Category Archives: Art

Films I Want to See in New York – 7 – Putty Hill

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Putty Hill
Matthew Porterfield, USA
2010, 89 min

Cast: Sky Ferreira (Jenny), Zoe Vance (Zoe), James Siebor, Jr. (James), Dustin Ray (Dustin), Cody Ray (Cody), Charles “Spike” Sauers (Spike), Catherine Evans (Cathy), Virginia Heath (Virginia), Casey Weibust (Casey), Drew Harris (Geoff), Marina Siebor (Marina)

To be screened at BAMcinemaFEST, Sun, Jun 13 at 8:45pm

A junkie’s house, a boy’s death. Girls smoking in the woods. Cops on the hunt for a bank robber. Grandma is a good egg. Tagger – Rest in Peace, Cory.

A girl comes home to her estranged father’s tattoo party. A karaoke wake. Visiting a dead brother’s junkie lair at night. All he kept was his skateboard. The friendship of girls.

Putty Hill in the Northeast of Baltimore is both urban and bucolic. A filmmaker was working a coming-of-age tale about a group of metal-heads skirting the fringes of Baltimore. It was a timely script, but financing fell through. To rescue the work of everyone involved, he shot a new film in 12 days. Director Matt Porterfield:

“Putty Hill is not quite like anything I’ve ever seen. On a most basic level, it is an amalgam of traditional forms of documentary and narrative realism. But it is an approach to realism in opposition to the anthropological, lyrical, and romantic currents present in most of the genre. More importantly, though the structure of the film was plotted, the details of individual scenes were largely improvised, breathing life into the dialogue and bringing an enhanced degree of naturalism to the relationships between characters. I had already established firm bonds with my cast working with them on Metal Gods, so they trusted me enough to take risks and bring a level of emotional honesty to the material.”

A triumph of salvage. Not to be missed.

US Release: Feb 18, 2011 (Cinema Guild)

Films I Want to See in New York – 6 – Sawako Decides

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Kawa no soko kara konnichi wa / Sawako Decides
Ishii Yuya, Japan
2009, 112 min

Cast: Mitsushima Hikari (Sawako), Endo Masashi (Kenichi), Aihara Kira (Kayoko), Shiga Kotaro (Sawakos Vater Tadao), Iwamatsu Ryo (Nobuo).

To be screened at Japan Cuts Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema (July 1 – 16, 2010)

After five years, five jobs, and five boyfriends, Sawako (Mitsushima Hikari) still has not fully arrived in Tokyo. Her favorite phrases are “can’t be helped” and “working class is why.”

Kenichi (Endo Masashi), a toy designer at the toy company, has determined to live an “eco lifestyle.” Sawako spends evenings with him and his daughter Kayoko (Ahira Kira), while he clumsily knits a sweater vest, baby blue like his own, intended for Sawako. Instead of a good-night kiss at her door, Kenichi asks Sawako for her empty cans to recycle.

In Sawako Decides (literal translation of the Japanese title is “Hello From the River Bed”), we learn the power of a “lower-middling woman” – chu no ge no on-na.

Yuya may have hit on the trope of the decade with his observation that “the image of small shellfish squirming in the riverbed also contains a hopeless gravity that was a perfect fit.” He says his influences are musical even more than cinematic, and I believe him; Sawako Decides is wonderfully paced. And Mitsushima Hikari is an expressive, physically precise comic genius.

Films I Want to See in New York – 5 – Double Tide

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Double Tide
Sharon Lockhart, USA/Austria
2009, 99 min

For two weeks each year in South Bristol, Maine, low tide occurs twice within daylight hours—once at dawn and once at dusk. From the perspective of her stationary camera, filmmaker Sharon Lockhart documents the progress of a solitary clammer (Jen Casad) in these magic hours as she hauls her heavy skid out into the shallow cove and makes her way across the mudflat.

The clammer works for 45 minutes in the fog of dawn. Slowly, sunlight touches the landscape. Colors and features emerge, a Japanese landscape painting come to life. These are momentous events.

No words or music accompany the clammer at her centuries-old, physically demanding, solitary work. The intermittent buzz of an insect, the slap of boots in mud, a sharp sucking pop as she pulls clams from their nests, the dull thunk as they land in her bucket, a distant foghorn.

