Monday, April 18, 2011

International Film Festival

As the weekend comes to an end, I finally settle back into an easy chair, having visited Mali, Rajasthan, Israel, Romania, South Ossetia, the Congo, and Kashmir—all without leaving town. Yes, the Twin Cities International Film Festival is upon us once again down at St. Anthony Main. Better organized than ever. The Aster Café, at the other end of the building from the theater complex, has also been transformed into an inviting place, with $3 house wines (poor) and $5 Happy Hour flatbread pizzas (good). It’s a nice place to meet friends before a show.

Steering clear of the dark European love triangles and Scandinavian vampire flics, we caught Kinshasa Symphony, a delightful documentary about an amateur orchestra in the Congo rehearsing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The city of Kinshasa itself has “third world” written all over it, with sewage running down the unpaved streets past crumbling mud and concrete buildings. But the camera-man has adroitly kept our attention focused on the extraordinary energy, life, and color all around, and the musicians themselves are uniformly high-spirited, though most of them are self-taught and the music is a challenge.

There are set-pieces interspersed throughout the film of soloists performing in the midst of the urban throng, and also a few subplots. For example, the flautist is looking for a new “apartment” and one of the string players is building a double bass from scratch. But the film mostly bubbles over with the innocent joy of music-making, offering an inside look at the “African temperament” without the evil despots or the machete massacres.

Hopping from theater 3 to theater 5 down the hall (yes, we had tickets) we then saw Russian Lessons, a truly dreadful exposé of Russian efforts in 2008 to stir up ethnic strife, start a war with neighboring Georgia, and then convince the Western media that the Georgians had started it. And as we sit through a grueling hour-and-a-half of peasants describing how Russian soldiers murdered their loved ones in cold blood before their eyes, tortured priests, threw peasants down wells just for the fun of it, bombed schools, and worse, we may begin to ask ourselves why we’ve chosen this particular type of Friday night entertainment. Most people have no idea where Georgia is, after all, much less South Ossetia or Abkasia. And few of us have much personal influence in the region in any case.

But film-makers Olga Konskaya and Andrei Nekrasov, who are Russians themselves, have risked their lives to give the world a more accurate picture of what’s been happening on the southern borders of their country, and how the European community has reacted to war crimes committed by the nation that supplies them with much of their oil and natural gas. (The answer? Obsequiously.) It’s a situation worth pondering.

Our Saturday night feature was an Israeli film, The Human Resources Manager. You won’t find it in the festival booklet: it’s playing at the Lagoon in Uptown. But it’s the type of film the festival often shows. Director Eran Riklis’s previous outing, Lemon Tree, was a big hit at the festival a few years back. Riklis’s current films is more complicated and also better, though less overtly emotional.

In fact, the title is the worst thing about it. It deals with the irritable HR man of a prominent industrial bakery in Jeruselem, who finds himself in a jam when one of his employees (a foreigner whom he’s never met) dies in a suicide bombing. A variety of complications ensue, but the upshot is that the HR man must return the body to Romania, accompanied by an annoying tabloid journalist who’s writing an exposé on the insensitivity of the bakery to its employees.

He’s estranged from his wife and eager to return home in time to take his daughter on a field trip, but the unexpected challenges he runs into in Romania threaten to turn the film into an absurdist shaggy dog story. Yet by imperceptible degrees, our hero’s desire to dump the body and get back to Israel is subsumed by a new and stronger desire to “do right” to the employee he never knew and also to the odd-ball family she left behind when she emigrated to Israel. He meets the former husband, the angry son, and finally, after a perilous cross-country journey in a military vehicle, the woman’s peasant mother. Every turn of the path is unexpected, and there are personal details littered here and there along the way that leave us with a hundred things to think about.

The next day we bid farewell to the glorious afternoon to accompany Dutch filmmaker Sander Francken on a trip to three exotic locales—Rajistan, Mali, and Kashmir. For Bardsongs, Franken commissioned eminent folk musicians from each region to write and perform a song retelling a local folktale chosen by Franken himself. We watch the musicians performing, then enter into the narrative cinematically as the music continues on the soundtrack.

The stories are familiar and somewhat simplistic, though I wasn’t quite sure how any of them would end. The entire enterprise has a multi-cultural Arabian Nights feel, and the fact that there are three tales rather than just one guards against the premier danger that peasant films set in exotic locations succumb to—excessive length. Bardsongs is a perfect film--colorful, sweet, exotic, and just a little bit wise. The music itself adds a good deal to the atmosphere.

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