Monday, September 29, 2008

Film Review #176: Jellyfish
Director: Etgar Keret
Screenwriter: Shira Geffen
Cast: Sarah Adler, Nikol Leidman, Ma-nenita De Latorre

You could not say that best-selling Israeli writer Etgar Keret’s work is exactly new to film. Over 40 of his short stories have been adapted to the screen – most recently in Tatia Rosenthal’s $9.99, a stop-motion animation premiering earlier this month at Toronto’s film fest that Entertainment Weekly calls “utterly beguiling.” He made his own first short film a dozen years ago. And he teaches film at Tel Aviv University. Nevertheless when Jellyfish, which Keret directed, won the Camera d’Or at last year’s Cannes Festival, you could not miss the enthusiasm for a first feature’s good fortune – especially one Keret undertook only after a depressingly long list of other directors rejected the project, prompting him to reassure his wife that they could make this film together.

The Jellyfish script comes from poet and playwright Shira Geffen. She and Keret have been partners for a decade. She calls their film and their son Lev “twins” since the boy’s birth and the shoot’s last day coincided. And in retrospect, she said in a late February phone interview, Keret was the perfect choice anyway, exactly understanding the fable-like trio of entwined stories that in heavier, more literal hands could have fallen flat as a cake taken too soon from the oven.

One of this film’s great accomplishments lies is its gentle persuasion that we suspend our usual demands for a sensible plot just a little while longer. Geffen’s script springs from her own unpublished story of eight or nine years ago in which a five-year-old girl, taken to the Tel Aviv beach, floats out to sea on a plastic swim tube as her patents bicker obliviously on shore about her father’s mistresses. Jellyfish picks up her fate and elaborates the ready seaside images – the title’s creatures swept along by waves and tides, the wistfulness of boats in bottles and the ever-present ocean seeping in, say, through a leaky ceiling.

One thread concerns Batya (Sarah Adler), a disheveled, probably clinically depressed young woman who loses her boyfriend as the film opens and her demeaning job as a wedding reception waitress soon after. Sitting in the sand one day, Batya sees this child (Nikol Leidman) emerge from the sea, unspeaking, clad mainly in her plastic swim tube and, as a taxi driver later remarks, with Batya’s eyes. As it’s a Friday afternoon, Batya’s attempt to turn the child over to authorities fails. Having evidently got little nurturing from her politician mother or her distant father – each too concerned with their caring for others – Batya is soon doing her clumsy best with this mysterious, capricious child who begins hiding and shortly runs away. Of course the girl from the sea is a younger Batya. So disconnected is Batya that she doesn’t recognize herself – thus freeing us for a good while too from dealing with such symbolism. Geffen has said, “I think the connection between mother and daughter is maybe the most difficult and complex connection. All the stories have some mother, some child.”

Jellyfish may work so well because its other stories echo Batya’s. Russian émigré Michael (Gera Sandler) and his sabra bride Keren (Noa Knoller), sidelined by her broken ankle from their dream Caribbean honeymoon, sit trapped in a tacky beachfront hotel where they cannot see the ocean. A suicidal stranger provokes Keren’s insecurities and predicts their future disappointments. A Filipino domestic worker named Joy (Ma-nenita De Latorre) pines for her small son back home and somehow cracks the frosty reserve of her elderly charge, a woman in turn deeply estranged from her own daughter.

Keret’s readers are accustomed to his compact, seemingly casual mixture of whim and anguish. The US release of Jellyfish in April occurred as part of a cascade of events – press screenings in February with Keret along for interviews; the March DVD release of Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006), adapted from a Keret story with Tom Waits as the undercover angel in an afterlife populated by suicides; Keret’s new book, The Girl on the Fridge later in April – all culminating in media attention Israel’s mid-May 60th birthday with Keret touted as the new generation’s artist in high profile spots on National Public Radio and the New York Times Book Review.

Meanwhile, Jellyfish is just ending its US theatrical run this week after almost seven months. And as of last spring, Geffen had begun a new screenplay – not something she wished then to say much about except that it involved two women, one Israeli and the other Palestinian. Catch the wave early.

