January 19–29, 2006
One of the coldest festivals in recent memory, the 2006 edition left most of us with a bittersweet taste. There were some nice films, but nothing truly exceptional in the Dramatic Competition – maybe a sign that, in the times we live, narration is experiencing a certain lassitude. It is difficult, when your country is throwing bombs on civilians and torturing people in its custody, to believe that storytelling can still address issues that matter. So it was seeking shelter in the “small form” – often more or less delicate variations of the hapless gap between the genders. The War, world poverty, immigration, genocide in Africa, the inequalities of the justice system – all of this reappeared in the Documentary Competition, arguably the best that Sundance offers. Both the Documentary Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for Documentary were received by a film I didn’t have a chance to see, Christopher Quinn’s God Grew Tired of Us (2004) – about the odyssey of three young Sudanese refugees in the US. There were a few topical films about the political situation in the US. Ian Inaba’s American Blackout (2006) (Special Jury Prize, Documentary) follows African American Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney’s investigation about the systematic squelching of the black vote, especially in the Republican elections in Florida in 2000, and after 9/11. Formally unimaginative, Joseph Mathew’s Crossing Arizona (2006) was nonetheless a fascinating document on the slow genocide that is brewing at the US-Mexican frontier. As the easiest routes have been closed, illegal immigrants (about 4,500 every day) have to enter the US through the deadly Sonora Desert in Arizona. Many die of thirst or exhaustion, many give up or are arrested by the Border Patrol. Unlike Chantal Akerman’s De l’autre côté (From the Other Side) (2002) in which the subject was subsumed by a powerful mise en scène (although it should be added that when that film was made, the death count was not as high as it is today), Crossing Arizona is more an informative piece of agit-prop than a real work of cinema. Its most engaging moments are small vignettes exposing the many facets of the situation. Small Arizona towns still thrive on the old West folklore and stage scenes from “Showdown at OK Corral” – and eventually produce the less nostalgic mythology of the Minutemen, the private militia controlling the borders. Day in and day out, Mike Wilson, a powerfully built member of the Tohono O’odham Indian Nation, leaves gallons of water on the trails followed by the migrants; one day, as he’s about to deposit his plastic bottles, he runs into an immigrant having lost his companions: “I can’t take you in my van, the Patrol would arrest me” – and the fourth wall is broken as the man, ready to continue his long walk, acknowledges the presence of the film team with a friendly nod. Two young Latinas campaigning door-to-door against a racist measure engage in a conversation with a prejudiced white woman… Interestingly enough, the film that won the International Documentary Competition, Tin Dirdamal’s DeNADIE (No One) (2005) – which I didn’t have the chance to see, due to a rescheduling of the press screening – deals with the subject of Latino immigration into the US, but from a Mexican point of view.
Two documentaries addressed the situation in Iraq. I missed the first one, The Ground Truth: After the Killing Ends (2006) in which veteran filmmaker and peace activist Patricia Foulkrod stresses the physical and emotional effects of the fighting on the US combatants – from the scars left by basic training or orders received on the battlefield to post-traumatic stress disorder. Iraq in Fragments (2006), on the other hand, only shows rare, fleeting images of US soldiers – passing in their cars in the middle of a Baghdad crowd, glancing at teenagers as if they expected to be attacked at any minute, or cruising the skies in helicopters. James Longley’s second feature (after Gaza Strip, 2002) is an astonishing piece of cinema verité, shot mostly (by Longley himself) in intimate close-ups that suggest an almost tactile proximity with his subjects. Not another “war documentary”, it shows daily life in three different parts of occupied Iraq, from the point of view or ordinary people, including little boys. Longley visited Iraq twice before the invasion and lived there two full years after March 2003. “Mohammed of Baghdad” starts on and is punctuated by images of dark smoke coming out of burning houses, a constant reminder of the destruction that has been waged on that working-class neighbourhood. The voiceover is that of 11 year-old Mohammed, who tries to juggle apprenticing as an auto mechanic and going to school. He fails at both. His boss shames him for not being able to know how to write – not even his father’s name – and abuses him verbally and physically. But, as we witness the rough treatment inflicted upon him, Mohammed’s voiceover keeps insisting that his boss is like a father to him, loves him and won’t fire him. Longley subtly inserts close-ups of Mohammed’s eyes, strengthening the impression that this fragment is about the boy’s impossible quest. His father having disappeared under Saddam, Mohammed is desperate for a figure of male authority.
“Sadr’s South” takes us in the Shia area between Naseriyah and the holy city of Najaf. The voiceover is that of Sheik Aws, a young cleric who had been imprisoned and tortured under Saddam, who gave him insider’s access to the Shiite movement of Moqtada Sadr – until the Sadr uprising in April 2004 in Kufa (about which he was only able to shoot disjointed moments, including the screaming of wounded men brought inside a hospital after the repression of a demonstration by the Spanish Army). Longley does not shy away from violent scenes that underline the complexity of the religious/political situation. A procession of religious flagellants whipping themselves bloody is followed by a political meeting discussing the upcoming elections, and then by a raid on the market where the Mehdi Army militia brutally arrest and beat up vendors suspected of selling alcohol. Inside the prison, the men, blindfolded, protest loudly. Outside, a woman is no less vocal in demanding her husband’s release. Later, in a tailor’s shop, men work feverishly on their sewing machines while a grainy TV monitor broadcasts Bush’s allocution about Abu Ghraib translated into Arabic.
“Kurdish Spring”, shot mostly in a rural area, unfolds at a quieter pace. Two voices are commenting: a young boy and his elderly father, a very pious man from a family of farmers/bricklayers, who hopes that one of his six sons will become a cleric. While following the bucolic lifestyle of the boy – tending the sheep, working in the brick oven, playing with his mates, and eventually deciding to drop school to be able to work and support his father – Longley also shows the elections and gives voice to the Kurds’ hope for independence. For each section, Longley adopted an editing strategy that communicates a sense of rhythm and pulse felt from inside a given situation, something that is usually absent in “informative” documentaries. Iraq in Fragments, indeed, was criticised by some for “not explaining the situation in Iraq”, or even for its “experimental” quality. Yet, it was awarded three prizes in the documentary category: directing, cinematography and editing.
Some spectators commented on the almost-total absence of women in the film – apart from the wife of the man arrested on the market, a Kurdish woman who wonders aloud how to vote since she is illiterate, and a little girl running in a pink dress near her family’s brick ovens. (Longley said he wanted to include a section about a shelter for women threatened with “honour killing” but had decided it didn’t fit with the rest of the film). Rather than blaming Longley, I saw in this absence a structuring feature of contemporary Iraqi society. Yes, it will be many years before a woman will be invited to sit in a Shiite political meeting – but some women are brave enough to face the Mehdi Police militia.
