Where to Aim, When to Shoot
The War of Art
It's still a battle of the bank for world cinema at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival
Now in its third decade of thinking global and acting local, the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival began its campaign back in the days when a Hollywood actor was busy producing an eight-year retrospective of '50s Americana for the world stage. Whether or not the Reagan revolution helped inspire U Film commander in chief Al Milgrom to arm himself with world cinema, the mspiff has always maintained a more principled foreign policy than that of our nation at large. Yet the gulf, if you will, between an event that invites dozens of nations to share their views with middle America on one side, and a cinematic-industrial complex of blockbusting omnipotence on the other, has never been greater than it is in this, the fest's 21st year.
When Milgrom and his new colleagues at Oak Street Cinema announced their plan to join forces a year ago, they couldn't have imagined that their Coalition of the Willing (a.k.a. Minnesota Film Arts) would need to put the next mspiff up against the most mammoth adventure in American imperialism since The Phantom Menace. Nevertheless, their diplomatic act of uniting some 130 films from around the world couldn't amount to a more striking counteroffensive if it were part of a full-blown assault. Not to sound sappy here, but the mspiff makes you wonder: What if everyone in the world had a camera instead of a gun?
It is in this spirit of letting other voices be heard that we at City Pages decided to try something different with our coverage of the festival this year. We invited contributors from beyond our borders to weigh in on the states of their cinemas--and the states of their nations, too--as reflected in films from their countries that are screening at the fest. That the following dispatches from Iran, Israel, Russia, India, and Argentina convey a palpable urgency may be partly a function of their having been filed during the first week of Shock and Awe. (Our Israeli contributor, obliged to write about the start of the war for other publications, fretted that his deadline was the same as Saddam's.) But cinema outside the First World is always of political import, not least in relation to the global market and the bottom line. On the bright side, digital video and the proven desire for diversity lend an upbeat tone to reports from Iran and India, while articles from elsewhere on the map suggest that the movies, like their nations of origin, remain mired in conflict.
Suffice it to say that no alternative venture is going to be easy these days. But in the case of the mspiff, the overall health of the operation can be measured by the number of filmmakers who'll be coming from far and wide to introduce their work at screenings throughout the festival--which runs two weeks at a half-dozen locations across the Twin Cities. (Three of those visiting filmmakers are profiled in the pages that follow; ticket and venue information can be found there as well.) That one of the guests of honor is Robert Duvall--who'll introduce his Assassination Tango at the Historic State Theatre on opening night--suggests that the mspiff's new administration might even be learning to play politics in conservative times. Put it this way: Ronald Reagan aside, the idea of getting a Hollywood actor to stump for your party platform has its virtues.
In hard times, love and war keep Russian film audiences reeling
By Kirill Galetski
When people ask what Russia is like, the most accurate thing to say is that it's another planet. Everything seems topsy-turvy here at first. But if one comes to live in Russia for a fairly long time, a unique, fuzzy sort of logic starts to emerge--a logic that comes with experience, which is hard-earned here. Russia is a land of extremes, a place where what's good is very good, and what's bad is awful.
Russian cinema isn't in very good health at the moment. Though the economy is ostensibly showing signs of growth helped by high oil prices around the world, the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of people in Russia live hand-to-mouth and desperately await often-delayed paychecks. The trend of cinemas being turned into casinos has continued unabated. Theater is alive and well, as tickets tend to be cheaper than those for movies, but the cinema--at least the cinema at cinemas--is all but moribund. Rampant video piracy has taken a toll, and insufficiently regulated film and video release patterns have allowed legitimate video editions of films to appear on tape at the same time that the films are on cinema screens. Adding insult to injury, tapes sometimes cost less than the price of a ticket to a contemporarily equipped cinema--of which there are relatively few.
Owing to a lack of talent that's hardly unique to Russia, most Russian films these days tend to be every bit as trivial and escapist as some American fare. But unlike mainstream Hollywood movies that are pushed onto the world's screens, Russian movies aren't blessed with superficial attributes such as special effects and demographic engineering to make them appealing to audiences abroad. In Soviet times, this translated into a glut of highly localized, narrow-minded drivel that touted the Soviet values of keeping one's nose to the grindstone and ignoring the ethereal. Andrei Tarkovsky was a ray of light in this void, a world-class artist who made us recognize the universal in life. Most of today's endless crime films, sentimental melodramas, and contrived comedies elicit the cringe reflex--and, in turn, an appreciation of the handful of finely crafted recent films that truly speak to the world at large.
Cinema is a refractive mirror of history, and certainly the country's war-ridden existence has inspired many stories onscreen. World War II--regarded in Russia as the Great Patriotic War--has had a profound influence. In fact, World War II films aren't categorized as war films in Russia: They are a genre unto themselves. Russia's film industry is mostly devoid of international distribution, but the recent World War II-era drama Kukushka (The Cuckoo) seems set to buck the trend. The film, by St. Petersburg-based director Alexander Rogozhkin, has been picked up for distribution to American art-house theaters by Sony Pictures Classics. (It screens at Oak Street Cinema on Friday, April 11 at 9:45 p.m. as part of the Minneapolis/St. Paul festival.) Rogozhkin has achieved a level of recognition on the world festival circuit with his previous works, the comedy Peculiarities of the National Hunt and the Chechen War drama Checkpoint.