Jellyfish releases on DVD on September 30th. This review appeared in the 9/25/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in Central New York & older films of enduring worth. Nancy interviewed both Etgar Keret & Shira Geffen by phone in February 2008 in preparation for a pre-recorded interview with Geffen intended for WBAI Pacifica’s 2008 International Women’s Day special programming in March.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Film Review #175: Johnny Guitar
Director: Nicholas Ray
Cast: Joan Crawford, Mercedes McCambridge, Sterling Hayden

Think about any of the get-ups that Madonna has employed in her concert tours over the years and slowly it dawns on you – watching Joan Crawford, as the gun-slinging, old Arizona casino owner known only as Vienna, whom we first meet clad entirely in black except for her gun-belt, or later watch nearly lynched in a long white dress while her establishment blazes in lurid Tru-Color flames against the night sky – somewhere in her past the Material Girl had to have caught Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954), a film the wildly admiring Truffaut called an “hallucinatory Western.”

Or think how fine Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were on the current political race during that recent Saturday Night Live and suddenly the rivalry between Crawford’s Vienna and the mob-inciting cattle-owner Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) – who spends most of the story in black funeral garb herself – acquires a delicious contemporary twist. In its excess, Johnny Guitar does walk a certain razor’s edge that always threatens to topple into camp. And it did just that in its 2004 incarnation as a stage musical that is still enjoying regional production around the country, in fact only last month just south of here as the final summer offering at Cortland Repertory Theater.

But Ray and his actual screen-writer Ben Maddow seem instead to have had in mind just how surreal the national landscape had become by the early 50s. Maddow was one of the Hollywood writers accused of Communist ties during Joe McCarthy’s hearings in the House Un-American Activities Committee – hence, the film’s credits list Philip Yordan as screenwriter, since Maddow was black-listed from working. That national battle over democratic values, patriotism and the use of witch-hunts permeates the film.

Nicholas Ray released Johnny Guitar one year and a couple movies before his vastly better known film starring James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause. The basic story isn’t unusual. It’s the old frontier and the railroad’s coming through. The film opens with the title character (Sterling Hayden) riding toward Vienna’s casino through the mountains, where the railroad construction crew is blasting with dynamite, literally changing the landscape. He watches a stage-coach robbery on the valley floor from above, in which the town banker – Emma’s brother – dies, fueling her vengeance. Vienna’s long-lost love, the once-notorious but reformed gunslinger who packs a guitar, Johnny has employed the time-honored American habit of reinvented identity and so gets himself worked over initially at Vienna’s place, principally by the bad apple Bart Lonergan (a terrifically sleazy Ernest Borgnine), one of the Dancin’ Kid’s gang.

Another self-reinvented American traveler and rival for Vienna’s affection, the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) hails from New York City – enough in itself to kindle Emma Small’s hatred – and in the course of the story decides to move on to California. Vienna herself intends to host the new railroad depot on her land and build a new town. Unnervingly keen to lynch them both from the get-go, Emma blames Vienna and the Dancin’ Kid for her brother’s death. Worse, both represent forces of social change and political power shifts that she can’t abide. Eventually it’s the two women who will have a showdown - more surrogates for mid-5os national vertigo than feminist figures - during which formerly blustering men will wonder to each other if it’s finally safe to slip away from a fight they didn’t really want.

Thus Emma declares to the somewhat reluctant posse, “I’ve been right about that woman. The marshal thinks he has to have legal cause. McIver [a fellow cattle baron] thinks he can do it with talk, and the rest of you can’t make up your minds! What are you waiting for? You heard her. They’re trying to run the railroad through here, with thousands of people from the east. Farmers! Dirt farmers! They’ll push us out!”

Though Johnny Guitar might seem constructed on the Let ‘er Rip theory of filmmaking, Ray and Maddow present us with scenes like this which embody quintessentially American debates. They also frequently pause the action so characters may argue – literally sometimes in mid-stream, since the way to the Dancin’ Kid’s hide-out lies through a water-fall – the morality of competing courses of conduct. The most serious and consequential of these occurs regarding whether the Kid’s gang should leave behind its youngest member – the wounded Turkey (Ben Cooper), who actually can’t keep up with the big boys and has fallen from his horse – to save themselves from the pursuing posse. Their decision, strong-armed by Bart Lonergan, leads to Turkey’s capture, his forced confession and false accusation of Vienna, and – despite Emma’s empty promises of leniency – his quick lynching.

