[Editor's Note: the post below appears today on the front page of The Huffington Post.]
By Govindini Murty. They’re among the most iconic faces of the second half of the twentieth century. Isabella Rossellini, Beverly Johnson, Paulina Porizkova, and their supermodel sorority helped to shape public perceptions of beauty and womanhood at a time of rapid expansion in the mass media. Their faces graced thousands of magazine covers and they were role models to millions of young women.
But was the rise of the supermodel a sign of female empowerment, or of female objectification?
About Face: Supermodels Then and Now, an insightful new documentary by director and photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders available on HBO on-demand through September 3 and HBO Go through 2013, interviews sixteen of these supermodels about the true nature of beauty in an age of consumerism and mass media.
As alluded to in About Face, the irony that underlies the modeling profession is that it should lead to both the empowerment and objectification of women. On the one hand, the mass distribution of images of female models through fashion magazines, ads, and other media in the past century has led to women becoming quite literally more visible in today’s world – with that visibility being an affirmation of their femininity and right to exist as women in the public sphere. In contrast to this, from the Puritans to the Taliban, misogynistic societies through history have restricted sensual or beautiful images of women as a prelude to denying their basic right to participate in public life, citing women’s beauty as a “corrupting” influence on social morality. The predominance of beautiful images of women in Western culture has thus affirmed the broader right of women to exist in public as feminine and not as neutered beings.
On the other hand, modeling has also had the effect of objectifying women by focusing on external surfaces, and at times unnatural standards of beauty. In About Face, Isabella Rossellini asks of the pressure for women to undergo plastic surgery: “Is this the new foot-binding? It’s misogyny to say that older women are unattractive.” Objectification can also lead to racism by dehumanizing people and imposing narrow standards of ‘beauty’ or ‘normalcy.’ Model and agent Bethann Hardison describes in About Face trying to book African-American models for runway shows in the ’70s and ’80s, only to be told by the casting agents that such models weren’t their “aesthetic.” As Hardison explains “‘Aesthetic’ is borderline for racist.”
I spoke with director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders about some of these issues at the LA Film Festival’s screening of About Face. The interview has been edited for length.
GM: What drew you to these ladies? I know you met them initially at a party in New York, but what did you find so magical about them?
TGS: I think when I met them at that party … I immediately got a sense of how smart they were. You know, the cliché is that you either have brains or beauty, but you don’t have both. Well, they seemed to have both. It really makes it an interesting film. And I thought that people weren’t aware of that. I have two young daughters who knew who they were. But many young people today who are so interested in fashion, they don’t know the history of it and of these iconic women.
GM: What has changed about modeling? You mentioned in the screening that these models were so unique, whereas today the models and their careers seem more transient. Why is there this disparity today versus back then?
TGS: I think that it was a smaller world then. I think there was a warmer relationship between the models and the designers and even the businesspeople involved. It was not so cut-throat and not so corporate. And I think today it’s just big business and big money, and I don’t think the human relationship is there as much. I think it’s very changed.
GM: Do you think a big part of that is the issue of covers – that the actresses are taking over magazine covers?
GM: It’s such a striking change. What has that done to the morale of the models? Does it make a big difference behind the scenes?
TGS: I’m not sure I can answer that because it’s not my world, exactly. But I know certainly it was huge in those days to have covers, because covers were the definition of success. And the cover of Vogue was the ultimate success. So when Beverly Johnson got on the cover of Vogue – the first black woman to do so [in August, 1974], that was a big deal. And today – that doesn’t happen for models.
GM: I thought it was very interesting what Dayle Haddon said that it wasn’t just that she thought she was the prettiest – in fact she didn’t quite fit into the physical type that was popular at the time, but that she brought something else to the picture.
TGS: She brought something else. And Dayle Haddon had to struggle because she wasn’t the look of the moment. She was a very smart woman and she figured out a way to add something more to the picture.
GM: Do you think the reason that those models from that era were so powerful – we’re talking the ’70s and ’80s, was because they were often muses for the designers they were working with?
TGS: Yes, exactly.
GM: I think of Yves St. Laurent and models like Khadija Adams, or even Catherine Deneuve in the ’60s who was dressed by St. Laurent for Belle de Jour. I think of Calvin Klein and Brooke Shields, they were so intimately tied together.
[Editor's Note: the full version of the article below appears today at The Atlantic.]
