Feature image: The Diary of a Teenage Girl (dir. Marielle Heller)
A recent medical report intuits that people who complain live longer and healthier lives; so maybe this report is going to shave off a few weeks off my stay on this planet. To start with Sundance, my sole disappointment is that I had to miss a few films I really wanted to see, simply because they couldn’t fit in my schedule, but managed to gain access to every screening I had planned. There was one film that, as a converted Angelina, I was quite keen on: Laura Gabbert’s fourth documentary, City of Gold. No precious metal here: the treasures alluded to are the multifarious dishes prepared with spices, hard work, ingenuity and love in the eateries hidden in all corners of the city and uncovered by our local 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner food critic, Jonathan Gold. A fresh (and broke) graduate from UCLA where he had studied music and art, Gold decided, as a sort of conceptual project, to give himself a year, traveling by bus, to sample the food in every restaurant along Pico Boulevard (that runs east-west from Central Avenue – a high point of Black culture – in downtown Los Angeles to the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica, going through African American, Latino, Korean, Persian, Japanese and Jewish neighbourhoods, through ritzy as well as blighted blocks) during a whole year. When he was finished, an arresting, original combination of food reviewing and socio-cultural criticism was born. By the mid-1980s, his columns were one of the main reasons to read The LA Weekly. He wrote for the LA Times from 1990 to 1996, and eventually returned to the paper in 2012, never ceasing to delve into Los Angeles’ multi-ethical make up via his exploration of food in the most unlikely places, such as a taco truck manned by Japanese chefs or a hole-in-the-wall dive in the Chinese neighbourhood of Monterey Park where a Vietnamese family serves Cajun-style seafood in plastic bags. Gold is Los Angeles, his generous investigations reflecting the way the city has changed, how the diversity of food available is the best possible index of the successive waves of immigration.
One endearing aspect of City of Gold is its insight onto the act of writing itself, this passion that turns obsession into a way of life while opening up a can of severe disfunctionalities (“procrastination” is the word used in the film, but, as everything that has been used to describe the phenomenon, it’s woefully inappropriate). Like most of us, Gold finds it hard to complete an article on time. He even went to a therapist specialised in writer’s block who couldn’t do anything for him (“you have written so much, what’s the problem?”) Writing is like cooking. You gather the ingredients (you do the research), everything is ready (is it?), and then, anxiety starts gnawing you: do you really have everything you need? Is the soufflé going to fall flat, the sauce go sour or curl? You are not ready, you turn around, go on a wild goose chase in search for another ingredient, wait for the inspiration (or the grace of god) to hit you… and it does not… etc… As my long-suffering and always-gracious editor at Senses knows darn too well, there is no cure for this…
Good Wine in New Bottles
For the better and the worst, Sundance is an emanation of Los Angeles, and some of its best films involve a representation of the city. Unlike Gold, a dyed-in-the-wool native, the New Jersey-born, NYU-educated Sean Baker (known for his explorations of displaced populations in Manhattan: Take Out, 2004; and Prince of Broadway, 2008) successfully explored the “Valley” adjacent to Los Angeles with Starlet in 2012 and now lives near the corner of Highland and Santa Monica in Hollywood, an area known for its convenient fast food, cheap stores and vivid sex-hustling. In the vicinity, the LGBT Centre has several locations where gay and transgender subjects can gather, seek help and counselling, and organise. Baker crafted his plot by interacting with the community, befriending a transgender African American woman, Myra Taylor, who told him stories about “the scene”, helped him in his research and introduced him to her friend Kiki Kitana Rodriguez. Like Starlet, Tangerine revolves around an unorthodox female bond, a quest sprawling over overlooked Los Angeles landmarks – the first film ends up in a cemetery, the second in an all-night Laundromat – crossing over the grand divide between those who have a car and those who don’t. Jane made her friendship with Sadie possible by driving her around; Alexandra (Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Rodriguez) use public transportation and their own two feet to go places, but constantly interact with cars, entering them for a quickie, trying to entice their drivers, or having liquid thrown at them by “hate squads” from the windows of passing vehicles. The third term of the equation is a man who makes a living offering a ride to the carless, an Armenian cab driver, Ramzik (Karren Karagulian, a familiar face in all of Baker’s films), and whose front seat sometimes serves as a convenient prop for his private pleasures.
While Tangerine’s protagonists hang out more in donut shops – site of the messy confrontation between the girls, the pimp (James Ransone), the cabbie and his mother-in-law (Alla Tumamian) – than seeking culinary adventures, their quest espouses the quintessential pulse of Los Angeles no less than Mr Gold’s investigations, and, to translate that vibe, Baker convinced his DP Radium Cheung to shoot the film entirely on the iPhone 5S (that has recently come out with a better camera), equipped with prototypes anamorphic lenses specially conceived for the iPhone. The two men took turn shooting – while producer/costume designer/continuity person Shih-Ching Tsou (who has worked with Baker since Take Out, which she also co-directed) and co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch occasionally operated the camera, being as unobtrusive as possible (the donut shot, for example, was open to the public during the scene, with patrons coming and going unaware of what was going on). As the film was shot no-budget, the line between passers-by, performers and crew was crossed more than once – with Tsou doubling as the distressed donut shop owner, and Bergoch appearing in a small part. A moment en abyme had even been planned: in the montaged sequence showing Ramzik at work (elderly citizens in need of transportation, couples making out, drunken kids puking on the upholstery), a girl (Francis Lola) keeps taking selfies during her entire ride…
Let Us Praise Courageous Women
Expectations were also running high to see what Noah Baumbach (revealed in Sundance with his third feature, The Squid and the Whale, in 2005) was up to. Born in Brooklyn, the son of two New York cultural figures (which sometimes caused him some slack, as New Yorkers are prone to long-lasting feuds), Baumbach has set most of his films in New York’s five boroughs and the adjacent Long Island, and, since Margot at the Wedding (2007), his producer has been Scott Rudin, this quintessential New York Jew turned-Hollywood mogul, who can work with mainstream fare like The Social Network (2010) and edgy cultural products such as Wes Anderson’s movies. (1) Baumbach’s work took a definitive turn when he started a full-fledge collaboration with Gerwig, fourteen years his junior, ie in touch with a new generation of spectators and filmmakers – bringing along mumblecore acting/improvised dialogues. Her first feature as an actress was LOL (2006) by Joe Swanberg; immediately afterwards he cast her as the title role in Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) in which she shares writing credit with about everybody in the cast, an alluring collection of actors/directors. Then she worked with the Duplass brothers, co-wrote, co-directed and co-starred with Swanberg again in Nights and Weekends (2008), and added to her mumblecore credentials by appearing in Ry Russo-Young’s feminist East Village movie, You Won’t Miss Me (2009) and Ti West’s The House and the Devil (2009). In 2010, Baumbach cast her as Ben Stiller’s on-and-off interest in Greenberg. The film was co-written by Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh – who also had co-producer credit and appears as Stiller’s ex.
