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

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Film Review #190: Brick Lane
2007/DVD 2009
Director: Sarah Gavron
Cast: Tannishtha Chatterjee, Satish Kaushik, Christopher Simpson

“Why do you like me?” asks Nazneen (Bengali actress Tannishtha Chatterjee) one day of her younger lover, the hip, hunky, London-reared Karim (Christopher Simpson).

“Who says I like you?” he answers, suddenly shy. But when pressed into emotional territory Nazneen has never entered with her older husband, Karim says she’s unlike the modern girls with their mini-skirts or the religious girls, always arguing. He says she’s “the real thing” – a girl from a village in their homeland of Bangladesh.

It’s this exchange that a friend of mine recalled most vividly from Monica Ali’s 2003 novel, Brick Lane, an exchange that made it into director Sarah Gavron’s 2007 film version of the same title. But equally charged is a later scene between Nazneen and her husband Chanu (Bombay-based director and occasional actor Satish Kaushik), when he admits he’s never become the “big man” he felt he must before he could return home.

“What is this ‘big man’?” she says, grasping his shoulders. “Do you think that’s why I love you?”

In Nazneen’s world such choices have a steeper price than you might think. Except for flashbacks to Nazneen’s childhood, the film compresses the novel’s longer time-span to the year 2001. Having been sent from her village in the 80s to London at 17 to marry Chanu, Nazneen has lost an infant son and is raising two daughters. (As the elder, Shahana, Naeema Begum delivers a small gem of performance as a rebellious teen whose turmoil penetrates her mother.)

For those long years in chilly London, Nazneen has imagined love at second hand, mostly through intermittent, well-embroidered letters from her beloved younger sister Hasina. Around her affair with Karim and against growing backlash to the World Trade Center attacks, a series of criss-crossing reversals and decisions occur. Dutiful and retiring, Nazneen comes to see London, her husband and herself differently. Karim morphs from street entrepreneur to more observant Muslim community activist. And Chanu, admirer of novelists Thackeray and Proust and the philosopher David Hume, decides he cannot stay in the West, though for years he’s ignored Nazneen’s pleas to visit home.

The East London neighborhood called Brick Lane has always been what the Irish actor who plays Karim calls a “place of diaspora.” In the 1700s French Huguenots settled there, later Methodists, and then it became a Jewish enclave. The racial harassment portrayed in Brick Lane – Karim’s participation in the cultural group called the Bengal Tigers occurs partly in defense against a gang of harassing right-wing thugs who go by the name Lion Hearts – builds on a history of real attacks against the London Bangladeshis alone that dates from the 1950s, when they were a considerably smaller community.

By 2001, the Bangladeshi concentrated there numbered about 300,000, the vast majority Sunni Muslims from Bangladesh’s northwest Sylhet district. Many lived in the shabby, hulking, public housing high-rises the British call “estates.” The largest wave arrived in the 1970s following their war of independence from Pakistan, during which 3 million Bangladeshi died. This is slaughter that Chanu cites in his pivotal speech in the film, when he attends one of the Bengal Tigers’ community meetings – partly a challenge to Karim and partly an elder’s warning to the young – after which Nazneen, in simply taking his hand, shifts everything between them.

By last year, another shift had occurred. Brick Lane’s Bangladeshi population had nearly doubled from 2001 levels, making it one of the UK’s largest, youngest and fastest growing immigrant groups. And in the summer of 2006, when Gavron filmed her movie, Brick Lane’s ethnic shops and restaurants had also become tourist destinations.

Gavron has emphasized the support given the production by that community, and she credits assistant director Rahul Amin, himself a Brick Lane resident and filmmaker, with being able to finally make the film at all. Young men from the neighborhood met with Simpson as he prepared to play Karim, and Brick Lane women with Chatterjee. But some Brick Lane merchants objected so strenuously to the novel – saying it portrayed their community as “uneducated, illiterate and unclean” – that Gavron had to move even exterior shooting elsewhere.

But such complaints seem disingenuous. Chanu is devoted to learning and for years Nazneen’s tie to dreams beyond her own arranged life lies in the power of letters with her sister. And it’s another independent countrywoman, her Westernized friend Razia (Harvey Virdi) – who smokes cigarettes and has cut her hair (“all that brushing and brushing!”) – who offers Nazneen a job sewing if she decides to stay, a perhaps troubling example of encouragement.

Some commentators see objections to the novel and ensuing film as having more to do with Nazneen’s own journey, her creator’s telling tales – Ali was born in Bangledesh though reared mostly in England – and the similar reception other Muslim women artists have received from conservative elements in some European immigrant communities.

Paradoxically much of Brick Lane’s strength as a story stems from these cultural clashes. It’s not just that Nazneen is a woman imprisoned by convention (A.O. Scott says she echoes Emma Bovary.) It’s no coincidence that Chanu favors 19th century novels. This traditional, conservative man shares sensibilities with an era in which adultery mattered in plots and communities in ways it may not now. In a review of Ali’s novel – published pointedly on 9/11/03 in The New Republic – James Wood suggests the “ties of marriage, burdens of religion, obligations of civic duty and pressures of propriety” found in the some immigrant groups reinvigorate and clarify our Western stories precisely because they hark back to the themes and concerns and oppressions that helped generate the Western novel to begin with.

