Handsome Men and Narrative Holes – Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl (US Dramatic Competition)

The best thing you could say about the Opening Night film Howl, was that it gave you the desire to (re)read Allen Ginsberg’s epoch-making poem, Howl (For Carl Solomon), whose first lines are forever engraved in our collective consciousness:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix…

These lines were dedicated to the writer Carl Solomon (1928-1993), a disciple of Artaud, who had requested institutionalisation in the Columbia Presbyterian Psychological Institute (called “Rockland” in the poem) – where he received shock therapy. Written in 1955, and performed in public a few times by Ginsberg who experimented with the “long-line” form (each line uttered in one breath), Howl was eventually published by the poet/painter/activist Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a legendary figure in San Francisco, where he runs City Lights Booksellers and Publishers, where North Beach meets Chinatown. More than a harbinger of the Beat Generation, it marked the beginning of a true cultural revolution: self-inflicted madness through the use of hard drugs, marginalised behaviour and “deviant” sexuality (Ginsberg got out of the mental hospital where he met Carl Solomon and where he had been committed for his serendipitous involvement in petty theft after promising he would “become straight”) were joyfully celebrated (even declared “holy” in the poem’s final “footnote”) as resistance against an unjust societal order (“Moloch”). The powers-that-be, however, saw only smut in the paeans of those

who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,
who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,

and promptly cited Ferlinghetti for obscenity. The trial took place from 16 August to 3 September, 1957 (Ginsberg was screaming with joy in some hotel room in Tangiers at the time) and ended up on an acquittal – a landmark in the history of American publishing.

The directing tandem, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, are known for their invaluable efforts to salvage, restore and (re)present queer culture and history. Together they have directed such landmarks as Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989), The Celluloid Closet (1995) and Paragraph 175 (2000). Epstein is also the author of The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), which won an Academy Award, and the producer of the historical documentary The Word is Out (1977, directed by a collective of gay activists). As they had been frequent visitors at Sundance, there was a high expectation about their first foray into dramatic feature filmmaking.

The second best reason to see the film is James Franco’s acting, even though he declared smugly that he was “surprised” to be asked to play Ginsberg, and had rather expected he would be asked, one day, to lend his handsome features to the ravishingly beautiful Neal Cassidy object (not always reluctant) of Ginsberg’s erotic fascination,

who went out whoring through Colorado in myriad stolen night-cars, N.C., secret hero of these poems, cocksman and Adonis of Denver — joy to the memory of his innumerable lays of girls in empty lots & diner backyards, moviehouses’ rickety rows, on mountaintops in caves.

Cassidy’s (marginal) appearance in the film ended up being embodied by the television actor Jon Prescott. This being said, Franco lends an endearing mixture of incandescence, obstinacy and vulnerability to the character of a very young poet, marginalised by his homosexuality in the repressive fifties, who allowed himself to become the echo chamber of sounds, words, moans and fleeting jazz tunes picked here and there in his wanderings.

If there was a third reason to see the film, it could have been, it should have been the animation. Between fictional reconstructions of the obscenity trial and an interview given at the time by Ginsberg, we are treated to animated sequences inspired by graphic artist Eric Drooker’s drawings for the book Illuminated Poems, his auspicious collaboration with Ginsberg. (1) A first storyboard was developed by Wildbrain Animation Studios in the US, and then developed by The Monk, a Bangkok-based visual effects and animation company. It was an odd idea from the start to pair Drooker’s countercultural, moody, surreal world to animation studios mostly known for their commercial work. While seduced by the drawings, I found the animation crude, aseptic, closer to what you’d see on a cartoon network. Instead of opening up vistas into the imaginary world created by Ginsberg, it closed them; the words of the poems had more weight that the images; it was the words that made the images vibrate.

I have more issues with the reason for which animation was called in the first place. Epstein and Friedman’s screenplay was too slim to carry on a full-length dramatic picture. They took the minutes from the trial, the record of the interview and illustrated them without fleshing out Ginsberg’s personal relationships – in particular with his father, Louis Ginsberg (himself a poet). A pity, for information is available on this fascinating topic: in 1982, Nam June Paik and Shigeko Kubota completed Allan’n’Allen’s Complaint, a 30 min video about what bonds some Jewish men (Ginsberg and Allan Kaprow) to their fathers. Howl is neither a Hollywood-style biopic, nor does it offer much insight into Ginsberg’s emotions or what it means to write a poem. It lacks this je-ne-sais-quoi, this elusive vertigo, this moment when you feel the characters are about to escape their creators, the script, the situation and enter a forbidden narrative zone. Sadly, in what could have been a major opus, Epstein and Friedman never left the safety net of an arena they know so well: the demonstrative documentary.

Fiction rooted in the bodies of young women – Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone (US Dramatic Competition: Grand Jury Prize; Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award)

When we sat down for the press/industry screening of Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, there was a “good buzz”, an aura of excitement. In 2004, Granik had been awarded the Sundance Dramatic Directing Award with her first feature, made through five years of intense involvement with the lives of two people struggling with drug addiction. Originally meant as a vérité documentary, Down to the Bone was restructured as a narrative, shot with a hand-held camera with a combination of professional actors in the main parts and non-professionals in supporting roles; in particular, it launched the career of Vera Farmiga, who was exceptionally good as a young addicted mother. In spite of the Sundance prize, excellent critical reception and success in Europe, the film received only minimal distribution in the US, and Granik had been “silent” for six years.

Reversing the working model of her previous film, Granik and her producing partner Anne Rosellini (who co-signed the screenplay) adapted the 8th novel of Missouri writer Daniel Woodrell – who, in 1996, coined the term “country noir”. The work of mise en scène – praised for its integrity by Missouri natives and residents – started with a physical investigation of the place in which Woodrell lives and locates his fiction, the Ozrak Mountains in Southern Missouri, a rural area of impoverished “white trash” who survive on small parcel of lands, harvesting timber, shooting wild game or squirrels, and sometimes resorting to illegal cottage industries (such as cooking crystal meth). Granik films these bleak surroundings with lyrical precision – long shots render the melancholic beauty of a forest landscape and the gothic horror of the run-down farms, decaying trailers and burnt-out shacks scattered over it. By anchoring the fiction into the physical presence of the young actress Jennifer Lawrence, she operates a subtle displacement of the tropes of country noir. The hero who has to “find the truth” and “venture into dangerous territories” is a 17 year-old girl, Ree Dolly. When her father, Jessup, skips bond after putting his house and land for collateral, she has to protect her two young siblings and her mentally-handicapped mother from homelessness by finding him.

Granik casts an almost anthropological look on the subculture, the daily life in rural Southern Missouri, suggesting how her heroine body fits – or does not – in the environment. What makes the film particularly effective is its subdued commentary on gender – how in this society, no matter how strong and smart, women are expected to spend their entire lives under the domination of men. Ree visits her best friend, Gail, a young woman not much older than her, but already carrying an infant in her arms. Her husband, Lloyd, appears as an unfriendly, remote figure who complains about the women and remains stuck in front of his television. Ree has come to borrow the truck she needs to drive around and look for Jessup. Leaving the baby and Ree in the bedroom, Gail comes to plead with Lloyd – “it’s his truck” – at the end of a long corridor, off-screen. In the foreground, Ree waits, silently; from the invisible living room, we only hear the sound of television; Gail comes back and announces “He says no.” Ree is upset not so much at Lloyd’s refusal than at the change she perceives in her friend: “It is sad to hear you say you will do something, and then you won’t do it”. “It’s different when you’re married”, responds Gail.

Ree’s quest takes her into the territory of another “clan”, where she asks questions about the whereabouts of her father to Merab, an older woman with a hardlined face. Protective of the secrets of her menfolk and openly hostile, Merab is nonetheless puzzled by Ree’s behaviour: “Ain’t you got a man who could do this?” Ree’s plight is summarised in her reply, “No, Ma’am, I don’t”. There is sadness there, but also courage, and the sense of a mission. Soon she realises that Jessup is dead, killed in some dispute over crystal meth. The object of her quest is no longer the missing father, but the proof of his death, so she can keep the house. In her journey from a world in which she was a man’s daughter to the moment when she is a woman on her own (“No, Ma’am, I don’t”) her body is her only armour. Lawrence’s acting projects an intense physical stubbornness that protects her character, even in the difficult-to-watch scenes when her uncle brutalises her in an almost sexual manner, or when she is attacked and seriously hurt by a gang of men.

And the women come though. At a party, an old woman steals the scene by singing country music. Jessup’s ex-girlfriend provides crucial information. Gail gets the truck from her boorish husband. And Merad, after she has delivered Ree to the men in her clan, has a change of heart… From cops to local toughs to angry relatives, men fancy they run the show; but female desire (and female solidarity) subverts the state of things.

Fiction rooted in the bodies of young men – Laura Poitras’s The Oath (US Documentary Competition: Excellence in Cinematography Award)

Laura Poitras’s third film, The Oath, is a documentary that also embraces the risk of fiction, being rooted in an intimate relationship between the body of the filmmaker/cinematographer and the bodies of her subject. What is poignant here is that one of the protagonists, Salim Hamdam, is absent from the image – first because he is detained in Guantanamo Bay, and then because he decided not to appear in the film. His presence is manifest in the discourse of others, mostly his brother-in-law, Abu Jandal, initially responsible for his predicament, but also his defence attorney Lieutenant Commander Charles Swift, who successfully fought the US Government on his behalf, resulting in the landmark 2006 Supreme Court decision of Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld, granting Hamdan’s petition for habeas corpus and ruling that the military commissions violate international law and the Geneva Conventions.

Poitras has never hesitated to venture into territories where many would be afraid to tread. Her first film, Flag Wars (2003), describes what happens to a Columbus, Ohio black neighbourhood when white gay homebuyers decide to settle there. In My Country, My Country (2006), she follows the multiple struggles of an Iraqi physician, Dr Riyadh, trying to continue his practice in the middle of suffering and chaos, while getting involved in a larger political battle against the US occupation as a Sunni candidate.