And, indeed, what struck me in a number of entries at the Festival was how they addressed, in a wide (and sometimes wild) variety of ways, issues of gender – its complicated construction, the glitches that throw the system off, the patient (or sometimes impatient) renegotiation endeavoured by the subjects to “fit” within, and, always, multiple levels of transgression.
Women in Trouble
There was a subtle trend this year – a white woman in trouble is redeemed by a man of colour, after white men have failed her. Laurie Collyer’s Sherrybaby (2006) (Dramatic Competition) has some irritating moments in the depictions of the “helpless” femininity – of a protagonist whose sense of self has been destroyed to the extent that she can only rely on her good looks, or resort to drugs. Maggie Gyllenhaal, who burst into fame as the masochistic eponymous heroine of Steven Shainberg’s Secretary (2001), plays Sherry’s role to perfection. Her hot pants, sexy tops and struggle to keep “clean” of drugs reminded me of Penny (Jacqueline McKenzie) in Mary Kuryla’s remarkable debut film, Freak Weather (1998). Gathering critical attention and respect, the film was more or less overlooked by the audience – echoing the fate of Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970) (1). While their protagonists are different – Wanda was offering a “I couldn’t care less” attitude to the world, Penny was messy and Sherry is ebullient and trying too hard – these three films (directed by women) invest an uncomfortable zone: the subjectivity and sexuality of a working-class female having lost her moorings. Significantly, these women are also defined through their conflicting relationship to motherhood. Wanda gives up her sons to the custody of her husband and his new girlfriend, without even a single glance in their direction; Penny’s antics might endanger the welfare of her 11 year-old son; and Sherry is single-mindedly determined to regain custody of her 5 year-old daughter, even though she may not be fit for it. As Julia Gustafson reminds us in her documentary Desire, (2) choices about motherhood are couched in different terms for working-class women than for middle-class, educated women. Prison – an institution filled with poor women – is also at the horizon. The original Wanda on whom Loden’s heroine was patterned ended up there; Penny might get a taste of it; and Sherry is trying to rebuilt her life after a stretch behind bars. What these women have most in common, though, is their sexuality – the desperate sense that their bodies have to be made available to whoever wants it or can be useful – a travelling salesman for Wanda, or social services officers for Sherry who lends herself for a quick fuck to the man running the halfway house or gives a blow job to the director of the Unemployment office.
The theme of abuse also resurfaces – Sherry used to work as a hostess in a nightclub where she met her baby’s father (long ago out of the picture), and contracted a drug habit. Later, when going, uninvited, to the birthday party organised in her father’s house for her daughter, she tries to cuddle with her father to get some sort of moral comfort – only to have the latter lasciviously feel her breasts. There is more than a hint that this moment triggers equally horrifying memories; Sherry flees on her high heels, and runs to the next dealer to have her arms punctured – sealing her fate. The only men who show a bit of respect to her are Dean (Danny Trejo) a Native American met at a 12-step meeting – even though he’s no saint himself – and a tough African-American parole officer (Giancarlo Esposito).
Once out of jail, Sherry had no place to stay – she hated the half-way house and her sister-in-law was less than thrilled to put her up even temporarily. Dean’s house represented the tempting image of a shelter, but that also proved to be elusive. It’s Esposito’s character who gives a new home to Sherry – at a price. She has to give up her cherished job with children (negotiated under the desk of the Unemployment office) to undergo drug treatment in a hospital. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Aurea is trapped in The House of Sand (Casa de Areia) (2005) (World Cinema Dramatic Competition – Albert P. Sloan Feature Film Prize) for decades without the possibility of ever getting out. Shot in dramatic large screen composition by Ricardo Della Rosa, in the spectacular landscapes of Maranhao in Northern Brazil, Andrucha Waddington’s second feature starts in 1910, following a caravan led by Vasco (veteran director Ruy Guerra), who, in his madness, has purchased a land in the middle of a desert. A stern, domineering, irascible man, he is taking with him his much-younger pregnant wife, Aurea (Fernanda Torres), and her mother, Dona Maria (Fernando Montenegro), touchingly dressed in Victorian laces that would fit better in a boudoir than a desert. No love is lost between the three: elements of the sparse dialogue imply that Aurea was “purchased” by Vasco to pay for her family’s debts. Upon arriving on his land, Vasco has to dispute it against a colony of runaway slaves who claim it as well. Shortly after, the men he hired disband – and he’s killed in a freak accident. The two women are left alone in the house built on the sand – that becomes their prison. Aurea swears that she’ll cross the desert back and join civilisation (what she misses the most is the sound of piano music) but has to wait for her daughter to grow up to undertake the journey. Meanwhile, in the village of runaway slaves, Massu (Seu Jorge), a widower with a young son, helps the women set up house, gives or sells them supplies, and gradually becomes a source of help and comfort.
Waddington superbly manages to convey the sense of entrapment – but also fascination – experienced by Aurea. As in some of Borges’ stories, the most intricate labyrinth does not have “bifurcated paths” – it’s the desert, and its endless succession of dunes, always shifting and moving. What I find more problematic is the depiction of the black man, as an almost silent cipher, whose mysterious and exotic presence looms over the women’s destiny. Thinking that only a man will get her out of her predicament, Aurea tries to convince the salt vendor to take her on his journey, and, failing that, eventually chances upon a scientific mission exploring the dunes. Their guide is a young officer with whom she spends a torrid night of love. Coming back home to fetch her mother and daughter, she finds that the house has collapsed, killing Dona Maria. Finally she yields, wordlessly, to the carnal attraction represented by Massu’s muscular black body – a scene witnessed by young Maria. It is unclear if the latter flees in horror because she sees her mother as a sexual being, or her pristine white mother with a black man. Anyhow, 20 years later, Maria has become the local tramp, and Aurea a gentle matriarch who lives with Massu and takes care of his family. The actresses have been switched – fiery-looking Torres now plays Maria, and the wonderful veteran actress Montenegro becomes Aurea’s next incarnation (it helps that the two women are mother and daughter in real life). A bit confusing at first, the device illustrates a transference between the character: Aurea eventually reproduces her mother’s quiet acceptance that her destiny is in the desert, and, in the second half of the film, Maria will fulfil her mother’s dreams.
