Thursday, April 17, 2014

Mpls/St Paul Film Fest: Three Films

You will seldom hear me complain about how busy I am, maybe because I’m seldom that busy. But I have been busy this spring season. How am I going to explain, then, that I’ve seen eleven films in the past fortnight? Can it be the arrival of the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film fest, which gives us the opportunity to see two or three films in a row on a Saturday afternoon?


Well, let me describe a few:

The Forgotten Kingdom

This beautiful film follows the path of an young man named Atang—angry, unemployed and adrift in Johannesburg—who’s forced to return to his home village in Lesotho when his father dies leaving a request to be buried there. Aside from the majestic mountain scenery, two things make the film work. First of all, it’s well-paced. Atang enters the village suspicious and rude, and it takes a long, long time for him to loosen up to the village environment.

The film also has a strong cast, which consists, aside from Atang,  of a young woman named Dineo whom he knew as a child (she’s now a teacher in the village); her arrogant and unpleasant father, who wants to marry her off to a wealthy suitor; and a boy, friendly and impish by turns, who appears out of nowhere on a mule to badger Atang.

“Who are you?” Atang asks.

“I’m the eyes of the black cloud that follows you around,” the boy replies tauntingly.

One additional character needs to be mentioned, though we rarely see her—Dineo’s sister, who’s suffering from AIDs. Her father is ashamed of her condition, and insists on keeping her shut away in her room. Dineo returned to the village from Johannesburg to care for her, but that dependent relationship has made it difficult for Dineo’s father to marry her off and collect the dowry he feels he’s entitled to.

The film has a pastoral quality, the villagers’ colorful robes are a sight to behold, and in time a vaguely supernatural atmosphere develops, mostly due to the boy’s gnomic utterances,  without stretching our credulity overmuch. The romantic element is similarly understated, and in the end, what might have been just another Utopian fantasy becomes a lovely examination of fathers and children, independence and the weight of tradition, and the power of place.     

Out of the Fire

This documentary examines a few months in the life of a potter in rural Virginia named Kevin Crowe, as seen by a young wonk from nearby Washington DC who decides to drop her fast-paced career to become his apprentice. It doesn’t entirely escape the tone of sanctimonious guru-awe that can easily doom such a subject. “He knows so much about the clay, the glazes, the kilns, the woods….” Yet both potter and apprentice are likeable, and brief interviews with the potter’s wife and kids add variety.

The film picks up when a host of artist-friends descend on the studio for the semi-annual firing, which takes four days. At this point the kiln itself takes center stage. Will the proper temperature be established and maintained? Will the pots turn out OK, or will they sag and crack? Will the ash glazes be cool? A round-the-clock work schedule is set up, people play the guitar as others shove wood into the mouth of the blazing oven.

It’s difficult to capture a spirit of genuine camaraderie on film, and Out of the Fire succeeds only intermittently, but it’s well worth watching nonetheless. For whatever else it may be, the potter’s life is full of wood chopping, messy clay, mysterious natural processes, relative poverty, and the sense of doing something earthy and rewarding and right. What’s more, many of Crowe’s pots are quite good.

Needless to say, the film will appeal more strongly to viewers who are actually interested in hand-thrown pottery. Like me.  

The Amazing Catfish

A perfect film-fest film --  too inconsequential to receive widespread distribution, in all likelihood, yet perfectly nuanced within its own sphere of reference.

Claudia lives alone in an industrial warehouse and works in a supermarket offering free samples to passing shoppers. One night she develops appendicitis, out of the blue (well, that’s how it happens) and in the hospital she finds herself separated by a thin sheet from a woman named Martha and her four odd-ball children, who happen to be visiting. When Martha spots Claudia later at the bus-stop, she offers to give her a ride. Claudia ends up going home with Martha and her kids, and before long she’s sharing meals with them, taking the kids to school, watching TV with them. 

It’s an odd situation which is never really examined or discussed. At first no one knows who Claudia is, but they do need a babysitter. The kids are all wayward to begin with, though in different directions. They’re used to taking care of themselves, because Martha visits the hospital regularly: she has AIDs. In time Claudia learns a bit about the various men Martha has been with, which helps to explain how Martha’s kids can be so different. And Martha learns that Claudia lost her parents at the age of two, and has been living a sort of shadow life since then that we can hardly imagine.

All the kids in the film are good at being kids, though their mother remains a cipher. The film’s success is largely due, I think, to the aplomb with which Ximena Ayala holds to the character of Claudia. She might easily have been bitter, resentful, depressed, or antisocial in some other way, given her history and circumstances, but Claudia, though slow to react, shy, and often puzzled by the things going on around her, is also attracted to the vibrancy, and even the chaos, of "normal" life as she has never known it.

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