The screens breaks to black, then the 45-minute cycle repeats in the late afternoon, twilight sun, blue sky. A completely different picture – somehow the clammer seems much bigger, her world smaller.

Once she finds something that hurts – says “Oh!” and pulls back her hand. She tires, her hand seems to cramp. A cough. Nearby children’s voices as she finishes her work, washing heavy buckets of clams as darkness falls.

Double Tide is Lockhart’s fourth film about work (after (Nō, Lunch Break and Exit).

Update: US Release – Nov 12, 2010

Films I Want to See in New York – 4 – This Way of Life

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This Way of Life
New Zealand / Canada, 2009
Director: Thomas Burstyn
Cast: Peter Ottley-Karena, Colleen Ottley-Karena, Llewelyn Ottley-Karena, Aurora Ottley-Karena, Malachi Ottley-Karena, Elias Ottley-Karena, Corban Ottley-Karena, Salem Ottley-Karena

In a rare bit of luck, I met the filmmakers in Berlin while covering Forum. Their film was in another section, Generation, so I asked for a DVD. One of the smartest things I did during the festival.

I can’t improve on the Berlinale essay:

“Family life in New Zealand. Except that this is no ordinary family: filmmaker Thomas Burstyn spent four years capturing on camera daily life in one Maori household. Peter and Colleen Karena (Ngati Maniapoto) have six children and fifty horses. Peter is in his early thirties and a horse whisperer by trade – as well as a farrier, butcher, saddler, hunter, labourer and philosopher. The life he leads is very close to nature – and this makes him something of an outsider. His life is also unfettered – as is that of his self-confident children. It’s almost as if the word ‘risk’ doesn’t exist for them: barefoot, bareback and without reins or riding hat is for instance the way the Karena’s six-year-old daughter gallops across the New Zealand prairie.

“When the family’s house burns down, the parents, their oldest son (eleven-year-old Llewelyn, from whose point-of-view the film is told) and his five younger siblings decide to pitch their tents on a nearby beach. But although their family life appears to become even more idyllic, it is not without its conflicts. The Karenas live in the here and now, in spite of their parents’ traditional gender roles. But while Colleen devotes herself to looking after the family, Peter still has an axe to grind with his father. The film focuses on the way in which he mends this broken relationship and, at the same time, manages to maintain a healthy relationship with his own son, Llewelyn. Some people may think that the Karenas live a life of poverty. But this isn’t true. THIS WAY OF LIFE is a film about freedom.”

I am dying to see this beautiful film on a big screen. Some of the compositions are destined to become classics for film students in the new century. Children riding across a hill, a glistening body of water. New Yorkers deserve to see this movie.

[Berlinale]

Films I Want to See in New York – 3 – Die Fremde / When We Leave

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Die Fremde / When We Leave
Germany, 2009
Director: Feo Aladag
Cast: Sibel Kekilli, Florian Lukas, Derya Alabora, Tamer Yigit

Screened at 2010 Tribeca Film Festival (North American Premiere), winner World Narrative Feature Competition, winner Best Actress in a Narrative Feature Film (Sibel Kekilli)

An accomplished debut feature that manages to tell an emotionally charged story with nuance and compassion for all the characters.

25-year-old Umay (Sibel Kekilli) has run away from unhappy marriage in Istanbul, fleeing to her parents in Berlin with her young son. But social conventions draw the family inexorably toward a terrible deed. Director and screenwriter Aladag defies easy stereotypes to tell a story of errant human beings who inflict great cruelty.

I missed this in Berlin, and am grateful to Tribeca for selecting.

[Berlinale] [IMDb]

Films I Want to See in New York – 2 – Bibliothèque Pascal

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Bibliothèque Pascal (2010). Director: Szabolcs Hajdu

Single mother Mona Paparu (Orsolya Török-Illyés) must convince a bureaucrat in child protective services that she should regain custody of her young daughter, who she left in the care of an aunt while working as a prostitute in England. No, that’s not right.

Through a series of unfortunate events, young Mona finds herself stripped of her passport in a modern-day slave market, bought by Pascal (Shamgar Amram), who runs bordello where the elite of the worlds of art, politics, and business purchase the services of sexual slaves representing figures of literature (Joan of Arc, Pinocchio, Desdemona, etc). No. That’s not it either.