Meanwhile, as time passes (the woman who inspired the original story lived 59 years in a small shack in the desert) little snippets of the outside world sometimes come in – a first war, and then a second, which brings back the military in this remote area, and, with them, the long awaited possibility of a way out…
Salvation also comes in the form of a man – white but damaged both emotionally and physically – but after a long journey in the desert of self-imposed silence for Hanna (a magnificent Sarah Polley), the heroine of Isabel Coixet’s The Secret Life of Words (2005) (Premieres Section). In her earlier film, My Life Without Me (2003), Coixet (born in Barcelona) had crafted the fine, moving portrait of a young working-class mother (also played by Polley) enduring a terminal illness with incredible grace, humour and gumption. The Secret Life, which, half-way through, is grafted onto one of the greatest tragedies recently experienced by Europe, the Bosnian war, is more ambitious, but manages to retain the subtle strokes that we love in Coixet. It also quickly dispels the déjà-vu feeling produced by some of its similarities to Lars van Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996): an isolated oil rig in the Northern Sea, an injured man, a woman who comes to visit. She’s a strange, isolated young waif, recruited during a lonely vacation to nurse Josef (Tim Robbins), the survivor of a fire on an oil rig – garrulous and joking but temporarily blind. Between the man who can’t see and the woman who won’t talk an uneasy relationship starts, triggered by Josef with the only cards he thinks he can play: jocular flirtation. In the alchemy that ensues, words become as much a dam as a bridge (Josef is hiding something) while silence opens up an uncertain route of communication. When Josef stays quiet and Hanna finally speaks, her foreignness underlined by her accent, the audience is as shattered as her diegetic listener. Then come the damning words: “They were our soldiers!” Yes, the men who did that could have been her neighbours, or her cousins. Another woman betrayed by her male kin, Hanna disappears once Josef is better. Still psychologically wounded, he endeavours to find her. Happy end – of sorts.
A multiple-award winner (after Sundance, where it was awarded the Special Dramatic Prize for Independent Vision, the film received the FIPRESCI Prize in Berlin), So Yong Kim’s debut feature In Between Days (2006) delicately follows the path of her young heroine, who has pretty much to fend for herself. Having followed her divorced mother from South Korea to the strange, snow-covered city of Toronto (that, seen through Sarah Levy’s acute lens, seems to be populated mostly of Asian teenagers, a fact almost confirmed by statistics) (3), Aimie (Jiseon Kim) writes imaginary letters to her absent father who has stayed in Korea. Kim has a flair for representing the interaction of teenagers as a parallel world that sometimes overlaps, but never coincides, with that of the adults (something that the best of Gregg Araki’s films, such as Totally F***ed Up  or Mysterious Skin , suggest as well). Self-sufficient (she can cook and do the laundry) Aimie is sometimes a witness to her mother’s romantic struggles – now she dolls herself up like a tart, now she’s crying – but these events seem to appear at the corner of her peripheral vision. At the centre of her universe is first of all herself, and second this boy at school, Tran (a winning performance by Taegu Andy Kang) who can’t really decide if he’s interested in her as a potential girlfriend or as a buddy. Keeping the camera in close proximity to her young subjects, Kim outlines an insider’s game, alternatively cruel and whimsical, in which the two protagonists use each other as toys. Like children, they are sometimes tempted to play doctor, but as young adults, they find that sexuality comes with all sorts of emotional entanglement that they’d rather avoid. All of this is complicated by the challenges of adapting to an “anglo” life-style and the pressures of acting like a cool, westernised teenager. Not unlike Sherry, Aimie can be sometimes downright irritating – unconsciously playing “the helpless Asian female” as a foil, to gain time, to unfold the mysteries of her own desires. When she’s about to find out, it’s too late. Boys are fickle.
The unreliability of men is something that the heroines of Stephanie Daley (2006) (Dramatic Competition – Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award) eventually find out, discovering in each other an unexpected source of strength. For her second feature, Hilary Brougher (who had surprised us in 1996 with the irreverent, non-linear sci-fi lesbian feature The Sticky Fingers of Time) examines the unfolding relationship between Lydie Crane (a wonderful Tilda Swinton, who also executive produced the film), a 40-something forensic psychologist, and Stephanie (Amber Tamblyn), a working-class teenager. Pregnant for the second time after having lost a stillborn baby the year before, Lydie is battling rational and irrational fears (culminating in an eerie nightmare during which she kills a deer while driving to the hospital and immediately goes into labour) while feeling a growing estrangement from her architect husband, Paul. The couple never resolved how to manage their grief after the miscarriage, and Paul may or may not be having an affair. Lydie is brought to examine Stephanie, who was seen leaving the bathroom of a ski training camp, leaving behind her a trail of blood on the snow. In the bathroom was a dead baby. While the 16 year-old girl claims she never knew that she was pregnant and that the baby was stillborn, she is charged with murder.
The film unfolds through a series of flash-backs, alternating Lydie’s story and Stephanie’s version of what happened to her – from her religious upbringing to her relationship with her parents (who switch from sternness to devotion to denial) to the moment sex was forced onto her, in a matter of minutes, by a callous young man at a party, to her months of pregnancy and the aftermath of her arrest. The story of a girl giving birth in the bathroom is, alas, something that gets reported from time to time in the newspapers; but Brougher never turns Stephanie into a sociological type nor the element of a statistic, nor even – and this is where the film reaches a high level of integrity – into a victim. In outlining the uneasy relationship between the two women and weaving together facts that are at the border between reality, fabrication, false memories and fantasy, Stephanie Daley poses essential ethical problems. Even if life treats you badly, you still have a choice. In a way that I find particularly moving, choice crystallises in the moment the two women admit they share a bond.
Kiss Me Not on the Eyes (Dunia) (2005) (World Cinema Dramatic Competition) by the Lebanese-born filmmaker Jocelyne Saab is a graceful, if sometimes unsatisfactory, attempt to suggest the conflict between a woman’s sensuality and the constraints that are still imposed upon her in Arab societies. In the 1970s, Saab had directed a number of independent documentaries about the effects of the war in Lebanon and Egypt and switched to fiction in 1985 with A Suspended Life (Gazl el Banat). For her third feature she returns to Cairo to follow the steps of the beautiful Dunia (Hanan Turk) who studies both belly dancing and Arabic literature. As the subject of her thesis is “Love in Arab Poetry”, she bonds with her literature teacher, the blind Professor Beshir (an arresting performance by the great popular singer Mohammad Mounir, who, extra-diegetically, interprets the songs of the film). Beshir lives alone with his thousands of books in a pension managed by a sensuous, middle-aged beauty who signals her presence through the tinkling of bracelets when she enters his room for an afternoon interlude – and meanwhile he gets in trouble with censorship for his writing on the sensuality of classical Arab literature. His relationship to Dunia (he’s old enough to be her father) is complex and finely depicted; when Dunia takes refuge in the pension to shelter her niece who has just been forced to undergo genital mutilation, she can’t help putting on the older woman’s bracelets. Beshir is wise – “Don’t try to be someone else.”
