CHRIS AND DON: A LOVE STORY
90 min. Ireland/ USA, 2007 dir. Guido Santi and Tina Mascara | Reviewer J H Stape
Fri, 26 September @ 3.00pm Empire Granville 7 Theatre 1 Mon, 29 Sep @ 9.30pm Empire Granville 7 Theatre 2 Tue, 7 Oct @ 10.45am Pacific Cinémathéque
This superbly edited documentary on the lives of the late English writer Christopher Isherwood (of Cabaret fame) and his partner of some thirty years, the California artist Don Bachardy, single-handedly raises the bar on biographical documentaries. Interspliced with family photos and home movies, vintage film footage, and interviews, Chris and Don is, despite its sub-title, intermittently about culture, not just "gay" culture, in England, Europe and California in the 1950s-1980s.
At the vortex of cultural change, this love story is in every way unconventional, except for its happy beginning and its sad end with Isherwood's death. Meeting when Don was 19 and Christopher 49, the couple were mutually transformed and shaped by their love. There are glimpses of the rich and famous amongst whom they partied -- the Hollywood stars and the literary establishment -- but the film's core is of an almost disarming and quiet intimacy as Don, now an elderly gentleman, remembers and reflects about his younger very handsome self with whom an accomplished writer from another culture fell in love -- and remained so for decades.
By turns touching, humorous and illuminating, this documentary imaginatively transforms the genre, using cartoons, clips, and momentary silences to bring home the story of love's power to generate insight and change. See it if you're interested in modern British literature, film-making, or gay culture: it has something--indeed, a lot--for everybody.
BE LIKE OTHERS
76 min. Canada , Iran , UK , USA, 2008 dir. Tanaz Eshaghian | Reviewer J H Stape
Thurs, 25 September @ 9.45pm Empire Granville 7 Theatre 1 Mon, 29 September @ 1.30pm Pacific Cinémathéque Sat, 4 Oct 4.00pm Empire Granville 7 Theatre 5
Religion and fascism, happy bedfellows throughout history, have certainly settled down comfortably in Iran where the state and religion are one and the same. This terribly sad film documents the effects of this marriage-made-in-hell on transsexuals in a society where homosexuality is punishable by death but sex change operations are legal ... and in many cases encouraged. Go figure.
The castrating doctor, a sympathetic type, helps those in need, but this film questions the extent to which these operations are societally rather than psychologically induced. The interviews with the before/after types and with those in transition are simply hair-raising. Confusion abounds --the intolerant Vida, a tranny, hates queers (so much for tolerance among equally oppressed minorities) -- but so does compassion as some families involved accommodate themselves to facts. Others, of course, do not, and the statistic that a third of transsexuals commit suicide in this tribal society comes as no surprise.
This is hard-hitting and depressing stuff, no less so because of the simplicity of means: interviews in a sex change clinic and in family spaces and hospitals. One senses the utter horror of a claustrophobic society in denial, one sure that it is rightly guided by religious authorities. Not for the faint of heart, or queasy, this is as powerful a film as many made on much larger budgets.
DONKEY IN LAHORE
117 min. Australia, 2007 dir. Faramarz K-Rahber | Reviewer J H Stape
Thurs, 25 September @ 1.30pm Pacific Cinémathéque Mon, 29 September @ 12.15pm Empire Granville 7 Theatre 1 Frid, 3 Oct @ 7.00pm Pacific Cinémathéque
This is the story of a dyed-in-the-wool Groomzilla, a feckless and sometimes winsomely charming Australian bloke totally adrift in Reality, who finds his child bride during a ten-day puppeting gig in Pakistan. Only after five years of persistent cross-cultural misunderstanding, real grief, horrific tangles with Immigration, seemingly endless trips to Lahore, and even conversion to Islam, does he bring home, er, the bacon, arriving with 20-year old Amber in Brisbane, the girl of his dreams ... and nightmares.
Bloated at a very long two hours, this carefully observed study at moments suffers from the qualities of a home movie gone awry (edit it, mate!), much like its central relationship, so to call it when the two people never spend one moment alone together until after their marriage. Nothing if not persistent, however, and much like Brian who becomes "Aamir," this film also offers oodles of charm and intimately privileged views into the collision of two worlds in near-disastrous contact.
By turns charming and irritating (much like Brian with his "Borderline Personality Disorder"), this film is like The-Little-Engine-That-Could: it finally -- with dogged positive thinking --wins over the viewer to sympathy. You have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at this mismatched Australian Romeo and Pakistani Juliet, but in the end they win you over by their terrible ordinariness and utter naivete.
