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March 31, 2007

El cielo gira, 2004

cielo_gira.gifPart elegy on the dying of a rural village, part exposition on mortality and obsolescence, and part exaltation of quotidian grace, Mercedes Álvarez's El cielo gira (The Turning Sky) is a serene, contemplative, and indelible rumination on the permanence of landscape, the transitory nature of existence, the imprint of history, and the eternal cycle of natural transformation. An introductory sequence juxtaposing the depopulation of Álvarez's ancestral village in the bucolic, agrarian community of Aldealseñor in the province of Soria with metaphoric images of local artist, Pello Azketo at work on his latest painting in his studio, sets the crepuscular tone for the film, as Azketo, visibly suffering from the effects of a degenerative eye condition, stands within a few inches of the canvas in order to study the texture of his painted, turning sky - an intimate, observant gaze of a recreated memory that is, all too palpably, receding and ephemeral. This theme of captured imprint and transfiguration is reinforced in the establishing sequence of an elderly villager following the curious trail of thee-toed fossilized footprints on a series of rocks that lead to a sedimentary clearing once used as a playing field in her youth - the lateral outline of a small dinosaur frame creating a figurative prehistoric trail towards its inexorable death. A subsequent conversation between cemetery caretakers evolving from their experiences with unexpectedly unearthing ancestral bones while preparing a plot for burial, to suggesting a pragmatic idea to dig larger and deeper graves in order to adequately plan for the inevitable deaths of the aging villagers, evokes the preceding palimpsestic image of the fossil turned playground, and intrinsically connects the two seemingly disparate sequences into a unifying metaphor for silent extinction.

Nearby, a similar transfiguration of an eternal landscape is illustrated in the construction of a windmill farm along a hill and subsequently, in the large-scale renovation of an ancient Moor castle, long since abandoned (and whose last occupants' departure is only vaguely remembered by the elders of Aldealseñor), into a luxury hotel. Meanwhile, an archaeologist conducts a tour of the neighboring ancient ruins of Numancia, the site of the final Roman siege in 133 B.C. where the Celtiberians, facing certain defeat, resolved to take their own lives in a Masada-like mass suicide rather than be enslaved by the Roman invaders. Juxtaposed against the eternal, yet ever transforming desolate landscape, the death of an ancient community is chronicled, not only within the scholarly discipline of contextualizing excavated artifacts in an academic study of the history of civilization, but also within the intimate orality of the villagers' personal history and collective memory. Moreover, it is interesting to note that through an encounter between a pair of Moroccan natives - an immigrant shepherd and a professional athlete who has come to the rural area in order to focus on his marathon training - Álvarez not only underscores the impermanence of existence, but also subverts the (western) notion of territoriality and ownership of the land, as the long forgotten history of a Moor settlement on the region (as symbolized the derelict castle) is figuratively repeated in the re-emergence of the Moroccan settlers in the area, and implicitly alludes to the turned fortunes of the Roman invaders whose conquered lands were eventually occupied - then similarly relinquished - by the Moors in the recursive tide of history (an inconstancy that is also reflected in the humorous appearances of competing political parties - one bearing such inappropriate token gifts as balloons, candies, and condoms - in the tiny village to solicit votes). Returning to Azketo's studio as the now nearly blind artist prepares the canvas for what would perhaps be his final work, a pastoral - and increasingly impressionistic - landscape contoured by the ephemeral haze of failing eyesight and inexact memory, the painting becomes, not only a temporally frozen image of a village on the brink of extinction, but also an encapsulation of the film itself - a reverent and privileged glimpse of an obsolete existence on the cusp of invisible transcendence.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 31, 2007 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2007


