The cinematic intersection of the political and the aesthetic is an eternally precarious place; Make a point too eagerly, too earnestly and you risk preaching only to the choir but divest too much political reality from the story you tell in favor of the obliquely beautiful image and you risk obscuring the message. This year’s NYFF has found several films, all of them foreign, that bring necessarily transgressive political ideas to the screen in both beautifully and narratively compelling ways. That these films are foreign is no surprise; sitting in the Walter Reade and watching each of them, I found myself thinking how, at this moent in American life, when fear has erased the pursuit of truth in the name of political triumphalism, films that even attempt to artfully render political dissent seem almost impossible; It's mourning in America. The only example I can think of is Shortbus which, despite its message of personal freedom, doesn’t quite paint personal liberation with the broader strokes of social injustice; Where is the honest outrage in our fiction? As our national cinema’s shortcomings grow into the feeling of a deep absence of a the lost understanding of the necessity of art, the world at large continues to transcend our failings and literally puts our political values to shame. Which is, in all honesty, where they belong.
Bamako by Abderrahmane Sissako
Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako (named for the city in Mali where the film takes place) is a powerful film which is deeply rooted in the Pan-African cinematic tradition while, at the same time, dealing with the universal issue of the impact of globalization in a profound and deeply engaging way. The citizens of Bamako, suffering a drastic shortage of every imaginable social resource or national investment, have decided to stage a trial in order to find some sort of rough justice for their community and Africa as a whole. The defendants? The World Bank and the IMF who, having set the conditions of ‘structural adjustment’ (aka the privatization and internationalization of national services and resources) and high-interest loans as necessary to secure international aid, have left the people of Mali in the terrible situation where the cost of living is not ruled by organic market forces but a deeply tilted playing field that keeps the nation on the brink of economic collapse.
In the wake of the way in which the issue of ‘globalization’ has been opposed in the West (a disorganized collection of social groups who seem more likely to attack a single Starbucks or McDonald’s franchise in a riot than significantly impact the culture of consumption), watching Sissako’s film was absolutely revelatory for its level-headed dignity and deep understanding of the issues of conditional “development.” That Sissako places the words of condemnation and testimony in the mouths of everyday citizens, men and women from all walks of life, and places the trial in the courtyard of a residential building where life goes on literally around the trial, is perhaps the film’s most poetic decision and fosters a much deeper connection to the heady material than a simple, documentary-style, talking head litany of complaint ever could. It is in the everyday reality of the film’s subplots that the point is driven home even further; A gun goes missing, a marriage dissolves, a child becomes ill, all narrative examples of the ramifications of the prosecution's most powerful charges. Two rhyming moments eloquently underscore the effect; A young mother and wife sings a Malian pop song to a small audience in a nightclub. Later, Sissako shows her perform the same song again, this time in exile in Senegal with tears streaming down her face. In the second example, an elderly griot rises to testify in the trial without having been invited to do so and is forced to return to his seat with the promise he will be called upon later. When the trial concludes with the closing statements of the European and African lawyers (talking in highly academic and political terms), the griot rises again and delivers a stunning testimony; A song and story, untranslated in the film’s subtitles, that delivers more meaning in its emotional power than any rhetoric ever could. It is of no consequence what has been said before; the griot’s song is the objective truth of the entire film.
The Song Remains The Same: Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako
After the film’s public screening, the Film Society convened a panel to discuss the movie and, as a film programmer who has often doubted the importance of film panels at festivals, I was utterly amazed by not only the the turnout (Mira Nair, Danny Glover, Phillip Lopate and Jonathan Demme were all in attendance) but the powerful panelists themselves; The Director Abderrahmane Sissako, the actor/singer/activist Harry Belafonte, the economist Jeffery David Sachs, the Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz (former Chief Economist of The World Bank), and Mahmood Mamdani, President of the Council for Development of Social Research in Africa. I have never seen a more credentialed film panel in my entire life, and while the discussion between panelists was rather constricted by the chosen format (long, individual opening statements which ended up taking up the majority of time without much interaction between the speakers), the depth of thinking about issues ranging from the problems with the current structure of international aid institutions in regard to Africa to the importance of individual political action and voice in the process of change made for an engaging conversation.