Intending to make a film about the release of a Guantanamo detainee, Poitras travelled to Yemen, where she encountered Abu Jandal, working as an energetic, garrulous and opinionated cab driver in the capital city of Sana’a – and then spent two years, on and off, driving with him in his cab, talking to him and filming him, vérité-style, in his daily activities, such as teaching prayers to his young son or giving advice to a group of Muslim students. As the story unfolds, a form of intimacy develops between the filmmaker and her subject. Obviously comfortable with the young woman and relishing the attention of the camera, Jandal turns the charm on, like an Arabian Nights storyteller. A good performer, he knows how to interest and captivate us – alternating narration and confession of his doubts, change of heart, sense of guilt. He is eager to occupy centre stage, and Poitras plays the game with him, allowing him to fill the screen. Yet, a shadow is gradually outlined behind the spectacle – a body deprived of freedom and mobility behind Jandal’s physicality.

Both he and Hamdan had married two sisters – young women who appear briefly in the film under heavy veiling. In 1996, Jandal became Osama Bin Laden’s personal bodyguard – a high responsibility position. He also recruited some young men into Al Qaeda, including his brother-in-law, who became a driver for the organisation. During the invasion of Afghanistan, Hamdan was captured and eventually sent to Guantanamo Bay.

Contradictory, charismatic, talkative, alternating smiles and seriousness, weaving approximate truths with hard facts, Jandal has experienced a fractured trajectory since 1996. In 1998, following the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, he was imprisoned in Yemen, and, while in jail went through a program of re-education designed to show young militants the errors of fundamentalism. Apparently a changed man, Jandal rejected his previous position, and collaborated with the FBI by providing crucial information about the internal functioning of Al Qaeda, becoming notorious in the process – and subject to death threats for having violated his oath to the organisation. Through the course of two years, Jandal evolves in front of us – at the end, he is not even a taxi driver anymore, having had to sell his cab to pay his debts, and is worried about his survival. His position toward armed terrorism seems ambiguous as well. He is still in favour of the jihad – and makes conflicting statements about what he thinks of armed violence. Yet, during this time, Hamdan’s letters arrive home, depicting his loneliness, struggle and despair, and Jandal openly acknowledges his responsibility in his brother-in-law’s predicament.

In Poitras’s approach to documentary filmmaking, the larger realities of the war and the US policy are revealed though the microcosm: the story of a Middle Eastern family, of the close friendship between two men, of guilt and unwitting betrayal, of loyalty and estrangement. In her conversations with Jandal, she offers us a candid, unconventional look at the internal functioning of Al Qaeda, of the bond that unite young men around Cheik Osama, of their goals and passions. Through a minute examination of Hamdan’s case, interviews with his lawyers and political activists, by reading his letters on the soundtrack, she re-examines the moral and political issues of the War on Terror as it is waged by the US military and legal system. She also creates a dense tapestry of emotions, regrets, hidden truths (does Jandal have something to hide?), mysteries (why is he not more worried about being killed himself?), family entanglement, complex psychological profiles. Shooting herself the Yemenite footage (DP Kirsten Johnson was responsible for shooting the prison buildings in Guantanamo Bay), she engages the viewer by the risks she herself took – not so much because her physical safety was in danger, but because she had to put herself on the line, as a human being, facing the responsibility a filmmaker has with her subjects, to gain Jandal’s trust and interact with him for hours. Our own Western gaze is challenged – let’s face it, we thought we were liberal and open-minded, but we had no idea of what an Al Qaeda member looks like, how he speaks and laughs, how he drives a car or speak to his son. This is when she takes the risk of fiction – rather than providing us with a quantum of knowledge, she unsettles our convictions.

On the use and misuse of archival footage – Part 1 – Johan Grimonprez’s Double Take (Frontier)

The presence of Johan Grimonprez’s Double Take (2009) in “New Frontier” and the enthusiastic response the film received prove the need we have for a section not caught in the hype of US, international or world premieres and seven-figure acquisition deals. In its various avatars – gallery installation, sneak preview – the piece had been seen (and favourably reviewed) since February 2009: at the Berlinale International Forum; the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York’s Chelsea; the Los Angeles Hammer Museum; la Cinémathèque française; the London Film Festival; and various venues in Moscow, Stockholm, Edinburgh, Abu Dhabi and Tokyo. At the time of Sundance, Kino had already acquired the US distribution rights. In showcasing Double Take New Frontier functioned more as a media arts centre or a cinémathèque than a market or a launching pad for the new-film-on-the-block. To respond to the diversified tastes of new audiences, an event like Sundance cannot be monolithic – there is room for currents and counter-currents, the mainstream and those who wilfully stray, the stockbrokers of the entertainment industry and the film lovers.

Like his film, Grimonprez felicitously assumes his status as a divided subject. He spends his life between Brussels and New York (where he teaches at the School of Visual Arts), and splits his artistic activity between the film world and the art world. His first well-known piece, Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997), about the representation of skyjacking in the media, existed as both a film and an installation. Double Take sprung from Looking for Alfred, a film installation combined with an exhibition of drawings and photographs, revolving around the casting of Hitchcock’s doubles that Grimonprez conducted in New York, Los Angeles, London Rotterdam and Gent. (2) During the process, he met the jovial Ron Burrage, a former waiter and airline steward who had been a Hitchcock impersonator for years, even going to Locarno in 1999 with Tippi Hedren to celebrate the screening of a restored print of The Birds (1963) …as well as the 100th birthday of the Master. “People always do a double take when see me,” comments Burrage, thus giving the new project its title and inspiring its icon – the only composited shot of the film: the Hitchcock of Stage Fright (1950) looks suspiciously at a younger version of himself reading the newspaper in the London street of Foreign Correspondent (1940).

In one of these coincidences that Grimonprez revels in, Hitchcock and Jose Luis Borges were both born in August 1899. They both manufactured public personas that became as cumbersome as Hitch’s celebrated bulk, explored the uncanny (when the familiar looks at you in a strange way) and reformulated the myth of the doppelgänger. In Borges’ The Circular Ruins, a magician dreams a man in his image, only to discover that someone else is dreaming him. In Borges and I the writer expresses his irritation at reading news about his namesake in the papers, and concludes “I am not sure which of us has written this page.” In The Other an old poet meets young Borges in his students days. An inverted variation, August 25, 1983, (3) imagines the writer finding an older version of himself in an Adrogue (4) hotel room. English novelist Tom McCarthy reworked The Other in a story entitled Negative Reel, (5) which tracks Hitch at La Guardia Airport, where he is a shooting a scene of his Cold War thriller Topaz (1969) on location; waiting to use a payphone, he encounters his younger self. While crediting McCarthy and using some of his lines, Grimonprez patterns the film around Borges’ second variation. “The other gentleman – who preceded Hitchcock on the stairs – was older” says the janitor. (The shot of the staircase is lifted from Psycho, 1960). The story now takes place in a Hollywood studio, in which Davidson’s Pet Shop is reconstructed for The Birds. So the year is 1962. The Berlin Wall is in its second year of existence; the Soviets still have the upper hand in the space race, having just sent Yuri Gagarin, the first cosmonaut; the Cuban missile crisis is unfolding. On 12 August, 1962 (the date of Grimonprez’s birth), a Frenchman arrives on the set with a tape recorder to interview Hitchcock, for what will become the legendary Hitchcock-Truffaut book. (6)

In assembling Double Take after years of archival research, meticulous storyboarding and hours of videoshooting, Grimonprez seems to have espoused the ultimate Borgesian temptation (lovingly deciphered by his friend Néstor Ibarra) of “exposing in every writer, every man, the spokesman of a conspiracy of which he is not aware and that is not aware of him, that lies to him and betrays him”. (7) He takes Hitch and Borges, and their retinue of doubles, seriously, as twins walking the roundabout paths of our contemporary consciousness. He pairs them with more disturbing twins: Nixon and Khrushchev at the 1959 “Kitchen Debate”; Kennedy and Khrushchev in the 1961 Vienna Summit; Kennedy are Nixon debating on television during the 1960 presidential campaign; or Leonid Brezhnev embracing Nikita Khrushchev in 1964 while plotting to overthrow him. Over these images, Hitchcock’s voice (or an impostor’s?) repeats the motto of the film, If you meet your double, you should kill him.

It is not only murder that “television brought in the American home where it always belonged” but also the more complex notion of doppelgänger. It all started when, out of expediency, then superstition, finally as a trademark and signature, Hitchcock appeared as a cameo in his films – forcing him to hire a double during rehearsals. In 1955, he started working on television, first for Alfred Hitchcock Presents that ran till 1963, and then for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour that was launched in 1965. These series were marketed through the image of Hitchcock presenting the programs, his famous profile appearing as a shadow, or an abstract drawing on the wall. Paradoxically, Hitchcock hated television – this bastardised, distorted mirror of cinema, and kept making jokes about it while introducing his own programs, in precious moments that are quoted in Double Take: “Television is like the American toaster; you push the button, and the same thing pops up every time”. He also made fun of the practice of interrupting the programs with advertising “to keep you from getting too engrossed in the story”…. and got away with it. He was, after all, Alfred Hitchcock…or was he? Maybe it was an impostor, a double, a twin brother (Hitch courted all possibilities) while the “real Hitchcock”, the feature filmmaker, was somebody else.

Grimonprez collages and overlays footage from the paranoid years of the Cold War or from our recent history, sifting through the grid of the Hitchcockian uncanny. The 1948 “disaster on 34th Street” involving hundreds of birds flocking into the Empire State Building triggers unspoken referenced to 9/11, but also to The Birds. The anxious gazes of American scrutinising the sky in fear of a nuclear attack parallels the panic of the schoolchildren screaming and running while chased by the birds in Bodega Bay. Folgiers Coffee commercials, exploiting the paranoia of housewives (confined to the home after the war), attest what a powerful selling point fear is: is my husband going to leave me because the girls at the office make a better coffee than me?

