Sunday, April 22, 2012

Film Festival 2

Halfway through the film festival, we reach new heights.

Harbor of Hope
The Holocaust is a horrible thing, though half a century old now, and more. Harbor of Hope focuses on one of its more inspiring moments—the efforts of the Swedish Red Cross to bring 30,000 concentration camp internees from Germany to Malmö, Sweden, in the waning days of WWII, with the permission of the German government, who knew by that time that the jig was up.

The film makes good use of government film archives, but focuses on the relatively few passengers on those boats who are still alive and could be located. The director, Magnus Gertten, (who was present at the screening) made a few simple but effective decisions regarding the shape and content of the film—for example, of showing the faces of those speaking but not at the time when they were speaking—which resulted in a far more immediate and moving narrative than such documentaries usually offer.

Many were saved. We see them disembarking from the boats. We hear the voices of those who have being identified and recently located on the soundtrack: “Oh, look! There’s my mom. And there’s me!” I had a lump in my throat throughout most of the film.

One of the featured survivors, Joe Rosenberg, ended up in Minneapolis, and he was present at the screening. In the film he had remarked that he was “angry at God” for what had happened, and during the question-and-answer someone in the audience asked him if he was still angry.

After a moment’s hesitation he replied, “Yes.” Then he told us a story about how some of the men who had been saved were urging all the Jewish survivors at Malmö to get together and say a Kaddish for those who had died. The Kaddish, he explained to the goys in the audience, is a funereal expression of gratitude on the order of “May His great name be blessed forever, and to all eternity.” And Rosenberg replied, “No! How could you be praising the Lord for the death of all your relatives.”

We follow other survivors to South Africa or Poland. It’s a rich experience, setting a bourgeois yet powerful humanity against the dark shadows of Nazi atrocities.

West Wind: The Vision of Tom Thomson
Canadians with an aesthetic bent are very proud of the Group of Seven, or the Algonquin School, who painted the landscapes of the Canadian Shield during the early decades of the 20th century. Many of these artists were inspired by Tom Thomson, who developed a radical approach to painting in the years preceding the First World War.

West Wind tells the story of Thompson’s development as a painter and his frequent trips to the lakes, pine forests, and bogs of eastern North Ontario. The story is made more compelling by the fact that Thomson, a reticent individual, was likely murdered in 1917 on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Provincial Park. The mystery has never been solved. It’s officially presumed that Thomson drowned, though he was an expert swimmer and canoeist. Several alternative scenarios are offered in the film, and a few even more interesting possibilities were offered during the Q & A with the director and the producer, who were both present at the screening.

The film details Thomson’s training at a business school in Seattle and his subsequent employment at a design firm in Toronto. It goes on to chronicle the influence of a exhibit of Scandinavian Impressionist and Art Nouveau paintings held in 1913 in Buffalo, NY, which convinced Thompson and his colleagues that they could fashion a similar school devoted to the unique beauties of the Canadian countryside.

When painting on location in north Ontario, Thomson used a small wooden sketch box to carry his oil paints, palette, and brushes. The resultant sketches were executed on bits of wooden planking. The best of them were later recreated on canvas. These painting on wood are usually small, and one of the great merits of the film is to enlarge them many-fold on the screen, where their radical beauty can be more fully appreciated.

A patriotic theme runs through the movie—Thompson is consider the “quintessential” Canadian artist. On the one hand, this might be considered odd, in so far as 75% of all Canadians live within 100 miles of the US border, and have probably never been to the bogs and lakes that Thompson and his admirers and successors depicted so dramatically. I suspect that more urban Minnesotans, with the BWCAW right in their backyard, have actually experienced such stuff than have Canadians. I could be wrong. But that’s why we came to the film.


Payback, reputed to be a documentary about debt, is in fact a rambling think-piece about crime, punishment, forgiveness and restitution, human and environmental degradation, capitalism, and social responsibility. It jumps back and forth from the mountains of Albania to the BP oil spill to the Florida tomato-fields, with repeat stops at an unnamed Canadian prison, an abandoned prison that seems to have been turned into a museum, and a university economics classroom.
Unlike such popular and compelling documentaries as Inside Job, An Inconvenient Truth, and Food, Inc., the theme of Payback is too ill-focused, and the shifts in scenery too frequent, to establish any sort of compelling argument or thesis. We return too often to a wealthy executive (and former convict) expounding fatuously on the Canadian system of justice, and in one segment a counselor of some kind—I never caught her name—who tries laboriously to explain that when the perpetrator of a crime is forgiven, it doesn’t mean that everything has returned to the pristine condition before the crime took place.

