AFI: 30 October–9 November 2008

AFM: 5–12 November 2008

Sprawlin’ thru

Do cities have the film festivals they deserve? Or rather, what happens to the classical notion of cinéphilie in a sprawling, urban area like Los Angeles that has “developed as an agglomeration of separate communities dispersed across the desert plains between the mountains and the ocean… a polynucleated and decentered megalopolis”? (1) Becoming, almost inadvertently, an often-despised model for standardised suburban cities, Los Angeles has had a bad rap (and Annie Hall didn’t help): LaLaLand turning into bimboland, Hollywood as a sleazy tourist mecca-cum-shopping centre; and, most of all, it is the place where the industry is still working to impose its global dominance on the populace’s imagination. As Mike Davis aptly suggested, the megalopolis has come to represent what people hate in the modern world: “The ultimate world-historical significance – and oddity – of Los Angeles is that it has come to play the double role of utopia and dystopia for advanced capitalism…” (2)

In this “Sixty-Mile circle” of “at least 132 incorporated cities”, (3) the dismantling of the early network of public transportation (such as the 1,200 miles of track streetcar system built in the late 19th century, “promoted as the largest and the most efficient in the world” (4)) was completed in the 1960s. (5) The future was built on what Norman M. Klein describes as “the myth of a freeway metropolis” (6) – which reached its apex in the early 1970s. As those of us who live there all know from the disheartening sight of vehicles hopelessly stuck on the 10 or the 405 freeway, it’s been downhill since. Attempts at (re)building a mass transit system came too late, are too slow to implement, and are reduced in scale, in part due to the aggressive lobbying of private interests; all we have is a mini-subway network, some trains going through selected areas and express buses to connect major suburbs to the business districts. The viscous increase in the traffic has further estranged communities that had been in historical opposition – such as the “autonomous ‘West Side’ power structure that arose out of Jewish interests in the entertainment, savings-and-loans and suburban real-estate sectors” and “the ‘Downtown elite’ [who] struggled to ‘recenter’ the region around a revitalized business district” (7) while experiencing the two-and-fro encroachments by successive waves of “minorities” (African Americans, Latinos, Asians). In the middle, Hollywood (not the “industry” but the town-within-the-megalopolis) combines high- and low-end entertainment, glitter and trash – from prestigious commercial cinemas to alternative venues to sex shops… and shopping malls. The continuous sprawling outward complexifies this basic pattern – Klein for example recently asserted on National Public Radio that Los Angeles no longer exists but is made of three different, self-contained, cities (West Side, East Side, The San Fernando Valley). Indeed people don’t commute from one section to the other, unless they absolutely have to (to go to work, in the majority of the cases) but usually not to see a movie. Often based in New York, US distributors have a hard time gauging the logic of the space; duplicating the old rivalry between West and East as if is was a fault line between high and low culture, affluence and financial mediocrity, they tend to open a film in the West Side – leaving well-to-do and sophisticated communities such as Pasadena for a later release.

The impossible traffic had quartered the city – and now the economic crisis is dividing us even further. The Los Angeles Times used to run a weekly column called “Screening Room” in which their staff critics (including the cantankerous yet brilliant Kevin Thomas) reviewed “alternative” screenings – meaning everything that didn’t get a theatrical release – from film festivals to screenings of experimental films. In April 2007, Sam Zell, the real-estate millionaire (owner, as well, of the Major League baseball club The Chicago Cubs), bought the Tribune Company, that published a number of newspapers including the LA Times. Several dozens layoffs have occurred in the last few months and “Screening Room” has been reduced to a compilation of listings. The alternative press hardly fares better. The LA Weekly, for example, now belongs to a chain of seventeen free weekly newspapers that includes The Village Voice; it has less and less space to cover local screenings and often publishes syndicated articles written by a staff writer of one of the parent publications. With first-rate journalists instructed to focus on reviewing major theatrical reviews or forced out of business altogether, the “great divide” between popular culture and art cinema is becoming more and more acute.

Why the AFI?

In this context, the AFI Film Festival had been struggling for its intellectual and artistic identity. The American Film Institute was created in 1967 by the newly-established National Endowment for the Arts (one of the most significant acts of the Johnson Administration – the closer the US ever got to a professional-level funding for the arts). In 1996, however, under pressure from Senator Helms and other right-wing censors, the Congress slashed the NEA’s budget by almost 50% for having funded the work of “controversial” artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe. As a result of the cuts, a number of programs, such as grants to individual filmmakers, were discontinued.

Meanwhile, in 1971, two dyed-in-the-wool cinéphiles, affectionately known as “the Garys” – Gary Essert and his companion, Gary Abraham – founded the Los Angeles International Film Exposition (FILMEX), still remembered fondly for the quality and eclecticism of its selection. This was, indeed, the time the “New American Cinema” was rocking the world – Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) was the first FILMEX’s opening night! – and with it, a serious film culture was blossoming in the US.  In the mid-‘70s, FILMEX boasted to have become “the largest public film event in the world”, (8) a slightly exaggerated statement (it was, indeed, the largest in the US). In 1983, following a conflict with the Board, the Garys left the organisation shortly after what was going to be the last FILMEX; they redirected their efforts toward the founding of the American Cinematheque (which, contrary to its name, is an alternative film screening organisation, not a film archive), before dying of AIDS, within one month of each other, in 1992. To found FILMEX, they had been savvy enough to enlist the support of George Cukor and Gregory Peck, who managed to convince both the AFI and the Academy of Motion Pictures to sponsor an international film festival. (9) They also showed experimental films as part of the line-up. Yet, when, the American Film Institute revamped FILMEX, or the idea of it, by creating the AFI Festival in 1987, it was in the spirit of what constitutes the mandate of the Institute: the fostering and promotion of the American film industry. In the seventeen years I have lived in Los Angeles, I have seen the event wavering between different strategies – partnering at some point with grass-roots arts organisations such as FreeWaves (that shows independent videos – mostly off the beaten track of mainstream culture, and often overtly confrontational), while flirting with the studios. This see-saw movement was reflected in the selection of the staff. In 2000, former Hawaii Film Festival director Christian Gaines was appointed Director of Festivals and Nancy Collet promoted from Program Manager to Director of Programming. Collet is credited for the Festival’s 2002 move to a concentrated screening situation in the Arclight complex, in the centre of Hollywood, and Gaines is responsible for what he calls “the yin and yang advantages [of a] partnership between culture and ‘commerce’” (10) – i.e. the Festival and the American Film Market (AFM) that have been held simultaneously since 2004. In 2007, Rose Kuo was appointed Artistic Director (11) and has opened the Festival in a number of new directions – in more ways than one. Before the last edition, Gaines took a job in the for-profit-sector, leaving the Festival without an official Director, and piling a lot of responsibilities on Kuo’s desk. Her foremost achievement may have been to work on reducing the gap that existed between AFI and the critical community. Sure enough, the event was reviewed every year by local publications – but while mainstream papers mostly wrote about commercially-oriented “products”, serious critics used to complain about the “middle-brow” taste of the programming team.

