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Who Watches These Films Anyway? Notes from the Milwaukee International Film Festival 2003

By Eric Beltmann

At the end of Rakhshan Bani Etemad's Under the Skin of the City, an Iranian melodrama about a working-class family decaying in Tehran, the camera gazes at the family's tough, middle-aged matriarch. Asked by a documentary crew what she thinks of the recent parliamentary elections, she glowers back at the lens and batters her own chest. "I wish somebody would film what's going on right in here! Who do you show these films to anyway?"

Tehran is a long way from Wisconsin, but the first annual Milwaukee International Film Festival, which closed November 16th, proved that even Midwesterners thirst to learn more about what's going on in faraway hearts. Roughly 13,000 people enjoyed the festival's roster of more than 100 films, many of which aimed to explain what it means to be alive in places like Tehran, Casablanca, Estonia, Jerusalem, and Istanbul. Who watches these films, anyway? I'd like to believe the festival's success signals a yearning on the part of many Wisconsinites to become citizens of the world, and to experience the world in a way denied them by the news media and the White House. These films are watched by those who believe in cultural exchange, those who have curiosity about what qualifies as entertainment, and those who trust the power of cinema to inspire, to confront lies, to effect change, and to breed compassion and understanding. In other words, these films are watched by those who know movies can be important facts in their lives.

All of this must confound local distributors and journalists, who have persuaded themselves -- and consistently attempt to persuade consumers -- that the power of cinema resides only in its ability to sell french fries. Since the media routinely cultivate a culture of commerce rather than art, is it any surprise that the day after the festival's end, I couldn't find a single mention of its awards anywhere in the local news? Several outlets reported the weekend's box-office champs, though, which amounts to placing the interests of the major studios above the interests of the public, who were once again denied information about their choices. Even worse, at one screening at the UWM Union Theatre, I overheard a fellow writer griping about how the "pleasure principle" was absent from the festival, as if "pleasure" can be scientifically quantified, and only exists in the form imposed upon us by pop culture -- or at least only in the form that's agreeable to him.

It's true that if we were to confer key themes upon the festival -- and to do so is rather dubious, considering the multiplicity of offerings -- they would center on injustice and tragedy. Certainly a disproportionate number of pictures dealt with suicide, gender oppression, social alienation, and class division, but it seems reckless to assume pleasure can't be derived from such stories. If we redefine "pleasurable" to include learning about unfamiliar places and emotions, grappling with curious styles and pacing, reveling in the splendor of foreign tongues and vistas, and not knowing exactly how to contextualize the images before us, then MIFF delivered the goods. Who watches these films, anyway? These films are watched by those willing to embrace their challenges, those willing to explore their beauties and investigate their mysteries, and those willing to discover joy in the bewilderment of art.

* * *

Even though I'd describe only a few as masterful, I found much pleasure in the various films and videos I attended. Since several movies project simultaneously, dedicated festival hoppers must develop a methodology for choosing between them. For me, I tended to skip regional work in favor of international fare, giving priority to films that had already garnered acclaim at Toronto and Cannes and most likely won't be available in Milwaukee again. I also gave preference to directors I value, such as Jafar Panahi and Lukas Moodysson, and Iranian pictures, since I have particular interest in that national cinema. Other factors included drive time, fatigue, bladder management, and meals, although in general I was willing to sacrifice my health for any given film. (Profound appreciation goes out to Grecian Delight, a tiny, speedy diner two blocks from the Oriental Theatre that reminded me of how joy can't be indexed.) What follows are my brief reactions to the 25 films I managed to see at this year's festival, a 10-day effort that represents nearly a quarter of the programmed titles.

Ali Zaoua, Prince of the Streets   A
Nabi Ayouch, Morocco, 2000
When a street urchin with dreams of becoming a fisherman is killed in a gang fight, his three glue-sniffing pals resolve to give him a proper burial at sea. Although it features real kids plucked from the abandoned corners of Morocco, comparisons to Los Olvidados and Pixote miss how this lovely urban fable transcends realism, conjuring a waterfront Casablanca that reminded me of Roald Dahl at least as much as Buñuel. (Not far from the docks is a gang fortress ruled by a mute, scarred, Kurtz-like bully, who punishes his disciples -- young, homeless purse-snatchers -- by lowering them into a pit that might descend all the way to Hell.) These sights, lifelike but from a child's eye, prepare us for the way Ayouch harmonizes desperation with hope, squalor with innocence, reality with fantasy.

