February 5, 2007

Park City Dispatch. 11.

David D'Arcy on Crossing the Line, Everything's Cool, Hot House, Padre Nuestro and My Kind Could Paint That.

Looking back at Sundance, I'm struck that some very good films got almost no attention. So here are a few words on what I'll call Stealth Sundance.

Crossing the Line

One film that escaped much notice was the spellbinding Crossing the Line, the documentary by Brit Daniel Gordon in which James Joseph ("Joe") Dresnok tells his story of crossing the Korean DMZ in 1962 at 19 and defecting to North Korea. He's been in Pyongyang ever since, teaching conversation at a foreign language institute and starring as an American villain in North Korean propaganda films, fathering a now-adult son with a woman of undetermined European origin, and then fathering another son with an Afro-Korean woman.

This is Gordon's third film about North Korea (the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK, as it's called by the loyal Dresnok), and his access gets him past at least some of the official propaganda wall. What we do see is a large angry man who endured a miserable childhood in the US, was abandoned to an orphanage, to the army, and then to a marriage that his wife abandons when he's in Korea. Dresnok was one of a number of deserters in North Korea - not all of them prisoners. Onscreen, we see a man who seems to have made his own choices, and who has benefited from guaranteed food rations as a result, when a million Koreans died not so long ago of starvation - he blames their deaths on American and Japanese policies.

Dresnok's European son attends one of the country's best schools. He's studying to be a diplomat, he tells us in halting, broken English that does not reflect well on his schooling. The family, with Dresnok's latest wife, always seems to be celebrating something - with plenty of food. To be fair, the government's resources were not just given to the American defector. At the same time that North Koreans were starving, their government was bribing Pakistani scientists to hand over the secrets to making nuclear weapons.

Is it real life or show life, truth-teller of Manchurian candidate? Dresnok admits that he's privileged, but a reality check emerges when we see the story of another defector from 1965, former US Sgt Charles Jenkins, who defected back to the US in 2004. In testimony that Jenkins gave then, he said that he lived in a one-room shack with Dresnok and two other US GIs, and that Dresnok gave him at least 30 beatings, which he said Dresnok enjoyed. Remember the American soldier in The Manchurian Candidate who kills another GI on command? (In interviews, Dresnok acknowledged that he hit Jenkins once, when the former sergeant attempted to pull rank on him. He also admitted to disliking Jenkins.) In more alarming testimony, Jenkins confirmed reports that the Japanese wife whom he had met and married in North Korea had been kidnapped in Japan years before as part of a plan to have foreigners bear children and to teach them foreign languages for future careers as spies. She apparently wasn't the only one. Was Dresnok doing the same with his first wife in North Korea? He says he wasn't, but he won't say where that wife came from. What a story.

Dresnok rejects the notion of spy families and says he wouldn't leave North Korea for a billion dollars. He seems to mean it as he sits fishing all day, smoking away in spite of a heart condition. He seems to have earned his keep once again. And Crossing the Line has cracked a window on the kinds of secrets you can't make up.

Everything's Cool

Another unheralded doc that analyzes stories made up by the Bush administration with our tax dollars is Everything's Cool [site], an eco-doc by Judith Helfand and Daniel B Gold. You could call it the poor man's Inconvenient Truth - or a funny man's Inconvenient Truth, since it uses humor to tell its story.

The film is a kind of road movie through the environmental informational landscape, asking ordinary people what they think about global warming (they admit they don't know much), and examining the Bush administration's altering of scientific data by having its appointees from the oil and coal industries rewrite scientific reports. You can see where W's interests lie - with the people who paid to get him elected. Consciousness is being raised, but the permafrost is melting away at a faster rate, and activists are fighting demoralization as much as they are fighting climate change. As the author Bill McKibben says, this is a battle that we may not win. Laughs aside, all is not so cool.

Hot House

A third doc that I admired is Hot House, Shimon Dotan's Israeli feature about prisons for Palestinian political detainees in Israel. The title gives you an idea of his take on things - that the prisons accelerate the growth of tendencies that were there when the men (and women) were locked up. Most of those tendencies are, in case you haven't guessed, anti-Israeli. And they tell you in perfect Hebrew.

Yet for the men in these prisons, a reality principal sometimes sets in which allows a spirit of compromise to enter the picture, provided that the Israelis are willing to compromise. That's quite a condition.

It's clear to anyone who has been watching bloody events in Gaza that the Palestinians' immediate battle is among themselves. Another troubling fact raised by Dotan is that woman prisoners who have failed in suicide attacks or aided bombers may be few in comparison with the men who are locked up, but the women seem to be far more uncompromising.

