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The 2001 Santa Barbara International Film Festival:
A Semi-Spiral Review of Selected Films
by Natasha Todorovic & Chris Cowan
Plus our ratings from * to ***
101 Reykjavik (World Cinema) * * *
(Iceland, 2000. Director, Baltasar Kormakur)
Set in downtown Reykjavik, Iceland. Hlynur is a reclusive 20- something who seems determined to spend his life on social security, living with his mother and partying as much as possible. He hits Beta quickly when he is forced to reassess his previously stable life, particularly when he experiences deep feelings (and makes love with) his mother's lesbian lover - a Spanish dance instructor - after a passionate encounter. He later discovers she is pregnant with his child, as is his girlfriend. Parking meters play an important role in 101 Reykjavik. This film is funny, engaging and surprising straight-forward for a premise which could become outrageous in less skillful hands. Those without too many sexual hang-ups and an open attitude about life, as well as an interest in life in Iceland, will enjoy it immensely.
The Adulterer * (and that's a small one)
(USA, 2000. Director, Douglas Morse)
A young married man feels the 'seven-year' itch and attempts to have an affair. Guilt and repercussions - enough said. The Adulterer is a shallow film with hollow characters and a predictable wrap-up. It still boggles the mind that the " Hollywood" solution to marital problems seems to be the panacea called 'a little bundle of joy.' Even with the new baby in tow, the lead kept an eye open for comely matrons in the park. Ho, hum. The producer/director and cast members of this million-dollar independent film appeared following the premier and managed to focus the bulk of the Q&A on the most notable aspect for them - their appearance on the big screen and the size of their pores and noses. (The final cut arrived by FedEx for the showing and even the director had never seen it off the editor.) This is a film depicting ER at its most shallow and self-absorbed. Unfortunately, the production values shared by the New York-based group never got out of smug egotism.
Amores Perros (World Cinema) * * * (and those are great big ones)
(Mexico, 2000. Director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)
In Amores Perros (Love's a Bitch, Tough Love, Love Bites), three separate lives, three stories of idealized love, and two canine companions reflecting their owners' beings and transformations meet around one fateful event - a car wreck at the center of its universe. The multiple international awards (Cannes Film Festival Grand Prize, Tokyo International Film Festival Best Director, Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations, etc.) are a testament to the riveting quality of this film set in Mexico City, a place Inarritu calls "an anthropological experiment." You can smell the place onscreen in this intense film.
A heavy aspect of BO and CP shows the effects of poverty, love and need on one couple and their family - for the dog, brutal fighting and abandonment; ER success and then tragedy strain another relationship between a supermodel and the man who wants her for her beauty - for the dog, lost in darkness; and DQ passions reflect back on a homeless ex-guerilla revealing guilt at purpose lost while he works as a hit man - for the dog, rescue, murder, and reform. Passions, greed and obsession braid these stories together in a gripping and memorable directorial debut to fulfill the promise of the title - Love's a Bitch. This is a must-see, rich in imagery and Spiral meaning. Amores Perros will put the Mexican film industry a big step forward.
... And the Beat Goes On (Humanitarian Documentary) * *
(***big stars for Dr. Richner's work)
(Switzerland, 2000. Director, Georges Gachot)
Dr. Beat Richner - concert cellist and physician - works against the odds to stem the unstoppable tide of sick children who pour into the three hospitals he has built during eight years in Cambodia. This is a beautifully shot documentary with an inspiring, shocking and moving message. Tuberculosis, malaria and now AIDS. (HIV was not an issue in Cambodia until infected UN soldiers brought in the disease in 1992 despite pleas, overruled on grounds of discrimination, that they be excluded from the nation.) Parents bring in 600 gravely ill children each day to the hospitals. Over 2,000 children receive medical care as outpatients; an average of 12 operations are performed and 500 vaccinations carried out on healthy children as a preventive measure. If it weren't for the medical care provided at Kantha Bopha Hospital, a further 2,400 children, if not more, would die every month in Cambodia, and many more would be left disabled for life. Because medicine is free, food is provided and patients are transported to the hospital for follow-up treatment for their monthly tuberculosis injections, there are no drug thefts at the hospital and patients do not sell their medicine. Dr. Richner has a 95% follow-through on the out-patient care because he has created a structure and system that acknowledges the dominant life conditions, which includes carefully selected staff. They and Dr. Richner focus all their efforts towards the objective of saving children's lives and building a system that is self-perpetuating. There is ongoing conflict with the UN's WHO regarding which drugs are effective and useful versus which are being promoted by international drug companies and thus approved by the agency.
