Friday, May 11


Film Festival Democracy

I wasn't able to attend the State of the Cinema address given by Peter Sellars at the 50th SF International Film Festival, so I'm extremely glad that sf360 has posted a transcript. As usual, this year's address is a must-read, painful and witty and inspirational all at once. I'm not surprised hear that some of those who attended in person teared up. Sellars sees the artist as social force, a legacy he traces from Boethius to Mozart to Rithy Panh and the New Crowned Hope filmmakers. And he can both joke about Jamaican beer and speak eloquently on the importance of art for true democracy, especially in an age of such major globalization. Here's a favorite paragraph in the text:
One of the most maddening things about our information system is that it's the Western correspondent standing in Tiananmen Square telling you something. But you're still not a Chinese person. You're still not placed deeply and seeing the world through Chinese eyes. And the way our correspondent system works, is you're always seeing the world through Western eyes -- wherever that person is standing -- and so you're not actually getting a different view of the world. The power of new aboriginal cinema is that you're actually seeing the world through the eyes of a young aboriginal woman. For the first time in human history. And you know what? The world looks different.
Somehow Sellars' words bring me to the festival's annual audience awards, which were just announced. The collective audience's favorite documentary was a Walk to Beautiful, Mary Olive Smith's film on Ethiopian teenagers afflicted by obstetric fistula. For the first time in my memory, the festival announced four runner-up films also balloted strongly by audiences: Forever, the Rape of Europa, When The Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts and Wonders Are Many, which showed Sellars at work directing the opera Doctor Atomic.

The award for best narrative feature went to El Violin from Mexico (which also won the festival's first-time filmmaker prize,) with Sounds of Sand made in Djibouti by a Belgian filmmaker, Vanaja from South India, the Yacoubian Building from Egypt, and Zolykha's Secret from Afghanistan as runners-up. It's worth noting that all five of these films were made in parts of the world where the effects of globalization are relatively invisible to those of us in the West. Not all of them would fit under Sellars's rubric of a "new aboriginal cinema," but it's clear that SFIFF audiences appreciate world cinema beyond the usual suspects of France, Italy, Japan, etc.

I didn't see either of the winners, but I have seen two runners-up in each category. On the documentary side, my own preferences seem to line up well with the aggregated audience's: I too loved Forever, and Wonders Are Many was among the more precious of gems I found at my first-ever trip to Sundance this past January. On the other hand, I would not have voted highly for the two narrative runners-up I saw: Sounds of Sand, which I've said enough on for now here, and the Yacoubian Building, which I watched last night. But while Sounds of Sand feels like the opposite of "new aboriginal cinema" because its perspective on Africa is so clearly that of the European director, the Yacoubian Building is clearly an authentic expression of an Egyptian zeitgeist, and I'm thoroughly glad I watched it. Its stature as a grand multi-character epic does not conceal the fact that a good number of its characters slip in and out of being portrayed as appalling caricatures, but I'm absolutely fascinated by its reception by Egyptian and foreign audiences alike, as well as its reception by the Egyptian government, which the film seemingly critiques in multiple storylines. Most notably that of a newly-fanaticized Islamist student organizer, whose beliefs that his government is too secular are portrayed very sympathetically, especially in the way he is brutally crushed for them. I really would have loved to have been able to hear director Marwan Hamed speak after the screening. But I understood his preference, after having already appeared in person at two screenings, to attend the official closing night gala screening of La Vie En Rose instead. Especially after hearing Edith Piaf songs generously laced into the Yacoubian Building's soundtrack.