If you think about other Westerns – 3:10 to Yuma, for example (either version will do), and the many treatments of Jesse James’ still-captivating demise – the youngest gang member is usually the figure whose disappointed, demanding hero-worship leads to his betrayal of the leader, an object lesson on the costs of celebrity and slavish devotion. This time – Vienna tells Turkey at one point that he’s been “cheated” of his youth – his leaders fail him.

After all, thinking itself is the target this time around.

This review appeared in the 9/18/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. Find Johnny Guitar readily & cheaply on-line in a variety of VHS & DVD formats, with at least three DVD editions since 2001.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Film Review #174: The Express
Director: Gary Fleder
Cast: Ron Brown, Dennis Quaid, Charles S. Dutton

As everyone around here in upstate New York knows – or will once The Express has had its world premiere this weekend at Syracuse’s spruced-up downtown Landmark Theater – Ernie Davis was the Orange’s halfback when Syracuse University won the US national football championship in 1959. In 1961 he became the first African American, and only Orangeman, to win US college football’s coveted Heisman Trophy; in the movie, President Kennedy meets him backstage – compressed from the actual cross-town cab trip that occurred in real life – for personal congratulations. By late 1963, both were dead, Davis from leukemia and, six months later, JFK assassinated.

Director Gary Fleder filmed some of The Express on Syracuse University’s campus last year, so interest has been high locally, stoked again by the presence this weekend of cast members, 49 of the surviving 54 members of the 1959 football team, some Davis family and football greats Jim Brown and Floyd Little, whose SU careers bracketed Davis’. On-screen, there’s Hendricks Chapel and the Maxwell School of Citizenship, though you can see the newer Maxwell II discreetly beyond some foliage. The arched entrance to the old Archbold Stadium, rather grander than I remember it, digitally replaces the Carrier Dome. The Quonset hut that housed the early WAER-FM radio station on the quad back then is nowhere in sight. If you know the campus or the story, you see early that Fleder’s film does some compressing and re-arranging and, on the Friday afternoon before the premier, standing on the rain-soaked quad, he stressed the film’s not a documentary.

But don’t settle in for network TV-grade nostalgia. More important forms of authenticity in this uncommonly good film are pitch-perfect. Early on, facing a menacingly inhospitable crowd before the 1960 Cotton Bowl in Texas, Ernie Davis (Rob Brown) recalls his younger self outside Pittsburgh, facing a gang of pint-sized white toughs on some isolated railroad tracks while collecting bottles. His burlap sack of empties tucked under one arm, dodging and leaping over thugs and through underbrush, the 12-year-old outruns them. The urgency of this first pursuit indelibly colors all that follow on football fields, where skirmishes and games alike are more often systematic muggings of the few Black players than gentlemanly sport.

The Express looks beyond the numbers to show “tradition” as what’s handed down to talented youngsters. Not a football fan myself, I couldn’t rattle off an admired player’s stats the way star-struck Ernie Davis rattles off Jim Brown’s record when coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) enlists the NFL pro and former Orangeman to recruit the high school player. A few years later, young Floyd Little recites Davis’ stats in the same ritual greeting when he meets Davis, who comes to him on a similar errand. In town for the premiere, Little recalled, “Ernie told me, ‘Jim Brown chose me and I’m choosing you.’ Listen, I had 47 scholarships to college. I was recruited by General MacArthur. Ernie told me, ‘Floyd, I will have your back.’”

There were hints at the pre-premiere festivities that the marketing plan for The Express might not stress this point, but in a lesser film, Schwartzwalder’s and Davis’ complicated, difficult relationship might overshadow the web of care among these men that also includes a substantial portrait of Davis’ grandfather (a wonderful Charles S. Dutton). Davis asks the old man, who introduced him to Brooklyn Dodger great Jackie Robinson via store-window TV, to help him decide about SU. With the mildest glance and smile, Grandfather asks Jim Brown over pie, “Tell me, how is it there – for men like us?”