If it is true, as it has been said about Borges, that erudition is the modern form of the fantastic genre, then Double Take is one of the best fantastic film in recent years. It is also one of the most unsettling: at any given moment, it is difficult to know “who speaks”. Some reviewers have even written that Hitchcock’s voice is nowhere to be heard – which is an intriguing, yet inaccurate proposition. A few minutes into the film, a recording in which Hitch explains what a McGuffin is (or is not) to Truffaut is woven into the soundtrack, while in between phrases, Helen G. Scott translates his words into French. With headphones on, a man (Mark Perry), works at reproducing the tone and delivery, in order to “become” a real “voice double”. This short scene, that appears in brief fragments throughout the film, is vertiginous, in particular through the intervention of the female translator, another level of embodiment (she speaks the words of another) as well as a go-between between Hitch, Truffaut, Perry and Grimonprez. In this polyphony, the filmmaker presents simultaneously a synecdoche of his work, his mise-en-abyme and his deconstruction.

Revisiting the past through music – Part 1: traces of a lost war – Tanya Hamilton’s Night Catches Us (Dramatic Competition)

The first feature directed by Jamaican-born Tanya Hamilton, Night Catches Us plunges into multiples, contradictory layers of memory and history by returning to Philadelphia in the summer of 1976. This was just before Jimmy Carter’s election – a time when the Black Panther Party was virtually dissolved, leaving a painful void in the African American community (8) – but also a time when, on the air of local radio stations, you could hear the voice of 22 year-old Mumia Abu-Jamal, who had contributed to founding the BPP’s Philadelphia branch in 1969. Disheartened by the split between Huey P. Newton and Eldrige Cleaver that further weakened the organisation, Abu-Jamal eventually left the Party in 1970; between 1969 and 1973, however, the BPP was striving in Philadelphia, with four busy offices, the hotbeds of intense militancy and community activism – all of this under no less intense police surveillance and harassment. In the fall of 1970, made antsy by BPP’s decision to hold a national convention in Philadelphia, the city’s police commissioner, Frank Rizzo, ordered a violent raid in the Panthers offices and “pads”. Many militants were arrested. The BPP’s Central Committee eventually ordered the branch to close in 1973.

So the Philadelphia years of the BPP did not last long – but they marked their participants for life, and Hamilton – an award-winning screenwriter and director of shorts – had nursed a screenplay about their long-lasting impact on a generation of militants. Having fled after the raids, and lived in the margins for years, Marcus Washington (Anthony Mackie, who had reaped multiple awards for his supporting role in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker) returns home to attend his father’s funeral. In his old neighbourhood of Germantown (where one of the BPP offices had been located), people despise him for there is a rumour that he turned informant and is responsible for the murder of a former comrade by the police. While the man’s widow, Patricia Wilson (Kerry Washington, also present at Sundance in Rodrigo Garcia’s Mother and Child), raises her young daughter alone and has transformed her political commitment by working as a community lawyer, young people, such as her teenage cousin Jimmy, seek answers by (re)turning to violence. Caught in the shadows of the past, Marcus and Patricia have to heal old wounds, pick up what they left unfinished, and reflect on what to pass on to the next generation.

The opening of the BPP branch in Philadelphia happened the same year as the killing of Fred Hampton, the Panthers national spokesman, by Chicago police officers. The FBI’s decision to use its COINTELPRO program to systematically infiltrate, dismantle, destroy and even murder the Panthers has remained a sombre chapter in American history, most accurately described as a state of war. Inspired by movies such as Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) and Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978), Hamilton depicts her protagonists as the survivors of a cruel conflict who try to reinsert themselves into civilian society. The problem is – the war is not over, it has just taken another turn (coincidentally, in 1976, Haile Gerima, one of the exponents of the “LA Rebellion” of black filmmakers, completed Bush Mama, in which he shows the Los Angeles ghetto under permanent siege by the police and government authorities).

Hamilton makes an elegant, sensitive use of real locations in contemporary Philadelphia – a landscape now haunted by a voice that won’t be silenced. Since 1982, Mumia Abu-Jamal has been sitting on death row, having been convicted of the 1981 killing of a policeman. He has submitted numerous appeals, spoken on the radio, received honorary degrees, written books and articles, and has become a cause célèbre with local protest groups and international organisations such as Amnesty International. (9) Abu-Jamal is not the subject of the film, yet he provides one of the many threads that connect the present to the past. Philadelphia today is as much shaped by our awareness of his continued imprisonment, as by the local “jazz hip hop” band The Roots that provided an original soundtrack.

Hamilton tracks the traces of history through the way it has shaped Germantown, through archival footages, old leaflets and political cartoons (animated in one sequence) produced by the BPP and kept by Patricia all these years – but it is music that is her Ariadne’s thread in the labyrinth of memory, loyalty and betrayal – it is music that composes the film’s emotional core, as a testimony to the strength, endurance and creativity of black culture, even under duress. “Welcome the Boys Back Home” by Bill Moss & the Celestials emerges from the tide of soul songs written about the return of hundreds of black Vietnam veterans (as Dorothy’s husband in Bush Mama). And, as a pungent example of what we have lost, what we have gained, what has remained and how our perspective may have shifted, we can hear Syl Johnson’s richly modulated, almost feminine voice, in his 1969 hit on the R & B chart, wondering “Is It Because I’m Black?”:

The dark brown shades of my skin…

All add colours to my tears…

When and why my dream never came true?

Is it because I’m black?

Somebody tell me what can I do

Something is holding me back

Is it because I am black?…

Revisiting the past through music – Part 2: biopic – Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways (Premieres)

Also exploring the 1970s and their music, Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways was supposed to be a testimony to the Los Angeles proto-punk rock scene though the portrayal of the eponymous teenage girl band founded in 1975 and signed with Mercury Records while its five members – drummer Sandy West, guitarists Joan Jett and Lita Ford, bassist Jackie Fox and singer Cherie Currie – were still under 17. Enormously influential for a couple of years with recordings such as Queens of Noise, and touring the United States, Europe and Japan, the band eventually imploded. By 1977, they had parted from their manager, Kim Fowley, and Ford and Currie had left, due to tension in the group aggravated by their sense of being exploited by Fowley, various forms of sexual entanglement and substance abuse among the members. Reduced to being a trio, the group finally disbanded in 1978, West and Ford being more into metal while Jett was getting into punk. Both Currie and West struggled with drug addiction (until West’s death of lung cancer in 2006) and continued to perform on and off, without ever regaining their star status; Fox became an entertainment lawyer; Jett founded her own label, Blackheart Records, in 1980, and as been listed by Rolling Stone as one of the 100 Best Guitarists Ever.

From pre-production on, the film had been much talked-about on blogs and fan sites, raising a couple of red flags. Executively-produced by Joan Jett, The Runaways is based on Cherie Currie’s 1989 autobiography (10) – so, even though members such as West got compensated for the use of their story (Fox refused to be involved in the project, so her part was rewritten as the fictional character Robin), the film focuses on the relationship between Jett and Currie, unfairly leaving the other players in the background. Another red flag was the casting of former-child-stars-turned-hot-young-actresses Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning (both enjoying fame in the teenage crowd for their parts in the Twilight Saga franchise) as Jett and Currie. Drawn by the prospect of seeing an illustration of female power in the memorable 1970s, I braved the snow-covered distance that separated my hotel from the public screening in the wee hours of the morning. The film, alas, is not about the band, nor about the challenges, difficulties and ecstatic rewards of being a female trailblazer in a music world dominated by bad boys. The streamlining of the band’s chequered saga matches the desire to offer two cute actresses the off-colour roles of baaad girls. While Stewart may be the better actor, one does not really sense the brain, drive and savviness behind the way Jett conducted her career. And Fanning’s performance as the corset-and-fishnet-stocking wearing, emotionally unstable, drug-addicted and self-centered singer sometimes turns embarrassing, as in her good-girl attempt to convey sexual vibes in the rendering of “Cherry Bomb”, Currie’s signature song (a moment designed to make the audience go: “Waow! This is acting!”)

The girls act has been thoroughly cleaned; they can be bad, irrational and messy, but the real villain is Fowley (Michael Shannon); as a result, it seems at times that the idea of the band was his, and the reasons that these girls were put together in the same physical/emotional space are not fully explored. Sigismondi also presents a skin-deep, watered-down version of sexuality – exploiting one kiss between Stewart and Fanning for its shock value for their teenage audience, but not engaging the subversive aspects of the experimentation with bisexuality, androgyny and various forms of “perversity” that were taking place at the time. Shedding almost no light on the rich countercultural music history of Los Angeles, The Runaways is a safe, covertly moralising (“don’t take drugs, don’t get photographed in your underwear and don’t engage in high-risk behaviour”), cute, and ultimately boring biopic.

On the use and misuse of archival footage – Part 2 – Jessica Hernandez and Johnny O’Hara’s Bhutto (US Documentary Competition)

Still looking for a display of female power, I left the Q & A with Sigismondi, Jett, Fanning and all to rush to a press screening of Jessica Hernandez and Johnny O’Hara’s documentary on one of my heroes, former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was slain during an election campaign in 2007. The Harvard- and Oxford-educated daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who served as President and Prime Minister of Pakistan between 1971 and 1977 and was executed in 1979 after a military coup, she became the first woman to lead a Muslim state. She was elected prime minister in 1988 at the age of 35, and again in 1993, but her political career was marred by accusation of corruption waged against her and her husband Asif Ali Zardari. Zardari spent eight years in jail, and Bhutto went into self-exile until returning to Pakistan to run for office in 2007.

Bhutto has always claimed that the charges had been fabricated as part of a political witch-hunt against her and the Pakistan Peoples Party whose leadership she had inherited from her father. To her many supporters, to countless women in the Middle East, Bhutto represented hope for modernisation and change. Compared to her personal and political stature, the film is tame – it’s a collage of interviews with her still grief-stricken husband and children and archival footage. I understand that the filmmakers worked under difficult conditions (as their subject was no longer alive to answer their questions) and they probably thought that, by securing interviews with the family, they had a “coup”. Whether or not it falls into the category of “authorised biography” is not even my concern here. Hearing people lie or skirt round approximate truth can be fascinating, as is well proven by Errol Morris’s documentaries. What bothers me is the use of television footage – and here Bhutto follows a lazy trend that has marked too many documentaries seen at Sundance in the last decade.