One of the topics that a very erudite audience member touched upon but which was ultimately lost in the free-for-all of the question and answer session was Bamako’s role as a movie. It was on my mind as well as, in the long tradition of African cinema, the movie seemed a return to the metaphoric political films of the post-colonial flowering in African film. Whereas films like Ousmane Sembene’s Xala (1975) and Med Hondo’s terrific Soleil O (1967) demonstrate the two sides of the post-colonial and neo-colonial relationship (internal corruption by African leaders in the mode of their colonial oppressors and the racist realities of the colonial experience and the diaspora), Bamako outlines the story of our age of globalization within the deeply-rooted context of a long history of African political cinema. I have heard nothing but praise for the film from audience members and, despite some misguidedly literal-minded and tepid reviews (I don’t usually disagree with Ed Gonzalez but mentioning The Constant Gardener in this review sinks his boat before it even sails), I expect that if New Yorker Films handles this movie properly and allows word of mouth to build in progressive communities, it could become a milestone for African film in this country.
Offside by Jafar Panahi
In light of the United States’ seemingly unwavering desire to capitalize on its simple-minded declaration of Iran as a nation squarely located within the “Axis of Evil” (as deeply embarrassing a turn of phrase as has ever been spoken in the name of international diplomacy), the issue of gender discrimination at Iran’s national soccer stadium may seem like small potatoes; Clearly, nuclear proliferation threatens what remains of the relationship between our two nations and the world at large. But after watching Jafar Panahi’s tremendously moving Offside, which details the detention of women at a Tehran soccer stadium after they try to sneak into a World Cup qualifying match (only men are allowed to attend matches), I’d bet even the most simple-minded reductionist would have a hard time pointing to a single instance of ‘evil’ in the Iran depicted on-screen. That is not to say that Offside is a statement of national pride by any means, but more a statement of the profound depth of the Iranian character; Shooting on the fly and without permits, Panahi has constructed a movie that defines the humanity of Iranian society by showing its deepest limitations and flaws.
The story is simple; Young women, dressed in baggy clothes in an attempt to cloak their gender, have been captured by the stadium’s guards and detained for trying to attend a soccer match between Iran and Bahrain. The stakes are high; If Iran wins, the national team wins a trip to Germany and the 2006 World Cup but, if they lose, the nation stays home and misses out on inclusion in the global party. The women are held just outside the stadium’s walls by their reluctant captors who parrot the logic of this selective exclusion without ever seeming to believe too deeply in the justifications for the rules they must enforce (which are predicated on the idea that if women attend a soccer match, they will be exposed to unwholesome language and behavior by men who are too excited by the game to protect the women’s virtue. Seriously.) Slowly, the captors and captives are united by their interest in the national team’s performance, and as the film winds down and the women are taken by van to meet their fate with Tehran’s Vice Squad, the team wins the match and qualifies for the World Cup, setting off celebrations of such magnitude that all traffic is halted and the women’s captivity becomes a moot point; Captors and captives dance arm in arm into the night.
A Nation Divided: Jafar Panahi’s Offside
Despite the sporting context of Panahi’s chosen subject, the film is truly a discussion of Iran’s national identity and the meaning of citizenship in a society which discriminates against women. Despite the ‘enlightened’ gender politics of most Western nations (insert ironic cough), Offside is no invitation to gloat at the misguided social customs of a nation out of touch with individual freedom, but instead a deeply humanist portrait of a society trying its best to understand individuality in the context of collective traditions. Panahi never lets Iranian society off the hook and there is no question that Offside is an indictment of an Iran which paternally rejects the idea of individual personhood for women (there isn’t a single argument by a male character that doesn’t refer to an hypothetical father, husband or brother who would be insulted by the women’s participation in the soccer crowd). The choice of the Iranian National Team is an inspired one; If one of the most important of social interactions is restricted to only half the population, just whose nation is Iran? The film’s finale, where cosmopolitan Tehranians literally dance in the streets celebrating their collective national achievement makes the point more clearly than any silly speech by a world leader might; On the street level, where men and women live their lives together, Iran is just like any other nation in the world, dancing, singing and united in the pursuit of a good time. Before another ill-considered word between the two nations is uttered, I encourage all Americans to watch Offside and discover a deep sense of self-recognition and regret that we could allow things to come this far without acknowledging how much we truly have in common.
