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May 2005 Archives

May 31, 2005

Compadre, 2004

compadre.gifAt the 2003 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, I had the privilege of seeing an unassuming, underseen film shot in cinéma vérité style by Ditsi Carolino entitled Life on the Tracks (a film that quickly made my short list of favorite films for the year) on a family from the province who had come to the metropolitan city of Manila in order to seek a better life, only to end up living as squatters on derelict shantytowns built alongside the railroad tracks. In watching Mikael Wiström's equally penetrating, indelible, and deeply affecting portrait of inseparable familial (and fraternal) bonds against a demoralizing existence of crushing poverty, the moment of epiphany - the thematic parallel between the lives of the Renomeron family in the Philippine slum and the Barrientos family in a Peruvian slum - occurs in a scene when the Barrientos patriarch, Daniel, now working as a motorcycle cab driver, expresses his sadness and frustration to his western-born, filmmaking compadre over his continued (perceived) menial social status since their initial encounter decades earlier: a self-effacing moment that serves to underscore the delusive, illusory nature of Eddie's dream to own a tricycle pedicab as the ephemeral panacea to achieving financial solvency in the Carolino film.

Thirty years earlier, in 1974, Swedish photojournalist Wiström traveled to Peru to chronicle the lives of the poor and disenfranchised who eked out a meager living by scavenging through garbage dumps and, during the course of filming, befriended a genial, ruggedly handsome, polio-stricken indigenous young man named Daniel Barrientos who had approached him with a ghastly, almost surreal tale of his daughter's near death when she was attacked by hungry wild boars. Although economic conditions have since modestly improved for the Barrientos family through the now middle-aged Daniel's self-employment and his devoted wife Nati's work as a maid and nanny - a resourcefulness that has been able to provide food, clothing, shelter, and a modest education for their children - the idea of a "normal life" still largely remains an illusion. His younger daughter, Judith's conflicted sentiment over a failing romantic relationship with a gainfully employed disc jockey provides an illuminating, emotional truth that lies at the core of this illusive search: allowing him to devotedly provide for her even as she remains unwilling to make a commitment, she dreams of leading a financially independent life away from him, but considers herself above accepting certain occupations, remarking that she finds the idea of wearing a nanny's uniform in public, as her mother does, mortifying. Her married sister (and Wiström's goddaughter), Sandra, works in the family's pottery business and is less self-conscious (and selective) in her quest for financial relief, but feels - along with her husband - that the gateway to true economic opportunity and a better life lies elsewhere, beyond the bounds (and deeply entrenched class structures) of their homeland and into the neighboring country of Brazil, where they can, perhaps eventually, make their way towards Argentina. With Daniel and his children figuratively standing at their own personal crossroads, he decides to take them on a soul-searching journey to return to his ancestral roots by visiting his indigenous village in the remote Andes mountains - a region that he had once vowed in his childhood to never return - and where his relatives continue their struggle to survive, abandoned by the rest of the Spanish-speaking country, living in inhumane conditions and abject poverty. Filmed with unflinching intimacy, Compadre is a profoundly humbling (and innately sobering) ethnographic portrait of the widespread poverty, displacement, and marginalization faced by indigenous people in contemporary society as they struggle to assimilate - often as second-class citizens - into the adopted culture and society of their native country. Capturing a fusion of reverent, wide-eyed observation of the human condition with the filmmaker's own emotionally conflicted sentiment of overwhelming social futility, the film metaphorically (and exquisitely) converges with its own introductory images of the cloud-capped Andes mountains - figuratively bringing the Barrientos family full circle to the meaning and legacy of their cultural heritage - and in the process, traces their collective transcendence through a renewed sense of identity, moral center, and paradise lost.

Posted by acquarello on May 31, 2005 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