March 23, 2007

The Back of the World, 2000

back_world.gifComposed of three self-encapsulated, cross-cultural, slice-of-life, quotidian portraits that are intrinsically connected by the pervasive sentiment of marginalization - economic, political, ethnic, racial - Javier Corcuera's The Back of the World is an understatedly observed, indelible, and provocative examination of the inextricable social cycle of poverty, exploitation, disenfranchisement, and disposability. The first chapter, entitled The Child, opens to a bookending sequence of a young boy named Guinder quietly rising - even before the first light of dawn - from a bed that he shares with several siblings in his parents' cramped, ramshackle home to gather his adult-sized tools and set out along with several of his similar-aged friends, not for school, but for the local quarry in the impoverished rural village of Carabayllo on the mountainous outskirts overlooking Lima: an early morning ritual that, as Guinder subsequently explains, affords him additional time to work on the rocks and perhaps earn additional money for his family. It is a life that his parents do not wish for any of their children, but one that, nevertheless, has become an inescapable reality in a village struggling with chronic unemployment and limited opportunity. Yet beyond the inhumanity and desensitization of a childhood spent more on breaking rocks at the quarry than studying in an elementary school, Corcuera's compassionate gaze captures graceful moments of a paradise not yet completely lost: a makeshift soccer game where the children momentarily act out the dreams of becoming professional athletes, a band of children working in the city as vendors, car washers, and market stall assistants who have found solidarity from the dangerous streets by organization into a union for protection, a group of village women who pool their meager resources to provide economically prepared meals for all the quarry workers at a community kitchen, a traveling circus that allows the children to indulge in all its silliness and over-the-top sight gags and briefly forget the austerity of their environment.

Inasmuch as Guinder and the impoverished villagers seem eternally bound to the Sisyphean ritual of breaking rocks in the quarries of Carabayllo, the second chapter, The Word, reflects a moral captivity as ethnic Kurd, former mayor of Diyarbakir in the now fractured former nation of Kurdistan (that has since been regionally divided among Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq), political dissident, and Turkish exile, Mehdi Zana sits in his empty apartment in Sweden and wistfully speaks of a beloved ancestral homeland that he can no longer return to (and politically, no longer exists), a wife (imprisoned parliamentarian and Sakharov Peace Prize winner, Leyla Zana) he cannot visit in captivity for fear of his own arrest, and university-aged children whom he can only visit a few times a year in France after being denied asylum by the government. Juxtaposing the tranquil, yet cold emptiness of Mehdi's life in his adopted country with archival photographs, newsreels, and panoramic shots of modern day Diyarbakir and Istanbul (most notably, in the longstanding protest vigils of the women dubbed as "Saturday Mothers" searching for information on their missing loved ones in Galatasaray Square) that reinforce the chaos and dichotomy, yet enduring beauty of the landscape and its long-suffering, persecuted people (a paradox that is reflected in a woman's comment on how the Tigris River, once a destination for lovers to meet, is now a place to look for bodies of missing loved ones), Corcuera illustrates the inhumanity borne, not of economic poverty, but of a spiritual one created by perpetual dislocation and exile.

On the surface, the concluding chapter, Life on the rituals of state execution in Texas may seem incongruous to the notion of innocent victims represented by Guindar and Mehdi. Told from the perspective of an aging, death row inmate, Thomas Miller-El (whose own conviction was subsequently determined by the Supreme Court to have been based on a skewed jury created by racially biased jury selection process) and Tomás Rangel, the father of a death row inmate who religiously travels from Mexico to Texas to meet with a support group for the families of death row inmates on announced days of execution in order to provide solidarity and publicly protest against capital punishment, Corcuera presents a potent inquiry, not into the attribution of guilt or innocence, but rather, on the nature of a state's often inequitable dispensation of punishment, where the process of imposing a rigid code of moral righteousness itself leaves its own tragic legacy of voiceless, anonymous, and innocent victims. Concluding with the parting image of a pensive Thomas gazing out through the reinforced mesh of a visiting booth that segues to a kite navigated by Guinder flying over the horizon, the metaphoric image becomes one of a return to innocence, a spiritual transcendence achieved through the restored humanity of compassion, mutual struggle, and ennobled perseverance.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 23, 2007 | | Filed under 2007


