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"Sophisticated" Is Not a Dirty Word: Notes from the Milwaukee International Film Festival 2004

By Eric Beltmann

Not long ago a younger colleague rolled his eyes at me for not liking Broken Lizard's Super Troopers, saying I should just go watch a movie about some crying French girl -- as if my taste for sincere stories rather than sodomy jokes reflects poorly on my character. His implied criticism that only a snob wouldn't admire Broken Lizard is a flawed either-or argument, especially considering my affection for Jim Carrey and the Farrelly brothers. Yet what's most interesting is how his shrinking of serious cinema into a clichéd image of foreign weeping -- not just serious but French, or more specifically, not American -- points at the kind of anti-intellectual bias that currently presides over this country. Perhaps because it's easier to sneer at intelligence than indulge it, many filmgoers are content with small, juvenile product and hope to somehow justify their low expectations by belittling smart, intricate fare. "Sophisticated" has become a damning verdict, and films that provoke anything but the basest of responses are routinely viewed with suspicion rather than approval.

Such reverse elitism is one of my pet peeves. While I'm skeptical of anyone who sniffs at Will Ferrell, I'm equally skeptical of those unwilling to give Egoyan, Hou, or Kiarostami a try. Movie art can't be wedged into compartments where the lowbrow and highbrow never touch, and while everyone agrees that feeling, laughing, and thrilling are forms of entertainment, surely we ought to include learning and thinking, too? What I'm saying is that we should have fewer preconceptions about what movies are and more curiosity about what they can do. For example, if my colleague had bothered to attend this year's Milwaukee International Film Festival, he would have experienced a wild mix of art designed to flatten his prejudices about foreign and challenging cinema. (I caught 36 features and 45 shorts, none featuring a crying French girl.) When I was a teenager devouring information about film history I often stumbled over references to unknown works, but their obscurity only prompted me to seek them out with greater enthusiasm. Film festivals offer a similar opportunity to experience the twin pleasures of mystery and discovery -- sitting down for unfamiliar stories and styles is one of the most electrifying versions of entertainment I've ever encountered. It's also one of the least elitist, since it requires putting aside our fixed ideas and presumptions about people, places, politics -- even movies themselves.

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The 11-day Milwaukee International Film Festival, which concluded its second season October 31, has already become one of the city's best, most popular cultural attractions. This year southeast Wisconsin filmgoers had their pick of more than 130 films from over 30 countries, as well as a cornucopia of seminars and parties. (The Mantra Lounge, for example, hosted a theme party called "Step Back Into Old Hollywood" and the Velvet Room threw a Halloween ball.) Special presentations included a closing-night screening of Jean Epstein's 1928 expressionist classic The Fall of the House of Usher and the U.S. premiere of a new 35mm print of Wong Kar-Wai's Days of Being Wild, a 1991 reverie about hot colors and cool seduction.

The centerpiece of MIFF's programming, though, was the annual Mid-by-Midwest Competition, a contest limited to regional filmmakers. "Through this competition, we hope to raise Milwaukee's stature as a regional center where independent filmmaking is valued, respected, and flourishes," said MIFF chairman and co-founder Louis Fortis. The 2004 Jury Award for Best Mid-by-Midwest Feature went to Chicago's Hakim Belabbes for Threads, a fractured narrative set in Morocco about the gulf between family obligations and personal ambitions. Although the film delivers poetic variations on that familiar theme, I was most intrigued by the careful attention paid to specific Arabic rituals and customs, such as the burial process.

The jury named Tate Bunker as Best Milwaukee Filmmaker, for the experimental and highly personal Yellow Light. Grady Owens and Christopher Keating of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, won Best Student Filmmaker for the short Four Star Day, a creepy story of alienation that can't sustain its peculiar style; Laura Heit of Chicago earned Best Animated Short for her blend of animation and puppetry in The Amazing, Mysterious and True Story of Mary Anning and Her Monsters; and Karen Friedberg of Oak Park, Illinois, won Best Live Action Short for The King of the Tango.

