Friday, April 3, 2009


I saw some interesting and varied stuff today, especially two films in that viewed the 1960s from contrasting viewpoints. Here's the rundown:

I began the day with "Ma Bar," a short film about a Scottish man in his '70s who still competes as a power lifter. Though some of his voiceover (about his passion to keep pushing himself to achieve regardless of his age) was hard to follow, the film was a beautifully shot depiction of a man who refuses to give in to the pressure to step aside and act one's age. (6)

The short was paired with "The Way We Get By" (see an excellent trailer at, a wonderful feature-length film about three elderly denizens of Bangor, Maine who devote themselves to coming to the airport at all hours of the day or night to greet soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Bangor has been the return point for more than 700,000 soldiers since 2003, and these seniors (among others) view it as the least they can do to make sure that those returning from war are greeted with a warm handshake or hug and an expression of welcome and thanks. Their simple story became more effecting than I would have thought it would be because of the filmmaker's patient approach, which is to shine a steady gaze on the seniors themselves, allowing them to offer their own explanations for why they have devoted themselves so thoroughly to this particular task before gently revealing their aches and pains, their loneliness, their private losses, their quiet struggles for relevance. Though the director never points them out directly, the parallels between the experience of the young soldiers and these stolid folks become evident. I learned in the Q&A session afterwards that the director's mother is one of the subjects, but he wisely keeps himself off camera, focusing on his three well-chosen subjects and their ministry of presence to those coming home. In its unobtrusive way, this film digs deep. Watch for it to premiere on PBS's POV series sometime this year. (7.5)

I next saw an engaging short by Jessica Yu (who directed the wonderful "Protagonist," which I first saw at Full Frame two years ago). This time around she submitted "The Kinda Sutra," an eight-minute reflection on the gap between childhood ideas about sex and reproduction and the actual facts. A series of short interviews with people of all ages offers a sampling of the crazy ideas that fill the space in kids' brains where facts about reproduction would otherwise be, punctuated by animated illustrations of these ideas in the style of pictures from the Kama Sutra. Slight but fun. (7)

Yu's film was followed by my favorite film of the festival so far, "Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie." It turns out that Wavy Gravy is more than just a popular Ben-and-Jerry's ice cream flavor--it's the name adopted by Hugh Romney, an iconic hippie prankster who has lived a particularly inspiring brand of idealism for half a century. He began as a poet in Greenwich Village, friend to Bob Dylan, Ken Kesey, and Tiny Tim, among others. From there he adopted a more comic persona, performing a kind of stand-up routine that provoked people to ask questions and care more deeply. A leader in what came to be the hippie movement, he eventually traveled across America with his freewheeling commune known as "The Hog Farm," and often wore a jester costume, embracing the role of the fool in service of his ideals. He and his remarkable wife of some 40 years, Jahanara, led a sort of security detail at Woodstock that included a kind of reenactment of the biblical feeding of the 5,000, and eventually took a remarkable trip across Europe and through Asia (including through countries like Afghanistan where a westerner would be unable to travel in the same way now), spreading an ethic of warmth and generosity wherever they went. One can't help but compare the footage of that trip with how such a trip might look now; as Wavy Gravy puts it, "War is such a complicated way of getting to know people."

I am telling you, the story may sound goofy from the description, but it is absolutely inspiring stuff, revealing that, for some at least, the hippie movement consisted of a lot more than drugs and free love, but rather of a brand of devotion that some people have actually lived out in the years since. Wavy Gravy, who eventually adopted a clown persona partly because he frequently entertains children (and adults) but also because dressing as a clown (or as Santa or the Easter Bunny) seemed to finally deter police beatings that gravely exacerbated his serious long-standing back problems), is the perfect modern-day example of a sacred fool. As his best friend of many years describes it, when you meet a clown who thinks more deeply than you do and has read more than you have, it throws you, and Wavy Gravy uses the spaces his playful humor opens up to heal and inspire. Jahanara, too (whom the director calls "the ground beneath the clown") is incredibly inspiring; one has the sense of a marriage of equals that truly works, which makes it especially remarkable (and not at all icky) when she professes simply, "He's my teacher and I'm his protector." (I was thrilled to actually get to see them at the Q&A afterwards.) This film really deserves to be seen, so I'll keep you informed of release dates, which I hope will be forthcoming. (9)

The perfect follow-up to Wavy Gravy was "Smile 'Til It Hurts: The Up With People Story," a fascinating look at the cloyingly perky, wholesome singing group that seemed to pop up on TV a lot during the sixties and seventies and even had some Superbowl appearances as late as the 1980s. This first film of Lisa Storey (a delightful lawyer who I got to meet after the screening) was inspired by the surprise revelation, after many years, that her African-American husband (featured in the film) had been an early member of the group many years ago. Mining the volumes of footage that exist of the group's 40-year history, Storey discovered a backstory that was not known even by many of the group's members (some of whom happened to be in the audience). The group originated from a post-World War II Christian evangelical organization called Moral Rearmament, and recruited clean-cut, idealistic young people as an alternative to the hippie movement's challenges to dominant-culture values at a time when Richard Nixon and others were anxious to consign hippies to a lunatic fringe. What emerges is a fascinating social history and a story more complicated than at first appears. The music and the message of Up With People was ridiculously saccharine and mostly devoid of real content, yet the interviews with former members (most of whom now are, to some degree, quite critical of the group and even embarrassed to have been part of it) reveal that their idealism was quite real. Despite their current questions about how the group co-opted their youthful idealism and their other concerns about its approach (such as the strangely cult-like control of its leader; the "whiteness" and homogeneity of its music and performance style, despite the participation of many people of color; and the experience of the group's many gay members, for whom coming out of the closet was not an option), the former members uniformly look back on their participation with real fondness. Storey's approach to the material resists the temptation to trash the group, wrestling instead with the more complex questions her story raises. I'll keep an eye out for screenings of this one, too. (8)

I ended the day with two films that underwhelmed and, to some extent, baffled me. "Bitch Academy" invites you to spend 29 minutes with a group of attractive and, apparently in some cases, accomplished women who enroll in some type of class to learn how to "turn off their heads" and attract a sugar daddy. A male head teacher alternately cajoles and browbeats his pupils--but the film never places the class in context. Who is this guy and what qualifies him to teach the class? How are they to take his frequently contradictory advice? How are we? (5)

"Lady Kul el-Arab" is the story of a beautiful Arab girl from Jerusalem who is the first Druze girl to be a finalist in the "Lady of the Arabs" beauty pageant when she decides to compete in the Miss Israel competition, lured by the promise of cash prizes and an international modeling contract. She is gorgeous and obviously born to the work, but it violates the stark standards of her religious community, entangling her and her family in a struggle between tradition and her ambition. I actually had a hard time finding a vantage point to make sense of the film, though I'm not sure how much of that might be because of my unfamiliarity with the cultures that were shown to be clashing--but perhaps a less tired viewer could do better. (6)

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