Handyfilm etc

Film reviews and other thoughts

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Location: New York, New York, United States

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Tribeca Film Festival

In addition to Taxi to the Dark Side, I saw six other films at this year’s Tribeca festival.

Miss Universe 1929
The home movies (a relative rarity in the 1920s and 1930s) and still photographs in this documentary open a world to us – certain facets of Austrian middle-class life before, during, and after World War II. The central figure, Lisl Goldarbeiter, is the title character, the first non-American to attain the Miss Universe title when she came to Galveston for the pageant as Miss Austria. Her cousin (whom she later married) took many of the pictures and provides narration. The problem is in the continuity – home movies are rarely shot with a dramatic narrative arc in mind. So we get the story in fits and starts, with ungainly gaps. This proves somewhat unsatisfying, and even at 70 minutes the film feels padded and overstretched. Still, much of the early footage especially is fascinating. Directed by Péter Forgács.

The Tree
This Argentinean film is a very personal essay, with elements of autobiography. Yet it fails at the basics of making clear what we are watching and why. So I didn’t know until reading the festival notes afterward that the elderly couple in the film are the director’s parents, or that the ailing tree they are debating whether to cut down was planted the day the filmmaker was born. The opaqueness and the quasi-poetic style (lingering shots of the sweeping of leaves, the washing of pavement) are an ordeal for an audience. Only 65 minutes long, the film seems endless.

Like Taxi to the Dark Side, this is a very well crafted documentary about a heart-rending case of human-rights abuse. Yet I found it far less intensely moving than Alex Gibney’s award winner. Possibly it is the device of having actors read the parts of some of the people involved (interspersed with the reminiscences of survivors who are still around) – as tastefully and skillfully as this is handled, it still seems to add a layer of artifice and remoteness to the storytelling. It is nonetheless an extraordinary story – the Japanese army massacring a Chinese city, and the Westerners who managed to protect a fortunate few Chinese in a Safe Zone. Mariel Hemingway is particularly effective as one of those protectors. Directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman.

Autumn Days
Popular melodrama is one interesting way of peering into another culture. This Mexican “woman’s weepie” from the early 1960s, occasionally reminiscent of Douglas Sirk, is fascinating in part because of the time and place. And when the protagonist, a rural woman working in the big city as a skilled cake decorator, feels compelled to pretend to co-workers that the man who has abandoned her has instead married her, then that she is pregnant, and finally that she has been widowed, her stories begin to lend an element of the fantastic, of magic realism, to the novelettish milieu. A small-scale movie, nicely shot by master cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, this was one of the more entertaining and satisfying movies I saw at Tribeca. Directed by Roberto Gavaldón.

The Pelican
Gerard Blain, best known to Americans (if at all) as the handsome star of a couple of early Chabrols and as a supporting player in Howard Hawks’s Hatari, also wrote and directed several films in the early 1970s. Very personal art films, they were seen mostly at European festivals, and were never released in the U.S. This is one of them. Although not a great film, it is an interesting one, and Blain, who also stars, is effectively intense and smoldering as a divorced father denied visitation rights with his son. The deliberate minimalism of the direction is only intermittently successful. The effect is distancing and anti-realistic, which may not have been the intent, and the incidents that set the plot in motion are contrived, murky and unconvincing. But the scenes between father and son do pack an emotional punch.

This is surely (and deliberately) one of the most repellent movies ever made. It tells the story, more or less, of three generations of a very strange Hungarian family, and divides into three distinct sections. The opening sequences contain elements of explicit yet intentionally unpleasant, anti-erotic sexuality. The second, concerning a quasi-Olympics of “speed eating,” is made up mostly of the disgusting shoveling-in of the nastiest looking food imaginable, followed by endless, absurdly hyperbolic vomiting. And the final section features the Grand Guignol spectacles of an immobile, obese man eaten by his overgrown pet cats, followed by the self-embalming and self-beheading of his taxidermist son. Sound like fun? In fairness, the film is lovingly crafted, with sometimes brilliant visuals, and there are moments of wit and hilarity, especially in the first section. But why make it? And, certainly, why sit through it? I don’t think many people will, although there were few if any walkouts at the packed screening I attended. The director is György Pálfi, who also made the highly acclaimed Hukkle a few years ago.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Taxi to the Dark Side

Taxi to the Dark Side won the Best Documentary award last week at the Tribeca Film Festival. An eye-opening look at US detainee policy in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo, it’s a stunning film, and one that deserves to find a wide audience.