March 18, 2007

Subarnarekha, 1965

subarnarekha.gifRitwik Ghatak's films are deeply haunted by the specter of the Partition of Bengal in 1947, and this sense of dislocation and self-inflicted human tragedy created by artificially imposed social division casts a pervasive sentiment of despair, instability, and perpetual exile through all the rended families and uprooted ancestral communities of Subarnarekha. Opening to the chaotic image of a pair of young, displaced teachers, Haraprasad (Bijon Bhattacharya) and Ishwar (Abhi Bhattacharya) inaugurating a makeshift village school at a refugee colony that has been established on the grounds of landowner's estate, while a low caste woman, seeking alms nearby, is forcibly separated from her son, Abhiram (Sriman Tarun) when she is rounded up into a truck and summarily ethnically cleansed from the colony by the landowner's hired thugs under the guise of religious orthodoxy enforcing caste segregation, the turbulent - and ultimately irrevocable - separation between mother and child serves as a potent metaphor for the trauma of the Partition itself, as Bengal is torn apart by religious and social sectarianism in the aftermath of the country's independence from the British. Ghatak illustrates the integrality of history to the interconnected destinies of Ishwar's communal family, initially, through the collapsed hope for reunification embodied in the idealistic Haraprasad's coincidental lament upon reading the news of Mahatma Gandhi's death - "Hey Ram!" (Oh, God!) - the exclamation commonly believed to be Gandhi's own last words upon his assassination, and subsequently, in Ishwar's conversation with his college friend, Rambilas (Pitambar), a wealthy businessman who inherited a foundry from his late father, as Ishwar comments on his dramatic change in fortunes from privileged student to orphan and caretaker of his younger sister Sita (Indrani Chakrabarty) after only six intervening years by reinforcing the contextual timeframe as 1942 through 1948, a profoundly critical period (with particularly great consequences for Bengal) that marked the birth of the 'Quit India' movement (1942), the Bengal Famine (1943) directly caused by the escalation of the Pacific War (a man-made catastrophe that is poignantly realized in Satyajit Ray's Distant Thunder), national independence (1947), the Partition (1947), and the assassination of Gandhi (1948).

Similarly, the Subarnarekha River (translated as the "Golden Line" River because of its proximity to rich ore deposits) becomes an implicit reflection of the inescapable social (and economic) disparity and cultural marginalization that continues to afflict the displaced refugees of the Partition, as Ishwar, seeking to find a new home and a better life for his young sister, accepts Rambilas' offer to work at the foundry in exchange for a small wage and company-furnished housing on the other side of the eponymous river. Leaving the colony - and in essence, abandoning the dream of reunification - with Sita and Abhiram, for whom he had assumed guardianship until his mother is located, Ishwar invariably settles into a life of middle-class comfortability when he is subsequently promoted as manager and given a minority stake in the company. But Ishwar's financial stability also betrays a passivity to the profound changes occurring within his own home, an indifference that is reflected in Ishwar's filial criticisms over the melancholy expressed by a now grown Sita (Madhabi Mukherjee) through her sorrowful ballads, and university student Abhiram (Satindra Bhattacharya) through his unpublished manuscripts that reveal a deeply harbored (and overtly autobiographical) longing to reconnect with a lost mother and an adrift sense of place, as well as through their increasingly inescapable affection towards each other. It is this pervasive complacency (if not outright willful ignorance) that inevitably lies at the core of Ghatak's impassioned social criticism on the fateful dynamics that led to the culturally self-inflicted tragedy of the Partition - an inextricable pattern of self-interest, insensitivity, and political apathy from the Bengali middle-class that not only enabled ideological fanaticism and sectarianism to shape the landscape of a post-colonial Indian nation, but also rendered the very idea of home as a sentimental place on an elusive other side that, like the distant, opposing banks of the Subarnarekha River, symbolically represents an idealized, and intranscendible, elsewhere.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 18, 2007 | | Comments (18) | Filed under 2007


March 15, 2007

2007 NY African Film Festival Line-up

NYAFF07.gif

The 14th annual New York African Film Festival brings back two highlights from the 2005 NYAFF program: Cameroonian filmmaker Jean-Marie Téno's provocative and thoroughly fascinating exposition on the integral (and ignominious) relationship between Christian missionary work and the enabling of colonialism in The Colonial Misunderstanding, and Zimbabwean filmmaker and author, Tsitsi Dangarembga's eccentric fusion of modern dance and moral tale, Mother's Day.