The Israelis originally tried to micromanage the political prisoners but gave up when they couldn't control crime inside the walls. In despair, they ceded control inside the prison to the prisoners themselves. Crime almost disappeared. Discipline returned. Is Israel giving power to its sworn enemies? What does that say about autonomy, or independence? Could we benefit from running Guantanamo that way?

Just a few words about two of the films that did get attention. If some of this sounds familiar, it's an expansion on some of the thoughts that I expressed in reviews of the two films in Screen. As I said, this year's theme, or one of them, is the border - it's mostly the border between the US and Latin America, but Crossing the Line takes the theme to one of the most tense regions on the planet.

Padre Nuestro

You could call this year's grand prizewinner "From Illegitimate to Illegal." The huge issue of illegal immigration from Mexico goes beyond the usual epithets in Padre Nuestro, the tale of an illegitimate son crossing a border from one squalid impoverished city to another to find the father whom he's never met.   The twist in this grippingly realistic drama is that en route, the son's property and identity are stolen by a young impostor whom he's helped and trusted, who sets out after the unsuspecting immigrant father. It's identity theft, the old-fashioned way, and it works.

With the proponents of border-phobia polarizing the US - when has fear not worked politically? - this family saga (almost entirely in Spanish) can seize on the topicality and controversy of its story and move beyond the independent circles that applauded the film at its Sundance premiere. The 40 million Spanish-speakers in the US are a potential audience, thanks to Mexican stars in the cast. So is Mexico itself, and the rest of Latin America, where the young cast members are already stars.

Writer/director Christopher Zalla's first feature is also a twist on the poignant coming of age story, as two young men meet in a tractor-trailer carrying illegals to New York. Juan (Armando Hernández), a petty criminal, has just out-run a vengeful gang and leapt into the back of a truck in what looks like Juarez. All of a sudden, the door is bolted shut and he learns that their destination is New York City. Pedro (Jorge Adrián Espíndola), naïve and trusting, confides to his new friend that he's carrying a letter from his dead mother introducing him to his father, the owner of a restaurant in New York.

When Pedro awakens in Brooklyn, his knapsack and Juan are gone, leaving the young man stranded without a cent in a city where he can only communicate with immigrants like himself. Immigrant New York is a place of cheap claustrophobic rooms, noisy restaurant kitchens, and street con artists.

Padre Nuestro

Nothing turns out according to plan for the new arrivals. Diego (Jesús Ochoa), the father whom Juan tracks down, turns out to be a bearish dishwasher in Brooklyn, bitter after years of toil and betrayal by Pedro's mother. On the street, Pedro learns quickly about survival from Magda (Paola Mendoza), a wily American-born prostitute. There are affinities to Italian neo-realism (Rocco and His Brothers) and to Luis Buñuel's 1950 Mexican classic about street children, Los Olvidados. Yet the title ("Padre Nuestro" is "Our Father" in Spanish) suggests that the film is building on a recent Sundance precedent. In 2004, Maria Full of Grace by Joshua Marston broke new ground at Sundance as a feature entirely in Spanish about a Colombian girl's journey to New York as a drug mule. Padre Nuestro is clearly looking for support from the same critics, and looking for the same audience, and more.

Valla's script, with its weaving of suspense into the parallel journeys of son and would-be son, and its evocation of New York, is anything but boilerplate in its depiction of a city that you won't see in the tourist brochures. DP Igor Martinovic gives a dark tactile look to the crawl-spaces where the illegals take refuge, shooting largely in those cramped interiors or at night when workers shuffle off drunk from their jobs. Often the light-deprived image looks as if it's in black and white. Production designer Tomasso Ortino gives the immigrant dwellings a dingy austerity.

As Juan, Armando Hernandez is the ruthless young manipulator who is humanized - to a point - by the genuine affection that he can eventually trick out of a father who's determined not to acknowledge a son. In Pedro, we witness a chilling street evolution from trust to guile that's happened in millions who've adjusted to the sober truths of a new land. Jesús Ochoa, as the stolid Diego, is monosyllabic, with a fury in his massive body, moving - sometimes glacially, sometimes suddenly - toward a fate we see coming.

The film's ensemble cast lightens the dark mood as only black humor can. In the restaurant kitchen, Mexican co-workers are merciless with ridicule as they probe Diego's past when they see him with a young boy, and the dishwasher's age earns him no immunity. There's a sly edge to this family tragedy, New York isn't just cold - it's comic. No hardship goes un-mocked.

