Friday, October 14, 2011

Film Clip #243: Gravedigger

2011 – Fiction, 88 min.
Director: Sandor Kardos (Hungary)
Cast: Mari Torocsik, Anga Kaksziistvan, Papp Alina
SYRFILM screening: Friday, October 14, 7:00 PM, Watson Theatre, Waverly Avenue, SU Campus.

Some of us always keep a sharp look-out for the Hungarian and the Czech films that turn up each year as part of the SYRFILM line-up. This evening Sandor Kardos’ feature length Gravedigger is up against what is perhaps the festival’s signature – and usually best attended – event, the silent screen classic accompanied by a specially commissioned live jazz performance. But SYRFILM has put Gravedigger at Watson Theatre on the SU campus (in the Menschel Media Center, next to Light Work, on the corner of Waverly and Comstock Avenues), so maybe the film will catch the campus crowd who are willing to brave the rain but not enough for the trek to Eastwood.

Listed as “experimental,” Gravedigger is a series of stills that pan from right to left (and occasionally in the other direction) – much like a photographic story-boarding of a film. But, made with a photo-finish camera like those used to capture the exact instant a race horse’s nose crosses the finish line, these stills are elongated and distorted. If you don’t know this, you may think the DVD is bad or the projector broken, but no: it’s entirely on purpose. There’s an adjustment period involved here – Gravedigger is not immediately and obviously captivating – but it’s worth the wait.

Set roughly in the 19th century, Gravedigger easily offers itself as a fable, and opens with the gravedigger of the village of San Rocco having died and the leader seeking a new man for the job. For three weeks there are no applicants and, after all, what is a “’cemetery without a master”? One day a stranger arrives, wanting the job, and he transforms the cemetery into a flourishing garden, not to mention winning the heart of Gita, the village leader’s lonely daughter. Suddenly, the villagers do not fear the weight of death so much. The gravedigger’s wisdom lies in his observation that people’s great sorrow lies not in death but in a failure to reach one another. A premonition of the coming plague and Gita’s death, however, cast a pall over the village and replace the flourishing garden with death piled on death. Suddenly there is no more ceremony around death – instead, the few remaining among living heave the bodies over the cemetery hedge. As an allegory of personal and collective grief alike, Gravedigger literally stertches its images to breaking, and stays with you long after you think it would be gone.

Above, the aged Miri (Irit Levi) has a tense exchange with Oleg (David Hess) in Rob Nilsson’s The Steppes. Hess was supposed to accompany Nilsson to Syracuse for this screening, but passed away suddenly last week.

Film Review #244: The Steppes
2011 – Fiction, 107 minutes
Director: Rob Nilsson (USA)
Cast: Irit Levi, Nancy Bower, David Hess
SYRFILM Screening: Friday, 10/14/2011 @ 9:15 PM, Redhouse Arts Center, Armory Square/ Downtown

Nilsson’s The Steppes premiered a few months ago at the Moscow International Film Festival, which also presented a mini-retrospective of Nilsson’s body of work. Last weekend he premiered a related film, What Happened Here, at the Mill Valley Film Festival north of San Francisco. It’s a shame that the two films can’t be seen together, for their web of associations make that a natural double bill.

In the 70s Nilsson read the freshly released edition of My Life by Leon Trotsky and ever since he’s been captivated by the contradictory luminary of the Bolshevik Revolution that overthrew the Russian Czar. Trotsky ran afoul of Stalin, who exiled him in 1929 and whose agents chased and finally assassinated him in 1940 in Mexico. Nilsson was captivated especially by Trotsky’s views on art, which he says few if any other Bolsheviks shared.

Ironically, as Nilsson was discovering Trotsky, the revolutionary’s home village in Ukraine was being abandoned and its houses and synagogue (built by Trotsky’s father, Davyd Bronstein) dismantled by area farmers for their materials. Last year, in part thanks to new connections made here in Syracuse, Nilsson was able to travel to Ukraine and seek out the story of Trotsky’s home village’s disappearance. That story includes the Holomodor, a scheme of Stalin’s that resulted in several million deaths by starvation in 1932-33, and the massacre of that village’s Jews by the Nazis in 1941. After a year's research, Nilsson also managed to locate the single survivor of that massacre in Isreal and traveled there to record his story.

