Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Substance Over Style: 2011 Trenton International Film Festival

The 2011 Trenton International Film Festival will run from October 14 through 16 at the Mill Hill Playhouse in Trenton.

"The theme running through this year's selection is the complexity of human relations—in communities, in larger societies, and between individuals and people of differing religious and political beliefs,” says Trenton Film Society Executive Director Cynthia Vandenberg of the 2011 Trenton International Film Festival. “In each of the films we see how people can transcend the normative behaviors that surround them and how, consequently, they challenge others to do the same."

Watching the films in this year’s festival, you get the sense that the programmers were more interested in substance than style. In the opening of Scheherazade: Tell Me a Story, for instance, the camera drifts around the Cairo apartment where the main character, TV journalist Hebba (Mona Zaki), lives with her husband Karim (Hassan El Raddad), a reporter yearning to become editor-in-chief of his state-owned newspaper. The intention is probably to introduce us to the power couple’s über-consumerist lifestyle, but badly lit spaces and painfully slow pans make it hard to see anything much. And in the opening scene of Kinyarwanda, a dark room looks washed-out as the camera shoots toward the light pushing through the windows, the saturation levels briefly and distractingly correcting themselves whenever someone walks between the camera and the window and temporarily blocks the glare.

The storytelling and acting are often a little rough around the edges too. In Scheherazade, Hedda replaces the political programming on her show with personal tales of everyday women to please Karim, who’s been told he won't get the job he’s angling for if he doesn’t put a lid on his outspoken wife. Most of the stories Hedda airs are interesting, if only in a gossipy sort of way, but the movie feels inorganic and schematic, thanks in part to ham-fisted dialogue. “You veil me, take my money, impose your conditions and your mother’s. If marriage just means having sex, I’ll pass on you!” one of Hebba’s guest yells at her fiancè during a flashback, in a speech that would sound graceless and unnecessary even if we hadn’t just heard him do everything she accuses him of.

The festival’s opening film, Kinyarwanda, is fictional, but it’s based on testimonials from Rwandans who found refuge at a mosque and a madrassa during the 1994 genocide of Tutsis by their Hutu countrymen. Its earnest effort to document the bravery of those who resisted the calls to slaughter and to explain the reconciliation process that followed sometimes feels didactic. Some of the actors are also stiff, including Zaninka Hadidja, who plays young Jeanne, a central character who goes on the run after finding her parents murdered in the home she shared with them.

But if Hadidja does not have sophisticated acting chops, she does have an innate sweetness and strength of character that radiate out from the screen, almost as compelling as a commanding performance. And the stories that unfold in the film’s overlapping multipart narrative, in which a scene glimpsed in one segment may be played out in full in another, are so inherently dramatic that they can’t help but capture your interest.

At the same time, Kinyarwanda never lets you forget that life has a way of getting in your face even in the midst of a genocide. More than once, like when Jeanne’s parents fight over the affair her mother has just learned that her father was having, the murderous talk on the radio and the rampaging mobs outdoors are just a dim background accompaniment to a heated exchange about something else altogether.

That’s not to say that the filmmakers soft-pedal or ignore the horrors that were part of that genocide, but they make them clear without rubbing our noses in them. Instead, they focus on acts of heroism by brave people who risked their own lives to save others and on the resilience of the human spirit.

Kyrgyzstan’s The Light Thief stars writer/director Aktan Arym Kubat as the man everyone calls Mr. Light, an electrician who jerry-rigs connections for village elders and others who can’t afford to pay for electricity. Either an antic drama or a comedy with a heavy heart, it’s an unusual, sometimes uneven mixture of light and dark, silly and serious.

At times, the film seems to be lurching from point to point like the boyishly open Mr. Light and his friends after they’ve been on a bender. If it’s not moving from one loosely connected set piece to another–Bekzat the town capitalist, tries to bend other people to his will; Mr. Light gets electrocuted and survives; the village major dies; Bekzat tries to woo a group of Chinese investors–it’s showing us seemingly random shots of village life, the horses and donkeys as well as the people. It’s interesting, in a purely ethnographic sense, to see how these people work, play, and keep house, but it’s not always clear what a given scene has to do with the main story, which is about the enlightenment and eventual disillusionment of the charmingly naïve Mr. Light.

Uruguay’s A Useful Life stars Jorge Jellinek, who is an actual film critic and looks it. His Jorge, a pale and pudgy mole of a man, is a longtime employee of a grant-supported arthouse whose sheltered routines are shattered when his cinema loses its funding, forcing him to rediscover the modest pleasures and unexpected joys of real life. Filmed in black and white with a droll sense of humor that comes out mostly in the visuals (Jorge gets his first heroic close-up as his head is being shampooed, and that shot is followed by an artily askew one of the shampooer’s upside-down face), A Useful Life could have been a clever film student’s response to the challenge: “Make a film about the most uncinematic subject you can think of.” It’s a deliberately small-scale character study, an island of sly subtlety in a sea of films with far grander intentions.

Written for TimeOff

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