Attendance at the festival soared 20 percent beyond last year's launch, which means more than 15,000 filmgoers cast ballots for several Audience Awards. The public agreed with the jury about Friedberg's The King of the Tango, an eloquent coming-of-age tale set in a trailer park that pitches change-ups at the viewer -- it seamlessly shifts gears between snarky and literate and poignant -- until it arrives at its simple yet true message, which might apply equally to MIFF's loyalty to global cinema: "There's beauty to be found in even the ugliest of places." Audiences also granted hometown favorite Aaron Greer the Best Mid-by-Midwest Feature award for the Milwaukee-set Gettin' Grown, an amateurish attempt to use a young boy's trip to the pharmacy as a way to reveal what it means to live on a rough street. Daniel O'Hara of Ireland won Best World Cinema Short for My Name is Yu Ming, a cute yet unremarkable comedy about a boy who learns Irish -- rather than English -- before moving to Ireland. Finally, audiences named Christophe Barratier's French drama The Choir as Best World Cinema Feature.

I think it's telling that while the jury honored one of the festival's most pioneering pictures -- Bunker's Yellow Light -- the public chose to celebrate one of its most typical. If The Choir, an agreeable yet utterly comfortable crowdpleaser about a teacher at a tough all-boys boarding school, was in English, you might mistake it as the latest Hollywood Oscar bait. Is it any surprise that Miramax already has plans for wide U.S. distribution? The fact that The Choir garnered the festival's highest audience award reveals plenty about what kinds of stories average American filmgoers consider the most valuable -- namely, the ones we already know. (Can we call festival hoppers "average" filmgoers? To the degree that even flexible viewers have been conditioned by the pervasive Hollywood marketing machine to think of "quality" movies as those duplicating the studio model, I think we can.)

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Me? I would have voted instead for any of my Five Favorite, listed below. I can't claim that these were beyond doubt the best pictures in the festival -- simultaneous projections make full coverage impossible -- and should remark that I wish I had caught Marco Tullio Giordana's The Best of Youth (Italy), Jeffrey Lau's Chinese Odyssey 2002 (Hong Kong), José Henrique Fonseca's The Man of the Year (Brazil), Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo's Word Wars (USA), Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation (USA), and Peter Greenaway's The Tulse Luper Suitcases: Part 1, The Moab Story (UK). Based on festival buzz, any one of those might have made my list. In no particular order:

1. The Yes Men. "George W. Bush is an international terrorist," declared the sticker slapped above a sink in the Oriental Theater's restroom. The November elections were still looming, and yet that pro-Kerry dictum might have doubled as a lobby placard, promoting any number of the leftist documentaries programmed by the festival. The best among them was also the least antagonistic towards the current administration, although I suspect The Yes Men -- two wonky pranksters who impersonate officials of the World Trade Organization at various web, television, and conference venues -- would admire the kind of shameless spunk required to plaster political propaganda where the masses could conveniently wash their hands of Bush. That same overeager, enterprising spirit informs the exploits of Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, anti-globalization activists whose modest proposals -- at one textile symposium they brazenly advocate the reinstitution of slavery -- merrily satirize the dehumanizing trade rules of the WTO.

Next to pitching human waste McCrappers as a profitable remedy for Third World hunger, the Yes Men's most unabashed act was begging Chris Smith, Sarah Price (the makers of American Movie), and Dan Ollman to chronicle their misdeeds for posterity. (All three willing accomplices were on hand to present MIFF's surprise screening. Originally Smith had planned to premiere The Renaissance, his new documentary about a historic building in Milwaukee's Third Ward, but legal tangles forced a last-second cancellation. As penance, Smith brought a print of The Yes Men and promised refunds to those who didn't want to stay. Among those who stuck around: Mark Borchardt and Mike Schank, subjects and stars of American Movie.) Fortunately, Bichlbaum and Bonanno never come off as obnoxious publicity hounds. In fact, what prevents The Yes Men from being merely Jackass with sweatshop jokes is that these are smart, good-natured guys whose Swiftian logic emerges from a genuinely sensitive social agenda.

