Monday, June 18, 2007

Film Paris, I Love You (Paris, je t'aime; Various Directors, 2006)

I saw the film Paris, je t’aime at nearby Galaxy Theatre tonight and hope to be writing a review for Saathee Magazine in the next day or so. If I do, I will fill more details in here. For now, you can see the trailer:

Friday, June 08, 2007

American Dance Festival: Martha Clarke's

We had a great time enjoying the first 2007 performer at the American Dance Festival, Martha Clarke's Garden of Earthly Delights. Many are familiar with Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) and his The Garden of Earthly Delights, depicting the descent of mankind after creation into temptation and destruction. Using a remarkably integrated cast of dancers, many of whom doubled as musicians and all of whom were stage hands hoisting each other on aerial scaffolding, Martha Clarke shared an interpretation of the painting. The near-transparent costumery, powerful emotion, and tremendous aerial aspects made for a powerful performance. We picked tonight because it featured a post-performance discussion; many of us, including me, were fortunate to be able to get our questions answered (I asked about how difficult it was to dance while "flying", and how the aerial wiring could have been less noisy).

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Day 4 of 4 of Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

Sadly, Full Frame is over! It was an excellent Festival with many touching and important films.
We started the day with Nobody, a film about a free-spirited man who decides to leave any responsiblities behind (including his job, which he had left some time ago) and meander through Memphis and then on to New Orleans from his home in Indiana via canoe.

We had a friend visiting from Virginia so that he could attend yesterday, stay overnight with us, and see more films today, so he saw Run Granny Run in the same time slot. I included a short recommendation for this excellent film in my current magazine review, and we were excited to meet 97-year-old Doris ("Granny D") Haddock, her son, and producer and director Marlo Poras.

My wife went on to see a film about Ariel Dorfman's life, A Promise to the Dead, that she said was inspiring. I attended a panel discussion, Reaching out on Global Warming, and interjected my frustration that though it is well documented that the biggest impact we make on the environment is eating a non-plant based diet, few in the environmental movement even mention moving away from meat and dairy as something we can try doing. That generated some exciting discussion amongst others in the audience afterwards, including a writer and film maker/professor, who think that a story featuring our Thanksgiving (the country's largest vegetarian Thanksgiving) would be a good one to put together!

There was a long break, during which the awards were announced. We missed it and I hope to post all the winners, but we had an opportunity to see some of the winning films in the afternoon. I first attended Prisoner or; How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair, a shocking but calmly related story of a man in Baghdad who was, by all counts groundlessly, arrested on a house raid by the U.S. Army on suspicion that he was plotting to kill Tony Blair. Even when no evidence was found, he was kept in jail, ending up in Abu Garaib, and subject to cruel treatment.

That put me more than an hour into War / Dance, one of the winning films (really, all of them are winners!). It was very moving, about war-torn Northern Kenya, describing war crimes against rural people (difficult to see), interwoven with the promising story of children, some of whom had endured terrible losses to their families and all of whom had to flea their village, practicing for a national music and dance competition.

The last film that we saw was the winner Monastery. It was a unique and delightful film about a fascinating older Danish gentleman with many peculiarities (I only noticed one time when he isn't frowning) who decides to donate use of his country estate to a Russian monastery.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Day 3 of 4 of Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

Full Frame is winding down quickly - it goes by too fast! We started off today with a 9:15-11a film, The Ants, about Japan's imperial past. It is a documentary about a man who served as a 20-year-old in Japan's WWII army in China. The Japanese were brutal warriors, and he relates awful things he had to do, like practice bayoneting on innocent peasants. His country didn't have some of their China-based forces stop fighting even after the war's end and he didn't return to Japan till, as I recall, 1953; this shows his attempts to use the Japanese courts to get his country to acknowledge the sacrifice and apologize. It was well presented and powerful.

I saw Revolution '67 preceded by the short Conjure Bearden next. The short was a lovely 17-minute retrospective of the photography of an African-American and African-American neighborhoods near Charlotte, NC from 1938-1941. The main film was a shocking narrative of the Newark, NJ riots and how injustice, lack of opportunity, corruption, and lack of concern grew into the calamity and continues in many ways.

Power of Ten: A Conversation had the ten curators, including Michael Moore and Mira Nair, of this special series in a panel moderated by an NPR radio figure dicussing their work, documentary film, and their films they were screening. It was a good and lively discussion.

