Organize if you can, mourn if you will, but above all take heart. Courage, which conventional movies sell you by the rusty bucketful, springs fresh on all sides in this year’s Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. Here the valiant may wear a modest suit and fuss over samples at a trade show; or tramp through iridescent sludge, to wave a sarcastic arm at a profiteer’s villa; or shiver with their children high in the Andes, where a shack’s strongest heat source is a woman’s indignation. In the condescending phrase of marketing consultants, these pictures would be “scenes of ordinary, everyday heroism.” Unglamorous, sure, but ordinary? Not on your life.
Two dozen documentaries and narrative features are screening in this seventeenth edition of the festival, which will travel to forty cities in the United States and Canada after its launch, on June 8, at New York’s Walter Reade Theater (co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center). Some selections, notably those about the “war on terror” and the terror of war, are scheduled for theatrical release and so will pass for now without comment. (Watch this space for Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantánamo and James Longley’s Iraq in Fragments.) Many others must go unaddressed simply because they’re many.
But although a complete festival review might be impossible, a part can still stand for the whole. Here are notes on three of this year’s documentaries, and their heroes, as seen in the section on economic globalization.
Switch Off (Apaga y Vámonos) by Manel Mayol is unusual in that it shows you traditional, physical courage: the kind demonstrated in the Andes by women of the Pehuenche-Mapuche people when they jump to their feet and smash every breakable object in the room, while screaming bloody curses at a Chilean government official. The cause of this difference of opinion: The administration of then-President Eduardo Frei had decided to let a Spanish corporation, Endesa, flood Mapuche lands and force villagers into new areas high above the snow line, for the sake of building hydroelectric dams on the Bíobío River.
Switch Off relates this recent history in a highly textured way, using interviews with Mapuche activists like Mireya Figueroa and Alihuen Antileo; quasi-meditative views of the river and mountains; archival provocations (such as a photograph of the head of Endesa, shown in younger days, giving the Fascist salute); and a running gag of the filmmaker phoning the Endesa press office, Michael Moore style, only to be told that the spokesman is once again at lunch. The effect of this mélange is so striking that I began to wish for a little less art and a little more exposition. After the screening, I had to catch up on my reading to learn when the dams were built and what exactly the World Bank had to do with them. That said, I will remember Switch Off for a long time for Mayol’s interviews with baffled, angry Mapuche villagers, who were pressured to sign relocation agreements and wound up living in the snow, and for his testimony from opponents of the dam, who found themselves being prosecuted under anti-terrorist statutes, based on the testimony of masked witnesses.
Source, by Martin Marecek and Martin Skalsky, is in some ways even more disjunctive than Switch Off; but then, surrealist effects are unavoidable when you’re documenting the Baku oilfields in Azerbaijan. While functionaries of the national oil company boast that the environment is pristine, the camera surveys a nightmare landscape of fragmentary concrete, rusted iron and black, viscous sand. While a would-be farmer insists, as if trying to convince himself, that “oil isn’t unhealthy,” his starved-looking cow grazes beside inky pools. You watch segments of a promotional video, complete with patriotic folk singers, praising life in Baku; after which you see unscripted women cry out to the camera: “Please take us abroad! We don’t want to live here!”
Your principal guide through this madness is Mirvari Gahramanli, a dissident heroine who identifies for you the beneficiaries of Azerbaijan’s oil economy (the reigning Aliyev clan; British Petroleum) and the victims (workers whose uniforms, like their pay envelopes, are threadbare; journalists who may be committing suicide when they allege that all is not well; radioactive children; cows). More than once, Gahramanli and her fellow hotheads observe that the United States pressed for regime change next door in Georgia–but, of course, Georgia doesn’t have oil. A brief animated sequence makes the connection for you: From the tick-tocking silhouettes of oil rigs, set amid grazing cartoon cows, a black line representing the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline runs leftward across the screen toward a Western city, where little stick-figure men putter about in puffing cars.
But for a deep, wide-ranging account of today’s global relationships–from the misery within enclaves of production to the slightly smoggy good times in the lands of consumption–you will need to watch Marc and Nick Francis’s remarkable Black Gold, one of the strongest documentaries I’ve seen in the Human Rights Watch Festival, or for that matter outside it. Its hero is Tadesse Meskela, general manager of the Oromo Coffee Farmers Co-operative Union in Ethiopia: an umbrella organization for some 70,000 coffee growers, who have watched the price of their crop plummet while international demand soars.