By Govindini Murty. Jake Schreier’s debut feature Robot & Frank is a smart and funny look at serious issues: the ethics of caring for the elderly with robots, the dichotomy between nature and technology, and even the dangers of eliminating physical books in favor of digital media. Opening nationwide on August 24th, the indie sci-fi drama written by Christopher Ford is set in the near future and depicts a wily, aging con man (Frank Langella) who is given a domestic robot by his son (James Marsden) as a caregiver, only to use the robot to plan heists. The film also stars Susan Sarandon, Liv Tyler, and Peter Sarsgaard as the voice of the robot.
At Sundance earlier this year, Robot & Frank charmed audiences and was honored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for “raising profound questions about the role of technology in our collective future.” I spoke with director Jake Schreier at the LA Film Festival this summer about some of those questions. The interview has been edited for length.
What appealed to you about the subject matter of a relationship between a human and a robot?
On the surface level, it was the image of this old man in a rural environment with this very clean, white piece of technology. There’s a certain visual interest that this starts from that is pretty fascinating. Chris Ford, who wrote it, [got] the idea from this real technology that is being developed to deal with the Baby Boom generation that’s aging in Japan, and they’re looking to robots to take care of their elderly. That was the genesis of it, and Ford took it from there and really fleshed it out into the script.
And you mentioned that this was based on a short that you had produced back in film school with Ford.
[Laughs.] I used that term “produce” loosely because we shot it in my uncle’s cabin. Ford made the movie and I helped him out. We were friends in film school. We put [the short] away, and Ford and I had kept working together along with some other friends. Then about four years ago we were looking for something to develop into a feature and I just thought if there was any way he could write it into something longer it would be a great thing to work with.
Frank Langella did a fantastic job and he’s obviously the heart of the film. How did he work with the robot?
Frank doesn’t need anything. He’s such a pro. Not only does he have an amazing amount of talent, but he has the ability to shape that talent and modulate it. It was amazing to watch on set. And Rachael Ma—the girl who’s in the robot suit—went through hell to do that thing, and was there for all of it, but there were times when she didn’t need to be so he’d just be acting with the torso of the robot or an apple box in the foreground. It really didn’t matter. He was locked in, one way or the other. He said to me that he just had a thing that he’d pictured in his mind and he didn’t really want to say what it was but it was all that he needed to trigger the performance. So, I was very lucky to have that.
>>>TO READ THE REST OF THE ARTICLE, PLEASE VISIT THE ATLANTIC.
Posted on August 24th, 2012 at 10:38am.
By Govindini Murty. Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild has garnered much acclaim on the film festival circuit and is one of the top indie films in theatrical release right now, having already earned $5.9 million at the box office. The story of a little girl and her father struggling to survive in the flooded bayou of southern Louisiana, Beasts of the Southern Wild won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, the Camera D’Or at Cannes, and the Audience Favorite Award at the LA Film Festival. There is already talk that it may be nominated for an Oscar for Best Film, and that Quvenzhané Wallis, the film’s remarkable eight-year old lead, may be nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress.
We had the opportunity to attend the premiere of Beasts of the Southern Wild at the LA Film Festival this summer and enjoyed the Q & A conducted afterward by John Singleton with director Benh Zeitlin and the film’s stars, the irrepressible Quvenzhané Wallis (who utterly stole the show) and the charming baker-turned-actor Dwight Henry.
We spoke briefly with Benh Zeitlin after the screening and also met John Singleton, who expressed repeatedly what a fan he was of the film. Here’s the conversation I had with Zeitlin, followed by excerpts from the Q & A that Singleton held with Zeitlin, Wallis, and Henry. While there were a variety of topics discussed in the Q & A, my focus here is on the comments that Zeitlin made about the creative and practical aspects of translating his vision to the big screen.
GM: I was curious about your influences. Were you quoting anyone specific in the film? What inspired you – either in classic or contemporary film?
BZ: The big one for me is this film called Underground by Kusturica. That’s the one that made me most want to make films when I was growing up … the way that the fantasy and reality worked in that film I think was a big deal. And then we watched a lot of documentaries – we watched a lot of Les Blank documentaries. This one called Dry Wood – and all those ‘70s films that he made – were kind of how we came up with the cinematography. But you know, I studied the way that Cassavetes directs actors and Mike Leigh directs actors – and looking at narrative from Disney movies, like Bambi [Zeitlin himself has a background in animation and his parents are folklorists]. So, really, it was from all over the place, from all eras – from high-brow to low-brow – sort of a broad world.
GM: That’s interesting. You mention Les Blank – did you see Burden of Dreams, about Werner Herzog making Fitzcarraldo?
BZ: Oh yeah, of course. Werner Herzog, absolutely.
GM: Because [Beasts of the Southern Wild] just reminded me – the atmosphere – the organic feeling of being in the mud with the animals and the wilderness all around -
BZ: Definitely, yeah. He was a huge inspiration for me. The first time I saw that film I was like “This is what I want to do.”