Two years ago at the Tribeca festival, I saw another overwhelming documentary, Adam Curtis’s The Power of Nightmares, a film examining the so-called “war on terror” that quite literally altered my consciousness. While Taxi to the Dark Side, directed by Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), is not an imaginative leap like Curtis’s masterpiece, it nonetheless provides quite a jolt.

Far from being a lefty cry of hysteria, it deliberately and devastatingly lays out its case through interviews with and news footage about a wide range of subjects, from Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney to soldiers imprisoned for abusing detainees, and to lawyers of Guantanamo inmates. If like myself you feel that Guantanamo is one of the worst blots ever to stain the democratic ideals of our country, you may find your eyes welling with angry tears by the end of the film. Even if you disagree with me about the significance of Guantanamo, you owe it to yourself to see this movie, and then ask yourself whether you have been asking the right questions up to now.

The film’s title comes from one particular case, that of a meek Afghan taxi driver falsely accused by the Northern Alliance and imprisoned by the US at Bagram. He died in custody after his legs were "pulpified" in repeated, horrifying beatings. Dick Cheney’s solemn insistence from a post-9/11 Meet the Press interview that the US must now begin using tactics of “the dark side” (i.e. torture) in order to vanquish terrorism provides the rest of the title.

The material in the film leads inescapably to some disturbing conclusions:

  • Most (over 90%) of detainees are in custody because they were captured by other Afghans or Iraqis for reward money or other compensation. Particularly in Afghanistan, the source of many of the original Guantanamo detainees, very few were captured by US personnel – and many if not most are not terrorists at all. (Although as one Guantanamo guard is quoted saying to a prisoner being released at the insistence of the British government: “If you weren’t a terrorist when you got here, you’d have reason to be now.”)

  • The mistreatment that came to light at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison (the unedited versions of those infamous photos are included in the film) has been widespread, and is based on instructions and encouragement from the very top of the command (Rumsfeld, Cheney, top generals), but MPs and other lower-ranking soldiers have been shamefully scapegoated, and they are the ones serving time in a few high-profile cases. The interview footage with some of these soldiers is both electrifying and chilling.

  • Once an individual is in custody, it is very hard to get him out, despite evidence of innocence, or lack of evidence of guilt. The system is designed to be open-ended, even permanent.

  • The US government has no intention of trying most detainees, and no interest in admitting that most of them are innocent. The description of Kafkaesque hearings, at which the “secret evidence” allegedly incriminating the detainees is not revealed to them or to their lawyers, is likely to disturb anyone who cares about freedom and democracy (as opposed to simply mouthing the words).

  • 9/11 is seen as justifying any and all of this. It’s a dangerous world, and if innocent people get swept up in security measures, it’s worth it to catch a few terrorists… even if the non-terrorists are subjected to long detention without charges or trials, and to mistreatment that most thinking, feeling persons would agree amounts to torture. (And even if it’s debatable how many actual terrorists have been arrested.)

For a film that depends heavily on talking heads, Taxi to the Dark Side has great visual grace and assurance. The shots of the Afghan countryside near the beginning and end are breathtakingly beautiful and unexpectedly tranquil. These shots give the story of Dilawar, the unfortunate taxi driver who was “in the wrong place at the wrong time,” an added poignance. And as he did in his Enron film, Gibney edits the material for maximum clarity and impact.

If you can watch this film unmoved, you are made of stone. Like The Power of Nightmares, as well as the excellent Road to Guantanamo, this is a movie that could change minds and shift policy, if only enough people see it. (If only, in fact, it could be made mandatory viewing for top leaders of the administration and the military.) Don’t even think of missing it when it’s released later this year.