I watched the first 45 minutes of In the Shadow of the Moon, a film with Apollo astronauts talking about their experiences in space flight and lunar landings. The clips, including President Kennedy's inspiring moon speech and fabulous rocket film, were great to see again; hearing the astronauts thinking back to what they were feeling at the time helped to personalize it.

As good as that film was, I left to see the unique Helvetica. It was all about typefaces, focusing on the Helvetica font. Many typographers and designers were interviewed in a lively paced and fun film, with a delightful soundtrack, that makes one more aware of the fonts used all around us; many said that Helvetica is the face we see most often and is timeless in its beauty, but some argued for more unconventional fonts. The film was just completed, as I recall from the Q&A session afterwards with the filmmaker, 3 weeks ago and has already been shown in 7 countries; it is apparently the only film about typography and is going to be shown at design conferences, museums, other film festivals, ... - there are something like 45 screenings in the near future lined up.

I saw another film about Japan, but on a diametrically opposite theme, next - The Great Happiness Space. This fascinating and enjoyable peek is into the life of a club that has men who cater to clients in Osaka as in-house companions. They give company, express (lying) confessions of love, and sometimes have sex with the lonely women who come at something like $100 an hour - and when the women order champagne, that adds another $200, 500, or even $1000+ to the tab. It was sad to see how the men string the women on to keep them coming, though they have no intention of marriage or proper dating with these clients.

My wife and I both ended up at Blockade, a striking almost-silent, black and white documentary about the Siege of Leningrad taken from the Soviet side. Seeing the depravations and dead bodies was quite sobering.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Day 2 of 4 of Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

Today was a long day with the first film at Full Frame that we attended starting at 9a and my last film ending around 1a! In the first slot of films, we saw the short Metacarpus about human hands. The led to Nömadak Tx, a film that I previewed and wrote a review about that is running in the current issue of the magazine that I write for (and is included below). I love this film and the only thing more exciting than seeing it on the large screen was meeting the three filmmakers, with whom I've been emailing since I saw their film. We're supposed to all get together for dinner after the Festival ends on Sunday and they may jam (they played their txalaparta just after the film ended today!) with my wife, who is a sitarist.

My wife saw Angels in the Dust, a sad story about an orphanage in HIV-ravaged Johannesburg. I saw Leila Khaled: Hijacker and Promised Paradise. The first film is a documentary about the first woman to hijack a plane, which she did for Palestinian demands. It was very interesting to see her now, decades after two hijackings, as well as to see interviews with staff from the two hijacked planes. The second film was about a famous pupeteer in Indonesia who uses his performance art to question why people commit acts of terrorism, even confronting the Bali nightclub bomber in his jail cell; it was also well worth seeing.

We caught the beginning of The Last Days of Yasser Arafat, about an Australian reporter's attempts to interview Yasser Arafat before he died. We left to see Everything's Cool, a film that we loved about global warming and what the U.S. and its citizens could do about it. (One thing that frustrates me, however, about many environmental films and other material is that they usually seem to miss the elephant in the room - not eating a plant-based diet creates a bigger impact on our planet than automobile driving.)

I was disappointed that I was unable to interview Mira Nair, who was attending today and tomorrow; I had contacted her several months ago and the kind folks at the Festival were trying to arrange it, but she was just too busy. It would have been an excellent article for the magazine that I write for and I think would have helped the Festival draw more folks next year. We did attend her introduction to The Battle of Algiers, one of the most influential films on her craft (ten filmmakers are screening films of importance to them), and watched for about a half hour, but have recently seen the film (on the large screen, as well), so left to eat.

My wife went home but I came back and caught portions of Vietnam Romance, an animated film of video game clips about war in Vietnam that didn't appeal to me; films of Jen Cohen; and about a half hour of Larry Flynt: The Right to be Left Alone, an interesting look into the life of this very controversial man. I watched another film in the curated series, Do the Right Thing, this one introduced by St. Clair Bourne. It's a film that has been widely distributed, but one that I had never seen. It is, as expected from the director, Spike Lee, a hard-hitting social commentary on race.

My April 2007 review in Saathee Magazine of Nömadak Tx follows.

