January 20–30, 2005
It is nobody’s secret. Sundance 2005 was an honest year, but not a great one. The most salient feature was the decision to organise a competition for international features and documentaries. Sundance was founded, in the 1980s, on the stride of the enthusiasm generated by the emergence of an ebullient, risk-taking independent scene in the US. For too long, American cinema had been equated with Hollywood, it was time to turn a new page. And Sundance played a role in launching the careers of Gregg Araki, Jamie Babbit, Hal Hartley, Todd Haynes, Rebecca Miller, Steven Soderberg, Richard Linklater, Todd Solondz, and Quentin Tarantino; of indie producers such as Jake Abraham, Caroline Kaplan, James Schamus, Mary Jane Slaski, John Sloss, Jim Stark, Andrea Spielberg, or Christine Vachon. It provided a powerful echo chamber for the emergence of queer cinema (alternative cinema by women, on the other hand, pre-dates Sundance, and its current development has taken another, more experimental route – even though the films of Camille Billops, Betzy Bromberg, Shu-lea Cheang, Julie Dash, Zeinabu Irene Davis, Nina Menkes, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Britta Sjogren and Cauleen Smith have shown there occasionally). It has echoed some of the most significant developments in the US indie scene – from the emergence of the “New Black Cinema” to the complex avatars of Asian American cinema, to the new role played by digital media. Thanks to Robert Redford’s (the founder and president of the Festival) political involvement in the matter, it has also provided a welcome forum for Native American cinema – “discovering” Chris Eyres for example.
As always in the case of a successful festival, there were a few pessimistic analysts stating that Sundance had “betrayed its mission” and “become more commercial”. It’s true that, if you want, everything you can talk about at Sundance is how much Miramax or Sony Classics have paid to acquire such and such “product”. Yet, you can also talk about cinema, and the organisers have made every effort to keep the festival open toward more “experimental” directions with sections such as “American Spectrum” or “Frontier”. Sometimes, the decision to put a certain film in a parallel section rather than in competition remains a mystery or has been open to criticism. Such was the case last year for the highly successful Tarnation (2004) by Jonathan Caouette, who later went to Cannes and every other international film festival one can think of, before enjoying a commercial release in the US. On the other hand, this year, the Dramatic Competition Section included a couple of offbeat and non-commercial features, such as Who Killed Cock Robin? (2005) and Police Beat (2004); the jury is still out on whether or not this decision may have backfired and marginalised the films. But, this is, after all, a question of label and strategy, and Sundance audiences aren’t always the smartest ones when it comes to appreciating quality. I still remember the poor reception met by Gus Van Sant’s Gerry (2002) – maybe one of the most beautiful films of the last few years – when it was premiered in the Eccles Theatre a few years ago.
More difficult to gauge is the relevance of admitting foreign films at Sundance – a process that took several years. Realistically – and no offence meant to the curators – this is, as many things that happen in the US film industry – a question of market. In the last 15 years or so, a certain kind of foreign cinema – hip, cool, astutely showing the societal changes brought by globalisation and the existence of an international youth culture into a number of countries, from the former Soviet Union to Latin America – has competed with US indies for the attention of a certain segment of the public: young but not juvenile, urban, educated, well-travelled, with a certain intellectual curiosity and sophistication. People who like Kill Bill, Almodovar’s Bad Education, Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven, Jia Zhangke’s Unknown Pleasures, have tripped on “New Mexican Cinema” and John Woo’s Hong Kong period etc… So, in a way, it made sense to create a competition for these kinds of films at Sundance. Except that I’m not sure it was a wise decision. Let’s face it – film professionals, when they come to Sundance, want to be a part of the “discovery” of the “new Tarantino” – not marvel at the bold cinematic language of an auteur from Burkina Faso, whose commercial prospects are close to nil. That may be sad, but that’s a fact – even with the competition, foreign films are much less attended than American ones. It has its good sides – if you get kicked out of a “hot” screening, you can usually find a seat to watch a documentary from China. I’m not sure if it’s so good for the filmmakers.
