Friday, November 21, 2008

Filmmaker Interview at FilmSlash

To see my interview with Lance Hammer, whose film Ballast I reviewed here on November 7, go to
Film Review #182: Other People’s Pictures
Directors: Lorca Shepperd & Cabot Philbrick

When Syracuse native Lorca Shepperd and her husband/collaborator Cabot Philbrick set out to make Other People’s Pictures, they expected their documentary would focus on the trade in vernacular snapshots and albums that goes on at flea markets, auctions, antique and second-hand shops.

“We thought it would be about the economics and mechanics of that market,” she said by phone recently from New York City, where the couple both work in television documentary. “But the emotions that collectors had about these photographs were really the whole point. We realized that after we started – that this film transcends the niche.”

A casual, sometime collector of the odd “snap” herself, Shepperd was sent to Manhattan’s Chelsea Flea Market by a friend. There she discovered multiple dealers with bins and tables full of cast-off snapshots and regular, sometimes impassioned customers. She was struck by seeming contradictions – that people fleeing sudden disasters like fires can emerge with little more than pets and family albums, yet there’s a flood of recycled snapshots for sale.

Their buyers in turn wonder aloud about their hobby in un-hobby-like terms that recall early superstitions about photography’s eerie capacity to capture frozen likenesses. Are they stealing a stranger’s past? wonders one, while another – speaking to the power of a rapid, unexpected attachment – says she’s the “foster parent of ghosts.”

Shot on week-ends between November 2001 and the summer of 2004, Other People’s Pictures had a brief theatrical run that brought the filmmakers National Public Radio coverage and good reviews. It’s done well at festivals and won some awards. At 53 minutes – really sized for television – the film has screened on the Documentary Channel. Now it’s available on DVD, which may bring it the wider film audience it deserves, even though its commercial distributor, Cinema Guild, seems not to have been particularly energetic about getting it out there to some obvious outlets like Netflix.

Other People’s Pictures comprises overlapping interviews with snapshot collectors and dealers, along with interludes of stills drawn from particular sub-categories of images that people collect. One of the film’s many charms is that Shepperd and Philbrick seem to be equally fond of these quirky, compelling, largely anonymous images and the people who seek and cherish them. Largely filmed at the Chelsea Flea Market, Other People’s Pictures also takes us inside a few of these collectors’ homes.

We might call such collectors “vernacular curators” and each has evolved a specialty. Lisa, who says she can’t afford “real photographs” but second-hand snaps are within her price range, favors early 20th century images of “women with attitude,” often the proud early drivers behind the wheels of cars. The gallery drawn from her collection alone makes this film worth seeing. Japanese-American Don, transplanted to New York, collects images from his native Hawaii. Dan frames and hangs what he calls “banality of evil” photos – snaps of Nazis at weddings, in family groups and relaxing. Leslie collects what he calls the hidden history of male affection. And there’s Fern and Peter and Ken and Leonie, plus several dealers who expound on the virtues of their chosen display method – single images loose in bins, offered by category in boxes or albums, and that’s not counting the fierce debate over whether to break up intact family albums.

For all the flea market chaos, considerable selection is involved here. Shepperd says they scanned over 1,500 images during filming, then used about 300 in the feast that is the final cut. They also survey the range of sub-categories enthusiasts seek: pictures taken at beaches, pictures with flash “shadows,” train wrecks, blurred images of people in motion, photo booth snaps, Down Syndrome children, joke photos or visual puns, mutilated photos with a face cut or scratched out, even people eating watermelon.

That last actually comes from the DVD extras, which add almost double the material of the original documentary. Profiles of two dealers detail how far and seriously they search for wares. And there are several more collectors, including a travel writer, an artist who uses the notations on the backs of snaps in her exhibitions and – though identified here only as “Marty” for her collection of snaps of women with cameras – the photographer Martha Cooper, who pioneered photographic records of early Hip-Hop graffiti and more recently the related global phenomenon of B*Girlz dance battles.

Shepperd says she and Philbrick are “just tossing around ideas” for another film at this point. Meanwhile, Other People’s Pictures ranks as a Genuine Find.

Other People’s Pictures is available online for personal purchase at, which includes galleries of film stills & print resources on vernacular photography as well as a link to Cinema Guild for commericial purchases. This review will appear in the 12/4/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Film Review #181: Apaharan/Kidnap
Director: Prakash Jha
Cast: Ajay Devgan, Nana Patekar, Mohan Agashe

For starters, imagine a dark, Jason Bourne-type thriller about political corruption and double-dealing set in India. In place of professional assassin Bourne’s amnesia – emblematic perhaps of the West’s fatal weakness with regard to history – Ajay Shastri (the magnetic Ajay Devgan) struggles first to escape his revered reformist father’s too-looming shadow through allegiance with an alternative father figure, the corrupt power-broker Tabrez Alam (Nana Patekar), and then to find his way home.