Theologian Karen Armstrong gives us a mini-lecture on the golden rule as described by Confucius. And Margaret Atwood, who wrote the book on which the film is based, appears again and again, delivering a lecture, typing on her laptop, crossing out a phrase on a typed document as she muses about what she’s written, reciting a tale about Ebenezer Scrooge, or “thinking out loud” in some other way that adds little to the punch of the film and sometimes all but insults the viewer’s intelligence.

In short, Payback is a perfect film festival entry. The mountains of Albania are spectacular and the rural life-ways we witness there is fascinating; the Gulf oil spill is gorgeous, seen on the big screen from the window of a helicopter; and the adroitness with which Latino migrant workers toss heavy buckets full of green tomatoes high into the air toward a slow-moving truck has to be seen to be believed.

As we struggle to identify and assay the unifying concept at work (there isn’t one) the individual stories begin to sink in, and we leave the theater frustrated at having been jerked around so haphazardly, but also convinced that we need more and better 1) drug rehabilitation programs for prison inmates; 2) labor laws; 3) environmental regulations; 4) documentaries about social conscience.
As for the Albanian blood-feuds, I’m not sure there’s much that we, or even the Canadians, can do about that.

Absurdist farce may seem like just another tired and slightly irrelevant genre these days, alongside fey Noel Coward comedies and dour Ibsen melodramas. But how often do you get to see a film written and directed by the long-standing former president of a major European country?

Václav Havel is the brains behind this light-hearted work, which lends a little more weigh to remarks delivered by the protagonist on the order of: “Tony Blair once told me….”

The main character is a long-standing chancellor who’s just been voted out of office. The entire film takes place on the terrace in front of the government-owned villa that he fears he and his family will soon be required to leave. Our “hero” is surrounded by an entourage of loved ones, servants, and hangers on—especially the former advisor to a former advisor who mans the gate-house on the estate, announcing the arrival of journalists and photographers, rivals and friends.

There are bits of slapstick, chunks of arch political rhetoric, petty rivalries, some Shakespearean histrionics, a disco scene in the fountain, and a few surprise turns of plot, but the entire production seems more like an extended Laugh-In skit than The Rules of the Game. There is much to be enjoyed here, but little, in the end, to think about.

Shortly after being elected to the presidency of Czechoslovakia in 1990, Havel remarked in a speech he gave in Jerusalem:

I am the kind of person who would not be in the least surprised if, in the very middle of my Presidency, I were to be summoned and led off to stand trial before some shadowy tribunal, or taken straight to some quarry to break rocks. Nor would I be surprised if I were to suddenly hear the reveille and wake up in my prison cell, and then, with great bemusement, proceed to tell my fellow-prisoners everything that had happened to me in the past six months. The lower I am, the more proper my place seems; and the higher I am the stronger my suspicion is that there has been some mistake.

At the end of Leaving,the former chancellor departs from his villa in a covered wagon piled high with trunks and furniture and driven by someone who might well be Gabby Hayes’s grandson. A fitting exit, perhaps, to a very unusual career. (Havel died shortly after completely the film.)

Argentinian Lessons

When we think of Argentina, we think of Buenos Aires first, perhaps, then Patagonia. This film takes us to the remote village of Azara, in the northeast part of the country, where the director, Wojciech Staroń, moved with his wife and son after she secured a two-year appointment teaching Polish there. Staroń, better known as a cinematographer than a director, got his camera out and shot footage of his son’s struggles to adjust to this new and strange locale. The film actually focuses less on seven-year-old Janel than on his new neighbor and friend, eleven-year-old Marcia, who lives in a large brick garage nearby with an antique car, her unstable mother, and several siblings.

Shot in 16-millimeter, and with very little dialogue, the film has the look and feel of a home movie, but Staroń, with twenty-some productions behind him, knows how to frame and cut a scene, drawing us into a dream-like environment of gravel roads, primitive houses and schools, flowing brooks, run-down vehicles, fields, sunshine, and the slow creep of time.

Marcia’s father has left town to work on a rice plantation, and much of the film deals with her attempts to raise money for the family by harvesting yerba maté, making bricks by hand, and setting up a kiosk near the highway to cater to passing traffic—of which there seems to be very little. Janel tags along, lending a hand, and even accompanies Marcia on a midnight rail trip to her father’s plantation.

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