The liberal tomfoolery of The Yes Men crackles with conviction -- it's light years away from the defanged, talking-head pedantry that limited the festival's other political documentaries. Not so bad was Orwell Rolls in His Grave, which at least crystallizes the arguments against conglomerations by asserting that America has become a "mediacracy." But too many other titles -- particularly Outfoxed, Unprecedented, and Unconstitutional, which aim to expose the Fox News Network, the 2000 Florida election, and the Patriot Act, respectively, as wicked right-wing schemes -- belonged to the Greenwald school of cursory half-truths. For example, Outfoxed suffers from regrettable tunnel vision: Since its most damning gripe (that Fox has bastardized "journalism" with hysterical, fear-mongering mutations of the news, which effectively shuts down intelligent discourse) has nothing to do with bias, the film errs by dogmatically singling out Fox as the sole offender. With even less artistic shape than a typical episode of Dateline, these rote exercises fail to rouse the same level of outrage that merely witnessing these events unfold on a daily basis once did.

Far more efficient at inspiring fury -- and, let's face it, unstoppable giggles -- are the subversive shenanigans of The Yes Men, partly because they never feel like self-serving ploys of the party machine. We might quibble that the Yes Men haven't effected any real change and are thus neutralized and thus irrelevant, but on a broader level isn't that part of the film's argument? That rather than unleash the power of dissent, the Information Age has suffocated alternative voices under an avalanche of Official Policy? That satirists -- and artists in general -- have become disposable, negligible, forgettable? George W. Bush may or may not be an international terrorist, but it seems fitting that within two hours that sticker had been brusquely scraped off, and once again the Oriental restroom was safe for business as usual.

The nerviest charge leveled at the Bush administration at the festival occurred off screen, during a supplementary Q&A with the subject of Andrei Nekrasov's Disbelief. Tatyana Morozova, a Milwaukeean whose mother perished when her Moscow apartment complex was bombed in September 1999, spends the documentary casting aspersions upon the official verdict that Chechen terrorists planted the explosives. After an exhausting investigation, Morozova persuasively concludes that the bombing was instead engineered by the Russian government -- that Moscow murdered its own citizens to simultaneously sow hatred for Chechnya and boost Putin's sagging popularity. Could such malevolence ever occur in the United States? At the Q&A, Morozova paused, sighed, and then said, "Do you want my honest opinion? I think it already has." She explained that after 9/11, Bush followed Moscow's blueprint so precisely that she was able to predict his every move. "I wondered only about who he would blame." Her paranoid accusation was not well-received -- the audience frosted over -- and the Q&A session abruptly ended. Six days later Osama bin Laden claimed sole responsibility for the September 11 attacks.

2. Death in Gaza. Compartmentalizing art seems rather useless, which helps explain why I've soured on the distinction between fiction and nonfiction films. Surely these cousins have far more in common than they don't? When discussing The Yes Men and the festival's other masterpiece documentary, James Miller's Death in Gaza, I catch myself speaking about them first in terms of their comedy, their drama, their observations. In other words, their status as journalism is secondary to their status as good stories. To be sure, the resonance of Miller's story -- the British filmmaker was shot and killed on camera by Israeli troops while making this documentary about Palestinian children -- only amplifies for being fact. Yet what makes Death in Gaza an engrossing picture has more to do with what happens while Miller is still alive: His reporter's eye zeroes in on what it means to be raised on the Gaza Strip, a place where destitute kids play "Jews-and-Arabs" (think cowboys-and-Indians) and yearn for a real-life martyr's end. I can't think of a more penetrating, instructive movie about the conflict, and when Israeli tanks rumble down the street -- prompting kids to plink-plink them with stones -- it generates a sinking suspense that Hollywood's war fantasies can only dream about.

