Wednesday, April 30, 2008

TFF Day Five: Secrecy

My apologies for all the late Tribeca posts, but as soon as I was done seeing movies, I had to face a pile of work. So, here goes....
After the first weekend of the festival was over, the next movie I saw was a documentary called Secrecy. It covered the issue of secrecy in the Bush administration. Given the number of films now out about the crimes of the Bush adminsistration, many of which deal with the issue of secrecy as a key problem, as well as the books, articles,and radio programs covering the issue of Bush and secrecy, a documentary on this topichas to be excellent to stand out. This one wasn't and didn't. I wanted to like this film, but I didn't find it revelatory and I didn't think it was the best way to introduce the issue to a less-informed audience such as students.
The film-makers were focused on the difficulty of representing secrecy visually, and did a number of clever things: showed documents floating into a black hole, used animation to illustrate concepts, placed their interview subjects in front of abstract backgrounds. They did choose interesting people to interview: someone from the National Security Archive, a woman from the CIA's Israel office, a creepy guy from the National Security Administration, the lawyers from the Hamdan case - except not Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights. That's too bad, since Ratner's been writing some of the best stuff published on this issue.
The film's real problem was not a lack of visual interest, but the lack of a coherent organization. The film-makers chose to emphasize two legal cases: Hamdan and the 1953 Reynolds case that established the precedent for government secrecy. I didn't know the background of Reynolds, but the way that the film presented the case didn't make sense to me in a documentary context. In order to create suspense, they returned to the narrative of the case throughout the film, interspersing it with other discussions about secrecy and Guantanamo as the film went along but didn't explain its significance until nearly the end of the film. They had me wondering, "why am I suddenly hearing about this plane crash? What does it have ot do with anything?" I don't think that there's a place for that kind of viewer experience in documentary film-making, which works better if it follows the structure of an academic article, where you should never be wondering, "what is the point of this story?"
I think these film-makers could have learned from the technique of Alex Gibney, whose use of thematic "chapters" has made more abstract subjects intelligible and framed talking-head interviews successfully. These film-makers instead tried to create suspense, which in a documentary, doesn't often work. After all, an informed audience will know "what happened" because it's public information covered in the news, and people don't conceal that kind of information as a "spoiler" to keep your film's "surprise" from being ruined when you make a documentary.
So, sorry, I didn't like Secrecy, though some of the interviews were interesting. I am still looking forward to The Power of Nightmares, a BBC documentary which will come out in the US in June.

All that rain did some good

. Things got a lot greener in the last two days. Flowers are falling from the local trees, but in my garden...
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It's still tulip time

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what color will this one be?

  I think this tiny tulip may mature in an interesting way.
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and the azaelas are about to bloom

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

TFF Day Four: Going on 13 and Sita Sings the Blues

On Sunday at noon, I saw Going on 13, a documentary that followed four San Francisco Bay-Area girls: Ariana, Isha, Rosie, and Esme, as they grew from ages nine to thirteen. In some way, each girl's story represented a particular ethnic group or "social problem." Ariana is African-American; Isha an Indian immigrant in a traditional family as one of my friends said, she's ABCD (American-born confused Desi); Rosie's parents (one white, one Nicaraguan) are divorced and her mother struggles with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; and Esme is Latina. Most of them come from working-class homes, so their experiences of adolescence are quite different from those that we see in most commercial fictional "teen problems" shows.
The film-makers spent a very long time with these girls and their families and eventually shot 300 hours of film or video, so much of the work for the 90 minute film, as it is for any documentary was in the editing process. They also did a cool museum installation - check it out. When I was recruiting friends to go with me to the movies, this one is the one that almost everyone wanted to see, and I think it's because it's such a rare thing to see a documentary focused on girls. I really enjoyed this film; its explicitly feminist point-of-view was refreshing, and the depiction of life in school and the relationship between school and home was especially enlightening to me as a teacher. We see, for instance, how Rosie's mother's illness led to her depression, truancy, and lateness. We see how Ariana's family corrects the (unbelievably bad) sex-education class that she attended in school one day. We also see the importance of peer relationships; at one point Isha cries because she's not included by other children on the playground at age nine. We see Ariana reject a boy who likes her and the role that other kids play in relaying information back and forth between the two - and we see his reaction. We see Esme struggle with low self-esteem as she talks about how others taunt her about her weight. In general it forces the viewer to think about how much pressure girls are under at this age because of the expectations of beauty and sexuality that our popular culture creates. Most of us know just from seeing videos and hearing pop songs today that there is much more explicitly sexual material available to young people than there was even twenty years ago (when I was coming out of my teens), but it's a different thing to see that from the point of view of the kids themselves. The identification of people who are still children with hyper-sexualized notions of womanhood are apparent everywhere in the film. At one point we see the teen-aged Ariana at a birthday party where everyone dances (and sings along) to the song "Get Low" (the if you couldn't figure them out, here are the lyrics). In another scene, Ariana rolls her eyes and openly criticizes the video chosen for a class party by her fifth grade classmates. "they just want to see those girls in their panties," she says, as the class watches "Bring it On" which her fifth grade teacher had apparently not seen before popping in the video machine. Especially in the medium of film it is very unusual to see complicated young girls who don't physically fit the normative concepts of beauty. I wonder if we did a study of the family tv-shows currently on television just how many 12 -13 year olds are played by either older or younger children.
By the time my students reach me, they are done with this difficult time in their lives, but the film reminds the viewer of how much impact the experience of puberty has on a person's later development.
The film was very intimate - though there was one important issue that it didn't touch - masturbation. I wonder if there were student-to-student conversations on that topic that didn't make it into the film and if it was because it was too difficult to handle without sexualizing the girls or offending their parents. That was the one omission of something VERY important to the experience of puberty that would have been good to include, even in, or perhaps especially in a "family" film. Apparently there are (according to IMDB reviewers) some very bad sex-ed documentaries that deal with the issue of masturbation, so I wish this film had made the attempt.