GM: I interviewed Werner Herzog a few months ago and there’s some great footage from that film [Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams] that’s online. But you know, I was curious, because the film has that blend [of reality and fantasy] that you were mentioning. But I didn’t know about Bambi, that’s going to be interesting to throw in there -
BZ: [Laughs.] You got to go back to Bambi, always got to go back to Bambi.
GM: Well thanks so much, that was fun to see.
BZ: Thanks very much, nice to meet you.
Beasts of the Southern Wild tells the story of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a six-year old girl growing up on an island off the coast of Louisiana known as “The Bathtub.” The story follows Hushpuppy and her widower father, Wink (Dwight Henry), as they eke out a living on their small plot of land – with the little girl caring for their farm animals and living in tune with the rhythms of the natural world. Her father, who has a mysterious illness, almost like a latter-day Fisher King, teaches Hushpuppy how to fish and emphasizes that she needs to learn how to take care of herself so she can succeed in the world and climb to the “top of the ladder.”
The island community of the Bathtub might lie in the shadow of New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain, but its rural lifestyle feels a world away. To emphasize this, Beasts was shot in a documentary-verité style on 16mm film, which, when blown up on a large screen, creates a grainy, mysterious image that paradoxically heightens the mythological and poetic themes of the film. Hushpuppy’s view of the world is thus depicted in an alternately realistic and fantastical manner that Benh Zeitlin called “a heightened world built out of very real parts.” For example, Zeitlin noted that though there is no place called the Bathtub in Louisiana, it was based on the real Isle de Jean Charles, an island that is slowly falling into the Gulf and that has gone from 200 families to 20 families in recent years. As Zeitlin explains, “we took elements of things and swirled them together – almost like a folk tale.”
LFM’s Jason Apuzzo & Govindini Murty at The Huffington Post and AOL-Moviefone: Basketball Diplomacy: An American Point Guard Becomes a Symbol of Freedom in The Iran Job
By Jason Apuzzo & Govindini Murty. NBA fans know that two-time MVP point guard Steve Nash recently joined the Los Angeles Lakers. Fans are buzzing, because the addition of Nash could soon result in a return to championship glory for the league’s most glamorous franchise. As big as Nash’s impact on the Lakers might be, however, it can’t possibly match the impact that flashy point guard Kevin Sheppard — the former Jacksonville University star and Virgin Islands native — had in 2008 on A.S. Shiraz, a professional basketball team in Iran’s Super League.
The reasons for this go beyond sports, however, because over the course of one gripping and emotional season — a season documented by director Till Schauder and producer Sara Nodjoumi in their extraordinary new documentary, The Iran Job — Sheppard becomes one of Iran’s most popular athletes, and brings a ray of hope into an increasingly repressive and isolated society.
The Iran Job screened last week in Washington, D.C., and had its world premiere recently at the Los Angeles Film Festival, where we had the chance to talk to the film’s creators.
As depicted in the film, Kevin Sheppard’s Iranian odyssey begins in the fall of 2008, when he’s offered a spot on A.S. Shiraz’s roster. Having already played professional basketball in South America, Europe, China and Israel, the voluble Sheppard is unfazed by the prospect of playing overseas — but is understandably nervous as an American traveling to Iran. Coming in the midst of a 2008 election in which Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain all had sharp words for Iran and its nuclear program, Sheppard nonetheless decides to take the plunge out of a spirit of professionalism.
It was a decision that would change his life, as well as the lives of everyday Iranians — and in particular, those of three young Iranian women.
One of the most compelling aspects of The Iran Job is the way it captures the casual details of life in today’s Iran — a closed society that clearly harbors some unusual stereotypes about the outside world. So for example, the moment Sheppard arrives in Iran and meets up with his Serbian roommate (the team’s 7-foot center, and the only other non-Iranian allowed on the squad), Sheppard learns that his cable TV has been custom-provided with hundreds of pornographic channels — the assumption being that because he is an American, he must be sex-obsessed. The irony that such programming is even available in a “strict” Islamic society, of course, is not lost on Sheppard — who can’t help but laugh at Iranian officialdom’s awkward notions of diplomatic courtesy.
Such ticklish moments aside, however, Sheppard immediately begins bonding with average Iranians. A natural show-off with a wicked sense of humor, Sheppard dazzles everyone around him — even when they barely speak English, and are only able to respond to his warm smile and playfulness. The camera follows him early on as he goes out to grab dinner, and we see regular Iranians high-fiving him and snapping pictures with him before he’s even picked up a basketball. His enthusiasm and dynamic personality ignite smiles everywhere.
