Woo hoo! I love this film festival more every year. I'm happily composing posts from the press lounge this time and will keep you updated on all the wonderful stuff I am seeing.
The first program I saw this morning began with a short film, "Everybody's Nuts" (7), in which the director, Fabian Euresti, films his family's home in California's San Joaquin valley, a beautiful agricultural area where oil wells have seeped into the local water supply. The film depicts a very potent example of injustice that persists for years without redress, so much so that it becomes usual and mundane. Euresti's tone is contemplative rather than didactic; he shows, rather than tells--and even when he tells, it is by means of quietly narrating the signs of oil contamination coating small aspects of daily life, and the small rewards that Euresti's father receives for his more than two decades spent watering orange groves. It's an insightful observation of how the stakes can be so persistently askew as to enable wrongdoing to continue without notice.
It was followed by "The Harvest/La Cosecha" (6.5), a feature-length film examining the lives of children who are migrant farm workers. It follows the stories of three such children, as they travel from state to state with their families in search of work, put in ten to twelve hours of back-breaking labor a day in the hot sun, and find themselves missing more and more school because their families need the small pittance they can eek out. It's worth spending some time contemplating the existence of these kids, on whom we have allowed our economy to depend--especially when you realize that much of their lives cannot be shown. For example, the director mentioned that they could not show the families looking for work, because having the film crew there would have jeopardized those efforts. The culture of secrecy around this part of American life is itself profound and interesting. I did find the film to be a bit divided in terms of its themes; it focused some on how child labor laws need to be changed to prevent this sort of exploitation (Mali, Ivory Coast, and India all have stronger child labor laws than we do in the U.S.)--but in many ways the more interesting questions have to do with the pressures that lead these families to need their children's small income so desperately, and the deep divides of wealth and poverty in this country that put them in such a position. Also, apparently the director was outvoted by the producers so that the end of the film contains several examples of prominent American citizens who were farm laborers as children; I felt, as did the director, that the message of exceptionalism at the end undercut the impact of the film.
The best film of the day was "The Boy Mir: Ten Years in Afghanistan" (8). A prior award-winning film that I have not seen, "The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan," depicts a year in the life of a charming eight-year-old Afghan refugee. This film carries on with a ten-year examination of life in war-torn Afghanistan under the Taliban via the experiences of this boy and his family, and it is a compelling piece of work. For the first few years of that time, Mir and his family are living in a cave, having been driven out of their village. Only half of the 200 families living in these caves eventually gets a house after several years, and Mir's family is not one of them, so they return to their village in the north. Tales of Taliban atrocities emerge bit by bit in matter-of-fact retellings, and we watch as the bright-eyed Mir's dreams of becoming "a teacher, or a president" are crowded out by the toil needed to ensure his family's survival. It's gripping to watch him grow up, knowing his life could go wrong in so many ways--and yet his essential good humor and determined work ethic persist. Director Phil Grabsky's camera work is gorgeous (assisted by the harshly beautiful Afghan landscape and the compelling subjects he found in Mir and his family)--but most impressively, one cannot obtain footage this intimate and authentic (including fights between Mir's family members and tiny windows into how poorly women are treated in Afghan culture) without a deep commitment of time and trust-building. Grabsky's film had already inspired my trust, and he is so insightful in person that my respect for the film deepened. He spoke frankly of the ethical dilemmas involved in filming people in such abject poverty, and of the challenges of working inside a culture and language where he is an outsider and must rely on one or two trusted and talented insiders. The film is going to get a theatrical release, and I highly recommend taking this rare opportunity to look inside the lives of ordinary Afghans.
I ended the day with the festival's opening night film, "Guilty Pleasures" (3.5), which did nothing to alter my skepticism about opening night films. The audience seemed to love this exploration of Harlequin romances (a few people even stood to applaud at the end), but I found it to be pedestrian and immature. The film's subjects are three women (in England, Japan, and India) who are ardent Harlequin fans, a British pensioner named Roger who writes them under a female pseudonym and narrates the formula he uses, and a plastically handsome male model named Stephen whose image graces many a Harlequin book cover and is himself in search of a soulmate. The titles and quoted passages from some of the books are indeed good for a laugh, but director Julie Moggan's subjects don't seem to yield her any real insights about why people love these novels or what they reveal about our ideas about love and romance. Instead, she takes cheap shots at all her subjects (for example, Roger takes a well-timed sip of coffee as his voiceover narrates a little sexual innuendo, and the Japanese woman and her husband's ballroom dance competition preparations are accompanied by strategic passages from the romance novels that fuel her fantasies but make the couple look like buffoons). Nothing is illuminated and what little entertainment there is seems to come at the expense of the subjects.