Sunday, April 6, 2008

Postcard #4 from Full Frame

It's been an amazing festival. Several of my favorite films were award winners--"Man On Wire" won both the audience award and a special jury award; "At the Death House Door" won the Inspiration Award, which is presented to the film that best exemplifies the value and relevance of world religions and spirituality; and "Up the Yangtze" won honorable mentions in two categories--the Filmmaker Award, recognizing films that combine originality and creativity with firsthand experience in examining central issues of contemporary life and culture, and the Spectrum Award, which honors a person of color whose filmmaking demonstrates artistic excellence and achievement.

I got to the opportunity to see "The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)," which won the Spectrum Award, in a rescreening this afternoon. What a powerful film. I am ashamed to say that before today I knew little about the role that Laos played in the Vietnam War, but this film opened my eyes to still more unsettling truths. It is co-directed by Ellen Kuras (the cinematographer of one of my favorite films, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," as well as many other films) and Thavisouk Phravasath, who came to the U.S. as a refugee from Laos in 1981 at the age of 13 with his mother and 7 of his 9 brothers and sisters. The U.S. ran clandestine operations in Laos during the war, and Phravasath's father was a soldier in that U.S. operation, which involved dropping more bombs on Laos than were deployed in World War I and World War II combined. The bombs targeted both the North Vietnamese on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the communist Pathet Lao guerillas. Operations in Laos were ultimately unsuccessful, the government that had cooperated with the U.S. was routed, and the new Pathet-controlled government was hostile to people like Phravasath's father, who was taken away to a reeducation camp and not heard from again for 15 years.

The film tells the story of Phravasath's family, using footage collected from 23 years of friendship between the two directors. Phravasath, who took questions after the rescreening and who I had the great honor of meeting briefly, referred to the film as his "daughter," and spoke of his experiences with remarkable humility and generosity of spirit, as well as passion for the victims of the ripple effects of our current war, yet with not a trace of anger. The film is remarkable in its clear-eyed depiction of the types of serial betrayals that are so typical of wars and their aftermath. Phravasath himself fled across the Mekong River alone on two inflated plastic bags at the age of 11 and survived two years alone on the streets of Bangkok before rejoining his family once they were finally able to escape Laos to Thailand. Expected to be welcomed into the U.S., he and his family instead met with astounding poverty and social injustice on the streets of New York City. The struggles of his mother, who married at 16 and experienced loss after unspeakable loss, is particularly haunting in this retelling.

I also saw a rescreening of "Trouble the Water," which won the festival's top prize, the Grand Jury award, as well as the Award for Human Rights, which is presented to a film that addresses a significant human rights issue in the U.S., and the Full Frame/Working Films award, which is a pretty cool prize that aims to assist the outreach efforts of films that have the greatest potential for supporting serious grassroots organizing and social change. As far as I'm concerned, this film should be required viewing for every person in America, particularly the three remaining candidates for president.

On August 28, 2005, 24-year-old Kimberly Roberts, unable to afford to leave her home in the ninth ward of New Orleans for safe ground, turned on a video camera that she had bought on the street for $20 a few days before and, in the face of the coming storm, set out to document "how it really is, right now." Within a few hours, she and her husband Scott were huddled in their cramped and leaking attic, recording on video their struggle and that of so many others to survive Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. To our great fortune, they encountered first-time co-directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal two weeks after the storm at a Red Cross relief center, and the result is this breathtaking film about one of the most shameful events in U.S. history.

The Robertses turn out to be remarkable subjects for the film--brave, resourceful, good-humored, and heroic. In the face of unimaginable government indifference and neglect as the city's mostly African American poor residents struggle to find shelter and food, the couple helped several to safety themselves and maintained courage, grace, and optimism in the face of excruciating hardship. It is only as the film goes on that we discover just how marginal their lives have been--both formerly sold drugs to survive and, as the daughter of a drug addict herself, Kimberly's life before Katrina required resourcefulness far beyond what most of us can imagine.

Making masterful use of Kimberly's video footage and following the Robertses in the weeks and months that followed, the filmmakers have found a profoundly effective way to lay bare the failures of leadership in New Orleans. While the heroism of people like the Robertses has gone unrewarded and unrecognized, the federal government has magnified its innumerable failures by issuing commendations to members of the military who actually turned guns on desperate residents who came to a mostly abandoned base on the advice of the Coast Guard seeking shelter in the storm's aftermath. The story revealed here is truly beyond comprehension, yet our guides are two people many of us would tend to write off. After an hour-and-a-half, these two, especially the charismatic Kimberly, had absolutely captured my heart. I sincerely hope that all the well-deserved festival recognition for the film (it also won a grand jury prize at Sundance) will ensure wide distribution. You can keep an eye on its distribution hopes at Watch that website also for Kimberly's emerging music career--her original rap songs featured in the film are pretty amazing.

Finally, I saw a couple of good shorts today, including one award winner. The first was "La Corona," a straightforward but entertaining depiction of a beauty pageant inside a women's prison in Colombia. The second was "Please Vote For Me," which won a Full Frame/Working Films Award. The filmmaker, Weijun Chen, set up an experiment in a third-grade classroom in rural China, by which the class members would hold an election for class monitor. The three candidates chosen by the teacher take to their first experience with democracy remarkably quickly, immediately resorting to dirty tricks, bribes, insults, and threats. Once their parents get into the act, the election takes even more devious turns. This provocative window into Chinese culture and the minds of children is absorbing, shocking, hilarious, and fun.

I must say overall that attending this festival has been an incredibly enriching experience. I often had to force myself into some of the films, given the heaviness of the topics, but in nearly every case I was so glad I did. I'll keep any eye out for any of the films that get wider distribution.

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