She's Gotta Shoot It
Statistics are never kind to women filmmakers, whose work typically accounts for a mere 10 percent, or less, of features made in any given year. So let's sound one last huzzah for the big gold star in the latest ledger: Sofia Coppola's Oscar nomination for Best Director (only the third for any female--and the first for an "American girl," per No. 1 fan Bill Murray) and her win in the Best Original Screenplay category for Lost in Translation.
No asterisk next to her name just because she shares it with a certain vineyard baron, either: Wealth and connections didn't spare Coppola from the wolf pack when she gave an adequate performance in her father's worst film, or clear a path to any podium for her superior debut feature The Virgin Suicides. What dampens Coppola's success ever so slightly for this observer, though, is that she achieved it via yet another portrait--however patient, pensive, and lyrical--of the Straight White Male Midlife Crisis Alleviated by Adoring Dewy-Eyed Nymph. Personally, I've had so many SWMMCs at the movies, I've got a rusting Harley parked out front and a dusty closet full of pre-distressed leather jackets; sometimes I find myself loitering around the local high school after classes let out, hoping to score some weed or maybe a nubile cheerleader.
But the ladies have better things to do: They're marching for reproductive rights in Washington, they're keeping tabs on disappeared or distorted fact sheets on the Bush-era Women's Bureau website, and they're making more movies, as Walker Art Center's 11th "Women with Vision" festival amply demonstrates. (The series begins Wednesday with a screening of the women-in-film doc In the Company of Women at General Mills Auditorium in Golden Valley, then continues at Oak Street Cinema through Sunday.) As always, local sounds are up front in the mix. The series pays tribute to the late DIY dynamo Sarah Jacobson, who passed away in February, with a selection of the Edina High grad's confrontational punk-feminist films, and the annual "Girls in the Director's Chair" program showcases movies made by Minnesota youngsters age 8 to 18.
Meanwhile, the buoyant suffragette primer Iron Jawed Angels is custom-made for social studies class: Adding sass and pizzazz to a period piece that's necessarily heavy on historical exposition, director Katja von Garnier deploys a bright, spangly color palette and accessible contemporary flourishes (speeding up footage, scoring a 1912 parade to Lauryn Hill's "Everything Is Everything," et cetera), and elicits merry, mischievous performances from Hilary Swank and Frances O'Connor as young activists Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, respectively.
This year's festival is subtitled "Home/Away from Home," a theme elegantly evoked in Icelandic-born, French-based director Solveig Anspach's Stormy Weather. Cora (Elodie Bouchez of The Dreamlife of Angels), a doctor at a Belgian psychiatric hospital, becomes fixated on the progress of a mute patient named Lóa (Didda Jonsdottir), who has abruptly fled her husband and infant child in their remote Icelandic town. When Cora drops everything to follow Lóa back home, the impulsive, nomadic affinities between the accomplished professional and the wild-eyed wanderer begin floating to this beautifully photographed film's cold, clear surface. In the cogent, poetic At Five in the Afternoon, 23-year-old Samira Makhmalbaf seeks out rare corners of relative stillness and contemplation in ravaged, lawless post-Taliban Kabul, where Noqreh (Agheleh Rezaei), despite the doomsaying of her fundamentalist father, pursues an underground education and quite seriously intends to run for president of Afghanistan.
Another contender against the odds, Shirley Chisholm--the first black person to mount a serious campaign for the American presidency, and the first woman of any color to run--is the subject of Shola Lynch's fast-paced backward glance Chisholm '72--Unbought & Unbossed, part of the fest's superb documentary selection. Predictably caricatured as a nut job and/or a Naderesque spoiler candidate, the Brooklyn congresswoman exhibited few illusions of winning, but adhered to Martin Luther King's advice: that the most radical act black Americans could undertake during the civil rights movement would be "to assert the full level of [their] citizenship." Lynch's film casts yet another withering glance at America's deathless winner-takes-all system, in which all but the most moneyed and establishment-endorsed candidates are marginalized, their supporters ridiculed for "wasting their vote." (How can votes be wasted in a democracy, anyway? Wait...don't answer that.)
Jessica Yu's closing-night film, In the Realms of the Unreal, provides an able primer on quintessential outsider artist Henry Darger, writer and illustrator of the 15,145-page The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Alongside interviews with the fervently Catholic Darger's unwitting neighbors, Yu relies mainly on pans of his nightmarish, sometimes near-Brueghelian drawings of angelic little blond girls (with penises) beset by horrific tribulations: crucifixion, mutilation, a murderous twister called Sweetie Pie. (The aptly Vivian-like movie moppet Dakota Fanning supplies the narration.)
Regrettably if perhaps inevitably, the standout docs engage with war and terror of both the official and unofficial varieties. In the moving, pithy My Terrorist, director Yulie Cohen Gerstel, a patriotic Israeli injured in an attack on an El Al transport bus in 1978, begins exchanging letters and agitating for the release of the Palestinian hijacker who killed Gerstel's fellow flight attendant. Never narcissistic, Gerstel's self-portrait chronicles her path from staunch Zionism to a present profound ambivalence, tested by heartrending encounters with the broken, unforgiving mother of a bombing victim. In the short "Asylum," a young woman from Ghana named Baaba searches for the father she's never seen; when she finally does meet him, he arranges for her marriage to a much older man and the surgical removal of her clitoris. Fleeing one kind of imprisonment in her homeland, Baaba enters another courtesy of the INS when she's arrested and jailed...er, detained in the States.
Directed by Sandy McLeod and Gini Reticker, "Asylum" crystallizes the double victimization of the asylum seeker; though the graphics and editing sometimes mimic that of a sensationalist network news special, they never obscure Baaba's story--chiefly because, in an interview filmed by renowned cinematographer Ellen Kuras, Baaba tells it herself.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.