The Steppes, on the other hand, is a fiction film centering on an aged woman living in a flea-bag in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District called the Odessa Hotel, whose name harks back to her own family’s flight from starvation and Germans in Ukraine in the same period that Trotsky hid out from Stalin’s agents and his home village fell in the Nazi tide. Having just lost her husband and having no plan and no resources, Miri seems close to collapse. Her niece Rachel (Nancy Bower) arrives, determined to save her aunt and get some answers about how come her mother – Miri’s sister Olga – could never love her. Reminiscent of the harrowing single night that a man and woman spent in Nilsson’s Imbued last year, The Steppes recounts how Miri and Rachel mightily resist one another until each budges just enough to let the stories out. Few tellings of an old mysterious trauma on screen manage to be quite as redemptive as this one. What Happened Here is the backstory of those events.

Nilsson’s DP, Mickey Freeman, has never been better than he is in The Steppes, and Nilsson moves away from his “direct cinema” approach with a scripted movie that seems to signal a new phase in his work.

Read more about Nilsson’s current projects early in 2012 in "Stone Canoe Journal" in the Moving Images section.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Film Review #242: Gone
2011 – Documentary, 85 minutes
Directors: Gretchen & John Morning
Cast: Kathryn Gilleran
SYRFILM screening: Sat., Oct. 15, 1:00 PM at the Palace Theatre, James St. in Eastwood. Q&A afterward with Kathryn Gilleran.

“What is the first word you think of about your son Aeryn?” asks the woman off-screen, filmmaker Gretchen Morning.

Kathy Gilleran pauses, swallows deeply – the camera angle emphasizes her long throat – and a single word squeezes out.


Although much of it takes place in the Austrian city of Vienna, this is very much a Central New York story. Gilleran is a native of the small city of Elmira in the Southern Tier, who started as a social worker and later switched to policing. In 2006 she retired after more than 21 years as a police officer in Ithaca, New York. During that time she won awards for crime prevention and human rights advocacy, and she was one of the first female police officers in the nation to complete Advanced SWAT training with the International Chiefs of Police. The film’s opening montage has a clip of then-Senate candidate Hillary Clinton mentioning Gilleran’s public comments on community policing during a campaign stop in Ithaca. During Gilleran’s Ithaca police career, she raised two sons in the nearby village of Groton.

And by late October of 2007, Gilleran had gotten what she called her “retirement job” at the county SPCA in Cortland and was planning to visit her older son, Aeryn, for an early Christmas. Instead, on October 31st, she got a phone call from Vienna, where he worked for the United Nations Industrial Development Organization. His boss at UNIDO said Aeryn was missing, hadn’t show up for work in two days.

Gilleran left for Vienna on November 1st, where she stayed five and a half weeks in her son’s apartment while trying to find out what happened. She recounts on-screen how she showed the police her retirement badge, adding, “In America, police officers take care of police officers,” and mimics the dismissive shrug she got as an answer, a response that was to become standard when police weren’t criticizing her instead.

Aeryn Gillern (his mother kept the family spelling of their surname but he dropped the “a”) had started work at UNIDO in 2003. He was an out gay man well-known in Vienna’s gay community, a fact that helped Kathy Gilleran as she started her own investigation. Aeryn had been named Mr. Gay Austria in 2005 and 2006, sponsored by the same upscale sauna, Kaiserbründl, where something happened that sent him fleeing naked through the streets before his disappearance. According to Viennese police theory about common behavior among gay men, he had jumped to his death in the frigid Danube Canal as a “spontaneous suicide.”

Despite the behavior of the Vienna police – the U.S. Consulate was not much better, given that a staff there grabbed her crucifix and said she’d pray for Aeryn when his mother said he was gay – Gilleran did find allies in Vienna, among Aeryn’s friends and inside UNIDO.