We asked Sheppard about the rock-star treatment he received from average Iranians:
“The funny thing about it is, once I got over there — people really love America. The government would say, ‘Down with America.’ They have all kinds of signs — ‘America is the Devil,’ ‘Down with the U.S.A.’ — but once you get to the people, they love American culture, they know everything about America, they love all the American sports. So it was a little bit ironic and crazy for me at first. I was like, how can you have all these signs around? But yet, when you speak to the people it’s totally different. So I know it [hostility toward America] was not coming from the mass of the people in general. This was all pushed upon them by the government.”
As The Iran Job proceeds, however, Sheppard’s innate enthusiasm is challenged by his lackluster basketball team, A.S. Shiraz a new and untested squad in Iran’s Super League, and a team sorely lacking in the kind of talent or winning attitude to which Sheppard is accustomed. Viewers basically get the sense that Sheppard has just joined The Bad News Bears of Iranian basketball, and his first task will be to shake up the underwhelming squad.
It’s worth noting here that The Iran Job follows the usual parameters of sports documentaries in depicting how one inspirational player can turn the fortunes of a franchise around by getting his teammates to believe they can win. That’s precisely what Sheppard does, due in part to his on-court heroics (we watch him win several games with buzzer-beating shots), but mostly due to his cocky swagger and high standards. The intense, demanding point guard simply hates to lose — and refuses to let his teammates ever be comfortable accepting defeat.
[Editor's Note: the post below appears today at The Huffington Post.]
By Govindini Murty. Egypt’s government announced on Sunday that an Islamist has won Egypt’s first competitive presidential election. The superb new documentary Words of Witness, screening at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York through June 26th, sheds much needed light on how Egyptians got to this point. Directed by Mai Iskander, the film depicts the complex reality of an Egypt in which long-suffering citizens genuinely desire democracy, but must deal with the less than ideal reality of having to vote either for the Muslim Brotherhood or for remnants of the former Mubarak regime – with the military looming over any choice they might make.
Against this backdrop, Words of Witness makes the smart decision to focus its story on a young Egyptian woman, journalist Heba Afify. The documentary follows the 22 year-old Afify, a reporter for the English-language newspaper Egypt Independent, as she covers Egypt’s transition to democracy – from the heady days of the revolution in early 2011, through Egypt’s chaotic year and a half under military rule, to the recent months of buildup to Egypt’s first free presidential election. Completed in just the last few weeks, Words of Witness has a remarkable timeliness and immediacy in depicting the contending forces that are challenging Egypt’s journey to democracy.
Like her fellow citizens, Heba Afify finds herself torn between tradition and progress. Her traditional Muslim family worries about her career and her safety, while Afify’s chief concern is reporting the truth of the Egyptian revolution so that she may contribute to her nation’s democratic future.
As Afify poignantly says: “I can’t abide by the rules of being an Egyptian girl if I want to be a good reporter.” And if she can’t be a good reporter, the implication is that she can’t help her country, as a free press and democratic liberty go hand in hand. Afify adds, “It’s hard to live under a dictatorship – if you say the wrong thing, they will knock on your door and take you away forever.”
The film documents the remarkable degree to which Afify and other young Egyptians like her are willing to buck authority in order to bring about freedom and progress. It is her faith in these ideals that leads Afify to volunteer to cover the most dangerous demonstrations, despite the fears of her family. Afify’s conviction and her willingness to put her ideals on the line are what ultimately make her such a compelling protagonist.
In one extraordinary scene, Afify hears that there is a protest taking place outside the State Security headquarters. This is the home of the hated secret police who have been arresting (and reportedly torturing) thousands of pro-democracy activists. Even though it is nighttime, and reports indicate that the situation is dangerous, Afify doesn’t hesitate to join the demonstration. What follows is shocking footage, shot by Afify herself, in which the demure young woman dives right into the crowd of protesters in the dark – joining them as they break into the building. They’re hoping to free political prisoners, but as they turn on the lights in the building, they discover something even more surprising: boxes of surveillance files kept by the secret police on government employees, media, public figures, and countless ordinary Egyptians. A colleague of hers hands Afify boxes of files, saying “This happens only once in history, Heba.” Afify shakes her head at the magnitude of the surveillance, commenting: “The number of files is unbelievable.”
As Afify later examines the files in her office, she finds a transcript of an actress’ phone call; Afify wonders why the state police felt the need to write down every word of this woman’s personal phone conversation. As the film suggests, such an abuse of authority engenders a moral corrosion that is an important reason why authoritarian societies have such trouble adapting to freedom. It can take generations to overcome the cynicism, paranoia, and bad faith created by a system in which the government spends more time repressing its own people than in serving them.
