Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Film Review #42: On SISTERS IN LAW *** Producer/writer/director/cinematographer: Kim Longinotto *** Co-director: Florence Ayisi *** Documentary, 2005 (104 minutes) *** Cast: Vera Ngassa, Beatrice Ntuba, Amina Abubakari *** Kim Longinotto’s SISTERS IN LAW had its US theatrical opening on April 12 at Film Forum in New York City’s South Village. Opening night featured a Q & A with Longinotto after the 8 p.m. screening, which played to an overflow audience, with some standing in the aisle. *** SISTERS IN LAW was my fourth movie that day and – therefore counter-intuitively – by far the best. Shot in mostly poor, mostly Muslim Kumba Township in the southwest corner of Cameroon over three and a half months in 2004, SISTERS IN LAW follows several cases involving women and children plaintiffs through the local justice court. Young Sonita was raped by a neighbor. Amina seeks divorce, fearing her husband will kill her if she’s sent home. Six-year-old Manka bears torso scars from coat-hanger beatings by her custodial aunt. Longinotto profiles prosecutor Vera Ngassa (also a judge and university law professor) and district court judge Beatrice Ntuba as they investigate and resolve these cases. Both women are entirely clear about the stakes for community and petitioners alike. *** At several points the camera rests on that universally-recognized scowl of bafflement some men wear when they are thwarted by women for the first time. The opening night audience laughed aloud at those moments, though Longinotto says for her that laughter is more “dark and bleak” than comedic. Speaking by phone last week from Colorado, the filmmaker said those men “didn’t mind being filmed – they didn’t see their behavior as wrong.” She recalled how one seemingly “urbane and educated” fellow acknowledged he beat his wife and added, “But I gave her medicines.” *** A handful of positive media reviews in early April paved SISTERS IN LAW's way to Film Forum. This theatrical release follows 120 festival appearances world-wide, with lots of prizes and accolades. Stella Pence, who runs Telluride’s Film Festival, calls it “one of the best documentaries of all times.” But SISTERS IN LAW is destined for classic status more for its women and their solutions than for exposing comfortable and clueless men as cads. *** The specific quality of justice portrayed here makes SISTERS IN LAW uncommon and instructive. Once, Vera leans over to softly ask a beaten down wife, whose purchase price was a pig – who was not, according to Longinotto, “even at her own wedding” – “Oh, Madame, what shall we do with these two men?” In another scene, a policewoman attached to the court investigates the child Manka’s family situation. Manka’s aunt claims the girl’s parents live in a countryside village, but then the officer also asks Manka, she reveals her parents are dead – so she is quite at her aunt’s mercy. While Longinotto calls this type of exchange “Vera’s democratic instinct,” any acquaintance with treating abuse would tell you that such direct questions – and believing the answers – also constitute the first intervention on the road to healing trauma. *** Longinotto takes the time as well to intersperse several short interludes in which Vera plays with her own son in her office. She attentively talks with him, touches him, teaches him colors and gently corrects his wrong answers, tickles him. Rather than have a narrator intone a list of policy solutions, Longinotto shows us specifically how the new men of Kumba are raised. From Colorado, she said the boy’s name is Moses, and that Vera adopted him when his young mother came to court’s attention because she tried to kill her baby. *** Lack of back-story and context crop up as the most common complaint about SISTERS IN LAW. Longinotto and her co-director for this film, International Film School Wales lecturer and native Cameroonian Florence Ayisi, shot in strict cinema verite style. A big fan of narration and context myself, I was surprised to notice that, this time, that complaint simply dropped away for me. Indeed, imposing such conventions would interfere with SISTERS IN LAW's capacity to connect as film. *** Having watched “practically all” of THE SOPRANOS, Longinotto notes that the HBO series’ viewers don’t expect history or statistics on the Mafia. She herself was aiming for “the power of fiction – the sense of danger and of immediacy and of freshness” that generate identification and emotional connection. The riveting experience of watching SISTERS IN LAW is one of the more striking arguments for this style of documentary that I have encountered. *** SISTERS IN LAW is also her third