The film gradually reveals the hidden secret behind Dunia’s touch-and-go sexuality – leaving it unspoken. As a teenager, she underwent the same ritual as her niece. Now she’s blocked – longing to but unable to experience desire – which destroys her marriage to Mahmoud, the young man she loved (or thought she loved). It does not help that, as soon as the marriage is consumed, Mahmoud attempts to restrict her freedom.
Saab deals with a difficult subject, and manages to pull together various strands of Egyptian culture – those that seduce us (music, dance, poetry, intellectual debates) and these remnants of conservative ideology that frighten us. She opens a new vista for understanding the situation of women in Arab societies (something the West is having increasing difficulties with). The “narrative void” around which the film is structured is a symptom of the unspeakable that Saab has the courage to confront.
The “female question” has long been an object of concern for veteran filmmaker Hiroki Ryuichi. A former director of “pink films” (soft-porn) turned “legit” in the early 1980s, he is fond of portraying strong, yet marginalised, women who can’t quite adjust to the strictures of Japanese society. In Yawarakai seikatsu (It’s Only Talk) (2005) (World Cinema Dramatic Competition) he resumes his collaboration with the wonderful stage actress Terajima Shinobu, who had starred in his earlier Vibrator (2003). As both films are an exploration of the female psyche, it is not irrelevant to notice that they are both inspired by the work of female novelists – Itoyama Akiko in this case. Humorous, ironical and gently self-deprecating, yet reaching rare levels of emotional truth, Terajima delivers a fine performance as 35 year-old Yuko – unmarried, undergoing medication for manic depression, and surfing the web for sexual adventures with impossible men. One of such meetings with a self-professed pervert, “K”, (Tagushi Tomorowo) leads her to move to the dreary suburb of Kamata Town, because it’s so “not chic” and fits her perfectly. She also encounters a (very young) manic depressive yakuza (Tsumabuki Satoshi) on his way to a fatal hit for which he’s supposed to take the fall and Honma (Matsuoka Shunsunke), a former classmate suffering from impotence (she’s willing to cure him but realises at her expense that what the man desperately needs is love, not sex). Then, Shoichi (Toyokawa Etsushi), the rugged-looks cousin to whom she once lost her virginity, in the midst of a marital mess (a floozy for a girlfriend, a wife who won’t sleep with him), knocks at the door of her dingy apartment, asking for a place to crash.
For all her emotional troubles and lies (she has several versions of how her parents died), Yuko has the luminous propensity of creating an almost magical world around her. She helps the yakuza find a long-lost childhood paradise, enters gracefully into K’s (rather harmless) fantasies, even helps Honma some. In the course of a few days she lives an off-beat version of domestic bliss with Shoichi (he’s sleeping on the floor, she in her bed), periodically broken by her manic crises and his subsequent bouts of anger at her “irrationality”. The pair become increasingly dependent on each other, Shoichi being the caretaker (he even cooks for her) and Yuko the provider of dreams. Strangely, it is when Yuko tries to be an “adult” (advising Shoichi to go back to his wife) that she pierces this fragile, beautiful bubble, and creates an unexpected tragedy. If anything, the melodramatic end sequence is a bit long, and maybe unnecessary – but Terajima – an actress you can’t take your eyes off – pulls it off effortlessly.
Masculinity was also under scrutiny – most often as an impossible norm subjected to transgression in situations involving race and class as well as gender. From this point of view, one of the most disturbing documentaries presented in the competition was The Trials of Darryl Hunt (Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, 2005). It is not irrelevant that this indictment of the racism prevalent in some quarters of the US justice system was directed by two white (and even blonde) women – for the “case” started in 1984, when, in the small North Carolina town of Winston-Salem, a young white newspaper reporter, Deborah Sykes, was brutally raped and murdered. Through a succession of coincidences and mishandling of evidence that have now become all-too-common, a 19 year-old black man, Darryl Hunt, was convicted of the heinous deed by a jury of 11 whites and one black. It was clear from the beginning that there was no real evidence against Hunt – and ten years later, completely exonerated by DNA tests, he still remained behind bars. The racist establishment of Winston-Salem, intent at protecting white womanhood, needed a “nigger” as the culprit – and it mattered very little whether or not it was the wrong man. Hunt’s conviction, ultimately, had very little to do with guilt or innocence – it was a warning shot directed at the entire black community: “stay away from our women – or we’ll get one of you – no matter whom.”
What follows, strangely, is a tale of redemption. On the one hand, the majority of the white people of Winston-Salem who were hostile to Hunt from the beginning don’t seem to be shaken in their convictions – there is something frightening in their refusal to change. On the other hand, Darryl Hunt, who seemed to have been, at the age of 19, a very nice young man (according to all witnesses, incapable of such a crime) but not a very interesting one – matures through the ordeal. I do not mean that the years behind bars have been in any way good for him, but that he found the internal strength to overcome his fate, and reach out to other people. Very soon, Hunt had a small group of supporters: Mark Rabil, the court-appointed lawyer who continued representing his client for 20 years; Larry Little, the founder of the Winston-Salem chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1969, later a city councilman, later a lawyer and finally a university law professor, who founded the Darryl Hunt Defense Committee; and finally, April Griggs, daughter of an Imam and supporter with whom Darryl stayed during a brief period of freedom on bond in 1989–90. The two fell in love and eventually married at the Piedmont Correctional Institution in 2000; it would be four more years before Hunt’s final liberation. Like other young black men in trouble (Hunt had a minor criminal record and was associating with potentially more dangerous offenders in 1984), Hunt eventually turned to Islam to find his ethical and cultural bearings and is now a smiling, benevolent advocate for criminal justice reform, at the head of a foundation that bears his name, with a good woman in traditional head-dress at his side. Without ignoring the patent subject of the film – an outraged protest against the racist bias in the justice system, something that is currently the subject of heated discussion in US media – I find it quite enlightening to read it “against the grain”, so to speak, as an example of how sexual politics has come to complicate the thorny issue of race in America.