* * *

The second film I saw on Sunday was also a feminist one, but about a different age group,the imomrtals. Sita Sings the Blues is an animated feature by New-Yorker, Nina Paley. (No, to those who wondered, she is not Grace Paley's daughter.)
This film has been a very long-time in the making, and it was great to see it in its full version. I had seen a short from it at the Tribeca NY animated shorts program two years ago, and the complete film is quite wonderful. Paley has really pulled off a unique feat: she's put the story of the Ramayana, as told by some Desi friends of hers, (represented by shadow puppets in the movie), together with the story of the end of her marriage, and sewed the whole thing together with musical numbers by (white) blues singer Anette Hanshaw. The film is beautiful to look at; she uses several different animation styles to represent the characters of Sita and Rama, and said during the Q&A that it was to represent different versions of the story from different regions of the world, such as Thailand. Her own character of Sita must be modeled on those Hindu statues that feature round breasts sometimes compared to "golden pots" in Sanskrit poetry. The music, which includes contemporary Indian music along with the Anette Hanshaw musical numbers, is also fabulous.
Some may wonder, should a white woman tell this Indian story? She's had some critics for this who see it as appropriation, but the Desi cartoonists at sepiamutiny love the work and Paley collaborated with a number of Indian actors, singers, musicians, and friends in the making of the film, and she did work very hard in her studyof the story. I'd say it's more homage than appropriation.
So... my ranking? I tore off the audience award ballot at "5" for excellent, and I'd buy a t-shirt to promote the movie for sure.

All together, my Tribeca Film Fest Feminist Sunday was a good one, and I made two new friends who were there as part of an indie-film meet-up group. So what if I fell asleep during the trial by fire? I've been to a lot of movies in the last couple of days, and I look forward to catching the part that I missed when the DVD comes out.