Before his death, Miller's plans included a second film about Jewish children, which discloses how resolutely he avoided the same trap -- a reductive us-versus-them mentality -- that ensnared so many of the festival's political documentaries. Death in Gaza belongs to a burgeoning class of nonfiction filmmaking, the comprehensive portrait of a specific place at a specific time. Functioning as social variations on the city symphony, such movies contain valuable perceptions about lives in faraway lands -- and those next door, too. Several American documentaries at MIFF were, in their small way, as edifying as Miller's example: Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer's Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea tallies the links between ecology, government, and money as they exist in California's dying resort town; Matthew Broerman's This Is Our Slaughterhouse offers philosophical perspectives on a family-operated poultry slaughterhouse in Ohio; and Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk's Lost Boys of Sudan follows young civil war refugees as they attempt to access the American Dream in Houston. All three taught me plenty about how unusual communities operate, and how they stick together.

3. Moolaadé. There's nothing unusual about the society depicted in Ousmane Sembene's Moolaadé, which largely accounts for its political power. Sembene, who at 81 is often cited as the father of African cinema, focuses on Collé, a seditious woman in a Burkina Fasoan village who agrees to shield four little girls from the traditional female circumcision ritual -- the title refers to her right to impose "moolaadé," or sanctuary. Don't let the subject of genital mutilation scare you off: As the no-nonsense Collé cows tribal leaders with her resolve and watertight logic, this is an empowerment saga brimming with energy and urgency. (It's also popping with color, woven into the West African dress, architecture, and geography.) In the way Sembene brings to life terrible villains and brave heroes, Moolaadé resembles a vibrant children's novel, and yet his critique of time-honored forms of authority is surprisingly intricate. Genital cutting isn't just a method by which men assert control over women's bodies, it's a practice that betrays the patriarchal opinion that female sexuality is unclean -- subtitles call the ceremony "purification" -- and ultimately threatening.

A similar showdown occurs in Catherine Breillat's psychosexual drama Anatomy of Hell, which may have been the festival's most talked-about and least constructive picture. While a damaged woman pays a gay man to explore her naked body over four consecutive nights, a solemn narrator lectures about why males detest the hellish female form and its mysteries. (One memorable aphorism: "Man can't give life; he takes it.") Since these characters are so far removed from recognizable human behavior -- when the man raised her menstrual blood to his lips, one filmgoer wailed "Don't do it!" -- Breillat tosses away their symbolic value, right next to their clothes. And if you're like me and think Breillat's basic premise is total hooey, it's easier to notice that she has nothing useful to say about the inescapable gulf between the genders. Infinitely more valuable are Sembene's insights into pity, indifference, and aggression, even though Moolaadé takes place halfway around the globe.

Other disappointments at MIFF included Morten Tyldum's Buddy (Norway); Lidiya Bobrova's Granny (Russia); Peter Rosen's Khachaturian (USA); Juan Carlos Cremata's Nothing More (Cuba); Julie Bertucelli's Since Otar Left (Georgia); Park Chan-Wook's Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (South Korea); Buddhadeb Dasgupta's A Tale of a Naughty Girl (India); Trees of Life's Tamala 2010: A Punk Cat in Space (Japan); Pablo Berger's Torremolinos 73 (Spain); and Gilles Marchand's Who Killed Bambi? (France), another preposterous nightmare about the perils of being female.

4. Head-On. I'd trade all of those to see for a second time Fatih Akin's tragicomedy about third-generation Turkish immigrants in Hamburg. When twentysomething Sibel fakes suicide merely to rattle her overprotective family, Head-On laments how so many labor immigrants -- fearful that capitalism's pleasure principles clash with Islamic traditions -- deliberately withdraw from German society. At the clinic Sibel meets Cahit, a volatile, middle-aged widow who recently slammed his car into a cement wall. She impulsively proposes marriage, but only as a means of escape: The sham marriage to a fellow Turk will placate her conservative parents while simultaneously allowing Sibel to continue taking men and drugs with total freedom. Still reeling from a lifetime of regret, Cahit seeks atonement, or perhaps pain, and reluctantly agrees.