The reason is the infamous “A” category rule. Film festivals, like the old European aristocracy – have tiers. On the top, you have the “A” festivals (to get such a rating you must be approved by the International Federal of Film Festivals or FIAF). The most important are: Cannes, Berlin, Venice, San Sebastian, Rotterdam, Locarno. Montreal and Shanghai recently lost their “A” ranking, while Karlovy Vary was recently granted one (people are still wondering if it was a good idea…) Tribeca, started with a substantial amount a funding, is also ranked “A”. Sundance, not having, until recently, an international competition, is not. To retain their qualification the main competition of “A” festivals can only include international premieres – i.e. films that not have been screened anywhere else except in their own country. So if a little indie accepts a lovely invitation from a Women’s Film Festival in France – that’s it. It has forfeited the right to go to Cannes or Locarno – except in sidebars. The same thing will happen to an African film internationally premiered at Sundance.
For the time being, Sundance does not seek international premieres for foreign films, but insists on US premieres. It may change, as festival curators are becoming more and more aggressive in trying to secure international premieres. Often young, inexperienced directors fall into the trap, especially as, for shorts and documentaries, there are many grey zones that further complicate matters. One cannot, however, reverse the tide. The decision to organise an international competition at Sundance is indeed controversial, but it also reflects the evolution of tastes among filmgoers and of the conditions of film productions in our era of globalisation. Apart from studio blockbusters (increasingly designed for an audience of adolescent boys) an increasing number of films are now international co-productions, and US indie cinema is a prime example of this. Let’s not complain. In spite of my reservations (voiced to express the concerns of some of the foreign filmmakers I spoke to during the festival), I was given the chance to see some excellent films from Angola or Israel I may have missed if they hadn’t been screened at Sundance.
Let’s start, however, with American cinema. The best film of the Festival, bar none, was the latest opus of a “child of Sundance”, a man whose epoch-making The Living End (1992) inaugurated a new era in independent queer cinema, who floundered a little bit with his last two films (and I’m not saying, as others do, that it was because he was telling “heterosexual” stories – like most of us, he experienced the need to shed his old skin, turn a new leaf, coin a different language for himself, and it sometimes takes time). With Mysterious Skin (2004), Gregg Araki returns, but with a new, more incisive, yet more generous, gaze, to what he likes to do: filming the bodies, gestures, lifestyle, anxieties, stories, imaginaries of adolescent boys. Inspired by Scott Heim’s (probably semi-autobiographical) novel, the film gracefully treads a fine line in dealing with a difficult subject (paedophilia) avoiding both homophobia and pruriency. It weaves a multi-layered texture between the lives of two young men, unconsciously connected by the abuse they suffered (and maybe enjoyed) from a beloved teacher as children. One of them is a shy nerd, who heals himself through the absurd conviction he was once abducted by aliens (which makes him meet people even weirder than he is). The other is a devilishly seductive hustler who, after having fucked every available man in his small town, sets out to New York City, only to discover his own vulnerability and mortality. Araki has the uncanny ability to show how teenagers relate to each other, and how men – gay, straight, old and young, sick and healthy – behave in each other’s company. Mysterious Skin is a compassionate, sensitive, intelligent, highly original coming-of-age story. Far from sensationalising the issue, the film builds a morality tale in which issues of personal responsibility are posed – for both “victims” and “perpetrators”.
This is also a reason to respect Kirby Dick’s new documentary, Twist of Faith (2004), which investigates a case against a Roman Catholic priest accused of molesting some of his former students. Since Chain Camera (2001) Dick has often shared the task of collecting images with his “subjects” – and this decision endows the film with unexpected gravitas. The film focuses on one of the victims, Tony Comes, a firefighter, married with a little girl, whose seemingly “heroic”, unproblematic life is turned upside down when he discovers that his former abuser, now defrocked, has moved five houses away from him. At the same time, one of his former classmates, an openly gay man, is the first to come out in the open and file a suit against the archdiocese of Toledo, Ohio. More than the resurfacing memories of the abuse, Comes has to deal with an array of issues – from shouldering the macho jokes of his firefighter co-workers to gaining a new respect and understanding for gay men to keeping his Catholic faith alive and his marriage working, to telling the truth to his little daughter. By empowering Comes and giving him a camera (so the intimate footage of the heart-to-heart talk with the young girl is actually recorded by the father as he’s struggling to “come clean” and explain to her these difficult facts), Dick may have played a role in the healing process. Here also, Comes was walking on a tight rope: how to separate homosexuality from paedophilia, and avoid the pitfalls of bigoted homophobia (the charismatic presence, courage, fortitude and wit of the gay victim certainly helped) while keeping his faith. For the latter, the attitude of the Toledo archdiocese was certainly no help – and for a while it looked as if the Comes family might change denomination (as well as get a divorce). Yet both Dick and Comes managed to come out of the process, if not unscathed, at least with a sense of dignity that has become increasingly rare in contemporary media.