“They called me each morning to make sure I was up – and frankly I think to make sure I was still alive,” Kathy Gilleran told me by phone last weekend. “I would go to UNIDO and eat in their cafeteria, see their psychologist Anjelika, use their phone. They had just hired Anjelika and I was her first case. But she took me for coffee, she went to meetings with me constantly, she checked on me.”

Despite Kathy Gilleran’s efforts and persistence over the next four years – she’s met with Aeryn’s partner and his friends, members of Parliament and the Green Party, a founder of the gay police support project in Vienna, a journalist who turned up two witnesses to Aeryn’s run through the streets, staff from the US Consulate and lawyers and police investigators – she has never seen the police report nor has any body ever been found. Through all this, the Vienna police offered wildly, ever-morphing accounts of what happened, who did what and how come.

Gilleran returns to Vienna each October to hold a vigil across the street from the Kaiserbründl sauna. But during those first weeks after her son's disappearance, Gilleran had been standing outisde and a young man named Jens, a manager at the sauna who had known Aeryn, invited her in and provided a tour. With the instincts and training of a good cop, she paid attention to whether the elegant, wood-paneled, labyrinthine private club had video cameras – it did, though the police had told her there were none and they never entered the sauna nor interviewed anyone inside that night.

Similarly, Gilleran also re-traced many of her son’s routine paths, as well as the steps he supposedly took through Vienna’s streets from the sauna to the canal. She narrates this section as the camera simply shows what’s there, demolishing the credibility of the police claim that no one saw a naked man running through a well-lit, busy neighborhood with a train stop, outdoor cafes and cosmopolitan shops.

The husband and wife filmmaking team of John and Gretchen Morning were living in Fayetteville in the fall of 2008 when they first contacted Kathy Gilleran through the Cortland-Ithaca branch of PFLAG, which she'd just joined that summer. (Similarly, I was able to contact her in the same way, through my parents, who are members). The Mornings then met with her in Cortland’s Blue Frog café. They shot the first interview session that December and then provided her with a camera when she returned to Vienna in 2009 and 2010 for her annual vigils, so that she did much of that filming herself while there.

Gretchen Morning had been working for the Discovery Channel as an editor, writer and producer when she and her husband heard about this case through local coverage of the anniversary. Both the Cortland-Standard and Syracuse’s Post-Standard ran stories and Channel 5 did a television report as well.

You can see that this is very much the first feature-length film made by a film editor. The Mornings employ an editing strategy to structure the film that aims pretty effectively at making it primarily the story of a mother’s quest. So there are three elements: close-up interview segments with Gilleran against a dark background (from her clothing and hair, there appear to have been two major interviews filmed); still photos that are matched nicely with the sound of a slide projector’s click when the image changes; and footage that retraces Gilleran’s journeys (mostly in Vienna but with some Central New York footage), which is doubly effective because it serves to present evidence and to highlight that Kathy Gilleran, as a veteran cop, was equipped to challenge the official story by knowing what to look for.

Although the Mornings did interview other people for the film, they have explained their decision not to include any of that material as a way to highlight Kathy Gilleran’s portrait and have argued that such material duplicated what she said anyway.

There is one exception to this strategy and it has the force of a slap across the face. Late in the film, the Mornings insert a short home-video clip that Aeryn Gillern made for his mother about three years before his disappearance. Here, in the popular way of grown-up children establishing a household elsewhere, he offers a little narrated tour of his first Vienna apartment, anticipating that she’ll visit sometime, at the end of which we see him saying good-bye and turning off his videocam.

This scene also appears to be the only place in the film where Aeryn’s younger brother, who was 26 when Aeryn disappeared, gets any mention. Aeryn points out the many framed family photos on his wall: “Here’s you…. Here’s your Dad …. Here’s Grandmother…Here’s Rahman.”

It’s not that Rahman is a secret exactly – there are photos of him on the film’s official website and the bio there lists Kathy Gilleran as the mother of two sons. Despite its undeniable power cinematically, one wonders at the unseen collateral damage of leaving this son and brother out, and whether, in the service of creating a stronger, starker screen portrait of a mother, what kind of position this placed Gilleran in with her remaining child.

