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SFIFF 54 Day Four: Silent Souls, Crime After Crime, Christine Vachon vs. Miranda July

by Meredith Brody
April 26, 2011 1:54 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood

Meredith Brody dives into her fourth day of San Francisco screenings, starting with one of my favorite films from Venice, Silent Souls (pictured):

Easter Sunday was never a big holiday in my book – mostly I look forward to the half-price chocolates available the day after. The darkened cinema is my favorite place of worship anyway.


Thompson on Hollywood

On the way to Japantown I stop in for my first visit to the press office and filmmaker’s lounge, which share a large space that was up until recently (cue symbolism here) a Blockbuster outlet. I compliment Rachel Rosen, director of programming, on her introduction to Fassbinder’s World on a Wire, the night before. Among her nuggets of info, she told us why Fassbinder chose Paris rather than a city in Germany for much of the filming: fashionable Paris had already built glass-walled shopping malls with a futuristic flair, as yet unknown in Germany in the early 70s. Rosen also understood and encapsulated the excitement that those of us who had seen everything else that Fassbinder had directed felt about seeing something heretofore unknown of his oeuvre on the big screen, almost three decades after his untimely death. And the Fassbinder virgins in the crowd were also welcomed.Coincidentally Rachel R. also introduces Silent Souls, a Russian movie whose director Aleksei Fedorchenko is an unknown quantity for me. Again Rachel invites us to the party with aplomb.

Silent Souls’ quiet, poetic little story – a photographer accompanies his friend on a dreamlike voyage to dispose of the body of his much-loved wife – suits me right down to the ground. The (imagined) rituals of the Merja people to which our narrator belongs – “an ethnic minority of Finno-Urgric extraction originally from the Volga region of Russia – serve as backdrop for a witty and uncommonly pleasant little movie. (I say “little” because of its compact 75-minute running time, not because of its ambitions or achievements.)

Afterwards I just manage to sit (on the aisle, in the third row of a crowded Theater 1, meaning the big screen looms above me monumentally) with seconds to spare before the documentary Crime after Crime begins. It follows the heartbreaking case of Deborah Peagler, railroaded into a 25-year-to-life sentence for her involvement in the murder of the man who turned her out as a prostitute and beat her – in the years before battering and abuse were even admissible as evidence. Filmmaker Yoav Potash joins the pro bono legal case (led by two modest but charismatic East Bay real estate lawyers) as they fight on, year after year, emboldened by the new law (unique to California) that allows abused women to reopen their cases. The old truth-is-stranger-than-fiction axiom comes into play as we watch the results of Potash’s 5 ½ years of filming. A fiction filmmaker might be chastised for making his incarcerated heroine, over 20 years into a sentence that should have been six years at most, so sympathetic, articulate, hardworking and productive in prison; for introducing a gruff hard-bitten private investigator who mysteriously turns up embargoed documents; for portraying the LA District Attorney as a smug-faced, uninformed, turncoat jerk; or creating a ticking clock that makes Peagler’s release imperative. But no! It’s real life! The sound of quiet weeping can be heard all over the auditorium.

Afterwards Potash is joined onstage by the two lawyers (a young male Orthodox Jew and his female colleague, a marathon runner, both attractive and with telegenic families glimpsed onscreen – I’m thinking TV series!), Deborah Peagler’s younger daughter (fathered by the murder victim), and the woman who hooked up the lawyers with the case when they thought their involvement would last a few months. Again (as with Miss Representation) we hear a call to arms: you can sign up to support the continuing goals of what is now called Debbie’s Campaign to free incarcerated abused women. I press my last twenty dollars (well, the last twenty dollar bill in my purse) into their hands.

State of Cinema Keynote
Christine Vachon’s State of Cinema address is available in full here. The annual event has featured such assorted movers and shakers as Tilda Swinton, Brad Bird, and Walter Murch, all of whom gave livelier and more theatrical presentations than the exceedingly down-to-earth Vachon, who let us know that it was midnight for her (i.e., she just flew in from New York, and boy were her arms tired, as well as her aggressively grungy grubby-little-boy’s outfit of wrinkled black short-sleeve t-shirt, green pants, and black tie-up shoes). I bow to no one in my appreciation of Vachon’s impressive career – over sixty films produced in just a little over a quarter-century – and taste (her championing of Todd Haynes would be enough for me to revere her forever), but she seemed underprepared. The gist: Things have changed, social media is important nowadays, you can make movies – or miniseries – for TV too, and microseries for the web, and you gotta go with the flow: “We’re forced to become budget agnostic, format agnostic, content agnostic, and platform agnostic,” she said.

One moment where sparks flew was when filmmaker Miranda July objected to Vachon’s earlier laissez-faire explanation to another woman questioner that since women-driven stories were a tough sell for the movies, TV was the alternative. July said that as a 37-year-old woman with a film [The Future] playing up the street, she found that disheartening. I don’t think Vachon knew who’d asked the question: she responded that she thought that nostalgia was the most disheartening emotion in the world, why not focus on what is possible, cable TV has all these women-driven stories, Weeds, Nurse Jackie, etc etc.

After the third time (by my count) that Vachon checked her iPhone’s clock under the podium – hey, this event is listed for an hour, and it’s 10:15 already, or 1:15 a.m. my time, read the cartoon balloon over her head – the State of Cinema was that it was over for tonight. TV and web portals were waiting to be accessed at home. Easter Sunday was over for this, uh, agnostic.

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