I'm eagerly anticipating the short films program by Burkina Faso filmmaker, Fanta Régina Nacro, whose 2004 feature film, Night of the Truth (also screening in this series) is a harrowing indictment of the factionalism, endemic corruption, and fragile stability that continue to plague contemporary African nations. Additionally, I'm also looking forward to seeing Dangarembga's profile of two AIDS activists, Growing Stronger (in the Women of Zimbabwe program), Brahim Fritah's The Train (in the Young Rebels program) whose poetic essay film (which screened in last year's festival), The Woman Alone on exploited (former) domestic servant, Akosse Legba, humanized the anonymous face of modern slavery and human trafficking, Abderrahmane Sissako's Rostov-Luanda on the repercussions of the Cold War on the (protraction of the) Angolan civil war, Micah Schaffer's documentary, Death of Two Sons on the tragic, coincidental deaths within a year of each other of Amadou Diallo (at the hands of New York City police in 1999) and American Peace Corps volunteer, Jesse Thyne who lived with Diallo's family in Guinea, the late iconic actor, Ossie Davis' political satire, Kongi's Harvest, and Raquel Cepeda 's Bling: A Planet Rock, a satiric documentary on the pop culture of flashy diamonds and its role in fueling the ten year civil war in Sierra Leone. The festival runs from April 4-12, 2007:

Feature Films

Africans Unite (Stephanie Black, 2007)
Bling: A Planet Rock (Raquel Cepeda, 2007)
Clouds Over Conakry (Cheick Fantamady Camara, 2007)
Death of Two Sons (Micah Schaffer, 2006)
The Colonial Misunderstanding (Jean-Marie Téno, 2004)
Kongi's Harvest (Ossie Davis, 1970)
The Narrow Path (Tunde Kelani, 2005)
The Night of Truth (Fanta Régina Nacro, 2004)
Max and Mona (Teddy Mattera, 2004)
Movement (R)evolution Africa (Joan Frosch and Alla Kovgan, 2007)
Paris selon Moussa (Cheik Doukouré, 2003)
Rostov-Luanda (Abderrahmane Sissako, 1997)
Teranga Blues (Moussa Sene Absa, 2007)


Short Film Programs

Women in the Diaspora:
- Redefinition (Leslie To, 2006)
- Lyttelton in Kenya - Archival Newsreel, 1952
- Kenya Gains Independence - Archival Newsreel, 1963
- Via New York (Kagendo Murungi, 1995)

Ghana's Political Experiments:
- African Footsteps (John Akomfrah, 1995)
- CPP Welcome Freed Leader - Archival Newsreel, 1951
- Ghana Celebrates - Archival Newsreel, 1957
- Testament - John Akomfrah, 1988

Women of Zimbabwe:
- Governor Stands Firm - Archival Newsreel, 1965
- Spell My Name (Tawanda Gunda Mupengo, 2005)
- At the Water (Women Filmmakers of the Zimbabwe Production Skills Workshop, 2005)
- Growing Stronger (Tsitsi Dangarembga, 2005)
- Mother's Day (Tsitsi Dangarembga, 2004)

Young Rebels:
- Tanganyika Independence - Archival Newsreel, 1961
- The Train (Brahim Fritah, 2005)
- Mama Put (Seke Somolu, 2006)
- Meokgo & The Stick Fighter (Teboho Mahlatsi, 2006)

Fanta Régina Nacro:
- Un Certain Matin, 1991
- Puknini, 1995
- Konaté's Gift, 1998
- Bintou, 2000

Ethiopia: Then and Now:
- Ethiopian Campaign - Archival Newsreel, 1941
- The Father (Ermias Woldeamlak, 2000)
- Menged (Daniel Taye Workou, 2006)

