Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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 Post subject: Best of SFIFF 2011
PostPosted: Fri May 13, 2011 3:00 am 
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Since the San Francisco International Film Festival tends to come at the end of a festival cycle I already had sixteen of the selections under my belt before we started, if you count the revival in a new digital print of Fellini's La Dolce Vita. Of those I'd seen before the most notable new ones were probably Denis Villeneuve's Incendies, the Swedish collection of documents of the Seventies Black Power Mixtape, Ahmad Abdalla's Cairo underground music film Microphone, and Raul Ruiz's beautiful if impossible-to-follow period miniseries Mysteries of Lisbon. Now that SFIFF is over I've seen a total of 41 of their 190+ offerings for 2011.

Of the ones that were new to me my favorites were:

The Arbor, an inventive English documentary that won a raft of awards at home and deserves to be seen beyond the festival circuit. Location shots, real people, and actors are deployed in a seamless amalgam in this recollection of Andrea Dunbar, the talented but short-lived alcoholic working-class playwright from Bradford, West Yorkshire, in the north of England. Clio Barnard, the filmmaker, spent two years recording interviews with Dunbar and her family and friends, then staged actors lip-synching the interviews as monologues, sometimes in a group scene -- a technique known as "verbatim theater" that arguably works more seamlessly because of Bernard's use of filmed settings. Barnard also staged parts of one of Dunbar's plays out near "The Arbor," the part of the Yorkshire housing estate where Dunbar grew up and of which her plays speak. This is also the name of Dunbar's first play. Another one, Rita, Sue and Bob Too, was made into a reportedly excellent film. After a while, thanks in part to the skillful editing of Ole Birekland, you're no longer sure who's the real person and who's the actor (because vintage footage of the people is there too). This creates a kind of Brechtian "Alienation Effect" that paradoxically makes it all more real and memorable. In the course of compensating mentally for shifts of format and perspective, you wind up projecting yourself into Andrea Dunbar's world. It's a tough trip, but a very compelling one.

Black Bread, the Catalan 1940's coming-of-age story, again was a big prize-winner at home with a lot of Goyas last year. Agustí Villaronga wrote and directed this austerely beautiful film based on a novel by Emili Teixidor with echoes of Clément's Forbidden Games and Dickens' Great Expectations and a setting -- a child's rural world during the grim days after the Spanish Civil War (1944) -- that links it with Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. But while del Toro's film is Gothic and surreal, Teixidor's, despite some dream sequences and flight metaphors, impresses more in both its narrative and its imagery with a stark simplicity worthy of Italian neorealism, overlaid with greater layer of moral ambiguity. Again as in Pan's Labyrinth, Sergi López plays the local fascist Alcalde, this time a less clearly sadistic one. At the center of Black Bread is 11-year-old Andreu (Francesc Colomer), who at the outset witnesses a shocking crime. He sees a hooded figure kill a man, toss him in a covered wagon, then blindfold the horse pulling the wagon and cast the lot of them all off a cliff with a boy also trapped inside. Andreu's father Farriol (Roger Casamajor) is suspected of this deed, perhaps because he has an anti-fascist background and anyone not fascist is now demonized. Farriol goes into hiding and Andreu is sent to live with his grandmother (Elisa Crehuet) in a houseful of widows. Andreu's lean, handsome father gives his son many inspiring pep talks about keeping the moral high ground, but all the while his own character remains somewhat suspect. Eventually Andreu will also turn away even from his long-suffering mother Florencia (Nora Navas) when he is adopted by a rich, plump Miss Havisham figure, Mrs. Manubens (Merce Aranega).

Journals of Musan, is a gloomy, heavy, but memorable first feature about a North Korean defector, a sad sack played by the director, Park Jung-bum. Park won the Best Director prize at Tribeca recently, and elsewhere he's won awards for his performance too. Park served as assistant director on Lee Chang-dong's outstanding recent film, Poetry (NYFF 2010). His lead character, from Musan in the South Hamgyeong Province of North Korea, has just emerged from eight months in a resettlement camp. Now he lives at the edge of a demolition pit in the sprawling outskirts of Seoul. The 125 prefix on his ID card number tells potential employers he's a defector from up there, and hence undesirable. All Seung-chu can find to do is put up sex show posters for a sleazy promoter, a job that takes him to dangerous neighborhoods where he risks beatings. In contrast to Seung-chu is his roommate Kyung-chul (Jin Yong-uk)), who embraces the capitalist life with ease, getting high commissions on money deals and dressing in the latest Nikes. Meanwhile Seung-chu plods around in the grim gray Seoul winter with his bowl-cut hair and his hunched-over posture. The result is a powerful film but one so long and relentlessly downbeat that it sometimes undercuts its own purpose -- to delineate a personality and a social situation. But one won't soon forget this protagonist.