Another important point made in the film is the need for religious tolerance. Afify shows concern when the unity between Muslims and Christians – that had largely prevailed in the early days of the revolution – breaks down in the wake of attacks on Christians. When a church is burned down in the village of Atfeeh, leading to riots in Cairo, Afify goes to the village herself to find out what has happened. When she gets to the village, she finds a curious scene – the kind of scene that often doesn’t make it into the Western media. A local Muslim leader addresses a large group of villagers, telling them that they should show support for their Christian brothers and work to have the church rebuilt. However, a large army presence watches the scene, and Afify is prevented from visiting the site of the church. Indeed, no-one is allowed to go near the church site, and the rumor ripples through the crowd that it is the State Security apparatus itself that burned the church down in order to inflame religious tensions in Egypt and justify the old regime hanging on to power.
By Govindini Murty. As Libertas readers know, we’ve long been advocates of film festivals, especially those that celebrate independent film. Because they empower individual filmmakers to try out new ideas, film festivals are a crucial way to inspire the spirit of freedom and innovation in the culture. And did I also mention that they’re a lot of fun? Where else can you hang out with fellow film fanatics, see great films, meet talented filmmakers, and return to your own creative work buzzing with renewed energy and ideas?
That’s why we’ve been stepping up our film festival coverage here at Libertas. Jason and I had the chance to attend the Sundance Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival this year, and we also just finished attending the LA Film Festival. All three festivals have been terrific experiences. And of course, Libertas’ own Joe Bendel, the Zen master of the independent film review, has already been doing a fantastic job these past two years covering pretty much every film festival on the planet (maybe even in the known universe).
As a result of our indie focus, Indiewire has added us to Criticwire, which means that you can click on our names on their Criticwire page and find letter grades and film reviews for all the independent and mainstream movies we’re seeing.
To also make it easier for Libertas readers to find our film festival reviews, we’ve created new categories in the ‘Articles’ drop down menu above for each of the major film festivals we’re covering. We’ve created a new Sundance category, a Tribeca category, and an LA Film Festival category. Click on one of those categories and you will see all the reviews we’ve posted for that festival going back to the launch of Libertas Film Magazine.
We’ll add more festival categories as we proceed – and remember to go out and support these films! If a movie isn’t playing in a theater in your area, then remember that many of these movies are also available on your cable provider’s VOD, Netflix streaming, Amazon on-demand, or iTunes.
Posted on June 25th, 2012 at 11:41pm.
By Joe Bendel. Coca-Cola may have just announced its imminent return to Burma, but China maintains a chokehold on its client state’s closed economy. Such is the situation an expatriate construction worker finds on his homecoming. Regardless of potential political liberalizations, economic opportunities remain few and far between in Midi Z’s Return to Burma, which screens during the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival.
After years of working and saving in Taipei, Wang Xing-hong is returning home. He had planned to travel with his co-worker Rong, but instead he will carry his countryman’s ashes. Transferring from bus to bus he hears the saccharine radio jingles proclaiming the promise of progress through new elections. Yet he arrives home to the same depressed provincial town, except now maybe even more so.
Traveling between Taiwan and Burma is an expensive and complicated proposition. Clearly, Wang would prefer to stay and put down roots. Simultaneously, his sporadically employed younger brother is about to leave for Malaysia in search of work. The fact the neighboring country offers greater opportunity than the more richly resource-endowed Burma is a testament to decades of government mismanagement and plunder. Yet, that is the state of things.
The pseudo-characters of Return are a lot like New Yorkers compulsively discussing comparative rents and maintenance fees at a dinner party. Viewers will leave knowing the market wage for just about every form of manual labor in the country as well as the start-up cost for numerous small service proprietorships. The lesson is clear—do not relocate to Burma. By the way, Midi Z and his colleagues obviously call it Burma and not Myanmar, unlike the military junta and the legacy media.
Shot surreptitiously on the streets of Yangon and Mandalay, with non-professional actors kind of-sort of playing themselves, Return is the first domestically produced Burmese feature (evidently ever). It was also more or less illegal. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is closely akin stylistically to the Digital Generation school of independent Chinese filmmakers. Deliberate and observational rather than action-driven or chatty, the film is really all about conveying the experience of Burma’s underclass—and that includes everyone except the top military and government officials.
It is probably a small miracle the Burma-born Taiwan-based Midi Z and his crew-members were not imprisoned during the Return shoot. They earn considerable kudos for vividly capturing the atmosphere of Burma. There are times when you can practically smell the humid night air. Still, the languid pace and hardscrabble living conditions have a rather claustrophobic effect. It is a worthy but wearying look inside the isolated society. Recommended for dedicated Burma watchers (but not necessarily casual connoisseurs of Asian cinema), Return to Burma screens this Friday (6/22) and Saturday (6/23) as an International Showcase selection of the 2012 LA Film Fest.