Hope in the Time of Crisis (co-presented with Human Rights Watch):
- The Forgotten Man (Osvalde Lewat-Hallade, 2004)
- UK: London: Mr. Louw's Views on UN Congo Intervention - Archival Newsreel, 1960
- The Congo–What Now? - Archival Newsreel, 1961
- A Love During the War (Osvalde Lewat-Hallade, 2005)

Posted by acquarello on Mar 15, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Quick Notes


March 13, 2007

The Holy Innocents, 1984

holy_innocents.gifEvoking the films of Carlos Saura in its allegorical portraits of culturally entrenched social and psychological landscapes (most notably, in The Hunt) coupled with Luis Buñuel's wry excoriation of the bourgeoisie, Mario Camus' The Holy Innocents presents a caustic and potent indictment of the inhumanity (and corruption) of privilege, class stratification, and marginalization. Adapted from the novel by Spanish author Miguel Delibes, the film traces the interweaving personal stories of a peasant family working in the rural province of Extremadura at the feudal estate overseen by Doña Pura (Ágata Lys) during the early 1960s, as Franco solidified his stronghold (or rather, stranglehold) over the country with the support of powerful administrators like Doña Pura who represented the incestuous relationship between the upper class and the Catholic church. The film opens to image of a soldier, Quirce (Juan Sachez), recently discharged from the military, writing a letter to his sister at an empty café in what would prove to be a procrastinated homecoming. A series of extended flashbacks filmed from the perspective of several family members provides the framework for the young man's reluctant journey home as Quirce, then a teenager, and his family - headed by his father Paco (Alfredo Landa), a dutiful gamekeeper, and his mother, Régula (Terele Pávez) - are uprooted from their home at the instigation of Doña Pura's heir, Don Pedro (Agustín González), who has decided to relocate them in order to tend to his remote country estate. It is a move that the couple eagerly embraces in the belief that the geographic change will afford their older children, Nieves (Belén Ballesteros) and Quirce better opportunities for a proper education (and consequently, escape the cycle of poverty) beyond the self-instruction grammar drill kits that the government has disseminated to every peasant household in the country in order to promote (superficial) widespread literacy - a hope that is soon dissipated when, upon their arrival, Don Pedro appoints Nieves to be his wife's housemaid, and the family learns that the seeming unexpected visit by Régula's aging, simple-minded brother Azarías (Francisco Rabal) has become a more permanent arrangement, having been unceremoniously let go by his employer after spending a lifetime under his service for vague grievances regarding his boorish, unsanitary manners and impetuous behavior following the illness of his trained, homing pet owl, Kite. Left with few responsibilities except to occasionally watch over the couple's severely disabled young daughter (Susana Sánchez) (an affliction that perhaps also alludes to the family's insubstantive nutrition and inadequate access to health services caused by their poverty), Azarías seems content with living out his remaining years as an eccentric, if innocuous nuisance around the estate grounds and training Quirce's present, a new pet bird to replace his beloved Kite, to home. But as the family settles into a familiar routine of Don Pedro's perennially unfolding domestic dramas and Señorito Iván's (Agustín González) capricious (and often callous) demands to maintain his competitiveness during game hunting season, the couple's hopes for a better life for their own children begins to dissipate in the reality of their demoralizing, subhuman existence. This sense of pervasive dehumanization is perhaps best illustrated in Señorito Iván's seemingly genial, yet intrinsically contemptuous and exploitive interactions with the all too obliging Paco that would ultimately have profound repercussions for the entire family - initially, in his orders to track the scent of an errant, shot bird (an acquired skill that he backhandedly praises as being superior to that of a hunting dog), and subsequently, in extolling the government's literacy campaign, subverting his empty proclamations of the country's unprecedented social equality achieved under fascism by parading the servants as common spectacles before his dinner guests and instructing them to write out their names in order to prove their literacy. Inevitably, what emerges from Camus' understated, yet incisive gaze is a profoundly sobering portrait of a silent (and silenced), resigned servitude and institutionalized, moral enslavement enabled by insular - and essentially arbitrary - privilege and systematic exclusion.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 13, 2007 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2007