For complex reasons – and it is not here a question of finger-pointing – AFI programmers seem to have selected films to be shown in the illusion of Los Angeles – as it had been manufactured as myth and spectacle (to borrow once again from Davis’ incisive analysis). In the process, they did not correctly assess the real importance of a Los Angeles-based film festival, aggressively seeking international or world premieres, as if they were working for Cannes, Berlin or another one of the 12 “Competitive Feature Film Festivals” regulated by FIAPF (Federation Internationale d’Associations de Producteurs de Films/International Federation of Film Producers Associations). (12)

As a result (due in part to the festival’s scheduling after Locarno, Venice and San Sebastian, but before the opening of the new season with Rotterdam, Berlin and Cannes, for which a number of filmmakers “save” their international premieres) a number of films were available to them only because they had been previously rejected by other festivals – which did not bode well for their qualities. Kuo immediately reversed the trend, and critics have noted the strong presence of “festival favourites” in this year’s line-up. (13) From the onset, Kuo involved the advice and assistance of critics and curators from the local cinéphilic community – and extended a hand toward other presenting organisations, involving them as “sponsors” of some events, or even as co-hosts of a particular program.


Rose and I had known each other for about 15 years – and, for this last festival, she invited me to curate a series of four Chinese films. This was not remunerated. I am also writing this article from the point of view of having been involved in alternative film programming in Los Angeles for years. I am on the Board of Los Angeles Filmforum, as well as the Co-Curator of the Film/Video series at REDCAT, a space founded and managed by the California Institute of the Arts, where I teach. As such, I recently tried to launch a citywide discussion about the lack of coverage of alternative film/video events in the Los Angeles Times. (14) I am also particularly interested in the AFM because I work as a correspondent for two European film festivals, San Sebastian and Vienna. My situation is not unique. As film culture evolves, the functions of its “agents” have become blurred. Many educators write and curate as well. Film programmers have a variety of backgrounds – from publicists to professionals of cultural organisations to filmmakers to critics. (15)

To the Los Angeles filmgoers, the AFI Fest is part of a smorgasbord of various “alternative” offerings that includes, in no particular order and without claiming to be exhaustive, the film programs of some museums (Getty, Los Angeles County Museum/LACMA, Armand Hammer); UCLA Film & Television Archive (now held at the Armand Hammer as well); organisations dedicated to the concept of avant-garde, experimental or oppositional media, such as the Los Angeles Filmforum, REDCAT and the more “funky”, community-oriented Echo Park Film Center; the American Cinematheque (that also hosts Outfest’s year-long Wednesday programs, and the “homeless” Los Angeles Filmforum); The Silent Film Theater (now opening up toward contemporary independent/avant-garde screenings, in partnership with the Los Angeles Filmforum).

AFI is in indirect competition with two other major local festivals. More edgy and controversial in form as well as content, the first one, Outfest, created in 1982 as the Gay and Lesbian Media Festival and Conference, boast of being “the oldest continuous festival in Los Angeles”. It takes place in July in a variety of venues from West Hollywood to downtown. It has also expanded its activities within the community, with year-long weekly programming and the creation of The Legacy Project, that preserves and restores LGBT films and videos in collaboration with the UCLA Film & Television Archive. The second one, the Los Angeles Film Festival, now in its 15th year and taking place in and around Westwood in June, results from the efforts of independent filmmakers who, about thirty years ago, in New York, organised themselves into the Independent Feature Project (IFP). Soon the IFP/West was created, renamed Film Independent in 2005. In addition to organising the Film Festival and The Independent Spirit Awards (founded in 1984), and publishing a monthly magazine, Find, the self-described “collective of filmmakers, film leaders, and film lovers” offers a variety of services to its 5,000-odd members from networking to production assistance to education.

Other membership organisations have also started their own festivals – for example Visual Communications (VC), created in 1970 in the wake of the grass-roots movement designed to change the representation of Asian Americans in film and media. (16) Like its sister organisations in San Francisco, New York or Washington, in 1983 VC started its own showcase, the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, that has currently moved westward (with screenings at the Director’s Guild of America [DGA] in West Hollywood, like Outfest) from its original location in the “Little Tokyo” area of downtown, and is taking place in May. Every February (“Black History Month”), the Pan African Film Festival, founded in 1992, unfolds in the Magic Johnson Theater in the middle-class black neighbourhood of Crenshaw, with a combination of films from Africa, the African diaspora, the independent African American community and premieres of Hollywood movies involving famous black entertainers or artists.

In the last few years, it seems that almost every community within the greater Los Angeles area and its surroundings have opened a film festival: Silver Lake, Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Palm Springs, Santa Barbara, Napa Valley (where you can enjoy movies while drinking wines from local vineyards) – to which one has to add community or identity-based events, such as the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (IFLA), even a small (and quite industry-oriented) Women’s Film Festival, etc.. LaLaLand is not alone in this respect – as this is happening all over the world. Film festivals have taken over the function once filled by film societies (or the French ciné-clubs). For a while, the financial results for makers and distributors were clear: film societies paid rental fees, festivals did not; in exchange, they promoted your work. Now, with the proliferation of film festivals, things have become murkier, and some distributors charge a rental fee even to the most prestigious film event. As a result, there is an increased interdependence between programmers and distributors – some “star distributors” being overtly courted to make sure their high-profile and/or quality films are available – hard bargains are discussed, deals are made. I have not discussed it with Gaines, but it seems likely that the pairing of the AFI Film Festival with the AFM was thought of as a way of getting more cooperation from some top distributors: under his leadership there was a significant overlap between films showcased in the Festival and those presented at the Market.

Los Angeles – Eine Stadt im Film/A City On Film


The exhibition and programming of films in Los Angeles operate under conditions that are quite specific to the city. For all its structural weaknesses and purported superficiality, Los Angeles has nonetheless inspired a rich diversity of film practices, as reminded by two excellent books: David E. James’ The Most Typical Avant-Garde – History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles (see note 1) and Los Angeles – Eine Stadt im Film/A City On Film, (17) a scholarly catalogue for a film series curated by Thom Andersen (who also directed Los Angeles Plays Itself [2003], the award-winning archival documentary about the representation of Los Angeles in the movies).