TFF Day Three: An Omar Broadway Film

So, I saw so many movies that I got behind in the blogging.
On Friday night, I saw "An Omar Broadway Film". This film was a collaboration between film-maker Douglas Tirola and prisoner Omar Broadway, who shot videos of whatever he could see while incarcerated in the Maximum Security Gang Unit in New Jersey's Newark state prison. The film-making began when an unidentified guard gave Broadway a video camera that he could use to document brutality in the prison. When they first got the camera, Omar and his cell-mate filmed the day-to-day routines in their cell so that audiences can understand what the experience of prison is really like. In the process we see that, and also get to know our film-makers a little as they record themselves as their first subject. They show us how they doctor their food to make it edible, and use prohibited devices like cell phones. In another scene, as one of them uses the toilet, the other peeks out from behind a dividing curtain and tries to impress upon the audience how horrible it is to share such a small space with someone and to be "this close" to someone who is "taking a shit!" "It's only because we're so innovative that we even have this!" he says, tugging on the curtain. "Otherwise, I'd just be here." What they show isn't always so humorous and it sometimes reveals rather unflattering things about the two men. In one scene, Omar videotapes a message to his seven year old daughter, who was born right before he went to prison, and tells her that he had originally told her mother to have an abortion, but that that doesn't mean that he doesn't love her now, but that he didn't want her to grow up without a father. The fact that they proudly lead the Bloods' roll calls in the prison isn't likely to endear them to most audiences either.
Probably the most important thing that they show is the routine violence in the prison. Over the next few months, Omar and his cell-mate videotaped through the tiny window in their cell door as guards in riot-gear routinely attacked prisoners who were standing outside their cells, refusing to lock in for the night because they wanted to take the one shower per day to which they were entitled. The most outrageous incident that the two caught on video involved guards dragging a prisoner down a flight of stairs by his feet and then dragging him naked across the floor.
The film had great immediacy as Omar and his cell-mate began coughing and gasping each time the guards armed in riot gear began spraying mace into the area outside their cell as part of their routine method for enforcing prisoner compliance with rules. When they had enough tape, and when it seemed that the prison was going to raid his cell and find the camera, Broadway finally got the tape out of the prison andafter being turned down by CNN, Nightline, and Oprah Winfrey, and attempt to get the rapper Fifty Cent to take on the project, he and his mother finally got the segment of the stairway brutality onto Fox Five local news. There it would have sat if Broadway's co-producer Douglas Tirola had not come along. Apparently, fifty cent maintained some interest in Broadway, because Tirola, who also works at MTV, heard about it from another hip-hop artist, and it's a good thing he did.
Broadway's tapes show the prison from the point of view of an incarcerated and (at the time of filming) unapologetic member of the Bloods gang, but the film that the Tirola created with Broadway's tapes is not a film celebrating the "gangsta" life. He uses the tapes as the center of the narrative, but surrounds them interviews from multiple points of view on crime and neighborhood politics. From her guided tour of the neighborhood drug corner where Omar used to sell drugs, to her attempts to sell copies of her son's DVD on the streetht, Omar Broadway's mother is as much a character in the movie as is her son. Tirola also includes interviews with gang-task-force police, Department of Corrections officials, former and current gang members, longtime anti-prison activist, Bonnie Kerness, and the head-writer of Oz, Tom Fontana. Through skillful editing, the resulting film goes beyond the simple "verite" style of revealing the inside of the prison or documenting brutality. It is significant that Tirola kept footage in the film that others might have taken out as too unflattering because it allows us to accept Omar and his cell-mate as complex humans in their own context, not as stereotypical or romanticized caricatures. While the film is focused on Broadway and his video project, the interviews with people who describe horrific acts by the bloods, or economic decline, or prison policies, show the life that we see from Omar's cell in a broader context. By the time the film has ended, the audience can also see that Broadway becomes increasingly concerned with this role as a witness, and he seems to grow in the process of the film-making.
I thought that this movie was really remarkable, and was especially glad that during the Q&A, not only was Omar's mother present, but that she used the speaker on her cell phone to call her son, who is currently being held in a state prison in Maryland, so that he could hear the audience cheer for him. Knowing how isolating prison is, I can only imagine how touched Omar must have felt hearing that big New York crowd clapping and cheering for him at the night of his movie's premier. It will be interesting to see what he does when he gets out of prison in 2009; I hope he keeps up the movie-making.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

TFF Day Two: Algeria, Unspoken Stories - another "Gone with the Wind?"

