SLIFF 2007 Preview | Boslaugh

sliff20072.gifI didn’t uncover any unqualified gems among the SLIFF feature films I screened, but some have enough good points to make them worth your time and money, while others are in the "don’t bother" category.









On the principal that reviewers should put all their cards on the table, let me state up front that given a choice between seeing a documentary or a feature film, both of unknown quality, I’ll opt for the documentary every time. I prefer unknown documentaries because they have two chances to be worth my time: by treating an important or compelling subject, or by being an exemplar of the cinematic art. Of course, the best documentaries fulfill both requirements, and SLIFF has representatives in both the "worthy subject, great film" and "worthy subject, mediocre film" categories. To a lesser extent the "two chances to score" principle can be applied to feature films as well (lesser because I find bad features incalculably more painful to sit through than bad documentaries): if a film doesn’t pass muster purely as an artistic creation, it may still be worth seeing for one outstanding element (cinematography, costumes, one brilliant acting performance) or if it treats a subject or was filmed in a country we don’t see on the big screen all that often. I didn’t uncover any unqualified gems among the SLIFF feature films I screened, but some have enough good points to make them worth your time and money, while others are in the "don’t bother" category. Anyway, here’s a quick rundown of the twelve SLIFF films for which I could obtain screeners, starting with the documentaries and moving on to the features.

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Case in point: the road traveled by Buffalo art professor Steve Kurtz since that fateful night in May 2004 when he called 911 after his wife suffered heart failure in her sleep. Paramedics noticed petri dishes and scientific equipment in the house and Kurtz soon found himself not only a grieving widower but also a bioterrorism suspect. This story is told in Strange Culture (Steinberg Auditorium, 11/17, 6 pm), a documentary by Lynn Hershman Leeson that for legal reasons relies heavily on re-enactments. However, Leeson also incorporates interviews with the real Steve Kurtz and his colleagues, as well as newscast footage and animations, making the film a slightly surreal reflection of what must have been the post-2004 experience of being Steve Kurtz.

Also blending fact, fiction and what lies between is A Walk Into the Sea (SLAM, 11/18, 12:30 pm), Esther Robinson’s 2007 documentary about Danny Williams, Andy Warhol’s sometime lover, electrician and filmmaker. Robinson has an unfortunate tendency to indulge her filmic tics, including gratuitous camera movement and refocusing, but if you can overlook her self-indulgent style, A Walk Into the Sea offers fascinating glimpses of the Warhol scene in the early 1960’s. Interviews with the usual suspects (what will Billy Name ever do with himself if people stop making documentaries about the Factory?) and Williams family members are intercut with clips from Chelsea Girls and some of Williams’ films. A Walk Into the Sea doesn’t answer the questions it seems to pose-who was Danny Williams, did his work have any artistic merit, did he kill himself, and if so, why?-but it does add some details to what we already know about life in the Warhol scene, and hints more than explores the family dynamics which could have led a talented young man to drop out of Harvard and take up residence at the Factory.

If you prefer traditional documentaries, I can give an unqualified recommendation to A Walk to Beautiful by Mary Olive Smith and Mary Bucher, and a somewhat qualified recommendation to How to Cook Your Life by Doris Dörrie. A Walk to Beautiful (Tivoli, 11/11, 2 pm)howtocookyourlife.jpg follows five women suffering from obstetric fistula on their journeys from rural Ethiopia to Addis Ababa, where they can be treated at a hospital run by Australian émigré Dr. Catherine Hamlin. It’s a beautiful and uplifting film, not in the least because the fistula patients, many of whom are mere teenagers, do not complain about their lives but calmly relate harrowing stories of suffering through labor for days only to give birth to a dead baby, followed by abandonment by their husbands and banishment by their families. Rather, they offer each other support and look forward to the chance to start a new life in a society that has treated them quite roughly. In addition, Ethiopia has never appeared more beautiful than in this film’s cinematography by Smith, Tony Hardmon and Jerry Risius.

When Edward Espe Brown, now a well-known Zen teacher and cookbook author, was first learning to cook, he received this advice from the Zen priest Suzuki Roshi: "When you wash the rice, wash the rice. When you cut the carrots, cut the carrots. When you stir the soup, stir the soup." If those statements resonate with you, you’ll love How to Cook Your Life (Plaza Frontenac, 11/18, 1:15 pm). If not, you will soon tire of Brown’s oracular pronouncements and the parade of attractive Californians taking themselves a bit too seriously. But for those in sympathy with Zen, this is a gentle and enjoyable film which gives the viewer a sense of Brown’s approach to life and his criticisms of modern America, a land in which many people seem to be in too much of a hurry to experience either their food or their life.

