Saturday, January 24, 2009

Summarizing Sundance 2009: Part III

Ray Taras' third report from the Sundance Flim Festival:
Sixteen films were entered in this year’s World Cinema Dramatic Competition. Among those I had flagged but did not see was Zion and his Brother, a tale of how older brothers can care for younger ones—up to a point. Set in multicultural Haifa, first-time director Eran Merav expressed surprise that Sundance audiences hadn’t grilled him on Israeli politics and focused on his story. “They are very mature,” he observed during a Park City radio station interview. Viewers were caught up in the film’s narrative tension and did not mistake it for that of the region.

One of a number of Canadian entries at this year’s Sundance was Before Tomorrow, ambitiously set in the 1840s in the Arctic tundra and capturing the early interactions between Inuit communities and the European explorers. Based on Morgendagen, a novel by Danish author Jørn Riel, an Inuit and French Canadian woman have teamed up to direct an exercise in aboriginal storytelling.

Unmade Beds by up-and-coming Argentine director Alexis Do Santos (Glue, 2006) follows the mating games of young foreigners hanging out in London. With a lively comme il faut sound track, it is another colorful depiction of ever swinging London—at least that is the image that young non-Londoners stubbornly cling to.

Because of film schedule conflicts, I was also unable to see The Maid, a Chilean film that explores the uniquely South American world of una empleada, a housekeeper employed by a wealthy household who inevitably becomes entangled in the unsavory family conflicts of the bourgeoisie. Cinéma vérité it must be.

I did see three entries, Cliente, An Education, and Corazón del Tiempoall reviewed here yesterday—and found them equally compelling, even though each infused different degrees of intensity and embraced separate cinematic idioms. Yesterday I caught Victoria Day, named after the holiday English Canadians celebrate(and Quebecers grudgingly go along with) on a late Monday in May. Its director, David Bezmozgis, is a writer who captured considerable literary attention with “Natasha,” a short story published in 2005 in Harper’s and included in the 2005 Best American Short Stories. Canadian authors are often ambivalent about being included in a collection under such a title: Salman Rushdie, editor of the 2008 version, told me that of the 20 authors who he phoned to notify of their inclusion, the only one not to get back to him was Alice Munro.

Bezmozgis was born in Latvia and came to Canada as a six-year-old. His film explores the often overlooked immigrant experience of people from eastern—rather than central—Europe. The film dwells on hockey, though the director and screenwriter would deny it. It is hockey that bonds Canadianized son to immigrant Russian father (masterfully played by Sergiy Kotelenets). The hockey team accounts for most of the boy’s friends, whose antics produce the suspense in the film. Bezmozgis told us that his intention was to capture a kid’s first experiences of love, grief, and death—the defining moments a person returns to over and over as he grows older.

The glorification of the Great One—Gretzky—underpins the film, at times in the background as the hockey telecast is drowned out by heated parent-son exchanges, at times in the foreground as a girl’s effort to make out with the boy falters and “Hockey Night in Canada” coverage takes over. As a Canadian I don’t object to any of this, but I do wonder how it will play in Bogalusa or Las Cruces.

Our Q & A focused on whether a film should resolve all the plots and subplots introduced in it. Bezmozgis emphasized that an audience should leave a film with a sense of mystery. That when he filmed an attempted resolution of an ambiguity—the fate of a disappeared teenager—it created greater confusion and he scrapped the part. That a commercial film might require tidying up loose ends, but a Sundance film functions outside the usual norms.

What better metaphor to capture an unresolved plot than to include extended TV coverage of the 1988 Stanley Cup playoff game between the Boston Bruins and the Edmonton Oilers that was tied 3-3 when the power went out in Boston Gardens and the game had to be postponed!

Unresolved conflict anchors Five Minutes of Heaven, an Irish-UK film about the competing emotions of revenge and reconciliation dogging a Catholic who witnessed his older brother get gunned down during the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. After thirty years the man is to meet face-to-face the Protestant militia member who killed his brother. The encounter has been arranged by a television producer and has been carefully stage managed. Neither man wants to be part of a made-for-television melodrama. But they do meet later, in the abandoned tenement flat where the killing took place, and thirty years of suppressed feelings are let out.

Five minutes of heaven? That’s how the Catholic envisages stabbing his brother’s killer methodically to death. Does he enjoy those five minutes? You know Guy Hibbert, who wrote the screenplay for Omagh (2005), will not give us a simple answer.

My personal favorite in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition was Lulu and Jimi from German director and screenwriter Oskar Roehler. There are no plot ambiguities, suspenseful confrontations, or unresolved conflicts in it. Jennifer Decker shines as the submissive and but wide-eyed and wacky daughter of an affluent German family. Against the wishes of her diabolic mother Gertrud, she takes up with an African American whose job is to offer bumper car rides at an amusement park. Perhaps you can get through the first ten minutes of this film treating it as commentary on an inegalitarian, racist society. But after that you’re in for a wild ride! This is a fairy tale with transparently fantastical characters. The costumes and props are garish, the dialogue self-parodical, and the plot a string of contretemps implicating ever more incredulous characters: Von Oppeln, the psychiatrist who has transformed Daddy Cool into a basket case; Josephine, who wanders a highway alone at night, then robs Lulu and Jimi of their money; Harry Hass, who fought at Stalingrad and sees himself as a lady killer.

The director effortlessly situates his film in 1950s Germany; there is no going overboard to define time and place. Many Germans of that period are lampooned as racist and hostile. Others are skewered for being racist and indulgent: for them there’s nothing in the world like being entertained by a cool black American, especially when he does a rendition of “Stand By Me.” In the film the forces of good and evil are easy to distinguish, so there is nothing for us to agonize over. We throw our support behind the good guys, as in a fairy tale. Off beat, decentered, irreverent, with a lightness of touch make this one of this year’s must-see Sundance graduates.--Ray Taras
See also: Summarizing Sundance 2009: Part I and Summarizing Sundance 2009: Part II.

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