The “Premieres” section hosted a few filmmakers whose work had graced Sundance in the past. Idiosyncratic auteur Hal Hartley, who seems to have fallen off the main spinning wheel of chic indies, had coined a poetic, melancholy “faux science fiction” tale, The Girl from Monday (2004). With the limitations of a small budget, the terse, banal decors of a generic Manhattan, and the ironical nonchalance that has long been his signature, Hartley treads a territory once inhabited by the magic realism of films such as Eliseo Subielo’s The Man Facing Southeast (1986). The dreary picture of our contemporary reality is sweetly shaken by the arrival of a benevolent mysterious being coming from another realm of reality – be it a planet called Monday or our own imaginary. And suddenly the present becomes absurd – worse, unbearable. In the not-so-futuristic world depicted by Hartley, a conventional form of sexual promiscuity is linked to consumerism, status and economic/political power. Instead the camera keeps framing the main protagonists in tight, intimate, tender shots, creating a sort of “cinematic lover’s discourse” for the protagonists, as they stand dangerously alone against the tide, with their confused, conflicted feelings and hidden histories. Some will say that Hartley has lost the tongue-and-cheek, the ebullient insolence and the fast post-godardian pacing that inspired the dialogues of The Unbelievable Truth (1989) or Trust (1990). Yet, in this attempt at renewing his cinematic universe, he has lost none of his generosity, sense of the absurd and baroque humour. It’s still an incredibly bold claim to believe that, no matter how imperfect, bizarre or unrequited, love may save the day. What’s changed is the acute awareness that the world may not grant us that many days to live anymore.
For her first “commercial venture”, The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2004), Rebecca Miller leaves the world of digital production – her previous feature, Personal Velocity (2002) had been produced by InDigEnt, a New York-based company specialising in low-budget digital films – but continues her collaboration with award-winning DP Ellen Kuras, with exquisite results. Going to Berlin after Sundance, the film will reach some of its (most literate) audience with an aura of melancholia, due to the recent death of playwright Arthur Miller – legendary literary figure, ex-husband of Marilyn Monroe, and, through a late marriage, father of the filmmaker. Not surprisingly, Rebecca Miller’s fictional work has been haunted by the charismatic yet problematic figure of a father and the often-mysterious dynamic of father-daughter relationship. The father in Ballad, seductively played by Daniel Day-Lewis, still clings to the utopian socio-political values of the 1960s, and lives in a former commune, on an island off the Eastern shore of the United States, away from the pitfalls of capitalism and civilisation. Yet, when his daughter, Rose, comes of age and discover her sexuality, other youths and the lure of the outside world, he behaves like a betrayed lover – a bittersweet reminder that one of the things that was not completely addressed by the counterculture of the 1960s was gender equality, male prerogative and jealousy. Sexual liberation mostly benefited the guys – and the girls were invited to join only if they complied. Rose resolves her own problem, by nonchalantly staging her own deflowering with a hunk she couldn’t care less about, befriending the gay son of Jack’s girlfriend of the moment (an exquisite Catherine Keener), and going around with a bunch of lost kids. What is at stake, ultimately, is the death of the father – not only his physical, actual death, but the end of the world in which he believed. Miller graciously offers her protagonist a chance of reconciliation with an old nemesis (real estate developer Beau Bridges), a chance of making peace with himself. That’s the ballad – a musical form in which unexpected harmony is finally found, but with more than a twinge of sadness.
This is also with an overwhelming father figure that the protagonists of Ira Sachs’s Forty Shades of Blue (2004) have to contend – as well as the filmmaker himself, who candidly alluded to the semi-autobiographical starting point of the film in one of the Q&A sessions. Yet this time it’s not only the estranged son, but the young wife as well, who pay the price for patriarchal exuberance. The pattern is mythical – it’s the story of Phaedra – the young, displaced, foreign wife, married to a hero who’s so used to having the world revolve around him that he no longer sees her, and then the intrusion of an estranged son from a previous union. Yet, the world has changed. In Memphis, where the film takes place, it’s musicians, not warriors, that become legends – and the international circulation of capital, ideas, trends and women between East and West, poor and rich countries, adds a new cruelty to the situation. The role of Laura, the trophy wife, was initially written for Maggie Cheung (who had to withdraw because of a scheduling conflict) then reshaped into the story about a translator from the former Soviet Union who met the “hero” during an international conference and came to the US with him. Almost- newcomer Dina Korzun plays Laura as a woman who wears her beauty as a mask and a shield, so guarded and protective that only a series of transgressions can put her back in touch with her inner self – and drew appreciative laughter from the audience when uttering typical American phrases with a straight face (a situation many foreigners who want to “blend in” have found themselves in). Indeed, Forty Shades of Blue was probably the best film in the Dramatic Competition (and indeed won the Jury Award) – yet something of the magic of Sachs’s first feature The Delta (1996) is missing.
Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) was a performance-driven text, being the first feature film of multimedia performance artist/videomaker/writer Miranda July, who also plays the main role. A lovely, often daring and surprising film, Me and You takes the spectator into the twists and turns of not-so-casual relationships between strangers who desperately long to connect but are ambivalent (if not downright scared) about getting involved. Out of this potentially cliche-ridden context, July draws the finely nuanced portrait of a gently screwed-up young female artist-cum-eldercab driver, and depicts the nascent sexuality of teenagers and even very young children with uncanny (and humorous) accuracy, freshness and originality. She’s less successful in her representation of the local art world establishment – even though one of her plot resolutions, involving a museum curator, is, frankly, quite funny. July has the knack to draw meanings from details (see the story of the fish forgotten in its plastic bag on the top of a moving vehicle, or the sub-plot involving the elaborate flirtation between the teenage girls and the shoe salesman).
Another much-expected first narrative feature from a director known for another kind of work was Who Killed Cock Robin? A noted political documentarist, up-and-coming independent filmmaker and alternative distributor (his company, extremelowfrequency, represents political documentaries by the likes of Santiago Alvarez and John Gianvito), Travis Wilkerson received wide critical attention with his feature-length experimental documentary An Injury to One (2002) that elegantly deconstructed two kinds of murder: that of wobblie union organiser Frank Little, kidnapped and killed in the middle of the night by “unknown parties”, and that of the city of Butte, Montana, once the thiefdom of anti-labour copper barons, now an ecological disaster (see my report on Sundance 2003). Raised in Butte till age 12, Wilkerson has a passionate, intimate and obsessional bond with the city (in the last couple of years, he organised screenings of alternative films in an abandoned mine) and Who Killed Cock Robin? is an attempt to cover similar ground (the disintegration of the social fabric of the city, the persistence of a certain form of wobblie utopianism and working-class culture, present mostly through songs, in the face of the despoiling of political ideals etc…) through narration and in a contemporary setting. As always, Wilkerson’s force is the understanding that the cinematic mise en scène of such socio-political conflicts is constructed through the bodies of the protagonists. Frank Little’s body was an enigma – the only thing that remains of him is a faded picture. Yet, in contemporary Butte, it is the implicit resistance of bodies that create disorder. Barrett Murphy first appears as a disenfranchised teenager – sullen in his low-paying job as a dish-washer, and then yielding (with catastrophic results) to the temptation of shop-lifting. Then, during the rest of the film, at the risk of turning himself into a nuisance and alienating his two friends – Barrett refuses to become invisible, to disappear, and keeps asserting himself, with the energy of despair, as the body that does not fit, the surplus body, the unclassifiable body. Hence is the meaning of the mysterious “first ending” of the film, showing Barrett’s naked body, lying and displaying his tattoos. Like the geese in An Injury to One, it is a body that desperately refuses to die.
Another intriguing first feature is Robinson Devor’s Police Beat – the highly original, minimalist exploration of Seattle through the eyes of a Senegalese immigrant policeman (Pape Sidy Niang). Nothing much is explained how “Z” came to Seattle, nor what his personal history may be, but he’s certainly one of the most unexpected protagonists of US independent cinema of late. Z keeps going from crime scene to petty family disputes to traffic accidents – while commenting on the actions and his intimate feelings in the colourful mixture of French and several African languages that is spoken in most West African cities these days. He’s keeping his cool when dealing with battered wives, murder suspects or grannies looking for their cats, but his value system is challenged at several levels. First his police beat partner develops an obsession for a roadside whore, which turns into a warm, loving relationship. Then his white American girlfriend, Rachel, while apparently committed to the relationship, insists that monogamy is passé and leaves on a camping trip with another man, no longer answering Z’s calls on her mobile. Since Montesquieu’s Les Lettres persanes the device of having a foreigner looking at one’s society has been often used, usually to auspicious results, by both literature and cinema, and what is interesting is that the point of abutment is usually in the realm of sexual politics. Devor frames Z’s distress in the matter, his trancelike exploration of his Seattle beat, and subverts a number of audience expectations – from the way a city should be represented to narrative structures to the way men feel about the women they care about. As the US is still stuck up on issues of ethnic identity, it is immensely refreshing that Police Beat does not present inter-racial dating (or for the matter, inter-racial friendship) as “an issue”.