Another film that seemed promising in that respect is Beyond Beats and Rhythms: A Hip-Hop Head Weighs in on Manhood in Hip-Hop Culture (2006) (Spectrum Section). The producer/director, Byron Hurt, had already explored the topics of black masculinity in his earlier work – and his background as former college football star and gender-violence prevention educator was promising. Most of the points made by the film are well-taken – such as the cooptation of gangsta rap by the (white-owned) record companies that create a market and an inflation of violence: to be “noticed” and taken seriously, an aspiring rap artist has to tries to outbid them all in the number of cops he’s ready to kill, bullets he can shoot, drugs he will ingest and bitches he will rape (at least in his lyrics). Hurt points out that the most faithful buyers of gangsta rap are young white males who have never set a foot in a ghetto and never been exposed to police violence. On the other hand, he talks to young black women about the effects of the violent misogyny that have become hip-hop staples. Some “don’t mind” – while some organise campus protests against a certain hip-hop artist who’s gone too far in his debasement of women. Yet, at 60 minutes, the film only scratches the surface – especially since Hurt treads a fine line, working very hard to convince young black males (his target audience?) that he’s a cool cat and enjoys a good hip-hop song like all the brothers. A beautiful subject – not a great film. The field is open…
Kevin Jerome Everson’s Cinnamon (2006) (Frontier Section) does not try to be cool and explores two different kinds of transgression. At the level of the subject matter, it focuses on the relationship between young women who are racecar drivers and their male mechanics. At the formal level, Everson, who has an outstanding record as a filmmaker (4) and teaches art at the University of Virginia, breaks a number of cinematic and cultural conventions by making an experimental film about the world of African American drag racing (usually treated in “realistic” or even “gritty” terms) – artfully mixing documentary and fiction, and entrusting some important aspects of the filmmaking process (acting, shooting, editing, costume and props) to some of his students (5). While the film features interviews and small vignettes with a few people involved in drag racing – either racers or mechanics, and even a 12 year-old driver, Ashley (shown in her bedroom surrounded by cute stuffed animals) – at its core is the intense collaboration between Erin, a junior bank employee who races in her spare time, and John, the 53 year-old mechanic in charge of her car. (Program notes help us understand that one of the interviewees, Rhonda, is John’s wife, and Ashley, who has been racing since she’s 7 and a half, one of his daughters.) Erin is a fictional character, played with engaging naturalness by a 25 year-old actress, Erin Stewart (also from U-V) – so the reoccurring scenes in which she learns some of the repetitive gestures of the trade from former racer Larry represent a true process. Like the film, Stewart treads with grace between several levels of reality. Cinnamon never alludes to the difficulties women may experience (due to sexism) in the world of drag racing – instead it takes it for granted that women are racing – and that’s it. Everson translates this matter-of-factedness in the way the film is shot and edited. Documentary and fictional shots, black-and-white and colour footage, images of the bank and images of the race-tracks, moments of speed and moments of stasis – all are montaged together in a rhythm that, without overwhelming us, communicate the tension, the enthusiasm, the fever experienced by the participants. Qiu’s editing strategy even involves, in a cyclical manner, the repetitive, almost-tedious aspects of preparing for a race, the endless spiral of trials and errors.
Erin first appears as a sort of dream image in John’s yard – she’s walking alone, in soft focus, as he’s fixing the car. Her sexuality and attractiveness are never denied when she’s on the race-tracks (unlike the “proper” uniform and the mask of professionalism she must wear at the bank). Her hair is loose, her breasts are visible under the tight T-shirt – but never once is she objectified. As Larry says – this is all about “respect” and respect is what Erin gets. She’s also given some beautiful self-reflexive moments – alone, almost motionless behind the windshield of her car before racing begins. Chances are – you’ve never seen a film like this about drag racing and you’ll never see one again.
The most transgressive film in the Festival came with an aura of scandal: premiered at Cannes in May 2005, Carlos Reygadas’ Batalla en el cielo (Battle in Heaven) (Spectrum), had sharply divided critics, even those who admired his first feature, Japón (2002). I have to confess to being out of synch with the controversy. First, even though I respect Japón, I wasn’t amongst its most ardent supporters. Maybe what bothered me, retroactively, was that the point of view (dare I say “the desire”) of the 80 year-old widow with whom the suicidal anti-hero is shown having graphic sex is maintained as a cipher. On the other hand, what touches me in Battle in Heaven are the moments in which the two women in Marcos’ life, express their feelings for him. Marcos (Marcos Hernández), a stocky middle-aged, painfully shy man, works as the driver for a general in the Mexican army. As part of his duties, he has to pick up the general’s 19 year-old daughter, Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz) who, while in love with a young officer, spends her free time working at a fancy brothel patronised by older men. Marcos, who has known her since she was a little girl, is entrusted with her secret, which creates between the unlikely pair a bond that none of them fully understands. Marcos, indeed, sexually pines for the girl, but the nature of her emotions is more opaque. After introducing him to some of her colleagues in what she playfully calls “the boutique”, Ana eventually sleeps with Marcos, with the controlled grace of a professional for her favourite customer, in a breathtakingly beautiful scene. Reygadas’ camera glides over these bodies that are not only so different but come from worlds that are miles (and classes) apart, then pans outside through the window, before returning to the room. As is now his trademark, penetration, genitals and bodily motions are shown clearly – the pleasure and the awkwardness of sex offered to the viewer. Marcos had told Ana his own secret: the baby he and his wife had kidnapped for ransom accidentally died in their captivity. After sex, Ana says “You have to turn yourself in, Marcos”, with the same estranged elegance as when she was making love to him. Yet, it is probably the most profound act of caring she is capable of. She knows Marcos’ tortured soul – even if she does not care – and therefore understands that he won’t be able to live with the consequences of his act.
Earlier, Marcos was making love to his wife (Bertha Ruiz), a fat, middle-aged, formidable-looking street vendor – hardly a traditional object of desire. It is in the relationship between the couple that the second miracle of the film happens: Reygadas stages a powerful love story – a tale of tenderness and dependence. Marcos’ wife is not shy in clearly stating her love for her man. When he announces his intention to turn himself in, she begs for one more day – one day so they can go to a pilgrimage, but basically one more day together. I couldn’t keep my eyes from the way these non-professional actors – people you could find in the street – expressed a large, complex gamut of emotions and internal turmoil. All of this takes place on a rich tapestry evocative, in a semi magic realist style, of the chaos overwhelming contemporary Mexico City: crowded subways, strange characters appearing and disappearing in the corner of our eyes (or, more likely, the main protagonist’s eyes), the sharp contrast between urban disorder and the bucolic, slightly frightening grandeur of the surrounding landscapes, an intoxicating mixture of modernity and ageless religiosity. Marcos ends up marching in a procession, on his knees, his head covered – surrounded by cops while his wife, once more, begs, and begs for nothing. The cops won’t have mercy, and neither does life (6).
