Thursday, January 22, 2009

Summarizing Sundance 2009: Part I

Ray Taras, who covers World Literature for the blog, filed this dispatch from the Sundance Flim Festival:

It was the wrong question to ask, especially after what has been happening these last few weeks. The emotional reply didn’t clear anything up, but it was perfectly understandable. Palestinians continue to sing and to dance and to love, first-time director and screenwriter Najwa Najjar insisted, because they do not see themselves as victims.

Of course Palestinians are victims. They may continue to sing and to laugh and to harvest, but ordinary Palestinians are the victims of both Israeli military attacks, and of the intra-Palestinian disputes between Fatah and Hamas that heighten Israeli insecurity. Pomegranates and Myrrh—“sweetness and bitterness,” as Najjar says of her film, does indeed, in my view, depict Palestinian self pity—the question I had asked of her. If there are any circumstances in which national self pity is justified—and most nations invariably have bouts of it—then those confronting the Palestinians are it. Nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to apologize for.

A film project that she began while confined for weeks to her home by the Israeli crackdown following the breakout of the Second Intifada in 2000, there are scenes of the immense wall constructed by Israel to separate itself from the West Bank, the prison where the film’s protagonist is being held under “administrative detention.” There is the land confiscation issue—a controversial policy not providing for the same dramatic imagery as Israeli tanks rolling through Gaza but every bit as threatening to Palestinian survival. As one character in the film puts it, “If the Israelis succeed in confiscating our land, all is lost.”Armed Jewish settlers lurk on Palestinian-owned olive groves subjected to Israeli confiscation orders just waiting to start digging foundations for new apartment blocks.

How do you resist under these conditions? the film director asks. By training for a dance performance at a reopened fair grounds is the literal answer. Najjar, an earnest, eloquent, soft-spoken film maker, told us that her characters are searching for a way to speak about their lives, to open up dialogue. When I asked whether that meant engaging in a dialogue with someone like Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai, who has shown much sympathy for the Palestinian cause, she ruled it out—“let’s not go there.” The two solitudes have never been further apart, it seems.

Pomegranates and Myrrh is a testimonial to Palestinian helplessness. It needn’t be this way: the literary voices of Ghassan Kanafani and Mhmoud Darwish ring out loudly and assertively. We cannot argue with Najjar when she acknowledges that a low budget movie like hers is understandable; money is desperately needed for hospitals and schools, not films. The saccharine electronic sound track is composed by the omnipresent Toronto-based film music master Mychael Dana. While a coup for her“I emailed telling him about our low budget movie, he viewed the rough cut, and replied ‘make me an offer’”—it raises questions why Palestinian music cannot capture the fate of the Palestinian people.

Perhaps only a Western idiom can convey that fate to a Western audience. This reality is underscored by a second film dealing with Palestinians, selected by some critics as one of the top five at Sundance this year. There is a simple reason for this. Amreeka follows a Palestinian single mother who migrates to the U.S. to live with her Americanized extended family. Made by Cherien Dabis, an Arab-American who grew up in Ohio, it has a hook American viewers can relate to. Still, if a film about fitting in with our culture—not being a Palestinian in Palestine—is what critics prize, our level of cultural intelligence is worryingly impoverished.

Can the cinema of resistance be successful in projecting its message? For over a decade the most savvy resistance movement there has been anywhere in the world are the Zapatistas in southern Mexico. This phenomenon—it is just that—is underscored in Corazón del Tiempo (“Heart of Time”) being shown at Sundance. The film was made using no professional actors—just people recruited from indigenous communities in Chiapas, who were given a script to read. Alberto Cortés’ fourth feature is based on years of gaining access to and the trust of these communities. Showing these people other films, he emphasized, helped create a bond.

