Our Cameras, Ourselves

All is fair...: The Iranian 'Gilaneh'
Fadak Film

The conspicuous lack of women directors in just about every national cinema movement you can name is a demographic puzzle that gets curiouser and curiouser. So it's apt that the subtitle of this year's installment of "Women with Vision" is "Confronting Silence," since the festival offers an all-female chorus of filmmaking voices from around the globe--and from right here in Minneapolis, with the popular "Girls in the Director's Chair" section spotlighting local auteurs ages 10 to 18. (Their films and videos screen for free from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Saturday, March 4.)

The fest's "Blacklisted" sidebar rounds up films starring, written by, or directed by women silenced by McCarthyism (including Lillian Hellman, screenwriter Marguerite Roberts, and Minnesota-born actress Gale Sondergaard). The 85-year-old Norma Barzman will introduce a screening of the 1946 psychological thriller The Locket (Saturday, March 18 at 3:00 p.m.), which she adapted without credit from Sheridan Gibney's novel about a man who learns that his bride-to-be may not be all that she seems.

Also on the receiving end of a brutal campaign of suppression, the Indian-born, Canadian-based director Deepa Mehta struggled for five years to complete the last entry in her "elemental trilogy," Water (Saturday, March 18 at 8:00 p.m.), about widows forced to live under miserable conditions in an ashram. She was to begin production in Uttar Pradesh in 2000, but protesting mobs tore down her sets and burnt Mehta in effigy; she completed the film guerrilla-style in Sri Lanka under an assumed name. (Water screens alongside the first two films in Mehta's trilogy: Fire, on Sunday, March 5 at 2:00 p.m., and Earth, on Saturday, March 12 at 2:00 p.m.)

Rakhshan Bani-Etemad and Moshen Abdolvahab's Gilaneh (Saturday, March 4 at 7:00 p.m.) places women on the home front of a more literal battleground. The veteran Iranian director Bani-Etemad won U.S. distribution for the first time in 2003 with Under the Skin of the City, about a working-class matriarch who struggles to keep her family's heads above water while her eldest son embarks on increasingly desperate moneymaking schemes. In Gilaneh, the eponymous central figure (Fatemeh Motamed Arya) is also a mother overwhelmed by political and personal upheavals beyond her control. The film begins in 1988, as the Iran-Iraq war rages: Gilaneh's son is leaving for the front, while her daughter must travel from their rural village to Tehran at the very moment that many Tehran residents are fleeing bombing raids for the countryside. The second part of the film flashes forward to March 2003, as the U.S. begins decimating Baghdad, and Gilaneh cares for her ravaged son, who was physically and psychologically destroyed by his war service. Gilaneh is an experience of scarcely relieved anguish, terror, and sadness; the directors aim squarely and solely at the raw representation of a weeping, irreparable wound in a nation's psyche--and succeed.

Confronting silence is the very subject of one of the festival's most arresting selections. In Sisters in Law (Thursday, March 9 at 7:00 p.m.), the ever incisive and adventurous documentarian Kim Longinotto, with co-director Florence Ayisi, gives us characteristically firm footing in an unfamiliar milieu: Here it's the family courtrooms of Kumba, Cameroon. The awful testimonies of rape and domestic violence, and the defendants' general disinclination toward remorse or even denial of the accusations, make bitterly clear that women and children are little more than disposable merchandise in this village. Yet in the scorching determination of prosecutor Vera Ngassa, as well as the resilience of the adult plaintiffs who want better lives for their daughters, the film finds genuine hope for the future.

Attempting to locate a similar cautious optimism, The Boys of Baraka (Thursday, March 16 at 7:00 p.m.) looks at displacement as a pedagogical strategy for at-risk youth. Co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady train their cameras on a group of 20 African American boys, who are spirited away from chaotic Baltimore public schools to a two-year intensive program in rural Kenya. (The Baraka School representative informs her recruits that, by age 18, they'll have chosen between a high school diploma, a jail cell, and a coffin.) Improbably, however, their remote schoolhouse is soon rumbled by geopolitical strife: Following the 2002 hotel bombing in Mombasa and the closing of the U.S. consulate in Nairobi, the Baraka School's activities are suspended for safety reasons--though one distressed mother comments that her son is far more likely to be killed on the streets of Baltimore. The Boys of Baraka is well-meaning, but, perhaps inescapably, it's also an uneasy form of tourism.

With Toward Mathilde (Sunday, March 12 at 7:00 p.m.), the great Claire Denis makes a rare foray into documentary, one that sits perfectly at home with her previous fiction work. Given the tactile intimacy of her films--an elemental cinema wherein songs, bodies, narration, and landscapes all carry equal weight--Denis is a natural for a dance doc; in Toward Mathilde, shot on Super 8 and Super 16, she records Mathilde Monnier of the Montpellier National Centre for Choreography as the artist brings a new piece to life. The director is collaborator as much as observer: It was Denis who gave her subject the PJ Harvey tracks that lend the propulsive accompaniment to Monnier's convulsing-rag-doll movements.

Two of Denis's fellow Frenchwomen in the series, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and Isild Le Besco, are both established actresses trying their hands behind the camera. Bruni-Tedeschi's It's Easier for a Camel (Friday, March 10 at 9:00 p.m.) is a bizarre affair, at once narcissistic and self-flagellating--perhaps an unavoidable combination when you've written, directed, and cast yourself in an autobiographical comedy about the painful dilemmas of being really, really rich. Just like the family in her movie, Bruni-Tedeschi's wealthy parents actually did move their brood from Turin to Paris in the '70s out of concern that the children might be abducted for ransom money in Italy.

More valuable is Half-Price (Saturday, March 4 at 9:00 p.m.). Known to Francophile cinemagoers from Cedric Kahn's Roberto Succo and Benoit Jacquot's A Tout de Suite, Le Besco trains a handheld video camera on three tear-away kids--aged seven, eight, and nine--who've been left to their own devices by their absent mother. With conceptual shades of Hirokazu Kore-eda's Nobody Knows and whispery narration by the filmmaker herself, Le Besco's hour-long fly-on-the-wall debut moved one Chris Marker to announce the "emergence of a new New Wave for which Demi-tarif is the A bout de souffle." Hyperbolic? You bet. But Le Besco was all of 22 when she shot the movie on the cheap; with a few more years and euros on her side, perhaps Marker's endorsement hype could become a feasible challenge to meet.

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