THE HALFMOON FILES
87 min. Germany, 2007 dir. Philip Scheffner | Reviewer J H Stape
Fri, 26 September @ 10.30am Empire Granville 7 Theatre 2 Tu, 7 October @ 9.30pm Empire Granville 7 Theatre 1
File cabinets and gramophone recordings don't make for visual excitement, but director Philip Scheffner extracts vivid life from them to tell a "ghost story," or rather a story of ghosts, with the discipline and precision that the German scientists who compiled a "museum of voices" at a prison camp during the First World War.
Interspliced with period film footage -- the Kaiser plays a cameo role -- and photographs, this sometimes solemn but genuinely exploratory film hauntingly revives the plaintive voice of a Sikh soldier, a victim of Britain's colonial enterprise captured in the trenches in France. Along with his fellows from several countries and cultures he was meticulously, if not disinterestedly, studied by anthropologists and linguists.
The story, one focussed on memory and preservation, ends happily in the here-and-now in two senses: frustrated in his dogged attempts to get permission to film in India, Scheffner learns that his searchers there discover Mal Singh's descendents in the Punjab, and we find that the soldier himself, that stranger in a strange land, did, in fact, return home at the war's end to the soil he voices with such great but unselfconscious art in the minute-and-a-half recording preserved in Berlin's Sound Archive.
84 min. Morocco, 2007 dir. Ahmed El Maanouni | Reviewer J H Stape
Fri, 26 September @ 6.40pm and Sun, 28 September @ 2.30pm Empire Granville 7 Theatre 3
On its surface this richly detailed study in black-and-white concerns the attempts of Amin to come to terms both with a loveless childhood and to reintegrate into his society after the bright lights of Paris. Caught between worlds and in search of himself, Amin is only liberated on the death of his uncle, a symbolic father figure, who cruelly exploited him as child slave-labourer and attempted to prevent him from being educated.
So much for the story-line. But this film's own "burned heart" lies elsewhere: as a searing and no-holds-bared critique of the many ills of contemporary Morocco, a layer unlikely to be caught by non-Moroccan audiences who can nonetheless appreciate its haunting soundscape and finely edited narrative.
But truth to tell, the real tale here lies in the subtext of brutal father figures, the exploitative upper classes, lost youths, and a society mired in its past and simultaneously yearning to escape it. This winning, multi-layered film uses frames of reference and narrative techniques far away from popcorn-munching cinema that so dominates the film scene. The director in introducing his film spoke of the "courage" it required to make it -- political protest in a tightly controlled society, surely -- but no doubt too the courage of an artist striking out to realize his intensely interesting and provocative vision.
SECRET MUSEUMS/ MUSEÉS SECRETS
77 min. Belgium, 2008 dir. Peter Woditsch | Reviewer J H Stape
Fri, 26 September @ Noon Empire Granville 7 Theatre 5 Tues, 30 September @ Noon Empire Granville 7 Theatre 5 Wed, 8 October @ 9.30pm Empire Granville 7 Theatre 2
This brilliant documentary about several kinds of passions and power -- the passion of collecting, the passion of passion, the power of the lock and key, the power to conceal and reveal -- is at times like a graduate seminar broaching issues about ethics, public space and cultural memory, preservation and archival energy.
Knowledge, as the saying goes, is power, and this film, focussed on archives of erotica, is a absorbing essay-like discussion of the past and present of the fortunes of art in the large European public collections of erotica, print and objects, in, among other places, the Vatican, The British Museum, and the Bibliothèque Nationale. The world of the private collector is also unveiled (so to speak), showing-and-telling forming a large focus of the discourse with often brilliant and never less than engaging commentary by leading curators, art experts, and collectors in London, Paris and other world centres.
Ruthlessly intellectual, Woditsch's film sheds light on the secret, and teases out (those metaphor!) several meanings from the ways in which European societies have dealt with and deal with one of the basic facts of human existence. This is a "must see" for anyone interested in the discussion of the nature of power and knowledge. And that story -- no surprise -- has as many heroes as villains.
TEAK LEAVES AT THE TEMPLESat, 4 Oct @ 7.15pm and Wed, 8 Oct @ 12.15pm Empire Granville 7 Theatre 1
71 min. Indonesia, 2007 dir. Garin Nugroho | Reviewer J H Stape
Set in Central Java at the Buddhist temple Borobudur and the Hindu temple Prambanan and their surrounding villages, this is one beautiful mess of a film, most successful at its far fringes in offering intensely hypnotic images of daily life, and least successful at its very heart: the collaboration of a Swiss free jazz group and various local performers working in their traditional idioms.
In the search for cross-cultural understanding, something vital gets lost in translation from idea (seemingly concocted over some good Javanese bud) to execution. The ideas and feelings flow all right, and in the right directions -- spontaneity and improvisation, the core of jazz and Javanese gamelan -- but the search for form (and therein lies art, in the balance between stasis and flow) is as massive a failure as the gassy commentary by the fatuously happy local artist "Superman" and the would-be sage Herr Geisser.