I sat down to see Nömadak Tx on DVD with little expectation, only knowing that it was a film about traveling percussionists. Music and travel – my interest was piqued. It is a road movie documentary of Igor Otxoa and Harkaitz Mtnez. de San Vicente of the Basque Country of northeastern Spain who take their ancient txalaparta percussion instrument to India, the Arctic Circle, Mongolia, Algeria, and the Saharan Desert, looking for native peoples in remote areas with whom they could integrate their talents through music, building bridges and relationships.

The txalaparta is a traditional wooden or stone percussive instrument said to be up to six thousand years old. Deeply resonant, it was used millenia ago as a means for villagers to communicate events into the countryside. Long boards are beat using sticks (makilak) by two performers (txalapartaris), one of whom maintains a fixed binary rhythm representing balance, while the other tries to break that balance with zero, one, or two beats in between. Reminiscent to me of the classical Indian sawal-jawab question-answer dialogue between tabla players, there is often some friendly competition with increasingly fast rhythms in an improvised musical encounter.

Txalapartaris were becoming increasingly rare with only a tiny number of peasants maintaining the tradition by the 1950s, before a resurgence of interest by folklorists in the 1960s. Contemporary musicians such as Otxoa and de San Vicente started experimenting with materials besides wood and stone, such as metal or even blocks of ice.

The film’s title, I learned from correspondence with one of the musicians, is simply a combination of the word meaning “nomadic” or “nomads” in the Basque language, along with the first two letters in the name of the instrument. And so we have a journey of this fascinating instrument, or at least its concept for it to be constructed anew onsite. During the opening credits, an interesting quote is presented that playing this instrument “and travelling are very similar. You do not know what will happen in either case.”

The film moves fast and keeps your attention right from the opening credits with dramatic photography. Interspersed with the credits we see the musicians creating a txalaparta, with closeups of saws cutting, sawdust flying. Throughout the film we hear txalaparta sounds.
As soon as the credits end, the film abruptly switches to Mumbai, the first stop on the road trip. As in each stop, we experience visuals and sounds of the local scene.

That the instrument is played by two is not incidental – it is an inherent part of the sense of “encounter” in the project that the film is part of, that of traveling as nomads with their traditional instrument in order to share, build bridges spanning communities, and form a meaningful cultural exchange, as well as experiment with new materials for the instrument. The whole is greater than the parts and, it is posited, one plus one ends up being greater than two, but the actual value cannot be predetermined. Adding to that mixture, the intent was to collaborate with traditional local artists, learning from each other in the genesis of compositions.

After working with Mumbai musicians and giving a concert, off the musicians go to the tribal lands of the Adivasis. The film lingers briefly when it needs to, but keeps on its nomadic quest. The editing reflects this combination of positive restlessness and purposeful striving – from a scene of traditional Adivasi music accompanied by singing of their cosmological ideas, we cut right to the nighttime catching of a train and then immediately to the bright daytime snowscape of the musicians on skis, creating music out of ice and performing for the Sámi (Laplander)
people of northern Scandinavia.

If nothing else, the film is an exciting travelogue accompanied by the unique rhythms of the txalaparta. It’s “cool” to see them clowning around in the Arctic and jumping into near freezing water after partaking of a sauna, as well as to watch them cutting ice blocks and shaving them just so in order to tune them. In the Sahara, it’s amazing to see them make their music out of desert stone.

Whether on the Mongol steppe, driving through Algeria, in the Arctic, or in urban or tribal India, seeing the musicians engineer versions of their instrument out of local natural materials and hearing the magnificently resonant sounds from it all is a feast of the senses. The musicians have a lot of fun on their travel and bring smiles to their coopted performers, their audiences, themselves, and, no doubt, their film viewers.

But the film is more than a travel film. We hear notes that strike both our ears and our hearts – there is an ancient wisdom that is being transmitted. One could argue that it is a gently meandering film of peace, an exercise reminding us that we have so much in common and yet so much to learn from each other.

The sharp editing cuts; mixture of human activity with that which is in nature; everyday sounds as well as those, sometimes haunting and primordial, that we hear from the txalaparta; and subtlety through which the film gently presents itself, all effectively further the goals of the work. In less talented hands, such artistry can actually backfire and result in a trivialized production with techniques being exposed for the sake of themselves and not to further a story or feeling, but it works superbly here.

I fully enjoyed this unique documentary film and am delighted that I had the opportunity to see it. Nömadak Tx is a joyful ride showing how music is universal and brings happiness and shared understanding. As enchanting as it was to see, I look forward to experiencing it on the large screen when it is shown at the Full Frame Festival in mid-April 2007 (I have another article on the Festival in this issue).