May 29, 2005

No More Tears Sister: Anatomy of Hope and Betrayal, 2004

tears_sister.gifOn an unassuming afternoon in September 1989, Dr. Rajani Thiranagama, a 35 year-old physician, medical university professor, and human rights activist, was riding home on her bicycle after having finished grading the final examinations from her Anatomy class when she was gunned down on an anonymous street in her native city of Jaffna by unknown (or at least, publicly undisclosed) assailants. Over fifteen years later, the still-unsolved murder continues to reveal the trauma and underlying senseless tragedy of her assassination on her family - her two young daughters, her estranged husband, her parents, her younger sisters - and especially, her older sister, Nirmala, who blames herself for initiating Rajani into the ethnic struggle that would ultimately claim her life. Virtually inseparable during their privileged, upper middle-class, westernized Christian childhood, Nirmala and Rajani's seemingly disparate ideological trajectories - Nirmala in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) movement and Rajani in the Marxist movement of the 1970s - would converge towards their homeland's post-colonial struggle for national identity as the Tamil minority (who were perceived to have been favored by the British and subsequently, were systematically marginalized under the government of the newly formed country) and Singhalese majority engaged in a bitter and protracted civil war in Sri Lanka. Nirmala, then a member of the Tamil tigers fighting for an independent state, had repeatedly sought assistance from her sister to secretly treat the wounds of injured guerillas - an act that, from the LTTE's perspective, can be construed as a validation of her allegiance to the organization. However, Rajani's political motivation would not be so easily defined. Championing instead the cause of the silent, innocent victims of the devastating, multi-pronged conflict among nationalists, Tamil separatists, Marxists (People's Liberation Army), government forces, and even Indian peace-keeping forces, Rajani defied the role of partisan revolutionary and instead, focused her energies on creating some semblance of normalcy and rebuilding a future for the people of Jaffra by helping to re-open the region's bomb-damaged university and forming the University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR) who sought to chronicle the human rights violations perpetrated on the people of Jaffra irrespective of factional responsibility. Even Rajana's husband Dayapala acknowledges his own (then) limited view of the significance of his wife's activities during this period, commenting to Nirmala that his concept of political activism had been of armed struggle and not humanitarianism, commenting "We didn't consider human rights as politics." However, as Rajana became more outspoken and internationally recognized in her group's efforts to document the atrocities, culminating in the publication of the manuscript, The Broken Palmyra, insurgents began to view her activities as undermining their cause - a perception that is widely believed to have contributed to her death. Through filmmaker Helene Klodawsky's evocatively interwoven composition of nostalgically rendered re-enactments, archival footage, spiritual hymn performances, and dislocated personal interviews, No More Tears Sister: Anatomy of Hope and Betrayal transcends the immediate political specificity of the Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka to create a broader portrait of the human toll of colonialism, civil war, and ethnic conflict that contribute to a population of victims. Contrasting Rajani's ill-fated plight in returning to her native land in order to work towards breaking the cycle of violence with the guilt and demoralized melancholia of her exiled family, what emerges is a tragic, cautionary tale of idealism without action, nationalism without inclusion, and revolution without conscience.

Posted by acquarello on May 29, 2005 | | Comments (9) | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

May 26, 2005

Justice, 2004

justice.gifIn the subtly insightful opening sequence of the film, a disabled parking attendant is brought before a judge in a Rio de Janeiro criminal courtroom for a preliminary hearing stemming from a police arrest on a burglary charge. The defendant begins to provide an explanation for the circumstances of how he came to be at a particular location when the police, having chased a group of burglars into the street and subsequently lost their trail in the vicinity (perhaps after the defendant interfered - whether intentionally or not - in their pursuit of the suspects), instead decided to apprehend him for the home invasion despite being visibly confined to a wheelchair. In the midst of struggling to explain his side of the story, the judge truncates the accused man's long-winded, rambling informal testimony and begins to rephrase the defendant's responses into a terser, clinical, and more compact (and also less descriptive and comprehensibly nuanced) dictation to the court reporter for entry into the official trial documents. The judge's insinuated dilution of the semantic context of the defendant's elaborate response - his appropriation of the role of speaker on behalf of the defendant in order to expedite the fact-finding process and proceed to trial - reflects the inherent, (albeit, perhaps unconscious) pattern of silencing the poor and undereducated in the dispensation of social justice. In a subsequent court proceeding, a young, impoverished bake shop assistant and expectant father named Carlos Eduardo is charged with the repeat offense of car theft (after borrowing a stolen automobile from an acquaintance - a known drug dealer - and accidentally crashing the vehicle into a lamppost) and expresses his concern over who will provide for his family if he is denied bail before his trial. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Maria Ramos' approach is her ability to capture the underlying socio-economic landscape that emerges from her refusal to paint a broad stroke, caricatured portrait of the upholders of justice as insensitive, self-serving mouthpieces for monolithic institutions: a genial judge and law professor engages his class in a thoughtful discussion on the difficulty of determining criminal intent when the act is taken outside of its context; a prosecuting attorney assigned to the trial of an orphaned boy accused of being an accessory to drug trafficking takes a curiously laid-back and unaggressive approach to the defendant's cross-examination, perhaps to keep from exacerbating the boy's punishment sentence if he were to be found guilty; a sympathetic and dedicated defense attorney carefully crafts her strategy in such a way as to minimize the implication of her client's admitted transgressions while emphasizing his socially beneficial capacity (and suitability) for reform. Favorably recalling the direct cinema of Frederick Wiseman and Raymond Depardon, Justice is similarly filmed with an absence of expository narration and leading (and implicitly biased) interviews, using the subjects' own quotidian experiences and vernacular to chronicle the travails of the underprivileged as they attempt to navigate through a daunting and impersonal justice system. Paradoxically deriving poignancy and intimacy through the objective distance of a stationary, unobtrusive camera, Ramos' figurative act of fading into the background becomes, in itself, a defiant act of self-erasure that parallels the marginalization of her characters: validating the unheard voices of the underprivileged by allowing them to articulate in their own faltering, heartfelt words - unmodulated by societal filters - the elusiveness of true justice.