As finely dissected by Olivier Assayas in Late August, Early September (Fin août, début septembre, 1998), when a man leaves a woman for another, his relationship to the world, and to his creativity, changes as well. Gerwig brought not only her youth, but a mumblecore-style of “realistic” acting (I will write this with the caveat that any kind of realism is a convention) and “improvisational” (ditto) script-writing/line delivery, but also her endearing gifts as a comedienne (Scott Foundas compared her to screwball comedy queens Carole Lombard and Judy Holliday, and he’s far from wrong), (2) as well as a sassy feminine point of view. In Greenberg, she was clearly the girl designed for Ben Stiller’s neurotic consumption, but she actively resisted, imposing first her defiance, then her own desire, into the situation. With the luminous and beloved Frances Ha, the core of her relationships is with other women. This is carried with exhilarating blast in their second full-fledged collaboration, Mistress America, which, instead of revolving around the way Gerwig’s character, Brooke, perceives herself, shows how the besotted Tracy (Lola Kirke, remarked in a small part in David Fincher’s Gone Girl) sees her, dreams her and eventually writes her as “Mistress America”. The first fifteen minutes are devoted to Tracy, a Barnard College student and aspiring writer, too smart for her own good, and not fitting in her surroundings. While awkwardly struggling with the fact that the boy she likes (Matthew Shear) is too much in awe of her intelligence to actually romance her – dating instead a pathologically jealous classmate (Jasmine Cephas-Jones). Tracy is the confidante of her divorced mother’s plans to remarry, and, in the wake, decides to meet her future stepsister in a trip to New York. Enters Brooke, enters love. While remaining within a heterosexual framework, Mistress America plunges into the shimmering waters of female bonding, the romanticism, empathy, reciprocal admiration and sensuality that make female friendship, but also the insecurity, volatility and keen sense of betrayal that it can create. Tracy has no qualms affirming high and low that she “fell in love” with Brooke, and soon the two women are roaming through the streets of New York together, Tracy spending many a night at Brooke’s place while listening and partaking to the tales of her slightly crazy yet charmed life. When Brooke decides to open a restaurant, she cooks up a scheme of going to Connecticut (with Tracy, and the feuding Barnard couple in tow) to ask money from a former boyfriend of hers. In a sequence that unfolds in the man’s beautiful house, it becomes clear that the object of Brooke’s quest is not the man (he is absent during most of it, anyhow, and then comes up with a rather contemptuous proposal) but the woman he married, Mamie Clare (Heather Lind), who used to be her best friend. First unbearable as the “middle-class-wife-from-hell”, Mamie Clare proves to be quite an interesting character, with a past. Brooke accuses her of having stolen the profits of a T-shirt they designed together – and, eventually Mamie Clare comes through.
Mistress America brilliantly depicts how Brooke becomes a character of fiction in Tracy’s budding writing career. Brooke resists to be thus framed, feels betrayed, the friendship may not/will not resist… At the end, though, what remains is not silence, but words. Even if they are written by a college student.
“What I am the most proud of are my female characters,” said Joe Swanberg at the premiere of his first film in 35mm, Digging for Fire, which may be one of his best works. Since the beginning (and this is how he tapped onto Gerwig’s talent) his method has been to collaborate with actresses who were also strong people in real life and had a gift for improvisation. Mining his life again, Swanberg stages the angst of a thirty-something educator, Tim (Jack Johnson, who also co-wrote the screenplay), uncomfortable at the effects that parenting a three year-old kid (played by none other than Jude Swanberg) is having on his life. As he and his wife Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) move into a house for the summer, mild friction ensues, compounded by Tim’s procrastination at doing the couple’s taxes and his obsession with a gun he found buried in the garden. So Lee decides to take some time off, drops the toddler at her mother’s and spends a night of freedom in the town. Meanwhile, Tim reconnects with his primal cave man instincts by continuing to dig in the garden and inviting his buddies for some pizza and beer and more digging.
However the buddies have little interest in his efforts, no matter how many macabre discoveries he makes, and one of them even bring two “floozies” with him. At this point the film makes a sharp turn. With DeWitt’s contribution, Swanberg finely depicts Lee’s escapade – bonding with Mom, fun with the girls, expensive shopping tryst and unexpected romantic dilemma. Meanwhile, Max (Brie Larson), one of the girls brought last night, not such a “floozy” after all, returns to the house the next day (she has forgotten her purse), robustly accepts to help Tim’s digging without being afraid of soiling her clothes, and the two start up a timid sort of flirtation. As in a vintage Rohmer, Swanberg retrieves the aching that comes, in both spouses, with the temptation of infidelity.
Unexpected, directed by Kris Swanberg (Joe’s wife, a long-time collaborator and a director herself) may be perceived as a sort of reply: “You think having a kid changed your life. Let me show you how it changed mine.” Like the protagonist of Digging, the heroine of Unexpected, Sam, is an educator, who learns, as her job is being terminated, that she is pregnant. Her partner, John (Anders Holme), is supportive, and the two get married on the sly, to the chagrin of Sam’s mother. What mumblecore does best is tread the boundary between “reality” and “fiction,” scripted and improvised lines, and with Cobie Smulders, Swanberg struck gold, as the fantastically gifted actress was really pregnant during the shooting of the film.