Black Gold brings together both parts of this story. On the side of production, the film takes you from the processing plant and warehouses in Addis Ababa–where women hand-sort the good beans from the bad for 50 cents a day–down to Ethiopia’s southern mountains, where Meskela meets with coffee growers whose richest aspiration is for clean drinking water and a school for their children. On the side of circulation and consumption, the film goes onto the floor of the New York Commodities Exchange (where world coffee prices are set), into the Illy packing factory (where the CEO speaks almost mystically of the perfection of coffee), over to the World Barista Championship in Seattle (where great coffee is celebrated by fist-pumping and hoots). The contrasts are sometimes ironic and sometimes heartbreaking. A cheery scene shot at the original Starbucks is followed by views of the Therapeutic Feeding Center in Sidama–the region that supplies Starbucks’s Ethiopian beans–where low coffee prices have left growers desperate, and their children malnourished or worse.
That’s the feel-bad part of Black Gold. The feel-good part is Meskela’s indefatigable quest to circumvent the commodities market and make direct, fair-trade deals with specialty distributors. Maybe this doesn’t sound to you like a pulse-quickening enterprise (especially if you’re full of Starbucks); but to 70,000 Ethiopian farmers, Meskela’s handshakes are hope itself.
The festival continues through June 22. For information, phone (212) 875-5600 or visit www.filmlinc.com. As a sidebar, the festival this year presents an installation of videos from The Media That Matters Film Festival: a touring and online selection of sixteen shorts by independent–extremely independent–young people and activists. For more information: www.mediathatmattersfest.org.
Welcome for the last time to A Prairie Home Companion, brought to you from the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota, by Garrison Keillor, a crew of movie stars having a ball playing dress-up, director Robert Altman in an uncharacteristically genial mood and, of course, Powdermilk Biscuits. This is the last live broadcast–well, not live; we’re watching a movie–of a show that’s been on the radio “since Jesus was in third grade,” a turn of phrase that doesn’t sound so cynical when you consider that most of the songs being performed tonight are old gospel numbers of the “meet on that beautiful shore” variety. The show can’t linger here on the near shore because a Texas conglomerate recently bought station WLT and will be knocking down the Fitzgerald Theater as soon as its walking, yodeling relics of Americana have shuffled offstage. You might think this act of wanton cultural desecration would be halted by an angel of God–one of them happens to be drifting around in a white raincoat, positioning herself so that light bulbs shine behind her golden hair–but she’s been sent on a different mission, and besides, she seems to retain just the ghost of a grudge against Garrison Keillor.
She’s not the only character to do so. And yet, considering that he’s the originator of the real Prairie Home Companion, author of the screenplay and emcee of this simulated broadcast, Keillor is so becomingly modest (or is it Norwegianly dour?) that he doesn’t star in his own movie. The outstanding male actor in the ensemble cast is Kevin Kline, playing Keillor’s private-eye alter ego, Guy Noir. Kline’s performance is essentially a series of pratfalls, each of them its own little poem–and not a Hopkins poem, either. Herrick. The outstanding actress is Meryl Streep, here draped in thrift-shop layers of country-singer clothes, as Lily Tomlin’s sister and stage partner. Tomlin plays the tough, self-contained alto of the act. Streep is the outgoing soprano who bursts forth so brilliantly, even when miserable, that she could supply all the sunlight that Minnesota (and Keillor) lack.
A Prairie Home Companion is surely the bounciest, cheeriest musical I’ve ever seen on the subject of death and failure. It’s brightened by cinematographer Ed Lachman (who lights everything and everyone as if for the stage), by dozens of mildly off-color jokes (recited in an unbroken string by cowboy singers Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly) and of course by Altman, whose unflagging energy and delight in actorly collisions make A Prairie Home Companion into a sort of one-set, real-time Nashville.
That would be Nashville without the scope and ambition. On the plus side, though, this movie has Lindsay Lohan.
My spiritual adviser, Rabbi Simcha Feffeferman, is learning to use e-mail. Lucky me. Rebbe@AnsheTsurris.org writes:
Da Vinci Code director Ron Howard, known as Opie = O.P. Symbolologically, this means Opus Payee, ancient Hollywood brotherhood! They make fun of you for watching their movies, and still they get paid!
Writer Akiva Goldsman obviously descended from Rabbi Akiva of blessed memory, who derived volumes of law even from the squiggles on letters of holy Torah. Strange. Why didn’t this Akiva derive so much as a piece herring from a “book” everybody reads?
Also a mystery: Audrey Tautou = tow to = 22, not high caliber! Why her for this movie? She’s French, she’s pretty. Eleanor Powell she’s not, let alone the living vulva of Jesus Christ.
And Mr. Big Star Tom Hanks with his Harvard Professor hair–deeper mystery. Change “H” to “Y” and you got Tom Yanks! Does he? All he’s pulling here is a straight face, and then not even.
You see the pattern? It all works by opposites! The secret code is, “Grail, shmail. Just give us the money.” But what I say, like we did in yeshiva, is, “The truth is out there.”
Gillian Anderson–some Magdalene she’d make!