How it is, is the way sport on film actually happens rarely – both the sheer melee and then starkly isolated elements of labored breathing, spinning ball, crunching bodies. Scorsese set the standard for this wincing, inside immediacy with Raging Bull (1980). More recently the wheelchair rugby documentary Murderball (2005) came close. Fleder got Allan Graf to wrangle the football scenes, as Graf did – variously credited as “stunt coordinator,” “second unit director” and “assistant director” – for Friday Night Lights (2004), Any Given Sunday (1999) and Jerry Maguire (1996). On Friday, Graf said he’d really used Ben Schwartzwalder’s play-books and added, “I had to teach all my football players to block with their shoulders and not with their heads like they would today.” And despite a few missteps into distracting orchestral sweep, Mark Isham’s score – by turns syncopated and bluesy – mostly supports both the mood and action on-screen superbly.

Finally, The Express is a detailed, keenly observed story about racism on mid-century US college campuses just as the US Civil Rights movement was heating up – not generically, but right here. It’s sobering to consider that Syracuse University has embraced this in which its own university community does not get a pass. It’s one thing to watch Denzel Washington’s recent The Great Debaters – criminally neglected by Oscar and box-office alike – which is longer ago and farther away (1935, Texas), another to watch Davis and his friend Jack Buckley (probably based on teammate John Brown and played by Omar Benson Miller) stroll by the Maxwell School’s statue of “Great Emancipator” Abraham Lincoln, discussing enforced dating norms circa 1960.

Shortly after, Davis and Buckley meet two young women. One, a Cornell student, asks what they’re studying. A shy, polite young man who sometimes helped players up after they tackled him, Davis first answers vaguely. Then he says, “Look, we’re on the football team. I don’t want you to think we’re not serious.” Last week, right before the film’s advance screening, some of today’s Orangemen loomed above me in the popcorn line, reminding me of how my younger brother shot up one winter so I had to bend my head back to look at him. One waved me to the head of the line with a flourish. Yes, they said – suddenly shy and polite – they were excited to see this movie. If we look past the numbers – as everyone around here knows, these last several seasons have not exactly reflected the Orange's glory days – we might remember, with an unexpected splash of grace from Davis, that these young men are serious too.

Slated for wide release in the US on October 10th, The Express opens in Mexico on October 31st and in the U.K. on November 11th. A shorter version of this review appeared in the Syracuse City Eagle weekly on 9/11/08.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Film Review #173: Battleship Potemkin
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Cast: Alexsandr Antonov, Grigory Aleksandrov, N. Poltavseva

Presidential primaries and elections are always times to dust off your old, possibly never-finished copy of Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s 1988 book about where propaganda fits into private mass media’s relationship to government and markets.

For a meatier take on the meanings of “making history,” go directly to cinema. Barry Levinson’s satire Wag the Dog (1997), a Robert DeNiro-Dustin Hoffman vehicle about starting a fake war to distract the electorate, has gotten some play recently. But 83 years later, pioneering Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin is still the granddaddy, both for how his version of a 1905 uprising against the Czarist regime has often effectively replaced accounts of the real events and – perhaps more far-reaching – his early, heavily influential techniques for generating emotional responses in audiences. Battleship Potemkin was banned in a number of countries – in England until 1978, longer than any film there ever – because authorities considered its story of political uprising so inflammatory during decades of global economic depression and conflict.

Battleship Potemkin was state-sponsored propaganda, planned as a popular commemoration of the 20-year anniversary of an actual ship’s mutiny and resulting violence in the port city of Odessa when citizens supported the sailors. In his second of only six feature films, Eisenstein condensed and altered historical events to dramatize early rumblings of the Bolshevik revolution and demonize the Czar’s regime.

The actual battleship Prince Potemkin was cruising the Black Sea in 1905 after returning from Russia’s war with Japan. Sailors did mutiny, over rotten meat and their officers’ brutal response to their protests. The Potemkin’s crew did get a warm welcome from the people of Odessa, whom the Czar’s Cossacks violently put down in a series of skirmishes throughout the city.

Eisenstein made three critical changes in his tightly-structured, five episode story. First, he inserted the character of the “new revolutionary man,” the sailor Vakulinchuk (Alexsandr Antonov), who heroically exhorts his fellows and the ship’s guards just as they are about to shoot innocent men. Vakulinchuk dies during the ensuing shipboard battle after the guards turn their guns on the ship’s officers. The sailors take his body to the Odessa docks, where streams of citizens come first to mourn and then to rally. Notably these mourners illustrate extremely wide-spread sympathy for the sailors, featuring many women – both poor and middle class – plus children, old people, even the infirm.