A tale of the brutal sex traffic between the former USSR and the UK stands as a metaphor for the rape of imagination that rules the global culture business. Not one of these interpretations quite works.

Once upon a time, a theatre buffet girl told her story to a filmmaker. Bibliothèque Pascal is first and foremost a fine movie – a dream projected onto our world to wake us up.

A perfect cast, led by the luminous Orsolya Török-Illyés, who once seen can never be forgotten.

[IMDb]

Films I Want to See in New York – 1 – Aisheen / Still Alive in Gaza

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Aisheen / Still Alive in Gaza
Switzerland / Qatar, 2010, 86 min
Director: Nicolas Wadimoff

“A situation report from the Gaza Strip in February 2009, just one month after the end of Israelʼs military offensive.” [2010 Berlinale catalog]

“‘Where’s the ghost town?’, asked the little boy to the theme park attendant. ‘It’s there, right there. But it has been bombed… Do you want to see it?’ It is with these words that the film begins – an impressionist journey through a devastated Gaza after the war. The ghost town? Gaza is the ghost town…” [cineuropa]

“Shot a few weeks after the January 2009 Israeli offensive in Gaza ended, the compelling, sensitively crafted docu “Aisheen (Still Alive in Gaza),” from Swiss helmer Nicolas Wadimoff, captures the human suffering and devastation wrought, but really focuses on daily survival. Observing ordinary Gazans literally picking up the pieces of their past despite harsh, dangerous conditions, the pic lets the powerful images and articulate subjects speak for themselves without voiceover narration. Quality broadcast item could find limited theatrical play in select territories; further fest exposure is guaranteed.” [Variety]

Have you screened it? Are your planning to? Please let me know.

Berlinale Forum – Born of Dissent, All Grown Up, with Integrity Intact

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Born of dissent, the International Forum of New Cinema serves filmmakers and audiences who – while appreciative of cinema’s power to entertain and knowledgeable of the tools of entertainment – want something more.

The singular value of the Berlinale Forum – the most consciously political section of the most political of the mega film festivals – is to be found in its evergreen ability to change our minds as the world changes around us.

“The Forum has always defended cinema’s role as a forum of artistic expression beyond imposed limits or categorizations, focusing on the new and unusual, whether seeking to preserve the experimental qualities of cinema or arouse the interest of audiences for expressive cinema from off the beaten track, ‘Expanded Cinema’, the filmic avant-garde, documentary film projects that shatter formal boundaries as well as popular world cinema have all found their place at the Forum…”

Christoph Terhechte[1]

Over the past four decades, international audiences have first seen films like Sátántangó and Shoah; films by Peter Watkins and Frederick Wiseman, at this unique festival-within-festival.

“The Forum thus has to be many things at once, goals which conflict with each other; a venue to reveal otherwise undiscovered geographic-cinematic territory; a place for the premiere of such films that, still today – though maybe not in the next decade – have a small chance of commercial distribution internationally; an integral part of a public event which services hundreds of thousands of Berliners but also visiting members of the media and festival programmers, who are looking for films to write about and bring home to their own festivals and who both thrive on negativity…”

Mark Peranson[1]

In my brief four years of attending Forum, I’ve been impressed by the skill, knowledge, and passion of Forum interrogators during the all-important dialogs at the end of each screening. Here we see the heart of the project, the dedication to help give audiences orientation in the evolving world of cinema.

Taking advantage of the special attention span that occurs when people go crazy seeing as many films as possible for ten days, and filmmakers from around the world have an opportunity to engage with a knowledgeable audience and with each other, the Forum programmers help to show us a new way, often through films that don’t fit into the mainstream festival and distribution system.

This year, I was fortunate to see twenty of the thirty-four films on the Forum main slate, and a retrospective screening of three groundbreaking films by Bill Forsyth.

Seeing Red
I was interested to see the rapid emergence of the Red camera this year, employed to impressive effect in Imani (which recounts a day in the lives of three people in Kampala and in Gulu province, in Uganda); Im Schatten (a straight-up crime film juxtaposing the mechanics of a career outside the law with clear-eyed views of industrial Berlin); Fin (a subdued, tense psycho-thriller in which an 18-year-old recruits two younger teenagers for a mysterious, unnamed action at a mining site); El recuento de los daños (a novel telling of the tragedy of the victims of Argentina’s military dictatorship); and Yoŭ yī tiān (a wholly original film, in which none of multiple narrative streams can be pinpointed as reality).