Bhutto simply uses and recycles television footage (often with the logo of the station in the corner) in an uncritical way as a substitute for reality. No contextualisation is made, no analysis of how the shot is composed and framed, how the sequence is put together, who took the picture, who ordered or commissioned the picture to be taken, how this footage was broadcast or exhibited, which role it was supposed/expected to play. Do contemporary audiences perceive television as a transparent window readily open onto “reality” – or, as some cultural theorists argue, do they play an active role in deciphering the image presented to them, with their multiple layers of logos and publicity? It would, indeed, be reassuring if the latter was the case, but it seems, on the contrary, that passively received advertising (including the way the news is presented) has become a dominant mode and that audiences love to be offered what they expect and want, not what they will deconstruct and criticise. When documentary filmmakers rely on television footage as if this was a “real” document, they are implicitly complicit with the power that produced this footage – and, in turn, generate a confusion about the ontology of the recorded image.

On architecture and macho troubles – Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat’s El Hombre de al Lado (The Man Next Door) (World Dramatic Competition: Cinematography Award)

By this time, I was hungry for a cinephilic moment, so I decided to take my chances on the press screening of Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat’s El Hombre de al Lado (The Man Next Door), which seemed promising. The film turned out to be a fine example of the vitality and diversity of contemporary Argentine cinema (the winner of Best Argentine Feature Film at Mar del Plata, it was also awarded Best Cinematography in the World Dramatic Competition at Sundance). I had never heard of the directing duo, but, after further research, learnt that they had worked together since the late 1990s on more than 20 films, television programs and video qualified as “experimental”. It was certainly a joy to discover an idiosyncratic écriture in their sardonic fable opposing two social classes, two forms of machismo across the Great Divide of modern architecture. Leonardo, an award-winning industrial designer/university professor lives with his yoga-teacher wife and his appropriately sullen teenage daughter in the aristocratic confines of an architectural landmark, la Casa Curutchet built by Le Corbusier in 1954 in the south of Buenos Aires: large glass surfaces, exquisitely calculated angles and shifting levels, streamlined furniture to match. Across the picture window, the uneventful wall of a non-descript house. One day, the noise of a sledgehammer wakes up Leonardo. The man next door, vulgar, jocular, indomitable Victor wants to open a window to get a few rays of sun.

Leonardo is used to living behind a glass wall, and being the centre of attention; from time to time tourists and architecture buffs ring his bell and ask to visit the house. This is a minor annoyance that comes with the territory, and he has control over who will be admitted to have a look and who will not. The house is also a convenient spot to get television crews to interview him, or to invite graduate students to discuss their projects, with the arrogant assumption, if the guest is a pretty girl, that she may want to visit the bedroom too. On the other hand, being under the constant gaze of the boorish neighbour would be unbearable, and, to protect his privacy, Leonardo finds himself locked in a no-end confrontation with Victor, that evolves as a post-modern version of these duels between compadritos (inhabitants of the working-class suburbs) once celebrated by Borges. Is Victor dangerous, or is he naïve, stubborn, unsophisticated? Why does he offer flowers to Leonardo’s wife, or – in one of the most delicate scenes of the film – why does he perform an enchanting, slightly disturbing finger-puppet show for Leonardo’s daughter? Why does he give Leonardo one of his strange assemblage sculptures (the one inspired by his mother, no less), and which monstrous social mishap has allowed him to become the lover of a girl who will turn up as a party guest in the Corbusier house?

Throughout Borges’ oeuvre, there is the recurrent figure of daggers that guide the men that hold them into getting into a fight and killing each other, their bodies and free will becoming the conduit for the blade’s murderous destiny. Similarly, El Hombre de al Lado subtly descends into a quasi surreal realm – as the weapons used by the two men (architecture, legal firms) gradually take over. Across the narrow alley, the two houses represent different worlds: light, transparency, visibility within Le Corbusier’s facades while Victor’s house appears as an unsightly grey wall, with its forbidden opening (or Leibnizian monade) that suggests a threatening universe of darkness and through which strange figures (the mentally-challenged uncle) and spectacles (the puppet show) appear. Leonardo’s paradoxical need for privacy reveals that, while living behind pictures windows, there are things he would like to hide; his real fear is that the darkness emanating from the hole next door will engulf his life. And so it does…

The child is father to man – Diego Luna’s Abel (Premieres)

I had met Diego Luna last summer at a panel organised by the Los Angeles Film Festival to discuss “Ambulante”, the travelling documentary film festival he founded five years ago with Gael Garcia Bernal and Pablo Cruz (who, together, also run the production company Canana) and had been impressed by his enthusiasm and dedication to change cinema (both in its production and exhibition conditions) south of the border. Abel, his second feature and his first narrative as a director (also shown at Cannes) displays a similar generosity, adopting the point of view of a ten year-old autistic child (Christopher Ruíz Esparza). When his working-class mother comes to pick him up at the psychiatric hospital, Abel does not speak, and she is told to do her best to avoid upsetting him. This is tough, for, since her husband left her, Cecilia (Karina Gidi) lives in miserable conditions on the outskirts of the Mexican city of Aguascalientes, with a house that is falling apart and money that is hard to come by. Abel’s return to the family nest is difficult – until one day, he starts speaking. And, to everybody’s astonishment, he assumes the role of his missing father, flirting with Cecilia as a loving husband, and relating to his siblings, especially his younger brother (Gerardo Ruíz Esparza), as if he were their father.

Carried by the perfect tone of the performances – whether by seasoned Mexican actors or by the two Ruíz Esparza brothers – the film takes us into a ride through “the world according to Abel”. For, after the first few days, the family benevolently accepts Abel’s new behaviour and new role, and an offbeat form of happiness settles. That is, until the real father – now living with his new girlfriend and baby in another Mexican town while pretending to make money in the US – returns for a perfunctory visit. Nobody dares to break the charm, for fear that Abel’s condition may worsen, and Abel treats Anselmo (Jose Maria Yazpik) as an uncle.

The boundaries between fantasy and reality, once blurred by Abel’s magical spell, reassert themselves, and Anselmo’s return threatens Cecilia’s position as a matriarch. Abel cannot protect her as a husband would, yet he is the living embodiment of the Oedipal dream shared by mothers and sons – expressing her inner strength and secret desires. Intellectually more powerful than his biological father, he could, indeed, become the real man in his mother’s life. This is a lovely dream, which the film embraces with a gentle irony – but comes the moment when Abel becomes a child again, expresses his frustration by flying the coop and taking the little brother along. Walking decidedly through a dreary landscape of industrial warehouses and containers, they go far, and then get in harm’s way – prompting a new dynamics among the adults. Taking his characters at face value, respecting their idiosyncrasies and giving a new twist to Renoir’s phrase that “everyone has their reasons”, Luna suggest a logic within the internal landscape of autism, a “reason” behind the apparent mental chaos. The translates into a delicate balance between a gentle comedic tone and deeper social issues (the exodus of men leaving their families to find jobs in the US, oppressive machismo, what it means to be a father), between realism and the dreams of a child very gifted, very lost and very brave.

On the use and misuse of archival footage – Part 3 – Yael Hersonski’s A Film Unfinished (World Documentary Competition: Best Editing Award)

“I don’t like Holocaust documentaries,” Yael Hersonski, the Tel-Aviv based director of Shtikat Haarchion (A Film Unfinished) tells me, but there is nothing pious about the work of recontextualisation she had done on infamous Nazi footage discovered in the German Federal Film Archive. In 1942, a propaganda film, Ghetto, had been planned about the Warsaw ghetto, cameramen were brought in, the army was used to round up the inhabitants and force them to act as extras in pre-staged scenes… and then the film was never finished, left in cans without soundtrack nor explanation – a bounty for archivists and historians but nothing more. Then, a few years ago, an additional can was found – and it contained colour footage of the ghetto. The discovery of these vibrant colours upset pre-conceived notions about footage from WWII, added a hyper-realist touch to what was being shown, and raised unsolved questions: Who took this additional footage? Was one of the hired cameramen shooting on his own time? In turn, it implies that several form of agencies, sometimes at odd with each other, were at work in the film: the propaganda unit, the Commander of the ghetto, the director, the film crew. As wrote Michel Foucault, power is not monolithic, and neither is propaganda, even in its most heinous form. Hersonski’s reworking of the material suggests a possible, unsettling answer to why the film was never finished. As a piece of propaganda, it didn’t work. Because a repressed form of authorship managed to slip within the cracks. The victims of the ghetto, those who later died of hunger on the road to Treblinka or were gassed there, somewhat hijacked the filmic text.

Ghetto was a paradoxical project to start with. Historians and Holocaust activists have used the footage as yet more proof of Nazi atrocities. We see people starving in the street, children being beaten for smuggling food, skeletal corpses lying on the pavement or being thrown, by the dozens, into mass graves – scenes that echo the better-known footage (taken by the Allied forces or anti-Nazi filmmakers) of concentration camps. The goal, however, was not to show Jewish misery per se, but to construct the image of a class of Jewish profiteers dancing over the corpses of their less fortunate co-religionists. This is where the plot thickens. Class differences did exist in the ghetto, and, the case of extreme shortage (as the Nazi cut most of the food supply), meat or bread were only available at a high price, or exchanged for some jewellery. The poor and the children starved faster – while middle class survivors, having traded all their possessions to eat, still looked healthy. A plan was hatched, and they were summoned to appear in staged scenes, showing “rich Jews” gobbling pricey dishes, going to the theatre, living in large, well-decorated apartments and ignoring the squalor and the suffering around them. The filmmakers also wanted to impart a sense of the antiquated survival of “Jewish customs” in the ghetto, such as ritual baths, circumcision ceremonies or funerals.