The Blood of a Poet   B
Jean Cocteau, France, 1930
The vulnerability of reality is also the subject of this short, sensuous beauty, about an obsessive poet who is devoured by his own creative process. No longer able to separate his creations from his realities, he endures four senseless, highly symbolic episodes that suggest Cocteau, in his very first picture, also succumbed entirely to his artistic impulses. Borrowing heavily from surrealism, he made an illogical, artificial ode to the power of images, one that is committed absolutely to the idea that making movies can be as private, solitary, lonely -- and consuming -- as writing poetry.

Un Chien Andalou   A
Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, France, 1929
I'm guessing most of us at the screening had seen this hallucinatory silent short before; I last saw it nine years ago, on a beat-up VHS tape. Yet familiarity didn't prevent our flinching at the film's most notorious close-up, that of Buñuel carving an eyeball with a razor. I'm not about to bestow "meaning" upon this surreal, funny, utterly irrational classic, but I think that vicious image opens the movie for a reason. It lets us know, from the start, that this is a movie about cutting -- about slicing organs, slicing images, slicing the bourgeoisie. This is Warhol and this is Lynch, but more richly suggestive than both put together, especially in the way it repeatedly stabs our expectations of story and continuity in the back.

Chump Change   F
Stephen Burrows, United States, 2003
Milwaukee's Oriental Theatre sold out for the first time since 1987, which means that the grotesque noise heard throughout this tacky, weak-kneed Hollywood satire was the sound of over 1,000 people pretending to laugh. Burrows, a hometown favorite, may have mined his own misadventures in La-La Land for this tale of a failed entertainer retreating back to the Midwest, but this is still an impersonal, obnoxious sitcom. Crudely structured as a convoy of mini-flashbacks and clip montages, Burrows displays an Ed Woodian aptitude for transparently veiling the fact that he is incapable of developing a scene, a character, or even a good crotch joke.

Crimson Gold   A-
Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2003
While The Circle thundered against the marginalization of women in contemporary Tehran, Panahi's latest act of social protest -- also banned in its homeland -- aims at a different kind of subjugation, one that ought to resonate with Americans at least as much as Iranians. Class disparity is targeted here, as a dour, struggling pizza delivery boy is rendered so invisible by his scruffy job that he passes unnoticed through the socioeconomic strata of the city. Like Taxi Driver, this natural, reflective work places you deep inside the psyche of a frustrated, alienated, quietly seething man, exposing how social polarization creates a form of purgatory on earth.

The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky   D+
Paul Cox, Australia, 2002
"I'm not afraid of death, I'm afraid of death of the spirit," intones Derek Jacobi, whose readings from Nijinsky's 1919 diary serve as the only words in this serene, experimental documentary about the great Polish-Russian dancer's descent into psychosis. No footage of him exists, so Cox treats the camera as a dance partner, summoning abstract movements and images that preserve Nijinsky's "spirit." Problem is, Cox shares the same naive, rambling notions about intuition, love, and nature that are inked on those diary pages -- I don't have enough eyes to roll at all the anonymous herons, woods, streams, nudes, and wheat fields that kill time in between recreations of Nijinsky's renowned choreography.

Distant   B+
Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, 2002
Out of obligation, a professional photographer invites his unrefined country cousin to lodge with him in Istanbul, and we watch, slowly and silently, as these two spinning wheels fail to connect -- to each other, to others, to anything beyond their apartment walls. Ceylan maintains a mood of melancholy and loneliness so unrelenting that it's borderline inhospitable; I felt like leaping into a set of jumping jacks. Still, I was engrossed by the way he complements the quotidian with beautiful visual symmetries, especially when photographing the city's cool exterior. The expansive vistas accentuate the pettiness of these men, who permit life's tiny dramas (a lost tool, an invasive mouse, a sloppy guest) to amplify the distance between them.