On the other hand, Alice Wu’s Saving Face (2004) (“American Spectrum” section), while more conventional, expands the concerns of “Asian American cinema” to create a dialectic between the different facets of the identity of her protagonists: they are indeed Chinese women living in Queens (one of the New York boroughs with the highest concentration of immigrants, and, in particular, a thriving Chinese community from the mainland), and, as such, expected to maintain a certain decorum and “save face” for the patriarchy, but subversive elements are thrown in the mix. Not only that the daughters – Wil, a successful surgeon and her girlfriend Vivian, a ballet dancer – are gay, but that the 48 year-old mother, Ma (a sensitive, elegant, alluring performance by Joan Chen) is pregnant by a man whose name she won’t reveal. Ma has, of course, a hard time accepting that her daughter is gay, but tolerance is in the eye of the beholder, and Wil also is clueless about the identity of her mother’s secret lover. The ending – an unconscious quoting of The Graduate? – may be a little too pat, but Saving Face is nonetheless an exhilarating film.
The Joy of Life (2004) (“Frontier” section), the first feature by renowned filmmaker/archivist/historian/curator Jenni Olson, explores a more experimental path. A series of carefully composed, stunning, static landscape shots of San Francisco (the city where Olson lives and works, which is also the “gay capital” of the US) unfolds as a visual counterpoint to the confidential voiceover of an unseen narrator. This strategy (re)inserts the film within the canon of a certain American avant-garde – Michael Snow’s and Hollis Frampton’s static shots, James Benning, Bill Jones’ and Jem Cohen’s landscape shots, Su Friedrich’s juxtaposition of unrelated images and sounds. Olson’s past experience as an archivist (she’s the author of Homo Promo, a witty collage of vintage trailers with a queer subtext) resurfaces in the way she deals with the relationship between image and sound. Each landscape shot could be, in a way, “found footage” to which a meaning will be assigned a posteriori. The first person voiceover – taken from the diary of a butch dyke that recounts her relationship with a femme girlfriend, her failures and success, lust and loneliness – subverts any “innocent” reading of the sights, and imbues them with the signs of lesbian desire.
Luke Savisky’s experimental performance, Film Actions V (“Frontier”) represent another extension of the use of “found footage” by taking the “action” of projecting outside of the booth and into the room, onto the moving bodies or the face of the spectators etc. Using a series of film and video projectors, live shooting, and a mixture of archival material and original shots, Savisky reshapes the environment, multiplies the images around it, uses projected light for its sculptural qualities.
Much was expected from Marc Levin’s Protocols of Zion (2004) (“Special Screenings” section), but I found it to be a real disappointment. The subject is quite fascinating: the resurgence of antisemitism after September 11, especially through the (re)diffusion of a 19th century pamphlet, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, in which the theory of world domination by the Jews is expounded. The manuscript was more than probably forged by the Tsarist secret police, but it keeps resurfacing at key moments in the development of antisemitism. Yet, instead of delving into the history of the manuscript, its use and circulation, Levin spreads himself thin, jumps from a perfunctory analysis of antisemitism in the US to a failed attempt at interviewing “the Hollywood Jews” to a catalogue of antisemitic offences perpetrated in the Arab world (especially on Egyptian television) to the tender memories of the just Jewish men in his family. More to the point, Levin stages himself, and his anger at some hateful statements about the victims of September 11 (“There were no Jews in the World Trade Center. They knew about it in advance and warned their brethrens”) gets the best of him.
