Monday, November 1, 2010

2010 Trenton Foreign Film Festival

Keeping nine of her ten children alive in a Congolese prison camp where they were beaten, raped, starved, and threatened with death for over a year by the soldiers who had killed her husband and more than five million of her compatriots, Rose Mapendo could easily have become hardened, bitter, or permanently traumatized – or simply given up the fight. Instead, as chronicled in Pushing the Elephant, this extraordinary woman became a kind of 21st-century messiah, speaking to and for the growing millions of international refugees seeking shelter from genocidal wars.

When she’s not on the road on behalf of Mapendo International or MNH New Horizons, nonprofit foundations that amplify her message and build on her work, she is in her new home in Phoenix, Arizona, raising her big brood of apparently healthy and happy children. The filmmakers, who keep the emotional pitch high by weaving in new revelations at deftly timed intervals, introduce Rose’s tenth child, Nangabire, just as we’re getting used to the rhythm of life for the other nine.

Nangabire was separated from her parents and siblings when the war broke out, and it took many years for Rose to find her. Directors Beth Davenport and Elizabeth Mandel capture both sides of their deeply moving reunion, filming Nangabire as she leaves her tearful friends and grandparents in Kenya and heads apprehensively for the airport, then switch to Rose going to the airport in Phoenix while she fills us in on her daughter’s past and how sorry she is to have missed so much of it. We also see Rose searching for her daughter, then ululating joyfully before wrapping her in a hug so tight you can practically feel it.

It’s a moment of transformative joy, but it’s no happy ending: Nangabire has a lot of adjusting to do. She’s shocked at first by the “attitude” displayed by her independent, argumentative little sister and intimidated by her suburban high school, since she doesn’t know the language any better than she does the culture. But perhaps most importantly, she needs to get past the resentment and anger that are holding her back. Nangabire is understandably bitter about the years she lost with her parents and siblings, the education she missed out on when her grandparents took her out of her beloved school, and the harsh judgments she heard from other people when word got back to her community that her oldest sister was the concubine of one of the soldiers in the camp. Rose listens to her angst with her usual empathy, crying in private as she tells the camera how she grieves for the lost years she can never give back to her daughter. But she won’t let Nangabire wallow in her sorrow – for her own sake. Instead, she tells her about the importance of forgiving those who have wronged you, living in the present, and taking control of your destiny. “What I want to do is open the path of your life,” she says.

Like the Liberian women in Pray the Devil Back to Hell, who used their status as grieving mothers to help end that country’s bloody civil war, Rose gets her identity and her moral authority primarily from her role as one of the wives and mothers who, as she puts it, pay the greatest price in any war. Like a self-appointed mother to the whole wounded world, she reminds us that mothers are important because they give us the comfort and hope that keeps us alive, even when times are so desperate that they have nothing else to give.

Pushing the Elephant is one of six feature-length films and three shorts playing this weekend at the second annual Trenton Foreign Film Festival. That’s not a lot of films, but they cover a lot of turf, from the moody melodrama of the beautifully shot My Tehran for Sale to the energetic escapism of the equally gorgeous Besouro and the earnest idealism of 8th Wonderland.

My Tehran’s credits include a thank-you to Bahman Ghobadi, whose Nobody Knows About Persian Cats also follows a few young people in their travels around Tehran and showcases a lot of music, both traditional and modern, to convey both a sense of the frustrations experienced by artists oppressed by the fundamentalist regime and the cultural richness of the city’s underground. But where Ghobadi’s brilliant and feisty little film felt like a freshly served slice of life, My Tehran piles on too many tragic encounters and shots of soulful middle-distance stares and winds up feeling heavy-handed and unconvincing, despite a promising start.

Besouro is a classic revenge story hung on a strong hook – the fight waged by Brazilians of African descent to become free – that could have been a real powerhouse of a movie in the right hands. The characters and situations are so thinly developed and the dialogue so weak that the sumptuous visuals have to pull us in virtually unassisted, but they’re good enough to succeed. The title character, who really existed, worked on an early 20th century sugarcane plantation and was an early master of capoeira. That African-Brazilian mixture of fighting and dance is cinematic enough to begin with, but even it is hyped up here, turned into a mashup of classic capoeira, parkour, and Chinese-style wire fighting (Besouro supposedly got his fighting name, which means “beetle,” because he could fly when he did capoeira, and this movie shows him literally taking to the skies). The filmmakers fill the frame with gorgeous young actors, a fair amount of sex and nudity, tourist brochure-ready settings, and lots of whooshing, bug’s-eye-view dolly shots as our hero defeats his racist overlords, a pair of very, very bad guys in black hats, and inspires his people to fight on after his death. It works if you’re looking for a black-power revenge fantasy or a fable for kids – as long as they’re old enough for the sex.

The Shaft is another bad-news bulletin from fast-industrializing China, this time from a coal mining town so beautifully shot that even the coal dust is lovely, softening everything like an aging star shot through a vaselined lens. (There have been a lot of movies like this lately, most notably from the great Jia Zhangke, whose features document the enormous changes forced on ordinary people by the extraordinary changes upending the Chinese economy, and most recently from Lixin Fan, whose Last Train Home is a stunning debut.) But there’s little beauty in the lives of the people the film follows in three overlapping stories. Its deadpan camera makes us feel how trapped they are, observing depressed, mostly silent people from a fixed position as they sit in empty rooms, eat in front of a TV, ride down empty streets, or descend into the mine shaft that eventually swallows every man in town. It relies too much on expository dialogue and sometimes repeats images to the point of tedium (I suspect those repeating images are supposed to make me feel how stuck the characters are, but they just made me feel antsy instead), but there’s enough texture and information in all those near still-life shots to make it worth seeing.

8th Wonderland is a utopian French fantasy about a virtual nation formed online by a group of mostly young, universally good-looking, and demographically diverse people. Together, they debate what to do about things like the hypocrisy of the Vatican’s stance on AIDS, Chinese sweat shops that exploit children, nuclear energy, and uncaring multinational conglomerates whose products kill people, before putting their proposals to a vote and acting on them. Much of the movie is delivered in the form of international newscasts reporting on the group’s activities or the things they are reacting to, so there’s a lot of blunt satire of stupid newscasting tricks around the world, including a young woman who strips while delivering the news on a Japanese channel. Bare-bones sets, actors who look like adolescents playing at being sophisticates, and bad American accents give it all a DIY feel, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing: The amateurish vibe mirrors the feel of the online community and exemplifies the film’s touchingly sincere call for secular-humanist citizen activism. 8th Wonderland may gloss over the problems that would be arise if people formed a new global political entity online, but its vision of a world in which virtual communities are at least as important as the old-fashioned kind is already close to reality.

The 2010 Trenton Foreign Film Festival will take place November 5-7 at the corner of Front and Montgomery streets in Trenton. Tickets are $8 for individual films, $24 for 4 films, or $5 at the door for high school and college students who show a valid school ID.

Written for TimeOFF

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