Beyond the Call (2006, USA, Adrian Belic )
Mother Teresa meets Indiana Jones, says the tagline to this ramshackle documentary, which follows the daring exploits of three middle-aged philanthropists (Ed Artis, Walkt Katterman and Jim Laws) as they travel the globe delivering humanitarian aid. To wit, mere months after 9/11, the three amigos head straight into the teeth of a storm, embarking on a mission to Afghanistan. These guys are either heroes or maniacs; isn’t it sad that we have such a hard time telling the difference?
The men are accomplished professionals who appear to be responding to their various midlife crises in a particularly socially responsible manner by vowing to bring help to people who most need it. The men convert most of the spare time, energy and money into the sorts of supplies that save lives in the parts of the world where very few relief agencies are able to go. But these gentlemen’s missionary zeal, their tenacity and downright stubborn refusal to take no for an answer, prove, while the sorts of traits that might make them difficult to live with (none of their spouses wanted anything to do with this doc, so we’ll never know for sure), perfect for this sort of work. As part of their mandate, the gentlemen state that it is not their intention to change anyone’s politics or religion; it’s all about the aid. The idealism of their gesture is endearing, if a bit tunnel-visioned, given that the aid is a political gesture that often requires the compliance and even active assistance of powerful people, such as the American military. And while the filmmakers get some remarkable footage in places as far-flung as Afghanistan and the Thai-Burmese border (where we witness the most remarkable footage of soccer-playing amputees), the construction of this documentary could have used the kind of firm hand that these three self-professed Don Quixote’s might have provided, rambling as it does back and forward in time and place, jumbling together this remarkable tale in a rather confusing manner, and leaving a handful of pretty damned important questions unanswered, such as how exactly DO they manage to get all of this aid at 5 and 10 cents on the dollar?
Still, this is exactly the kind of inspirational story that we love to hear about, with individual’s putting their shoulder into it, resolving problems that governments seem unwilling or unable to. It would be encouraging if we learned that because of the efforts of such renegades resulted in the kinds of changes to national or international practices that might cure these sorts of systemic illnesses, but I reckon this sorta daydreaming puts me in the same league as the three windmill tilters in this film. Regardless, it is hard not to be affected by the tremendous effort that these men have put forward in a (specifically western) world that is increasingly cocooning in on itself. As we seem to be moving inexorably away from the sort of commitment to global justice and humanitarianism that John F. Kennedy spoke of so inspiringly four decades ago, only a churl would complain about the work of men such as these.
Colma: The Musical (2006, USA, Richard Wong)
So, I guess Colma really exists, a sleepy little town of a little over 1000 people in northern California where the dead outnumber the living by about 1000 to one. Colma is home to one big-ass cemetery, and one small-ass set of doe-eyed misfits. Indeed, one of the film’s best set pieces takes place in said cemetery, as, in a nice little nod to Night of the Living Dead, characters sing while dead people dance gracefully in the background.
The film’s subject matter isn’t particularly novel—morose middle class teens graduating from high school and facing up to their mundane futures—but it is given a bit of a clever twist, choosing to express the character’s angst in a musical format, with a Hedwig meets Rocky Horror soundtrack to keep things snapping along. With one of the film’s central characters, played by H.P. Mendoza, writing the script and songs, the Hedwig comparisons become even more layered when we learn that the character Mendoza plays, Rodel, is likewise gay. Similarly, Mendoza’s songs are, as a group, pretty hum-able, even if those singing them range from barely adequate to fairly decent.
However, unlike Hedwig, which had a real edge to it, Colma is kind of soft and squishy. It really helps the drama if the story and its characters are pushing themselves up against something substantial, something that will put up some sort of a fight. Instead, we have a town that barely exists in the background of the action, and parents who remain largely peripheral throughout. What it is that keeps these kids from busting outta Colma is never made clear, as they appear to have both means, opportunity and ability to cruise right on outta this sleepy little cemetery of a town. While the bland sameness and numb predictability of life in Colma might make for adequate sociology, it makes for a poor antagonist, and in the end, you will find that Colma: The Musical merely slips quietly away.
McLaren Retrospective (2006, Canada, NFB)
Born and trained in Scotland, Norm McLaren ended up becoming one of Canada’s most influential filmmakers. This retrospective, put together by the National Film Board of Canada, for whom McLaren toiled for several decades, is a worthy compilation that honours his innovation and artistry in the most appropriate way possible: it allows the work of the notoriously shy McLaren to speak for itself. The great animator would almost certainly have approved.
The retrospective covers four decades of filmmaking, from the 40s through the 70s, in a mostly chronological fashion. The exceptions to this occur at the beginning and end of the film, and for good reason. Opening the show is the delightful and silly Opening Speech, a short that McLaren filmed to open the Montreal’s first film festival back in 1961. Like the similarly clever Chairy Tale (1957), the film examines man’s uneasy relationship with his things in a typically zany McLarenesque fashion. In both films we are asked to consider whether we are prisoners or partners with our creations, while with Opening Speech, McLaren makes the added observation that it is through pictures and moving images that he prefers to communicate, not those pesky words that he seem to find so hard to wrap himself around. The stop motion techniques that McLaren helped to pioneer are put to great effect, accentuating the exacerbation of individual’s struggling to come to grips with a too-rapidly evolving world.