On the other hand, David Redmon’s Mardi Gras: Made in China (“Documentary” competition) represents the best of what a US independent documentary can be – adventurous, original, informative, witty, opinionated. Since 1978, during the New Orleans Mardi Gras, an interesting custom has taken place: when necklaces of beads are thrown at them by interested onlookers, some women take off their tops and “flash” their breasts. After the revelry, beads are swept off the streets by the thousands. Yet where do these beads come from? Redmon tracks them down in a sweat factory in the coastal (and very poor) province of Fujian, China, where dozens of peasant girls come to work for substandard wages and harsh conditions (their pay is reduced if they’re only half an hour late) for an enterprising businessman from Hong Kong. Redmon goes back and forth between Louisiana and China, investigating both the Mardi Gras and the working conditions of the beadmakers. Then he shows the young Chinese women footage from the New Orleans festivities, which puzzles them and makes them rather uncomfortable (“Women take their tops off in exchange for the beads we make?! But these beads are so ugly!”). In New Orleans he shows, on a screen in the street, footage taken in the Fujian factory – but is met with incomprehension and lack of interest (“Are these women Japanese?”). Clearly a labour of love, Mardi Gras: Made in China is a smart document on the inequalities of globalisation, and the growing gap between Western consumer culture and the lives of the have-not in the rest of the world.
The International Documentary Competition contained a very strong work, Wall (Mur) (2004) by Simone Bitton, a veteran documentary filmmaker who proudly (yet sorrowfully) reclaims her double cultural heritage as an Arab and as a Jew. Born in Morocco, Bitton immigrated to Israel as a teenager, and studied filmmaking in Paris. Keeping a home in both Jerusalem and Paris, she speaks Hebrew, Arabic, French and English. Having done a number of documentaries on major figures of the Mediterranean world (including the legendary Egyptian singer Oum Kalsoum) she stages herself in her latest film – but in a way that is quite different from Levin’s self-righteous positioning in Protocols. Following the course of the wall designed by the Israeli government to separate Jews from Palestinians, the film is about the fracture that is inside her. The contraption of grey concrete, barbed wires, surveillance towers and gravel that despoils the gentle Mediterranean landscape, separates villages from their olive fields, cuts across ancient streets, isolates sacred shrines from their immediate surroundings, makes “normalcy” impossible, as a Palestinian psychiatrist friend reminds her. The friend, by the way, is in Gaza, a place that Bitton, an Israeli citizen, is now forbidden to visit, and the conversation takes place through the intermittent, imperfect image of a videophone – a poignant cinematic reminder of the impact of the wall. Aren’t similar devices used in jail, to allow prisoners to communicate with their visitors? And the question here is to know who is really in jail. In addition to separating the two communities and preventing Palestinians from circulating freely, isn’t the wall trapping the Israeli themselves?
Noting that the building of the Berlin Wall was not documented, Bitton opted for a “road movie” that would follow the trajectory of the wall as it is being built. As such Wall documents a process, and the structure of the wall has changed since the completion of the film. The last shots show women with children, old people, men and women carrying bundles or going to work as they painstakingly climb over the wall or sneak in through the slim opening between two concrete blocks. Yet in these specific spots the temporary construction has now been replaced by higher concrete barriers that can no longer be overcome. There may be – there must be – other “passing points”, but crossing is becoming more and more difficult. Through her journey, Bitton meets a variety of people – some speaking Hebrew, some Arabic, some English, some who decide to remain off-camera, some who perceive the filming as an opportunity to air their feelings. And then – again, the inequalities between the two societies in terms of access to work and social support fosters cruelly absurd situations. Building the wall is a “good job” for unemployed Palestinians while the supervisors are of, course, Israeli Jews. Yet one of them is still mourning the fertile land he left behind in Iraq, when he came to Israel pursuing the dream of a homeland that turned into a disappointment, if not a nightmare. Others have a passionate attachment for Israel, which gives them an ironical perspective on the building of the wall – “we love this land so much that we want to enclose it… we are clogging our own arteries, we are responsible for our own death…”. A young soldier, barely a teenager, nervous under his military bravado, is applying the rules at one of the checkpoints. That involves checking identity cards, opening plastic bags and truck containers, but also scolding Israeli citizens who think they can still pass between the two sides of the divided country. It is clear where Bitton’s sympathies lie – but she does not preach; she lets the physical presence of the wall, the mundane, everyday gestures of the people who live around it, speak for themselves, therefore creating an elegant, almost minimalist testimony of one of the most painful tragedies of our times.