Ethnography, Sometimes from Unexpected Locales
Several fine films explored new aspects of ethnography in the film medium. In Paltadacho Munis, a tale of loneliness, compassion and the eternal struggle against bigotry, a widowed forest ranger in the Western Ghats of India’s Goa district struck up an unlikely relationship with a madwoman he finds lost and alone in the woods. Putty Hill set a tale of death and coming of age on the fringes of Baltimore. Director Yang Rui spent three years with the Wa people in southwestern China, on the border with Burma, to film Fan shan, tale of human sacrifice, young love, a Russian hand grenade, and a hopeless television set. Winter’s Bone is the unflinching telling of a Ozark Mountain girl’s desperate quest to keep her family intact by finding a father who vanished after posting their home as bond. From the perspective of her stationary camera, filmmaker Sharon Lockhart documented the progress of a solitary clammer in Double Tide over two magic hours in a profession as old as there have been human inhabitants of this area. The Oath – also a selection of this year’s New Directors/New Films series – explored the twin tragedies of 9/11 and America’s reaction to the attacks by tracing the story of Salim Hamdan, largely from the perspective of his friend Nasser al-Bahri, a.k.a. Abu Jandal, Osama bin Laden’s chief bodyguard until his arrest shortly before the attacks.

Globalized Angst via Europe
A number of European filmmakers contributed novel perspectives on modern life in a global culture. Through interviews, a video diary, and film clips, filmmaker Gamma Bak documented her adult life as a “child of freedom,” punctuated by seven episodes of schizoid-affective psychosis in Schnupfen im Kopf. Pus explored a dystopian Turkey. First and foremost a good movie about a woman who loses her job and has problems, Eine flexible Frau also revealed work and life for a woman in the New Berlin, and countless other “cities of women” of the new global capitalism. Der Tag des Spatzen followed connections between sparrows and humans from Leeuwarden to the Buechel air base in the Mosel valley, the villages and forests of the Eifel region, the coast of the Baltic Sea, and cities Bonn and Berlin. In Bibliothèque Pascal, Szabolcs Hajdu employed ravishing cinematography with unique humanity and irony to relate a tale of the brutal sex traffic between the former USSR and the UK as a metaphor for the rape of imagination that rules the global culture business. In a miracle of focused sight and sound, stories of nine travelers unfolded in the context of an extended documentary view of a morning at Orly airport. In Indigène d’Eurasie, director Sharunas Bartas plays the character of a ruthless killer who is not a bad man.

Asian New Wave
Young Asian filmmakers continued to break new ground. Kawa no soko kara konnichi wa demonstrated the power of a “lower-middling woman” – chu no ge no on-na – through a perfect performance by Mitsushima Hikari, an expressive, physically precise comic genius. Kenta to Jun to Kayo chan no kuni, Omori Tatsushi’s second feature, cast Love Exposure’s Ando Sakura as Kayo, a lonely girl who encounters two dim-witted orphans on the eve of a final attempt to break out of their miserable lives. Na-neun gon-kyeong-e cheo-haet-da! explored the lives of young professionals and office workers in Seoul through the misadventures of a vulnerable man stuck between poetry and the law exam.

Another Chance
For each film they select, the Forum curators buy a print, pay for subtitles, and archive – often showing to Berlin audiences in the Arsenal Kino long after the February snow of Berlinale has melted. That makes me hopeful that I will yet see the films that I missed this year: Aisheen (Still Alive in Gaza); Yiye Taibei/Au Revoir Taipei; La belle visite; Soreret/Black Bus; La bocca del Lupo/The Mouth of the Wolf; Congo in Four Acts; El vuelco del cangrejo/Crab Trap; Kanikosen (actually saw this at New York Film Festival, but lost my essay); Neo-wa na-eui i-shib-il-seki/Our Fantastic 21st Century; Portretul luptatorului la tenerete/Portrait of the Fighter as a Young Man; Sona, mo hitori no watashi/Sona, the Other Myself; Sunny Land; Ya/I Am.

1. Dialoge mit Filmen: 4 Jahrsehnte Forum/Dialogues with Films: 4 Decades of the Forum. Berlin: Arsenal – Institut fur Film und Videokunst e.V., n.d.