Our Daily Bread by Nickolaus Geyrhalter
I have been to every Press and Industry screening at the festival (save for the added weekend screenings which will be playing again this Friday… a boy’s gotta watch soccer sometime!), and I have noticed an annoying trend which is symptomatic of every festival I’ve ever attended but which irks me to no end; While high-profile (and soon to be released) films like Borat at Toronto or today’s screening of Pedro Almodovar’s Volver at the New York Film Festival pack the press and industry in like sardines, the smaller, lesser-known films tend to go relatively unseen. I feel a deep connection to my friends and colleagues who I’ve seen at all of the films, as if there are only a few of us with enough intellectual curiosity (or without other, pressing affairs maybe… maybe!) to actually see the NYFF program through to the end. One of the most powerful and engaging films of this year’s festival was one of the least-seen; Nickolaus Geyrhalter’s gorgeous and horrifying Our Daily Bread.
A documentary almost totally without dialogue (no talking heads, no interviews, no voiceover, nada), the film is a series of perfectly executed shots that show us the realities of modern food production; The raising, keeping, slaughter and butchering of all kinds of animals, the greenhouse estates that grow row after row of vegetables and the machines which automate many of the industrial processes utilized to maximize production. I found myself deeply fascinated by the innovation and ruthless efficiency of the machinery itself and the array of gadgets, robotic production tools and assembly line processing of amazing quantities of food is shot so beautifully, the rhythm of production so hypnotic, I almost forgot that what I was watching may not be the ideal mode of food production (to put it mildly). In fact, the film seems to assume a deep distrust for mechanized food production on the viewer’s behalf, but is so aesthetically beautiful in presenting a neutral view of the process, it was hard not to be unsure if the film weren’t in fact a celebration of modernization and factory farming. However, Geyrhalter’s decision to avoid commentary is perhaps the film’s greatest asset; My mind was racing with questions about what I was watching, actively rebelling against the formal beauty of the cinematic experience by questioning not only the film’s subject and presentation, but my own experience and fascination with the images.
Sowing The Unknown Seed: Nickolaus Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread
Which is to say, Our Daily Bread is all the more eloquent for trusting the viewer to recognize the attraction and repulsion of industrial food production and to think deeply about the subject without telling us what to think. I am deeply grateful for that experience as no other film in the festival has given me so much pause for thought. On the one hand, I look at highly efficient, mechanized (and since the farms are in Europe, very clean and safe) production of mass quantities of food and I couldn’t help think of Darfur or the Tanzania of Darwin’s Nighmare or the innumerable other areas where famine rages and how truly efficient food production could truly help eliminate hunger in the world. On the other hand, knowing what we know about the world, it seems clear that not a single morsel of the food produced in Our Daily Bread will ever pass the lips of a person who can’t pay for it at a European grocer’s. Add to this the knowledge that mass production without agricultural diversity has been shown to negatively impact the long-term sustainability of the land, and questions ricochet around the borders of the film’s impeccable frames. Can industrial food production be put to its proper use as a potential food source for the millions who need it or will it only serve as a profitable, efficient way to destroy sustainable farming? The film offers no answers, and is so much the better for not doing so.
Things are wrapping up in a week or so, but I promise more as I have time and the films warrant discussion. I could go on, but if you made it this far, we probably both need a break. More soon.