Beautiful to see, and occasionally to hear, this experiment mainly fizzes and falls flat. The cinematography is sometimes luminous, and transcends the absurd conjunction: an erupting volcano and tsunami occur in the background, but the earth certainly doesn't move here for all the plentiful supply of cross-cultural good-will. The search goes on, dudes and orang-orang ...
ADDICTED TO PLASTIC! The Rise and Demise of a Modern Miracle
85 min., Canada, dir. Ian Connacher | Reviewer J H Stape
Sat, 4 October @ 9.30pm Empire Granville 7 Theatre 2 Sun, 5 October @ 4.30pm Empire Granville 7 Theatre 2 Thurs, 9 October @ 9.30pm Vancity Theatre
Slick, hard-hitting, and even witty, this film with a message begins with a horror story -- the pollution wrought by petrochemical plastics and their worldwide dispersal -- and ends with a slim glimmer of hope in the work of scientists on bio-plastics. And when you see your first bio-degradable cellphone, you know this is, if not quite, round the corner at least in prospect of "the next decade or so" kind.
Brilliantly edited, with a crisp text, and impressively filmed, this is a minor classic of its kind, avoiding easy targets (well, we're all involved, even if you say "Paper" at the local shop) aside from the plastics industry, whose greed of course knows no bounds, but that, so it is predicted, will end up paying like the tobacco industry: in the meantime, of course, birds and fish ingest it, the oceans are becoming a chemical soup, the well-intentioned are conned: recycling makes nary a dent, because the stuff just won't disappear, it comes baaack from the dead even as more and more is created everyday!
Polished and informative, this is a must see for anyone with the slightest grain of environmental concern. You do wonder though about the size of this film's own "carbon footprint" as it flips from Holland to India to Africa. That worry aside, Ian Connacher packs a real punch as director-narrator. And, yes, I said "NO!" to plastic at Choices Foodstore today. After seeing this film, you will too.
THIS DUST OF WORDS
60 min., USA, dir. Bill Rose | Reviewer J H Stape
Preview showing: Mon, 5 September @ 10.00am | Vancity Theatre
This compassionate film-portrait traces the life of Liz Wiltsee, a woman with an IQ of 200, born into an upper-middle-class American family, who earns a degree in English from Stanford, and dies homeless, a paranoid schizophrenic. The title comes from Samuel Beckett's Molloy: "I'm all these words, all these strangers, this dust of words."
Why Liz's quarrel with "normalcy" descends into the depths never becomes clear, though it's hardly for lack of trying: a collage of interviews, clips from family and student films, and brilliant shots of the beautiful Central California area where Liz finally ends her own life offers a richly nuanced portrayal that succeeds on every other count.
Ending up "adopted" by a working-class Catholic parish in a gritty town, Liz, in her long-standing quarrel with life, somehow makes tenuous connections, transcending the words that classify and trap (she mastered classical Greek and Chinese and nourished hopeless ambitions as a playwright). The interviewees are to a man and woman astonishingly articulate, and the emotional tone remains cool and collected in the face of madness and despair.
Interspersed with their memories, and those of her brother and one of her Stanford professors, are snippets from Liz's own writings -- sadly jejune and pretentiously stilted, a partial explanation of where things might have gone seriously wrong. Bill Rose's threnody for this woman of her odd time and odd place (from her childhood in Manila in the early 50's to the hey days of the 1960s to the banal late 1990s) has the delicacy of chamber music. You won't leave the theatre without being moved, even haunted, by this story, begun so promisingly and gently told, that after all must end in tears.
96 min., Poland, dir. Andrzej Jakimowski | Reviewer J H Stape
Sat, 27 September @ 7.15pm Empire Granville 7 Theatre 6 Mon, 29 September @ 9.30pm Ridge Theatre Fri, 3 October @ 11.00am Empire Granville 7 Theatre 4
Read as a study of a single dysfunctional family or a subtle political allegory, this deliberately paced, low-key and low-budget film is Indie at its very best. Set in a hopelessly dilapidated and dire Nowheresville à la Polska, the story follows the travails of six-year-old Stefka (winningly played) in search of the father who abandoned him, his mother and sister.
He passes his days at the railway station where trains come on their way to where the action is ,and where his father catches his commuter train. Here it's a downmarket town of buildings running to ruin, brokendown American cars being souped up, missed opportunities, and an Italian-run electrical plant (standing in for the EU). The latter ought to give this place a direly needed jolted, but that doesn't happen: Stefek's sister can't even make it to her job interview, and goes back to washing dishes.
Mama Poland and Little Stefek need taken care of, all right, but the Russian Bear's gone, the American presence is yesterday's done deal, and the EU is far too dynamic by half for this culture mired in the past. (Even Stefek plays with Napoleonic-period soldiers.) It's all bittersweet, but Stefek does find Papa -- sort of, with the ending appropriately tenuous.
© 2008 JH Stape