The Brick Lane DVD’s extensive commentaries – out since March 10th – are well worth seeking out. But Community Folk Art Center screens the film this Saturday afternoon with a talk afterward from Bangladesh-born Dr. Farhana Sultana of Syracuse University, who lived and taught in London during the film’s 2006 production controversy.

Screening of Brick Lane on March 14 at 2:00 PM, Community Folk Art Center, 805 E. Genesee St. A shorter version of this review appears in the 3/12/09 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Film Review #189: Wendy and Lucy
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Cast: Michelle Willliams, Walter Dalton, Larry Fessenden

Not too far into Kelly Reichardt’s latest road trip film, Wendy Carroll (Michelle Williams), the slight, dark-haired drifter in cut-offs and hoodie, has been dragged into the manager’s office at Jack’s Market for stealing a roll and a can of I AM’s dog food. You can tell the manager would like to let this go.

"Well," he says with a sigh to his zealous clerk, "what are we talking here?"

But Andy (John Robinson), the blond teen-ager who’s "watched the whole thing," his face red and blotchy with indignation, the gold cross at his throat flashing, insists it’s not the money, it’s about setting an example.

"I’m not from around here," says Wendy quickly, sensing an opening that diffident apologies had not provided. "I can’t be an example."

The part about not being "from around here" is a line Wendy uses often, until it comes to resemble a song’s refrain. She’d used it the night before, chatting with another woman who asked her where the local store was, when searching for her dog Lucy led her to the campfire of some "gutter punks" by the railroad. (These are homeless teens who travel by hopping trains; the extras for this scene were hired from a camp near Portland’s rail-yards.) She’d used it that morning when the Walgreen’s security guard (Walter Dalton) wakes her up and says she can’t sleep in the parking lot and must move her car. It echoes as "just passing through" when she pays her shop-lifting fine and again when she gives her sister in Muncie’s address at the dog pound. Later Bill the car mechanic (Will Patton) will bounce the line back to her – "You’re a long way from home, aren’t you?" – and the security guard will sympathetically lament that "you can’t get a job without an address – it’s all fixed!"

Wendy and Lucy covers roughly three days during which Wendy Carroll’s already frayed and tattered life comes apart. Having set out in an ’88 Honda Accord from Great Bend, Indiana, she lands in Wilsonville, Oregon, an equally frayed and tattered former mill town just outside Portland along the railroad north. With $525 left, she’s heading for Alaska and a job in the fish canneries. In Salt Lake City, a guy had told her the car’s serpentine belt was going, but now the head gasket goes too. While occupied with the receiving end of setting an example for local scoff-laws, Wendy loses Lucy to the dog-catcher.

In the end, though Wendy finds Lucy lazing happily in the yard of a "foster" volunteer from the pound, she goes on alone, hopping a train into the chilly twilight. I have watched this film three times now since the awards season screener arrived in my mailbox in late November; knowing the end doesn’t prevent seeing it freshly each time. This time through, though it’s been called "serene" and is considerably softer than Michael Haneke’s 2003 Time of the Wolf, I couldn’t help thinking of his train rumbling through another ominous landscape.

After its premier last May at Cannes followed by some other top fests, Wendy and Lucy screened theatrically on the two coasts in December just long enough to qualify for Oscar nominations, and didn’t make it, despite other critical praise and some top ten lists. Regular theatrical release, starting in January, is now steadily underway, with bookings through the end of May.

Reichardt, who lives most of the year in Queens with Lucy, made this film in August 2007 for about $300,000. Michelle Williams worked for free and refrained from showers for the length of the 18-day shoot. Reichardt co-wrote the script with Portland author Jon Raymond, based on his story "Train Choir." Reichardt and Raymond got the idea from public discussion after Hurricane Katrina and the question of what we owe one another, but this theme is no less ingrained in the Pacific Northwest. While Lucy is still lost, Wendy sits in a diner making flyers to post as the camera pans past another patron reading Ken Kesey's saga of the Stamper logging family's fight against the unions, Sometimes a Great Notion.

Recently interviewed on NPR’s "Fresh Air," Reichardt said she used trains in place of music –"the sounds of commerce as a score" – except for the tune that Wendy hums (echoed in the closing credits and written by musician-actor Will Oldham, who plays the gutter punk Icky). This use of train sound climaxes in one brief terrifying night scene when Wendy crosses paths with a man in the woods (Larry Fessenden, in one of the film’s many performance gems).

Reichardt and Raymond worked together on Old Joy (2006) and have another feature underway with the working title Meek’s Cut-off, a Western "from a feminine perspective" set in 1845 Oregon, making a trilogy that Reichardt says explores the American dream. Most strangers Wendy encounters are decent, courteous folk. Some are generous – inch by inch, the security guard befriends her and this mechanic plays against type – but it only takes one Andy.

This review appears in the March 5 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. See Wendy and Lucy at Manlius Cinema for one week starting March 6. Watch the trailer at Wendy and Lucy opens in 17 other cities, including Ithaca, this week, and comes out on DVD in May. To read Nancy’s review of Old Joy on this site, click on 2007 in Archives and go to May.