Second, Eisenstein altered the final outcome of the sailors’ revolt, clearly intending to replace historical accounts. In the film, Potemkin’s crew – helpless to save the Odessan people from slaughter – turn their cannons on the great symbol of upper-class oppression and decadence, the Odessa Opera House. Then, the Czar’s naval squadron, first pursuing the rebels at sea, joins their revolt after the Potemkin turns around and sails boldly into their midst. The original Potemkin instead less gloriously fled to safety in Romania.

Third and most important for filmmaking ever since, Eisenstein used Odessa’s multi-tiered Maritime Steps as the site for the major confrontation between the Cossacks and people of Odessa, condensing the real smaller skirmishes into a single bloody massacre, where lines of black-booted, white-uniformed Cossacks – moving with machine-like precision – relentlessly descend the steps, mowing down a panicked, disbelieving, chaotic crowd. The violence in this scene is quite graphic, with crushed children, the now-iconic “Woman in Pince-nez” (N. Poltavseva) who imagines she can “talk to” the troops and is shot in the eye for her genteel illusions, and the famous careening white wicker baby carriage – all have found their way visually into other films.

This fictional massacre – more than the trumped-up ending – is what sometimes replaces the historical events. The Netflix blurb for Battleship Potemkin, for example, cites the “czarist troops’ infamous systematic slaughter of insurgents and bystanders” as if it were an accurate depiction of an historical event. This confusion is likely because, more than any other sequence in the film, the Odessa steps massacre demonstrates Eisenstein’s pioneering use abrupt edits to create montage. Just as changes in rhythm (the analogy Eisenstein himself elaborated most) or heavy use of sharps and flats in music disrupt our expectations and provoke emotional response – think torch songs here – so does abrupt visual juxtaposition override orderly – and more rational – exposition and narrative transitions. Watch this film to see how it’s done and go armed into this election season.

This review appeared in the 9/4/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that do not open theatrically in Central New York & older films of enduring worth. Since 1998, at least seven DVD editions of Battleship Potemkin have been released to the US market either as single discs or part of collections. Last year’s stellar two-disc set made Richard Corliss’ Top 10 DVDs list in Time magazine & is reviewed at some length in the current issue of Cineaste. Five of Eisenstein’s six feature films are available at Netflix, all with the Instant Viewing option, although right now the Netflix Potemkin is the truncated 1976 Soviet version.
Film Review #172: Irina Palm
Director: Sam Garbarski
Cast: Marianne Faithfull, Dorka Gryllus, Miki Manojlovic

“Everybody’s always talking about how they’d do anything for their kids,” says Ollie’s mom Sarah (Siobhan Hewlett) to her husband Tom after his mother Maggie comes up with the money they need to get from suburban London to Australia. “Well, she put herself on the line for my son! And frankly, I’m grateful!”

Clearly someone who’s grown up less sheltered than only son Tom, Sarah’s first response to learning there’s a new cure for her little boy’s cancer on the other side of the globe had not been elation and relief but the often-stung realist’s question, “Who pays?”

Sarah and her mother-in-law (60s rock icon Marianne Faithfull, who last played a mother of more means as Empress Marie Theresa in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette) have evidently never been close, but the revelation of Maggie’s job in a London club called Sexy World, where she is something of a celebrity as “Irina Palm,” is an acid test the younger woman understands at once as more than a train ride away from Maggie’s sedate village life.

Three young filmmakers have recently explored the lengths to which mothers will go for their threatened sons. All feature unsentimental, complex performances and unusual attention to the dynamics among the women characters, and all use border-crossing as both story element and resonant image for life-altering choice.

Set on the Akwesasne Reserve that straddles the New York-Canada border, northern Hudson Valley director Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River features blistering portrayals by Melissa Leo and Misty Upham of two nearly broke single mothers, white and Mohawk respectively, who smuggle illegal immigrants across the mile-wide frozen St. Lawrence in an old Dodge Spirit’s trunk. Hunt’s first feature opened August 1st and is now on 26 screens nationwide. If it doesn’t come here, it’s worth driving to Rochester to see it at The Little in late September.

