Sunday, April 11, 2010


It's been a wonderful festival. Here are some thoughts on the last few films I saw.

"Waste Land" (9.5) was my favorite film in competition this year--and, in fact, it won the Audience Award at Full Frame, as it did at Sundance and at the Berlin International Film Festival. It's a story of the power of art to transform, and of the impact of personal involvement that empowers people to see their own worth.

Vik Muniz grew up in poverty in Brazil and is now a respected artist in Brooklyn known for making use of unusual objects--dirt, chocolate syrup, sugar--in his portraits. Having achieved a great deal of professional success, he envisions a project for giving back to his native country by creating art out of ordinary objects important to the lives of some poor Brazilians and then using the proceeds of the art sales to benefit them. He decides to locate his project in Jardim Gramacho, the world's largest garbage dump, located on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, where some of the city's poorest denizens eek out a living collecting recycling. His idea is to create art using recyclable materials culled from the garbage.

The evolution of the project is fascinating. In the beginning, there is great distance between Muniz and his subjects--he scouts the location on Google Earth and discusses safety concerns with his wife. When he arrives there, he marvels at the scale of the dump, and notes how quickly one acclimates to the awful smell. The resourcefulness of the recyclers is impressive, and he slowly comes to know them--a charismatic labor organizer who reads discarded books; a trained restaurant cook who feeds the workers using discarded produce; a teenager already parenting two children. Soon Muniz is photographing them; the photos will be the basis for the finished pieces, which involve blowing up the pictures and then adding materials to them. Finally, he involves his subjects in the actual creation of the works (which are stunning).

Muniz had been motivated by a sense that exposing people to art, even if briefly, allows them to reflect on their lives differently. His wife wonders if that is a good thing given the realistic limits of their power to changes their lives, something I have wondered about while traveling in developing countries. I often notice that the poorest of the poor nearly always possess television sets (as do these Brazilians), and I have wondered what is the effect of constant exposure to lifestyles that one has no real hope of attaining.

But it is apparent from the film that the experience the recyclers have working with Muniz is not at all like watching television. It is for them a full body, transformative experience. They are engaged in recycling themselves. As we come to know the recyclers, we see the evidence that work in the studio and being involved in the creation of art enables them to step back and to see their lives, themselves, with new eyes. They begin to value themselves, to want things, to aspire. As they watch themselves literally being transformed into works of art, they come to see themselves as valuable. And the work has a transformative effect on Muniz as well; I related to his sense that he received so much more than he gave.

Garbage-to-art ends up being the perfect metaphor for the transformation at work, and Lucy Walker's beautiful film challenges and inspires in all the right ways. It is expected to have a theatrical release later this year, and there is a fan page on Facebook. I'll do what I can to keep it on your radar.

In "12th and Delaware" (7), the co-directors of "Jesus Camp" turn their cameras on two clinics--and abortion clinic and a pregnancy care center--that are situated directed across the street from each other. The latter, like most such centers, does not advertise that it does not offer abortion services--and, according to the directors, every day a few women would come there intending to go to the other clinic. The majority of the film is shot inside the pregnancy center, as the clinic's director explains and justifies her approach on camera, trains her staff, and talks to the women who enter seeking services. Her unabashed aim is to persuade these women to keep their babies. She and her staff, and the protesters who picket the abortion clinic day and night, speculate regularly about what is going on inside the other clinic and in the minds of the women who enter there. The latter part of the film takes you inside the other clinic.

The directors here have a somewhat lighter touch than in "Jesus Camp." They simply allow all the subjects to speak for themselves, without contradicting them or correcting the information they give out. It's the right approach for informing audiences of the deeply held beliefs of both sides and of what is an apparently common phenomenon of pro-life clinics planting themselves directly across from abortion clinics. I have to say, I found the tactics used in the "pregnancy care center" to be quite troubling--other than free ultrasound (which aims to convince the women not to go through with an abortion), no actual pregnancy care is dispensed, and the women are pressured pretty hard. Much of the information that was being given out seemed to me to be false--including apparently, information about how far along the women were in their pregnancies. But the film does not take sides--it simply provides plenty of opportunity to see for yourself. It won the Kathleen Bryan Edwards Award for Human Rights, which is given to a film that addresses a significant human rights issue in the U.S. It appears that the film will air on HBO later this year.

I saw two war films, neither of which I was all that wild about. "How to Fold a Flag" (6) sets out to tell the stories of several men who has served in the same unit in Iraq. It does a decent job of representing four versions of how tough the return home can be; I certainly felt for these man and was interested in their stories. I didn't think the film probed that deeply however, and it could have benefitted from some more careful shaping.

The other war film I saw, "Restrepo" (6.5) followed a battalion into combat in Afghanistan. It won an honorable mention for both the festival's Grand Jury Prize and its Emerging Artist Award, which is given to a new director. It was nowhere near the top of my list of new films, however. It basically sets out to show what conditions are like for these men (awful) and how compromised the mission is (they are in a totally no-win situations with insufficient guidance and undefined goals). The men are alternatively traumatized, bored, beseiged, and amped up on adrenalin. It's a close-up view of combat, for sure; I'm just sure not sure how much more evidence I need that war is hell.

The last two films I saw were among my very favorites: "The Most Dangerous Man in American: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers" (10) and "Freedom Riders" (8). I will write about them in the next couple of days because they both deserve some attention.

1 comment:

L Lucas said...

I look forward to seeing Waste Land. Your comment regarding televisions and the poor is interesting. I imagine (with only very quick reflection) that the effect would be oppression--creating the "they are there and I am here" feeling. When one can so clearly see a divide, sometimes it makes it harder to dream of ever bridging the gap.

Television is also classist, racist, and ageist. Those whose lives are not reflected in the stereotypical "good" side probably get a sense that they are not "good." Reminds me of Brown v. Board of Ed. (I believe), that children who are segregated will feel inferior, even if not expressly told that they are inferior. When we create exclusive stories about what is good enough to be on TV, and my story is not included, then I am not good enough. Like Donella Meadows has explained, the best way to create change is to change the story we tell ourselves about ourselves (paradigm shift). What would be the story that would help people escape from poverty and oppression?

TV affects us all. I (middle class, educated, oh-so-white) was recently challenged to "unplug" for a week. I cooked. I cleaned. I painted. I noticed things while running that I would not have with the iPOD playing my personal soundtrack. I started journaling (first time ever, except travel) and meditating more. This led to being able to hear myself think, which made me realize the answers I seek are, generally, hidden behind distraction. I also feel a greater connection to myself and my greater power (God?). The interesting thing is that I felt happy at least a little each day all week. Feelings of being ignored went away--probably because I paid more attention to myself.

Could this impower whole classes of ignored people?