As all reputable news outlets assure us, privatization benefits everyone–which is lucky, since these same outlets report that privatization is inevitable. We live out a happy fate, which rolls on despite the occasional need to report, say, the resignation under fire of Britain’s transport secretary, Stephen Byers. Mr. Byers comes to mind because I happen to be writing to you on the very day he stepped down, following the bankruptcy of his privatized Railtrack service, and also the fifth fatal rail crash in six years of newly efficient service.
You may have noticed that when the route of progress bumps over such inconveniences, all reputable reports concentrate on the disappointment of the privatizers (who nevertheless must go on) and of consumers (who certainly will be happier sometime soon). Nobody ever seems to report on the experience of the privatized workers–nobody, that is, except for Ken Loach. His new film, The Navigators, finds drama in the resentments and resistances, adjustments and accommodations of a crew of track repairmen in Yorkshire, who yesterday worked for British Rail and today begin working for a new company, Midlands Infrastructure, which in another two weeks will be called something else entirely. Not that the name matters. Twelve more weeks down the line, and the men will all be working for themselves–that is, for an employment agency, which will hire them out to contractors who needn’t bother with sick pay, vacation time or a superstitious regard for safety rules.
The Navigators is now about to receive its US premiere as the opening-night feature of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. Now in its thirteenth year, the festival will be on view June 14-27 at New York’s Walter Reade Theater, in Lincoln Center, where Ken Loach is also scheduled to receive the Irene Diamond Lifetime Achievement Award. An unaffectedly modest man, Loach will probably try to blend in with the audience, as if hoping someone else will show up to claim the prize. But as The Navigators shows, it’s his by right. Every performance in the film is effortlessly convincing; every scene plays out with its own easy rhythm. There’s time and space in The Navigators for domestic trials (as when a man attempts to court his estranged wife and winds up feeding a bouquet of roses through the mail slot), casual slapstick and practical jokes–even for a spirited defense of day labor. “There’s plenty of work, at top dollar,” declares one of the crew, who seems happy now to be an entrepreneur of his own labor power. And so, when doom strikes, it seems foreordained but not at all forced.
Of the pictures I had a chance to sample in this year’s festival–there are thirty-three in all–The Navigators struck me as being both the freshest and the most Old Masterly. This is hardly a definitive statement; I wasn’t able to preview such big bookends of the festival as the new feature films by Costa-Gavras and Chris Eyre or the new documentary by Fabrizio Lazzaretti and Alberto Vendemmiati, the team that made Jung: War in the Land of the Mujaheddin. But here are a few recommendations:
Lourdes Portillo went to Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso, to make Señorita Extraviada (Missing Young Woman), a documentary on the kidnapping and murder of hundreds of women over the past decade. You may be aware that workers from the booming assembly factories in Juárez have been turning up dead in the desert, after having been raped, mutilated and burned. What you may not know is that the authorities to date have arrested exactly one suspect, whom they blame for everything; that the killings continue, despite the chosen culprit’s imprisonment; that the police officers investigating these cases maybe ought to handcuff themselves; and that in the eighteen months Portillo spent in making this film, another fifty young women disappeared. Although Portillo brings a skeptic’s sensibility to these events, I wish she’d been more skeptical still. Some of the testimony that she accepts strains credulity, despite its coming from victims. But, that said, she isn’t preparing a legal brief. She’s creating a meditative investigation–or is it an investigative meditation?–and doing it with real poetic power.
Of the many films in this year’s festival that deal with conflict in the Middle East, most seem to me to be sketches toward a movie, rather than finished works. Valuable raw information emerges about Palestinian and Israeli attitudes in Michal Aviad’s Ramleh, Mai Masri’s Frontiers of Dreams and Fears, Jean Khalil Chamoun’s In the Shadows of the City, Avi Mograbi’s August; but you have to sift through self-indulgence, self-righteousness, clumsy fictionalizing or diffident storytelling to get at the data. The exception, among the films I was able to preview, is Rachel Leah Jones’s 500 Dunam on the Moon.
Jones had the wit to seize on a revelatory topic for her picture and the patience to develop it fully, telling the story of three villages in the Galilee. The first was Ayn Hawd, an old Arab settlement that Israeli forces emptied in 1948. The second village, built from the first, is Ein Hod, an artists’ colony established in 1953 on Dadaist principles. (I wish I were kidding, but I’m not.) To this day, Ein Hod remains a well-frequented site for the production and sale of bad Israeli art. And to this day, nearby, many former residents of Ayn Hawd live in the third, makeshift village, Ayn Hawd al-Jadida (New Ayn Hawd), a place that officially does not exist, even though its inhabitants do the heavy labor in Ein Hod, helping to keep their former homes picturesque.