Turn the River, gambling slang for getting caught bluffing, is actor Chris Eigeman’s first foray into filmmaking. Famke Janssen (Jean Grey/Phoenix in The X-Men films) plays pool-hall rat Kailey Sullivan, who descends into Manhattan periodically from somewhere “upstate” for Central Park visits with her 11-year-old son. When his father breaks the boy’s wrist, Kailey aims to buy them passports via high-stakes billiards and escape to Canada. With few festival turns, little theater exposure between the May premiere and July DVD, and an unfortunate plot misstep at the end, Turn the River still deserves a look. Then, you do wonder about a movie-going nation that embraces the brilliance of a Dark Knight one week but dashes off to a mess like Tropic Thunder the next.

Which brings us back to Belgian filmmaker Sam Garbarski’s second feature, Irina Palm, doing well in almost 30 countries but not generating much box office here since opening in March with the tagline, “The best right hand in London.” It’s a mistake to dismiss Irina Palm, now out on DVD two weeks, as just the latest “naughty British granny,” though its script – especially several encounters in Maggie’s village shop, small town life’s court of public opinion – suggests potential in that comedic direction. Rather, Maggie’s journeys away from this village take on the aura of a fugitive fleeing past a border check-point.

Irina Palm is surprisingly thoughtful in appraising how we reach for one another. If we never see Maggie’s hand at work in her booth at Sexy World, we see a great deal surrounding it. And that job stays in mind throughout a film that relies visually on the physical transactions of touching. At the hospital, Maggie entwines her hand in Ollie’s, kissing the little boy’s fingers. When club owner Miki (Miki Manojlovic) interviews her for the “hostess job,” he strokes Maggie’s palm and she withdraws sharply. Later their handshake seals his loan to Maggie; still later he’ll courteously light her cigarette. A young foreigner named Luisa (Dorka Gryllus) from the next booth teaches Maggie the trade and later they share a drink and confidences – always the confidences in this film begin with lost love – that includes how Luisa left a man who struck her. When Maggie unmasks the most sanctimonious among the village widows for having slept with her late husband, Maggie adds, “I understand you liked to be spanked.” Naturally these older women have passed the time together playing cards, making Irina Palm – all three films, really – a riff on playing the hand you’re dealt.

This review appeared in the 8/28/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing recent movies that did not open theatrically in Central New York & older films of enduring worth. Irina Palm & Turn the River are both available at Netflix. Read Nancy’s interview with Frozen River director Courtney Hunt at
Film Review #171: War/Dance
2007/DVD 2008
Directors: Sean and Andrea Nix Fine

In Syracuse last October to screen a rough cut of Sweet Crude, her documentary about the ravages that US oil drilling visits upon the Niger Delta’s people and environment, Seattle filmmaker Sandy Cioffi explained her seemingly odd treatment of statistics, which intermittently cascaded down the screen at what was at first perturbingly unreadable speed.

“What number could I put on screen that would make the killing stop?” she asked. Emerging from a long stretch of watching other people’s documentaries, Cioffi had decided that arguments from grim numbers alone don’t change much and, far from being persuasive as forms of argument, may even make it easier to look away.

Cioffi is not alone among filmmakers and some photographers (especially those whose work intentionally leans toward the cinematic) in this conviction. Also last year, local artist Ellen Blalock’s photo and video exhibition Father’s Day at Community Folk Art Gallery set lush, classically posed, large format portraits of muscular young African American fathers in Hip Hop attire cradling their small children against a video stream in one corner with a similar cascade of tumbling numbers, clearly deriding the capacity of statistics to tell us much of what’s true about these young men. Fazal Sheikh’s Beautiful Daughters series, brought to Syracuse University in a controversial show whose extremely large prints he told me in a phone interview were meant to be “cinematic,” portrayed poor widows and girls in India in such lovely images that some criticized him for romanticizing suffering (even as others railed against him for airing India’s dirty laundry). About his photo series The Whipping Post, Brantley Carroll – who says he makes photos instead of movies only because he can “do all the jobs myself” – has been blunt that he means to “rope people in” to confronting slavery with ravishing images that are portals to individual stories and emotional connection.