Peculiarities, produced at Lenfilm Studios in 1994 during a low point for the studio, was a box office success in Russia, spawning two sequels, several spinoffs, and even a brand of vodka named after Kuzmich, the boozing outdoorsman (played by Viktor Bychkov) who befriends a young Finnish man coming to Russia to experience a real Russian hunt. Work on the film cemented the friendship between Bychkov and Finnish actor Ville Haapasalo, who went from relative obscurity to becoming household names in their respective countries. Having appeared together in a stage adaptation of Dostoevsky's Diary of a Madman, Haapasalo and Bychkov asked Rogozhkin to write a stage play for three people, something in which they could appear together. Rogozhkin accepted the challenge, and the screenplay for The Cuckoo was the result.
Having studied history in college, Rogozhkin was intrigued by the Continuation War, a protraction of the Russo-Finnish Winter War and part of the greater World War II conflict. Unaware of the conflict's end on September 4, 1944, one Soviet Army officer and one Finnish sniper are imprisoned in the wilderness for unexplained offenses by their respective armies--the Soviets and the German SS. They escape through a mix of effort and circumstance, and end up in the hut of a lonely but spirited Saami woman who doesn't take sides, but rather takes care of--and comes to love--them both. Rogozhkin wanted to go beyond the story of three people converging in the hinterlands of war, to create a situation in which three people speak three different languages, but come to understand one another in other ways.
Particularly in terms of its international release, the film has a lot riding on the appeal of Bychkov and Haapasalo. But Rogozhkin is confident. "These are two actors with very different psycho-physical aspects," he proclaimed recently. "But they do have a peculiar chemistry."
An inimitable rapport is also achieved by Oleg Yankovsky and Sergei Garmash in Valery Todorovsky's new psychological drama The Lover (Oak Street, Tuesday, April 8 at 7:15 p.m.). Using a simple but effective script by Gennady Ostrovsky, the film paints a picture of two very different men--linguistics professor Dmitry (Yankovsky) and retired army officer Ivan (Garmash)--who love the same woman. Dmitry, the woman's husband, tries his best to come to terms with the anger he feels upon learning of the affair his wife had been having with Ivan, which spanned their entire 15-year marriage. Yankovsky selects his projects with care: He earlier graced the screen with his portrayal of the sensitive, homesick, and resolute Gorchakov in Tarkovsky's Nostalghia.
"Right away," Yankovsky told me on the set of The Lover, "my attention was drawn to the fact that there are no accidental things in this picture. Everything is important and thought out to the limit. Behind every episode, there is the state of [Dmitry's] soul, his thoughts and emotional experiences."
The emotional experience of war is examined in The War (Crown Theatres Block E 15, Sunday, April 13 at 5:00 p.m.; and Oak Street, Tuesday, April 15 at 7:15 p.m.), which finds director Alexei Balabanov turning from the gangster realism of the Brother films to the topical subject of Chechnya. Stylish and deceptively simple, The War is a Russian revenge fantasy in which a soldier (Alexei Chadov) who had been imprisoned as a slave in Chechnya comes back to decimate his former captors along with a fellow former captive--a disgruntled British actor (Ian Kelly) who's attempting to free his girlfriend, still held by the Chechens. The Brit undergoes a stunning transformation from a cowardly civilian, somewhat ridiculously whining about the violation of his "human rights" in captivity, to a high-tech mercenary-cum-documentary filmmaker (parallels between shooting a film and shooting a weapon are drawn in a couple of scenes) who chronicles his soldier mate's Rambo-like heroics and engages in some of his own. In terms of the deeper issues surrounding Chechnya and the festering wound it has been for Russia, The War only scratches the surface. But it does provide plenty of action.
"You can't shoot really smart cinema at all," posits Balabanov. "As Andrzej Wajda said, 'A director must be a bit stupid, because film directing as a profession is akin to the profession of translator--there are a lot more nuances in the language of literature than there are in film.' So, in order to be understood, one must simply shoot good films."
Kirill Galetski is a freelance film critic based in Moscow.
The Windfall Will Carry Us
The sudden blessing of digital video bodes well for Iranian cinema
by Mohammad Atebbai
When former Iranian Minister of Culture Seyyed Mohammad Khatami was nominated for the presidency in the winter of 1997, Iranian artists strongly supported him; some filmmakers even took part in his campaign. Khatami was an intellectual clergyman who had spent a couple of years at the Islamic Center of Hamburg; during his ministry, he had changed the culture of the nation, not least by paving the way for the revival of the Iranian film industry. In 1991 he resigned as minister of culture, bowing to pressure from conservatives, and left the scene to the right-leaning ministers who wished to see art as a tool of the state. Iranian artists in general and filmmakers in particular experienced some of their darkest years in the 1990s. Yet the presence of Khatami as a presidential candidate was a shot of encouragement for the Iranian film industry, a reason for hope.
