Today was my first day at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, and I'll first note some changes from last year from the audience perspective. On the good side: there are no lines for ticket holders outside the theater any more and they give you a mini-Zagat's guide on your way into the movie. On the bad side: The free popcorn cart only seems to be in one location, right outside BMCC. The Loews theaters are not as nice as the Regal Battery Park, but they'll do.
Now, the movies.
First, I saw Lech Kowalski's "East Of Paradise." I hadn't really known what to expect, but I was very pleased. The film is the third of the "Wild Wild East" Trilogy and after seeing this one, I'm very curious to see his other films. While the story as it was described in the program note: a son compares his experiences on drugs and porn to his mother's time in the Russian gulag, could easily have been done in a self-consciously hip or overtly sentimental fashion, this was a completely simple, straightforward and beautiful film. It began with about an hour of Kowalski's mother speaking to him about her experiences in the Gulag in Russia. She speaks in Polish and as she describes horrible experiences, including missing one train, being separated from her family and having to follow the train tracks for miles and miles in the snow. This somehow happens both to her and a thirteen year old boy who's just missed the train with his mother (who I think was her sister) on it. Once on the train, she was so happy just to be back with her family, but once there, the horror begins again. She describes watching the lice jump off the dead bodies of people who had died from typhus and then jumping onto the other people on the train in search of "live blood." Throughout this section, the camera simply stays on her as she speaks, close up, further away, sometimes her hands. Sometimes it wanders around the room. We see some paint on the wall, a molding, leaves on the outside of a window sill. No archival footage, no dramatizations, but it manages to stay interesting, perhaps the most interesting "talking head" sequence since Lanzman's "Shoah."
For the second hour, Kowalski, in a voice over, tells his story of making porn films, being around drugs (he doesn't talk about doing them) and drug addicts, and seeking to compete with his mother's pain. We see little of him. Instead, we see a lot his films, one that is vagely pornographic, but not exactly. And mostly, as he talks about his attraction to the 1970s-1980s punk scene, we see John Spacely, aka Gringo, about whom Kowalski made a film in the 1980s, now released as "Story of a Junkie". Kowalski talks about his attraction the world of Spacely and others, including Johnny Thunders, who we see get into a fight with Spacely on stage at (I think) the Mudd Club, as a fascination with pain, isolation, and victimization. He sees the people who followed the Sex Pistols, whom he filmed on tour and later made into the movie "DOA," as victims of both the conformist society around them, and of their own destructive efforts to rebel against it. Throughout, Kowalski's understated expression of emotion lends an air of profundity to everything. Finally, Kowalski also tries to address the issues of poverty and class struggle in the film, showing a demonstration of Black workers who want jobs and cops who won't let Kowalksi film them. Kowalski's voice over in this section is intersting, but the whole economic piece of the analysis could have been worked into the film as a whole more smoothly. Nonetheless, I found this film both riveting and likely to stick with me for a long time.
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A couple of hours later I went to a less stunning set of short films. In the "Observation Deck" short program, for me the standout was "Never Like the First Time!" an animated documentary in Swedish by Jonas Odell, who is mostly famous for making the video of Franz Ferdinand's "Take Me Out." The link above describes this short film, which has already won some big international film festival awards well, so I'll let you go there. The animation is really varied and quite excellent. It was so sensitive without being smarmy. The other nice film in this group was Third World Newsreel's She Rhymes Like a Girl," about a hip-hop project that seeks to empower young Black women to find their own voices. The most conversation-provoking of the films was "Playing the News," a documentary about Kuma War, a company that produces video games based on the military's most detailed available versions of such events as the "battle" of Fallujah. The phenomenon that it documents is sick, and the film is a document of a sick culture. But...to be more precise about what I mean. It's not just sick because it blurs the line between journalism and entertainment (Kuma games come complete with a fake news anchor at the beginning of each "mission") but because it's selling a completely false version of the war. One of the things I noticed about the scenarios in the battle scenes in the Kuma war clips shown in the movie is that there are no civilians present in any of them. I asked the director, Jigar Mehta, if Kuma had included white phosphorous and civilian casualties in their missions since the revalations in the documentary linked above. He said that they hadn't, at least that he was aware of. This is probably among the most powerful methods of militarist indoctrination yet. ick.
And that's all for now. Tomorrow, it's going to be "Brasilia 18%"