courtroom film and as such makes use of a genre that connects well with film audiences in the West if one’s aim is universality. She made DIVORCE IRANIAN-STYLE (1998) with co-director Ziba Mir-Hosseini, author of a book on Iranian divorce courts, to fill the gap between a surge of European films about Middle Eastern “fanatics” and “graceful, poetic” Iranian films such as those of Abbas Kiarostami. THE DAY I WILL NEVER FORGET (2002) follows a group of Kenyan schoolgirls who seek human rights workers’ help to escape genital mutilation. Trained in England’s National Film School, Longinotto has been making verite docs for a couple decades, often traveling outside the U.K. and Europe to do so when not writing for TV. *** Probable next trip is Pakistan, with a friend born there who’s writing a novel and wanted company, but also in response to what she sees as an “anti-Muslim crusade” in the West. As always, she’ll seek stories about women that might make a film. *** SISTERS IN LAW's limited theatrical release in the US through the end of May includes San Francisco, Boston, Seattle & Chicago. Check screenings at Women Make Movies’ website, http://www.wmm.com/. Hear Nancy’s interview with Kim Longinotto on Women’s Voices Radio, WAER Syracuse 88.3 FM on June 1st at 8 p.m. EST via web-streaming at http://www.waer.org/. This review was written for Stylusmagazine.com & published there on 5/3/2006. [Text = 938 words]

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Film Review #41 - On ROCKY ROAD TO DUBLIN * 1968 – 69 min., Director - Peter Lennon * 2005 U.K. DVD Release from Soda Pictures includes THE MAKING OF ROCKY ROAD TO DUBLIN (2004 – 27 min., Director – Paul Duane) * * * As Ireland celebrates the 90th anniversary of its historic 1916 Easter Rising on Monday, April 17th (the actual anniversary date is a week later on April 24th), one of cinema’s foremost responses to that short-lived but far-reaching rebellion is now widely available on DVD. I picked up Peter Lennon’s 1968 documentary, ROCKY ROAD TO DUBLIN, during a recent trip to Dublin at the Irish Film Institute’s bookshop, where it was centrally advertised with a huge hand-lettered sign – a far cry from nearly four decades of effective banning. The DVD includes the 1968 film, restored in 2003 by the Irish Film Board, and an excellent MAKING OF… companion documentary from 2004 directed by Paul Duane. Sometimes compared now with filmmaker Michael Moore, Lennon narrated ROCKY ROAD himself. In the midst of 1960’s cultural and political ferment, he argued that the “weight of heroes and clergy” had nearly sunk Ireland and long since hi-jacked the aims of 1916’s “poets and socialists.” He was explicit that a “republic” required a society to match its politics. ROCKY ROAD’s central question – “What do you do with your revolution once you’ve got it?” – becomes the film’s refrain, paralleling the popular pub song by The Dubliners that gives the film both its title and its musical backbone. Lennon has not mellowed; in a GUARDIAN article from last year, reprinted as the liner note, he called the Catholic Church “Ireland’s KGB.” Although I would prefer brisker editing in some spots, ROCKY ROAD TO DUBLIN has a sure and graceful look that it comes by rightfully. Lennon wanted a “personal” look with hand-held camera and minimal lighting. French New Wave cinematographer Raoul Coutard shot ROCKY ROAD in 1967 during his spare time, between work on Truffaut’s THE BRIDE WORE BLACK and Godard’s WEEKEND. Such openness to participating with new filmmakers on edgy projects was characteristic of the vibrant French film culture that exhilarated Peter Lennon, an Irish journalist working as a junior correspondent in 1960’s Paris. Lennon had never made a film before, but he grasped that the French used film as English-speaking writers used the pen – "cinema-stylo," they called it. Already Lennon’s visits home had produced a controversial series of 1964 articles in THE GUARDIAN examining Irish censorship, cultural isolationism and the clergy’s grip on education and family life, which he developed in the film. ROCKY ROAD establishes its satiric bent at once, opening with footage of Christian Brothers students reciting rote Catechism answers about the human condition with dour certainty: “Because of Adam’s sin we are born without sanctifying grace, our intellect is darkened, our will is weakened and our passions incline us to evil and we are subject to suffering and death.” One feels a peculiar vertigo; it is so easy to imagine these twelve-year-old boys morphing into pinched-faced old men with a whiff of Taliban about them – and just then the film cuts to The Dubliners’ rollicking title song. Later a