Film festival reports usually function as a sub-genre of film criticism, in which films are described as if they were shown in a vacuum. I hope to make the case for the necessity of inscribing such critical writing within the geography and social/political history of the area, which involves a specific mapping out the conditions of exhibition of “alternative” media. Los Angeles is often described as “a city on the move”, and this accurately depicts the situation of its various cinematic subcultures vis a vis the industry – that keep changing through various “processes of deterritorialization and reterritorialization”. (18)

In the 1970s, new poles of resistance emerged contesting Hollywood’s cultural hegemony – underscoring a multiplicity of complaints: that the industry churned out “products” that were standardised and no longer formally innovative; (19) and that its concerns and interests were American, white and male – i.e. chauvinistic, imperialist and blind to other national cultures; racist and oblivious, if not contemptuous, of the minorities composing the melting pot; and sexist. An uneasy alliance – theorised to a certain extent by scholars such as Peter Wollen – emerged between non-orthodox avant-gardists, (20) lovers of European cinema who found thematic and structural inspiration in the films produced on the other side of the Atlantic (especially, but not exclusively, Jean-Luc Godard, Chantal Akerman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Schroeter, Alexander Kluge, Valie Export, the Black British workshops, Derek Jarman, Italian feminist collectives…), and what James calls “minor cinemas [made in Los Angeles] based on cultural identities [that] dominated the field of avant-garde cinema”: (21) feminists, gays and lesbians, blacks, Chicanos and Asian Americans. What has significantly shaped the contemporary landscape, James reminds us, is that these minor cinemas “fragmented what had become [the avant-garde’s] boundaries. At varying rates and with various degrees of success, they made a place for themselves in mass culture, moving across a range of modes of production before finding a home in Hollywood itself.” (ibid) Even though James devotes a chapter to “The Institutions of the Avant-Garde” (and is currently at work with his USC students on a research project involving collecting data on the various alternative screening venues of Los Angeles) what is still missing is a careful study of the role played by curatorial initiatives, and/or patterns, in this mobility – something that would go beyond the history of a filmic genre and its institutions and a theory of the spectator.

Hollywood may have extended a hand, or swallowed schools of filmmaking by giving jobs to its best exponents – but, in building film spectatorship, it wasn’t ready to break its own boundaries, hence the institutional resistance encountered by the two Garys and the cultural set-back that marked the first years of the AFI festival. Living in Los Angeles, I have experienced its strange mixture of cultural myopia and genuine innovation. The conditions in which a major film festival is organised here are indeed idiosyncratic. On the other hand, “the Los Angeles model” of urban development is being exported all over the world, and as the megalopolis has been analysed as “a mirror of capitalism’s future”. (22) Moreover, its fractured multi-culturalism, in its chaotic implementation, also tends to provide a somewhat inflated, unpredictable, yet realistic image of the globalised urban village. So, a careful analysis of “how it’s done” may provide clues to diagnostic the evolution of film culture itself.

One of the strong insights displayed by Rose Kuo was to get back in sync with FILMEX’s original inspiration and show side-by-side films of different origins, cultural horizons, production values and aesthetic approaches. Interestingly enough, this initiative was paired with a re-mapping of the venues involved. The most visible sign was a return, for some of the “centrepiece galas” (Steven Soderberg’s Che, Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and the world premiere of Joel Hopkins’ Last Chance Harvey), to the historical Grauman’s Chinese Theater. (23) Kuo also organised two tributes in collaboration with the American Cinematheque – one to Danny Boyle with the screening of Slumdog Millionaire at the Arclight, with the Egyptian showing two earlier films by the British director, Shallow Grave (1995) and Trainspotting (1996); and one to Tilda Swinton, who came to the Arclight to wittily comment on clips from her filmography, and to the Egyptian to introduce one of her latest films, Erick Zonca’s Julia. A not-quite-complete Arnaud Desplechin retrospective took place between the Arclight and LACMA, the Museum presenting five of his films, directed between 1991 (La Vie des Morts) and 2007 (L’Aimée), and the Festival showcasing the Los Angeles premiere of Un Conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale). The “World Cinema” section was also featuring the latest film of another French filmmaker whose oeuvre, like Desplechin’s, has encountered a mixture of acclaim and resistance in the US, Olivier Assayas. Both deal, in different ways, with family reunions – centred around a maternal figure whose mystery will never completely unfold and haunted by themes from the director’s previous work.

Facing the Great Mother

A Christmas Tale

A Christmas Tale is teeming with complex one-on-one relationships within a family that is not necessarily more dysfunctional than any other (in a way, any family represented in contemporary cinema is dysfunctional, if not, it wouldn’t be so fun to excerpt fictional tropes from it): Henri (Mathieu Amalric) and his sister Elisabeth (Anne Consigny); Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni) and her husband, Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), etc.. Yet the central contradiction is the one opposing Henri and his mother, Juno (Catherine Deneuve). From Ma Vie sexuelle… ou Comment Je me suis disputé (My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument, 1996), Desplechin has morphed the psyche of a complex, interesting, possibly talented yet neurotic, tortured and ultimately inadequate young man into the physical features of the great actor Mathieu Amalric – often described as his “alter ego” (as John Wayne was for John Ford or Robert De Niro for Martin Scorsese). Never had Desplechin displayed with such poignancy the origin of the feelings of adequacy experienced by his male protagonists. It is the secret dream of every son to become one day his mother’s entire support system – as a way of “paying off” the unbearable debt of having been carried 9 months in her belly. (24)

Henri has a double debt toward his mother: he contracted the second when his genetic code proved unsuitable to save the life of an older brother, who needed a bone marrow transplant. Now, as the extended family is getting together for Christmas, Juno, having discovered that she has a rare form of cancer, is the one who needs a bone marrow transplant. And the son she hates, the black sheep of the family, rejected by both his mother and his sister, is a compatible donor… Juno is quietly approaching a certain form of hysteria, even psychosis, (25) as she studies the possibility that the transplant may go wrong and the horrible way she could die in case of a rejection. Desplechin leaves the narration open. The last shot it truly terrifying: shortly after the transplant, Juno raises her arm to show her son some suspicious redness: “Tu vois, je ne peux pas te supporter.” (“You see, I can’t take you.”) Once, as a baby, Henri killed because he couldn’t be a donor; as a man, he may kill because he is a donor – such are the horrifying beauties of the maternal double-bind, the boundaries that define the son’s life as a series of mild catastrophes and failures teetering on the verge of the ridiculous.