Hersonski chooses to play the whole 62 minutes of found footage, reframing them within several layers of critical viewing. Sometimes, we hear the sound of the projector, and even see the film-strip passing in front of the lens. At other moments, a Polish actor reads excerpts from the diary of Adam Czerniaków (1880-1942), leader of the Judenrat, or Jewish council – one of the major documents about the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto. From 1939 to 1942, Czerniaków, made responsible to implementing Nazi orders in the ghetto, was able to somehow negotiate, piecemeal, and to make the occupation more bearable. In July 1942, faced with the order to organise mass deportation to Treblinka, he committed suicide. It is less known that his diary also contains entries about the shooting and the production of Ghetto. Hersonski also discovered that one of the German cinematographers, Willy Wist, had testified at war crime trials. She also recreats his testimony on the soundtrack, and it gives precious information about the way the film was shot.

At other times, Hersonski’s camera is in the darkness of a screening room in which Ghetto is projected. In the foreground, one of the five survivors she was able to locate, who were children at the time. They react at the inaccuracy of what they are presented. “Nobody had such large apartments. We had to leave our home, and were crammed, several families together, in small rooms!” Some moments are horrifying: this little boy was too weak and too tiny to be circumcised for the camera… Absurdity creeps, and with it more questions. To better contrast with the uncared for bodies in the street, a magnificent funeral is shown – hearse, horses, well-dressed mourners, a coffin covered with flowers. “We don’t use coffins in Jewish burials” exclaims one of the witnesses. Indeed, Jewish tradition is to bury the body in a linen shroud and, if local laws prescribe the use of a coffin, to make it as simple as possible, so there will be no difference between rich and poor in death, and no unnecessary financial burden on the family of the deceased. So, no trimmings, no baroque ornaments, flowers are not required. The German filmmakers had not done any “anthropological research” and, to stage these pomps and circumstances, had resorted to their own kitsch.

At the heart of the horror of the Shoah lies the question of resistance. Why did so many people – who outnumbered their captors – go to the camps, why did so few resist, why did some accepted to play the role of kapos (concentration camp guards)? Contrary to official history, in Israel after the war there was tension between Sabras (people born in Israel) and camp survivors, some of the former despising the latter for their passivity. More hideously, a new form of anti-semitism has surfaced: by “allowing” themselves to be slaughtered like sheep, Jews indeed proved they were an inferior race.

A Film Unfinished explores the issue from a different angle. The staged scenes of Ghetto required the collaboration of the population to their own misrepresentation. Czerniaków’s diary, Wist’s testimony, and the memories of the few surviving witnesses attest that this collaboration was obtained under duress – people were rounded up and forced to act or else. When shooting the theatre scene, they were forbidden to drink, eat or go to the bathroom for hours, and were punished if they didn’t laugh heartily enough. Some of the “acting” is convincing enough – the restaurant, the ballroom scenes (during which some real advantages were secured: you could eat all you wanted for a while). Slippages occur: the rabbi is reluctant at having to perform a circumcision in such conditions; the young women in the ritual bath look violated when exhibiting themselves naked to the camera.

And then – there is, like a Barthesian punctum, the coffin, glaring at us. It is clear that the performers in the funeral scene didn’t have the floor to comment on the accuracy of what was being staged. It is also clear that nobody said anything. Fear or secret decision to deceive their tormentors – we will never know. While analysing historical documents, the question of intention is irrelevant. By not telling the crew that the coffin was all wrong, the inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto made it possible for us, now, to know with certainty that this scene was nothing but an instance of Nazi propaganda. It is as if they were reaching out to us, from the ashes, decades later, reaching out to this old lady who was a little girl in 1942 and who exclaims “We don’t use coffins in Jewish burials.”

Anachronism and its discontent – Miguel Coyula’s Memorias del desarollo (Memories of Overdevelopment) (Frontier)

In the difficult relationships between Cuba and the United States, a film and a man have played a sarcastic, unexpected role. Completed in 1968, Tomas Guttierez Alea’s Memorias del subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment) was banned in the US for five years due to its embargo against Cuba, but, once shown, received an award from the National Society of Film Critics. Meanwhile, it had reached Europe and the rest of the world in the crucial 1968-69 period, with its student unrest, massive strikes and burning questions about revolution and the strategic alliance between Third World liberation movements and left-wing groups in developed countries. It became a classic of “Third Cinema” for its incisive portrayal of the disillusionment of a class of intellectuals, who had enthusiastically embraced the Cuban revolution, but found themselves like a fish out of water in the new society. Some of the issues inherent in the Castro regime – censorship, persecution of homosexuals and dissidents – had not surfaced yet, but the protagonist, Sergio, is prey to a form of melancholia that is both specific and universal: a visceral Latin South American attachment to the land, its history, the tender moment of a long-gone dawn, the façade of a family house haunted by domestic ghosts, is combined with the sobering realisation that change (any change) will, in the long term, make you obsolete. Memories was acutely political by presenting Sergio’s dilemma as overshadowed by the mechanism of imperialism: the economic and political exploitation of the third world creating an “underdeveloped”, colonised mind.

One of the first international successes of New Cuban Cinema, Memories displayed a sensual, imaginative approach to cinematic language, coining an arresting dialectics between the subjective and the objective, Sergio’s stream-of-consciousness, his point of view and the material conditions of which the Cuban population was living/surviving at the time (represented through a montage of documentary footage). Memories, however, was not autobiographic, at least not for Guttierez Alea (1928-1996). (11) Himself a member of an affluent, yet progressive family, he made his first films in the 1950s, influenced by Italian neo-realism, and after the Cuban revolution founded the ICAIC (Instituto Cubano del Arte y la Industria Cinematográphicos) in 1959 with several of his young colleagues in the film industry. He went on to direct some of the most important films in the history of his country – Muerte de un burócrata (Death of a Bureaucrat, 1966), La última cena (The Last Supper, 1976), Up to a Certain Point (Hasta cierto punto, 1983) – combining his filmmaking activities with his work at the ICAIC. Unlike Sergio, he overcame whatever melancholia he may have experienced, and successfully inserted himself in the apparatus of the new society – even though he managed to present a complex, sometimes critical picture of it. His penultimate and 23rd film, Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate, 1993 – co-directed with Juan Carlos Tabío) tackles the situation of homosexuals in socialist Cuba. (12)

The man who had not managed this transition, and whose ruminations were brought to the screen, was the author of the original 1965 novel, Edmundo Desnoes (born La Havana, 1930), (13) who, after a few years in New York as the editor of a Spanish-language magazine, eagerly returned to Cuba after 1959. A celebrated writer, Desnoes, however, grew increasingly alienated from Castro’s regime and, in 1979, defected to settle in the US. After remaining almost 20 years without publishing a new book, he came up with the sequel to his most famous novel, and wrote Memorias del Desarrollo (Memories of Overdevelopment, 2007) about another form of disillusionment – his estrangement from his country of exile. The new Sergio casts a sardonic look at American foibles, while reflecting on the still-persistent power of the images from the Cuban revolution, which he collects and creatively collages with photos of supermodels and advertisements (Desnoes himself has composed hundreds of such collages in the last decades). Already at the core of the first novel, sexual politics return with a vengeance. For the two versions of Sergio, the unease of their relationships to women, the Lacanian sexual impasse is a vector of their alienation from society. They both have an ex-wife and a young girlfriend – who seeks something else they are unable to provide. It all ends up badly: wives bitch and sue; the May-September affair results in a trial for statutory rape in Cuba, and in losing an academic job in the US.

For the young Cuban-American filmmaker Miguel Coyula, the publication of Desnoes’ follow-up novel was a dream come true – opening the possibility of directing a companion piece to Guttierez Alea’s masterpiece, while channelling his own feelings about the Cuban diaspora. Born and educated in Cuba, Coyula went to the US in 1999 after being invited to show some of his short films, and being offered an acting scholarship at the Lee Strasberg Institute. He then directed his first digital feature, Red Cockroaches (2003), which became an underground cult movie, and was noted for his imaginative use of inexpensive digital technology. He then teamed with New York independent producer David W. Leitner and worked for about five years to complete Memorias.

While Alea’s film had been hailed for its “modernist” aesthetics”, (14) Coyula uses postmodern techniques to suggest another form of displacement: generational gap. In 1968, both Sergio and the Cuban revolution were young. In 2010, Fidel Castro may be dying, out of sight, in a hospital; his brother Raul is in charge; the voices of the dissidents are heard more loudly; the community of Cubans in exile in the US has become known for its right-wing boisterousness; Desnoes is an 80 year-old cantankerous man; and Coyula, the vector of a new hybrid identity, is 33; in-between, he cast Cuban American actor Ron Blair (with whom he had worked in his previous films) who embodies, with a combination of restraint and irony, a middle-aged version of the fictional Sergio. Past and present collide. In his novel Desnoes had introduced the character of Pablo, the protagonist’s gay brother, a brilliant filmmaker whose work was banned by the Cuban regime, and who pursued an award-winning career in Europe. Pablo is clearly patterned after Néstor Almendros (1930-1992), the Spanish-born filmmaker who moved to Cuba at 18, and then, after Gente en la Playa (1960), moved to Paris where he became one the most sought-after cinematographers in the world. At the end of his life, Almendros returned to directing, with two films that violently criticised the repression of homosexuals (Mauvaise conduite, 1984) and human rights violation in Cuba (Nadie escuchaba/Nobody Listened, 1987). The allusion to Pablo/Néstor is more than a reminder of “what went wrong” in the revolution; it is the core of a nasty feeling of guilt that gnaws Sergio: he did not support his brother in his fight against censorship, he didn’t keep in touch with him before his AIDS-related death. (15) Later, we also learn that there was a daughter, left behind in Cuba. Sergio grows increasingly remote and sarcastic, carrying the weight of the “mistakes of two lifetimes” – one spent in Cuba, the other in the US. “I am a loser, I am lost. Only now, after my cruelty with women, my disastrous embrace of socialism, of having written and said an incredible amount of bullshit, now I understand the humiliating pleasures of loserdom”, he mutters to himself.