Yet, there is much more to praise in Swanberg’s handling of her delicate subject. The inner city school in which Sam is teaching is going to close, due to funding issues, but she has woven some deep connections with some of the students. One of them, Jasmine (Gail Bean), an African American teenager raised by her grandmother, becomes pregnant too while applying for college; she breaks up with her boyfriend and decides to keep the baby, creating a rift in her relationship with Sam, who tries to “help” but ends up being awkward. Swanberg’s approach awakened the memory of a documentary series I had seen at Sundance in 2006, Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman, in which filmmaker Jennifer Fox, trying to decide if she should get pregnant or not, was “passing the camera” to a number of women around the world facing the same question, including young single mothers in South African township. The jury is still out: does a woman (more than man… give me a break!) irrevocably compromise her independence by having a baby, or are there creative ways to escape this conundrum? Unexpected is part of this ongoing conversation.
Meanwhile, a non-pregnant Cobie Smulders is probably the best thing in Results, the latest film (and first digital venture) by Andrew Bujalski (the man who invented the word mumblecore) that abounds in first-rate acting. Smulders’ character, Kat, had to be particularly strong, badass and resilient to become the stake in a tug-of-war between Kevin Corrigan’s Danny (a neurotic, out of shape nouveau millionaire) and Guy Pearce’s Trevor (a fitness-obsessed-cum-control-freak gym owner). Kat is Trevor’s most popular instructor, they even slept together a while earlier but it didn’t work, or didn’t matter, or they forgot about it. When Danny wants to use his newly inherited money to get himself into shape, Trevor finds him weird, and at first refuses to send Kat to his place. But, just to miff another instructor she can’t stand and to whom Trevor had given the job, she insists that it be hers. And so she goes to the mansion.
What follows is both predictable and not; Bujalski must have remembered, in his cinephilic unconscious, the precious scene of Preston Sturges’s The Palm Beach Story (1942) in which Rudy Vallée commissions musicians to serenade Claudette Colbert, prompting the latter to tell him firmly “John, you shouldn’t have sung”. This is the kind of mistake you make when you’re in love, insecure, and when you believe that spending money is going to do the trick for you. It does not, so Danny decides to abandon all hopes of fitness and get a cat instead, but becomes quite upset upon discovering that Trevor may have been his rival all along.
I won’t reveal the twists and turns of this charming contemporary screwball plot – except that, like Colbert to former husband Joel McCrea, Kat does her best to convince herself that she does not want to have anything to do with Trevor, yet cooks a pretty devious plot insuring that Danny will de facto finance Trevor’s next fitness venture. The icing on the cake is a trip to visit Grigory (Anthony Michael Hall), a Russian fitness guru with a method competing with Trevor, as uncouth as Kat is badass, which means (spoiler!) that they were made to reach an understanding.
In the “New Frontier” section, two American originals were having a ball. The multi-faceted San Francisco-based Jenni Olson was premiering her new feature, The Royal Road. Olson describes herself as a filmmaker, journalist, curator, film historian (with a specialty on LBGT cinema history) but, more than anything, she’s an archivist and a collector. In 1996, she completed Trailer Camp, a compilation of hilarious trailers she had collected, from The Wizard of Oz to Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!, The Wiz, Thank God It’s Friday, Summer Lovers and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. As a director, she is steadfastly loyal to 16mm, and collects footage taken throughout the years in California, intent at documenting the momentous changes experienced by the landscape of the Golden State. Some of this footage ended in her first “experimental landscape documentary,” The Joy of Life (2005), an elegiac invocation of the people committing suicide by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge.
A similar strategy is at work with The Royal Road, which is, however, a more complex work, weaving the strands of colonial history, San Francisco nostalgia (as symbolised by the elusive character of Madeleine in Hitchcock’s Vertigo) and a humorous exploration of butch romantic desires, foiled expectations, obsessions and travails as Olson’s voice over recounts her trips from the Bay Area to Los Angeles in pursuit of mostly unavailable women – following El Camino Real (The Royal Road) built by the Spaniards in colonial times.
So the film is a sort of butch reply to Ross McElwee’s classic Sherman’s March (1985), in which the project of documenting the traces left by General Sherman’s devastating advance in the South at the end of the Civil War becomes a convenient way for the filmmaker to record his meetings with women (also mostly unavailable). I want people to like me. To fall in love with me. Simply because it makes me feel better. I’m always searching for the thing that will make me feel better. And so often that thing is a girl. This could have been said by McElwee; the radical difference is that’s is written and delivered, years after the fact, by a butch filmmaker keenly aware that lesbian desire is still underrepresented in film, and who takes her cue from other female experimental filmmakers (Su Friedrich for the obsessive shooting and collection of footage; Trinh T. Minh-ha and Chantal Akerman for the long takes; all of them for their project to subvert the tropes of mainstream filmmaking) rather than vérité documentary. To write San Francisco history, to decipher the relationship between desire and landscape, to reflect on how the traces of a violent colonial past have been turned into tourist attractions, there is as much “truth” in fiction film, as much “reality” in James Stewart’s tracking of Kim Novak, and Olson’s film is an exquisite reminder that the most “intimate” voice over is always a work of fiction.