Billed as a story of the brisk trade in kidnapping for ransom in the state of Bihar, located on India’s northern border with Nepal, veteran filmmaker Prakash Jha’s 2005 study of justice and violence premiered just as public revulsion there with such corruption led to the ouster of Bihar’s long-time ruling party. In following the younger Shastri’s winding path, Jha’s film astutely explores how extremism and assassination might come to seem viable even to unlikely men.

By the time Ajay has come full circle, reconciled with his father, given his own confession, and meets a last time with Tabrez Alam, the film’s plot has methodically laid out the corruption of nearly every character occupying an official office and built its suspense on how – over and over, at the last minute – the law alone is powerless to halt their steady advance. Ajay may even think he has his father’s blessing to dispatch Tabrez Alam as the last resort; during their reconciliation Professor Shastri (Mohan Agashe) urges his tearful son not to apologize but to “atone.”

Apaharan begins with the patrician scholar holding a press conference in his family’s courtyard about political kidnappings. Young Ajay slips out the side door. Woefully unsuccessful as a vendor of natural remedies, Ajay tells his girlfriend Megha (Bipasha Basu) of his new plan – he’ll enter the police force, even if it takes paying a bribe. Though brave – early on he’s seriously injured, dragged by a car as he tries to stop a kidnapping – this bribe starts Ajay’s descent down a slippery slope into crime. Soon he’s kidnapping, shooting his main rival Gaya Singh (Yashpal Sharma), and running other gangs out of town. Clearly Ajay’s self-deluded in his new-found power and success. After all, his base of operation is a local cell-block, the only safe retreat.

Just as clearly Tabrez Alam, hardly devout himself, plays on the resentments of his followers, mainly poor Muslim laborers. A minority in Bihar – where over 80 per cent are Hindu – Muslims still suffer discrimination, poverty and lingering resentment over the violent 12th century Islamic invasion. Tabrez Alam provides a powerful portrait of the cynical manipulation of this beleaguered community. In contrast, it’s another Muslim, quiet police officer Anwar Khan (Mukesh Tiwari), who alone stands by Ajay once he decides to bring Tabrez down. We see too few screen stories that treat this particular tension in our own or other nations with anything approaching such nuance.

And we’ve seen almost nothing in US media about the killer floods in Bihar that began August 18th and displaced over 3 million people. In New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Brad Pitt went to work on innovative emergency housing. And now, some 5,000 Bihar flood refugees live at Punarwaas, an NGO refugee camp with school, hospital, and both temple and mosque that Bihar native Prakash Jha set up and administrates with support from other major Bollywood figures, including several of this film’s lead cast. The Punarwaas project expects to run, and need continued support, well into next spring when these residents might begin going home.

You can support Punarwaas and see Apaharan tomorrow night on a big screen here in Syracuse thanks to Tula Goenka, associate professor of television, radio and film at SU’s Newhouse School, who arranged the screening as a fund-raiser. Goenka directs SU’s annual Human Rights Film Festival each fall, has screened Jha’s films locally before and has written about his work as an example of how Indian cinema includes dramatic storytelling beyond the lavish musical romances with which many US audiences associate “Bollywood.”

Last May, Goenka took 11 Newhouse students to India for the first four-week summer internship in film there for US university students – a timely move, as it turned out, since in late June Steven Spielberg and David Geffen signed a multimillion-dollar partnership and production deal with India’s Reliance Entertainment.

Waiting to see if Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire makes it to Syracuse? Meanwhile, whether you’re a Bollywood fan or a new-comer, Apaharan is a good way to spend Friday night.

This review appears in the 11/13/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. Apaharan screens tomorrow night at 7:00 PM, 11/14, in Newhouse 3, Room 141 (Waverly Ave. entrance) at a special fund-raiser to support filmmaker Prakash Jha’s Punarwaas project. Also see “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not have a theatrical opening in CNY and older films of enduring worth.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Film Review #180: Ballast
Director: Lance Hammer
Cast: JimMyron Ross, Michael Smith, Jr., Tarra Riggs

Like Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River, another first feature film that took honors home from this year’s Sundance festival, Lance Hammer’s Ballast tells the story of a near-the-edge family just before Christmas whose hard-scrabble lives occur against a masterfully shot, austere and sweeping landscape – in Hunt’s film, the frozen St. Lawrence River of northern New York and in Hammer’s, the Mississippi Delta.

