Monday, April 6, 2009


Here, finally, is my take on the last few films I saw at the festival:

"The Queen and I" wisely takes a very personal approach to its subject, Empress Farah Pahlavi, wife of the last Shah of Iran. I say wisely because fascination with royals so often resides alongside discomfort with or anger about their political role, and the filmmaker, Nahid Persson Sarvestani, intelligently incorporates those personal conflicts into the story here. Sarvestani, who grew up in poverty in Iran, recalls her childhood interest in the fairytale wedding of the empress to the Shah, but as a teenager joined a Communist group that supported overthrow of the Shah. Now living in exile in Sweden, she has helmed other documentaries about Iran (the most recent one, about prostitution there, so angered the Iranian government that the last time she visited Iran she was interrogated for two hours and was forced to promise in writing never to make a film about Iran again). Although she is now critical of the outcome of the revolution (her brother was executed by Ayatollah Khomeini's regime at age 17), she is by no means a royalist. Nevertheless, the lovely Empress Farah, who married the Shah at age 21 and reigned for twenty years before being exiled 30 years ago, inspired fascination in her subjects, and Sarvestani was no exception. So when the empress agreed to meet and be the subject of the film, Sarvestani, aware of how quickly the empress might pull the plug on the project, decided against going in with guns blazing, and approached their interviews carefully and kindly, befriending the empress and fighting back her reservations about compromising her political beliefs. The result is a fascinating and ultimately balanced portrait that illuminates the disagreements that continue to divide Iranians around the world. The empress, who lives in Paris, emerges as an interesting, kind, and in many ways impressive figure, even if she is not willing or able to go as far as one would wish in confronting the full darkness of Iran's history and her part in it. (You can read an interesting interview regarding her response to the documentary at (7)

I was disappointed in "Say My Name," a collection of interviews with an array of female hip-hop artists. Although many of the individual subjects (Erykah Badu, Roxane Shante, MC Lyte, Sparky D) are interesting to watch and their tales of breaking into the male-dominated world of hip-hop are engaging, the whole lacks shape or a unifying focus. In the end, it feels more like a collage than an illuminating examination of an important subculture. (4.5)

"William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe" is a reflection on the life of one of the most loved and most hated attorneys in U.S. history, as told by his two youngest daughters, Emily and Sarah. Born in the late '70s when Kunstler was almost 60, they missed out on his most revered work, representing civil rights and anti-war activists, though they grew up thinking he had been at the center of every important event of the '60s and '70s.. By the 1980s, though, Kunstler was attracting hate mail and angry media attention representing accused terrorists and murderers. Using archival footage, home movies, photos, and recordings, Kunstler's daughters struggle here with the legacy of a middle-class family man and "armchair liberal" who became famous in his forties as a result of his involvement with the Chicago 8, Wounded Knee, and Attica Prison, and then infamous for representing a Mafia client, one of the youths accused of a famous Central Park gang rape (convicted in the media and then at trial, but exonerated years later after Kunstler's death) and a Muslim fundamentalist accused of murdering a New York rabbi in cold blood.

By the time Kunstler died in 1995, his daughters felt he no longer stood for anything worth fighting for. But in making the film, which was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and won an honorable mention for the Full Frame Emerging Artist Award (which goes to a first-time feature director), they mine his experiences for a unified vision of what drove him to leave his middle class life to join the Civil Rights struggle in the South, and then to take on a corrupt criminal justice system in defending the Chicago 8, protesters accused of inciting riots during the 1968 Democratic Convention. Through these and other experiences, he came to see the legal system as an instrument that "enabled those in power to exercise social control" rather than to bring about justice. As he said to a crowd during the Chicago 8 trial:

“I suspect [that more people] have gone to their deaths through a legal system
than through all the illegalities in the history of man: 6 million people
in Europe during the Third Reich. Legal. Sacco and Vanzetti. Legal.
The hundreds of great trials throughout the South where black men were condemned
to death. All legal. Jesus. Legal. Socrates. Legal. ...All tyrants learn
that it is far better to do this thing through some semblance of legality than
to do it without that pretense.”