The Forbidden Room, Guy Maddin’s latest opus, is a joyful celebration of cinema, with a perverse twist. While they may be travelling all corners of the world experiencing a large repertory of situations – kidnapping, motorcycle accident, freak medical interventions, encounter with a Third World monster, shipwreck, submarine catastrophe, unrequited love, murder – the multifarious characters are actually trapped within the visual and metaphorical tropes of silent cinema, with a touch of a baroque éternel retour as in Raúl Ruiz’s films. They never leave the sound stages in which The Forbidden Room was shot, as “séances” in front of whoever wanted to walk in (bringing to mind the way Richard Foreman was rehearsing his Ontological-Hysteric plays in his Soho loft in the 1970s). The project was ignited by Maddin’s desire to reconstruct the lost films of the silent era luminaries he admires, and after much research in archives by Evan Johnson (who shares directing and screenwriting credit with him). “Almost every director whose career straddled the silent/talkie era has a number of lost films on his or her filmography,” says Maddin in the press notes. “I wanted to shoot my own versions, as if I were reinterpreting holy texts, and present them to the world anew as reverent and irreverent glosses on the missing originals.”The film is also an homage to contemporary auteur cinema, star-studded with the crème de la crème of the exceptional performers that have graced it: Roy Dupuis, Mathieu Amalric, Udo Kier, Charlotte Rampling, Geraldine Chaplin, Maria de Medeiros, Adele Haenel, Sophie Desmarais, Ariane Labed, Jacques Nolot, Louis Negin, and even, in a camera, film critic curator Luce Vigo (daughter of the director of L’Atalante), and part of the pleasure is to identify them under stylised make-up, wigs and outlandish costumes, in the various personas they inhabit, like the tentacles of a giant squid.
A much-expected entry was The Nightmare, the second film by Rodney Ascher who had blasted his way to fame with Room 237 in the 2012 Festival. His filmmaking is one of ambiguity, smartly inserting itself between layers of visuals, layers of meaning, between the real and the non-real, until the spectator loses his/her bearings. Room 237’s “film buff” aspect was comforting, as we were exposed to smart-ass theories deconstructing details of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) – the architecture of the hotel, the inverted design of the carpet on the floor, the brand of food stored in the pantry – as pertaining to a hidden message planted there by Stanley Kubrick. It was a lot of fun; The Nightmare has a more sombre tone, as it is rooted in a specific medical (or “paramedical”?) condition, “sleep paralysis”, experienced not only by Ascher himself, but also by a number of people in the audience of the public screening I attended. A couple of weeks later, I was describing the film at a dinner party and a young woman cried “omigod, this is exactly what my boyfriend has!” Indeed some of the male subjects interviewed in the film are worried that the poor girl sharing their bed has become the hapless witness to what is happening to them.
You are waking up in the middle of the night – or maybe you are still asleep. Your body is completely paralysed, you’re unable to move. And, through the walls of your room, in the hallway, approaching you, is this presence… Are you dreaming, or is it a supernatural experience?
Like Maddin, Ascher takes us into the labyrinths of the surreal, having constructed a seductive, yet dangerous parallel world, in which gravity and verisimilitude no longer have currency. Reiterating the ancient meaning of “nightmare” (an evil spirit, or incubus, lying upon and suffocating sleepers), he takes the description of his subjects (four men and four women) to face value – and, as in his previous work, the world created by popular culture (cartoons, television), people’s intimate fears and “reality” constantly overlap. Some of the invaders are little men with bulging eyes, or it could be a shadow, a psychedelic light show, a mysterious blue light, floating dark blobs, or a television anchor suddenly breaking the fourth wall. The subjects themselves are not sure if the noises they hear come from outside or are “inside [their] head.”
Ascher generously collaborates with the interviewees, and restages for them, for us, the substance of their nightmares, through the elegant panning shots of DP Bridger Nielson (known for his collaboration with horror filmmaker Nicholas McCarthy) (3) and then seamlessly edits the documentary sections with the intriguing “re-enactments”. The result is fascinating and disturbing – a keen exploration of the powers of cinema. In addition to the terror they lived night after night, what ailed Jeff, Connie, Chris or Ana, was the incapability to communicate their experience, the deaf ear turned to them by the medical profession, the scepticism that surrounded them. The Nightmare maintains the ambiguity: is it inside or outside? Is there a presence haunting your nights, or is your psyche, your body, fabricating these fiends? Are there parallel universes and is sleep paralysis a portal? Ascher’s mise en scène, opening perspectives rather than providing answers, crafting an audio-visual translation to the unspeakable, offers its captive spectator what the cinema does best: casting doubt on the “visible” reality we think we experience on a daily basis and projecting our deepest fears, our most secret desires, onto the silver screen.
Even though it rigorously subscribes to the tenet of cinéma vérité, it is a sort of parallel universe that Zhou Hao’s latest investigation, The Chinese Mayor (Datong), and the Special Jury Award received at Sundance for “unprecedented access”, expresses a spectatorial wonderment at how such a film was at all possible. Taking his cue from Frederick Wiseman’s work, as well as his own background as a photographer, Zhou is known for his precise, in-depth investigations into the relationship between individuals and the system, or the institution within which they operate. He received his first major award in Hong Kong for Senior Year (Gaosan, 2006), an empathic view of the pressure imposed to high school students to prepare for college entrance exams. In 2009, he completed The Transition Period (Shu Ji), which bears the greatest similarity with The Chinese Mayor, as it studies the step-by-step process that unfolds when a civil servant is transferred from one position to another within the Communist Party. (4) The latest film pushes the envelope, digging further into the sense of absurdity conveyed by two major aspects of Chinese contemporary life. One is the vision of the country transformed into a field of rubble through aggressive “urban renewal” and real estate development; the second is the absolute lack of transparency of the decision-making of the Party, striking the citizens with awe, whether it’s a promotion, a demotion or an act of censorship: nothing is ever explained, nothing can be truly expected…
Geng Yanbo, who has the fortune of being Mayor of the northern mining city of Datong (Shanxi Province) during most of the film, embodies these contradictions. During his term (2008-2013), he implemented a giant project to restore Datong to its glorious past and turn it into a tourist spot in order to reduce its dependence on coal. The plan included the forced relocation of 30,000 residents, whose modest working-class dwellings were destroyed, in order to rebuild a new city wall, a replica of the historic Datong. One of the things that always puzzle the Western spectator is, while censorship is an inescapable reality in mainland China, independent documentary makers manage to capture damning evidence pretty much any time they want. The very rigidity of the system allows for such gaps. Geng himself is a contradictory figure, a charismatic, workaholic leader, nicknamed “Geng Smash-Smash” for the destruction he orders with a smile, who willingly accepts for Zhou to film him at most moments of his life – talking to his staff, listening to the grievance of a grandmother losing her home, on the phone with his wife.
