February 5, 2007

Park City Dispatch. 12.

Brian Darr sends in a final dispatch.

Manufactured Landscapes Of the 16 feature films I saw at Sundance, four stood out above all the rest as favorites: Manufactured Landscapes [site], Comrades in Dreams [site], VHS - Kahloucha [site] and Enemies of Happiness [site]. Each played as part of the World Cinema Documentary competition (where Enemies of Happiness won the jury prize), and had already been given world premieres at other film festivals around the globe.

All four are also highly cinematic, which puts them in contrast to a film like For the Bible Tells Me So. The latter is just the kind of documentary you want to see invited into living rooms across America. But it can't shake a "made for television" feel that makes it seem somehow less layered and rich in 95 minutes than the short that preceded it at Sundance screenings, Jay Rosenblatt's slice of Anita Bryant archeology, I Just Wanted To Be Somebody, is in a mere ten.

[Updated through 2/6.]

Manufactured Landscapes defines documentary richness. It's visually very rich, but director Jennifer Baichwal does much more than merely piggyback on the compositional eye of her subject, Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, as he travels to some of the most rapidly transforming locations in modernizing China. Baichwal and cinematographer Peter Mettler reveal a context for Burtynsky's shockingly elegant, gravely unsettling photographs of landscapes scarred by the globalizing economy's insatiable need for resources, and by the backbreaking human labor required to fill it. An example comes from the film's very first image, a nine-minute tracking shot of the inside of an enormous consumer goods factory in Xiamen City. The shot all at once conveys the vastness of the space captured by Burtynsky's photograph and its dual vanishing points, evokes the panoramic tracking shots taken by Billy Bitzer at the Westinghouse factories in Pennsylvania more than a century earlier, and picks up details Burtynsky's static neutrality cannot. For the shot does not merely track but also gently pans, anticipating the next workstation and briefly holding on the occasional worker before rolling on.

Camera neutrality becomes a focus of Manufactured Landscapes, lending a thematic richness to go with the visual. One key moment is a spirited conversation with officials at China's largest coal distribution center, who want to revoke the access promised Burtynsky because they worry that too much coal dust in the air on a windy day will prevent the resultant image from depicting anything other than a blight on national progress. They turn out to be wrong; the picture of mountains of coal blanketing the entire landscape does have an apocalyptic quality, but there is also a beauty in its terrible symmetry. Anyway, these images do not reflect poorly on Chinese society as much as they reflect on the globalization that all of us, East and West, are complicit in. Burtynsky became well-known for depicting the quarries and mines left by North American extraction industries, and arguably, he's simply following his subject matter, capital's impact on the land, to places where it's currently being outsourced.

Comrades in Dreams

Two cinephilia-focused documentaries, Comrades in Dreams and VHS - Kahloucha are far more light-hearted, but they claim another brand of richness: richness of character. Uli Gaulke's Comrades in Dreams interweaves the hubs of activity that four far-flung cinemas have become for their respective communities. Emergences, an open-air venue run by three cheerful workaholics in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, plays mostly commercial Hollywood product like Cellular and Titanic. The Flick in tiny Big Piney, Wyoming, is run by a mother of two and shows strikingly similar fare. Cultural House Cinema is part of a model cooperative in North Korea, and shows agricultural-themed melodramas (of which we get to see generous clips) with titles like Our Flavor and The Woman of Spring Water Valley, picked out by a woman whose husband has been called to duty in another region of the country. And Anup's Cinema Tent is a traveling exhibition space that sets up in the villages of Maharashtra, India, and sometimes even attracts big stars to its backcountry premieres of Bollywood movies. Anup is young, single and looking - for an arranged marriage, of course. It turns out that fixing on the commonly understood experience of motion picture obsession is a terribly fun way to soak in the atmosphere of these four disparate corners of the globe.

VHS - Kahloucha But it doesn't seem possible that watching any film could be quite as fun as making one with Tunisia's no-budget auteur Moncef Kahloucha, for whom Nejib Belkadhi's VHS - Kahloucha is named. Kahloucha is a housepainter who spends his spare time making action-packed videocassette epics starring his friends and neighbors. For a genre filmmaker, he's incredibly intense in his approach to cinema realism, insisting on using real blood (his own, sometimes) and smashing real television sets to achieve it. And he knows how to flatter his daredevil crew and ply his cast with promises of beers after the day's shoot. This may sound a bit like American Movie with the slums of Sousse standing in for Menomonee Falls, but the crucial difference is that Kahloucha's videos, with titles like Tarzan of the Arabs, are actually meant to be funny, so when we spend the entirety of the film with big silly grins on our faces we can rest assured we're laughing with Kahloucha and not at him.

Enemies of Happiness

Eva Mulvad's Enemies of Happiness also follows a character so compelling you don't want the camera to turn away. Malalai Joya, Afghanistan's youngest member of Parliament, has endured death threats but found a popular base of support in her country since denouncing the "felons" trying to control the government as a delegate to the Loya Jirga in late 2003. Her brief televised speech and the subsequent furor open Enemies of Happiness with immediate drama. From there, Mulvad brings us by Joya's side as she runs a health clinic and community center and a political campaign, all the time under the protection of armed guards. The access this film provides us to the day-to-day problems of ordinary Afghanis who come seeking Joya's advice and aid is incredible, but the film is perhaps most valuable as a portrait of an unlikely reformer in a country just barely emerging from decades of war and repression. The last scenes of the film, showing Joya already getting into heated arguments with fellow Parliamentarians on the way to their first session, show the long road ahead for reform-minded citizens. Still, there clearly is hope along that road if a grass-roots movement like Joya's can survive.

A few related odds and ends:

Manufactured Landscapes:

Comrades in Dreams:

VHS - Kahloucha:

  • Michael Lerman at indieWIRE: A "Tunisian film crew... defines the slogan 'Ten dollars and a dream.' It's hard not feel inspired as renegade filmmaker Moncef Kahloucha and his crew churn out b-genre pictures with youthful ferocity."

  • IndieWIRE interviews director Nejib Belkadhi.

Enemies of Happiness:

Update, 2/6: Ray Pride talks with Baichwal - on camera.

Coverage of the coverage: The Park City Index.

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Posted by dwhudson at February 5, 2007 8:52 AM