Edi   A-
Piotr Trzaskalski, Poland, 2002
In Lodz, Poland, a drunken scavenger uses his refrigerator as a shelf -- he doesn't have electricity, or food, but he has books. Smart, quiet, and gargoyle-faced, Edi is hired by two local debt collectors who want their sister to finish school without seducing her tutor. When she falls pregnant anyway, the brothers mercilessly punish Edi, who wordlessly accepts his fate. Despite its subject matter -- poverty, mob corruption, unwanted pregnancy, false charges of rape, castration -- this martyr fable remains resolutely optimistic, allowing tenderness to wrestle down all the unpleasantness. What lingers isn't the violence but the profound, very real affection shared between Edi, his loyal pal, and the newborn.

The Flower of Evil   C+
Claude Chabrol, France, 2003
More misanthropy from one of the nouvelle vague's last holdouts, and it gives me the creeps. This intricate, clammy melodrama concerns a proper French lineage facing accusations of murder, Nazi sympathies, incest, hypocrisy, and adultery, but for me it's about Chabrol's persistent interest in beautiful women, and universal peccability: He lugs the skeletons out of this family's closet merely to say, hey, murder isn't the worst we do to each other. I much preferred the actors to the central soap opera, especially Benoît Magimel and Mélanie Doutey as twentysomethings rekindling romance. Their best scene? A long, tingly conversation shot in close-up, punctuated by brisk, full-blooded kisses.

I'm Taraneh, 15   B-
Rassul Sadr-Ameli, Iran, 2002
Deserted by her betrothed, a pregnant 15-year-old Iranian girl crusades to keep her baby, her reputation, and her legal rights, and we grasp how her own culture has stacked the deck against her. As a feminist tract, it lacks the swelling political force of The Circle and the radical lyricism of The Day I Became a Woman; instead, I was most reminded of the didactic screeds of Tahmineh Milani or Dariush Mehrjui. Yet Sadr-Ameli, a former journalist and sociologist, shows reasonable restraint in relaying his melodrama, and by good fortune his lead role is filled by Taraneh Alidoosti, a strong, subtle, youthful talent.

Kamchatka   B-
Marcelo Pineyro, Argentina, 2002
Set in 1976 after the military coup d'etat in Argentina, a left-leaning couple flees the junta by retreating to a country hideaway with their two young boys. Although it's highly suspect when a filmmaker resorts to using a board game as a metaphor, this charming family drama delicately enlists "Kamchatka," a territory in the world-conquest game Risk, to exemplify a safe place that must eventually come under fire. (More superficially, matches between father and son provide a semblance of constancy in their uprooted lives.) What's surprising is that Pineyro opts for a nostalgic rather than a claustrophobic, menacing, or even angry tone -- this story might be lovely, but it needs the poignancy of truth.

Lilya 4-ever   B+
Lukas Moodysson, Sweden, 2002
The most incandescent performance I saw at the festival was given by Oksana Akinshina, a high school amateur who plays an Estonian teenager first abandoned and then tricked into sexual slavery. Like the nihilistic industrial-metal that announces it, her ruthlessly grim story dropkicks the audience -- in the ears, in the stomach, in the heart. It might be tempting to dismiss this relentless torture chamber as shock neorealism, with nothing more to ask than isn't this awful? Yet its ugliness is easily trumped by Moodysson's abiding compassion and artistic vision -- his strokes only get darker, bolder, and more divine as the film progresses.

Milton Rogovin: The Forgotten Ones   D
Harvey Wang, United States, 2003
Milton Rogovin was blacklisted in the 1950s, which ruined his career as a neighborhood optometrist. He then redirected his energies into the arts, and his lasting contribution is a project for which he photographed the residents of Buffalo's indigent Lower West Side four times over a 30-year span. Those facts are markedly more interesting than this gauzy, 12-minute documentary about Rogovin's most recent return, in 2002, at the age of 93. Although Wang is a photographer himself, his slapdash journalism has none of the stark, spontaneous poetry of the Buffalo prints scanned here; Rogovin's pictures possess an inquisitive force -- a curiosity of unknown lives -- that eludes Wang.

Numafung   C
Nabin Subba, Nepal, 2001
I don't know of another picture about the swirling, green hills of eastern Nepal, nor one that opens a window on the rural traditions of the Limbu people. When her first husband dies in a log-splitting mishap, the beautiful Numafung is forced to meet her family obligations by marrying a lazy, hotheaded bruiser. (After she steps in front of a spear intended for his head, he says thanks by kicking her over.) Subba dissects how vertically integrated patriarchies shrink women into "herded" cattle that can be bartered and transferred between owners, but he's an ethnographer first and a Griffith wannabe second -- this conventional melodrama is languorous, poorly acted, and brutally square.