But just because these two runners-up don't mesh precisely with my own political and aesthetic preferences in cinema, doesn't make me wary of the winning film El Violin; on the contrary I'm excited to hear it's being released by Film Movement. In certain previous years the Audience Award has gone to films I liked very much, such as Sprited Away in 2002 and Me and You and Everyone We Know in 2005. Though I briefly imagined how cool it would be for Guy Maddin's incredible Brand Upon the Brain! to win after I realized that everyone I talked to post-screening seemed to love it as much as I did, I also recognized that my sample may have been a bit skewed and my friends are not likely to be the most reliable ballot-submitters in the crowd. My other favorite new film of the festival was Opera Jawa, one of the seven films commissioned by Sellars, Simon Field and Keith Griffith for New Crowned Hope, but I must admit I'd have been shocked had a film with such an unconventionally presented narrative won the audience award. The other New Crowned Hope commission in the festival, Daratt, is the festival film I most regret missing this year. I fervently hope it sees the dark of a local theatre again soon, but its distributor, Artmattan, is not one I recognize as consistently getting its films into Frisco Bay theatres.

Daratt's festival screening was a co-presentation with both the Black Film Festival and the Museum of the African Diaspora, which are presenting a program at the latter venue May 21-23. The Black Film Festival runs in earnest on the weekends of June 7-10 and 14-17, though its schedule is not up yet. Both organizations also co-presented the film Bamako, named for Mali's capital and largest city, and from May 18 through September 23rd MoAD will host a photography exhibition inspired by a biennial photography festival held there. Perfect timing for Bamako's June 1st theatrical release at the Rafael, Shattuck and Lumiere Theatres. These theatres, and others such as the Embarcadero, will be playing a number of 50th SFIFF films in the coming months. The Rape of Europa and Fay Grim open at the Embarcadero May 18th. Brand Upon the Brain! is scheduled for the Lumiere from June 15-21, Flanders is expected there June 22-28, and SFIFF members-only screening selection the Boss of it All June 29-July 5. And I suspect still more are on the horizon.

PS: I'll put up photographs tomorrow. Right now I'm going to bed.
I am very glad that SFIFF presented it in it's big show format, but "Brand Upon The Brain" left me cold.

Although the live foley was one of my favorite parts, I think I might like to give it a try when it gets its theatrical release denuded of the spectacle. It's more of a break than Guy Maddin would give me and that's just because so many of my crowd worship him. I'd hate to be stuck with the notion that they are suckers without giving him (yet) another try.

Also, as essential as it was to have it on video for all of the various elements of the perfomance to be in sync, the film aspect deserves a fair shake. I actually tried to watch on the conductor's monitor, which looked much better.

His stuff akin to an unloving, over-wrought parody of early cinema, rather than a repurposing of some of its conventions. The gaggy intertitles really fried my egg!
I was lucky enough to be in the front row of the balcony for Brand Upon the Brain!, perhaps the optimal spot in the Castro to watch a video projection.

I agree that Maddin's film are like an "over-wrought parody of early cinema" as you asy, but I don't think it's unloving at all. It may be that he's loving different aspects of silent cinema (including aspects not inherent in the artistry of the form, like the shoddy lab work Kevin Brownlow deplores), but I really get a sense of genuine passion and not simple mockery from most of his films, especially Brand Upon the Brain! Indeed his cinema does not epitomize the best of the form, dependent as his silent films are on intertitles. He lacks the mise-en-scene of F.W. Murnau, or even of Herbert Brenon. But I'm not so sure I'd be as interested in a neo-silent film that was really going for the precise aesthetics of 1927. Maddin's best films somehow celebrate early cinema's artistry and its camp appeal all at once. For me, they're like a big sloppy wet kiss from the 21st century to the early 20th.

I too want to check my reflexes to Brand Upon the Brain! at the Lumiere, but more to get a load of a different narrator (Isabella Rossellini) and to see what it's like not feeling the urge to glance over at the folks popping bubble wrap to make fire crackle, etc.
Nice overview of the festival, Brian. I especially enjoyed your comments on The Yacoubian Building.

The bubble wrap was my second favorite Brand Upon the Brain! foley effect, after the twisting celery stalks. Like you, I'm really looking forward to seeing the general release of this next month.
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