When I saw the film last summer in France, cinéphiles were divided, many arguing that Desplechin had crossed the line and gone too far in his usual bleak, misanthropic vision of human relationships. In particular, Deneuve’s characterisation was deemed sexist. “When a woman hates her child,” a notorious feminist film scholar told me, “it’s much more complex; she wants to love the child – but can’t.” In other words, she can’t help it – which seems to me the ultimate meaning of Juno’s last line. She can’t take him, can’t stand him, can’t tolerate him – can’t, not won’t. Her emotional rejection of the child is patterned onto actions of her body she has no control over. She is passive. Yet, there is more to this. I don’t believe that Desplechin cast Deneuve simply to have the pleasure to work with a great actress. Deneuve has reached the status of legend, even of goddess within French cinema. The confrontation between the Mother and the Son – in which they are both defeated – has a mythical quality. The Son was always angry for having been “rejected” from the body of the mother (at birth); and the Mother, angry at the impossible demands put upon her by the son, can only say “Je ne peux pas te supporter” (which in French also means “I can’t stand you” as well as “I cannot hold you up”). More than a particularly savage instance of misogyny, in the extraordinary ending of A Christmas Tale, I see a symbolic (and violent) severing of the umbilical cord. I sincerely can’t wait to see what will be Desplechin’s next move.

The Mother in Assayas’ Summer Hours is not as frightening. Lovingly played by another icon of French cinema, Edith Scob, she is becoming obsolete – and is resigned to it, as Assayas shows her, alone in her country house with her housekeeper, after a 75th birthday dinner with her children, in a melancholy sequence made of small, yet pregnant gestures, and falsely innocuous dialogue (unfortunately spoiled for me with the incidence of extra-diegetic music – I would rather have listened to the noises made by the small motions of her body in the space). Then, half-way through the film she dies and her three children, Frédéric (Charles Berling), a sensitive intellectual-cum-family man slightly embittered by life, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), a designer living in New York, and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), an executive for a shoe manufacturer operating in China, are faced with the remnants of her life. The film, commissioned by the Musée d’Orsay (as was Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Le Voyage du ballon rouge [The Flight of the Red Balloon] see note 11), could also have been called “La Vie des objets” (The Life of Objects) – for what is left is a large country house filled with the artwork painted, drawn and collected by Hélène’s uncle, a somewhat renowned artist. Frédéric would like to keep the house as an anchor for the family, and pass on some of the most important artworks to his children – but his siblings no longer live in France – they may carry memories with them, but not objects…

Assayas returns to the inspiration of some of his most successful films, from his feature debut Désordre (Disorder, 1986), L’Eau Froide (Cold Water, 1994) to Fin Août Début Septembre (Late August, Early September, 1998); through a mise en scène both meticulous and elliptical, he builds a miraculous paper house out of the misunderstandings, unspoken truths, half-silences, partial lies, poorly kept secrets (secret to some, known to others…) that cement a group (friends or family members). As the image of the mother recedes (the film does not dwell on the mourning period), elements of Hélène’s life come to light – did she or did she not have an affair with her uncle? How did she feel about her husband? The only son staying in France, the one who didn’t want to part from his mother’s possessions, is in charge of emptying the house, putting it up for sale, and scattering the objects, though a series of finely drawn episodes – often bittersweet, such as the gift of a precious vase to the housekeeper who chooses it out of delicacy because she thinks it’s worthless, or the administrative procedure that complicates the donation of some of the furniture to the Musée d’Orsay.

The Class

Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Laurent Cantet’s Entre les murs (The Class) is doing more than what French cinema is famous for: the clinical, minute, sensitive examination of a microcosm. Indeed, The Class follows one year of often difficult encounters in a classroom between a teacher, François Marin (François Bégaudeau, a former high-school teacher who wrote the original novel, (26) co-wrote the screenplay and also plays the role of Marin) and his students. More radical than Cantet’s breakthrough film, Ressources Humaines (Human Resources, 1999), in which the enclosed world of the factory and the family house (the microcosm) became the stage on which to “brilliantly (re)invent working-class cinema”, (27) The Class witnesses how the world-at-large has broken through the unglamorous walls of the room. (28)

We are in Collège Françoise Dolto, in the 20th arrondissement of Paris. The students are called Esmeralda, Wei, Souleymane or Khoumba. Born or raised in France from immigrant parents, subjected to the compulsory, free and lay educational system that rejects communautarisme, (29) they resent to have to learn the subjunctive imperfect (“only bourgeois speak this way”) – even though some of them are smart enough to read Plato’s Republic on the sly. Aware that they are on the wrong side of class warfare, they use the classroom as their trenches, resorting to any tricks in the book to fight their teacher: awkward attacks against his private life (“some people say that you like men, Mister…”) – elegantly countered by Marin (“would that be a problem for you?”); outright insolence; refusal to do their homework, or to read in class; the whole being spiced up by internal strife between students of different minorities, and family problems that surface in the guise of a complaining parent or the sour news that a Chinese mother has just been arrested in the street as a “sans-papier” (illegal alien).

Tirelessly, Marin works to get the kids involved, does not buy their bullshit, answers back in a similar sassy tone, is witty, caustic, mordant, yet encouraging – delving into the core of an assignment (“write your self-portrait”) to find what is going to click with their background, their personality, their interests. He’s no saint, though. Once, exasperated at the girls who are class representatives, he flares up, throws a derogative moniker, pétasses (“skanks”) – and things get out of control. Cantet and Bégaudeau masterfully handle the narrative and ethical tension thus created. Marin is uncomfortable at what he has said; we fear disciplinary action; yet, under the surface, another drama is enacted, which is offered to us in small fragments of information. A troubled student, who created mayhem during the incident, may be expelled. “You don’t know his father,” says one of the black female students. “He’ll ship him back to Mali.” Souleymane’s mother comes to the Disciplinary Committee. She wears a headscarf and does not speak French – she is petite, shrivelled and shy, but carries with her a sense of pride and dignity like an African Queen Mother. Souleymane must translate for her. He says she apologises on his behalf; you understand this is a matter of courtesy for her, nothing more. She describes what a good son Souleymane is. When the decision is finally made to expel the young Malian, she thanks the teachers assembly in a contemptuous, dignified, haughty way – and walks away in silence. The confrontation with The Mother does take place in The Class, but it is off-centre, between the divide of race and culture. This powerful scene deterritorialises the issue of Marin’s moral ambiguity. It is no longer a question of who is right and who is wrong, but how, through globalisation, we all lose something.