On Guard   B
Philippe de Broca, France, 1997
Channeling the spirit of Dumas and Féval, de Broca has unleashed a spry, rousing, funny swashbuckler set in the 18th century. Daniel Auteuil -- that startling chameleon of French cinema -- is a lowly fencing prodigy who shakes hands with a flamboyant duke, and 16 years later finds himself secretly raising the duke's daughter, and plotting to avenge his murdered friend. Auteuil's performance, which effortlessly glides from youthful drunkard to doting father figure to clowning hunchback, provides the movie's Fairbanksian soul: He knows that naive escapades, when rooted in passion, political intrigue, and wink-wink derring-do, are at the bottom of what makes us believe in make-believe.

OT: Our Town   C+
Scott Hamilton Kennedy, United States, 2002
Kennedy's fly-on-the-wall aesthetic yields a haphazard, unremarkable documentary about a remarkable event: Dominguez High in Compton, California, didn't have a stage or funding, but English teacher Catherine Borek still mounted an adaptation of Our Town, the first school play in 20 years. Even though most of this backstage drama occurs within the same four walls, the camerawork is doggedly careless, and Kennedy never achieves the kind of stirring, evocative juxtapositions of, say, Go Tigers!, which didn't strain nearly so hard to encompass the community at large. The main disclosure here seems to be that not every Compton kid is a gangsta. Well, duh.

The Princess Blade   C-
Shinsuke Sato, Japan, 2001
Before the theater darkened, I was reading about American slaughterhouses in Schlosser's Fast Food Nation. As four college kids plunked down in front of me, one mumbled, "A book! There's no reading at the movies!" Presumably the subtitles of this Japanese actioner disappointed him; what disappointed me was the way its story -- a lame dystopian fable about a young female warrior trying to sever ties with her guild of nomadic assassins -- fails to transform its aggressive pessimism into something bolder, and richer. At least Donnie Yen's choreography is sporadically clever; in one scene, our feral, slinky heroine is literally nailed to the ground and still manages to thrash an opponent.

The Process   C
Richard Greenberg, United States, 2003
Is it cinema or community service? Greenberg gained access to several sessions of "psychodrama," a group therapy method of addressing emotional trauma, and by acknowledging the camera's presence, this documentary underscores how he's creating a movie as the "characters" are recreating past experiences. Despite an intriguing visual design -- blood red backgrounds outline tearful close-ups -- this is pure Velveeta; note how a morphing effect returns the faces of the adult participants to their childhood selves. Their pain is certainly raw, real, and inevitably moving, but this pink affair is so self-satisfied it comes with a gold ribbon already pinned to its chest.

Rana's Wedding   B
Hany Abu-Assas, Palestine, 2002
Faced with an ultimatum from her father -- marry by the afternoon, or leave with him for Cairo -- Rana races through Jerusalem trying to assemble an impulsive marriage to her boyfriend. Pitched somewhere between infatuation and convenience, this couple's jaunty, sometimes bickering rapport isn't very interesting, except that, at every turn, their simple desire to get hitched is monitored by the squinting eyes of troops and security cameras. We soon grasp how, for Muslims living under Israeli occupation, life on the West Bank consists of standing in eternal lines, dodging checkpoints, and occasionally making half-baked protests. The absurdity is perhaps best illustrated when Rana stops to hurl a single stone at a soldier, and then marches off to a hair appointment.

Shattered Glass   B
Chris Kraus, Germany, 2002
Its blue gloom sticks to the ribs. Afflicted by leukemia, the sullen, arrogant Jesko returns home in hopes that his mother, a raging schizophrenic, will prove a bone marrow match. Their testy reunion initiates a series of events by which deep-seated family secrets are exposed. Nothing is new here, but the story grooves on the moody, angry intensity of Jesko, especially after he realizes his father would rather let him die than confess he was unfaithful decades ago -- anguish oozes from the son like blood from a wound. Although Kraus has a tendency to occasionally overdo it, this dank melodrama is laced with sharp, ice-pick words and an unsettling sense of how our deepest hurt can only be caused by those we love the most.

