Citizen Jane Film Festival | 10.16-18. 09

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film_citizen-jane.gifOrganizers Kerri Yost, Paula Elias and Polina Malikin put on a fine combination of local, independent and big-budget films directed by women.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I just got back from an exciting and exhausting weekend at the Citizen Jane Film Festival in Columbia, Mo. It's only the second year for the festival, which is sponsored by Stephens College, but organizers Kerri Yost, Paula Elias and Polina Malikin put on a fine combination of local, independent and big-budget films directed by women plus workshops, social events and talkbacks with the filmmakers. Of course I didn't get to everything (that would have required splitting myself like an amoeba), but here are some thoughts on the films I did get to see.

Cold Souls (dir. Sophie Barthes, 2009) is a sort of science-fiction comedy of manners which rests on the premise that the soul is a physical object which can be removed, placed in cold storage, traded on the black market, and so on. The central character is a full-of-himself actor (but I repeat myself!) named Paul Giamatti who is played by Paul Giamatti. Paul the character is rehearsing Uncle Vanya and finds himself weighed down by his soul, so he enlists the serviced of the oily Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn) to temporarily remove and store it. But without his soul he's unbearably silly on stage (just watching Giamatti play a bad actor is worth the price of admission) so he tries to get it back, only to find that it's been stolen by a leggy Russian mule named Sveta (Katheryn Winnick). Production design by Beth Mickle is a plus: Flintstein's hilariously sterile modern office and the ridiculous machinery used in the soul extraction process create a setting located somewhere between James Whale's Frankenstein and an Ikea catalog. In a singularly appropriate pairing, Cold Souls was preceded by the documentary short Steel Homes (dir. Eva Weber, 2008), which explores the kind of stuff people keep in storage lockers and why they hang on to it. The visual and psychic parallels between unused yet undiscarded possessions kept in steel storage cabinets and souls temporarily parked in deep-freeze lockers are many and sometimes disturbing.

My favorite discovery of the festival was the documentary Say My Name (dir. Nirit Peled, 2008), which looks at women working in the often misogynistic world of rap music. Who knew that so many women were prospering in this genre and offering an antidote to the narrow view offered by the big-name male artists? Many wonderful rappers are featured, including Sparky Dee, Roxanne Shante, MC Lyte, and the Georgia Girls, and besides being good musicians they're also great role models: smart, funny, tough and aggressive, with a lot to say about finding your own voice and deciding what you want to do with it. The director plus rappers Chocolate Thai and Invincible participated in a talkback the subjects of which ranged from the influence on young girls of hypersexualized images in rap videos to surviving as an independent artist. Interestingly enough, the director is an Israeli who was supported in making the film by a grant from the Netherlands.

Barbara Hammer has been making independent films for 40 years or so and her films are always interesting and often controversial. She showed two new short films at Citizen Jane: Diving Women of Jeju-Do and A Horse is Not a Metaphor. The former is a fairly straightforward documentary about women divers (haenyo) on the Korean island of Jeju-Do, and looks not only at their work (diving without oxygen in order to scrounge shells and sea creatures from the ocean floor) but also their unique place in Korean history. The society of Jeju-Do is matrilineal; diving is exclusively a female profession and the women own sections of the shoreline. The haenyo led a revolt against Japanese occupation during World War II and another against Korean rule after the war: Many died in the "April 3" massacre by the South Korean government. A Horse is Not a Metaphor is about Hammer's battle with and recovery from ovarian cancer: it's both stunningly beautiful and brutally honest about the experience of chemotherapy. Horse imagery, both metaphorical and narrative, permeates the film, as does the music of Meredith Monk. A Horse is Not A Metaphor won the Teddy for Best Short at the 2009 Berlin International Film Festival.

Act of God (dir. Jennifer Baichwal, 2009) looks at the stories of several people who had close encounters with lightning, and also considers the metaphysical question of what, if anything, it means when one person dies by this force of nature while a nearby person is spared. Interviewees include Paul Auster (who narrowly escaped death by lightning as an adolescent at a summer camp), Dannion Brinkley (who died for 28 minutes after a lightning strike and now counsels people near death on the theory that he's already been there), and a Mexican family who lost several children during a lightning strike while they were visiting a shrine (and if that's not a bad joke from God, then I don't know what is). It's visually stunning and includes music by the guitarist Fred Frith. After the film, local resident Larry Jefferson-who has survived being struck by lightning three times-related his experiences, which he found to be primarily positive (and sounded to me something like an LSD trip, e.g., seeing connections where you never saw them before).