LFM GRADE: B-
Posted on June 19th, 2012 at 8:45pm.
By Joe Bendel. For years, Mexico’s best journalism has been done in Tijuana. Frankly, with the rise of the drug cartels’ power, Tijuana might be the only place in the country where real journalism is practiced with conviction. However, the staff of the resolutely independent news weekly Zeta has paid a heavy price for their journalistic integrity. Bernardo Ruiz documents their dangerous mission covering the drug lords and the crooked politicians abetting them in Reportero (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2012 Human Rights Film Festival in New York and also at The Los Angeles Film Festival.
Based on the experience of Zeta staffers, one could justifiably ask if Mexico ever had a free press, as such. Founded to investigate the widespread corruption of the long ruling socialist PRI party, Jesús Blancornelas made a crucial decision to print the newspaper on the American side of the border. This would be more expensive, but far more secure. While the PRI is now temporarily on the outs, the drug traffickers have become even more proactive buying-off or outright intimidating journalists. Indeed, Zeta has suffered its share of assassinations, including very nearly their founder, Blancornelas.
Ruiz adopts old school investigative journalist Sergio Haro as his primary POV figure. No stranger to death threats, Haro has fearlessly raked the muck of Baja California. Though a family man, he comes across as an existential champion of the underclass, who nonetheless needles the leftist PRI every chance he gets. While not the most animated screen presence, Haro clearly walks the walk. His stories should be considered blockbusters, but the guilty continue on, with evident impunity.
Ruiz’s dry observational style tries its best to drain all the sensationalism out of the film, but Zeta’s four-alarm headlines speak for themselves. Indeed, the crusading publication’s war stories are exactly that. Their scoop concluding the film is quite a jaw-dropper, but it is the memorial to one of two fallen comrades that really says it all.
It is nearly impossible to consider Mexico a functional state after viewing Ruiz’s profile of Zeta. Fascinating but deeply scary stuff, Reportero is a bracing tribute to the new weekly’s principled journalists (and the staff of a short lived daily paper Haro founded in between his Zeta stints). While it is an ITVS production destined for PBS broadcasts, it is well worth seeing the longer festival cut, because these details are devilishly important. Recommended for anyone concerned about press freedoms or the social-political health of our southern neighbor, Reportero screens at The Human Rights Film Festival next Thursday (6/21), Friday (6/22), and Saturday (6/23) at the Walter Reade Theater and tonight (6/18) at The Los Angeles Film Festival.
LFM GRADE: B
Posted on June 18th, 2012 at 4:54pm.
By Jason Apuzzo. We’re very pleased to report that Chris Morris’ striking new comedy Four Lions, which I reviewed last week here at LFM (I absolutely loved it), has won the audience award for best narrative feature at the recently completed Los Angeles Film Festival.
I’m not surprised by this, given the audience’s overwhelmingly positive reaction in the screening I attended – but at the same time I’m thrilled to learn that the film won this important award. This will certainly boost the film’s chances for securing a distribution deal here in the U.S.
Best wishes to whole team behind Four Lions, and we’ll keep everyone here at LFM updated on when and where you can see this extraordinary film.
Posted on June 28th, 2010 at 1:43pm.
By Joe Bendel. It was the most dangerous duty station on Earth, but for the men of the Second Platoon, B Company, 2nd Battallion, 503rd Infantry Regiment of the 173rd Army Airborne Brigade, Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley was home. For just over a year, the Second Platoon served in harm’s way every day at the isolated Korengal Outpost (KOP) that was unofficially renamed in honor of the Platoon’s fallen medic, PFC. Juan Restrepo. For much of that time journalists (a term used without irony in this case) Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger were embedded with Second Platoon, recording the realities of war without editorial comment for the documentary, Restrepo (trailer above), which opened this past week.
Over the course of ten trips to the Korengal Valley, sometimes together, sometime separately, Hetherington and Junger saw the fifteen men of Restrepo up close and under fire. The mountainous terrain surrounding the outpost could have been tailor-made for guerilla insurgencies. The Platoon built it during the dead of night while simultaneously holding off Taliban attacks. Many soldiers described its mere completion as a turning point in their effort to stem the violence flowing from the Korengal region. However, in early 2009 a decision was made to close Restrepo because its presence was considered provocative.