Iranians designated May 23, 1997--the day Khatami was elected as the fifth president of Iran--as a day of victory. When President Khatami took power in August 1997, and chose Dr. Ataollah Mohajerani as the minister of culture, all those in the various fields of art looked forward to the coming period as a cause for celebration. Dr. Mohajerani appointed Seifollah Daad--a filmmaker who was leading the Iranian film guilds against the former conservative ministers of culture--as his deputy in film affairs. Imagining that their dreams might finally be coming true, film professionals supported Daad--and the new policies of the ministry proved their assumptions.
The deputy minister lifted bans on several key Iranian films, and eliminated the requirement for script approval that was always a hindrance to adventurous directors. Nevertheless, among the 350 feature films produced between 1998 and 2002, most were cheap melodramas dealing with superficial love stories. (Meanwhile, of those 350 films, more than 100--some of which are by directors who have been widely acclaimed at film festivals around the world--have yet to play in Iran because of the scarcity of public cinemas.) Dr. Mohajerani was eventually forced to resign, and was replaced by Ahmad Masjed-Jamei, who has always been considered a conservative official in the Ministry of Culture. Seifollad Daad followed his boss by leaving the ministry, and Mohammad-Hassan Pezeshk began to run the film industry. The presence of new authorities hardly improved the health of the Iranian film industry, as more and more aspects of filmmaking came under the control of the state.
Yet at the same time, the digital revolution reached Iran, which gave an immediate boost to filmmakers, young ones in particular. (A full 30 percent of films submitted to this year's Fajr Film Festival were by first- and second-time directors.) Even some veteran directors such as Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry, The Wind Will Carry Us) began to proclaim digital cinema as the perfect solution to problems of low-quality film stock and high rental rates for film equipment. In fact, Kiarostami, who shot his most recent pair of films, ABC Africa and Ten, on digital, announced his belief that he had wasted the first three decades of his career making films on celluloid.
Representing the new wave of Iranian cinema that doesn't require state support, Kiarostami's Ten is one of the five Iranian films selected for the Minneapolis/St. Paul festival. (It screens at the Riverview Theater on Sunday, April 6 at 5:00 p.m.) Two of the others are by women directors: Under the Skin of the City (Riverview, Monday, April 14 at 7:30 p.m.) is the latest socially committed work by Rakhshan Bani-Etemad (whose documentary Our Times recently screened as part of Walker Art Center's "Women With Vision" series); and Women's Prison (Walker, Thursday, April 17 at 8:00 p.m.; and Oak Street, Saturday, April 19 at 5:00 p.m.), by first-time director Manijeh Hekmat, was banned for nearly a year, but later turned into one of the Iranian box-office hits of 2002. Bahman Ghobadi's follow-up to A Time for Drunken Horses, Marooned in Iraq (Riverview, Tuesday, April 15 at 7:00 p.m.), met with a chilly response from Iranian audiences, but has been warmly received by Ghobadi fans throughout the world. Finally, veteran filmmaker Kianoosh Ayyari reaffirms his talent and intelligence with Iranian Spread (Bell Auditorium, Saturday, April 12 at 5:00 p.m.; and Oak Street, Tuesday, April 15 at 5:00 p.m.), a multilayered and touching film that analyzes Iranian society in different parts of the country.
Less than two months ago, the Iranian minister of culture appointed a new deputy of film affairs, Mohammad-Mehsi Heidarian, who has spent the bulk of his career as a high-ranking official in Iranian TV. Since the Iranian Ministry of Culture is run by reformists, and Iranian TV is run by conservatives, film professionals in Iran have considered this appointment as part of an attempt at reconciliation between the nation's two political parties--and as a harbinger of an uncertain future. The new deputy minister has already faced some serious challenges such as authorizing screening permits of some so-called "problematic" films during the Iranian New Year's holidays (which began March 20), and the recent arrest of four Iranian film critics whose crimes are not at all clear. Above all, the deputy minister is entrusted with establishing the new policies of Iranian cinema, which are announced at the beginning of each year. We who love film in Iran are hoping for the best.
Mohammad Atebbai is a freelance film critic based in Tehran and the international distributor of Iranian Spread and Women's Prison.
All Through Their Wild Days
Argentine indies capture restless characters on the upswing
Argentina produces roughly 40 to 50 films each year. These may be divided into two groups: mainstream and independent. The mainstream films may be further divided into three categories: cheap vehicles for local TV stars; critical and commercial losers made by pretentious, middle-aged directors with some experience and too little talent; and better, more astute and professional films that are partially funded with Spanish money and all but guaranteed for inclusion in the San Sebastian or Montreal film festivals.
A perfect example of a mainstream Argentine film in the third category is Juan José Campanella's Son of the Bride--which, like most high-caliber mainstream Argentine films, is sentimental and serious with just a touch of humor. And patriotic: The Spanish like it when Argentineans act patriotic--which helps explain why Son of the Bride made more money in Spain in 2002 than any Spanish film did. (The movie was also nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film award at the Oscars.) Like other sentimental and serious and patriotic films (with just a touch of humor), Campanella's farcical melodrama about a recovering workaholic in Buenos Aires tries to be both artistic and popular. But because it disrespects truth, takes few risks, and manipulates the audience, it only succeeds in the latter goal.