We are privy to both the sincerity of Geng’s efforts in building a new Datong, the grief, anger and despair of the displaced residents, and the sorry spectacle of the ruins. All of this does not add up, and Zhou effortlessly builds his film around the cracks. And indeed someone, somewhere in the upper levels of the hierarchy may have thought this didn’t make sense anymore. Or maybe he wanted the position for his nephew. Or… anyhow, with 125 unfinished construction projects and the city in debt of over 3 billions dollars, Geng is suddenly reassigned to another city. Stranger even, the people he has forcibly displaced are now marching in the street to protest his departure. Nothing doing, of course (as if Beijing was going to heed to some street protest). Geng goes. Remain the ruins…
Allons goûter le vin nouveau
The first effort of a new directing team, Lyric Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe, (T)ERROR conveys a similar sense of absurdity, awe and wonderment. This time the unreality does not take place in a distant Chinese city, but on US territory, albeit in an undisclosed location. Like Geng, the man known as “Shariff” has allowed the filmmakers to follow him in about pretty much all aspects of his life. The major difference is that “Shariff” is not his real name. He is a middle-aged black man with back alimonies to pay – a former Black Panther, a Muslim, an ex-con. He’s also a FBI informant, a “covert operator” recruited 23 years ago for his connections inside the African American community. Since September 11, he has been specifically assigned to the war on terror. And he didn’t inform his superiors that a film team was documenting his life…
Cabral has had a personal connection with “Shariff” for a decade (the two men met as neighbours in Harlem) and this is how the film was born, the man exposing his life, his doubts, his history, with good humour. We are privy to one sting operation. Then things start to go horribly wrong. Ordered to move to Pittsburgh, Shariff has to entrap a young white man converted to Islam under the name of Khalifah Al-Akili, who has attracted attention for his Facebook postings of him training at a shooting range. Upon close look, Al-Akili’s eccentricities seem quite innocuous, but this does not satisfies the bureau, that needs action. The trap is set; one morning Al-Akili is arrested for abetting terrorism. Meanwhile, Shariff has become a liability. Once a young delinquent caught in a repressive machine that didn’t give him much of a choice, he’s now an older, tired, penniless, obsolete agent on the verge of being “deactivated”, with his entire life, somewhat, stolen from him.
Another exciting debut was The Diary of A Teenage Girl, the first feature of UCLA graduate Marielle Heller, that went to Berlin immediately afterwards. An achingly accurate coming of age story, Diary can be considered as a collective effort on the part of four women. First, a Bay Area native, Heller was taken by Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel of the same title, a thinly disguised autobiography of her artistic and sexual awakening in San Francisco in the 1970s. (5) So the first artistic collaborator she brought on board was animator Sara Gunnarsdóttir, (6) and the seamless integration of hand-drawn animation into the main texture of the film creates an original filmic space, reflecting the young protagonist’s vision of the world. In her confused state where unbridled lust collides with feelings of dejection and inadequacy, 15 year-old Minnie Goetz turns to drawing for solace, and seeks inspiration in the work of Aline Kominsky (the member of Wimmen Comix and Twisted Sisters collectives who was to marry Robert Crumb in 1978). Sometimes she fantasises about her idol walking side by side with her when she wanders through the streets; sometimes her own drawings come to life. The fourth woman on the team is 22 year-old British TV and stage actress Bel Powley who gives a career-breaking performance, exuding both raging hormones, swift intelligence and insecurity (“Am I fat? Are my boobs too small? Am I pretty?”) and hiding the package in a tomboy-slacks-and-loose top-sans-make up look. Together they conspire to offer us a genuine portrayal of youthful femininity, with its angst, pitfalls, trappings and secret joys. Raised by a charmingly inefficient single mother (finely gifted comedian Kristen Wiig, in a breakthrough dramatic role) with an annoying little sister Gretel (Abigail Wait), Minnie gets deflowered, more by accident than design, but quite consensually, by her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (a great performance by Swedish-born star Alexander Skarsgård), discovers that she really likes is, develops a sexual obsession with the man and records her diary on audiocassettes she hides under her bed. As Minnie pays more and more frequent visits to Monroe, demands not only more sex but true love, upset at the man’s inability to make up his mind (“we must put an end to this/let’s fuck”), she is like a ticking bomb waiting to explode.
Fuelled by rage and distress, she punctuates the ups and downs of her relationship to Monroe by sowing more wild oats with the complicity of her friend Kimmie (Madeleine Waters), passing for hookers to blow guys for money (“we won’t do this again, right?”), frightening high school boys with her sexual skills, exploring the drug scene in the company of a manipulative lesbian… Of course the day will come when the diary cassettes are discovered and listened to, and another day when, during a bad acid trip, Monroe will wallow at her feet, crying how much he needs her, and she won’t care anymore. She will find herself on the pier, alone with her drawings, knowing this is what she wants to do. An artist is born.
Also remarked (and awarded the Directing Prize for US Dramatic Competition), Robert Eggers’ first film The Witch, set in colonial-time New England, with a dialogue written in 17th century English and inspired by diaries, court transcripts and folk tales, borrows tropes from the horror genre to plunge into the minds of a Puritan family a few years before the infamous 1692 Salem Witches Trial. Expelled from his community after a quarrel, William (Ralph Ineson) bring his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their five children to a desolate farmhouse. The adjacent woods are dark, compact and mysterious. Baby Samuel disappears while the elder daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) was taking care of him, and the family takes a gradual spin into madness.
Viewed with suspicion by her parents and younger siblings, twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), Thomasin grows more alienated and defiant. Meanwhile her brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), goes into the woods, makes a terrifying encounter and comes back with convulsions and a high fever. Was he seduced by a witch? The twins grow wilder; the family’s goat, uncannily called Black Phillip, acts up; Katherine dreams that her baby is back to discover, instead, a crow attacking her breast. Facing her family’s hostility, Thomasin embraces the one position left for her (bringing to mind echoes of Lisbeth Movin at the end of Day of Wrath, 1942).