(Go to http://www.beat-richner.ch/ for more information about Dr. Richner and to help the hospitals which works solely on donations, largely from Switzerland.)
Ashes of the Volcano / Las Cenizas del Volcan
(Humanitarian Documentary) * *
(Spain, 2000. Director Pedro Perez Rosado)
Spanish director Pedro Perez Rosado, burdened by the world's silence regarding Mexico's treatment of the natives in Chiapas, returns to visit friends and help to take the story out to the world. (This film was produced before Mexican President Fox and Subcommandante Marcos opened dialogue in 2001.) The Zapatista Army for National Liberation is a movement for justice and land reform. This documentary tells a familiar story of racism and repression of indigenous people helping to convey the horrific Life Conditions imposed on them that they must endure. A very poignant moment comes when we realize that movement throughout the country is restricted by 60,000 soldiers who are 'enforcing peace' and who demonstrate that foreigners are not welcome. Rosado is able to pass as a Mexican native; he knows the laws of the country and uses them to travel despite the sometimes harrowing incidents with the military. His ability to understand and use the rules of DQ with one soldier was particularly thought provoking. On the spiral this film represents a complex and mixed bag ranging from BO/CP indigenous peoples' issues to ER economic pressures shaping political decisions. Although somewhat behind the fast-changing curve of events in Mexico, this documentary is well worth watching.
(probably great, powerful and significant; we just didn't want to sit through them all)
(Poland, 1988. Director, Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1941-1996)
Kieslowski created a series of ten 55-minute films for Polish television with an intense focus on the internal psyche of the characters replete with heavy DQ symbolism and mental anguish. Set in what appears to be a housing project in Warsaw, the films interlink and relate loosely to the Ten Commandments. The imagery is bleak, dark, cold, wintry and gloomy. This is a monumental work which film students will relish. From our perspective, Decalogues 1 & 2 left us stunned, depressed and unwilling to subjugate ourselves to more sadness. Hence, we chose to pass on the remaining 8 showings.
Decalogue 1 was fashioned around 'I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other God but me.' The story is about a father and son computer genius duo who worship the technology in their PC's. However, disaster strikes the family - the heavy DQ elements of this story battle with ER, resulting in a disturbing film with many meanings depending on the viewer's perspective(s).
Decalogue 2 claims to center on 'Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain.' The story revolves around the serious illness of a concert violinist's husband. She is pregnant by another man and confides in her husband's doctor who lives in the same Warsaw housing complex as Decalogue 1. Issues of guilt, healing, the nature of relationships, and of miracles.
For a serious film student, The Decalogue provides a wealth of material for analysis and discussion. The rarely-shown films also offer a brooding portrait of Poland a decade ago. For us they were simply too weighty to enjoy when so many other important films were playing.
The Diplomat (Humanitarian Documentary) * *
(Australia, 2000. Director Tom Zubrycki)
This film is about Nobel Peace Prize winner Jose Ramos Horta's efforts, during his 24 years of exile, to work on behalf of his homeland and people of East Timor. The documentary portrays Horta as a passionate, determined and focused individual who works on the single objective of raising awareness of the occupation by the Indonesian military. While Ramos Horta works on the outside going wherever he is needed, Xanana Gusmao leads the resistance in the jungles of East Timor. Although we follow the life of the diplomat, we only get an idea of the human being and can only intuit what must be happening inside him through his work, his media-savvy activities, and those around him. His mother speaks of the horrific loss of her other three children during the invasion. His wife speaks of their estrangement and eventual divorce in relationship to his drive to achieve independence and to achieve his goals. Still, we never really felt we got to know Horta or truly care about him, just his cause. This documentary had an opportunity to make strong comments regarding the underlying political and economic causes of the tragedy in East Timor, and/or to portray the essence of a man who has devoted his live (and the lives of others) to a cause. It missed the chance for both. We felt the void.
The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition * * *
( * Natasha - "too cold and long" )
(USA, 2000. Director George Butler)
The film begins with an advertisement: "Men wanted for Hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success." Five thousand responded to Ernest Shackleton's ad and a crew of 27 English adventurers set out in August, 1914, with 69 sled dogs and a cat to make the 1500-mile journey across Antarctica. The difficulties of this two year adventure gone wrong were almost beyond imagination - ship crushed by ice, survival through the Antarctic winter with few supplies, astounding navigation to a whaling station, trek across frozen mountains on boots with wood screws as crampons. Yet Shakleton's brilliance in managing this near-impossible situation stands with the greatest stories of survival and how regression to AN needs can be met with discipline, fortitude, collective sacrifice, and hope.