Wherever he is, the world he knew is no longer the world he lives in. He keeps a diary and, with a paper cutter and some glue, creates photomontages. Coyula documents this old-fashioned process – to a point; we see the blade cutting through the eye or the breast of the magazine picture of a naked woman; at other moments, Sergio’s collages are wildly re-created through over-saturated digital effects. While Guttierez Alea’s film rested on an elegant use of montage, Coyula ups the ante by over-compositing the image and saturating the colours, creating a complex kaleidoscope, which in turns dictates the editing of the sequences in a kinetic, non-linear way. Paralleling free association, the structure blurs the lines between actual events, fake memories, projections, irritation at American pop culture, political anger, rambling and resentments. After the first moments of annoyance at this systematic over-use of the possibilities of the digital medium, a certain logic appears. These techniques allow Coyula to further destabilise his character, to create a palpable tension between the film and Desnoes’ text, and to eventually reappropriate (or salvage) his trajectory in exile. Desnoes/Sergio and his collages become the multi-coloured prism through which Coyula can look at his own fractured history. He belongs to a generation who found it possible to work in the margins of the Cuban industry through their use of light, portable digital technology. (Coyula’s films are shown both in and outside Cuba).

And so these bilingual Cuban “memories” end up in America where both Desnoes and Coyula live, in a space where the dream of the “last frontier” remains – the Utah desert (which is, coincidentally, the state in which Sundance takes place). Leaving New York, its bullshit, its neon signs, its women, its post 9/11 paranoia, Sergio settles in a remote cabin, snatches, almost by distraction, a quickie with a Mormon missionary and then drives away. In the middle of nowhere, his car breaks down. At the end of a road, he finds a man in an astronaut suit (independent Utah filmmaker Trent Harris, of Plan 9 from Outer Space [1995] and The Beaver Trilogy [2000] fame) minding the replica of a “Mars space station”. This is not a dream, but another symptom of American idiosyncrasies (a mixture of survivalist ideology and do-it-yourself popular science). Anyhow, History stops here…

On the use and misuse of the image of others – Part 3 – Leon Gast’s Smash His Camera (US Documentary Competition: Directing Award)

I went to see Smash His Camera because of Leon Gast – the veteran documentary filmmaker who had directed When We Were King (1996) about the historical boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire in 1974, and I ended up loving it because of its subject, Ron Galella, godfather of paparazzi and, in the heydays of his fame, one of the most detested men in New York. Making a career at following celebrities and snapping their images at unpredictable moments, Galella pushed the envelope of what’s ethical and permissible – and got punished for it. The author of one of the most ravishing pictures of Jackie Kennedy Onassis ever taken (“Jackie Windblown” originally published in New York Newsday in 1971), he was eventually sued by his idol for harassing her children. Losing the case, he had to comply to an injunction that would keep him at 100 yards from Mrs Onassis’s home and 50 from her children. He complied by bringing a measuring tape and standing, with all his photographic gear ready to go, outside the assigned perimeter. After having his jaw broken by Marlon Brando in 1973, he continued to follow the choleric star wearing a football helmet for protection.

Such was Galella in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Obnoxious, tenacious, resourceful, he would follow you up to the bathroom if necessary, would sneak into private parties, hotel function rooms, exclusive night spots, drive too fast to follow you, crawl under bushes or climb over walls, would not take no for an answer and would probably have to look up in a dictionary the meaning of the word “privacy”. He was not, far from it, the only paparazzo with such an unsavoury mode of functioning at the time: Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) offers a sharp critic of Galella’s Italian colleagues. Yet, in his own antics, he was astonishingly creative, staging performances around the resistance of celebrities (as in the case of Kennedy Onassis or Brando) – thus opening the way to a certain form of documentary filmmaking from Michael Moore’s Roger and Me (1989) to Nick Broomfield’s Tracking Down Maggie (1994).

Visiting Galella in his suburban topiary garden decorated with the sculptures of the dead pet rabbits buried underneath, following him in his darkroom and his basement archives where an estimated three million photographs are stored, listening to his New Jersey working class accent that makes him sound like Tony Soprano, catching him crossing security barriers, Gast draws the endearing portrait of a hard-working, ambitious, probably sincere man caught at an uncertain moment. Galella never “made it” as a serious artist, and he is not respected as a journalist either; club owners still remember him with dread or disdain. Yet the sheer persistence and abundance of his work opened a now-much-beaten trail in our modernity. Nobody bats an eye anymore at the idea that celebrities are under the constant eye of the camera. As Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter comments in the film, Galella “unlocked the Pandora’s box of the way these people presented themselves. He caught [them] coming out of Studio 54, still attractive but wasted.” Multiplied in Facebook, Youtube, cell phones, our images, our doubles, so uncanny at the time of Hitchcock, are now our constant companions, whether we are celebrities or common people. In one scene of Smash Camera the 77 year-old photographer mingles with a crowd shooting the “hottest couple of the year”, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie at the premiere of Clint Eastwood’s The Changeling (2008). Dozens of cameras crackle, flashes flare up, cell phones are hoisted for a better view, the actors are being called by their first names, asked to smile, to pose, to turn their heads; they comply, nobody minds, nobody pays attention to Galella, this has become normal.

While bringing out Galella’s pioneering qualities, Smash His Camera exudes a subtle melancholia. Gast and Galella are from New Jersey, belong to the same generation and maybe to very similar trades. Both have experienced the vagaries of the cult of personalities, from Muhammad Ali to Jackie O – the tantalising proximity, the fascination for people who wouldn’t remember you if you had not annoyed them. Galella is candid and alternatively touching and creepy in some of his obsessions: “I didn’t have a girlfriend at the time… Jackie was like my girlfriend. [When I snapped this famous picture of her], I don’t think she knew it was me; that’s why she smiles a little…” The ever-elastic boundaries between the common people and the celebrities keeps evolving, but the distance remains unbridgeable, no matter how many pictures are posted on the internet. It just means that the turnover of fame happens more quickly, as familiarity breeds contempt. It also means that the idols of the past are unknown to new generations of spectators: in an exhibition of his work, Galella speaks to a young girl who has no idea who “Jackie” was. In his treasure trove, pictures of Frank Sinatra, Bette Davis and Elizabeth Taylor are sleeping, maybe forever. His castle was made of sand – as maybe are our cultural memories…

Not just another road movie – Linas Phillips’s Bass Ackwards (NEXT)

Sundance opened a new section this year, NEXT, for films made for a small budget, and it provided my loveliest screening experience that week. I had no idea what Bass Ackward meant – consulting an online dictionary gave me the following definition: “Describes something being so screwed up that it’s not just backward, it’s ass backward …and the point is emphasized even more by screwing up the words ‘ass backward’.” Linas Phillips blurs the boundaries between autobiography and fiction; he plays (engagingly) the main part (called “Linas”), the story is obviously inspired by his own experience, and the people met on the road are “real characters”, friends or acquaintance who play their own roles. Yet the film is clearly scripted and directed with a firm, intelligent hand, and it offers a non-conformist, ultimately exhilarating view of what it means to be marginalised in America. Linas, a sometimes wedding videographer crashes on the couch of a couple of friends, while having an affair on the sly with a young married woman. Things go from bad to worse. The friends politely ask him to go, and the girlfriend, in tears, says she won’t leave her husband. Linas finds work at an alpaca farm, and eventually persuades his employer to give him a battered 76 VV van. He embarks on a trip from Seattle to the East Coast. What makes Bass Ackward so special is the crisp precision with which details are rendered: the scenes of intimacy between the lovers; Linas’ interaction with a little boy at a wedding or with the alpacas; his irritation when the receptionist of a cheap motel won’t get off the phone; the honking of the cars behind him because his van is too slow… Then, when a mysterious man nonchalantly imposes himself as a driving companion, the ride seems to change – or does it?

A graduate from NYU’s experimental theatre wing, Phillips signs here his first narrative feature (and his third film), and had already proven an original talent in his 2006 documentary, Walking to Werner in which he walked all the way from Seattle to Werner Herzog’s house in Los Angeles. He crafted Bass Ackward under the double influence of Cassavetes’ work and Herzog’s Stroszeck (1977) and captured the former’s passion for the opaque texture of human interaction and the latter’s strange magic.

On the use and misuse of archival footage – Part 4 – Stanley Nelson’s Freedom Riders (US Documentary Competition)

Since 1989, Stanley Nelson has systematically investigated black history by excavating, (re)discovering, presenting and contextualising large amounts of footage. After graduating from college in 1976, he worked as an apprentice with veteran filmmaker William Greaves, who directed documentaries on “the African American experience”, focusing on such icons as silent filmmakers Spencer Williams, Civil Rights activists Ida B. Wells and Jonathan Daniels, and leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington or Malcolm X. That the majority of these names were (and still are) unknown to the majority of US audiences was the sign that a major effort was needed to rescue African American history from oblivion. In the wake of the incredible momentum created by the release, in 1987, of the Henry Hampton’s produced 14-part TV history of the Civil Rights Moments, Eyes on the Prize, Nelson directed his first film, Two Dollars and a Dream: The Story of Madam C.J. Walker (1989) about the first African American millionaire (and Civil Rights supporter) who created her own business of beauty products for black women in the first decade of the 20th century. Soon after, he started working for PBS, and, apart from being shown at Sundance, his films have mostly been aired on television. Having, however, worked with the legendary journalist and public commentator Bill Moyers, his television aesthetics, while undeniable, is both thorough and critical. His work has contributed to shedding new light on apparently well-known aspects of black history (Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind, 2000; The Murder of Emmett Till, 2003) or exploring some more obscure elements (The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords, 1999).