Posted by acquarello on May 26, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

May 24, 2005

Videoletters, 2005

videoletters.gifIn one of several, equally heart-rending and inspiring segments in Videoletters entitled Vlada and Ivica, Vlada and his father Zoran, a Serbian, finishes recording his videotaped message and begins to reflect pensively on their family's inevitable estrangement from the intended videoletter recipient, Vlada's childhood friend Ivica and his father Zeljko Krilcici, a colleague and long-time friend from Croatia with whom they had lost contact during the turmoil of the civil war that culminated in the break-up of Yugoslavia. Years earlier, Zoran had written a guilt-racked, soul-baring letter to Zeljko expressing his profound apology, sorrow, and shame for his country's military action in Croatia during the war - a letter that Zeljko had never responded to. In a wistful attempt at levity, Zoran admits his reluctance to attempt contact with the Krilcici family after all that has happened: "Now we can still say: 'We have friends in Zagreb.' But if you pick up the phone, you run the risk of having to admit: 'I don't have friends in Zagreb anymore.' Now I can still avoid the truth, saying 'We don't see each other but we are still friends." But Zeljko has a simpler (and non ethnically motivated) explanation for his silence towards his old friend's heartfelt missive, remarking that Zoran was not responsibility for the war and did not have any reason to apologize at all. Nevertheless, a deeper - and more poignant - underlying reason soon surfaces behind Zeljko's (and the family's) absence of communication: the knowledge of Zoran's post-retirement activity in workers unions and eventually, in national politics. Fearing that opponents will exploit their friendship for political fodder in order to attack Zoran's patriotism (or worse, accuse him of treason), Zeljko has consciously avoided pursuing contact with him. The long overdue moment of the revelation, enabled through a combination of modern technology and old-fashioned determination, is revealed in Zeljko's characteristically straightforward videoletter postscript, offering Zoran and his family, not only a sense of closure from their reluctant fate, but also a renewed optimism for humanity in the face of seeming hopelessness, rage, distrust, and exile: "We do not think that you're guilty or that all Serbs are guilty. You are good people, good family...We still love you, there are no problems."

Conceived for broadcast on the ten-year anniversary of the Dayton Peace Accords throughout the now-independent countries of the former republic of Yugoslavia, the underlying premise of the project is deceptively simple: a person from one war-town Balkan nation records a videotaped message to be hand delivered by filmmakers Katarina Rejger and Eric van den Broek to their personally selected, intended recipient in another war-town nation and who, in turn, will record a response to be sent back to the originator. Composed of a series of self-contained, half-hour episodes depicting intimate, emotionally candid first-hand testaments of ordinary people - often childhood friends, co-workers, neighbors, and even passing acquaintances whose relationships were rended by war (such as the unexpectedly uplifting segment, Mujesira and Joviša, in which a former interned prisoner attempts to establish contact with a camp guard in order to enlist his aid in finding the remains of her children who were killed during the ethnic cleansing of her village) - as they recount their personal experiences during the war and express their sincere hopes for reciprocated contact, the film is a thoughtful, impassioned, and profoundly affirming portrait of communication, reconciliation, and closure in the aftermath of the Balkan Wars. In the end, the recurring shots of the filmmakers' numerous road trips throughout the former Yugoslavia - emerging from dark tunnels, traversing difficult and often impassable terrain, and recording the irreconcilability of landscape between intact cities and abandoned village ruins - converges to reinforce the metaphoric image of the Balkan region as a fractured, human mosaic of complex, tragic history, multi-faceted identity, and intrinsic, unerasable beauty.