The audience only meets PFC. Restrepo in crude video shot on a hand-held device just before their deployment to Korengal. In truth, the quality of the footage is hardly distinguishable from that shot by Hetherington and Junger, due to the chaotic combat situations they faced. Certainly it gives viewers a strong impression of Restrepo’s personality and why he was so popular with his comrades. Indeed, despite his brief posthumous appearance, Restrepo emerges as the true protagonist of the film that bears his name.
Despite the greater screen time allotted them, the audience does not come to know the other soldiers particularly well as individuals during the course of Restrepo. However, they do get a keen sense of what day-to-day life was like for the Platoon. Soldiers are indeed wounded and even die in the film, but Hetherington and Junger were sensitive to the men and their families in what they chose to show from these fatal encounters, never letting the proceedings degenerate to the level of “anti-war” snuff films.
More context would probably help some viewers understand how the events documented in Restrepo fit into the overall scheme of the Afghanistan conflict. Yet this was obviously a slippery slope the director-reporters scrupulously sought to avoid, at least for their film. (Based on the first few chapters, Junger’s companion book War seems similarly averse to editorializing, except perhaps with some criticism of the inflexible absurdity of military bureaucracy.)
[Editor's Note: LFM has recently been covering a series of provocative films debuting at The Los Angeles Film Festival.]
By Jason Apuzzo. Chris Morris’ striking new film Four Lions, which showed yesterday at The Los Angeles Film Festival is so wickedly funny, shatters so many taboos, and is so brazen in its satire of Islamic terrorism – and the vacuous political correctness that supports it – that it’s a wonder Morris isn’t in a witness protection program right now. Not that he would need to be protected from jihadis, whom I imagine spend little time watching indie cinema – but from the Western cultural establishment, whose protective covering over the lunacy of Islamic radicalism Morris rips away with comic gusto and flair in this marvelous new film.
Four Lions was a big hit at Sundance earlier this year, and has already done killer business at the indie box office in the UK (it opened the same weekend as Iron Man 2, yet had a better per-screen average), but the film has yet to secure distribution here in the U.S. Seeing the film last night, it’s not hard to understand why. This uproariously funny and sophisticated film, that had the audience in hysterics from the opening scene on, is nonetheless so subversive in its vision of Islamic terrorism – so thoroughly and mercilessly dismissive of any justification for terrorism – that by the end of the film any lingering shred of sympathy that might exist toward the terrorists’ point of view has simply been pulverized. Imagine starting up a heavy-metal band fresh off watching Spinal Tap, or becoming a French police officer after watching Peter Sellars play Inspector Clouseau, and you can imagine the kind of effect Four Lions must have on young Brits thinking of starting up a terror cell.
Four Lions is about a bumbling UK terror cell living in Sheffield. The two key leaders of the cell are Omar (Riz Ahmed) – the only reasonably sane or professional one in the group, around whom most of the film revolves – and Azzam al-Britanni (or ‘Barry’ to his friends, played with Falstaffian flair by Nigel Lindsay), who’s actually just an abrasive, working class white-guy convert to Islam. Nigel Lindsay’s portrayal of Azzam al-Britanni almost steals the show; the combination of belligerence and stupidity he brings to the character is pitch-perfect. Other guys in the terror cell include the sweet but utterly moronic Waj (Kayvan Novak), and Faisal (Adeel Akhtar) – a mumbling doofus who for some reason is convinced he can train crows to be suicide bombers. A fifth member of the group, Hassan (Arsher Ali), is a pretentious wanna-be rapper (his music conducts a ‘jihad of the mind’) who is recruited while Omar and Waj are in Pakistan botching their terrorist training.
The film follows the different members of the group as they struggle to conceal their activities, aided only by blind luck – and a kind of inane cunning – with the film climaxing in the terror cell’s effort to bomb the London Marathon. That last sequence in particular is a tour-de-force of action, comic-timing, suspense … and ultimately, great emotional power. Without giving away the film’s ending, let’s say simply that Four Lions does not exist to pull punches about the full tragedy and inhumanity of terrorism.
What struck me the most about this film was the intelligence and sophistication Chris Morris and his actors brought to this material. The trailer for the film (see below) captures the opera buffa aspects of Four Lions - but not necessarily the anarchic, Paddy Chayefskyian verve and insight of the film’s satire. Having made a film on this subject matter myself, I can tell you that Morris has accomplished no small feat in bringing out the sheer lunacy of the terrorist worldview – while keeping the tone light, and respecting the earthy humanity of the characters. The inevitable question that films like Four Lions or The Infidel or Living with the Infidels or Kalifornistan always inspire is: is the film ‘humanizing’ terrorists? And the answer is, of course, yes … which is exactly what real-world terrorists, intoxicated with their self-image as divinely inspired warriors, never want. In the real world terrorists do not consider themselves mere human beings … but jihadis inspired by Allah. This is the pompous bubble that Four Lions exists to pop. And pop it the film does, with the force of an atomic blast.