Perhaps it's extreme to compare Jean-Pierre Lledo's, Algeria: Unspoken Stories to that mythic version of the Civil War and the Reconstruction, but by the time the film was over, it really did feel like the French-Algerian (Pied Noir) version of "Moonlight and Magnolias."
The film followed four different Algerians from different mixed-ethnicity neighborhoods as they recalled their experiences during the war of independence and immediately after. The focus of the film was on the massacres of Europeans in the immediate aftermath of independence and the killing of the non-Muslim Arabs, called "Gours." The first half of the 2 hour + 45 minute film was interesting. Lledo's first subject was a farmer named Aziz, a "gour" whose family was killed by Algerian resistance fighters (?) in 1955. His second was a woman named Katilba, a Muslim Arab from a mostly Jewish and Christian neighborhood called Bab El-Oued, who had left there for the Casbah during the war of independence, but since the 1990s cannot return to either place. Hers was the best segment of the film, and featured a defense of revolutionary violence by her and a woman resistance fighter. The second half of the film degenerated significantly from there. The failure to edit the film effectively really began to take its toll in the third segment followed a man in Constantine who refused to be identified and therefore was covered by a black square throughout. His section concerned a Jewish Andalusian singer named "Cheikh Raymond" (look here too) who had been assassinated in 1961. Because of the blacked-out main "character" this part of the film was utterly confusing and not at all engaging. In the final segment Lledo turned the interviewing over to a young playwright enchanted with Albert Camus, who interviewed residents of the formerly Spanish neighborhood in Oran where a massacre of Europeans followed independence on July 5, 1962. The film reached its nadir when Tchitchi, an Arab who was a popular fixture in Spanish dance-halls referred to the time prior to independence as when the people were "happy" and got along. While the film-maker wrung his hands over the deaths and exile of Europeans following independence, the numbers of Algerian dead during the war - anywhere from 350,000 to 1 million- were not mentioned at all. The violence perpetrated by the French is only mentioned in fragmentary comments. There was no exposition in the film, making it problematic for anyone but an Algerian audience. Speakers referred to "gours," Pieds-Noirs," and the OAS, and none of these were explained in any detail. The Islamic terror of the 1990s was mentioned over and over again, but was not explained either. As one outraged Algerian audience member reminded the rest of us during the Q&A, how was it that everyone got along in these neighborhoods when Muslim Arabs were segregated in contrast to Jews and Christians who had full citizenship? As another (Algerian?) man pointed out, the whole thing could be misleading for anyone who didn't know the history of French colonialism in Algeria. One of my favorite things about seeing films at this festival is that at every screening of a foreign film that I've gone to has an audience of people from the country in question who have interesting comments and questions afterward.
As my companion at the the film argued later, the most interesting part of the film- the interview with the female Algerian resistance fighter - was largely wasted. Instead of arguing with her about whether violence against civilians is ever justified, I wished that Lledo had asked her about gender politics in Algeria after the revolution. Neither she nor Katilba wore the hijab and both seem quite Westernized. I was interested to see that Lledo had made a previous film with Henri Alleg, and despite my problems with this film, I thought of trying to see his more Algerian, Algerian Dream, but then I read the review linked above which describes it as an "interminable home movie," I've decided I can give it a miss. After seeing Peter Scarlet kvell over two post-revolutionary films (the Forgacs film in the '05 festival that practically took the Fascist side in the Spanish Civil War) and one impossibly bad Brazilian feature at the fest in '06, I think I'll be wary of his recommendations in the future.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Tribeca Film Fest : "Elite Squad" and "Shorts: Off the Beaten Path"

This is my fourth year going to the Tribeca Film Festival and there are a few general tips I'd give people who are attending this time. First: bring earplugs! During both films I saw on Thursday, even though they were in different theaters, the volume was way too high. At "Elite Squad" my entire row (nearly the back row) had their hands over their ears during the shooting sequence, and we were a group of relatively young theater-goers. Second: they've blocked off the best seats in the house, not just for film-makers and their entourages, but also for "industry people" with special passes. These seats rarely fill,because, as I learned from pink-pass carrying acquaintance at the short program, people who have to go to films for work don't always want to see them. (Also, there are so many films playing that no one could actually attend all of them.) So, even if you didn't buy tickets in advance, you might actually have a chance to see the film you're curious about. One guy who came off the "rush tickets" line seemed to be sitting right next to the producers of "Elite Squad." Fun for him!
and now, onto the reviews...

Shorts Program....I chose to go to the international films this year. The program, which was generally good, started with a grim film and ended with a bleak one, with a few charming stops in between. The films were "Good Boy," "Angels Die in the Soil," "The New Yorkist," "New Boy," "In the Year of the Pig," "Ana's Way," and "Cargo." Both "Good Boy" and "Cargo," both memorable and concise, were about how bad situations can lead children to monstrous acts. The magical realist "In the Year of the Pig," with its voice-over narration was almost like an animated film, but was beautifully filmed on location in Havana's Chinatown with very expressive live-actors who barely spoke. New Boy," based on a Roddy Doyle short story was my favorite in the group. It managed to treat serious issues: racism, war, childhood trauma; without a heavy hand. Perhaps its resolution was a bit superficial, but it was winning. The standout performance was by Sinead Maguire as "Hazel O'Connor," but all the actors were excellent.
The film that had initially drawn me to this program, "Angels Die in the Soil," was disappointing. It did not look good - it's hard to make a film work on a snowy landscape, I guess, and this one wound up looking over-exposed. The composition of the individual shots was not especially interesting, and the characters' relationships were not clear. It was also the longest of the films. The weakest in this group was probably "Ana's Way," with the throw-away "New Yorkist" a close second-to-last. While "Angels" was frustrating because it was an interesting premise poorly executed - a girl digs up martyrs' bones near Halabja for sale to people in Iran; "The New Yorkist" was about nothing much and executed pretty well. It screamed "ironic white boy student film," and I think most of us have seen enough ironic white boys for a while.