Lost, lost, lost…

The original impulse for my programming of the special section devoted to Xstream – the company founded by Jia Zhangke, Yu Likwai and Chow Keung – was topical. 2008 had been a momentous year – as the four films they had produced had been shown in international film festivals, from Cannes to Venice, Toronto and Vancouver. So it was high time to celebrate the tireless efforts made by Jia Zhangke and his colleagues to survive and flourish as independent filmmakers/producers, to advocate and foster young cinema in China. Yet, revisiting these films in the context of the whole festival, a common pattern emerges: loss. Mixing, once again, documentary and fiction, but going one step further, Jia Zhangke’s Er Shi Si Cheng Ji (24 City) quietly, yet relentlessly uncovers the pernicious effects of the transition to market economy for several generations of Chinese. In its penetration of derelict industrial spaces, the film could somehow be a sequel to Wang Bing’s majestic Tiexi Qu (West of the Tracks, 2002); (30) and, as in Sanxia Haoren (Still Life, 2006) Jia explores ruins and ruined lives – however the buildings whose destruction we witness are not dwelling units, but the elements of a factory in Chengdu (capital of Sichuan) which used to manufacture military airplanes. Once its workers were Communist heroes; while perfect allegiance was required (“we worked for the army!”) nothing was spared to keep them well-fed, healthy and happy. Now China is closing its iron mills and heavy industry plants and turning to what everybody else has been doing: manufacturing computer parts, selling services, generating income through real estate speculation, hoarding other people’s debts… and yesterday’s heroes have become today’s “redundancy” (to borrow this cruelly ironical British term).

Jia (you recognise his voice) interviews people still working, people who had been laid off or moved on, children of former workers – and then, depending how familiar you are with the faces of Chinese cinema, you realise that some of his interlocutors are famous stars (Joan Chen) or well-known actors (Lv Lipping, the mother in Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Lan Feng Zheng [The Blue Kite, 1993]; Jia’s muse, Zhao Tao; Chen Jianbin, the protagonist of Ann Hui’s Yu Guanyin [Jade Goddess of Mercy, 2003]) blending re-enacted stories with those of “real workers”. Meanwhile, outside, bulldozers are busy, for a new luxury apartment complex, “24 City” is due to be erected on the site of the former factory.

Before coming up with the structure of the film, Jia interviewed about 130 people, and kept five of them. Interweaving the fictional elements, themselves solely based on verbal narration (no staged re-enactment) was the next step. Jia intercuts these instances of one-to-one encounters with the mise en scene of anonymity and the blind forces of destruction (ant-like assembly-lines of demolition workers dismantling a tiled roof, bulldozers tearing down walls), climaxing with one of the most powerful sound/image montage I have seen in years: as a group of middle-aged female workers (some with tears at the corner of their eyes) sing “The Internationale”, we cut to a shot of the disused factory. Then, with the sound still overlayered, the building implodes.

As I presented this sequence at a conference in Berkeley, a young spectator interpreted it as “optimistic” – this is a new dawn, socialism is over. Yet, for people of Jia Zhangke’s generation (and the people he elected to show in the film), the end of socialism, no matter how liberating, is the loss of a cherished utopia – the beginning of a nightmare. “The Internationale” was a song of hope – now, permanently deferred, will the dream “fester like a sore” (or “explode”) as in Langston Hughes’ famous poem? (31)

As a coda to the powerful symphony of 24 City, Jia was offering a short poem about disillusion, Heshang De Aiqing (Cry Me A River), shifting from the post-industrial lures of Chengdu to the pre-revolutionary charms of Suzhou, an imperial southern city famous for its canals and its architecture. There, at the occasion of an anniversary meeting with former university classmates, two former couples (now involved with different partners) reflect on their changing lives, on what could have been and never was. At dinner one of their friends was quoted as having written “the end of our generation does not mean the fall of our generation.” Unlike the Chengdu workers, they are indeed not falling – they have good jobs, make money – but flowing away toward melancholia, middle age and unrequited longing.

Perfect Life

Lost illusions are also at the core of Emily Tang’s Wanmei Shenhuo (Perfect Life), her second feature since the remarkable Dong Ci Bian Wei (Conjugation, 2001) – which says a lot about how difficult it has become, in the new market economy, for Chinese women to get financing and direct a film. In her work, Tang demonstrated a talent for recounting history through the prism of female desire. While its fictional subjects were a group of young people, mostly male, surviving the promises of the spring 1989 Democracy movement and the massacre that had followed in early June, Conjugation revolved around the dilemma, hope and crushed utopia of the heroine, Xiao Qin. In Perfect Life, working-class women are both effects and subjects of the chaotic changes experienced by China. In yet another cunning mixture of fiction and documentary, Tang presents the experiences of two women who are the inverted mirror of each other, and meet, ever so fleetingly, in the intermediate space of Shenzen, this “new economic zone” at the Southern border where poor people flock from all other China to work in factories and businessmen from Hong Kong hurry to invest capital; where fortunes are made and dreams broken. Sullenly struggling along in the Northeastern city of Fushun, Li Yueying thinks she will stop at nothing to realise her dream of going south. Yet, for lack of talent or education, she would remain stranded in a lowly hotel maid position were it not for an unexpected, reluctant friendship with a hotel guest, involved in artwork smuggling. Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, Jenny, in the midst of a bitter divorce, is thinking of returning north, to Shenzhen. Yueying (played by newcomer Yao Qianyu) is the fictional side of the portrait, and her story acquires deep resonances through being interwoven with the documentary footage of Jenny’s struggles.

Bringing the camera from the dark, cold, damp spaces Yueying can’t wait to leave behind, to the neon-lit toy factory assembly lines where, once in a while, a female worker defiantly faces the lens, Tang plays with the collision between documentary and fiction, reality and fantasy, past and present. With a keen eye for these significant details that add up to make a less-than-perfect life, she focuses on the use of photography for people who have nothing left to lose but still want to remain through an image: a man about to be shot by gangsters takes a picture of himself; a divorced mother looks at snapshots of her youth; a disillusioned, pregnant young woman shoots her own portrait, in front of her wedding picture…

The fourth film, Yu Likwai’s Dangkou (Plastic City) was, according to producer Chow Keung, the most expensive film ever produced by Xstream, and the first time they were collaborating with Brazilian partners. Also known as Jia’s DP since Xiaowu (1997), Yu, as a director, flirts with the idea of genre and lavishes the screen with stunning compositions. A graduate of Belgium’s best film school (INSAS), Yu speaks perfect French and lives between Hong Kong, his birthplace, and Beijing’s Jia’s headquarters – and the theme of displacement and dislocation haunts all his films. His award-winning documentary, Neon Goddesses (1996) follows young women who came to Beijing like butterflies to the light, and end up working in the growing bar-and-sex industry. His first feature, Tianshang renjian (Love Will Tear Us Apart, 1999) is the affectionate portrait of a few mainland Chinese trying to survive in Hong Kong. Mingri tianya (All Tomorrow’s Parties, 2003) uses science fiction as a vector for displacement, with the protagonists lost in decaying post-industrial spaces.

