Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Film Review #191: Giving Voice
Director: Mišo Suchý
Cast: Syracuse Community Choir

You’d need a heart of stone not to love this movie on the night it premiered at Art Rage in late January. Consider the event itself a kind of triple whammy. First the packed, enthusiastic crowd itself, which included many members and friends of the Community Choir. The audience lining the walls easily doubled those in the folded chairs filling the center of the room. The Community Choir’s 20th anniversary concert three years ago is the subject of Giving Voice, Mišo Suchý’s half-hour documentary.

Then, the gallery walls themselves held the exhibition Voices of Diversity, more than 100 of Lida Suchý’s black-and-white photos of Choir members. These are arresting and powerful, some large format single shots and some arranged in grids of up to twelve images. For a project whose subject is inclusive community-building, these simple and straight-on portraits are at first mildly disconcerting. They utterly lack the quality of "social grease" and over-amped affect that often marks the glib, ad-like visual style of such efforts. Instead, these are images of individual choir members at rest, both embraced and given space by the photographer’s patient attention. They are in every sense "stills" in whose presence you turn down your own volume in order to return that attention – and that ripens you for the film, which then sends you back to the stills.

The Suchýs now live and teach here in Syracuse – she at Onondaga Community College and he in Transmedia at Syracuse University. They met in Eastern Europe around the same time Karen Mihalyi was dreaming up the Community Choir. Lida was an American art-exchange student seeking the Ukrainian village in the Carpathian Mountains that her parents left when the Soviets took over. A native of the city of Bratislava – then part of pre-partition Czechoslovakia – Mišo was exploring the Eastern Slovakia region from which his father had come. Each has seen their own work published, exhibited and screened widely here and abroad. But from the start they also photographed together. Much of their work is collaboration and that often combines still and moving images. Their projects often focus on identity and the immigrant’s search for home and belonging, themes that certainly echo concerns of the Community Choir.

Sometimes these projects appear in print in magazines (for example, National Geographic and Life) or book format (Mišo’s 1997 When I Was and Was Not at Home gathers some of his earlier photo series and includes an illuminating afterword by the Slovakian photo critic Václav Macek, who runs the annual summer international Month of Photography festival in Bratislava). Some are film documentaries like his About Dogs and People (1999) or Home Movie: A diary for my American-born son (2003), which Suchý says chronicles how he became a Syracusan. The award-winning Pictograph (2007), available on DVD from Anthology Film Archives, offers both film and still gallery components with Lida’s images and drawings of a Ukrainian woman artist from the village of Kryvorivnya. They hope to mount movie-photo events like the Art Rage premiere again at film festivals and other galleries and eventually offer in a form that would publish the photos and include the film.

I’ve watched Giving Voice several times now since January – an earlier version screened last February at the Eastwood Palace along with Pictograph – and each time there’s something fresh to appreciate. These affectionate and immensely telling moments are often brief. In one of his favorite parts (and mine too), Mišo Suchý follows the passing of a collection basket among seated Choir members during a pause in a rehearsal. Elsewhere, a glorious spotlight finale cuts abruptly to the same performer (Colleen Kattau) industriously vacuuming in the background after rehearsal. A blind singer is excited by some new Braille lyrics and, running her fingers over the raised dots, she breathes, "Oh, this has ‘deep blue sea’ in it!" Over and over, people quietly make time and room for each other and Suchý’s camera finds them.

The DVD also has a five-minute short on the children’s section and a 16-minute interview with Mihalyi. The Community Choir’s back story is well known in Central New York and there’s not much of it in the film itself, so – while the film holds up without it – this material is valuable.

Mihalyi went to Nicaragua in 1984 and travelled widely in the villages there, witnessing efforts to use the arts to build community. By then, Mihalyi had spent a decade working in the Women’s Movement, a founder of Women’s Info – still the longest continuously operating independent women’s community resource center in the country – as well as the fondly-remembered annual summer gathering called Women’s Harvest. Such projects struggled with diversity of age, race, sexual preference, class and a spectrum of disabilities, as well as evolving peace, justice and green issues. The next year, after Mihalyi returned from Nicaragua, she decided to start a no-audition choir which anyone – really anyone – could join. In the early years of the Choir, she told Syracuse University researcher Bob Bogdan that the idea "just came to me." Later in the same interview, commenting on the effort that including everybody really takes, Mihalyi added wryly that the Choir had "singing disabled" members who needed extra help too.

Giving Voice devotes considerable space to this "making room at the table." And the DVD’s Mihalyi interview adds the dimension of nearly a quarter century’s perspective. Now 58, Mihalyi recalls how, before Nicaragua and the Women’s Movement, she’d grown up in a small town in northern New York and she had wanted to recreate in the Choir the same sense of knowing people all their lives.

"We’ve seen babies grow up and we’ve lost people too," she tells the filmmaker.

Though anyone watching this film will grasp that, locals will know its specifics. For example, there on-screen is the gracious, white-haired Quaker social worker Dick Mundy – Suchý has since filmed his memorial service in Hendricks Chapel – or the once-little Gabe, all grown up now and joining singer Colleen Kattau on-stage. These two women lead the choir rousingly in Jolie Rickman’s Emma Goldman song (you may know the chorus) –

You show up and you smile for no reason
It’s all so simple and clear
Like we’re the hope of a hundred generations
Like you and I have no fear.
Rocking in the soul of Emma Goldman…

This sequence, along with Kattau’s recollection of the singer-songwriter – lost to cancer before the film was made – is among the high points. In another musical segment, Sukosh Fearon’s rollicking piano drives another jubilant Choir favorite, "When All God’s Children Get Together."

Such sequences are built on cuts back and forth between a month's worth of rehearsal sessions and the Choir's 20th anniversary concert and they are among the best concert movie footage I have seen anywhere. In compressing performance in this way from the standard musical film play-list format, they depend on split-second timing that Suchý attributes to his former student, filmmaker and musician Ryan Tebo, who edited much of the film. Suchý – who joked recently that his early films were longer because "I was a young genius" – is clear this film is intentionally the story of how that concert came together and not yet the story of the Choir itself. But he applied recently for a grant that would expand this film into that one.

A shorter version of this article appears in the March 19th print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. The Voices of Diversity photo exhibition came down in mid-February, but the new film Giving Voice is available on DVD exclusively at Art Rage: The Norton Putter Gallery, at 505 Hawley Ave., Syracuse, 315.559.5387 or