Seattle International Film Festival Report #8

Lots of winners in this report.


Lots of winners in this report: documentaries about an outsider artists, two brothers-in-law with a connection to Osama bin Laden, a comedian still going strong at age 75, and a Zimbabwean farmer who dared to stand up to Robert Mugabe’s thugs. On the fiction side we have an interesting if unconventional film about modern Uganda and a look at John Lennon before he became a Beatle.

And just to put the cherry on the sundae, a lecture about sex in the movies illustrated by clips of some of the weirdest movies you’ve probably never seen.

Marwencol, directed by Jeff Malmberg, is the kind of film festivals were designed for. It’s a low-tech documentary which enriches your life by taking you into the world of someone you would probably never otherwise meet (and if you did would probably take no notice of). The subject of Marwencol is Mark Hogancamp, an ordinary guy from Kingston, New York who was left with brain damage and memory loss after a vicious beating. When Medicare stopped paying for treatment, Hogancamp was left to cope with life as best he could. He responded by creating the fictional village of “Marwencol” and re-enacting World War II fantasies with dolls, many of whom represent his friends and family. The scenes he creates are uncanny in their detail (you can see some at, and although Hogancamp’s story may remind you of another outsider artist, Henry Darger, there’s an important difference: Hogancamp’s photographs of his scenes are works of art which have won prizes and received a solo show in a New York gallery. Marwencol richly deserves all the festival prizes (including the SXSW grand jury award) it’s been scooping up and is one to watch for when it opens theatrically this fall.

The Oath is another must-see documentary from Laura Poitras, whose 2007 My Country, My Country was nominated for an Oscar. It tells the stranger-than-fiction story of two brothers-in-law: Abu Jandal was a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden while Salim Hamdan was bin Laden’s driver. Abu Jandal was arrested in Yemen in 2000, served several years in prison and is now a cab driver while Hamdan was picked up by American forces in Afghanistan and spent seven years in the prison at Guantanamo Bay, filing suit against the United States and eventually getting a military trial in which he was convicted only of charges invented specifically for his case. Contemporary significance aside, this is a very enjoyable film to watch as Poitras expertly cuts between the stories. It’s not an equal contest, however: the garrulous Abu Jandal dominates the film while Hamdan by his own choice does not appear on camera. My overriding conclusion watching The Oath is that our intelligence system relies on brute force because it is too clueless to deserve the name “intelligence”: I wonder if anyone involved has yet figured out that they were interrogating the wrong brother-in-law for all those years.

I really enjoyed Imani, the debut feature of Caroline Kamya, but I’m not sure it’s suited to conventional theatrical release. Imani follows the lives of three characters for a single day and in so doing presents a mosaic of life in modern Uganda: it’s fascinating material but most film-goers expect stories to have a beginning, middle and end and that’s clearly not the intention of this film. Instead it plunges you into each character’s world, providing food for thought and raising more questions than it answers, then ends without resolving any of the stories. The three central characters are Olweny, a child soldier returning to his family after spending time in a rehabilitation center; Mary, a maid who commutes from her village to the city to work for a wealthy family and must also try to deal with the legal troubles of a sister who retaliated against an abusive husband; and Armstrong, a successful dancer with a dodgy past who finds that an old friend, now the self-proclaimed “ghetto king” of street crime, expects to be paid tribute. All the characters in the film are black but all are not equal: men are more favored than women, the rich more than the poor, the urban more than the rural. Imani won Best Film in an African Language at the African Academy Awards and is definitely worth a look, particularly if you are interested in modern Africa, but might be best suited for presentations followed by a question-and-answer session and discussion which could provide more context for the events presented on screen.

Does Joan Rivers believe that as long as she keeps performing she will never die? One thing is sure: at age 75 she’s still willing to take any and all work and is fears nothing except a blank gig book. Granted, there’s the need to support a lavish lifestyle (Rivers’ comment on her apartment: “This is how Marie Antoinette would live if she had money”), and there’s also that internal drive to be on stage which is a prerequisite for a career as a comedian. The aptly-titled Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, directed by veteran documentarians Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, follows the comedian for year as she kills ‘em in Wisconsin, bombs in London (rightfully so: I saw the play in question and it stinks), gives a heckler a public beat down and tries out jokes too strong even for her public persona. There are no great revelations in this documentary, but it does offer some perspective on Rivers’ life and work along with lots of laughs and is agreeably fast-paced. I’m no Rivers fan and I had a good time so I imagine people who are already like her work will enjoy it even more.