No prizes for guessing correctly that these two screwed-up souls eventually hook up. The revelations of Head-On, which took top honors at both Berlin and the German Film Awards, lie instead in what happens next. What begins as a comic tryst with tawdry, spiteful, masochistic undercurrents -- it's a love story between two people who don't believe in love -- deepens into an affecting portrait of despondency. Spurning the constraints of realism and melodrama, Head-On is a singular, throbbing, schizophrenic fable that feels every inch the work of genius. Most astonishing is how Akin allows despair and romantic yearning to mount in tandem -- the last act achieves such emotional intensity that it nearly assumes the weight of myth. (Akin's cutaways to a band playing traditional Turkish tunes, coupled with a score that includes elegies, punk, jazz, and pop, encourage that interpretation.) Comparisons to Noé and Wong suggest that Akin's achievements are primarily stylistic, but I'd argue that Head-On's edge only fortifies its soul. Spiritual fatigue -- and the need for deliverance -- have rarely been evoked on-screen with such power. If a more vital, accomplished feature played at this year's festival, I missed it.

The human desire to believe -- in love, in legends, in movies -- is put to comic use in Zak Penn's Incident at Loch Ness, a fake documentary about the notorious German director Werner Herzog traveling to Scotland to shoot a documentary about, well, you know. Serving up Spinal Tap-ish punchlines about the craven aims of commercial moviemaking, writer-director Penn also plays a mook producer always conniving to spruce up Herzog's footage with motorized fins and bikini-clad oceanographers. Although the movie swiftly dispenses with credibility -- to hilarious effect, I think -- Herzog, who plays himself, remains its believably aggrieved center. The man behind such gravely ambitious films as Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo here exhibits the lightest, most amusing touch of his career. By the end you might be convinced that Herzog's rep as a humorless tyrant is the real hoax.

My other favorite comedy of the festival was Jerzy Stuhr's Tomorrow's Weather, about a man who abandoned his family for a monastery 17 years ago. When his wife spies him singing in a band of musical monks -- yes, it looks as surreal as it sounds -- he's forced to confront his three grown children. Sarcastic, occasionally ghoulish, and surprisingly sentimental, Tomorrow's Weather shows us a Poland where accidents sometimes involve a monk, his daughter, a porn set, and a slingshot.

5. Merci!. The most purely pleasurable picture on the festival's roster, though, was Christine Rabette's Merci!, a wordless Belgian short that opens on a crowded subway car. Soon a shifty man is smiling all to himself, then chuckling, then guffawing. Although his behavior elicits uncomfortable glances, before long the entire car joins in his uncontrollable mirth. But what are they laughing at? (Perhaps they all saw the clever Spanish short 7:35 in the Morning, which produces similar smiles by staging a blissful coffee-house showstopper that's somehow less than innocent.) Since the audience, too, is quickly rolling without exactly knowing why, Merci! becomes an interactive theorem proof about how joy is contagious and needs no excuse. Neither does imagination, a fact rightly celebrated in Peter Craig's droll, well-paced short farce The Climactic Death of Dark Ninja, about kids shooting a backyard action epic. By eschewing slapstick, Craig pays tribute to the kind of deluded enthusiasm that's required to pick up a camera for the first time.