Eggers may have seen Dreyer’s film, although he quotes Bergman and The Shining as influences, and The Witch’s best moments are those that suggest the hidden forces of repression in the protagonists’ psyche, the coexistence of the supernatural with realistic settings – available lighting and sensual long shots of the landscape designed by DP Jarin Blaschke; historical details (craftsmanship, costumes) painstakingly recreated – and cast a doubt about what we see, what we might have seen, and what the characters think they might have seen. In a few instances, the balance is tipped a bit too heavily toward a genre approach. Yet Eggers consistently displays a sure hand in the handling of his first-rate ensemble cast, including the children, with an arresting performance by 19 year-old Taylor-Joy.
Celebrating African Diaspora
Just a few days after the close of Sundance, but under different skies and with a markedly different crowd, the 23rd PanAfrican Arts and Film Festival opened it doors in the African American middle-class enclave of Crenshaw, in South Los Angeles. Founded by Ayuko Babu (Babu, his chosen name, means “elder” or “grandfather” in Swahili) in 1992, in collaboration with UCLA African Collection Librarian Miki Goral and entertainment/Black Employee Association lawyer Asantewa Olatunji, the Festival has been housed for a few years in the Multiplex “Rave” theatre in the centre of a sprawling shopping mall (where I had seen Ava DuVernay’s Selma just after its Christmas opening with an all-black audience). This means that PAFF is a family, neighbourhood and community affair, where the spectacle is as much in the lobby and the hallways of the mall than in the screening rooms. Audiences come dressed to the T, beautiful women in elegant high heels, draped in African textiles and exhibiting sculpted hair-does or shimmering head-dresses; men in Rastafarian Afros or long braided locks hanging in pony tail behind their back; flowing tunics with traditional patterns; the latest Afro-centrist designs; little girls with flowers or beads in their hair… And if you don’t have the proper attire, there is a fashion show to inspire you, with bright young designers displaying their creations, and an African market in the mall where sixty-odd exhibitors from all corners of the Diaspora (Mali, Ghana, Senegal and Ethiopia, or New York, Texas, Florida or the neighbouring Leimert Park, one of the historical sites of Black culture in Los Angeles) sell textiles, fashion for men and women, jewellery, art objects, mementoes from the Jim Crow era, historical photographs or contemporary paintings. There is even, on Saturdays, a farmers’ market where black growers sell fresh vegetables and organic blood oranges and women cook New Orleans food to go. And, on a table in the theatre lobby, one of the few people who hop from Park City to Crenshaw, Diarah N’daw-Spech, co-founder of the African Diaspora Film Festival and the production/distribution company ArtMattan in New York, was selling DVDs and offering flyers about her events. Now that the Festival, having weathered a few storms, seems to have secured a permanent place in the mall, enlivening ten days of Black History Month (“this African dress is not only for Black History Month: you can proudly wear it every day,” announced one of the sellers to the ladies looking at his stand), pride and exhilaration are palatable.
It should come as no surprise that there is always an overlap between Sundance and PAFF, since the events serve such different constituencies. And, as always, Stanley Nelson is warmly welcomed in both arenas. His new archival footage piece, The Black Panthers: Vanguards of the Revolution, world premiered to much acclaim in Park City, was the Opening Night in Crenshaw. Coming after two epic-sized explorations of the historical bus rides of 400 volunteers through the South in 1961 with Freedom Riders (2010) and the 1964 campaign in which 700 student activists lead a campaign to develop black voters registration in Mississippi with Freedom Summer (2014), this film has a more intimate feel, more fitted to its subject and the historical ironies it embodies. Even though they generated a lot of media coverage, had thousands of supporters and represented, with their black leather jackets, berets, sunglasses and Afros, the epitome of cool for black teenagers, the Panthers were not a mass movement. After embodying the zeitgeist, they became increasingly marginalised – being in the vanguard brings loneliness. Rather than focusing on the “star” members or supporters (such as Angela Davis, who is deliberately not mentioned in the film), Nelson reveals minute, sometimes contradictory moments of the life among/with the Panthers, through a wealth of interviews (backed by archival footage) with the people who shared an experience thus summarised by Wayne Pharr: I felt absolutely free. I was a free Negro. In that little space that I had, I was the king. At 19, in 1969, Pharr had participated in the historical battle between Panthers and police at Central Avenue and 41st Street in Los Angeles; he died in September 2014 as the film was being edited (another survivor of this battle, Roland Freeman, director at the Community Youth Sports and Arts Foundation, a halfway house for troubled youth in Leimert Park, also interviewed in the film, died in October 2014, shortly after his brother, Ronald “Elder” Freeman, a former Black Panther himself… time is indeed running short to write a complete history…)
Among the former militants appearing in the film is soft-spoken Jamal Joseph (who had joined the Panthers as a teenager in 1968 Harlem, went to prison and is now the chairman of the film division at Columbia’s School of the Arts); former Minister of Culture of the Party, graphic artist Emory Douglas, whose work defined the revolutionary icons of the time, both in posters and flyers and as illustrations in The Black Panther newspaper; (7)Mohammed Mubarak (another veteran of the Central Avenue battle); and Chicago-born award-winning storyteller Michael McCarty.
From Pomona College professor Phyllis Jackson, who had become a member in 1969, we learn that, even though the sisters were often asked to answer the phones, clean the guns, sell the newspapers and cook for the Free Breakfast for Children program, and in spite of instances of sexism, there were more women than men in the Panthers. Indeed, they offer some of the most interesting insights. Law professor Kathleen Cleaver, who was married to Eldridge from 1967 to 1987 and became the Party’s communications secretary at the onset of the “Free Huey” campaign, provides a crucial testimony about the rift between Huey Newton and other Panther leaders in the 1970s. Elaine Brown recounts how she joined the Panthers after working as a cocktail waitress in a white strip joint club (she recorded revolutionary songs for them, was appointed Chairman of the Party by Huey Newton before he fled to Cuba in 1974, and is currently a well-known prison activist). Violonist Tarika Lewis remembers: I walked into the office and told them I wanted to join the Black Panther Party. And they kind of laughed. I didn’t know that there were no other women in the party at that time. I asked them, ‘Could I have a gun?’ Ericka Huggins (now a sociology professor)drove from her college on the East Coast with her future husband, John Huggins (who was to be shot in 1969), to join the Panthers in Los Angeles.