And it’s hard to erase him entirely, since on-screen Gilleran often describes events in terms of “we” did this or that, “we” went here or there. Gilleran told me that Rahman went to Vienna too in November 2007, arriving five or six days after she did and staying another ten.

“He thought as a man he could help,” she told me. “And he idolized his big brother.”

Expanding on her screen account of a particularly harrowing interview with two Austrian investigators, one of whom refuses to speak English or even pause for her translator, Gilleran told me that her son Rahman was there too. On-screen we hear how the lead officer, after silently observing proceedings, suddenly strides across the room and disparages her at close range, sarcastically asking, among other things, if she’d really been “just a meter maid.” What’s left out is that Rahman had lit a cigarette while sitting there with her, that the investigator strode up to him first and slapped him across the back of the head, as one might a little boy, before turning viciously on her.

If Rahman’s absence in this film is unsettling, one can only applaud another brief scene that survived, shot during her 2009 trip, about a parallel that many filmmakers would have left out. Here, Kathy Gilleran visits Vienna’s Judenplatz, which commemorates the Austrian Jews turned over to the Holocaust. Carefully stating in the voice-over that she doesn’t wish to stereotype the Austrian people, Kathy Gilleran notes that sixty years ago there was widespread hatred toward other groups in Vienna besides gay men.

“Some Austrians have criticized me for that scene,” she told me. “But there’s another scene that didn’t make it into the final cut. Last year, 2010, we went back to get the last of the filming. I did some of it too and, you know, that camera was my shield. I wasn’t afraid of the police when I had it! The police are always around the synagogues in Vienna. Last year one of them spoke English and I asked him about this and he said, ‘We have to guard them. People don’t like the Jews – those and the queers.’ Austrian synagogues are guarded 24-7. People here don’t know that!”

Gone premiered in April at the TriBeCa Film Festival in New York City and has done well at other festivals and screenings since then. Tula Goenka, who with Roger Hallas co-directs the annual Human Rights Film Festival at Syracuse University earlier in the fall, says they’d tried to get Gone for this year’s program “but SYRFILM beat us to the punch.” Gilleran says that a DVD is possibly in the works and may include extras with interview material of others that wasn’t used in the film.

Since 2007, Gilleran has become acquainted with other disappearances.

“There are so many Aeryns out there!” she says. “A country as civilized as France just got rid of all their gypsies in this past year. We have the exact same economic conditions that gave rise to the Nazis in the 30s. I want people to know that kind of hatred is still out there. And Americans are naïve about what our government will and will not do. The Department of State publishes no stats on U.S. citizens missing abroad. There will be no translators, no attorneys, no money, no transport, no shipping the remains home for you.”

Near the end of our lengthy conversation I asked Kathy Gilleran if she had a theory of what might have happened.

After a pause she said, “You know, I spoke with two different attorneys in Vienna and each of them told me I would never see the police report. Each of them pointed out that an exclusive gay sauna existed in this neighborhood – I mean, two doors from the Gucci store! – and was never bothered by police. There was an ultraconservative politician who was killed in a car crash about a year after Aeryn disappeared. There were rumors he’d been at party in a gay bar and rumors that he was intoxicated. He was xenophobic to the max – he had gotten laws passed against homosexuals. And do you know it’s now illegal in Austria to publicize anything suggesting he was gay?”

Jörg Haider died two weeks after he made a political come-back climaxed by his election as Austria’s president. When a man who claimed he had been Haider’s lover gave an interview in the press, Haider’s widow pursued legal means of silencing him and any media coverage regarding his claims of an intimate relationship with Haider.

“So I wonder if he frequented the Kaiserbründl,” said Gilleran. “If he was there that night. Someone knows something.”

Gilleran returns to Vienna later this month for the fourth anniversary of her son’s disappearance. She’ll be here in Syracuse on Saturday, October 15th, answering questions after the SYRFILM screening at 1:00 PM at the Palace Theatre on James St., Eastwood.