The second foreign documentary I was very much looking forward to was Yang Ban Xi: The 8 Model Works (Yang Ban Xi—de 8 modelwerken) (2004), but, while informative for those not familiar with the subject, it turned to be quite weak. The Yang Ban Xi or “revolutionary operas” were the brainchild of Madame Mao (Jian Qin Min) during the Cultural Revolution. As everything was subjected to control for ideological correctness, China produced a staggering small number of movies during that time, but designed a very original art form – a mixture of Peking opera, Western ballet and Maoist dogmas that were presented on stage as ballets or operas and then turned into films. The Yang Ban Xi celebrated the fight of oppressed peasants and People’s Liberation Army heroes against Kuomintang villains and feudal landlords – as evidenced in the titles: The Red Detachment of Women, Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, Raid on the White Tiger Regiment, or the most famous of all, The White Haired Girl, which tells the woes of a poor young peasant so abused by the landlord that her hair turns white and she seeks refuge in the mountain until the PLA rescues her. For a long time, the Yang Ban Xi had very bad press in the English-speaking Western world, who considered it as a rather ridiculous example of camp propaganda. The heroes were all fresh-faced and wore bright colours, peach blossoms graced the bucolic decor, Mao Zedong’s red sun would appear and disappear in the background at key moments, girls dressed in cute red outfits leaped over mountains. And then, everybody was singing… When the details of the abuses of the Cultural Revolution were known, the Yang Ban Xi was associated with cultural repression, and the Chinese government became ashamed of it. Jian Qin received a death sentence – later commuted to life imprisonment – some of the most famous revolutionary opera performers became victims of the “counter-repression” that followed the fall of the Gang of Four, and the China Film Archive refused to let anyone take even a small peek at the Yang Ban Xi.
In France, on the other hand, Yang Ban Xi received very favourable criticism – especially from the editors of Cahiers du cinéma, who not only fancied they were “Maoist” but deconstructed the films as a very exciting rearrangement of filmic signs, a new form of cinema. What was not known at the time was how regular Chinese audiences experienced the artform. Indeed, the people born in and before the 1950s really suffered during the Cultural Revolution and mostly disliked the Yang Ban Xi. On the other hand, those born after 1960, who were kids during these troubled years, having no other entertainment than the Yang Ban Xi, actually loved it, and some young boys felt their first sexual emotions when looking at the naked thighs of the female dancers in red skimpy shorts. Conversely, the critical and academic community has started to rediscover Yang Ban Xi and some important work is being produced on the matter – while in China, a whole new generation of young people has become passionate about the artform.
The problem is – you won’t find much of this information in the film shown at Sundance. Directed by a young woman born in Hong Kong but raised in the Netherlands, Yan Ting Yuen, it mostly suffers from a certain smugness. Instead of doing real research, the filmmaker opted for fictional reconstructions of moments of Jian Qin’s life (an actress utters the famous words “I was Chairman Mao’s dog”) – without contextualisation (a spectator at Sundance was confused, for the film didn’t make it clear if this was something Jian Qin really said at her trial). Worse, she commissioned a choreographer to design modern-day “yang ban xi sequences”. The film does not even get into the details of the “8 Model Operas” – it barely skims over two or three, and the interviews of the surviving performers are superficial. A great subject, a failed film – let’s hope another director will tackle the challenge soon.
There were indeed Chinese feature films at Sundance – the current output is of such magnitude that it’s hard for film festivals to ignore it, but I found the selection to be rather cautious. Not that the films weren’t good – but they had a US producer or distributor (as if dealing directly with the Chinese film industry would have been too risky). Kekexili: Mountain Patrol (2004) is a good example of this. It’s the second feature of a promising young graduate of the Beijing Film Academy, Lu Chuan, whose sincere intent of developing a “modern” film language – mixing Chinese reality with tropes inspired by Western cinema – had attracted the attention of Columbia Asia after they set up office in Hong Kong. The US company produced both his first film, The Missing Gun (2001) (starting one of China’s biggest male stars, Jiang Wen) and Kekexili, a more ambitious film shot in extremely difficult conditions in Tibet. It may be the first “above-ground” production to address some less-than-savoury aspects of Tibetan reality; it is also the first film from mainland China to receive the Best Film Award at the Taiwan Golden Horse Film Festival (the Taiwanese Oscar). Based on a true story, Kekexili takes the viewers on a harrowing trip to some desolate mountains of Tibet. There, a band of what we may call “desperados” (underpaid, underequipped, rough, and not adverse to resorting to unorthodox methods) have taken it upon themselves to track the poachers that kill the endangered Tibetan antelopes for their precious pelts. As in a Western, or a well-rounded action film, Lu focuses on the rituals that bond the men together, outlining their travails and the suicidal aspect of their task against spectacular landscapes, lovingly shot in beautiful 35mm by master DP Cao Yu.
