Thursday, May 3, 2007

Twin Cities International Film Festival

The dollar is weak and travel becomes expensive. Hilary and I just finished a week-long trip to such exotic locales as Lake Benton, Faribault, Milan (Minnesota), and Luverne. We heard winnowing snipe high above our heads and ate deep-fried chicken breast smothered in raison-almond sauce. It was all very interesting--well, most of it, at any rate. But such excursions will only take you so far. Lucky for us, when we returned the local film festival was still in full swing, and this gave us the opportunity to visit a few even more exotic places.

Greenland: The Journals of Knud Rasmussen

If you saw The Fastrunner, then you know how slow-moving, disjoined, and all but incomprehensible the films of Inuit directors Kunuk and Cohn can be. When we're dealing with the myths and spirits of a strange, arctic people these qualities are not necessarily bad, however. On the contrary, they free the mind from its "What happens next?" mode and allows us to absorb the atmosphere, thought processes, and world-view that is not quite like our own. Though less engaging than their earlier production, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen has more than enough shaman-lore, igloo song-fests, poor dentistry, and grueling marches across the frozen wastes to keep us interested. The acting style is also intriguing, with long silences between conversations and expressionless men and women often standing around in furs in the background. Throughout the film I asked myself repeatedly, "Aren't their ears getting cold?" If it were not for the program notes, it would be impossible to extract much more than a rudimentary outline to the story, even though the film is based on events that actually took place during a Danish exploratory expedition in 1922.

After the film a woman selling tickets for the next show started asking me questions about the rise of Christianity and food-distribution practices in the Arctic. (How did she know I'd studied with Spenser and Hoebel? Is it written on my face? ) Finally Hilary pulled me away, and we went out into the warm spring night where teeming hordes of young frat boys were drinking beer on dilapidated couches set out on the grass along University Avenue.

Romania: What Means Motley?

In 1999 a choir of 41 singers from Romania arrived in Dublin and vanished immediately, never to be heard from again. Here directors John Ketchum and John Riley envision how it might have happened. But the plot revolves around an Irishman down on his luck in Romania, and the difficulties he runs into with the Gypsy mafia. Fortunately he has an ally--a Romanian taxi-driver who wants to leave the country almost more than he does. The Irishman is a naive, never-say-die type, and he's been liberally endowed with the gift of gab. Once he's rescued a beautiful Romanian woman (whom her father has just gambled away in a poker game) from her pursuers a few times, the trio sets to work on a plan to make some money and pay off their underworld debts by smuggling some of the locals to Ireland as a Romanian folk choir.

Plenty of madcap confusion ensues involving Gypsy bands, the Irish consulate,a fake CD, and plenty of beer. The decrepid streets of Bucharest take on the golden luster of ageless punk beauties, the tired cars and abandoned buildings provide a perfect backdrop for a desperate scenario sustained only by good luck, imagination, and the comic chutzpan of Ardian Ciglenean in the role of the festival "agent."

India: The Journey

This tale follows a few days in the life of a celebrated writer named Dashrath who travels by train to receive a literary award. On the train he meets a young film director, and in the process of answering the man's questions about the novel, he also tells the story, which is largely autobiographical, to us. He had been a school-teacher in a small village, and had (unknowingly) rescued a young and very talented dancer from the clutches of her cruel husband. He and his wife had nursed the woman back to health, but found it prudent to head for the city when the husband finally shows up with a carload of thugs.

Now, years later, Dashrath ponders the Westernized and consumerist behavior of his adoring wife and children, and delivers a speech at the awards ceremony questioning the fate of the world, and so on. After imbibing a few two many Scotches, he then decides to revisit the singer whom he had saved years earlier. She is now a courtesan in Hyderabad. As it sometimes happens in films, she is still ravishingly beautiful, and she has not forgotten the classical dancing and singing arts of her former life--though they're of little use to her nowadays. Dashrath's sudden disappearance sparks alarm in the family and also the awards organizers who are responsible for the man's whereabouts. His reunion with Lajvanti is full of surprises, not all of which are pleasant.

The success of this film is largely attributable to the actress who plays the role of the dancer--Rekha. She has appeared in scores of Bollywood films since the 1970s and in 2007 won the "Forever Diva Award" from the industry. Her presence is remarkable--somewhere in the zone between Isabella Rosellini and Selma Hayek--and her dancing, to this uninformed Westerner, is consistently mesmerizing. But this can take us only so far in overcoming a rather slow-moving storyline and a central character who drinks too much, mouths platitudes about dreams and reality as if they were golden truths, and seems to have no regard for the feelings of his family, merely following his every whim as if he owned the world.

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