What has happened to American filmmaking that we let the Brits get to this subject matter first? Watching Four Lions I was reminded of how utterly repressed, how politically correct, how tendentious and boring American filmmaking has become of late. How have we become so morally clouded and unsure of ourselves, so confused by our own basic humanity, that we can’t make clear-eyed films like this anymore? As recently as the 1970s, I think a film like Four Lions would’ve still been possible to make in the United States. For now, however, it apparently takes the Brits to make a film like this – and the only way to see it for the moment here in the U.S. will be through bootlegged copies, digitally smuggled-in via the internet. It’s almost like we’re living in the the old Soviet Union, actually. Congratulations to the LA Film Festival for breaking the blockade. Memo to Fox News, talk radio, the blogosphere and related alternative media: you should get behind this film NOW, and bang every pot and pan you’ve got, so that this film gets proper distribution. Or else this film will basically not be seen here in the U.S. – and that would be a genuine tragedy.
One final note: Govindini and I had a nice chat after the screening with actor Kayvan Novak, who plays the clueless ‘Waj’ in the film. He did a wonderful job in Four Lions – there’s nothing tougher than playing dumb on camera, and doing it in an entertaining and engaging way – and we wish him and this scintillating film the very best.
Posted on June 25th, 11:24am.
[Editor's Note: LFM is currently covering a series of provocative films debuting this week and next at The Los Angeles Film Festival.]
By Joe Bendel. For China, the earthquake that devastated Sichuan province on May 12, 2008 has been like Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil spill combined. It has laid bare public corruption and put the local and national authorities on the defensive. Like Katrina, it has also been widely documented in films like the Oscar nominated short China’s Unnatural Disaster and Du Haibin’s feature 1428 (the winner of the 66th Venice Film Festival’s Best Documentary Award), which screens tonight at 8:00pm at the 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival. See the trailer below.
At 14:28 hours (2:28 pm) China was hit with what is considered the nineteenth worst earthquake in history, just three months before the Beijing Olympics were scheduled to open. The Communist government’s official response has been controversial to say the least. Despite the quake’s severity, many suspect it would not have been as deadly had government construction been less shoddy, particularly at schools. Promises have been made to Sichuan survivors, usually by politicians orchestrating media ops, but the delivery of relief has been slow and problematic.
Du focuses his lens on the haunted faces of Sichuan’s dispossessed. They live in shanty towns and temporary housing, enduring shortages of food and power. Many would like to return home, but following a truly perverse plan of action, the government has begun demolishing houses that withstood the quake. Such is the efficiency of China’s emergency management. For many survivors, it appears all the authorities have to offer is an opportunity to wave at the Premier’s tour bus as his motorcade blows through town.
Stylistically compatible with China’s so-called D-Generation (D for Digital) filmmaking, Du eschews conventional documentary techniques, like formal interviews and voiceover narration. Instead, he lets the camera roll, capturing the unfiltered reality of the quake’s aftermath at intervals of ten and two hundred ten days after the disaster. It is not pretty.
There is clearly a lot of anger in Sichuan that survivors do not seem to know how to express. One frustrated old man offers perhaps the most direct censure of the government, complaining: “The policies of the Communist Party are good in essence but they have been carried out wrongly.” In fact, the survivors seen in 1428 are much more guarded in their grievances than the grieving parents featured in Unnatural. Of course, it is worth bearing in mind Du’s footage was shot a mere nine years after the Tiananmen Square massacre, so he might well have been more circumspect in what he choose to include, for his subjects’ sake.
Like many of the D-Generation films, 1428 obliquely criticizes the Chinese Communist government from a perspective that would be considered left of center in the west. One elderly Taoist mystic (with much prompting) links the earthquake to the lack of observance of the Earth-God (perhaps implying a corresponding paucity of respect for the Earth by extension). However, the most heartbreaking footage of 1428 involves bereaved parents searching for the remains of their missing children amid the wreckage of their schools.
1428 is an eye-opening dose of reality, straight-up without any external editorializing. It is not the popular image of contemporary China the government has worked to cultivate. In truth, it does require some patience (though not as much as Du’s previous film Umbrella) because it so scrupulously represents life as it is for the Sichuan survivors. Consistently illuminating, it is definitely recommended to anyone in the City of Angels when it screens tonight at 8:00pm at the LA Film Fest (6/21).
Posted on June 21st, 2010 at 10:07am.