list of writers, poets and playwrights banned in Ireland scrolls down a black screen, accompanied by tolling church bells. My Irish grandmother would call such juxtapositions “instigating,” and you can see right away that Lennon had insider knowledge about how to infuriate the earnest. ROCKY ROAD combines commentary, stills and archival footage, juxtapositions of music and segments, cinema verite slices of Irish life – class-based sports competitions (hurling and horse shows), life in pubs, street scenes and landscape, grim-faced couples at courtship dances and wedding receptions, a college discussion of censorship – with a series of telling interviews. These include writer Sean O’Faolain on Ireland’s “society of peasants,” a Gaelic Athletic Association spokesman explaining why it banned even watching “English games,” an elderly member of the censorship board, film director John Huston, and an extended visit with the “progressive, modern” priest the Church – incredibly – offered to Lennon for the film (“What was in their mind?” I can hear my grandmother asking). We first meet Father Michael Cleary performing his own syncopated version of “Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy” for a small hostage audience of patients and nurses in a women’s hospital ward, whose faces register either a creepy transport close to swooning or that singular stiff resignation present when endurance is the only option. The camera lingers drolly on the priest’s thigh jouncing as he keeps time. Father Cleary also orchestrates a wedding reception’s every turn, chats with grave-diggers, and acknowledges to Lennon with apparent energetic candor that, “Sure,” celibacy is hard, “but I had seven years to think about it.” As revealed in the DVD’s companion MAKING OF… special feature, Cleary was already sleeping with his teenage house-keeper during that interview. University College Dublin film lecturer Harvey O’Brien also writes in his 2004 history of the Irish documentary, THE REAL IRELAND, that she later published a sensational memoir about their affair and child "which turned out to be true." But the really arresting Father Cleary scene is that insinuating, self-infatuated hospital performance. I knew I’d seen it somewhere before. There’s a priest singing at a party in the opening scene of Peter Mullan’s film about 1960’s Ireland, THE MAGDALENA SISTERS (2002). His seductiveness, the damp-cheeked response of the women, and the arousal of the men watching – all cross the room visually in waves, leading to the back-room rape of a cousin that begins Mullan’s fictionalized account of the Irish Church’s wide-spread practice of simply locking up potentially wayward women for life in their chain of commercial laundries. It’s tantalizing to wonder if Mullan had seen ROCKY ROAD and made use of this emblematic scene. Entered independently at Cannes in 1968, ROCKY ROAD TO DUBLIN was the last film to screen before Truffaut, Claude Lelouche and others closed down the festival in solidarity with the student strikes in Paris. Those same students then screened ROCKY ROAD at the Sorbonne during the riots, launching the film’s outlaw popularity on the continent and in a few North American university film programs. Much of Ireland was furious. Although the film was never officially banned, theater managers simply refused to book it; most Irish critics attacked it. Following an initial Dublin screening, a tumultuous incident at Ireland’s Cork Film Festival and one packed, seven-week run, ROCKY ROAD sank from sight on home ground, stored in the Irish Film Archive until the Irish Film Board and Loopline Productions agreed to restoration in 2003. Paul Duane’s 27-minute MAKING OF…provides much of this invaluable context and more. I might be tempted to call his the better documentary, if only because it avoids ROCKY ROAD's several claustrophobia-inducing lengthy sequences. But perhaps Lennon and Coutard knew what they were doing after all, since those segments manage to convey the lock-down of their subjects’ existence. In the intervening years that ROCKY ROAD slept - at least on Irish soil - Ireland’s own film culture has blossomed. It boasts the second highest film attendance per capita in Europe and an international cinematic literacy and perspective the US should envy. A good scene for a home-coming. * * * If you’re not in Dublin yourself, you can get the U.K. DVD of ROCKY ROAD... (including the 27-minute companion doc) on-line at the Irish Film Institute’s bookshop (www.irishfilm.ie). The US distributor, First Run/Icarus Films (www.frif.com), sells the two docs separately or together. * * * This review is also published at www.Stylusmagazine.com (4/21/06).