As in Japón, what is fascinating in Battle in Heaven is the perspective it opens on the crisis of modern masculinity. Two other films addressed such identity crisis (albeit in a much more conventional way). A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (2006) (Dramatic Competition; Directing Prize; Special Jury Prize for Best Ensemble Performance) is the first feature directed by musician/writer Dito Montiel. Born in Astoria (Queens, New York) of a Salvadorean father and an Irish mother, Montiel eventually published his memoirs and turned them into a screenplay with the help of the Sundance Screenwriters and Filmmakers Labs. The word “saint” at once connotes the protagonist’s catholic education, and the sacred mixture of masters and monuments on which masculinity often seeks to prop itself. Saints are both masters and monuments, but in Montiel’s film, they are a bit chipped off, the paint is peeling and maybe an arm is missing – as statues in poor ethnic churches. The diegetic Dito (played by Shia LaBeouf as a lad in the mid-’80s, and by Robert Downey Jr. in the contemporary sequences), in his impossible attempt to please his father (a wonderful Chazz Palmintieri), identifies with several male figures – Mike (Martin Compston), the cool Irish kid with whom he dreams to form a band and escape to California, and, more importantly, Antonio (Channing Tatum, then Eric Roberts), the neighbourhood buddy his father dotes on, with whom a semi-hitchcockian transference of guilt will take place. Antonio will commit the murder that Dito is unable or unwilling to perform – and end up in jail for years, while Dito is free to roam the world.
More adventurous at the level of its narration, Brian Jun’s Steel City (2006) (Dramatic Competition) is an intimate, intelligent, finely crafted look at the relationship between men in a working-class milieu in Southern Illinois. While his estranged father is awaiting trial for a fatal drunk-driving accident and his mother (Laurie Metcalf) has started a new life with an African-American cop (James McDaniel), 20-something PJ (Raymond J. Barry) doesn’t seem to be able to hold on to any of the shitty jobs available in the depressed town. A love affair with a young Latina (America Ferrera) seems to break his bubble some – but it’s only after facing the darkness lurking in his family that he’ll manage to get into the Police Training Academy – his dream. Here also, there is a transference of guilt, this time between father and son – the former giving up some of the privileges of masculinity to allow the latter to have a better life.
Old Joy (2005) is an original, insightful, quietly meditative exploration of the secret travails of male bonding that for some reason got programmed into the Frontier Section rather than in the Dramatic Competition. It is the second feature of Kelly Reichardt, revealed by River of Grass that premiered at Sundance… in 1994. It is frightening that talented filmmakers have to wait more than ten years in-between films – but, thankfully Old Joy was also invited to Rotterdam and may hope for a better career in Europe. A deceptively simple story, it shows the interaction of two lifelong friends, Kurt (musician/actor Will Oldham) and Mark (Daniel London) who take a road trip together in the Cascade mountain range east of Portland. The “old joy” of their reunion is complicated by the different paths their lives have taken and the conflicting emotions that come with such realisation. Kurt is a drifter, while Mark is struggling to accept his imminent fatherhood. The originality of the film is not only content-related. Its mode of production is remarkable: produced by Todd Haynes, Old Joy was born out of the collaboration between photographer Justine Kurland (who shot a series of photographs of landscapes), writer Jonathan Raymond (who wrote a story inspired both by the photographs and by an inverted version of the myth of Cain and Abel reuniting in the primeval garden) and Reichardt (who was deeply affected by the final book) (7). As in the work of James Benning and William Jones or some of the films of Gus van Sant, the American landscape is what triggers the fiction – and, ultimately, this fiction is about the feelings men have for each other.
Another original take on masculinity was provided by Kan shang qu hen mei (Little Red Flowers) (2006) (World Cinema Dramatic Competition), the latest opus by Chinese Sixth Generation director Zhang Yuan. On the surface, it’s a feel-good story, taking place in a kindergarten amongst 60-odd unspeakably cute little children (this cuteness being my only complaint about the film). Yet, Zhang – once the director of counter-cultural experiments such as Beijing za zhong (Beijing Bastards) (1992) or the first Chinese underground film with a gay theme (Dong gong xi gong [East Palace West Palace] ) is spinning a much darker tale. This is Zhang’s second collaboration with Wang Shuo, the “bad boy” of Chinese literature whose novels of urban despair, endless drifting, macho delinquency and drunken odysseys have been adapted more than once in contemporary cinema. In 2002, Zhang directed Wo ai ni (I Love You) – a thinly fictionalised account of one of Wang’s problematic love relationships.
Little Flowers (based on Wang’s book Could Be Beautiful) recounts the writer’s early realisation that he was a misfit, an outsider. Dumped by always-absent parents in a mixture of boarding-house/kindergarten, 4 year-old Qiang (Dong Bowen) has to learn the intricacies of early socialisation, and, literally, the construction of manhood. Far from romanticising the process, the film depicts it (in a way that no American movie has dared to so far) at its root: toilet training. One can hardly forget these long rows of children (one for the boys, one for the girls) ordered by their instructors to poop together. Qiang’s problems with socialisation (and, it is intimated, with the militarisation of Chinese society) starts there: he can’t poop on cue. He has other problems: endowed with a wild imagination, he has such vivid dreams that he repeatedly wets his bed. He’s also unable to get dressed and undressed by himself. What turns this little failure of a boy into a rebellious would-be artist is that he does not take defeat lightly. The other boys make fun of him – OK, he’ll only befriend girls from now on. It’s not enough for him to fantasise (as many children do) that one of the schoolteachers is a child-devouring monster – he has to start a riot against her. The intelligence of the film (and the book behind it) is to suggest the “making of” a full-blown rebellious man. And the open ending is wonderful – we don’t know if Qiang’s final flight will find a narrative closure or not. What is sure is that it opens a space in which the writer Wang Shuo, shedding his childhood clothes, will eventually blossom.
Transgression is also a crossing of social space, gender boundaries and genre conventions. There are two films in Quinceañera (2005), which won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Prize in the Dramatic Competition. One is the loving portrait of Echo Park, a Latino neighbourhood near downtown Los Angeles, where a family struggles with the preparation of the traditional “Quinceañera”, a girl’s 15th birthday. Things are not so easy for rebellious Magdalena (first-time actress Emily Rios, who “had never been on a plane before coming to Sundance”). Having been involved in some heavy petting with her boyfriend, she finds herself pregnant, although she’s technically a virgin (this possibility being confirmed by the intensive research she’s conducting on the net). Her father is hardly convinced by the argument of virgin birth, and promptly casts out the hapless teen out of the house. Fortunately, Magdalena finds shelter in the house of her elderly Tio Tomas (Chalo Gonzalez, a Mexican “survivor” from Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch ), surrounded by a garden made of fantastic found object sculptures (as a former Echo Park resident myself, I can vouch that this garden exists – it is even more delirious in reality than in the film). She is joined by her cholo cousin Carlos (heartthrob Jesse Garcia) who shares his time between his job as a car hopper and getting in trouble.