Although the writer John Berger has distinguished film and photo as looking in different directions – photo after the past moment captured but gone, film toward the pull of what happens next – Blalock, Sheikh and Carroll in different ways all lean toward film’s capacity for story with their photo work. And their work’s reliance on beauty over grit and bankrupt statistics overlaps with films like Hungarian Lajos Koltai’s 2005 Holocaust film Fateless. Or Philip Gröning’s 2005 documentary Into Great Silence, about the ancient order of Carthusian monks in their Alpine monastery, a film that – devoid of any “information” whatsoever about their thriving global business (as the producers of fine liqueur) – focuses instead of how cinema addresses the aesthetic issue of duration as manifested in a life-style of mostly silent meditation. Or Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman’s Nanking, last year’s documentary about the infamous 1937 “rape” of that Chinese city by invading Japanese forces. Nanking employs – making the conventional grainy archival footage (direct evidence) they include pale by comparison – dramatic performance, readings of letters and diaries from American missionaries present during that siege by actors on a bare, dark sound stage. What effects stay with us? Intriguingly, the filmmaking Taviani brothers recall that it was attending a performance of a Pirandello play as children, during the Fascists’ rule of Italy, that crystallized their grasp of the brutality happening all around them.

Then there’s War/Dance, the documentary by Washington, DC-based husband and wife filmmaker team Sean and Andrea Nix Fine. Oscar-nominated for best documentary this year, War/Dance combines the popular movie template of the school musical performance contest – think back to Mad, Hot Ballroom – with the unlikely subject of the children of Patongo, the most remote and vulnerable refugee camp of northern Uganda’s civil war.

War/Dance came around last January in batches of pre-Oscar DVD screeners sent to reviewers. Talking by phone just days before the Oscars from their car – on the way to another interview in DC – the Fines readily agreed that their film had run a gauntlet of uneasiness over its portrayal of sheer beauty.

Photographed against an astonishingly beautiful landscape that has disconcerted some reviewers, War/Dance embeds a story of equally astonishing savagery within an effort to heal trauma through art. Last November, though clearly admiring the film, the New York Times’ Stephen Holden was uneasy – asking, and I think misreading the Fines’ intentions, “to what extent [can] human savagery be softened…to make it palatable to an audience?”

In 2005, Patongo Primary School competed in the National Music Competition’s finals for the first time in the capital of Kampala. Patongo, home to 60,000 people, is one of the camps to which 90% of the Acholi people have been removed from their ancestral lands by the twenty-year conflict. During that time, the rebels who calls themselves the Lord’s Resistance Army have abducted 30,000 Acholi kids, some as young as five, and forced them to fight.

Only a few statistics in War/Dance – inserted at intervals against a black screen – provide a frame of the enormity of this war’s destruction. The Fines profile three children while relating the weeks leading up to the 200-mile trip to Kampala, that made in an open military troop transport truck under armed escort. Mostly the film focuses on rehearsals – for the “Western choral” (English hymns), musical composition, and traditional dance, an intricate 500-year-old royal dance called the Bwola. Two music teachers – another husband and wife team – come from Kampala to help even the playing field by coaching the children on the finer points of competition and making new, and bracing, demands for excellence. Patonga’s own music teacher says the music heals these children’s trauma “to bring them back to ordinary life.”

This is certainly true of 14-year-old Dominic, whose xylophone-playing takes a national prize. Before that, he practices incessantly in a vast field under a tree, where the serenity coming over face suggests that he also achieves some other state. Then he tells the camera how he was forced to kill some farmers in the field with their own hoes before he escaped the Lord’s Resistance Army, and how he has never told anyone this before. Later, this diminutive boy visits a nearby army post where a rebel commander is held and asks the man – the two of them sit on a wooden bench under another green tree – about his older brother’s fate, so that “I will tell my mother and we can move on in our lives.”

War/Dance also profiles 14-year-old Nancy, who wants to be a doctor, and 13-year-old orphaned Rose, who share equally wrenching vignettes. But for once, we remember them and their stories, and their music, more than the numbers.

An abbreviated version of this review appeared in the 8/21/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not have a theatrical opening in Central New York & older films of enduring worth.