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Recovered Film Review #29-A: “Poof! You’re a Movie! On the Screen Adaptation of David Auburn’s Play, PROOF” * Nancy Keefe Rhodes * Broadcast on Women’s Voices Radio, WAER Syracuse 88.3 FM on 10/20/2005 And now “Poof! You’re a Movie!” – a look at what happened to David Auburn’s award-winning play, PROOF, on its way to the screen. You might be among the fortunate here in Central New York who saw The Redhouse’s wonderfully well-directed & acted stage production of this play about a year ago. It isn’t that you won’t recognize what’s on-screen out at Manlius Cinema, but there is good news & bad news about that transformation. I’m going to start with the bad news so you will fully appreciate the good. PROOF is the story of a young Chicago woman, Catherine, who must bury her brilliant but quite crazy father Robert on her birthday. Catherine has been rattling around in the house caring for Robert & neglecting her own life & talent. She & those around her fear she may have inherited his instability. Her claim that she has authored an astounding new a mathematical proof is disbelieved by both Robert’s graduate student, Hal, and Catherine’s sister Clair, who has flown in from New York for the funeral to get everybody in ship shape. That PROOF began life as a play means that putting it on-screen to begin with presents a problem. As you can see in this case, it isn’t just the basic problem that plays showing up on-screen suddenly seem way more talky than they ever did on-stage, but let’s start with that. The first rule of screen-writing is that showing trumps telling, because the ways movies & theater approach telling stories are just fundamentally different. Stage abstracts & enacts. It treats background differently than film does, so that the characters stand out & are enhanced. I had misgivings when I noticed that David Auburn’s co-author on this screen adaptation was Rebecca Miller. Two months ago I reviewed her film, THE BALLAD OF JACK AND ROSE, here, a film with memorable & tremendously moving moments – also about the heart-wrenching, costly & misplaced love between a father & daughter, & a film with many of the same flaws that PROOF has. Yes, I blame Rebecca Miller for those flaws, though I can’t for the life of me figure out what turned David Auburn’s head so that he abandoned several of the finest parts of his meticulously constructed play. After a while it dawned on me that PROOF the movie is fiercely anti-stage. First, it abandons the porch upon which the play’s entire action occurs – that domestic outpost, that architectural metaphor for the border between our public & private lives. Then there are the times the film literally loses its characters in the camera’s frenzy at being free to wander about Chicago. It took me a moment to find Catherine & Clair in one crowded street scene – very distracting – & Catherine’s ride home from the airport near the end – she’s not in it. These are major mistakes & you’ll have to spend a lot of energy staying focused on what really are fairly nuanced actions. The other major metaphorical abandonment is that here in the film, Hal who seduces Catherine rather than the right way round. Theater not the only thing that travels poorly to the screen. Think about how genius travels, especially the sort that most of us can’t understand. Numbers make my eyes glaze over. When Hal & Catherine make cocktail chat out of prime numbers theory, that mostly leaves me in the dust. In Catherine’s surprising but plausible seduction of her father’s student, David Auburn provides a glimpse of how her mind might also be capable of moving – decisively, brilliantly, hiply – well, with genius. The film version takes the wind out of her sails as both a woman & as a prodigy. Now she is merely angry at times, although her anger is part of the good stuff. As in the scenes with her sister. Rarely has sisterly bickering had more bite & huff than Gwyneth Paltrow & Hope Davis bring it here. What the camera can do, when it settles down, is pay attention to some extraordinary acting at close quarters, especially from Paltrow, who also starred in the London stage production. So, is Catherine’s genius really any less exotic to us than such current movie characters as Domino the bounty hunter-model, MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, or Pocahontas in the forthcoming NEW WORLD? I wonder. But most of us do understand losing our grip. I’m grateful beyond measure that somehow Robert’s own final proof survived to the screen – though now it has a reading in a cozy study instead of the frigid winter-night lawn where it belongs. Here is what he’s been scribbling: “Let X equal the quantity of all quantities of X. Let X equal the cold. It is cold in December. The months of cold equal November through February. There are four months of cold & four months of heat, leaving four months of indeterminate temperature. In February it snows. In March the lake is a lake of ice. In September the students come back & the bookstores are full. Let X equal the months of full bookstores. The number of books approaches infinity as the number of months of cold approaches four. I will never be as cold now as I will in the future. The future of cold is infinite. The future of heat is the future of cold. The bookstores are infinite & so are never full except in September.” I felt sorrow & pity, which I guess is proof they still managed to pull it off. * [914]