Ethnic cleansing didn’t just happen in the Ottoman Empire or Nazi Germany: in the decades from the 1860’s into the 1920’s many U.S. counties were systematically "cleansed" of their African-American inhabitants, meaning were run out of town in fear of their lives. This is the subject of the documentary Banished (Tivoli, 11/11, 7:15 pm) by Marco Williams, which touches on a history that should be better known. Unfortunately, very little of the film’s 87 minutes are devoted to telling that history, which is occupied primarily by a parade of less-than-remarkable interviews with current residents of the towns and ancestors of some of the banished African Americans. There’s even a music-video moment when one of the interviewees is shown pensively staring off a balcony to the accompaniment of an incongruous musical track. Williams also displays two unfortunate Michael Moore-like tendencies, putting himself on camera and baiting obvious targets in the hope of creating some drama that is otherwise lacking in this pedestrian film.

imitation.jpgIs it just me, or are the foreign feature films at SLIFF consistently of higher quality than their American counterparts? Three stellar examples to support my point: Imitation, a Canadian feature directed by Federico Hidalgo, No Regret by the Korean director Hee-il Leesong, and Mahek by the Indian director Kranti Kanade. Imitation (Plaza Frontenac, 11/12, 9:30 pm; 11/14, 5 pm) is a beautiful and subtle film about a young Mexican woman who travels to Montreal to try to locate the husband who abandoned her, a search that takes her deep into a Mexican underground existing largely beneath the radar of the majority culture. Imitation requires patience and concentration to appreciate its finer points, but is beautifully acted by a cast including Vanessa Bauche and Jesse Aaron Dwyre and stylishly filmed by cinematographer Jean-Pierre St. Louis with art direction by Tereska Gesing.

In No Regret (Tivoli, 11/11, 9:45 pm), Director Hee-il Leesong casts an unflinching eye on the gay male subculture of Seoul, as well as the Korean class system within which it exists. The story centers on Su-min, an orphan who labors at a number of menial jobs to support his art studies, and finally ends up working as a prostitute. This is definitely not one for the kids, but adults will appreciate Lee Young-hoon’s sensitive portrayal of a young man trying to survive in a society that didn’t give him any breaks, and the cinematography by Chi-woon Yun is particularly outstanding. In contrast, Mahek (Plaza Frontenac, 11/10, 2:30 pm; 11/13, 12:30 pm) is a charming film that the whole family can enjoy, particularly if the family includes any ‘tween girls. The film is told through the eyes of Mahek, an imaginative 11-year-old Indian girl who wants to be tops at everything, including becoming the first female president of India. Unfortunately her tendency to daydream gets in the way of her accomplishments, but this is a fairy tale so Mahek is visited with a fairy godmother of the modern variety who tells her to look within herself and find her greatest strength. Besides the universal message, it’s a beautifully filmed with a nice eye for color, and very funny as well: the scenes of auditions for the school play in particular are not to be missed.

Moving down the quality scale, Dreya Weber and Addie Yungmee give admirers of the female physique more than an eyeful in Ned Farr’s The Gymnast (Tivoli, 11/14, 9:30 pm), a film whose stunning cinematography may be enough to distract you from noticing that it’s really just a tricked-out Lifetime movie of the week. The story is pure schmaltz, all about the trials and tribulations of an unhappily married former gymnast and a young Asian dancer who’s afraid to tell her parents she’s a lesbian. As the two work on developing a Cirque de Soleil-type aerial act, they also work on their personal issues, a process which leads (no surprises here!) to their falling into in each other’s arms and beds. A very different film of similarly mixed quality is Enough! (Plaza Frontenac, 11/10, 12:30 pm; 11/15, 12:30 pm) by Algerian director Djamila Sahraoui, which concerns two women searching for the younger woman’s husband, who has apparently been "disappeared" by the police due to the political nature of his writings. Compelling performances by Rachida Brakni and Fettouma Bouamari and stunning location cinematography can’t entirely overcome the didactic tone and slow-moving plot of this uneven film.

Every rule has its exceptions, and as Exhibit A I offer Pratibha Parmar’s Nina’s Heavenly Delights (Tivoli, 11/11, 7:30 pm) and Another Man’s Garden by Joao Luis Sol de Carvalho, which jointly serve as proof that foreign features can be just as unrewarding as the American variety. Parmar’s story is an overstuffed mess, centering on the prodigal daughter of an ethnic Indian restaurant owner in Glasgow who returns home after her father’s death and tries to uphold on the family honor by winning a cooking competition. She is encouraged in these endeavors by a ghostly Dad who offers advice like "Always follow your heart." Thanks, Dad, I never thought of that before. Parmar also works in a drag queen, a Highland dancer, a secret marriage, a "surprise" lesbian relationship you can see coming for miles, the usual ethnic identity traumas and family tensions, and lots of food porn accompanied by a Bollywood-style soundtrack. Another Man’s Garden (Tivoli, 11/14, 5 pm; CoCA, 11/18, 4 pm) has little to recommend it beyond the fact that it was filmed in Mozambique. The story concerns the story of a young woman in Maputo who wants study medicine, in a country where educating a girl is considered equivalent to watering another man’s garden and sexual harassment counts as acceptable behavior. The script is a succession of clichés, the acting often unconvincing and the cinematography is surprisingly bad, with many scenes appearing to be badly-lit soap opera segments. | Sarah Boslaugh

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