His newest opus Freedom Riders revisits an enormous amount of forgotten newsreels – some of them stored in Russian archives – to recreate the multi-faceted story of the militants of CORE (Congress Of Racial Equality) and SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) who, in 1961, braved the odds and the policy of the states of Virginia, North and South Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi to ride racially integrated buses into the segregated South. The two buses were savagely attacked in Anniston, Alabama, through the complicity of the local police, the Ku Klux Klan and a mob angry at these “race-mixers”. The first bus burnt and exploded, the riders barely escaping on time; the second made it to Birmingham, where it was again attacked, landing several of the riders in the hospital. The violence continued, with more students joining the riders, bus drivers refusing to take them, and more attacks taking place in Montgomery…

Throughout the spring and summer of 1961, about 60 rides were organised and more than 400 people were arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, for Breach of Peace and Refusal to Obey an Officer and, following the slogan of “Jail No Bail”, refused to pay the fine as a form of civil disobedience and each spent 39 days in prison until they filed an appeal and posted bonds.

Most Americans have only a foggy knowledge of what really happened during the Freedom Rides. The violence has receded, black people no longer sit in the back of the bus for interstate rides, and the sign “white only” has disappeared from the toilets, waiting room, lunch counters and water fountains in bus terminal. Nelson’s film brings back the complex chain of events that made this possible, and debunks some clichés in the history of the Civil Rights Movements. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t think that the Freedom Rides were a good idea, and the Kennedy brothers found them “unpatriotic”. JFK’s main concern at the time was the relationship with the Soviet Union, and the reports of the violence in Alabama on Soviet television (shown on footage previously unseen in an American film) made the US look “bad”. Only when the riders and their supporters were surrounded by yet another mob in Reverend Abernathy’s 1st Baptist Church in Montgomery on May 21, did King speak in their support while JFK agreed to commit federal troops and made a deal with the right-wing governors of Alabama and Mississippi to stop the violence.

Freedom Fighters may be the more politically potent of Nelson’s film – and a landmark in a materialist revisiting of history. Through an extensive investigation of existing footage, and in-depth interviews of witnesses, politicians and militants, it argues that social movements are not made by figureheads. In the case of the men and women arrested in Mississippi, they forced their Civil Rights leaders and their elected president to embrace and support the actions of unknown militants, and to make decisions following the wishes of the masses. In our current political situation, the lesson is manifold.

PanAfrican Film and Arts Festival: the Great Divide of Money

Less than two weeks later, in a warmer climate, I was driving to Culver City, in the West side of Los Angeles, to attend the screenings of the PanAfrican Film and Art Festival (PAFF). If Sundance can be congratulated for having put together a professionally-run festival with a reduced budget, PAFF, a small non-profit organisation was still struggling with financial issues. Last year, they lost access to the theatres Magic Johnson Complex in the black middle-class enclave of Crenshaw. Last November, a rent hike forced them out of their office in the same neighbourhood and they had to relocate near the airport. When all operations were in Crenshaw, the screenings were coupled with a wonderful “African Market” with hundreds of exhibitors from the larger African diaspora selling artwork, fabrics, clothes and jewellery in the atrium of the shopping mall next to the theatres. Last year, the market remained in Crenshaw while the screenings were in Culver City, so business was bad. This year, in a effort to put the two events closer together, the exhibitors were invited to a Culver City shopping mall, about 10 minute drive from the theatres. Unfortunately, the manager of the mall, not used to such an event, spread the stands throughout the space, making them invisible (especially since they were not listed in the directory). So one of the features that made PAFF unique, and a true celebration of PanAfrican identity, was gone, or at least in jeopardy.

PAFF entertains a de facto dialogue with the mainstream film industry – organising premieres of commercial African American films, and bringing Sundance fare to their audience. Freedom Riders was added at the last minute as the Closing Night presentation. Another overlap was the screening of Sultan Sharrief’s Bilal’s Stand, which I had missed at Sundance (section “NEXT”) – an exhilarating example of do-it-yourself filmmaking and community organising. For inspiration, Sharrief delves into his own life (the struggle of a young African American Muslim from Detroit who dreams of going to college while his help is needed to run the family-owned taxi stand). Having indeed, graduated from a posh college and now teaching a community outreach program, Encouraging the Filmmaking Experience (EFEX) for minority students, Sharrief took four years to complete the film – shooting here and then when he had enough money, re-writing the script as he came along, using the best of improvised performances… The result is a gutsy little film with a lot of heart, and plenty to teach us about “social mobility”, race relations and the new urban generation in America.

Leon Gast was represented at both festivals, as the director of Smash His Camera and, at PAFF, as one of the producers of Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s Soul Power, which makes sense since Levy-Hinte, the editor of Gast’s own When We Were Kings, recovered hours of outtakes from the film that had been kept in storage for 34 years. To focus on the boxing match produced by promoter Don King, When We Were Kings had not been able to include the companion event organised by music producers Hugh Masekela and Stewart Levine: a three-day music festival involving the greatest names of R&B. So, for a short week in the fall 1974, the most potent icons of black culture at the time were treading the streets of Kinshasa, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), interacting with the population, rediscovering their roots, sometimes jamming with local musicians: a radiant Muhammad Ali convinced that his inner sense of superiority was the realisation of a new black power; James Brown, B.B. King and Miriam Makeba; but also salsa idols Celia Cruz and the Fania All-Stars, and African musicians such as Manu Dibango.

Taking his cues from legendary concert films such as Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin’s Gimme Shelter (1970) – not surprisingly, Albert Maysles was one of the cinematographers who shot the original footage – Levy-Hinte interlaces the painstaking preparations of the concert, the prepping of the stage, the minute interactions between musicians, technicians and common people backstage, the mixed feelings experienced by the Americans when discovering “Mother Africa” and a huge Third World metropolis, some interviews (or, more appropriately, in the case of Muhammad Ali, a seductive stream-of-consciousness), culminating with the electric exchange between an adoring crowd of more than 80,000 spectators within Kinshasa’s giant Stadium (with onlookers unable to afford the tickets glued at the wire fencing) and musicians at the peak of their form. World premiered in Toronto in 2008, Soul Power has since been released on HBO in the US, but seeing it on the screen with a majority black audience was a treat – a distant echo of the pleasure these performers had to play for an All-African audience.

Angela Webb’s Hearing Radmilla is another documentary inhabited by music – the powerful voice of Radmilla Cody, the first African American Miss Navajo. The daughter of a Navajo woman and a black man, Radmilla grew up on the reservation where some of her relatives teased her as “Chocolate Mama”. When elected Miss Navajo (a gruelling process in which the candidates’ ability to speak the language as well as to slaughter cattle is tested) she had to face prejudice from members of the community she grew up in, as not being “racially pure”. Cody went on to pursue a singing career (in Navajo), got in trouble with the law due to an abusive relationship with a drug-dealing boyfriend, and resumed her career once out of jail. Shooting for several years in Arizona, Webb gained the confidence of her charismatic subject and secured intimate interviews with her relatives, including her biological parents. (16)

Views from Another Continent

In spite of its financial issues, PAFF succeeded in presenting a good edition this year, with 64 feature films (12 of them world premieres) selected from the African diaspora, both in the US and around the world. Many of the African films never get picked up by US distributors, so this is a rare chance to see them. Among the most original was Hassan Benjelloun’s Finemachiyamoshe? (Where Are You Going, Moshe?, Morocco/Canada, 2007), a good-humoured satire of fundamentalism and the tension between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. In 1963, after the independence of Morocco, the Jews in the small town of Beijjad are preparing to leave for Israel. Mustapha has just invested all his savings to buy the local bar in which he’s been a bartender for years from his dying French owner, Pierre. As much as a drinking hole, the place is a small community centre where old men play cards or dominos and young people can dance. The iman brings out a law that says that, if there are only Muslims in the town, the place must close. Mustapha must convince at least one of his Jewish neighbours to stay. One such man is Schlomo, the watchmaker, who loves his hometown to death and has no desire to go, but is under pressure from his Rabbi and his wife. To complicate matters, his daughter is involved with Mustapha’s son. Avoiding easy resolution, the film cast a melancholy look at what the Middle East could be if Jewish and Arab communities had remained friendly neighbours.

Gugu and Andile (South Africa, 2009) was the first feature made by South African TV director Minky Schlesinger, and it garnered a number of awards in various African film festivals. Evolving from a TV series of the same name also directed by Schlesinger, it is an original spin-off from the tale of Romeo and Juliet – recounted in two African languages, Zulu and Xhosa, with engaging young actors (who received awards in the Fifth African Movie Academy Awards, Lungelo Dhladha as schoolgirl Gugu and Litha Booi as 18 year-old photographer Adile).

It is 1993. Nelson Mandela was liberated in 1990, general elections held in 1992 and the Apartheid regime is being dismantled. Age-old ethnic rivalries are resurfacing, and the townships are ablaze. The love between the two young people is made difficult, brutal and finally impossible for she’s a Zulu and he’s a Xhosa. Death is the only way out – and a priest, in front of the dead bodies in embrace, speaks powerfully against the price that children have to pay for the violence of adults.

Coeur de Lion (Heart of the Lion, Burkina Faso, 2009) is the latest feature produced and directed by former journalist-turned-filmmaker Boubacar Diallo for his small production company, Les Films du Dromadaire. Diallo makes independence a reality by shooting digitally, using local talents and investing the notion of “genre” (a western here, a romantic comedy or a thriller there). Heart of the Lion, taking place in pre-colonial Africa, is his most ambitious, original, and also political work. A patient, laid-back shepherd, Samba, accused by his beautiful wife to “pay more attention to [his cows] than to [her]”, goes after a lion that has killed some of his best cattle. Trouble is – Samba is no hunter, and people keep disappearing from the village, so the beast is probably a dangerous man-eater. The area is also divided between the friendly rivalry between hunters, shepherds and fishermen – and the women have their say in which man they want to choose as a mate, which complicates the macho division of labour and territories when a girl from a fishing community, for instance, fancies Tanko, Samba’s hunter friend and heir of the throne in his tribe. Samba proves himself to be the “lionheart” by killing the lion, but, due to various turns of events, he can’t prove it to the village – and people keep disappearing. One day, it’s Tanko’s turn, and Samba braves his fears to find him, while an usurper kills Tanko’s father and seizes the throne. In their quest, Samba and the friends he has rallied stumble upon a secret network of white slave traders who kidnap people in the bush helped by local accomplices. Following the travails of Samba-the-Meek, Diallo re-examines the question of the price paid by Africa to the slave trade, but also how it was facilitated by internal dissensions and ethnic strife. The lion is dead, but the violence continues – and Heart of the Lion is an act of courage.

