Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Summarizing Sundance 2009: Part IV

Ray Taras' fourth and final dispatch from the Sundance Flim Festival:
It came down to war, terror, and rape on the last day of Sundance, even though “the best snow on earth” was falling on Park City and the ski area towering over it. A few people trudged through the slush on Main Street taking photos of the winter wonderland that had, until Sunday, given no hint that it could envelop the town. Robert Redford’s posh restaurant, Zoom, showed few signs of life. The negotiations and bidding that had drawn attention away from the eclectic menu had ended some time ago, as well as the opportunity to spot a celebrity. I felt bad I hadn’t run into Christie Brinkley. Then again, I felt glad I hadn’t run into Mike Tyson. Apparently he spent all his time in this chic town locked up in his hotel room.

The war was one of those tribal conflicts in Africa that Western liberals like to describe as intractable—nothing to be done about it since these ethnic militias are intent on maiming and killing each other. I had read the novel, Johnny Mad Dog, a couple of years ago and knew what the film would be dealing with. Shot in Liberia, it turned out to be a lurid, fast-paced account of a group of child soldiers running amok in unnamed African villages and towns.

The child actors, speaking in Liberian patois that is almost understandable for English speakers, wear an array of colorful hand-me-down clothes that American thrift stores export to the west coast of Africa. They chant crazed mantras like "no die, no born"--if you don’t want to die you should not have been born. They swear constantly, as if reciting one long rap song. Like young teenagers they often lack logic. One of their victims is killed for saying he had bananas in his fruit basket when it was oranges that had tumbled out. The only conclusion to be drawn was that he was an advance spy of government troops.

French director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire does not recreate any of the irony found in Emmanuel Dongala’s novel. Perhaps, in the interests of fairness, he could have included a scene from the book that ridicules the self-serving European peacekeepers—not just the African tribalists.

Christophe Minie is brilliant as Johnny—single-minded, remorseless, and stupid. In the film adaptation he does not get the just desserts that he earns in the novel.

This week the International Criminal Court in The Hague began the trial of a Congolese militia leader accused of war crimes, including conscripting child soldiers into his rebel army. Johnny Mad Dog is an attempt to capture the horrors of child soldiers as both perpetrators and victims.

Terror: the bomb attack on the United Nations mission in Baghdad in 2003 which killed the Secretary General’s Special Envoy in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello. Sergio only incidentally deals with the sparring between the UN and U.S. authorities in the first months after the invasion. Its focus is instead on the Brazilian diplomat’s many achievements at peacemaking, from Mozambique to East Timor, from Yugoslavia to Cambodia.

The film also centers on his fiancée Carolina, left adrift after his death. The extended interview with her shows the anguish of losing a loved one in Iraq, and it reminds us how universal an emotion grieving is. The suspense built into the film is of the bungled attempt to save Sergio’s life as he lay buried and pinned down in the rubble of the UN mission in Iraq. Juxtaposing two American rescuers—one with deep religious beliefs and the other with only practical concerns—seemed contrived and unworthy of a film about a man who overcame divisions.

Sergio was a ladies’ man as well as a peacemaker. The film makes clear that he abandoned his wife and two young sons in order to follow a career as diplomat, in the process meeting many attractive women. It is fitting, then, that Sergio will be showing on HBO later this year.

Rape. Incest. HIV. That is the story of Precious, a grotesquely overweight sixteen-year-old in Brooklyn who is to boot illiterate, a mother of two, and locked into a violent relationship with her mother. Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire won the two top awards—Grand Jury and Audience—for best U.S. drama at Sundance ’09. A special jury prize for acting was also awarded to Mo’Nique, the abusive mother whose sins of omission—not protecting her daughter from her father’s sexual assaults—overshadowed her own violence against daughter and baby granddaughter. Anyone doubting the strength of maternal instincts would have been taken aback by the collective flinching of females in the audience—at least, they were more expressive than men--as Precious’ newborn baby is battered by her enraged grandmother. Push, directed by Lee Daniels (who produced Oscar winner Monster’s Ball), is harrowing from start to finish. If there is a single gleam of hope in it, it is that Precious rises from illiteracy to an eighth-grade reading level. This is small consolation for all the misfortunes that she suffers.

Remarkably for a Sundance film with three awards, Push did not pick up a distributor at the festival. Times are hard, of course. The most lucrative contract this year--$3.5 million—was for Ashton Kutcher’s sex comedy Spread. Last year Hamlet 2 was picked up for $10 million, and it proceeded to bomb at the box office. The commercial versus indie dichotomy that some festival goers approach a film with is staggeringly inaccurate. Since I first attended Sundance in 2000, I have observed how films fall into one of four separate categories: 1) those around which a buzz develops and hype quickly follows; 2) the arty, brainy, lefty ones that Adorno and Althusser would love; 3) the award winners; and, 4) the ones picked up by big-time distributors. It is remarkable how mutually exclusive these categories tend to be.

No coverage of Sundance is complete without a mention of lost and found. The Daily Insider reported Sunday that one Festivalgoer had lost and recovered his cell phone three times. A man who lost his camera described it as having a lot of photos of himself with a banana. Someone also brought in to the Lost and Found office a Pomeranian with a pink Mohawk and sweater. It wasn’t difficult to figure out who it belonged to when, soon afterwards, a woman showed up wearing a matching sweater.

Storytelling in Park City resumes in January 2010.
See also: Summarizing Sundance 2009: Part I, Part II, and Part III.

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 one of Emmanuel Dongala's Johnny Mad Dog.

--Marshal Zeringue