In interviews for the film, people whose lives he touched credit Kunstler with saving their lives and freedom, or with irrevocably changing their views of the law and politics, while others still hate him and question his tactics. In the end, what emerges is a picture of a man who loved the limelight, certainly, but who also had become utterly convinced that the system was hopelessly racist and fundamentally rigged, and consciously chose to throw his lot with pariahs because they were most in need of his help. Sometimes they turned out to be innocent, but as his daughter Emily points out, "it was never about innocence for dad." It was about bringing down Goliath. (7.5)

"Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech" was awarded Full Frame's Kathleen Bryan Edwards Award for Human Rights, given to a film that addresses a significant human rights issue in the United States, inspiring advocacy, increasing awareness, and promoting equity and justice. As far as I'm concerned, it deserves that recognition. Focusing on several compelling stories, the filmmaker, Lisa Garbus (daughter of famed First Amendment attorney and apologist Martin Garbus, who figures prominently in the film), makes the case that the Patriot Act and intense media scrutiny of anyone who has tried to explain the events of 9/11 as anything other than evil and senseless have put free speech rights into greater jeopardy than they have been since the McCarthy era. A professor's outspokenness after 9/11 leads to him being fingered on a list of dangerous professors who should be removed from the Academy, and he is eventually fired from the University of Colorado; a Muslim educator tapped to be the principal of a new Arabic/English public school in New York, once lauded for her public service, is forced to resign her new post after trumped-up media charges that she plans to use the school as a training ground for terrorists; a high school student's handmade T-shirt proclaiming that "Homosexuality is shameful" is banned from school because his beliefs are considered "offensive"; 1800 peaceful anti-war activists on their way to protest the 2004 Republic convention (three times as many as in 1968) are arrested within minutes of beginning their march to the convention based on "tips" regarding what they had planned. These examples and others from the past serve to illustrate the threat that underlies an increase in trumped-up excuses for curbing the First Amendment. And while the film's liberal leanings are certainly evident, the conservative side of the debate over these instances (or the politically correct side, as in the case of the anti-gay student) is well represented by people such as David Horowitz and Daniel Pipes. Also nominated for a Grand Jury Prize for documentary at Sundance, the film makes a compelling case for the importance of free speech to a free society, and the necessity of defending those rights, as Martin Garbus puts it, every day. (8.5)

Finally, one of my top three films of the festival (the others being the Wavy Gravy film and "Burma VJ") was "Unmistaken Child," winner of the Full Frame Inspiration Award, presented to the film that best exemplifies the value and relevance of world religions and spirituality. (It also received a Special Jury award and an honorable mention for the Emerging Artist award.) The first feature film of Israeli director Nati Baratz, it tells a profound and complex story, of Buddhist monks searching for a reincarnated master, with delicacy and a remarkably sure hand.

In the Buddhist tradition, when a master, or lama, dies, it is believed that signs may indicate his intention to be reincarnated, and that the "rinpoche," or reincarnated master, may be located by spiritual practices of divination. In this case, Tenzin Zopa, a gentle young man who for 21 years (since childhood) was the closest "heart disciple" of a beloved departed lama, is charged with the task of locating his master, receiving direction from his own dreams, from signs discerned from the ashes of the lama's cremation, and from discernment by Zopa's superiors regarding the region where the rinpoche will be born and the first letter of his father's name. Zopa, still grieving the loss of his master, feels unworthy of the task, but sets out, as directed, to the valley where he himself was born, visiting along the way the mountainside retreat where he spent beloved years with his dear master. He then goes from house to house in the valley, inquiring after any children between the ages of a year and 18 months. He sits with the little candidates one by one, asking each whether he recognizes the lama's prayer beads, looking for signs that the child harbors the spirit of the revered master. Once he locates a one-year-old who shows signs of being the "unmistaken child" who will now embody the master's teachings and bring enlightenment to the people, Zopa must guide his diminutive master through the various processes for confirming that he is indeed a rinpoche, including an audience with the Dalai Lama, and must prepare the child's parents to release the little master to the care of a monastery far from their mountain home.

The film's rich pleasures involve how simply it conveys the devotion of these believers, particularly Zopa, with his tender attention to the little rinpoche, and its patient observance of the signs of greatness in the toddler. I wondered as I watched what god-likeness should look like in a person so young (a provocative question for a Christ-believer) and marveled at the faithfulness, devotion, and strength of the gentle Zopa, who seems always to be fully present to whatever is happening. With gorgeous cinematography and exquisite grace, this story will inspire you no matter what your religious tradition. It is slated for limited theatrical release in the U.S. this June. (10)

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