As it took Nelson seven years to assemble his material, he’s aware that the history of the Party is too complex to reduce to a single film, so there are gaps, holes, ellipses and omissions; it does not dwell on aspects already covered by classic films (Howard Halk’s The Murder of Fred Hampton, 1971; Henry Hampton’s Eyes on the Prize, 1987-90; Gregory Everett’s 41st and Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panthers, 2013) but we are aware of the factures and contradictions, as well as of this brutal arc. The Black Panthers were founded in 1966 by a small group of young men, including Huey Newton and Bobby Seale who wanted to resist police brutality. In 1967, as allowed by California law, a group of 30 Panthers entered the State Capitol carrying unconcealed guns, stealing the limelight from then-Governor Ronald Reagan. While exhilarating to African Americans, this act of bravura and defiance did not amuse Edgar Hoover, Head of the FBI, who started the illegal Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) to dismantle the Panthers. Police violence, such as the 1969 murder of 21 year-old charismatic leader Fred Hampton in a 3:00 am raid in his Chicago apartment, as he was asleep, along with the shooting of 22 year-old Mark Clark, who opened the door to the apartment, or the killing of unarmed Bobby Hutton at the age of 17, is what caused the demise of the party.
Black Lives Matter
In our post-Trayvon Martin, post-Ferguson time, the violence exerted against the black community cast a shadow over both Sundance – where Marc Silver’s 3 ½ Minutes, about the shooting of a black teenager by a white man, was featured in the US Documentary section – and PAFF, which organised a panel discussion, “Black Lives Matter: Then and Now”, where former Panthers Erika Huggins and Hank Jones spoke alongside community organisers. Seven years in the making, photojournalist John Lucas’s documentary, The Cooler Bandits, denounces another form of violence: the prejudice faced by African American defendants, especially young males, in the justice system. They tend to be treated more harshly, and, having known these kids in his neighbourhood, Lucas was horrified when, arrested in 1991 after a series of restaurant robberies, four teenagers were sentenced to prison terms of up to 500 years. Lucas was able to meet with them and their families from 2006 to 2013, following their revolt and sense of shock, their slow integration into the prison system, their legal fight to have their sentence reduced, Richard “Poochie” Roderick’s discovery of spirituality through Islam and his efforts to get an education while incarcerated, his friendship with Donovan Harris and Charlie Kelly, and then the difficult reality awaiting the three men, twenty-odd years robbed from their “normal” maturation as adults, when, one after the other, they get released. Harris now works as a mechanic; Kelly graduated from barber’s college, and Roderick eventually attended Pitzer College to become a sociologist, but his new life style created a permanent rift with the woman he had married fresh out of jail, and with whom he has a daughter. Frankie Porter is still in jail, very angry, the possibility of a pardon eluding him at every Board review, his family still devastated, hoping against hope.
Black-on-black violence was also at the forefront. For his new project, Tales of the Grim Sleeper Nick Broomfield, still working the field with headphones around his face, opened an office in the black enclave of South Central Los Angeles, where Lonnie Franklin Jr. lived, until, in 2010, he was arraigned under the suspicious of murdering between 10 and 100 local women; as his victims were rumoured to be crack addicts or prostitutes, the police conducted a very perfunctory investigation, and didn’t inform the community, during the two decades of the crime spree (the case has yet to come to trial, so Broomfield, once again, treads a dangerous line…). Also screened was Marc Levin’s Al Jazeera-produced Freeway: Crack in the System, detailing the lethal effects of crack and crack trafficking on the Black community. And Chicago Love, the quick montage of clips about street/gang violence in Chicago and the activists who attempt to curb it, is an interesting collective effort by REVOLT TV, a new music cable channel exploring black culture and black-related news (they also sponsored the “Black Lives Matter” panel).
Shared anger is a powerful cement: it worked to bring militants to the cause of the Black Panthers. In Girlhood (Bande de Filles), which I caught at PAFF after missing it at Sundance, Céline Sciamma stages Marieme’s simmering rage as a magnet that wins the interest of local gang girls Lady (Assa Sylla), Fily (Mariétou Touré) and Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh). She has just been told by the school counsellor to go to a trade school and learn plumbing because her grades are too low for high school, and rushes across the school ground like a pillar of flame. They hail her, she basically tells them to fuck off, then at the last moment, accepts to join them for a spin to Paris. From their banlieue in Seine-Saint-Denis, they take the RER (local train) south to the city, and arrive in the gigantic shopping mall of Les Halles, boisterously invade a clothing store, indulge in some shoplifting and other girlish pleasures. Anchored in a strong cast selected in the African community of the greater Paris area and lead by a mercurial Karidja Touré as Marieme (later renamed Vic for “Victory”), Sciamma’s third feature leaves the comfort zone of gender identity in the French lower middle classes so beautifully explored in Water Lilies (La Naissance des Pieuvres, 2006) and Tomboy (2011) to craft a banlieue film revolving around female anger, female desire, and female bonding. Homoeroticism is not completely absent (a girl-with-girl dance in a gangsta’ party toward the end seems to open alluring perspectives) but what these girls seek in each other is comfort, support and fun, to better resist against all the odds stacked against them by the guys. Distantly aware that their status as second- or third-generation immigrants has marginalised them since birth, they are more acutely aware that most of their problems come from the men in their community.
Marieme lives in a project (cité) with her single mother (a cleaning lady in an office tower at La Défense, who carefully grooms her fingernails no matter what) and her two siblings: a beloved younger sister who loves to cook, and an obnoxious older brother who violently guards his sister’s reputation. Nice boys won’t date you because they respect your brother too much; anyhow the entire community is watching your every move, the way you dress, who you talk to; and if the nice boy finally agrees to sleep with you, it’s in the hope of marrying you and knocking you up right away. Meanwhile, local drug dealers/pimp always have some sort of “work” available to you. Great prospects all around.