Then there are the independent films of Argentina: low-budget and highly personal efforts by young directors. Some landmark Argentine indies since 1999: Martín Rejtman's Silvia Prieto, a comedic portrait of a twentysomething Buenos Aires café worker; Pablo Trapero's Crane World, an existentialist study of a former bass player-turned-crane operator; Lucrecia Martel's La ciénaga, about middle-class families feuding their way through a hot summer; and Lisandro Alonso's La libertad, a documentary-style film that follows a day in the life of a rural woodcutter. Alas, only 30 independent films have been made in Argentina in the past eight years. Still, taken collectively, they represent the most significant development in Argentine cinema since the "1960 generation" and Cine Liberación movements of the '60s, or the post-censorship wave of critical films that surfaced in the mid-'80s. They're also, to put it bluntly, the only reason contemporary Argentinean cinema deserves to be taken seriously.
What do these 30-odd films have in common? you ask. Not much, in fact--except that they portray the world as an unfamiliar place. And no wonder: For the past ten years, Argentina has been suffering the worst crisis in its history--an accepted fact among the nation's citizens. At the end of 2001, there were riots in the streets, the fall of two presidents in a single week, and unimaginable levels of hunger and unemployment. (At the moment, the situation is somewhat calmer, if not exactly better.) In one way or another, the independent films anticipated the Argentine crisis--not by being overtly political, or trying to convey a social message, but by depicting new kinds of pain, unease, solitude, and tenderness. Without stating it directly, the independent films made clear that Argentina--at least as it had been known--no longer existed. While mainstream movies smothered themselves in a phony plenitude, the indies dared to burrow into the void.
Interestingly, all three Argentine films in the Minneapolis/St. Paul festival--all of them independent productions--deal with orphans (either literal or symbolic) who are captured in transit from one unstable phase in life to another. The most mysterious of the films' lead characters is the protagonist of Extraño (screening at the Walker on Friday, April 18 at 8:00 p.m.; and at Oak Street on Saturday, April 19 at 3:00 p.m.). We don't know what has happened to this lonely and isolated middle-aged doctor, only that he is starting from scratch and going nowhere. The world around him--seen in empty streets and abandoned railroads--is similarly devoid of life. Though director Santiago Loza is not a documentarian in the strict definition, he uses cinema as a tool to capture the essence of a culture that is at risk of becoming invisible.
Diego Lerman, on the other hand, uses cinema to convey a kind of healing in Tan de repente (Oak Street, Thursday, April 10 at 7:30 p.m.). The film follows Marcia, a young lingerie salesgirl whose life is radically changed by two lesbian women named, if you can believe it, Mao and Lenin. This collective trio heads from the city to the sea, while Lerman directs the movie to begin fast and end slow--like life. The film's optimism comes from showing young people whose camaraderie cures them of all conventional behavior.
The third film in the festival, El bonaerense (Walker, Sunday, April 13 at 8:00 p.m.; and Oak Street, Monday, April 14 at 9:30 p.m.), has neither the hopefulness of Tan de repente nor the pessimism of Extraño; it's neither philosophical nor psychological in nature. In fact, among Argentine films, this Buenos Aires-set Training Day is unique: Though police brutality runs rampant in Argentina, movies about police officers tend to play it safe in terms of portraying corruption, violence, and fear. El bonaerense is about a young police trainee's search for a father, but the search ends up in the knowledge of evil as a natural, ordinary force, inseparable from everyday routines and procedures and affections. What's most extraordinary about this second feature by the 31-year-old Pablo Trapero is that there's no moral judgment in it--and no easy cynicism, either.
Quintín is editor of the Argentine film monthly El Amante Cine and the director of the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Film.
A Cinema of Sacrifice
Two Israeli films tellingly relinquish responsibility for past and present
By Neve Gordon
Although All I've Got and Local Angel the two most notable Israeli movies in the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival--appear to have almost nothing in common, the specter of sacrifice haunts them both. This is not altogether surprising given that sacrifice has been an important aspect of the holy land's historical narrative.
Every Israeli child learns about Abraham's horrifying three-day trek to the mountains. "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I show you" are God's chilling words. Just as famous is Samson's decision to topple the two middle pillars of the Philistine prayer house, crying, "Let me die with Philistines" as he kills himself together with 3,000 others.
In Israel/Palestine, sacrifice is not merely a theoretical issue, but has been part of everyday reality for years. Since the eruption of the second Intifada in September 2000, close to 3,000 Israelis and Palestinians have been killed, and more than 20,000 have been wounded. The Palestinians are fighting for self-determination, while the Israelis are fighting for control. Each side is sacrificing its children for a political and, in some sense, theological cause.
Udi Aloni, director of the documentary Local Angel (screening at Bell Auditorium on Wednesday, April 16 at 9:30 p.m.), ties the bloody history of his people to the religious conception of sacrifice, describing his odyssey--a trip to the holy land after having spent eight years in New York--as a theological/political journey. He strives to grapple with the gory reality of Israel/Palestine, using the great Jewish social critic Walter Benjamin's "angel of history" as a central trope.
The "angel of history" is an angel whose face is turned toward the past, in contrast to us humans who tend to look toward the future. Where we perceive a chain of events such as suicide bombings, extra-judicial executions, exploding houses in city centers, or the daily humiliation of people at a checkpoint, the angel sees one single catastrophe made up of thousands of years of ruins that keep piling up as history unfolds. We go on living our daily lives witnessing one event after the other, while the angel sees the pile of debris grow ever further into the sky.