Predictably, one character in the film uses a hand held camera to video the Mexican government’s military helicopters and convoys that constantly harass the region. Should they make a false step, the world will be able quickly to witness it on their computers, and international solidarity with the descendants of the Mayans will deepen. Given the political capital the Zapatistas have carved out, the filmmaker claims he even invited the paramilitaries used by the federal Mexico authorities to repress the Zapatistas to take part in his film. The up tempo songs in the film are local, too, and, most significantly, the story-telling medium is distinctly indigenous. The film’s premiere was in the indigenous communities.

The unshakeable seemingly effortless self assurance of Corazon del Tiempo is rarely found in the cinema of resistance. Who else but the Zapatistas can make a film about the Leninist dictum to speed up the electrification of the countryside and infuse it with wide popular appeal! When Cortés was asked if he feared repercussions for his glorification of the Zapatistas’ struggle he smiled dismissively and replied no, Mexico has won its freedom and a filmmaker too can enjoy it in peace.

A fact that does not exist in the Palestinian territories today. Or in Mexico a hundred years ago, before the Revolution. Or for the first two decades after it. A third film I watched was titled El General dealing with General Plutarco Elias Calles, Mexican president from 1924 to 1928, then, under his successors, El Jefe Máximo (giving name to the Maximato of 1928 to 1935). An authoritarian figure under whom political assassinations were commonplace and executions of Catholic priests widespread, Calles’ legacy is evaluated through the audio recordings made by his daughter in the 1960s and a superimposed commentary by his great granddaughter.

Lest we assume that Mexican affairs are naturally of greater interest to us than Palestinian ones, this film is so tedious—slow scans of newspaper headlines and old family photos, repeated slo-mo showings of the few video clips we have of Calles, another minimalist music sound track that grates—that its commercial appeal may be limited to the Mexican equivalent of PBS. Mexican democracy is a mess, the film informs us, and corruption needs to be swept away. We see countless images of street cleaners with big brooms tidying up daily after the reported 500,000 street vendors—generating up to one-third of the country’s GDP--in Mexico City have called it a day. But just as it does about Calles’ legacy, the film equivocates about who should clean up Mexico. Like the notion of cantinfeado that originated in a 1930s film about a barber who is elected to the Mexican Congress by spewing out political promises he does not intend to keep, El General exemplifies Mexico’s problems and is not a part of its solution.

Sundance celebrates a notional twenty-fifth anniversary this year—there was a small film festival before 1984—and Steven Soderbergh was at a panel this week to celebrate it. The maker of sex, lies, and videotape (1989) that made him the “poster boy of the Sundance generation,” he argued that the Indie versus Hollywood dichotomy was meaningless. “It’s good movie versus bad movie. Indie cinema doesn’t have the market cornered on quality” (Sundance Daily Insider, January 21, 2009). Robert Redford, too, in his promo film, insists that there is no such thing as a Sundance film. Instead, “there will always be space for new stories told in new ways.”

The “new stories” in 2009 that have created a buzz include Endgame, a British film capturing the tense final years of South Africa’s apartheid regime; William Hurt stars in this Sundance premiere that will soon be at our Cineplexes. The September Issue focuses on Anna Wintour, long time editor of Vogue and a powerful figure in the world of fashion. Taking Chance, starring Kevin Bacon who has been pacing back and forth along Main Street this week, has been picked up by HBO after playing to shaken and sobbing audiences in Park City. It is not another film about the Iraq war but a defining one, the story of a Marine who brings the remains of a young soldier back to his family in Wyoming. Made by debut film maker Ross Katz, at a Q and A session the Marine emphasized how he had been taught to just “suck it up” when dealing with death and grieving. Another noteworthy film—one of the first world cinema documentaries to sell out all four screenings--is Let’s Make Money, an exposé of the arrogant globalization clan running the world’s financial system and transferring the wealth of nations into private hands. It is directed by Austrian director Erwin Wagenhofer.--Ray Taras

Read last year's Festival report from Taras: Summarizing Sundance '08.

Ray Taras, a visiting scholar at Stanford University, is the author of the recently released Europe Old and New: Transnationalism, Belonging, Xenophobia.

His literature reviews here on the blog include Per Petterson's To Siberia.

--Marshal Zeringue