Among the chief pleasures of the Woodstock Film Festival is the fall foliage -- fruit-loop-colored trees cover the hilly forest landscape just enough to blot out the garish commercialization of hippiness that litters the main Woodstock drags (tied-eyed this, Grateful Dead that). There is also, of course, a handful of quality films. I trekked up to Woodstock to relax, but also to catch up with a couple of films that I've missed thus far on the festival circuit. I had fully planned to see Larry Fessenden's "The Last Winter" -- recommended by some, hated by others -- to judge the film for myself. But I've been told that the film is being re-cut since its Toronto premiere, so I'll wait to see the new version.
That left me with a couple of films to see, one of which will stay with me for some time as I ponder its respective merits and weaknesses. Julia Loktev's "Day Night Day Night" won a special youth jury prize after its premiere at Directors' Fornight in Cannes and the top dramatic jury award in Woodstock -- and I can see why. A riveting, narrowly focused portrait of a young, female American suicide bomber, "Day Night Day Night" finds a striking face in newcomer Luisa Williams.
The film brings up an intriguing contradiction: Williams's bomber is all mousey soft-spokenness, uttering the word "thank you" more than anything else to her terrorist facilitators. She's so vulnerable, initally, that one might suspect Loktev had painted a picture of terrorist-as-victim, a murderer who is merely an instrument of the masked men that clothe her and coach her. But it's more complex than that. She whispers strongly and devotedly to her God; she has made the choice for herself. And perhaps, it is she that is using the facilitators to carry out her will, and not the other way around.
Comparisons to "Paradise Now" or "The War Within" may be inevitable, but the film that kept coming to my mind was Lodge Kerrigan's "Keane," another terrific example of New York location shooting and intimate, mumbling paranoid portraiture. Like "Keane," "Day Night Day Night" relishes in transient spaces, from the sterile hotel room that is the terrorist's first staging area -- the film's early bathroom shots are its best; they are the most haunting and enigmatic, for their claustrophobia, and their strange and fascinating gender politics -- and the constantly fluxuating populated streets of Times Square.
Where I have my doubts about "Day Night Day Night" is its insistent -- and obviously intentional -- obfuscation of world politics. It took me a while to figure it out, but by never mentioning the girl's motives, by eliding any political motivations, only a religious one, the film forgets the very real and important realities that drive people to terrorism, whether that's disenfrachisement, poverty or other forms of oppression. I'm sure Loktev -- who directed a terrific doc awhile back "Moments of Impact" -- had strong reasons for this, but I have my doubts about the decision. Whatever my political reservations, however, the film is provocative and precise and deserving of a wider audience in America.