It is the events that constitute the pile of Israeli-Palestinian detritus--and, more precisely, their underlying causes--that Aloni wishes to explore in his movie. He wants reasons and explanations--and then he wants reconciliation between the two peoples. He tours a country in which racism against Arabs is conspicuous. It is the country in which I drive to work each day, passing hundreds of billboards, posters, car stickers, and graffiti signs that declare, without shame, "No Arabs, No Assaults," "Do Not Employ Arabs," "Enemies Should Not Be Offered a Livelihood," and "We Will Assist Those Who Do Not Provide Work for Arabs."
In other words, Aloni comes to a country that has forgotten its own history. His film, however, fails to capture the blatant racism now common in Israel. So, too, it fails to show how racism feeds off the widespread fear of suicide bombings--a fear that has, in turn, also managed to change the country's landscape. In Jerusalem, downtown streets are almost empty, and most businesses have been seriously hurt by the dramatic decline in clientele. The only companies that have been thriving in the past year are security firms. Every supermarket, bank, theater, and café now employs private guards whose duty is to search customers as they enter.
One of the effects of this new practice is that profiling has become ubiquitous. Arab-looking residents refrain from using public transportation and from going to all-Jewish neighborhoods and shopping centers. It is not unusual when driving in Jerusalem to see groups of Arab men searched at gunpoint by Israeli police, their faces against the wall and their hands in the air.
Aloni tries to describe all this, examining the hatred, death, and oppression. He interviews interesting figures in Israeli and Palestinian life, not least his own mother, former education minister and civil rights activist Shulamit Aloni, as well as Palestinian spokeswoman Hannan Ashrawi. He invokes Hebrew and Arabic music, and discusses the situation with a cutting-edge Palestinian rap group and also with radical professors.
Local Angel has all the ingredients of an insightful film, a film that will say something new and meaningful about life in Israel/Palestine. And yet it is a total flop. Although Aloni has the ideas, the money, and the access to interesting people, he simply doesn't have the know-how to make it all work. This, one might add, is usually what happens when someone with no significant background in filmmaking attempts to produce a movie.
Keren Margalit's All I've Got, on the other hand, is something very different: a short, touching feature that deals with another kind of sacrifice--the sacrifice of love. (It screens at the Bell on Sunday, April 13 at 4:00 p.m.) The viewer is exposed to an interesting and in some ways original love story between "two" couples--one young and the other old. (These couples are in fact the same couple at different stages in life.) The plot is full of surprises, and it has an undercurrent of humor.
Through the interactions among the characters, Margalit shows that the sacrifice of love is always informed by difficult decisions--decisions that are often tied to the question of whether one is willing to give up the past for the future. The movie also discloses that even the sacrifice of love is frequently tied to death.
There is something youthful and refreshing about All I've Got. However, it isn't fully developed. It touches on the complexity of an existential problem, but it ultimately deals with that problem in a superficial way: Margalit attempts to address a universal issue without dirtying it through the particular events that make up everyday life in Israel. And universal discussions that lack context cannot uncover the deeper issues confronting human existence. In other words, Margalit's film is Israeli only insofar as the actors speak Hebrew and, on occasion, act out distinctively Israeli traits. It erases both the beautiful and horrific factors that comprise the Israeli scene, thus eliding the uniqueness of the Israeli experience.
This is ironic since Margalit appears aware, at least to some extent, of William Faulkner's important insight that "the past is never dead; it is not even past." The movie shows how the past haunts us, yet it does so without delving into the past. But then perhaps All I've Got reveals something much deeper about Israeli society, since, like the movie's director, Israeli society is both aware that the past is haunting it and unwilling to confront the details and repercussions of that past.
Neve Gordon teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, and is a contributor to The Other Israel: Voices of Refusal and Dissent.
Indian popular cinema goes global
By Anupama Chopra
Deauville is an improbable place to find fans of the Indian popular cinema affectionately known as "Bollywood." A popular resort town on the coast of Normandy, Deauville boasts miles of virgin coastline and tourists with names such as Al Pacino and Brad Pitt. Nevertheless, on March 14 at the Deauville Asian Film Festival, Mayor Philippe Augier made the unexpected move of conferring honorary citizenship on Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan.
Bachchan, who has been an A-list lead for more than three decades, admitted that he had never heard of the town before he received the festival's invitation. The mayor mispronounced his name, calling him "Batchan." But as a sizeable audience turned up to watch a four-film retrospective of the actor's work, the 60-year-old Bachchan seemed pleased. "I see this as a victory," he said. "Commercial mainstream fare [from India] has a definite place in the world."
Indeed it does. In the past two years, Cannes, Berlin, and the Academy Awards have all paid tribute to at least one three-hour Hindi film spectacle in which, regardless of the particular genre and style, the characters fall in love and break into song. What was once dismissed as the escapist opiate of the unwashed Indian masses is now being celebrated as a unique form of storytelling--one that has successfully withstood the onslaught of Hollywood. Bollywood's overstated, melodramatic, gaudy style, which has its roots in Indian theater, is no longer infra dig. The Hindi film industry, which releases 200 or so films per year, is finally exploding on the world stage. Cultural imperialism is no longer an American prerogative.