The two anti-heroes of Plastic City, Yuda (played by the formidable Hong Kong character actor Anthony Wong) and his adopted Japanese son Kirin (Jô Odagiri) have developed arcane survival skills to compete, as Asian men, with the treacherous underground of São Paulo. Yu’s vision of the Sino-Japanese diaspora in Brazil is of sheer and sublime alienation. Literally coming out of the jungle, his protagonists carve, then lose, a territory buoyed by surreal shopping malls, abject slums, cavernous nightclubs, grim waterfronts, spectacular skylines, or the dwellings of crooked politicians. Weaving a multi-cultural tapestry, merging Latin American magic realism with a keen documentary vision, Plastic City may well mark the dawn of a new kind of Chinese filmmaking, mapping out, espousing and fictionalising the post-modern condition of Chinese living abroad – and, as such, he’s found a particular resonance among young spectators of the diaspora.

Back roads


Farrel, the lonely protagonist of Lisandro Alonso’s Liverpool is not a gangster, but a merchant marine sailor. We assume, from the title of the film, from the unexpected last shot, that he has been to Great Britain – and to many other places as well, never at home in any of them. When his ship moors in the port of Ushuala (the southernmost city in the world, capital of the Argentine province of Tierra del Fuego), and he requests a couple of days leave, it is clear, even though this is the area of his birth, that he does not “belong” there either. He behaves like a drunken sailor, patronising bar girls and sleeping in cheap joints, before setting for a trip through the harsh, snow-bound countryside. He is on his way to see if his mother, who lives by a certain sawmill, is still alive.

Farrel’s journey, his ambiguous quest, will remind Alonso’s aficionados of one of his previous films, Los Muertos (2004). (32) In both films the lone travellers, played by non-professional actors, are set in motion by a cryptic desire toward a mysterious goal – and, while en route, have to solve modest, practical problems – how to butcher a goat and row up a river through the jungle for Vargas; where to hide his heavy bag, hitch rides, get hot food and coffee in the middle of winter for Farrel. Narrative explanations are missing: we are only given glimpses at the path the turned Vargas into an ex-convict, or at the exact circumstances of Farrel’s departure. What remains is the original alienation from the community of men that both men leave behind (the jail, the freighter), cheap sex on the sly, and an ultimate, disappointing confrontation with children who don’t understand what is going on. At the core, an absence that may be a symptom of what devours the man: the mother of these children. In the case of Farrel, his own mother is indeed still alive, but old age has destroyed her mind and she does not recognise him. The one who is missing, whose name is silenced, is the young woman he deserted when she became pregnant, the long-gone mother of this half-witted teenage girl who is expecting something (but what?) from him.

Significantly, Alonso concludes Los Muertos and Liverpool in a similar way, on the close-up of an apparently insignificant object that has, however, great value for the child who owns it. Maybe Alonso is this child, unceasingly gazing at the transitional object that is supposed to show him the way to the Mother – and keeps deceiving him. To an obsessive filmmaker, cinema is the only way, which is why he keeps deepening and refining his mise en scène and editing technique (note the subtle mismatches between protagonists and POV shots) to draw impressive circles around this empty core.

Liverpool was part of a sidebar grouping five films by some of the best new Argentine directors: Pablo Fendrik’s La Sangra Brota (Blood Appears), Pablo Trapero’s Leonera (Lion’s Den), Albertina Carri’s La Rabia – as well as Lucretia Martel’s highly anticipated third film, La Mujer Sin Cabeza (The Headless Woman) that had created ripples at Cannes but was enthusiastically received by American critics. As in La Cienega (The Swamp, 2001) and La Niña Santa (The Holy Girl, 2004), the problem of Martel’s protagonists is that they are trapped within the family; the alien land they have to trek are the tortuous meanders of family psycho-sexual relationships, as well as those of their own minds. (Would it be a surprise to learn that her protagonists are women? As Virginia Woolfe astutely noted in many of her writings, home is a dangerous place for women, as the jungle or the unsteady sea is for men.) For Veronica, these meanders start overlapping with one another, as well as with the twists and turns of the backroad on which she once hit something – or somebody. Lost in the claustrophobic maze of her upper-class family and friends, Veronica no longer knows what has really happened, which roles are all these people playing in her life, and, ultimately, who she is. The shock of what must have been a body (a dog or…) hitting her car throws her world, her consciousness, out of kilter. It is this unassimilable fragment of the Real that comes to erupt within the subject’s consciousness, as trauma, not as knowledge, “the Real in its extreme violence as the price to be paid for peeling off the deceiving layers of reality”, to quote Slavoj Žižek. The veil of illusions has been torn – and, post-2001 spectators are no longer thinking of the mythical veil of Isis, but how an airplane bang tore the illusion of safety and the complacency in which most North Americans had dulled their consciousness. (33)

Martel brilliantly straddles a complex narrative map, combining the grander-scale social metaphor with the minute examination of a woman’s psyche and, with the complicity of the great actress María Onetto, creates a most fascinating, opaque, disquieting, yet endearing fictional character, a charismatic cipher onto which we are free to project (and share) our own anxieties.


Another “Showcase” section was devoted to the cinema from Kazakhstan, with gems such as Guka Omarova’s Baksy (Native Dancer) and Sergey Dortsevoy’s Tulpan (Grand Prix, Un Certain Regard, Cannes 2008). “As programmers, our job is to scour the world for new films, and we occasionally stumble across a region that surprises us with the scope and quality of its work”, said the program notes. The organisation of such a sidebar is another sign that AFI is now striving to present more cutting-edge films. Under the shadows of Hollywood marquees, it is often in distant cultures, rarely acknowledged by the commercial distribution network, that one can hope to outline the contours of what constitutes “modernity”. A recurring motif was the (re)staging of an existential fault between subject and space, with the mise en scène changing, deframing (34) and modulating perspectives and points of view (no master discourse here).

Wendy and Lucy

The most interesting US indies were exploring similar territories. Immediately hailed as one of the best films of the year, Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy is a road movie of sorts, in which the protagonist becomes increasingly alienated from her surroundings. As in her acclaimed debut, Old Joy (2006), the filmmaker gets her inspiration from a finely written short story by Jonathan Raymond, fleshed out through a superb casting (Michelle Williams delivers a splendid, muted performance, with wonderful supporting turns by Will Patton as a garage mechanic, Walter Dalton as an old security guard and, of course, Lucy, Reichardt’s own dog, as herself). As she’s on her way to Alaska to find seasonal employment, Wendy’s car breaks down, and she’s trapped in Portland, Oregon, where she does not know a soul. A phone call to relatives comes to nothing: they’re broke too. Strapped for cash, Wendy lifts some dog food in a convenience store, while Lucy is tied up outside. A self-righteous store clerk; an unsympathetic manager; the cops; the local police station; finger-printing; a $50.00 fine; hours have passed; Lucy is gone.