The controversial Australian documentary Stolen (which received PAFF’s Best Feature Documentary Award) argues that slavery still exists in the Polisario camps in Western Sahara – an assertion that was violently criticised during the post-screening panel discussion, that unfortunately degenerated into a screaming match between (and among) the Festival’s organisers and some members of the audience. During the world premiere at the Sydney Film Festival in June 2009, the Polisario had flown the main subject of the film, Fetim Sellami Hamdi, who, accompanied by her husband Baba Hocine Mahfoud, protested against her depiction as a slave to Deido M’bark Amar, the “white mother” with whom she shares a tent in the camp – and, fuelled by conflicting websites (17) and countless articles, the controversy is not about to die down.

Even the most sympathetic reviews of the film deplore that it does not give much background information or context. Over photogenic images of ochre-coloured sand dunes, Stolen starts with the voice of one of the filmmakers, the Bolivian-born Violeta Ayala, expressing her desire to make a film with her friend Dan Fallshaw in this part of Western Sahara where Spanish is spoken. Then Fallshaw explains that what they discovered took them on a harrowing journey through three continents. As the filmmakers themselves appear on the screen, it becomes clear that the film is going to be about them – adopting the tropes of a suspenseful political thriller. And indeed this is what we get. Having befriended Fetim’s family with the hope of being able to shoot a UN-sponsored reunion between her and her mother, Embarka, who lives in Morocco and whom she had not seen in more than 30 years, Ayala and Fallshaw are privy to conversations and confidences indicating that Fetim and her family are slaves to Deido. Their main contacts are Fetim’s teenage daughter Leil and Fatim’s cousin Matala. When addressing the filmmakers, the Saharawi speak a hesitant Spanish. When speaking among themselves, they use Hassaniya, a variety of Arabic spoken, among other places, in Mauritania and Western Sahara (WASA asserts that the English subtitles translating the Hassaniya dialogues contain major inaccuracies).

The existence of mass refugee camps in Western Sahara is one of the last unhappy chapters of colonial encroachment in North Africa. When Franco’s regime decided let go of its colony of Spanish Sahara in 1975, it entered negotiations with Mauritania and Morocco to give the Rio de Oro (in the south) to the former and the Saguia el-Hamra (in the north) to the latter. The Polisario (Frente Popular de Liberation de Saguia el-Hamra y Rio de Oro), partially backed by Algeria, started a guerilla war against both countries. Eventually Mauritania withdrew, and recognised the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1979. Morocco, on the other hand, annexed the area just liberated by Mauritania, starting a war till a fragile, temporary cease-fire signed in 1991. Since the beginning of the war, over a hundred thousand Saharawi have flocked into refugee camps located in the Algerian Sahara, that are under supervision of the Polisario, the United Nations, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the European Union and a number of NGOs.

After filming what they deem to be evidence of slavery in the camp, Ayala and Fallshaw decide to leave, and bury their precious tapes in the sand. They claim to be arrested and briefly detained by the Polisario (this was later denied by Polisario representatives). They end up in Tindouf, 20 km from the camp, where the Australian Embassy and the UN help them to get out of the country. In Paris, Mohamed Reda, a representative of the Moroccan government, offers his help for the retrieval of the tapes, provided they go with him to a press conference in New York at the occasion of the UN-sponsored talk between Morocco and the Polisario. (Ayala and Fallshaw make a botched attempt to ask a few questions to the Polisario representative, but the press conference does not take place). With Reba’s connections, they are later allowed to visit Embarka and her daughter in Morocco where they reside. Commenting on this gruelling 18-month adventure, Ayala concludes – “we had each other”.

The persistence of slavery in Africa is a bitter reality, documented by a few NGOs. It is made more complex by intra-African racism – white Arabs thinking themselves superior to Sub-Sahara black populations that were taken from Mali or Senegal to work as slaves. Human trafficking has existed for centuries, even before the intervention of European and American traders. It is, indeed, known and documented that instances of slavery still exist in Mauritania. This is where the problem may lie. The liberation card, dated 29/09/2005, produced by the filmmakers to prove their point, seems to have been issued in Mauritania – and both the Polisario and the UNHCR contend that it would be impossible for slavery to exist in the refugee camps as they are constantly under international supervision. Stolen does not make it easy on itself. The production company is called “United Notions” which seems a bit disingenious. The filmmakers made mistakes, such as paying for a camel to be slaughtered at the family reunion, and compromise themselves with a representative of the Moroccan government. The cultural complexity of Fetim’s domestic interaction with Deido and her extended family is skimmed over. More importantly, while Fetim is shown as a pre-school teacher to children in the camp, there is no mention of her husband, she looks like a defenceless, single woman. (When Baba came to Sydney, it was revealed that he had a professional job in Europe.)

Stolen is seductive and engrossing, but in the end you are left with a sour taste in your mouth. I have no doubt that Ayala and Fallshaw have stumbled on something ugly or disturbing in the camps – I have no doubt also that they hyped their findings to create a more suspenseful film. They are selling us the arresting spectacle of a young, good-looking, ambitious and loving couple experiencing the thrill of adventures in exotic settings. They are not to blame. Our culture is. We have embraced the questionable attitudes of Michael Moore of Nick Broomfield who foreground themselves and their quest for “the truth” and use creative editing to tell their version of a story – at the expense, sometimes, of what constitutes a minimum respect for their subjects. And too often we applaud because they’re doing this to white “scumbags” that we want to be deconstructed by the gaze of the camera. Ayala and Fallshaw, unwittingly, crossed a line. They applied similar techniques to the representation of another culture – and this is problematic. It was interesting to see the reception of the film at PAFF; African American audiences read it as a denunciation not only of slavery but of the “slave mentality” that still plagues the world – in the US, as PAFF director Ayuko Babu reminded the audience, as well as in Western Sahara. “She has a white heart… she wants to be white”, says one of Fetim’s friends. A Mauritanian anti-slavery activist speaks of these people “who are slaves but are ashamed of it and hide it”. As such, Stolen is an acute symptom of a real cultural malaise.

Sundance Film Festival
21-31 January 2010
Festival website: http://festival.sundance.org

Pan African Film and Arts Festival
10-17 February 2010
Festival website: http://www.paff.org


  1. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1996.
  2. A lavishly illustrated catalogue, edited by Steven Bode, with texts by Patricia Allmer, Jorge Luis Borges, Chris Darke, Thomas Elsaesser, Tom McCarthy, Jeff Noon and Slavoj Žižek was published in conjunction with the exhibition Looking for Alfred, Johan Grimonprez at Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich, 10 May – 19 August, 2007.
  3. Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, New York: Penguin, 1998, pp. 489-93. The story is also reproduced in the catalogue Looking For Alfred, op. cit., pp. 54-59.
  4. A small town south of Buenos Aires, where many of Borges’ stories (such as Death and the Compass) take place.
  5. Published in Looking For Alfred, op. cit., pp. 63-71.
  6. Hitchcock-Truffaut – Edition définitive, Paris: Ramsay, 1983. Translated by Helen Scott in Hitchcock by François Truffaut – Revised Edition, New York: Simon & Shuster, 1985.
  7. Néstor Ibarra, “Préface” in Borges, Fictions, Paris: Gallimard (Folio), 1957, p. 11, translation mine.
  8. This is particularly well analysed in Cle Sloan’s documentary, Bastards of the Party (2006).
  9. See Mumia Abu-Jamal, We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party; introduction by Kathleen Cleaver, Cambridge: South End Press, 2004.
  10. Cherie Currie and Neal Shusterman, Neon Angels: The Cherie Currie Story, Los Angeles: Price Stern Sloan, 1989.
  11. See Julia Levin, “Tomás Gutiérrez Alea”, Senses of Cinema, http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/03/alea.html
  12. Premiered in Berlin, Strawberry was shown around the world, including at Sundance where it received an award, and was the first Cuban film nominated for an Academy Award.
  13. Edmundo Desnoes, Memories of Underdevelopment (the original English-language edition had the title “Inconsolable Memories”), Pittsburgh: Latin American Literary Review Press, 2004).
  14. Julianne Burton, “Modernist Form in Land in Anguish and Memories of Underdevelopment“, Post Script (Jacksonville, Florida), winter 1984.
  15. According to Coyula, “Nestor Almendros was Edumudo Desnoes’s brother-in-law. Nestor and his sister María Rosa (who became Desnoes’s wife) came as kids, running away from the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) with their father Herminio Almendros, a well-known writer. Nestor courted his sister to leave Cuba all the time after he left, but she always refused. When he died he left her an inheritance, which in the novel and film, he leaves to Sergio. Desnoes turned Almendros into his own brother in the novel, since he knew him quite well. In Memories of Overdevelopment, I made both brothers 20 years younger since I wanted Sergio to leave Cuba during the Mariel Boatlift, which was a more dramatic exit. This also allowed me to talk about many events that were closer to my generation, which were not in the novel because Desnoes left Cuba in 1979 while the character in the film leaves after the collapse of the socialist bloc of Europe.” (E-mails to the author, June 9 and 10, 2010)
  16. Disclaimer: Angela Webb was a student at the California Institute of the Arts and I was on the review committee that graduated her.
  17. The website put together by the filmmakers is http://www.thetruthaboutstolen.com/

The website put together by the Australia Western Sahara Association (AWSA) is http://www.therealtruthaboutstolen.com/

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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