The Mill and the Cross is a unique genre, art film, drama, and documentary. Rutger Hauer, Michael York, and Charlotte Rampling are among the luminaries involved in the making of this strikingly beautiful as well as emotionally shattering art film recreating the making of a great painting. It's Pieter Bruegel the Elder's 1564 "The Procession/Way to Calvary," a panoramic vision showing both the Crucifixion of Christ and the brutalization of Bruegel's Flemish homeland by its contemporary Spanish occupiers. The Polish director Majewski uses state of the art techniques, including high-definition digital visuals, to bring the viewer, and his large cast in period costume, into the painting. The effect, says leading Variety film critic Dennis Harvey, may be enough (if the film is seen by the right audiences) to carry the director into the kind of international prominence enjoyed by Alexei Sokurov with his celebrated museum tour de force, Russian Ark. Like Sokurov's single-take wonder, The Mill and the Cross isn't exactly a documentry, or an art piece, or a feature film; it's sui generis. On the other hand, some who saw this film at its Rotterdam screening felt that it "cried out for the 3D treatment" and without that "falls flat." This is the view of Hollywood Reporter's Neil young, who does, however, give the film, a Polish/Swedish co-production spoken (perhaps unfortunately) in English, credit for providing viewers with the full historical context of the painting. It does that and much more.

The Tiniest Place, a striking first documentary by Tatiana Huezo. A recreation in voiceovers and images of a village in El Salvador that was almost completely wiped out in the 1980-92 civil war but has since come back to life. Watching this film is a profound experience and an aesthetic pleasure. Tatiana Huezo is a most gifted filmmaker. In his review of The Tiniest Place Robert Koehler wrote, "|The subject of the Central American wars of recent decades have rarely received such a level of artistic treatment onscreen... The result is one of the most impressive debuts by a Mexican filmmaker since Carlos Reygadas' 'Japon,' both linked by an audacious embrace of cinema's power to prompt the deepest thoughts and feelings." Koehler points out that Heuzo trained at Barcelona's Pompeu Fabra school of nonfiction filmmaking, "whose tradition of poetic images and rich textures is vividly on display here," but he also remarks that the film is very much of its place and very much a personal statement, the filmmaker's own grandmother being from Cinquera. Huezo's gifts at wedding image and sound are evident from the first few frames. Besides the eloquent speakers and the rich ambient sound (including frogs, livestock, bats, and insects), there is singing by an old lady, the music of a youthful marching band, and an understated score by Leonardo Heilblum and Jacobo Lieberman. This film is many things: gorgeous, supple cinematography; amazing interviews in which all the speakers become eloquent beyond a documentarian's wildest dreams; a brilliant overall conception and sense of the place and its history and its people; and editing that paints fluently and joyously -- reveling in its sheer natural mastery of cinematic technique -- with all this material to create a rich and living portrait. Anyone who wants to see all that documentary filmmaking can be at its best must seek out the remarkable The Tiniest Place.

I also liked The City Below, Christoph Hochhäusler's cold, tense, elegant looking German Wave drama of banking, greed and lust. I was a little disappointed by Werner Herzog's 3D documentary of the most ancient of cave drawings, at Chauvet, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, but anything by Herzog is a must-see, and the subject matter is extraordinary. Any fans of technology and economics would want to see Dan Geller and Dana Goldfine's new documentary Something Ventured, which tells the story of how men with capital to risk jump-started funny little companies like Apple, Intel, Google, Genentech, Cisco, Tandem and Atari, often with suprisingly small amounts of money, and thereby became almost as mega-rich as the techie nerds who needed their cash to get started -- and change the world.

Fine stuff, and none of it at your local cineplex.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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