Made with some of the surviving photographs by the expedition photographer, as well as new footage shot on site in Antarctica this is a documentary for those who love the details of adventure and imagine what it would be like to be stranded near the South Pole.
God and Man II: The Language of Sand and Stone * * *
(China, 2000. Director Gao Hongming)
The film started late. It turned out we'd been delayed an hour for Steven Segal to arrive and introduce it. Segal is a Buddhist, and this is a film about Tibettan Buddhism. The images were breathtaking and set in a region where three major rivers intersect - the Yangtze, the Yellow and the Lancang - then wind their way to the Pacific Ocean. Heavy in ritual, tradition and scenes of self- sacrificial living, this documentary depicted the weeks of painstaking work needed for Buddhist monks to create a mandala of sand, a metaphor for the years required to make a spiritual person. Three days after completing the mandala a ceremony takes place wherein the colorful grains of sand are blended back together and transferred to the river with blessings of love and peace. In the spirit of beauty, creation, and detachment this film introduces viewers to the world of Tibet by a most unlikely source - a Chinese director. Gao Hongming took a great risk in making and showing this film which began as one in a series. He visited the Buddhist sacred land without political bias, and against the wishes of the Chinese regime. The occasional 2 liter Pepsi bottle in the monasteries reminded us that despite the Buddhas on screen and search for spiritual discovery, we are all living on earth in three-dimensional form with a mix of thinking coming closer to everyone. After the showing the Mr. Gao, Segal, and a professor of Tibettan studies from UCSB discussed the future of the monasteries and the decisions China faces regarding preservation of Tibettan culture for tourism and the Communist desire to wipe out religion. Several scenes were shot in long outdoor corridors made of literally millions of colorfully painted prayer stones. The stone walls have shrunk as the Chinese haul away truck loads of prayers for use in construction projects.
Great Day in Havana * *
(USA, 2001. Directors Laurie Ann Schag & Casey Stoll)
This documentary is a story of Cuban culture as told through the eyes, ears and hearts of some of its leading artists, sculptors, musicians, poets, dancers and writers. The unifying theme - warmth, beauty and joy in collectivism - came through in mixed ways. The artists told their stories, shared their visions and passions and love for their country - the good, the bad and the sad. Although slow in places and not shy in portraying the decrepit nature of the island, we left with the forty-year question: "Why does the US still hate Cuba?" In our culture of individualism, there is much we can learn from the healthy expression of the artistic community living in conditions that are less than ideal. We discover that Cuba's artists are supported, encouraged and appreciated by their culture - one whose collectivism relishes the arts. The 'starving' artist is cliché and it was replaced by the critical but joyful artist in a society of scarcity, but enough. The people are rich, complex, vibrant and engaging. This is no apologia for Castro, but it does show how it is possible for a cool-colored system to function adjacent to warm-colored political pressures for decades.
The Hundred Steps/ I Cento Passi (World Cinema) * * *
(Italy, 2000. Director, Marco Tullio Giordana)
This terrific little film is based on the true story of activist Peppino Impasto's challenge to the corrupt, mafia-ruled, small-town culture controlled by his uncle in Sicily. The culture is heavy in DQ with a strong BO undercurrent. Young Peppino, moving toward ER and FS, courageously questions the status quo by printing radical newspapers and passionately broadcasting on a pirate radio he and some friends create. (The film's title derives from the location of the radical radio station - only a hundred paces from his parents' home.) His attempts to raise awareness and shake the citizens of the area out of their silent complicity and obedience to the men who control every aspect of their lives are inspiring. He speaks truth, as he sees it, and pays a price for it along with his family for his lack of 'loyalty.' Contact with some European "hippies" who try to impose their values over the Sicilian activists' own indigenous style add a rich contrast in styles of social change. This engrossing challenge to authority, tradition, and to corruption is a powerful tribute to the citizens who risked everything to overturn the stranglehold the mafia has had on society for decades by committing to social change. The film is entertaining and gripping with a good message for activism.