As proof of this, London's West End Theatre recently rocked with the sounds of ace Bollywood composer A.R. Rahman in the Andrew Lloyd Webber-produced musical Bombay Dreams. Nicole Kidman shimmied to the Hindi song "chamma chamma" in Moulin Rouge, and the film's director Baz Luhrmann has waxed eloquent on his love of Bollywood. Last year the London department store Selfridges ran a month-long Bollywood festival even as Lagaan (Land Tax), a rural period epic from Bollywood, won an Oscar nomination. Meanwhile, Devdas, a gorgeous period tragedy about a lovelorn alcoholic, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and subsequently collected £470,000 in the U.K. during its opening weekend--despite stiff competition from the likes of Spielberg's Minority Report. (The film also made it onto Time's list of the ten best films of the year.) Earlier in 2003, even the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival succumbed to the seductions of Bollywood and screened Company, a gritty saga about the Mumbai Mafia. The film's leading man Vivek Oberoi was astonished at the reception the film received. "It was awesome," he said. "They love Bollywood and they want to see more."
Or do they? Despite the hype and the glory, Bollywood has yet to produce a genuine crossover film. Mumbai film directors dream of making their own Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but they also realize that Bollywood's unique form is its own limitation. "It's specialty cinema," says actor-director Rahul Bose. "The Bollywood construct as it stands hasn't changed, and it's much too alien for Western tastes." London-based author Nasreen Munni Kabir agrees. "The films are much too long for white audiences," she says. "The stories are too moral and perhaps too overstated. The numbers--a big film can be watched by a billion people--are awesome and fascinating, but the West's interest isn't really directed at the movies or stars." Perhaps a mainstream Hindi movie cannot yet enjoy wide appeal in the West. But the hybrids--movies that marry Eastern and Western sensibilities--are already making inroads.
Take Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding. This superbly imagined film reworked Bollywood's song-and-dance routine into a tragicomic tale of a family wedding; it won top honors at the Venice Film Festival and a global audience. British-Indian director Gurinder Chadha's Bend It Like Beckham, about a second-generation-British Asian girl who's passionate about football, was a giant hit in the U.K. (It opened in the Twin Cities last week.) And Canadian-Indian director Deepa Mehta's Bollywood/Hollywood, a spirited spoof of nonresident Indians and their unabashed love affair with Bollywood, played to packed theaters in Canada. (It screens at Oak Street Cinema on Saturday, April 5 at 9:30 p.m. as part of the Minneapolis/St. Paul festival.) Like Nair, Mehta reformulates song-and-dance into a joyous celebration of love and marriage. She pokes gentle fun at Bollywood conventions (subtitles remind the audience to bless the happy couple as they drive into the sunset in a cliché happy ending), but she also revels in its inherent optimism.
Nair, who has claimed to be "inspired by Bollywood's unabashed emotion, the outrageous dance numbers, the guts of its music, and its unbridled film vocabulary," worries that these elements will be "watered down" to suit "so-called international palates." Bollywood directors voice similar concerns. "I'm happy trying to satisfy my Indian audience alone," says Lagaan director Ashutosh Gowarikar. "After all, you can't plan for a film to cross over. You make the film you want to, and then follow it where it goes."
So while the pan-global Bollywood movie may still be far away, a dialogue between cultures has clearly begun. Ideas, as well as actors, writers, and technicians, are moving seamlessly between the East and the West. In May, Nair will begin shooting Vanity Fair in Ireland with Reese Witherspoon. Chadha's next film is a reworking of Pride and Prejudice set in Punjab and starring Bollywood's hottest leading lady, Ashwariya Rai. (Meanwhile, Rai has signed with the William Morris Agency, and rumors abound that she'll follow Halle Berry as the next "Bond girl.") Director Shekhar Kapur, whose first English-language film Elizabeth received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, is working on a film called Pani (Water), which will combine Indian actors and Los Angeles technicians for a look at the water shortage in Mumbai. And Mehta's leading man Rahul Khanna, who has enjoyed stints in Singapore and New York, has now returned to Mumbai to pursue a career in Bollywood, saying, "I'm very eager to work here."
Bollywood, Hollywood, anyone?
Anupama Chopra is the Mumbai-based film critic at India Today and the author of a British Film Institute study of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jeyenge.
On The Rebound
'Hoop Dreams' director Steve James takes another shot with 'Stevie'
By Rob Nelson
"The dirty secret of documentary filmmaking is that misfortune is what makes for a good film," says Steve James. He ought to know. James's Stevie--named for the immeasurably troubled southern Illinois man to whom James had been a Big Brother in the early '80s--is one of the most harrowing works of filmed nonfiction since the director's Hoop Dreams. In the course of Stevie's four-and-a-half-year shoot, the subject, Stevie Fielding, confessed to molesting his eight-year-old cousin--compelling the documentarian, in turn, to make a confession of his own.
