Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Dispatches from Sundance 2013: 2

Ray Taras regularly reviews world literature for the Campaign for the American Reader and has represented the site at the Sundance Film Festival since 2008.

Taras's second report from Sundance 2013 (read Dispatches from Sundance 2013: Part1):

There is no way of telling whether a film about a controversial political event – say, Lincoln’s presidency - will spark controversy about itself. It is surprising and bizarre, however, when a film which painstakingly avoids politics finds itself in a political maelstrom.

Early at this year’s festival I went to see the first feature film from Iran ever to screen at Sundance. Director Mohammad Shirvani’s Fat Shakers seemed appealing in the context of a two-decades-long “golden age of Iranian cinema.” Fat Shakers was placed in the festival’s New Frontier category, defined as “films that expand, experiment with, and explode traditional narrative storytelling.”

A few inauspicious signs about the film appeared early on. Before the screening Shirvani (through an interpreter) joked that he had tried to give away a ticket to the film to people walking along busy Main Street but there were no takers. In the most illustrious of all Sundance theatre venues, the Egyptian was half empty. In a Q & A after the film, Shirvani reported that 33 audience members had left before the film was over.

Now it is true that just a year ago Beasts of the Southern Wild played to a half-empty theatre at the festival. It went on to win festival awards and achieve box office success. But an unpromising debut will not lead to artistic and box office success for Fat Shakers because it has a lot of strikes against it.

There is nothing endearing about its main character, a grossly obese middle-aged Iranian male undergoing cupping therapy which entails placing a dozen glass suction caps onto his back. Films chosen on the basis of “experimenting with storytelling” carry an inherent risk of alienating viewers. Its nonlinear structure, framed by the director as presenting a cinematic experience, suggests aimlessness. Shirvani disposed of a tiny budget, allowing for only three actors and seven film crew members. With no money to pay extras, the last part of the film was shot at a tourist location in northern Iran where the three actors blended in among strollers on a boardwalk.

The film also has no message. Deflecting a question, Shirvani asked audience members what they thought the film conveyed. Let me venture an answer: it deals with a father, his son, and their respective disabilities – obesity and deafness – which literally create nightmares in their relationship. It is therefore a film about the misery of the human condition.

The film received two Iranian Ministry of Culture permits for its making and release but it did not get one for its screening in Iran. Shirvani expressed deep regret that he was unable to show the film where he most wanted to.

For a film that studiously avoids politics, it became enmeshed in political controversy in Iran just after it had its premiere in Park City. Sundance members were sent a “media alert/advisory” from the film’s publicist that hardline fundamentalist web sites in Iran had attacked Fat Shakers for being “dirty, distasteful, and anti-Iranian.” The advisory warned that Shirvani was at risk when he returned to Tehran, a concern only deepened by the jail sentence handed out a few years ago to arguably the country’s leading film maker, Jafar Panahi.

Contrast the fate of Fat Shakers to Jiseul, a South Korean film I also saw at the Egyptian. It tells a story largely suppressed by both South Korean and U.S. governments of the burning, raping, and murdering of villagers suspected to be “commies” in 1948. A key event in this tragedy occurred in the home town of director Meul O. when 120 villagers were able to hide in caves for six months only finally to be captured and killed by the Korean army on the orders of the United States.

Meul emphasized that his purpose in making this film was to make Koreans aware of this shameful episode in their recent history, which is unacknowledged by their government. Jiseul was shot in black-and-white and in a distinctive visual style reminiscent of Russian director Elem Klimov’s 1985 anti-war masterpiece Come and See. Korean spirituality of both the dead and the living pervades its four parts. It took Meul 28 hours to fly in for the Sundance premiere and he was returning to Seoul next week, free from a political storm even though his film had upturned exceptionally controversial historical stones.

A third Sundance film I wish to cite offers yet another permutation on the politics of cinema. Pussy Riot - A Punk Prayer deals explicitly with politics – dissident artists defying the Putin regime. The documentary studiously includes all the trappings for financial success in the West. Not surprisingly, it became one of the first Sundance films of 2013 to obtain a major distribution contract. HBO’s documentary films division acquired U.S. television rights to Pussy Riot, describing the film as a crowd pleaser. A Russia-U.K. co-production, it examines the question “who is really on trial; the three young artists or the society they live in?”

It is Pussy Riot the performance artists, not the film of the same name, that have created political drama in Russia. The three women are a Moscow-based breakaway faction of Voina (“War”), an earlier and larger incarnation of the performance art collective. Its most remarkable prank was the painting of an enormous phallus on the surface of Foundry drawbridge in St.-Petersburg across from the headquarters of the Federal Security Bureau. The effect when the bridge was raised was of a giant erection towering over the secret police building. In 2011 the Russian Ministry of Culture’s Innovation Prize for a Work of Visual Art was awarded to Voina – an unexpected honor that group members largely shunned. Russian authorities have taken a two-track approach to dissident artists, then, recognizing some and imprisoning others.

In Mohammad Shirvani’s case, art without politics is not a formula to stay out of political trouble in Iran. It is striking that an experimental film featuring fat people and having little appeal to Americans is still no guarantee that it won’t be noticed by Tehran’s cultural watchdogs. The one consolation is the artistic inventiveness that Iranian film makers are developing in these peculiar political circumstances.--Ray Taras

Ray Taras is professor of political science at Tulane University in New Orleans where he also directed its World Literature Program until Hurricane Katrina forced its closure. Comparative literature and world cinema have been teaching and research interests of his for many years.

--Marshal Zeringue