Stevie   B+
Steve James, United States, 2003
In the mid-'80s Steve James, the director of Hoop Dreams, served as a Big Brother to Stevie Fielding, an unstable 11-year-old. The title of course refers to Fielding, but it might as well refer to James, since this documentary is really more about him: The filmmaker confesses he feels shame for "abandoning" Stevie, but his efforts to reconnect 10 years later seem driven more by his need to assuage his own guilt than by a desire to restore an old friendship. Since I reviewed it in September, I skipped the festival's screening in favor of Edi and The Flower of Evil, but my full review can be found here.

Towers Open Fire   C
William S. Burroughs and Anthony Balch, United States, 1963
Designed as an extension of Burroughs' cut-and-paste novels, this avant-garde short depicts the collapse of society in a series of fractured, black-and-white vignettes, from board members being vaporized to Burroughs himself firing ping-pong balls at family pictures. It concludes with splatter-paint colors that are probably meant to evoke the mind-altering methods of the early Sixties, but I was reminded more of Pollock and Brakhage -- those 30 seconds comprise the most exhilarating sequence in the entire piece, and I wanted more. Otherwise, this abrasive assault on linear editing did little for me. Ho-hum, I say.

Under the Skin of the City   B
Rakhshan Bani Etemad, Iran, 2001
Spare, static, and brimming with everyday details about life in Tehran, this neorealist melodrama concerns a fierce mother of four trying to preserve her brood and home amidst rapid cultural changes. Since the characters serve as a catalog of abuses -- social emasculation, forced marriage, poverty, domestic abuse, economic aggravation -- it would be easy for "us" to nod in sympathy at "them." Yet what makes this political provocation so compelling is that Bani Etemad prevents us from viewing the central family only in terms of how modern Iran differs from modern America -- she peels back their nationality, revealing how hope, desire, and despair are human qualities that disregard borders.

Unknown Pleasures   B+
Jia Zhang-Ke, China, 2002
When was the last time you saw a movie about an entire community facing an existential identity crisis? Jia's "story" deals with urban youth adrift in a ramshackle wasteland on the fringes of Datong, but plot is certainly the least interesting way to engage with his impressionistic, stylized evocation of how Den Xiaoping's Open Door policy bolstered major cities but reduced smaller ones to ghost towns. The bombed-out, spacious locations generate an absorbing mood of distance and disaffection, yet what are these kids, so infatuated with American money and movies, alienated from? To me, the title exposes how Westernization, previously forbidden, hasn't resulted in fulfillment of any kind; the image of an incomplete superhighway stands as a fertile symbol of new China's unrealized promises of prosperity.

Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself   B+
Lone Scherfig, Denmark, 2002
Like the brothers who peddle used books in Glasgow, Scherfig pawns off a shopworn tale: Middle-aged Harbour carries a sad secret that forces the suicidal Wilbur to view the prospect of death from a very different position. This deadpan comedy-drama might have really sizzled had the structure been reversed -- imagine a bleak disease drama morphing into a squib about gallows humor -- but Scherfig still blows the dust off this story and creates something complicated, moving, and entirely real. She's aided immensely by the entire cast, especially Jamie Sives as the sardonic, charming Wilbur, and Mads Mikkelsen, as the wry psychologist who grasps the irony of brothers who trade outlooks, and roles, before the end.

Yes Nurse, No Nurse!   C+
Pieter Kramer, The Netherlands, 2002
Minus a brief break-dancing interlude, this Dutch musical comedy might have been made in the '40s by MGM -- even the candy-colored homoeroticism doesn't feel out of place. In an Amsterdam rest home, a Red Cross nurse extends a helping hand to a cluster of eccentrics, but their landlord is a sneering, sniveling killjoy who desperately wants to evict the cheer-mongers. Wet noodles have rarely been so brilliantly over-the-top, and when his unhappiness is finally treated as tragic, Paul Kooij's surprisingly nuanced performance turns sublime. Still, this campy, featherweight pleasure dome never threatens to match the sleeker, equally prefabricated karaoke -- such as Down With Love -- sung by Hollywood.

Article published 12.01.2003.

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