"I was shocked and appalled by what happened," recalls the 48-year-old filmmaker. "And yet there's always that little voice in the back of your head saying, 'This is dramatic.' It happened on Hoop Dreams, too: When William [Gates] blew out his knee, I had that nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach. But I was also thinking, 'My God, was that a great scene?' I think if I ever give up this kind of work, it'll be for that reason: There are contradictions involved in wanting to make films that have a social purpose, and there are compromises you have to make in order to finish those films. And sometimes you don't want to have to make them."
There were times when James didn't want to have to make Stevie, which he started shooting in 1995. When Hoop Dreams' enormous success brought an offer from Disney later that year to direct a narrative film based on the life of Olympic track star Steve Prefontaine, James accepted gratefully. And no wonder: Prefontaine provided James with the opportunity to make some money (not even Hoop's $8 million gross gave the filmmaker a financial cushion), as well as the chance to put some distance between himself and the increasingly difficult matter of Stevie.
"I guess I had naively thought that things would be better for Stevie than they were," says James, who after Hoop Dreams still harbored feelings of guilt over having been out of touch with his unfortunate "little brother" for nearly a decade. (While James was endeavoring to launch a film career in Chicago, Fielding was arrested a dozen times.) "Prefontaine came as a convenient form of relief. But after I finished it, my thoughts kept turning to the [documentary] and to Stevie, and so I reconnected with him. Shortly after that, this crime was committed, and that brought me to another juncture where I had to decide again whether to continue. That's the $64,000 question in this film. I obviously did continue to make the film, but my reasons, while perfectly valid, are never completely satisfying. On some level, if I had called Stevie and said, 'Let's not do this film. I'm going to help you, but I'm not going to do a film,' that would have spoken better of me as a person--perhaps. Because I clearly had a dual interest here."
Maybe the $128,000 question in Stevie is whether James's camera gets in the way of his help--or whether a pedophile deserves a filmmaker's help to begin with. Whatever one decides, the film is a landmark documentary, and not only for its degree of proximity to the titular offender (who, further complicating matters, isn't without his charms). Even more rare is the movie's inclusion of the director himself as a subject--one who regularly dares to convey his deep uncertainty about both Stevie's reliability and his own. (A more benign example of the film's psychic toll can be found in the documentarian's hair, which turned gray over the course of the four-and-a-half-year shoot.) Skirting the outer edge of self-indulgence, James concludes the movie with a richly ambiguous close-up of his face as he reacts to the claim of Fielding's fiancée that "some good has come out" of an excruciating ordeal. Asked for a current update to that reaction, the filmmaker says he's still not sure.
"The more idealistic side of me says that people need to understand how someone gets to a place where they commit crimes like this," says James. "Virtually every film I've seen about sexual abuse has either been purely from the point of view of the victim, vilifying the offender completely as evil incarnate, or characterizing the offender without trying to show the reasons behind the offense. People always say, 'How could anyone do that?' Well, this is how they could do that."
Steve James will appear at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, April 13 at the Riverview Theater to introduce a screening of Stevie and answer questions afterward.
With 'Long Gone,' MCAD grad David Eberhardt proves he has been on the right track for years
By Jeremy O'Kasick
Filmmaker David Eberhardt has just landed a sweet deal--for a rusty Volvo in Pensacola, Florida. This battered wagon will haul him--he hopes--across the U.S. to festivals screening Long Gone, his train-hopper documentary that won two awards at the Slamdance Film Festival in January.
A native of Minnesota, Eberhardt spent some seven years making the film--living along the rails, seeing the country through a boxcar doorframe, and trading tales with legendary tramps such as New York Slim and Dogman Tony. He hasn't had a true home in four years: His most recent sleeping quarters have been in a Santa Monica editing suite where, even after Slamdance, he continued to labor over Long Gone. Eberhardt still considers himself a Minnesotan (he grew up in Forest Lake and Hopkins), and will appear in person to introduce the movie at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival. He describes the Twin Cities as something of a hobo meeting hub, and gives equal praise to the area's burgeoning film scene. But a quick pass through his old stomping grounds isn't likely to cure Eberhardt of his wanderlust.
"Riding trains is addictive," says the 37-year-old filmmaker, speaking on the phone from his hotel room near the Florida Film Festival in Orlando. "When you realize you can be anywhere in any state without a nickel to your name and work the system to keep on riding, that's when you know you're hooked."
Eberhardt started hopping trains as a film student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) in the early 1990s, when he began to photograph tramps for a book of black-and-white stills. That project developed into a short student film, and later into a feature-length documentary, as he teamed with co-director Jack Cahill and fellow MCAD grad Greg Yolen, who served as cinematographer.
Eberhardt estimates that he spent more than two of the shoot's seven years on the rails, learning all the tricks of the tramp: jumping trains, dodging the railroad bulls, dumpster diving, street hawking. As the director became what he had beheld, the subjects in turn became quasi-collaborators. And as the movie grew in size and scope, Eberhardt got off the train long enough to work a hodgepodge of jobs and track down sponsors for completion funds. "Life is much easier on the rails than on someone else's doorstep with your hat in hand for the sake of a documentary," he says.
Following the crisscrossed narratives of seven tramps, Long Gone is fueled by a rugged original soundtrack from Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. (Besides helping to score funding for the project, Waits would use some of the rail-riding tunes for his comeback album Mule Variations.) Juggling multiple film stocks and styles, from Super 16mm to digital video, and from grainy black and white to shots taken with filtered color lenses, Eberhardt and company have stylized their documentary to the extreme.
