I've been fairly disappointed in what I've seen so far of the fall crop of films (Eastern Promises, The Kingdom, Feast of Love, 3:10 to Yuma). However, two films are in Portland this week (and perhaps in other cities where you are) that would be easy to miss because, not only have they not been promoted but the paper hasn't even bothered to review them and you really have to dig to find reviews on line. They are both well worth a look.
The first is Vanaja, which is actually a student film that has gained international recognition on the film festival circuit, including winning the award for Best Feature Debut at the Berlin Film Festival. It is set in rural south India and tells the story of a 14-year-old girl who is the daughter of a low-caste fisherman and dreams of becoming a Kuchipudi dancer. She angles her way into a domestic job working for the most powerful family in the village, in hopes that her mistress, formerly a Kuchipudi dancer of some renown, will teach her. Despite the film's focus on class divisions, it avoids stereotyping the mistress, who can be harsh but also possesses warmth and a sense of humor. She admires the girl's pluckiness, and having a good dancer in the household is a social asset, so she agrees to teach her.
The movie portrays caste divisions that persist in India and the social forces that make those divisions so intractable. Told through the experience of Vanaja (pronounced vah-nah-JAH), though, it is also the story of a somewhat typical teenager, by turns imaginative and willful and petulant and vulnerable. The young actress who plays her is absolutely captivating--and remarkably had never acted or danced before making the film. In fact, all of the actors are nonprofessionals recruited from the part of rural India where the film is set, found through a variety of methods including newspaper ads and then put through extensive acting training (and, in the case of the lead, dancing training and, in the case of the mistress, training in classical music). The result--filmed over a period of years for $20,000--feels absolutely authentic and natural. Though the film bogs down a little in the middle, the first-time writer-director (who made the film as his thesis at Columbia University film school) shows real promise in the performances he coaxed out of the cast, his depiction of the culture, and the beautiful, natural cinematography. And if you have never seen this type of dance before, as I hadn't, it is a special treat, incorporating complex rhythms and balance into dramatic story-telling. [In Telugu with English subtitles; no rating but okay for mature middle schoolers and high school age kids. In Portland it is playing at the Fox Tower.]
My second recommendation is Protagonist, which was my favorite of the 14 or so films I saw at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in North Carolina in April. The writer-director, Jessica Yu, also wrote and directed In the Realms of the Unreal, which I wrote about in 2005, and is, in my mind, a true visionary. This film, like that one, is among the most original I've seen--but also, like that one, is hard to describe in a way that captures how riveting it is. Yu uses Javanese puppets and the work of 5th Century Greek dramatist Euripedes to illustrate the common and timeless elements of four stories of profound transformation.
The stories of a German terrorist, a "reformed" gay Christian, a martial-arts enthusiast, and a bank robber share in common childhood trauma, extreme response leading to destructive, even disastrous results, and cathartic transformation. The parallels between Greek tragedy and the subjects' stories are emphasized using the puppets as a surprisingly effecting Greek chorus reciting from Euripedes under topics such as "Character," "Catharsis," and "Reflection." The puppets also on occasion reenact the events of the stories themselves.
The effect is quite profound. The stories themselves, narrated by their subjects, are riveting enough--but the addition of the writings of Euripedes and the Greek chorus makes you feel them to your core. I had the pleasure of participating in a discussion with the director after the festival screening I attended and was really impressed by her method. I really encourage you to catch this one if you can--in Portland it is playing Monday through Thursday at the Hollywood theater. [Rated R for language.]