The Legend of Love * * * ( * * Chris - "great visuals, plot too romanticised")
(Iran, 1999. Director, Farhad Mehranfar)
This beautiful, haunting film follows a doctor as she searches for her lost fiancé in the mountains of Kurdistan. Horam, who is also a doctor, was compelled by the death and destruction of his people to return home and help them in their struggle for 'freedom.' The mountain scenery, imagery and the interweaving myth of eternal love and reunification speaks to the deepest levels of human passion, suffering and hope. The film takes us among hill tribes who live much as they have for centuries, following traditional patterns in birth, marriage, and death. Yet it also shows the horror of revolutions and the tragedy that warfare, even on a small scale, causes. It is both rich and unsettling, beautiful and ugly, and whispers the voices of many unseen levels on the spiral.
Life Without Death * * *
(Canada, 2000. Director Frank Cole)
Eerie, profound, thought provoking, bizarre, courageous, foolish, mad, enlightening, and slightly morbid. Despite going into it because there was nothing else to do, we couldn't stop talking about this film for the rest of the festival. Others who saw it made the same comment. This biographical documentary was directed, produced and filmed by Frank Cole. It depicts his amazing search to comprehend mortality. Compelled by the death of his grandfather, Cole struck out to understand life. To do that, he chose to cross the Sahara Desert alone. Armed with a jug of water, a tripod, three Bolex camera bodies, outdated maps and a camel, Frank goes in search of death so they can do battle in life. His enemies are time, loneliness, fear, heat and 4400 miles spanning across the desert.
His film journey begins in Toronto as his beloved grandfather dies. After two years of preparing his mind and body for loneliness and stress, he embarks on his voyage across Africa, through sun, emptiness, loneliness, discovery, and death; he pursues life. A one-man exploration which he barely survives (and films) and several camels don't. Awesome. Amazing.
Marshal Tito's Spirit * * *
(Croatia, 1999. Director, Vinko Bresan)
Most fun in show, this Croatian film is utterly charming in its nostalgic pursuit of prosperity through the 'good'ole days' with Marshal Tito. A small island town is disturbed by sightings of the deceased communist leader of Yugoslavia in the graveyard. Local entreprepreneurs decide there's an opportunity for tourist revenue if they bring retired party members to the local hotel and revive the regime. In the push-pull dynamic between ER and DQ, communism and capitalism, old and new, rock back and forth as this witty and entertaining film keeps going like a Tito-theme park ride. (Things move toward resolution when Agents Muldric and Scullic arrive to investigate. Much cell phone flipping, but still no service!) This film was definitely a favorite.
Regarding Bunuel * *
(Spain/Mexico, 2000. Directors, Javier Rioyo & Jose L. Lopez-Linares)
Luis Bunuel and his fellow surrealists, including Garcia-Lorca and Salvador Dali, seemed determined to shock society. In this documentary made with actual footage from the era artist and director Bunuel weaves through a fascinating mix of CP, DQ and ER with great expressiveness, exuberance and defiance. Yet his creative and artistic flair is a great contrast to his absolutism regarding acting. His actresses were not to be vulgar; he was faithful to his wife; and yet his work was sometimes twisted and bizarre. This documentary makes for a great biography and detailed film about cinema art history for those interested in this important figure.
In The Company of Fear (Humanitarian Documentary) * * *
(* * Chris - "great work, only fair film")
(Canada, 2000. Director, Velcrow Ripper)
The amazing Peace Brigade International volunteers accompany human rights workers and local activists as unarmed body guards in some of the most violent hotspots in the world. They call it 'protective accompaniment' and it is an effective non-violent tactic to hold off human rights abuses, at least while the international volunteer/observers are present. This documentary takes us to Columbia and is includes commentary by linguist and political analyst Noam Chomsky. It is a profound statement of what more complex systems, especially FS with A'N', can do in the face of violence from DQ/cp, or culture and repression played out more publicly on a global ER stage. This was a favorite humanitarian documentary and a great illustration of how peaceful intervention can help change happen.
Zoe (US Independent) * (and that's a small one, too)
(USA, 2000. Director, Deborah Attoinese)
Three teenage girls run away together and set off westward across the US to find maturity. Meanwhile, a British woman drives across the Southwest seeking the spot where she must fulfill her mother's last request - to bury her ashes on sacred Indian land in New Mexico. Their paths cross as the girls are in that awkward stage between childhood and adolescence and the woman feels both pain of mourning and reacquaintance with her mother. One of the run-away teenagers pairs up with the woman and a new maternal relationship develops, along with friendship. This movie has its cute moments with elements of Hollywood Indian BO romanticized with an odd yearning for meaning, family and connection. It is best be described as a 'teenage chick flick,' and not worth the price of admission if you are not a member of that group.