Posted by acquarello on May 24, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

May 8, 2005

Harun Farocki: Working on the Sight-Lines, edited by Thomas Elsaesser

farocki_sightlines.gifIn the introductory chapter, Harun Farocki: Filmmaker, Artist, Media Theorist, Thomas Elsaesser underscores the idea that the singularity of Farocki's cinema resides, not in the power (or juxtaposition) of images, but in the residual impact of the afterimages that is revealed through a careful editing design, noting that for the filmmaker, the power of cinema is "visible in an absence (the missing image)". In essence, Farocki derives his distinctive vision from the meticulous, observational study of images: a visually critical process that Elsaesser explains transforms Farocki's role of filmmaker to that of "a theorist, making him a special kind of witness, a close-reader of 'images', and an exegete-exorcist of their ghostly 'afterimages'". In this respect, Farocki's role can be seen, not as that of documentarian (this is especially true in his latter work where he has exclusively worked with existing, found footage), but rather, as that of an archeologist who sets out to discover a range of information and causal interconnections from a single artifact, a creative philosophy that is reflected in Farocki's comment, "It is not a matter of what is in a picture, but rather, of what lies behind. Nonetheless, one shows a picture as proof of something which cannot be proven by a picture". As Elsaesser further expounds, "events, accidents, and disasters can be turned over to see what lies behind them and to inspect the recto of the verso: except that even this 'image' belongs to a previous age, when a picture was something you could touch with your fingers and pass from hand to hand. Now it is a matter of recognizing the invisible within the visible, or of detecting the code by which the visible is programmed." It is this systematic methodology of characterizing the history behind the image that is reflected in Farocki's comment, "You don't have to look for new images that have never been seen, but you have to work on existing images in a way that makes them new. There are various paths. Mine is to look for the buried sense, and to clear away the rubble lying on top of the images", and is embodied in the identification of Auschwitz some 40 years later in the archived Allied reconnaissance photographs of adjacent high collateral targets in Images of the World and the Inscription of War, as well as the playful "discovery" of a factory worker tugging her colleague's skirt in Workers Leaving the Factory.

Elsaesser further notes that former film critic and scholar Farocki belongs to the May 68 counterculture generation of artists and intellectuals who sought to effect political change through social revolution and who, rather than suppress or radically alter his vision after the collapse of revolution, instead transformed his disappointment and redirected his energies towards the creation of a more critical and intrinsically political modernist cinema. The resulting symbiosis of avant-garde aesthetics and socio-political activism is also broached in a subsequent introductory essay on Farocki's films by Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Road Not Taken: Films by Harun Farocki in which he ruminates on Farocki's relative obscurity (and delayed appreciation) in the US: "I would venture that this is because they belong to an intellectual and artistic tradition in Europe that has never taken hold on these shores - an approach to filmmaking that regards formal and political concerns as intimately intertwined and interdependent."

This manifestation of a kind of subsumed radicalism is especially evident in the film Before Your Eyes - Vietnam in which a fictional doomed love story is set against the turbulent conflict of the Vietnam War (a love and war scenario that recalls Alain Resnais' Hiroshima mon amour but proves to be a much more overtly political film than its predecessor). In the film, not only does Farocki explore the issue of terrorism and domestic resistance (as Gillo Pontecorvo's seminal docufiction film, The Battle of Algiers, similarly captures), but also directly examines the media (or image) politics (and war) that is concurrently fought by all sides of the armed conflict as part of the overall strategy of modern warfare. Elsaesser provides a thoughtful encapsulation of this distinction between terrorism and insurgency in Before Your Eyes - Vietnam:

As a media war, as well as a liberation struggle, it challenged the meaning of territory, by creating the 'terrorist' alongside the 'guerilla': where the latter hides in the bush, vanishes in the undergrowth, camouflages himself into invisibility, the former has to make a pact with the visibility and the spectacle. In order to be effective, the terrorist has to be visible, but in order to be 'visible' among so many images, his actions have to exceed the order of representations, while nonetheless engaging 'the enemy' on the territory of representation. Political actions attain credibility and the 'truth of the image' it seems, by passing through the process of intense specularization, with the contradictory effect that in order to become recognizable as political, events have to be staged as spectacle.

As the protagonist, Anna, appropriately comments in the film (and is cited in Christa Blümlinger's essay, Slowly Forming a Thought While Working on Images), the manipulation of the media for public sentiment is akin to "competing for the greater atrocity" as anti-war protesters parading images of Vietnamese soldiers brutalized by the American military are alternated with images of civilians brutalized by communist partisans. However, with the media saturation of graphic images that inevitably lead to public desensitization, Farocki's task is then to convey the idea of the images without presenting the grotesqueness of the images, a separation that is exemplified in the filmmaker's notorious (but effective) act of stubbing out a cigarette on his forearm in order to illustrate the relative effects of napalm on humans in Inextinguishable Fire, a strategy of distancing - but not Brechtian alienation - that, as Blümlinger notes, seeks "to reveal the disjunction between the camera and the eye, between the subject and apparatus."