The second Chinese film, Kung Fu Hustle (Menghu Jiaolong) (2004) was shown in the “Premieres” section – which makes sense since it was acquired by Sony Classics. It’s the latest work of Stephen Chow, Hong Kong most successful comedian/director, who has already made a killing in the US with Shaolin Soccer (2001) (albeit re-edited and dubbed…) I have enjoyed many of Chow’s films in the past, even though I often find his kind of humour to be sophomoric, if not, sometimes, downright offensive (bordering on homophobia and sexism), and am not a fan of Shaolin Soccer. I was completely taken, however, by Kung Fu Hustle‘s savvy mix of madcap comedy and daredevil martial arts. Under a reworking of the usual Stephen Chow tropes (a bundling anti-hero lacking some essential human qualities but imbued with an endearing desire to succeed, turns up to be, in this case, a martial arts genius) the film pays a loving homage to the best of Cantonese film history – from the many versions of the farce involving “72 tenants” and the landlords who exploit them in a crowded apartment compound to the sophisticated, architecture-driven martial arts films of King Hu. It is particularly moving to see veteran kung fu actors cast in important supporting roles – from Yuen Wah (who just won the Best Supporting Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards) to Yuen Qiu (a former classmate of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung in the Peking Opera school they attended as children) who turns upside down the role of the mean, foul-mouthed landlady, with a cigarette perpetually dangling on her lips. As the hapless tenants are persecuted by the Axe Gang (due to Chow’s uninspired attempts at being “a gangster”) she reveals herself to be a formal martial arts queen, now retired due to the death of her son, but not unwilling to kick some villain’s ass and brilliantly save the day.
In the International Dramatic Competition the Grand Prize went (deservedly) to a small film from Angola, Zézé Gamboa’s The Hero (O Heroi) (2004). If you haven’t seen an Angolan film before, it’s because there is virtually no film industry in the country. The Hero was shown at Cannes last year, and then picked up by one of the best, courageous distributors of African cinema in the US, the San Francisco-based California Newsreel. Apart from such small companies and the occasional foray of bigger distributors (New Yorker who keeps buying all the Ousmane Sembene films, etc.) into the field, African cinema is almost invisible in the US, so the prize received at Sundance is indeed great news. As Angola is barely recovering from a long, bloody civil wars that left thousands dead, hundreds of fighters from both camps mutilated and scattered families looking for their missing relatives, Gamboa creates a fiction interweaving the longing and despair of those who have lost so much, with the hopes that the rebuilding of the country may bring. Vitorio (Milton Coelho), a war veteran who has lost his leg to a landmine, has to use all his stamina to convince doctors to give him a prothesis, as the country is suffering from penury of medical supplies and equipment. He finds himself homeless, a useless, unemployable hero, having to sleep in the mean streets of the capital, where gangs of disenfranchised young thugs roam. What does a man want? Food, a job, a place to rest, but also sex and a warm body. Vitorio hangs out in a bar, gets picked by a prostitute, is robbed, beaten and humiliated, his prothesis is stolen, but he also meets Maria Barbara, a hooker still looking for her missing son. A tentative relationship develops, and the two misfits start living together. One of the street thugs is a young boy, Manu, raised by his grandmother after his father went to war and his mother deserted him. Word is that his father may still be alive, but may have lost his leg. This is no Hollywood. When Vitorio and Manu meet, they don’t recognise each other, because they are not father and son – they are just victims like many others of this senseless war, and a “happy ending” of this sort would simply be false. And we hear no word on whether Maria Barbara’s child is still alive or not. At the end of the film, the characters are still searching, but have found something new, unexpected, in each other.
Meanwhile Joana, a young schoolteacher (with a long-gone Portuguese father who left her with a nice flat, a middle-class status and the light skin of a mestiza) reconnects with a former boyfriend, the son of a powerful politician, who has gone abroad to study and reveals himself to be a little bit of a prick. Never to stand for ready-made endings and pat resolutions, Gamboa weaves an interesting sexual tension when Joana takes an interest in Vitorio’s story. Class, gender, power struggle, the ambient corruption, all this add to a finely nuanced portrait of emotionally complex characters and a country still struggling to define, beyond its post-war identity, its national cinema.