"It has become something of a voodoo soup," he says, adding that this is just fine by him. "No documentary is objective, and I don't buy that 'purist' cinema vérité shit."
For the most part, the fancy camerawork enhances the stories told along the tracks by the hobos themselves, as Eberhardt wisely remains unseen and unheard. Some, like Dogman Tony, are lifelong riders who still run from ghosts of dead loved ones and struggle to make commitments. Others, like the teenaged Jessie, explore unknown territory and themselves, trying to maintain ties and overcome drug abuse. The film's greatest strength lies in the portrayal of compassionate bonds between the tramps, and in the revelation of their personal vulnerabilities. Along the way, Long Gone manages to ride right past romantic notions of freight trains and degrading stereotypes of the people who ride them.
As for his own six-month tour of the film-fest circuit, Eberhardt hopes to finalize deals with cable TV companies to broadcast Long Gone in the U.S. and Europe, and to publish that long-planned book of his train-hopping photographs.
"The road trip will let me get some of that itch out of my system," says Eberhardt, who has no intention of giving up his nomadic ways. "By spring of next year," he reports, "I'll be down in New Orleans to follow this houseboat of punks up and down the river."
David Eberhardt will appear at 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 18 at Oak Street Cinema to introduce a screening of Long Gone and answer questions afterward.
In Full Bloom
'Lily Festival' finds Japanese 'Pink Film' director Sachi Hamano turning a new leaf
By Melissa Maerz
If there's one thing in this world that makes life worth living, it's death. In Sachi Hamano's film Lily Festival, the narrator, an old woman who recently died, hints from beyond the grave that the more we're aware of the limited time we have to experience everything fully, the less apt we are to take our days on earth for granted. But because this particular angel gleans most of her knowledge from overseeing the carnal activities of senior citizens, one gets the sense that there might be another way she'd like to phrase the idea. For instance: Our proximity to the grave is inversely proportional to our joie de vivre--so why can't elderly women be out having free-love orgies in the streets?
It's a damn good question, and one that Hamano is doing her best to answer. "Japan is fast approaching the time when it will have far more older people than any other country in the world," explains the middle-aged Japanese filmmaker, speaking on the phone from Tokyo via interpreter. "There seem to be many more women in their 60s and 70s than men, and many women feel that after menopause, sex is over. I'm trying to break through that concept. Sex shouldn't be dominated by physical changes. What matters is your mind, your attitude, your feelings about how you make love. You have to put the mind over the body."
Or maybe it's just a matter of putting the body on your mind. A brainy master of erotic fantasies, Hamano has been making softcore Japanese porn--or "pink film," as it's known--for more than three decades. She directed her first film when she was a mere 21 years old. "At the time, Japanese porn was very different from American porn," she says with a laugh. "Even a woman's nipple wasn't allowed to be shown in the film." Hamano recalls that, back then, major Japanese film companies told her they would only hire male college graduates. (Things aren't much better today: Hamano estimates that, out of 600 Japanese directors, only five are women.) Ironically, in a country known for its conservative sex and gender roles, the pink genre became the only field in which a young woman could easily make her own films.
Since those early days, Hamano has made more than 300 low-budget pink films, raising the funds by herself from independent (and mostly female) donors. Without much help from government grants (notoriously outspoken Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara insisted, "I don't have any tax money to waste on old women having sex"), Lily Festival has become the second of Hamano's projects to reach the international art-house circuit. The film follows septuagenarian Casanova (Mickey Curtiss), a semi-sleazy romantic who sports a ponytail and beret as he seduces a group of women in a senior housing community. But although the 75-year-old lover incites much giggling when he fiddles with their locks at night, two of these women (Kayoko Shiraishi and Kazuko Yoshiyuki) end up using him as little more than a key to unlatch Pandora's box: Later, they discover that, without this ladies' man, they can make each other giggle just as easily on their own.
Hamano hopes that the pink film audience will eventually be filled with as many of these giggling women as men: She notes that it's just as important to change men's attitudes about women's sexuality as it is to change women's minds about their own libidos. Recently she has been showing Lily Festival in community centers around Japan, to audiences filled with elderly women who are thrilled to find sex-positive depictions of themselves. But when Hamano watches her protagonists, she doesn't see her next 20 years reflected in the rendezvous: Rather, she sees her childhood. "My mother was always very supportive of my work," she says proudly. "She was a widow at 35 years of age, and she met a man after her husband died, but Japanese society didn't really allow her to have sex again, or even to think about sex, or to get married. As a daughter, I was very upset about that. I felt that it was extremely unfair, and I was angry. But that anger became my energy for producing these movies."
In her mother's past, Hamano found her future. As Lily Festival's narrator might say: Life always makes sense in hindsight. It's a shame we can't live it backward. But we can always push things forward.
Sachi Hamano will appear at 5:15 p.m. Sunday, April 13 at the Riverview Theater and 7:30 p.m. Monday, April 14 at the Crown Block E 15 to introduce the two festival screenings of Lily Festival and answer questions afterward. Special thanks to Tony Tanaguchi for translating questions and answers during the interview, allowing this article to be written.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.