In the Thomas Elsaesser interview, Making the World Superfluous: An Interview with Harun Farocki, Elsaesser comments that as a writer for Filmkritik, Farocki had written appreciations for filmmakers as diverse as Jean-Luc Godard and Robert Bresson that stylistically, seem to be irreconcible, to which he responds, "But Bert[old] Brecht and Thomas Mann were also antagonists, and nonetheless, one can be an admirer of both as happens to be the case with me. Bresson, to put it briefly, makes his images rhyme, of which I am a great admirer, even though this is not at all my own project".

In a subsequent exchange, Elsaesser brings up the inevitable limitation of foreign translation in the multiplicity and specificity of meaning in the German word 'Aufklärung'. Farocki cites the Hans Jonas book, Phenomenon of Life which proposes that, "everything in philosophy has a metaphor related to the eyes, to vision and so forth, and that in religion, things always relate to the ear. In many languages, at least in many European languages, God is audible and philosophy is visible...So in this sense, it's very essential that the German word 'Aufklärung' is a bit different from the English word 'enlightenment', and such things are essential for a film, but they were not the starting point of the film."

In the Rembert Hüser interview, A Conversation with Harun Farocki, Hüser notes that Farocki's film, I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts, composed of surveillance footage from the high security prison in Corcoran, California was a line taken from the Roberto Rossellini film, Europa 51, during a scene in which Ingrid Bergman works in a factory for a day and finds the experience akin to being confined in a prison. Hüser suggests that the title is perhaps an expression of humanization for the prisoners as "real people" instead of depersonalized images captured in the surveillance videos in a constant state of strict regimentation and conformity, unable to act freely according to their nature without severe - if not fatal - consequences. Farocki expounds on this overarching humanism with the comment:

In Rossellini's film, a comprehensive world view comes into being. This world view may not hold, but the film has great meaning for me because it emphasizes an attitude of not wanting to acquiesce to a system of injustice.

Posted by acquarello on May 08, 2005 | | Comments (5) | Filed under 2005, Film Related Reading

May 1, 2005

Keita, The Heritage of the Griot, 1995

keita.gifOne day, in the rural village of Wagadu, a slumbering griot (traditional tale-teller) named Djéliba is visited by the spirit of an ancient hunter and oracle as he recounts in his dreams the legend of a tribesman on the dawn of civilization who rose up and proclaimed himself king of Mandé with the neutral consent of his village, assuming the name Konaté after their collective response, "konaté" ("No one hates you"), to his declaration of self-empowerment. Awakening with a sense of inexorable destiny and divine purpose, Djéliba decides to undertake a long journey into the city in order to begin the indoctrination of the king's descendant, a young boy named Mabo Keita who, upon his initial encounter, is sitting on the front porch of his home reading the sterile and impersonal explanation of humanity's evolution provided by Darwin's Theory. Providing Mabo with a tantalizing glimpse of his ancestral history as a descendant, not that of apes, but of an ancient king named Sundjata, the son of Konaté and his second wife, an outcast hunchback who possesses mystical powers of natural transformation (nyama) named Sogolon, Mabo is immediately taken with the griot's fanciful and exotic story that provides the contextual background for the origin of his name that, as Djéliba cautiously explains, would take nearly a lifetime to tell in its entirety. Soon, as Mabo becomes increasingly obsessed with the ancient tale on the meaning of his ancestral name, he begins to forgo his studies, daydream, and skip classes, creating a conflict within the Keita household between his traditionally-minded father who encourages Djéliba's cultural initiation through oral history and his progressive-minded mother who believes that Mabo's successful future rests on his ability to master a Western education. Interweaving episodes of the thirteenth century poem, The Sundjata Epic into the contemporary, cautionary tale of cultural marginalization in the face of increasing Westernization in Burkina Faso, Keita, The Heritage of the Griot is an evocative, elegantly conceived, and understatedly insightful articulation of the dilemma confronting many African countries at the turn of the century as they struggle to reconcile the influences of their post-colonial past and their pre-colonial history in their (inevitable) social mobilization towards industrialization, technological progress, and modernization. Filmmaker Dani Kouyaté elegantly (and ingeniously) structures the film to reflect the overarching theme on the virtues of an ethnocentric education as a means of preserving cultural heritage in an age of impersonalized globalization (note the film's reference to Mabo's traditional studies as a lifelong quest to know the meaning of his name, in essence, his identity). It is this innate search for reconciliation and preservation of indigenous history that is reflected in Mabo's enlightened quest to know the origin of his name - the need for cultural integration as a means of cultivating and preserving native identity in a national climate of inevitable change, redefinition, and transformation.

Posted by acquarello on May 01, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York African Film Festival