With her car now towed and waiting for the verdict of the mechanic (don’t expect a happy ending here), Wendy carries a big bag containing the bare necessities, sleeps in the woods, washes up in a public restroom, eats in cheap diners and accepts the help of the old security guard in her efforts to locate Lucy. As in Perfect Life or The Headless Woman the mise en scène accumulates finely captured details to draw a much larger picture, without sensationalism or pathos. The heroine treads the fine line that, in America, separate poverty from invisibility and abjection – a massive societal problem that only threatens to worsen in the months to come. There is no safety net – once you “fall off” regular job or housing situation, you’re basically on your own. Moreover, her solitary journey with all her belongings piled up in her car is a discrete allusion to post-Katrina exodus – and, like so many victims of the catastrophe, she has nowhere to turn, yet maintains her dignity – the dignity the American poor struggle so hard for.

It is another, no less moving journey that Kimberly Reed retraces in her personal documentary, Prodigal Sons. It took her from the small town of Helena, Montana to New York, from being the popular captain of his high-school football team to a self-assured, seductive woman, via a sex change operation in San Francisco. This in itself would be remarkable, and is handled with flair, elegance and humour; the darker, more difficult aspect of the voyage, however, starts when Kimberly returns to Helena after the death of her beloved father, a well-known local physician. There she has to make peace with a slightly older, adopted brother, Marc, who used to be competitive with his sibling when he was a boy, and has suffered brain damage after a car accident. As Marc is trying to put his life back together – monitoring his seizures with medication, getting married, having a child – he is deeply disturbed by what he perceives as a betrayal of masculinity by Kimberly (it probably does not help that the younger biological brother, Todd, is gay) and seeks emotional shelter in a cult for the memory of the dead father who adopted him (“the only person who really loved me”) and occasional outbursts of heinous homophobia.

The long, protracted, difficult reconciliation takes an unexpected turn when it is discovered that Marc was actually the illegitimate, secret son of Rebecca Welles (daughter of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth) who had abandoned him at birth. The Name of the Father is empty (there is no discussion in the film about who impregnated Rebecca), but there is an interesting doubling of the function: Marc retains his adoration for the man who adopted him, and now identifies with the grand-paternal figure of Orson Welles (he looks like him, and displays a similar talent at the piano). The family takes a trip to Croatia to meet Oja Kodar, Welles’ long-time companion (she appears in the last, fictional section of F for Fake, 1974) who hugs Marc tearfully, as the missing child she and Orson would have loved to have. Back to the US, though, Marc still struggles with his demons (when the film was screened at the AFI, Marc was hospitalised in a mental care facility, after a particularly disturbing incident). And Kimberly, who was leading a successful, yet discrete professional life, while editing the footage, came out as the first transgender filmmaker.

Santa Monica

Native Dancer

Meanwhile, further west, the AFM was unfolding in the Loews and Marigot Hotel in Santa Monica, whose rooms were transformed into offices, and spilling out onto the theatres lining the touristy streets of the waterfront. Shuttle services were organised between the different festival and Market venues. The AFM was created in 1981 by the Independent Film and Television Alliance (IFTA), a Los Angeles-based “trade association representing the world’s producers and distributors of independent motion pictures and television programs” that provides its “160 member companies from 22 countries” with “high-quality market-oriented services and worldwide representation.” (35) In spite of the distance, there was indeed quite a bit of to-and-fro between Festival and Market, but this year the overlap between the two events concerned less than a dozen films, including, besides Wendy and Lucy, some of the gala or high-profile movies (Paul Schrader’s Adam Resurrected, Joel Hopkins’ Last Chance Harvey or Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire) but also one of the Kazakh films (Native Dancer, represented by Fortissimo), and some US and international independents. In total 513 films were screened (including 102 world premieres), ranging from the usual crop of horror flicks to arthouse gems, such as Agnès Varda’s new autobiographic documentary fairytale, Les Plages d’Agnès (The Beaches of Agnes), José Luis Guerín’s En la ciudad de Sylvia (In the City of Sylvia), Barbet Schroeder’s Inju, la Bête dans l’ombre (Inju, the Beast in the Shadow), Kore-eda Hirokazu’s remarkable Aruitemo, Aruitemo (Still Walking); more American indies including Jennifer Phang’s experimental Half-Life, Stacy Peralta’s documentary on gangs Made in America, Azazel Jacobs’ Momma’s Man (all three having premiered at the last Sundance Film Festival), and even a revival screening of Perry Henzell’s reggae cult film The Harder They Come (1972, with Jimmy Cliff); and a flurry of films from Hong Kong and China: Cao Baoping’s Li Mi de Cai Xiang (The Equation of Love and Death – awarded the “New Directors” Prize at San Sebastian), Tsui Hark’s Sam hoi tsam yan (Missing) or Liu Fendou’s Yi Ban Hai Shui, Yi Ban Huo Yan (Ocean Flame). “Boutique films sales companies” such as Visit Films coexisted with major players such as Fortissimo, Focus Features or Gaumont. Participation from Hong Kong, in particular, had significantly increased  (+42%), and it should be noted that both the Hong Kong International Film and Video Market (Filmart) and the Hong Kong Asian Film Financing Forum (HAF), that take place in the spring (conjointly with the Hong Kong International Film Festival) are among the official sponsors of the Market. In the last few years, official representatives of mainland Chinese production/distribution outfits have rented office spaces. Also increasing their attendance are film professionals from the Middle East, Korea and… Russia. Yet, according to a conversation with a Hong Kong film executive, only the companies who have already established long-standing relationship with international buyers are faring well. The US and most of Western Europe (except France) have all but frozen their acquisitions of Chinese or other non-Western “products”. Last year, the shadow looming over the market was that of the impending writers strike – this year, the world economic crisis was on everybody’s mind.

Yet, the Market was hustling and bustling activity, as a total of 7,903 film professionals (including 1,527 buyers representing 65 countries) attended it. It is too early to know the impact this will all have on the film industry in general and the survival of an original, vibrant film culture in the City of Angels.