Marieme and her girlfriends resist; they get money to sneak off to a hotel room to try on stolen party dresses, lounge on the bed together listening to Rihanna’s “Diamonds” and eating candy; they terrorise salesgirls, human resource employees and the other inhabitants of the project; they get into fights with other girls; they craft their own identities, choose a moniker, impose it to those around them; they try to forget that time is passing, adolescence is short, and they don’t have a plan for what comes afterwards. And they do a good job at forgetting: Sciamma captures this moment of grace when the present tense is experienced at its fullest. Because you’re only 16 once. Because since life does not have a closure, neither should a movie. Sciamma achieves an almost-impossible feat: eschewing the flat “realism” of the genre, she delves into the mixture of violence, silliness and oneirism of the charmed, yet dangerous, world inhabited by these African princesses fallen to the concrete from an ancient paradise.
Thousands of miles away, the performers of Michael Brewer’s In Full Bloom… Transcending Gender are also queens in exile paying a hard price to realise their fantasies. The film follows the production of the play Lovely Bouquet of Flowers, written and produced by Jazzmun Nichcala, (8) co-written and directed by theatre director/activist David Gaddas for the Lily Tomlin Theatre in Hollywood, and featuring 15 transgender and queer performers of various ethnicities (the “bouquet”), the balance being, however, tipped in the directions of the Latino and African communities.
Rather than the predictable documentation of the “making of a play”, In Full Bloom focuses on the personal journey – fighting homelessness, unemployment, rejection, physical violence, feelings of worthlessness – that Maria Roman, Amiyya Wilson, Jaguar St. Claire, Gizelle Messina, Nika Blackwell, Hugo Braham, Nadia Milan, Destin Cortez, Helen Wong and the others have to take, as well as, with an endearing sense of pleasure, the sequins, chiffon, lacy underwear, high heel shoes, false eyelashes, wigs and hair extensions, sexy make-up and hormone cocktails that they have to buy in order to be what they really are, what they want to be.
The invitation extended by PAFF to organise In Full Bloom’s world premiere is highly significant: the queer community and the black community rarely see eye to eye. PAFF may become a trailblazer in the issue of trans equality as well.
A major box-office success in Nigeria, and having received accolades throughout Africa, Kunle Afolayan’s third feature (after The Figurine, 2009, and Phone Swap, 2012), October 1 is a complex text, made of multiple interweaving strands, that addresses the sense of violation experienced by the country during colonial times. The metaphor is violent, as the plot revolves around the ritual rape and killing of virgin girls in the small town of Akote by an elusive assailant. On October 1, 1960, as the country celebrates its independence, Inspector Danladi Waziri (veteran actor Sadiq Daba) brings his findings on the case to his former British superior; the latter repeatedly humiliates him and keeps calling him “Danny Boy”, even as a servant removes the portrait of the Queen from his wood-panelled den to replace it with that of the new Governor-General, Nnamdi Azikiwe. Waziri’s investigation unfolds in flashbacks, dressing a vivid portrait of Nigerian society at the time: rift between the predominantly Muslim Northerners and the mostly Christian Igbos; linguistic diversity (necessitating a third party as a translator in some situations); persistence of an archaic system of local leadership, symbolised by the adulation the town lavishes on the good-looking, Western-educated Prince Aderopo (Demola Adedoyin) and the special status enjoyed by his family; the unquestioned immunity granted to local religious leaders.
Casting himself as the farmer Agbekoya, so seriously damaged by colonialism that he refuses to speak English, Kunle Afolayan turns his intriguing fable into a confrontation of men: Waziri and the British establishment; Waziri and his subordinates; Waziri and the killer; the Prince and his former childhood friend in a rivalry for the affection of schoolteacher Miss Tawa (Kehinde Bankole); the distraught Igbo father and the Northern suspect. Yet he barely addresses the question of why women are the ones punished for the rage and helplessness felt by men in a society in crisis. In Akote’s dark night, a man dressed in white whistles “God saves the Queen”, as once Peter Lorre whistled “Peer Gynt”…
Sundance Film Festival
22 January – 1 February 2015
Festival website: http://www.sundance.org/festival/
PanAfrican Film & Arts Festival
5-16 February 2015
Festival website: http://www.paff.org
- Rudin has produced all of Wes Anderson’s films since The Royal Tennenbaums (2001) including two films written by Baumbach, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) and Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009); the Coen Brothers since No Country for Old Men (2007); with a few Mike Nichols, John Schlesinger, Jodie Foster, Sydney Pollack, Martin Scorsese, Tim Burton, Alan Parker, Curtis Hanson, John Singleton, Richard Linklater, Jonathan Demme, Sam Mendes and David Fincher in-between as well as cinematic landmarks such as The Adams Family (1991), Sister Act (1992), Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (1995), Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998), South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut (1999), The Hours (2002) or There Will be Blood (2008).
- Variety, 25 Jan, 2015 http://variety.com/2015/film/reviews/sundance-film-review-mistress-america-1201414298/, accessed 10 Feb, 2015.
- He’s worked in particular on McCarthy’s The Pact (2012) and At The Devil’s Door (2014).
- Other major films by Zhou Hao include Using (Long Ge, 2008), Emergency Room China (2009) The Night (Ye, 2014), shown in Berlin, and Cotton (2014), winner of the Golden Horse Award for Best Documentary in Taiwan.
- Phoebe Gloeckner, The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures, Frog Press, 2002.
- Disclaimer: Sara Gunnarsdóttir graduated in 2012 from the Experimental Animation Program of the California Institute of the Arts, where I teach. Her thesis film, The Pirate of Love Vol 1, mixing hand-drawn animation and documentary recording, was shown at the New Directors/New Films, AFI and Telluride festivals. http://saragunnarsdottir.com
- See Sam Durant (ed.), Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas, Rizzoli, New York, 2007.
- Nichcala is a transgender actress/educator with a long list of credit in TV, theatre and independent cinema – from Roseanne and Desperate Housewives to Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues to Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year Old Virgin (2005) and Goran Dukik’s Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006)