typical–146 ob/gyn doctors in a country of 77 million!). The story is heartbreaking, to see so many young women treated like pariahs by their villages and too often their own families. A happier part of the story focuses on the Fistula Hospital in Addis Ababa. It repairs 93% of the 1500 women they operate on per year. Incredibly inspiring place, fantastic to see the women transformed by this fairly simple surgery. And the longer-term impact of the 1500 women a year getting educated about fistula, childbirth, etc., is extremely hopeful. Great documentary! (update: This won the Best Documentary award at the festival as determined by audience rankings.)

The Violin
This won the big prize for best first feature film in the SF Int’l Film Festival I just heard. A beautiful, amazing movie set in a small village in rural Mexico during the 1970s (or the 80s or the 1930s or now!). The director, Francisco Vargas, claimed it had no particular time or place. It feels very timeless, the endless story of Mexico, brutal federales (natioanl army) attacking rural Mexicans who try to defind their land and lives. Vargas said it was a movie easy to describe in terms of time and place. Put a map on the wall, cover your eyes and point, and the place your finger lands is a place where this story happened a long time ago, or is happening right now, and disgracefully will continue happening in the future… An homage to traditional Mexican cinema, music, literature. Vargas happily affirmed his film as a corrido, sandwiched as it is with a corrido at front and back, one that evolves with the saga the movie told. The film is in b/w, no special effects, very nostalgic in certain ways, also very stark. The old violin player tries to save his guerrilla son by riding a mule back into their occupied village, escaping direct violence by his wiles, and playing music. A soft moment with the comandante reveals his own poor background, unrequited love for music, and a little trick solidarity is created between old man and grizzled comandante. But who is tricking whom? The old man smuggles ammo from his corn patch, but is fooled into transmitting disinformation to the guerrillas–the comandante was as wiley as he was. Sad movie, harsh scenes of torture and rape at the outset, but it underscores the intensity of the perpetual rebellion of the Mexican peasantry. Great movie, albeit a bit lost in the romanticism of armed struggle (even if at one brief point the army and the guerrillas are juxtaposed doing the same drills with the same militar resolve).

Ostensibly this Norwegian film is about young men, two of whom are aspirant writesr, and their camaraderie, problematic relations with women, careers, happiness, etc. So it is. But it’s the odd herky-jerky pacing and editing, the very funny jokes and vignettes, that make this movie. It’s a sad meditation on madness and survival too, existential malaise, how to love… but it works as a movie, even if I didn’t ultimately love any of the characters. A few flashes of good punk rock too!

Ad Lib Night
Very dull, empty story. A girl in Seoul (South Korea) is recruited, because she resembles another woman, to play the daughter of a dying man. The lead character is virtually silent as she is driven by the annoying young man who recruited her to a suburban home. All the hypocrisy and foibles of the family are on display, occasionally quite funny in their banality, but this movie goes nowhere and the main character is a void.

The Rape of Europa
Fantastic plumbing of archival footage, tracking the fascinating story of the looting of art treasures in Europe during WWII. I kept thinking about Iraq and its art and antiquities, but the back-and-forth looting by the Nazis first, then the Soviet Union (who returned over 1 million pieces to mostly E. European satellites, making a prallel with the Nazis false) but anyway, this is like a PBS documentary–no particular edge or quirkiness or anything to make it more than than a straight-ahead mainstream doc. Some folks I met later really loved it, thought it one of the best documentaries they’d ever seen… hmmmm.

The Other Half
A video, quasi-verite but not, set in Zigong City in Sichuan province, China. Terrible acting, weak script, bad editing. How did this “film” win any prizes? It’s redeemed by a sequence of interviews in a law office where the main character works as a clerk. All sorts of odd desires to get compensation for bad marriages, maltreatment at work, even the boss of a benzene factory worried about a suit by his employees. At the end of the story a big chemical explosion focres the city’s evacuation, first into air raid tunnels, then entirely out of the city. It was an explosion of the benzene factory, which had just been awarded some prize for good environmental practices and was being celebrated on TV and radio as the model chemical factory… so some irony, definitely a look at everyday life in a smaller modern Chinese city, but a very bad movie.

Punk’s Not Dead
A fun tour through 30 years of punk rock, making me feel my age! Starts with the working-class sensibilities of the early punks–Sex Pistols, Clash, even the Ramones! Later they redeem the overly simplistic politics at the beginning by showing some surviving Ramones and critics talking about their music as extremely commercial. The movie has fun showing a lot of bands that have kept punk alive since the early 1980s, like the Subhumans, the UK Subs, Stiff Little Fingers, etc. Very fun to see guys my age or odler still totally punked out. The trajectory of the music into 21st century full commodification is traced, showing how melody was resuscitated by NoFX and another band in the late 80s before Nirvana, Green Day, Rancid, and Offspring went huge with melodious punk. I felt vindicated in my own “fandom” by the filmmaker’s look at the music, how the punk spirit diminished in the mid-80s, only to re-emerge with the songs of Green Day etc. That’s when I got back into it too. And they show so many bands through the past 15 years, esp. the last 5-8, that I’ve never heard of, topped by a long sequence at the end of bands that sent in clips via the internet, bands across the world, Serbia, Indonesia, Japan, Russia, Iceland, Uruguay, etc. The sound and spirit will not die! On the other hand, the film reproduces the same naive political confusion that has always plagued punk–anti-corporate by only vaguely anti-capitalist, also not much connection drawn to the many DIY “punk rock” ethics that have migrated well beyond the music. THe final tune, Sham 69’s “The Kids Are United,” ices the confusion wiht its silly lyric “if the kids are united, they will never be defeated”–as though “kids” were a class, as though music sharing is inherently rebellious. The film skirts the question of commodification in an interesting way–getting successful musicians to comment on “selling out” and showing the DIY “Drunk Tank” house in Los Angeles as an example of the resilience of DIY punk culture, even in 2006.

These Girls, preceded by Rise & Shine
The short Rise & Shine was really wonderful, based on a Dario Fo piece–a woman, dreaming about sewing her hand into a garment, a work nightmare, awakens to a clock that hasn’t rung, wakes her baby, searches for her lost key, ruminates on her husband badly and then erotically, finally at the door remembers that it is Friday–no work! Wonderful short, Egyptian version.
These Girls is a doc about glue-sniffing, pill-popping street girls in Cairo. Quite harsh conditions, exuberant humanity despite male violence, rape, hopelessness, etc. Tata is the most amazing girl/woman among several, very tough, also very big heart, blustering and threatening, running, riding a horse in heavy traffic, doing cartwheels, eating a razor blade–an incredible glimpse into a life so narrow in space, so limited in options, so horribly common in the megaslums of the world.

The Sugar Curtain
A fascinating look at Cuba from the point of view of a girl who arrived at age 2 in the mid-1970s, growing up during the “best years,” especially the last three of the Cold War (!)… Claudia Guzman (daughter of Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzman) really conveys the bucolic ease for children of Cuban socialism in its last years before the shock of the Special Period, following the collapse of the USSR and the East bloc. Decrepit buildings haunted by her happy memories of childhood, disconsolate friends and neighbors, an incredibly long list of exiles ends the film; all of this creates a weird sense of a lost world, now only visible in the ruins and confused memories of those who stayed. Self-aware of her deficiencies as a historian or reporter, Guzaman doesn’t try to hide that other people had a very different experience than she did (as one Cuban audience member said: what about the concentration camps?!), instead offering a heartfelt and romantic portrait of Cuban socialism when it still believed in itself.

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