Elite Squad: This fiction feature film has already shown in Brazil and Europe, where it won Berlin's golden bear prize, and has been reviewed in the New York Times, but it is not showing in US theaters until November. As one might expect from a film produced, directed and written by the people associated with Bus 174 and City of God the film is beautifully composed, well-written, and based on research. The structure of the film is a narration by an officer looking for his replacement on the the Brazilian police squad known as "BOPE" a kind of SWAT-team that specializes in raiding drug-dealers in the Favelas. Their methods include wholesale murder and frequent use of torture. On the way to seeing BOPE, we also get a taste of Brazil's incredibly corrupt regular police, who take protection money from merchants and even steal from each other. To a critical viewer, the police are one more criminal gang in a city that has descended into anarchy.
While the director, Jose Padilha, clearly intended his film to condemn BOPE and the police in general, the use of the voice of the BOPE officer as the narrator and the unsympathetic portrayal of NGO activists and student volunteers (who in one scene smoke dope while preparing a presentation on Foucault's Discipline and Punish for their sociology class)has also led some viewers to see the narrator, Officer Nascimento, as a hero. I wondered about whether this happened during the film myself - would it be possible to read this film as a "glorification" of these cops? I imagine that like some Brazilians, many Americans will do so, but that only shows the level of violence and illegality we have come to celebrate in law-enforcement, as evidenced by the show "24." To a more critical viewer, Elite Squad presents a complex picture of Brazilian society where there are no heroes. Paulo Lins, who co-wrote this film also wrote Quase Dois Irmaos,which was critical of the connections between the Brazilian far-left and the drug lords in the Favelas, and pointed to bourgeois liberals' failures. What was lacking in this film was a character presenting an alternative to the problem. Even if the efforts of that person were in vain, identifying almost ANY other attempted solution to the crime problems in Brazil would have made it harder for people to see the methods of BOPE as a "necessary evil" in the context of a lawless city. That the lead characters who start off sympathetic become so increasingly brutal may work to make those who initially sympathize question their beliefs more than the film would have if it had shown a caricature of the police as uber-villains without human motivations. However, the fact that the students - and their professor - were more caricatures than the police were was a major problem in this film and ultimately undermine the director's state goal of presenting an unqualified condemnation of the police.
Despite this problem, the film was provocative, well acted, and unsettling.
During the Q&A, Padilha, who was cheerful and unassuming talked about how members of his crew were kidnapped during shooting the film in the favela, and about how BOPE tried (unsuccessfully) to have it banned, and about the problems in Brazil today, where members of BOPE have displaced some drug-lords, and are the new gang leaders in some of the Favelas. Also, he appeared quite pleased and proud that millions saw the film on the internet before it premiered in theaters, giving the lie to the notion that film-makers are especially outraged by "internet piracy."

Tulipmania in Brooklyn

Look at how these red and white tulips changed yesterday. Now they're almost pure rose-red.
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even more tulips

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In from the outside


These flowers were too out of the way to be seen in my garden, so I thought they'd be better displayed in a vase. I love those daffodils with the orange center. I contemplate cutting because recently three blooms disappeared from the front of my flower-bed. I put a little note up, asking people not to cut my flowers, and today, I noticed that someone left a wilted bloom under my sign. I guess that flower-thief felt guilty. As always, gardening is community building. After I put up the note, I heard from others who've had people steal their flowers. As my room-mate said, "it's like taking a slice of pie out of your fridge."
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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

red-winged blackbird

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Yesterday in the park my boyfriend and I saw a red-winged blackbird. We didn't know what it was, but based on the picture of the adult one in the link, I'd guess this one was pretty young. If you click the link on "listen ot the songs of this species," you'll hear it make the weird squawks it made when we took its picture. It was a good day for bird-watching in Prospect park. We also saw a robin fixing her nest in a pretty flowering bush.

a new tulip opens every day

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tulips that change every day

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

this year's tulips

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April's Flowers

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I think I'll start blogging again

I lost my zeal for blogging when I started to find the news overwhelmingly tedious.
I had no news flashes for you. The most important thing to notice is that the war goes on, and there is no end in sight. My work schedule has become even more demanding. Since my last post, I've been elected chapter chair of my union, though I don't officially take up this position until the end of this semester.

However, two of my favorite reasons for blog entries come around every Spring. The tulips are now in bloom in my garden and the Tribeca Film Festival starts this week. The ticket policies were better this year, so I bought a ten-movie pass. I'll be writing and posting pictures about both flowers and film soon, soon, soon. And now it's time for me to head in to Manhattan for the day.