So what drives artists to eventually point their camera not at ninjas or dancers but at, say, a mother and son whose dysfunctional relationship revolves around shared needles? I suppose it's simple curiosity -- the pull of the unknown -- and not much different from why we cross space seeking alien universes. Eric Johnson and Gina Levy's nonfiction Foo-Foo Dust, the least pleasant but perhaps most unforgettable short I saw at MIFF, introduces us to Stephanie, a Berkeley-educated yet utterly aimless junkie, and Tony, her grown son who still lives at home. When Stephanie isn't turning tricks to pay for her fixes, she's morphing into a screeching, stoned Wicked Witch of the West, verbally berating Tony for not being able to control his own habit. Later Tony overdoses on camera. There's no doubt Foo-Foo Dust is a clear-eyed peek into real addiction -- a rejoinder to the awful festival short Swallow, which inadvertently advertises the "exoticism" of drug smuggling -- but Johnson and Levy also settle for pinning these hardcore junkies behind glass. For all the insight we gain into their wasted lives, they might as well be Martians.

Some of the festival's most unconventional shorts looked like they were made on the moon, yet what's more human than experimenting with how we make sense of the world? It may be a quaint notion left over from the Romantics, but there is no greater apology for the arts than the fact that metaphor is at the root of all human understanding. This year MIFF offered a multitude of worthy abstract shorts, none better than Leighton Pierce's Water Seeking Its Level, an adventure in perception about what a young girl sees while playing in a river. More specifically, it's about how children still have impartial eyes, unaware of how to classify, label -- and therefore restrict -- every sight according to learned perspectives. Almost as memorable was Michael Bates' The Projectionist, which beautifully suggests that the entire world is a silver screen onto which we cast our every memory and fantasy. I also admired William Scott Rees' Betsy Benson and the Bowtie Boys, a meta-movie about how stories can be interactive; Russ Forster's Springtime for Eva, which uses found footage and a Nico song to ponder the nature of Eva Braun; and Esther Rots' Play with Me, a muddy, orange movie about sinking and dying that sounds like listening to a movie when water is in your ear.

And yet I'd argue that Merci! is every bit as unorthodox and special as any of those more obviously avant-garde models. In the way Rabette loosens the usual anchors of narrative -- especially plot, clarification, and solution -- she drops the safety net; we're forced to trust her rhythm, a rhythm that counts on the sonic structure of laughter to make obsolete all the clichés of story and character. Her true subject is the physiological purpose of laughter as an extension of trust, especially between strangers in a common space, like a subway -- or the present screening room. Few films at the festival were a more direct expression of what it means to be human, or at least what it means to watch movies together.

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Despite their size, shorts like Merci! serve big notice that the world of cinema is far richer than it's usually cracked up to be. There isn't room to describe my other favorite shorts from around the globe: O Nathapon's Bicycles & Radios (Thailand); Jonathan Nix's Hello (Australia); Juan Diego Solanas' The Man Without a Head (France); Ai Lene Chor's Mindy (USA); Peter Craig's Une Historie d'Amour (USA); Johan Brisinger's Passing Hearts (Sweden); Ezra Krybus and Matthew Miller's The School (Canada); Koldo Serra's The Spook House (Spain); Guy Nattiv and Erez Tadmor's Strangers (Israel); Yousaf Ali Khan's Talking with Angels (UK); and Andrea Arnold's Wasp (UK).

Nor can I do justice to why I admired these features: Amos Gitai's Alila (Israel); Sijie Dai's Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (China); Shona Auerbach's Dear Frankie (Scotland); Bill Plympton's Hair High (USA); Ivy Meeropol's Heir to an Execution (USA); Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's Infernal Affairs (Hong Kong); Vicente Amorim's The Middle of the World (Brazil); Antoine de Caunes' Monsieur N (France); Charles Martin Smith's The Snow Walker (Canada); Hiner Saleem's Vodka Lemon (Armenia); Vinko Bresan's Witnesses (Croatia); and Manijeh Hekmat's Women's Prison (Iran). I'll conclude simply by saying that many are slated for theatrical or DVD release, and that some are already available on video. True, watching a DVD is a trip to the zoo: Like animals, movies belong instead in their natural habitat -- the impact of Merci!, for example, depends exclusively upon a communal experience -- and yet it's better to see them within boundaries than not at all.

Article published 12.19.2004.

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