The second film is much darker. Executively produced by Todd Haynes, Quinceañera is the brainchild of independent filmmakers Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer who together had directed The Fluffer (2001), a critical look at the gay porn industry. Glatzer became known for his first film, Grief (1994), a semi-autobiographic film about coping with the death of a lover to AIDS. Westmoreland’s professional biography wasn’t mentioned in the Sundance catalogue – the film is clearly aiming at a family market – but almost every gay man in the audience must have been aware of it, and anyhow I don’t think of Senses of Cinema as family press. Under a slightly different name he was one of the most sophisticated, respected and successful auteurs of gay porn films. Quinceañera’s subplot does justice to the directors’ artistic trajectory. It explores the social tensions created by the gentrification of Echo Park. The lot on which Tio Tomas’ back house is located is bought by a couple of middle-class gay men who have a fondness for Latino boys. Carlos is not adverse to experimentation and finds himself invited to parties in the main house, but his relationship with one of the men eventually triggers a crisis. Out of jealousy, the older lover expels Tio Tomas and his little family. Westmoreland and Glatzer – who, not coincidentally, live in Echo Park – have worked with the residents of the neighbourhood to direct what is, ultimately, an act of political courage on their part.
It’s a cliché that some areas of Los Angeles (West Hollywood, Silver Lake and now neighbouring Echo Park) are a haven for gay life. Malcolm Ingram’s Small Town Gay Bar (2006) (Documentary Competition) poses the questions of what happens in small, bigoted towns in the South of the United States. Some courageous entrepreneurs dare the impossible: open a space where queerness is the norm, where gay men and lesbian women can hold hands, kiss in public, dance til they drop, and even have sex on the sly. Drag queens are the unsung heroes of these places – parading in sequins, high heels and blonde wigs, looking for love, romance, normalcy with the touch of splendour and flamboyance any self-respecting Southern belle is entitled to. “Without the bar,” says one of the patrons, “you’d just stay home alone, with nothing to do, no friends, no social life.” The film also explores how local authorities harass the bar owners, take the slightest pretext to close the establishment, and even recounts some of the hate crimes gay people have been the victims of.
Homophobia is also something 13 year-old Logan (Malcolm Stumpf) has to grapple with in his posh Santa Cruz high school. Wild Tigers I Have Known (2006) (Frontier), the first feature of 24 year-old Cam Archer, is a fascinating narrative that uses various experimental strategies to penetrate the complex (and often confused) mind of his young protagonist: saturated colours, swift editing, highly creative set and prop design. A sissy bullied by the jocks at school, Logan reports his affection to a dark, cool kid called Rodeo (Patrick White), who, strangely, becomes his buddy. Meanwhile, a mountain lion roams the area (the school authorities have already shot one on the campus), and the two start exploring mysterious caves in which the beast might be hidden. Then Logan starts creating the persona of “Leah” and calls Rodeo for a bout of phone sex. Alas Rodeo is only interested in the “real goods” and intimates to Leah that if she continues refusing to have sex with him there is no point for her to keep calling him. Leah agrees to a night meeting in the lion’s cave – and Logan goes, dressed as a cute teenage girl with a blonde wig… “I thought you knew,” (one of the best lines of an intelligently written dialogue) he says, disappointedly when Rodeo leaves the cave. (To the credit of the film, no fag-beating takes place here. Rodeo simply walks away). And then, just as you thought that the mountain lion was a symbol for the “monsters” in Logan’s psyche… all hell breaks loose on campus again. A delightful debut, an original film: I will closely follow Cam Archer’s career from now on.
Another sympathetic fable of teen queerness, Aureo Solito’s Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros) (World Cinema Competition) takes place in the slums of Manila. The eponymous character (Nathan Lopez), as queer as they come, wanders around the neighbourhood in girlish clothes, with a little bow adorning his short hair – running errands for his family. His mother is dead, and his father and two brothers are petty criminals. Things get complicated when Victor (JR Valentin), a young policeman, who has just been affected to the precinct, rescues Maximo (“Maxi”) from some homophobic thugs. The boy develops an intense passion for Victor, brings him home-cooked meals at the station and tries to hang out with him as much as possible. Again – that would be impossible in an American film: albeit “straight”, Victor accepts and even relishes Maxi’s love for him. Meanwhile, the brothers slide from being petty criminals to murderers, when a mugging turns wrong. Victor is the cop assigned to the case. Maxi keeps coming back at him, unwittingly betraying, in turn, Victor and his own family.
At the end, as Maxi is going back to school, Victor passes him by in his car. He gets off, and then waits for the boy to walk in his direction. Yet Maxi has seen too many American movies on pirated DVDs (that’s one of the most endearing traits of his character), and, as this crucial moment of conflict and despair, resorts to Alida Valli’s famous stance at the end of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). He just walks by – a little queer boy from the slums yet regal in his pose as a movie star.
Yet the most amazing film I saw at Sundance this year turns out to be, strangely, a meditation on an often-ignored “vanishing point” of masculinity: monkhood. What does it mean for men to renounce the world, sexuality, to surrender to God’s infinite and mysterious love and follow a pre-ordered, immutable ritual – while being shrouded in almost complete silence? 21 years ago, young German filmmaker Philip Gröning – who was to leave his mark with features such as Sommer (Summer) (1988), Die Terroristen! (The Terrorists) (1992) and L’Amour, l’argent, l’amour (2000) – got the idea of making a documentary on the cloistered Carthusian monks of the monastery of La Grande Chartreuse in the French Alps. At that time the representatives of the Order told him it was “too early”. Five years ago, the monastery called and asked him if he was still interested… The monks, however, had very strict conditions. First, Gröning had to share their life in the monastery; second, he had to shoot in natural lights; and third there could be no voiceover or extra-diegetic music. As these conditions reflected his own aesthetics, Gröning was all-too-happy to oblige, and ended up spending six months in the Grande Chartreuse, in a small cell, subjected to the same rules of silence as the monks. (This rule can be broken when it’s connected to your work; a tailor can ask for scissors to be handed to him, and a filmmaker where to find a three-prong socket). 162 minutes long, the resulting film, Die Große Stille (Into Great Silence) (2005) (World Cinema Documentary Competition: Special Jury Prize) seductively follows the repetitive spiral of time, as it unfolds into tasks, rituals, prayers, meditation, and even a bit of monkish fun (everybody’s favourite moment in that regard takes place toward the end of the film, when the monks go and play in the snow, sliding on a sharp slope on their backside and laughing). The length and repetition are needed for Gröning to accomplish this apparently impossible task – give us a glimpse into the internal lives of these men who have given up speech.