Several films in this collection do a stellar job of highlighting McLaren’s brilliance at matching music and image. Foremost among those style of film in this collection is Begone Dull Care, which allows McLaren to indulge his love of jazz by marrying the genius of Oscar Peterson with his own inventive visual stylings. Begone Dull Care is, as advertised by the title, a positively joyful, life-affirming experience, uniting two great artists operating at the top of their game.
The final two films in this collection require no introduction, and have been deservedly lavished with awards and praise over the years. I am talking of the Academy Award-winning short, Neighbours, and the visual tour de force that is Pas de Deux. The latter film is an audio-visual wonderland, with McLaren experimenting with the use of space and time in a thoroughly modern manner. The monochromatic images of the ballet dancers moving both away from and back into themselves is a thoughtful and elegant exploration of the effect our movement through space has on all that surrounds us. There is a cubist element to McLaren’s treatment as well, moving backwards and forwards through time, the objects of our study viewed from multiple angles, that might help to explain why Picasso was such a fan of his work. In the latter film, McLaren promotes his pacifist agenda by exploring a grim theme, and pursuing right to its logically shocking conclusion. Matching his thematic intensity with a visual playfulness that fools the audience into a jolly mood before betraying them with horrific acts of violence, Neighbours is one of the greatest pieces produced in Canadian film history, and Norm McLaren one of the greatest artists ever to work within our borders.
Iraq in Fragments (2006, USA, James Longley)
“How do you cut a country up? With a saw?”
Director James Longley’s previous (and first) film was the documentary Gaza Strip, and in it Longley took the same approach as in Iraq in Fragments, eschewing reportorial voice-over narration in favour of allowing the participants speak for themselves. And both films focus pretty much entirely upon their country’s indigenous people, with reference to “The Others” (Gaza=Israelis, Iraq=Americans) found almost exclusively in the vitriol of the occupied people (although Fragments does allow us a fleeting glimpse of some American soldiers.)
Some may contend that this marks a film for propaganda and limits the audience because it is such a one-sided representation that it will preach only to the converted. I can only counter that these are voices that have so long been muted, that “The Others” have such a stranglehold on media representation of events in the region, that these films “single-mindedness” is simply an attempt to provide a touch of balance to the books.
The film’s title serves many purposes. Iraq is, of course, a shattered country, a nation in tumult and turmoil, where lives and landscapes take a daily beating. Then there is the story itself, which is told in three parts, from the Sunni, Shia and Kurdish perspective, all offering a differing opinion of the value of the American presence in their land, and the best means of reacquiring control over the country that they have lost. And when the film ends, the enduring question remains: if and when America retreats from this land, will these very different people with terribly different views on the world ever manage to find a way to pull these fragments of a country together and create a single, whole nation? Or will they need to take a saw to the works?
Longley is a strikingly effective director. He uses the full arsenal of effects that you would expect to find in a feature film (not only did he direct, but the man was his own cinematographer, wrote his own score, and co-edited and produced the film as well. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he catered the meals as well) moving the camera with astonishing agility to remarkable effect. A la Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, each segment of the film has a distinctive look and style. In Bagdad, we hear of 11 year-old Mohammed’s story, while to the south we learn of Sadr’s political radicalization, and to the north, we witness a Kurdish spring from the perspective of two best friends and their families. Throughout these scenarios, Longley’s use of high and low angle shots, filters, intense close-ups, strobe lights, a variety of film stock and speeds, alternatively dazzling and stark imagery and startling edits help to create a portrait of Iraq that has exactly the desired effect upon the audience: disorientation, disconnection, alienation, and fragmentation.
That Longley allows the subjects to control the audio of his films is a bold, but ultimately highly rewarding move. The narration provided by these Iraqi citizens shows us their great and awful humanity. This array of characters is at times kind and cruel, insightful and ignorant, but they are always identifiably human. Hardships and war are, some astute observers note, the machinations of the wealthy at the expense of the poor, and many if not most commentators recognize that oil is the catalyst for the American invasion, and while this is recognized as a terrible thing, the Kurds in particular do not seem in a terrible hurry to have them leave, as there are many Islamic fundamentalists who wish to do the Kurds harm, and the presence of American troops might be all that holds them back.
I find the fact that Iraq in Fragments is appearing in the same festival as Beyond the Call intriguing. There is little doubt that the latter film will be remembered more fondly, and enjoy some measure of good will because it plays to popular sentiment; it’s a feel good movie about how some people are trying to clean up tiny little corners of our world. Unfortunately, as Iraq in Fragments proves, the problems continue to grow, the messes are getting bigger exponentially, and its going to take several armies of do-gooders to have any chance of cleaning it all up. Iraq in Fragments is an important film, a dazzlingly told story by a director of great talent. This is the best film of the festival, and it plays again on Feb. 10, Saturday afternoon at 4:30 pm. Highly recommended.