Tatiana Rosenthal's $9.99 (2008) represents two rare categories: independent animated features and animated features directed by women. It's a stop-motion animation film adapted from stories by the Israeli author Etgar Keret which are transplanted to Sydney, Australia. The title refers to the price of a book purchased by a twentysomething slacker, which purports to explain the meaning of life: other characters include a homeless man, a yobbo with three miniature companions, and a repo man who will apparently do anything for love. If there's an overarching theme, it's equal parts "we're all lonely and looking for love" and "life is strange." Illustrator Shira Derman participated in a talkback in which we learned that it took 10 years to get the financing and make the film (one reason independent animated features are so rare is because animated films are really expensive to make), and that the characters were built to 1/6 scale (the hands to 1/5 scale) and were moved every two frames. And the city architecture drew heavily on Tel Aviv with a bit of Sydney and New York mixed in, although the characters were given Australian accents and phrases ("g'day" and "mate" being prominent among them).

The blockbuster among festival offerings was Jane Campion's Bright Star (2009), which I've no doubt we'll be hearing about come Oscar time. Campion made good use of her estimated $8.5 million budget to produce a moving tale of the doomed (and apparently chaste) love affair between John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). Everything about the film is classy, from the location cinematography by Greig Fraser, to the period recreation by costume designer Janet Patterson and Art Director David Hindle, to the fine acting performances by the entire cast. Whishaw and Cornish burn hot as the young lovers, with strong supporting performances by Paul Schneider as Keats' friend Charles Armitage Brown, Kerry Fox as Fanny's mother, and Edie Martin and Thomas Sangster as her siblings. Campion is particularly sensitive to the limited possibilities open to women at that time. Today, Brawne could become a fashion designer and disgraced servant Abby a proud single mother, but England in the early 19th century was a man's world. A talkback with Stephens' faculty member Jennifer Cole and a student whose name I did not catch ranged from the practicality of the dresses on screen (and the undergarments involved) to a general discussion of the challenges involved in making period films.

My second favorite film of the festival was Sunshine (dir. Karen Skloss, 2009), which began when Skloss decided to document her unplanned pregnancy. Part of her motivation was to provide a counter-argument to the narrow "family values" arguments of the time by showing that all kinds of families are possible. The film also explores her own family background: Her mother was also unmarried and pregnant, but gave birth to Karen in a home for unwed mothers and gave her up for adoption, then married and had four further children. Despite some obvious family tensions (Karen's adoptive parents are Christians who disapprove of premarital sex, and her grandfather was a conservative radio commentator), the overall story is a happy one: Karen has a great daughter who gets to see her father regularly and enjoys both her adoptive and birth families. A talkback with the director revealed the process by which her original idea to follow several nontraditional families became the extremely personal story of her own experience, and brought up some ethical questions inherent in presenting stories about real people on screen.

There are so many facets to the current mortgage crisis that it's hard for anyone to really get a handle on it. In American Casino (2009), longtime journalist and documentarian Leslie Cockburn looks at some of the principal threads in this continuing saga: financial and regulatory decisions by officials such as Alan Greenspan and Phil Gramm, investors and brokers who made out like bandits, ordinary citizens who lost their homes, and city officials coping with the externalities of foreclosures from squatters to meth labs to abandoned swimming pools breeding swarms of mosquitoes. If there's an overarching theme it's that people respond to incentives and so regulation of the financial market is necessary to see that the incentives offered are not perverse. If it's possible to make a lot of money, risk-free, by selling people mortgages they can't possibly pay off, you can be sure that people will line up to sell those mortgages. And if banks know that taxpayers will always bail them out of their bad decisions, they'll continue to take risks which they would otherwise avoid. In a talkback including Cockburn and several community representatives, very little was offered in the way of hope: Federal regulation intended to prevent a repeat of the last several years has been gutted, and there seems to be no political will to actually take on the hard work of imposing limits on people that might cut into their ability to make a fast buck. | Sarah Boslaugh

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