AFI Fest website: http://www.afi.com/onscreen/afifest/2009/

AFM website: http://www.ifta-online.org/afm/home.asp


  1. David E. James, The Most Typical Avant-Garde – History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles, UC Press, Berkeley, 2005, p. 5.
  2. Mike Davis, City of Quartz, Random House, New York, 1992, p. 18.
  3. James, op. cit.,p. 5, quoting from Edward W. Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Theory, Verso, London, 1989, p. 224.
  4. Norman M. Klein, The History of Forgetting – Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory, Verso, London, 1997, p. 35.
  5. Ibid, p. 37.
  6. Ibid, p. 38.
  7. Davis, op. cit., p. 71.
  8. Gary Essert Obituary, New York Times, 18 December, 1992.
  9. Robert Koehler, “Rowdy AFI Fest precursor ignited L.A. film fire”, Variety, 1 November, 2006.
  10. Christian Gaines & Rose Kuo talk about AFI FEST 2007.
  11. See my article “From One Red Balloon to the Next: The 2007 AFI Fest/American Film Market”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 46, 2008.
  12. These festivals are also called “A-category” or the “A-list” festivals, and they are subjected to the rule of showing only world or international premieres in their competitive sections. FIAPF’s 2008 directory lists 50 accredited festivals – the AFI is the only FIAPF-accredited Los Angeles-based festival, but it belongs to a category of 30-odd events listed as “Competitive Specialized Feature Film Festivals” (its “specialty” being “Documentary/first or second feature”), and is not part of the “A-list”. The directory also includes prestigious, but non-competitive festivals such as Toronto and London). For more information see http://www.fiapf.org.
  13. See, among others, Robert Koehler, “AFI Fest Los Angeles boosters Lineup – Artistic director takes a world cinema approach”, Variety, 29 October 2008; Scott Foundas, “No, er, yes, Doubt – AFI fest grows up – finally!”, The LA Weekly, 31 October 2008.
  14. See “Redcat – A Theatre at Age 5”, Los Angeles Times, Culture Monster section, 28 November, 2008. See also Scott Foundas’ assessment of the situation.
  15. See my article “The Curator and the Critic at Vancouver 2003 – A Report”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 29, 2003.
  16. See Russell Leong (ed.), Moving the Image: Independent Asian Pacific American Media Arts, UCLA Asian American Studies Center & Visual Communications, Los Angeles, 1991; and Roger Garcia, Out of the Shadows – Asians in American Cinema, Olivares, Milano, 2001.
  17. Viennale – Vienna International Film Festival, 2008.
  18. James, op. cit., p. 17.
  19. Such a complaint is not itself without contradiction, as it runs counter to another strong tenet of alternative film culture at the time, the politique des auteurs: while the goal of the politique as coined by Cahiers du cinéma was to identify cinematic originality as it emerged from the struggle of a director to impose his personal worldview against the diktats of the studios, once imported in the US – and significantly translated as auteur theory by Andrew Sarris – it became a tool to analyse the “style” and idiosyncrasies of auteurs working in the independent sector.
  20. By “non-orthodox” I mean the people who didn’t necessarily buy into the Jonas Mekas/P. Adams Sitney’s formalist interpretation of the “underground” or “visionary film”.
  21. James, op. cit., p. 13.
  22. Davis, op. cit., p. 21.
  23. The Grauman Chinese Theater was built in 1926-27 by the same entrepreneur, Sid Grauman, who had built the Egyptian Theater, opened in 1922 (and which, now restored, hosts the American Cinematheque). Interestingly enough, Anna Mae Wong, both a heroine and a victim of the (mis)representation of Chinese in Hollywood (“the first major Asian-American actress on world screens, Wong’s career could never quite escape stereotypes and limits of race”: Garcia, op. cit. p. 270), drove the first rivet into the steel girders. It opened with the premiere of Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings. Academy Awards ceremonies were held there from 1944 to ‘46. The new Kodak theatre, where the ceremony now takes place, is next door to it, and on its pavement is the “Hollywood Walk of Fame” where signatures, handprints and footprints of celebrities are embedded in cement.
  24. Shohei Imamura’s Narayama Bushiko (The Ballad of Narayama, 1983) had masterfully unfolded this obsession under the form of a tragic, solemn ritual: the son carrying his mother on his back to the place he’s supposed to leave her to die.
  25. “Like most people I thought that only the most ‘visible’ transplants – kidney, liver – had real fantasmatic consequences. In fact, a bone marrow transplant immediately triggers psychosis. It is an instance that provokes a maximum of psychiatric disorder, a whole series of small psychotic incidents.” in “Nouvelle Arcadie – Entretien avec Arnaud Desplechin”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 634, May 2008, p. 39.
  26. Entre les murs, Éditions Verticales, Paris, 2006.
  27. Olivier Séguret’s review of Human Resources, Senses of Cinema, Issue 8, 2000.
  28. The literal meaning of Entre les murs is “between these walls”.
  29. The respect of customs specific to various communities – considered as going against the goal of cultural assimilation represented by French education. This was, for example, one of the arguments used to forbid girls and young women to wear a headscarf in school.
  30. About West of the Tracks, see Lu Xinyu, “Ruins of the Future”, New Left Review, no. 31, Jan/Feb 2005, pp. 125-136. See also “Dancing with Myself, Drifting with My Camera: The Emotional Vagabonds of China’s New Documentary”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 2, 2003.
  31. Langston Hughes: Harlem/AKA Dream Deferred (1951)

    What happens to a dream deferred?
    Does it dry up
    like a raisin in the sun?
    Or fester like a sore
    And then run?
    Does it stink like rotten meat?
    Or crust and sugar over
    like a syrupy sweet?
    Maybe it just sags
    like a heavy load.
    Or does it explode?

  32. See an interview with Lisandro Alonso, Senses of Cinema, Issue 36, 2005.
  33. See Slavoj Žižek, “Welcome to the Desert of the Real”. Žižek’s filmic model is The Matrix (1999) by the Wachowski Brothers. I believe that The Headless Woman replays a similar kind of trauma, as a smaller musical variation. Another cinematic memory comes to mind: In 1955 Antonio Bardem’s Muerte de un cyclista (Death of a Cyclist) used a car accident as a way to uncover the corruption of Franco’s regime. Government censors clearly saw through the metaphor. The power of The Headless Woman lies in the multiple associations it creates in the minds of the viewer.
  34. This is the term commonly used in English to translate Pascal Bonitzer’s concept of décadrage. See Pascal Bonitzer, Décadrages: peinture et cinéma, Edition de l’étoile, Paris, 1985.
  35. See IFTA website.

About The Author

Bérénice Reynaud is the author of New Chinas/New Cinemas (1999) and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness (2002). She teaches at the California Institute of the Arts. She edited the Senses of Cinema dossier devoted to Chantal Akerman.

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