Mugabe and the White African, a documentary by Andrew Thompson and Lucy Bailey about the struggles of Zimbabwean farmer Mike Campbell (the “White African” of the title) to defend his property from seizure by President Robert Mugabe’s thugs, has the pacing of a thriller while also delivering a human portrait of a family under siege. Normally I’d be on the side of the Africans, but Mugabe’s blatant abuse of power and the negative consequences for the average black Zimbabwean far outweigh any claims that he’s righting the wrongs of colonialism. The most telling scene in the film is the arrival of the son of a government minister, driving a new car and brandishing a camera phone, claiming that as a “black peasant” he has been awarded the right to seize the Campbell farm. While Campbell tries to engage this privileged young man in reasonable dialogue, the faces of the farm’s employees register their understanding that they and their families may become destitute overnight. Video of the pillaging of neighboring farms demonstrates that the new owners have neither ability nor intention to actually produce crops, a fact which led directly to Zimbabwe’s food crisis and hyperinflation.

You may wonder what is left to say about any of the Beatles, but Nowhere Boy, the debut feature of British artist and filmmaker Sam Taylor-Wood, finds a fresh approach to the life of John Lennon. Taylor-Wood has created not a standard biopic but more of an impressionistic portrait of the artist as a young Liverpudlian with a digression into a family melodrama. Her John Lennon, played memorably by Aaron Johnson, knew from an early age that he was destined for great things and was able to direct the pain of a troubled childhood and adolescence into song. Raised by his stern and stable aunt Mimi (an excellent Kristin Scott Thomas), after the death of his more laid-back uncle George (David Threlfall) Lennon seeks out his mother (Anne-Marie Duff) who gets him started in music. Soon he’s founding a skiffle band with Paul (Thomas Sangster) and before long George (Sam Bell) also appears on the scene but Lennon must learn the truth about his past (and it’s quite shattering, trust me) before he can become an adult who will change the face of popular music.

I promised sex and sex it shall be (it’s your reward for reading this far). Tonight (May 25) I attended an illustrated lecture by James Forsher, professor at Seattle University, on “How Sex Sold Hollywood.” I won’t steal the professor’s hard work by recounting all the films he included, but I will say that although there was some nudity on display sex was pretty much left to the cartoons. And the next time you hear anyone saying how morals have gone to pot and things were better in the old days just refer them to the good professor and his clips because they demonstrate that the attempt to hide a lack of creativity by showing a little leg, or considerably more than that, is hardly a new strategy in the film business.

Let’s consider first the musical short Three Little Sisters, directed by Joseph Santley in 1944 and apparently intended to bolster the morale of the troops. It features a vocal harmony trio of Mary Lee, Ruth Terry and Cheryl Walker (Veronica Lake’s double in Sullivan’s Travels) who basically deliver the message that girls put out for boys in uniform. There’s also a glimpse of the girls in their lingerie.

Not enough for you? How about Shirley Temple as Jon Benet Ramsey, Jr.? At age 4, before she had really hit the big time, Shirley appeared as the title character in the short Polly Tix in Washington. The gimmick of the film (#6 in the Baby Burlesk one-reel comedy series, according to is that kids in diapers (accessorized by cigars, hats, and the like) played adult roles in familiar story setups. In this case the setting in Washington politics and Shirley is a vamp sent in to tempt an insufferably honest politician. She has her own African American maid a suitably skimpy costume with lots of tacky costume jewelry and makeup and it was so bad it was good, if you know what I mean.

One final tidbit. There was such a great fuss at the Breen Office over Jane Russell’s cleavage in The Outlaw (in part because Hughes made it the focus of promotion for the film) that they missed the very homoerotic subtext among Doc Holliday (Walter Huston), Pat Garrett (Thomas Mitchell, who you may remember as Scarlett O’Hara’s father in Gone With The Wind) and Billy the Kid (Jack Buetel, whose talent was in his looks). Their first meeting looks and sounds a whole lot like an older man picking up a young hustler while another older man seethes with jealousy, and judging from the laughter in the audience I’m not the only one. Well, maybe we should be glad that censors so frequently are morons because that leaves more for the rest of us to enjoy. | Sarah Boslaugh

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