Hammer opens his film with what amounts to a visual prayer. Twelve-year-old James (JimMyron Ross), a slight boy in a big parka, crosses a rolling open field, hurrying toward thousands of geese that start up suddenly from the frozen stubble, flying across the vast magic-hour horizon. It’s crucial this occurs first because what comes next – before the barest possibility that James’ hopes might turn out - is almost unremittingly difficult.

Ballast opened in New York City on October 1st and has theatrical bookings across the U.S. through the end of February. Unlike Frozen River, which recently did so well here in Central New York at Manlius Cinema that Nat Tobin held it over twice, Ballast will screen here just once – next Tuesday at 8:00 PM at the Westcott.

You should do whatever it takes so you can see it there on the big screen.

Ballast is one of those films in which it seems like not much happens – Hammer says he hopes the narrative “has remained minimal and unobtrusive” – until you try writing a plot summary and realize that the characters’ intertwined histories and ties look a lot like the ancient, vine-covered tree by the road that James’ eyes rest on when his gaze comes back to earth after that first shot.

Down that road lives Lawrence Baptiste (Michael Smith, Jr.), introduced in wordless grief before a buzzing TV set. His twin brother Darius lies in the next room, having gotten in bed and intentionally overdosed. When a neighbor checks – the brothers haven’t opened their convenience store in several days – Lawrence shoots himself. While he’s in the hospital, James breaks in, steals his pistol and, once he’s home, begins robbing Lawrence, immediately because James’ mother, Marlee Sykes, (Tarra Riggs, whose hare-trigger performance deserves notice at year’s end) can’t keep food in their tiny trailer; also because Darius was James’ father.

Some of the best scenes occur when Lawrence allows James to order him around at gun-point. Suicidally depressed anyway, the massive older man could easily disarm this jittery boy (later he does, in a quiet, deft move that proves the point but doesn’t detour into drama). Meanwhile, in the stillness between them, attention and curiosity start to flicker. After an unglamorous, frightening brush with some thuggish older boys – the pistol merely enrages them – James and Marlee move into Darius’ little house next door to Lawrence. Marlee re-opens the store and, one inch at a time, the three start over. This is nearly de-railed any number of times, none more wrenching than the night, while they share dish-washing, that Lawrence tries to embrace Marlee and she pulls away, furious, misunderstanding, sure “this is all you were after.” Watching, James holds his breath – and we’re right there with him.

Hammer filmed Ballast in nine Mississippi Delta townships with a cast of mostly indigenous non-professionals, using available light, no music and a script evolving over two months of rehearsal. Trained as an architect, Hammer has an evident expressive ease with space that amplifies his characters’ sparse dialogue and low-key affect. Against the expansive landscape outside, inside scenes are sometimes filmed in silhouette, or characters occupy cramped rectangles of light in one corner of the screen – the view through a door or down a hallway. Or, for example, when seeking gang approval, James wheels his scooter down a narrow, garbage-strewn ally, you can see this path will be a wrong turn for him.

Both Frozen River and Ballast come from white filmmakers who portray communities of color. Hunt’s film vividly manifests the tensions between Akwesasne Mohawks and outsiders in the complicated, edgy bond between the two mothers. Hammer refrains from this, choosing a different emphasis. So Lawrence’s white neighbor John Dixon (Johnny McPhail) stops by because he’s worried, looks out for Lawrence’s dog and finally coaxes Lawrence out of the house to share a steak. But this means Hammer’s film has the space to dwell more deeply on Black characters’ relationships with one another.

Ballast comes here courtesy of Dropped Frames, a film society based in Syracuse University’s Transmedia department that also hosted the second annual Upstate New York Film Festival in late September, a one-night showcase of short films and videos by regional artists. The L.A.-based Hammer, who wrote, produced, directed and edited Ballast, will speak on campus Tuesday afternoon and again after the screening Tuesday night. He is Dropped Frames’ third visiting artist this fall. In September Emily Hubley brought her animation feature, The Toe Tactic, and last month Ronnie Bronstein was here with Frownland.

A version of this review appeared in the 11/6/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. See Ballast on Tuesday, 11/11 at 8:00PM at the new Westcott Performing Arts Center on Westcott Street, Syracuse. Q&A afterward with Lance Hammer. Check out Dropped Frames at Frownland and Ballast are already listed at Netflix for saving.