8 stars out of 10
Note: all pictures are from the filmmakers, who took them, and are used with their permission.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Day 1 of 4 of Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

We love attending Full Frame, the country's largest documentary film festival. I'll copy below the review of the Festival that I published in the current issue of Saathee Magazine, for which I am the film reviewer.

Today we were at the Festival from its first film at 10a through one of the last, ending at almost midnight. Robert, Mary and Katrina was a film my wife and I both liked that had no action but was an interview with an elderly couple who survived Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans; their story and how they talk, one's thoughts intertwined with the other, makes for a good story. Radiphobia was shown immediately after and was a chilling and beautifully made film about the aftermath of the Chernoybl nuclear powerplant disaster.

Our favorite films were For the Bible Told Me So, which looked at contemporary Christianity and its varied views on homosexuality, and The Rape of Europa, a film 7+ years in the making that comprehensively covers the Nazi targeted wholesale theft of artwork as well as their goals of destroying Slavic culture. A short film, Rückenlage, dreamily describes Rudolf Hess' solo 1941 flight to Scotland to offer peace to England.

The opening night film, Castells, was somewhat disappointing. Indeed, it was an interesting story about a Spanish team of human pyramid builders; they carefully craft building towers of themselves. But the approximately 2-hour film could have been, my wife and I both think, much more effective at keeping the viewer's interest if it were much shorter.

In the approximately 10p-midnight slot after the opening night party, there was a short that I didn't much like about indoor motorcycle acrobatics called Motodrom. But the film Comrades in Dreams was quite good, portraying folks in Maharashtra India, Burkino Faso, North Korea, and Wyoming, each of whom had a love for film and showed enthusiastic audiences films. One thing that was particularly interesting and quite humorous about the North Korean story was the strong indoctrination seeming implicit in so much of the daily life, including praise for North Korean culture, to the point of a woman's not responding to a man's photograph in an attempted arranged marriage was seen not just as an affront to him, a kim chi reseacher (!), but to kim chi itself!! (Indeed, never fear, she atones!)

My review in the April 2007 Saathee Magazine, which is oriented toward a South Asian readership follows.

April showers may bring May flowers, but April also brings the country’s leading documentary film festival, Full Frame, to Durham, North Carolina. Saathee readers in the Carolinas are lucky to have so nearby this Festival, which attracts an international audience to well-attended screenings. Many of these films premiere at the Festival and filmmakers are usually present to take questions immediately after the screening of their films.

At the Festival, you can select sometimes from seven well-made and interesting films playing at the same time, meet people like Mira Nair or Ken Burns and ask them a burning question that you’ve always had about one of their films, be moved by brand new films never before screened and meet their directors, attend parties, rubbing shoulders with industry executives and filmmakers, participate in discussions, and much more.

The Festival is a great venue for dispelling any notions that documentary films may be dull. At this year’s Full Frame Festival, for example, one can experience stories masterfully told about topics such as a Catalonian 400-person human pyramid building team who engineer human towers more than 30 feet tall in their travels; an unconventional British gangster; a 91-year-old violinist’s trip, fulfilling a decades-long desire, with his grandson; global warming; seeking reconciliation in Greensboro, NC; Iraq; Nazi plundering of art; the first woman to hijack an airplane; the last absolute monarchy in the world, a country with the highest HIV infection rate and lowest (under 33 years) life expectancy (Swaziland); “Nollywood”, the new Nigerian film industry; 20 years worth of answering machine greetings; an Indonesian pupeteer and performance artist; a humorous look at human hands; and the Helvetica font.

I had reported, in the May 2006 issue of Saathee, that at the 2006 Festival there seemed to be more films about India than any other country except the United States and Iraq. This year the statement may stand if expanded to South Asia. Nömadak Tx (Raúl De la Fuente, 2006, 89 minutes), reviewed in detail in this issue, is a not-to-be-missed film with the opening scene in Mumbai and about a fifth of the film taking place in India.