Finally, let me mention two films from The Nation‘s orbit. The Trials of Henry Kissinger is a brisk, well-argued documentary directed by Eugene Jarecki and written by Alex Gibney, based largely on Christopher Hitchens’s book of similar title. Unlike Lourdes Portillo’s documentary, this one really is put together like a legal brief, and a very effective one at that. Of course, as a Nation type, I’ve always thought of Kissinger as a war criminal and am glad to see the filmmakers make the case. I complain only that they may have been a touch too adulatory to the writer who has guided them. However estimable his work, Hitchens is not quite the lone, precedent-shattering crusader that he appears here.
Then again, at the mere mention of the Hitchens name, Gen. Alexander Haig trembles with rage and sputters, “He, he’s a sewer-pipe sucker! He sucks the sewer pipe!” This is an enviable endorsement, on which we should all congratulate the author.
Congratulations also to John Friedman and Eric Nadler, whose documentary Stealing the Fire will have its US premiere at the festival. An investigation of the traffic in nuclear weapons, following a tortuous trail from Germany to Pakistan to Iraq, Stealing the Fire is a CinemaNation production.
Since there’s no point in watching human rights unless someone or something gets liberated, let me now join in the celebration of freedom that is Undercover Brother. Directed by Malcolm D. Lee from a screenplay by John Ridley and Michael McCullers, Undercover Brother is not the first pastiche, in MAD magazine style, of the blaxploitation films of the 1970s. Keenen Ivory Wayans was there first, with I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, just as Mike Myers and the Austin Powers team were a little quicker to collage into the present a pop-culture character from the recent past. Even so, you will understand how right Undercover Brother gets everything when I tell you that it runs just ninety minutes and stars a magnificently Afro’d Eddie Griffin, who is so cool that he winks at the camera in every damn scene.
The plot–do you really care about the plot? Griffin steps out in a wardrobe of platform shoes, flared pants and shirts cut to show off the discus-size Black Power medallion he wears around his neck. He drives a Coup de Ville convertible, drinks large quantities of orange soda and is aptly described by the film’s kung-fu-kicking love interest (Aunjanue Ellis) as “a Soul Train reject with a Robin Hood complex.” Recruited by a secret organization called B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D., Griffin learns that the most weed-addled fantasies of Conspiracy Brother (David Chappelle) are actually true. There really is a fantastically wealthy and powerful white man–called The Man–who keeps black people down.
From this point on–I’m three minutes into the movie–the jokes really get cheap. They’re also consistently, wildly funny, despite being based without exception on the stale scheme of “White folks do this, but black folks do that.” Sure they do. But then, as the chief of B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. explains, his goal is to “help black people of all races,” which clarifies everything.
The role of the white she-devil is capably played by Denise Richards.
My wife issues literary judgments on an irregular but reliable basis; so when she took her half-read copy of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and hurled it against the wall, I knew this was a book I should not pick up. As a result, I can’t tell you how much the new movie of the same title might deviate from Rebecca Wells’s gazillion-selling novel. I went to see the picture only because it’s written and directed by Callie Khouri, who also wrote Thelma & Louise. I can report as follows:
Divine Secrets is a sandwich made of two slabs of angel food cake around a slice of raw liver. The sticky-sweet stuff is women’s friendship and the mother-daughter bond, tributes to which are layered onto the movie at the beginning and end. The liver is the very long middle section, in which Ashley Judd (the film’s one saving grace) shows how sexual frustration and the demands of childrearing can drive a woman crazy. Apparently, this truth is unknown to Ashley’s daughter, Sandra Bullock, who must be told, at excruciating length, what everyone in the audience has guessed in a flash.
Every scene in Divine Secrets is expository. Every performance demands that the actress wave her arms energetically (perhaps to swat away clouds of gnats in acknowledgment of the Louisiana setting). Every character is affluent and white, except for a loyal black maid who says things like “I knew it wuz trouble. Just yestiddy I heerd dat screech owl.” Every sequence ends like a dinner plate hitting the floor, and every new sequence begins with a fresh plate being dropped.
Cans of 35-millimeter film are heavy, and projection booths tend to be locked. I went home, found my wife’s copy of the book and gave it a fresh ride.