My Kid Could Paint That

Everyone was looking for 2007's Little Miss Sunshine. For myself, I may have found it in My Kind Could Paint That, which frames the life of another child protagonist as it addresses the skeptical notion that has dogged painting ever since art ceased to depict the naturalistic likeness of its subject - that abstract art often looks like it could have been painted by a child.

Amir Bar-Lev's documentary then gets specific, telescoping in on abstract paintings that were said to be the work of Marla Olmstead, a cute untaught four-year-old girl in Binghamton, New York, whose huge canvases never got near the kitchen refrigerator as they brought high prices and media scrutiny from around the world. There was a mystery in a small-town child's talent and another mystery in whether or not she actually painted the pictures. These are the kinds of tales that sell newspapers and - potentially - movie tickets.

Given the vast audience that has followed this story as newspapers tracked it from New York to Tokyo, My Kid Could Paint That can benefit from the public's interest in revisiting and maybe even solving an ongoing mystery. Since art is now a commodity with sale prices that are tracked globally - at far greater prices that this film considers - the documentary should have a long international reach in theaters and television.

Bar-Lev's access to the Olmstead family brings in another story, the parents' own sensitive role in promoting the young girl's "career," which risked consuming her childhood, as their house and a local gallery that showed her work came under siege from TV news crews. Is it nurturing, or exploitation, or both? The director's previous doc, Fighter, observed another paradoxical relationship between two Czech Holocaust survivors from opposite political poles, who retrace the poignant steps of their escape from the Nazis while bickering like an "Odd Couple."

In My Kid Could Paint That, the credibility of Marla and her parents comes into question after the child is the subject of a dubious investigative report on the television's Sixty Minutes II. Correspondent Charlie Rose's team places hidden cameras in the Olmstead's basement, with the parents' consent, and Marla fails to paint. Had she needed to be coached by her night-shift factory manager father, or had he made the paintings? Almost overnight, the prodigy is brought down to size. (The show has since been cancelled.) Yet in a third act, Marla's career rises again, as her father creates a web site that shows her in the act of painting. Disaffected collectors are drawn back to buy a new series of mature-looking abstractions, which sold for up to $20,000. Marla, a beautiful child, now 6, returns like a groomed and scrubbed Shirley Temple to gallery openings. ("Little Miss Sun-Also-Rises.")

Bar-Lev's film creates a fourth act which re-examines the family's role in Marla's comeback, while reviewing her career in news footage. Rather than take a painterly approach to shooting art "artistically," the camera is a dogged investigator, viewing art, family and business from the floor, where the child tends to sit with her tubes of paint and brushes. A younger brother, Zane, isn't just tugging for attention in her shadow. Marla says Zane has "painted" some of "her" work - only one of the clues that something's amiss. It's left dangling, but still present enough to be remembered.

My Kid Could Paint That

The doc's characters, which make this film more about family (or about truth) than art, will hold the public's attention on big screen or small - an ambitious father in over his head; a mother retreating from the media circus; a local artist/dealer who markets the young girl; a Binghamton journalist who warns Bar-Lev that his film may also be exploiting the charming vulnerable child.

Art world audiences, to which the doc will be marketed (although I'm not sure that they're its core public), will quibble that neither Bar-Lev nor his expert, New York Times Chief Art Critic Michael Kimmelman, never really resolve misgivings posed early in the film about whether abstract art is legitimate or fraudulent. The broader audience may feel shortchanged that Bar-Lev also fails to resolve whether Marla painted all the paintings, or whether her career is a father/daughter act. Perhaps Marla didn't paint each of the paintings; or was she just following orders? But is it Bar-Lev's responsibility to tell us?

A few related odds and ends:

Crossing the Line:

Everything's Cool:

  • "[C]olorful characters, peppy animation, lively music and frequently comical banter" are all well and good. But Steve Ramos, writing for indieWIRE, finds that "the environmental message, the soul of the movie, gets lost in the playful mix."

  • Zach Haddad at Film Threat: "I really liked this film more than I did An Inconvenient Truth as Everything's Cool made the subject matter into a palatable form that actually made it interesting instead of depressing."

Hot House:

And the entries on Padre Nuestro and My Kid Could Paint That.

Coverage of the coverage: The Park City Index.

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Posted by dwhudson at February 5, 2007 6:43 AM




A piece on Sixty Minutes that ran last week in the US. (Embedded video of the segment can be found via the link above.)

Posted by: peter martin at February 5, 2007 11:20 AM

Thanks, Peter!

Posted by: David Hudson at February 5, 2007 1:29 PM