Shame (Mohammed Naqvi, 2006, 110 minutes) is about Mukhtaran Mai and her shocking story that ends with much promise. In 2002, the 30-year-old woman from Meerwala, a remote Pakistani village, was sentenced by the tribal council to be raped by a group of men in retaliation for an alleged crime that her brother had committed. With no police presence in the village and with the feudal precedent of self-victimization or suicide, she musters the courage to travel to town to file a police case, in spite of death threats. Her case attracts governmental and then international press and human rights attention, and results in her being praised with awards for bravery and travel abroad to speak, as well as being given a handsome amount of money with which she builds the village’s first school. I recommend this film not just for its sensitive treatment of the matter and the inspiring story of Mukhtaran Mai, but also because of the beautiful cinematography that paints, at times, a welcome and almost surrealistically dreamy veneer on a chilling episode.

The Begum family of Bangladeshi origin living in London have taken Simon Chambers under their wing, partially out of concern for his remaining a bachelor. As he witnesses the remarkable pressure to get their London-raised daughters married off, preferably to men in Bangladesh from respectable families, he gets their permission to film them and directs and produces Every Good Marriage Begins With Tears (2006, 61 minutes). The characters are interesting – an overbearing eldest married sister, foul-mouthed sister Shahanara whose father had exorcised her from the family because of her Western demeanor, and religious sister Hushnara who is engaged (in periods when she doesn’t change her mind) to marry a man in Bangladesh and leave England.

Match Made (Mirabelle Ang, 2006, 48 minutes), though not about the subcontinent, is about a Singaporean matchmaking agency. Apparently, there is an industry of searching for attractive young women in impoverished rural Vietnam and bringing them to homes in Ho Chi Minh City. There, the women bide their time doing chores until a client appears to evaluate them. Three at a time and often giggling in embarassment, they are brought in for an immediate assessment (on no meaningful criteria that I could discern). Within minutes, perhaps a dozen or more women are considered and, as in this case, one may be selected. Seventy-two hours later they have married, after a “medical check” for “purity”, and the client is driven to the airport to return to Singapore, the bride’s immigration matters pending. What kind of marriage do the couple in the film have and how do they communicate as they speak different languages? A documentary worth seeing, I felt that the bride selection process was not only demeaning to the women, but also insulting to their sense of pride in their country and culture.

There are many other excellent films at Full Frame. In a real sense, each film has earned its place; 82 films in competition eligible for awards were selected out of over 1000 submissions.
A film that I highly recommend is Run Granny Run (Marlo Poras, 2007) about legendary activist Doris “Granny D” Haddock. At age 90, she had walked 3200 miles across the length of the United States, including climbing the Appalachian Mountains in a blizzard and skiing in to Washington, D.C. to draw attention to campaign finance reform. This film picks up in 1994 when “Granny D” at age 94 jumps in to run for the Senate when one candidate unexpectedly drops out with just four months before Election Day. How does she proceed, refusing money from special interests while running against a well-funded incumbent? Seeing democracy in action through the campaign of this lovable, persistent, and principled woman is a story that is heart-warming, inspiring, and downright fun.

A total of over 100 films will be shown. In addition to the films in competition, there are other curated films, films in the Southern Sidebar Series about the American South, and special films, including the new <frameset>, featuring short videos that premiered online. There are also panel discussions, workshops about filmmaking, and parties. This year, there will be a curated series of ten important filmmakers, including Mira Nair, Michael Moore, and Martin Scorsese, each showing a film important to their own growth as an artist. For example, Mira Nair will be screening The Battle of Algiers (La Battaglia di Algeri; Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966), a powerful neorealistic film shot in documentary style about the savagery of urban warfare in the context of the Algerian struggle against French colonial rule.

The festival runs from Thursday through Sunday. The days are quite full from 9a or 10a till past midnight, with multiple concurrent venues. There’s a lot to choose from! I recommend taking Thursday and Friday off or at least attending those evenings, and spending the entire weekend at the Festival in downtown Durham. The best way to experience the Festival is to purchase a pass (if still available; they sometimes sell out), but you can also purchase tickets to particular screenings or events.

Visit Full Frame online at for complete details. You can also reach them by phone at 919-687-4100.

Note: All pictures and Full Frame logo courtesy of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, and used with their permission.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Film The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen; Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)

Tonight we saw The Lives of Others; I had been looking forward to seeing this and fully expected to like it. Indeed, it was a film about the chilling era of the Stazi East German secret police, made unique in its understated style and lack of predictability. We really enjoyed it but are puzzled why it won the Oscar over Deepa Mehta's Water.