Not that they’re all silent. A few interviews are allowed, especially with an older, blind monk, who says smilingly that “there is not a day in which [he] do[es] not thank God for [his] blindness, because He must have done it for a higher purpose.” For the Carthusian monks, the surrender to God is joyful, because of the superabundance of His love. In this, they are the followers of the great German mystic Meister Eckhart (8). The international success of the film is a testimony to the mastery of the mise en scène, the quiet, austere yet luminous beauty of the images composed by Gröning, the way his camera captures the light within the serene architecture of the cloister. The rhythm of the film is cyclical, alternating moments of almost absolute quiet with short vignettes in which the monks are lovingly depicted: a young black man becomes a novice; an old tailor sews the religious habits and saves all the buttons for future use (one of the rules of the Order is absolute poverty); another monk cuts his brethrens’ hair; a third tends flowers in the garden; silent men in their cells gently gaze at the camera in a series of static portraits…
The most astounding achievement of the film, though, is to communicate, in our pragmatic times in which religion is most often connected to the pursuit of power, something of the essence of the mystical drive that inhabits these men. In the Christian tradition represented by Eckhart, the soul is feminine (which is grammatically correct in French and German), and she is the Bride of Christ, who is the Groom. Therefore true mysticism requires a feminisation of the subject – it is why, noted Lacan, it is easier for women, although “one is not obliged, when one is male, to situate oneself on the side of the [phallic function]. One can also situate oneself on the side of the non-whole. There are men who are just as good as women. That happens.” (9) Significantly, these remarks are part of a chapter entitled “God and Woman’s jouissance” (“woman” being barred), in which Lacan proposes to “interpret the face of the Other, the God face, as based on feminie jouissance?” (p. 77). This is also why mysticism requires a denial of the trappings of masculinity – namely sexuality. For how could a man be God’s bride if he were husband to a woman?
As the monks won’t speak, Gröning inserts within the film fragments of the texts that inspire them. The seductive aspect of the film I had alluded to earlier may actually be the trace of a more important form of seduction. One of the quotes that recurs again and again comes from: “You have seduced me God, and I was seduced.” (10) Another quote that recurs comes from Meister Eckhart, whose version of mysticism is sometimes described as a form of pantheism (hence the accusation of heresy):
Behold, I have become human.
If you should not want to join me
in becoming God,
you would do me wrong.
Coupled with the images of the monks at work, in prayer, or meditating, with the long, slow unfolding of silence under the vaults of the cloister and the hearts of the men – this sentence, in its alluring mystery, may be one of the best approaches to the essence of Christian mysticism I have ever encountered. It prompted me to reread Meister Eckhart – forgotten since my years as a philosophy student – and get an (imperfect) grasp at the subtle beauty of asceticism. A far cry from New Age slogans, it quietly asserts the intimate presence of God in every human (and, as Eckhart said, “in things of wood and stone, but they know it not… For this reason man is happier than the inanimate wood, because he knows and understands how God is near him.”) Mysticism, however, is a dialectical process, not a given. The “attraction” (another word used by Eckhart) man has for the divine is equally as hard to understand as the fact that God became man (the mystery of Incarnation, in theological terms).
Into Great Silence is a film – a great film – not a treaty on modern mysticism. It succeeds on an austere terrain that lesser filmmakers would have shied away from: through respect, patience and compassion, it takes us inside the culture, the beliefs, the dreams of the Other – in this case a community of Carthusian monks.
- On Wanda (directed by and starring Barbara Loden) see
www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/02/22/wanda.html. A long-unavailable cult film, it was recently re-released in France. A Zone 2 DVD (with French subtitles) is now on the market. A US DVD is in the making and will be available this summer. I am sorry I didn’t get a chance to write about Freak Weather – a most interesting film that deserves an in-depth critical analysis.
- See my piece on the AFI Film Festival in this issue.
- Toronto was declared “the most cosmopolitan city in the world” by the United Nations.
- In addition to his earlier experimental feature, Spicebush (2005, world premiered at the Rotterdam International Film Festival), Everson has directed 26 shorts since 1997; his work has been shown at about every important alternative showcase in Europe and North America. He’s the recipient of numerous grants including a Guggenheim fellowship and an American Academy of Rome prize.
- For the record, I am bound to disclose the fact that Lin Qiu, who edited the sound and the picture while at U-V, is now my student at the California Institute of the Arts; similarly, Stephanie Owens, who did some of the costume and props, went to CalArts after U-V.
- On the film, read Maximilian Le Cain’s beautiful interview in www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/06/38/reygadas.html.
- Published by Artspace Books. See www.artbook.com.
- “Meister Eckhart”, who has been called the “Father of German thought”, was a Dominican monk, and one of the most profound thinkers of the Middle Ages. He was born about 1260 A.D. in Thuringia, and died in Cologne, 1327 A.D. In 1295 he was Prior of the Dominicans at Erfurt and Vicar-General of Thuringia. In 1300 he was sent to the University of Paris, where he studied Aristotle and the Platonists, and took the degree of Master of Arts. He was summoned to Rome in 1302 to assist Pope Boniface VIII in his struggle against Philip the Fair. In 1304 he became Provincial of his order for Saxony, and in 1307 Vicar-General of Bohemia. In 1311 he was sent again to act as professor of theology in the school of Dominicans in Paris, and afterwards in Strasburg. There he aroused suspicions and created enemies; his doctrine was accused of resembling that of some heretical sects. It appears that Eckhart was cited before the tribunal of the Inquisition at Cologne, and that he professed himself willing to withdraw anything that his writings might contain contrary to the teaching of the Church. The matter was referred to the Pope, who, in 1329, condemned certain propositions extracted from the writings of Eckhart two years after the death of the latter. (Information culled from: www.catholicprimer.org/eckhart/sermons/eckharttoc.htm).
- Jacques Lacan, Encore-Seminar: Book XX, trans. Bruce Fink, New York & London, Norton, 1999, p. 76, italics mine.
- Jeremiah 20: 7–13. During the Q & A with Gröning, I had the most interesting exchange about the “scandalous” aspect of this quote. The original French text (used by the monks) says: “Tu m’as séduit mon Dieu, et je me suis laissé séduire”, which should literally translate as “You have seduced me God, and I have let myself be seduced.” However, for the English subtitles, Gröning was bound to use the translation sanctioned by church authorities. My problem with this translation is that it conceals the fact that mysticism is not something that “overwhelms” you once and for all – but a constant decision, made every day by a willing subject. It has to be noted, however, that some English translations even manage to eschew the erotic implications of God’s seduction; they say: “You have led me astray, God…” which, in itself, like some mysterious passages of the Bible (Jacob’s fight with the Angel being one), is ultimately no less “scandalous”.