2015 Film festival experiences in review – Montreal, Tribeca, Margaret Mead, and DOC NYC

17 Dec

The following started out as just kind of notes to myself to remind me how I felt about films I saw at this year’s Montreal World Film Festival. So I apologize in advance to my (at most) six readers for writing about something of no interest to anyone but myself. But then I realized, due to family circumstances beyond my control, almost all my moviegoing this year was to festivals, at least since this spring, when I saw the magnificent Thomas Hardy adaptation, Far from the Madding Crowd.  But, largely thanks to the excuse of class trips, I was able to get to two films each at Tribeca, Margaret Mead, and DOC NYC, which I’ll discuss below.

My first festival has always been Montreal though.  This August I was able to go to the Montreal Festival for the first time in two years, and just for the first weekend; classes started the day after I returned (and there was the matter of a visit to the emergency room in between my return and my first class – but that’s another story) and I haven’t had a moment to breathe or catch up until now.  Montreal always has something like 400 films to choose from, lots of documentaries, from every corner of the world, much less commercial than its Toronto cousin.  While I am always drawn to Asian cinema, this year I seemed to lose my touch when it comes to choosing memorable experiences from the catalogue: ten films in four days, but only two were what I would call very good, one was from Nepal (which I’ll get to below) and the other from China.  For some reason though the festival website has taken down the program, so I have to use Google to find their names, since they’ll probably never be distributed here in the U.S.

I saw two films from China, actually, both on the same theme of traditional ways of life being displaced by the market forces of modernization.  This must be a source of anxiety in China, because I’ve already seen two other films on the same theme: the outstanding Canadian documentary, Up the Yangtze, which is actually more about the loss of traditional villages to dam-induced flooding, and Postmen in the Mountains, which I saw in Montreal thirteen years ago and which remains one of the best films I have ever seen at that festival.  So as I looked through the festival program, I thought, hey, this topic must be “a thing” in China and since cultural sustainability is a theme I have already announced I am interested in, I should check these out.  These two films were Drifting Goats, about the end of the river ferries on goatskin floats, and Song of the Phoenix. about the dying tradition of suona players.

Drifting Goats is a father-son tale (like Postmen in the Mountains) in which the father is a ferryman on the old-fashioned river boats, and while the ferries are being replaced with more modern motorboats,  the growing local tourism industry is basically buying out the ferrymen and turning the picturesque and now exoticized ferries into a tourist attraction.  The stark choice comes down to, either you join the tourist industry and continue to make your livelihood from the boats, by giving rides to tourists, or you give up your ferry and your lifestyle and you retire.  With the son imploring the resistant father to recognize the flow of progress, eventually the ferrymen embrace the opportunity to stay on the river and tourism becomes the only way they can sustain their tradition – a happy ending in which traditions remain economically viable, which is what really matters, even in neoliberal rural China.

In contrast, Song of the Phoenix, while teasing us with the possibility that the folk musicians may give up their instruments and their folk music, stubbornly clings to the idea that traditional music and instruments cannot be replaced.  Nowhere is the criticism of pop commercialism more apparent then a kind of impromptu battle of the bands that arises when a pop group shows up to woo the village crowd away from the suona band.  Characters are not stuck in an idealized village setting and in fact the film acknowledges the tremendous pull away from the villages towards the industrialized wage-economy city.  But rather than espousing the liberal compromise of adapting to the new world, the film holds out for the necessary indomitability of folk music, even in a commercial world, and even for that matter in a commercial motion picture.  It is worth a second viewing.

Of course I’m going to be more favorable to a film with this point of view – and indeed if the story had gone the other way, I would have liked it far less and been less inclined to overlook its conventional or predictable elements.  I tend to have a strong rejection towards films no matter how well-made that espouse a reactionary point of view or that ask us to smugly accept the status quo (especially around issues of violence).  Rather than being open-minded as my society tells me I should be, I tend to think of the values expressed in the film and the damage they can cause by encouraging complacency and self-satisfaction.  It’s not that I can’t learn anything from that with which I disagree, but I do think we need to remember that cinema and television inevitably have an impact that exceeds other popular art forms.

Anyway, that said, even an art film like Postmen in the Mountains can have an impact, as it did on me, even more than just preaching to those naturally inclined to agree.  I saw it only once so far, in 2002 at the Montreal Film Festival, where, I just learned, it won the Audience Choice Award. Though it was made in China in 1999, it wasn’t released in the U.S. until 2004.  (Eventually I’ll have to buy the DVD to see it again.)  Also a father-son tale, it’s the story of an elderly postman in rural Hunan province who has a three-day mail route to all the mountain villages, a job from which he will be retiring and handing off to his son after this last round.  I still remember not only the great performances, but the spectacular cinematography, reminiscent of Chinese watercolors in its composition.  But more than just nostalgia or a theme of anti-modernity, the film shows more than any other (including Song of the Phoenix) what is lost when the old ways will be no more.  It’s not just that those lifestyles and means of subsistence will be gone, it’s also that there’s something very deeply embedded in those practices that, when gone, will change the nature of humanity.  Part of the beauty of the film is that this is implicit, and I wish Song of the Phoenix shared more of its depth; after all, if delivering mail can be rendered meaningful on screen,  the role of traditional music for both villagers and the artists themselves and why it’s survived so long ought to be explored some.  For me, coming from a society in which success is tied in with achievement, and wealth, Postmen was the first I had seen to make the case that ministry to others is a noble achievement and necessary to maintaining the glue that keeps communities, and families for that matter, together.  You don’t have to know a lot about China to understand that people must be incredibly anxious about this, and that both modernization and the consumer economy make those moral choices that much more insanely difficult.

Speaking of both modernity and mountains, the other outstanding film I saw in Montreal this year was the Nepalese art film, Serdhak – The Golden Hill, a low-budget high-altitude film set in the Himalayan villages of northern Nepal.  Shot with a very small crew and using natural light, even for some impressive interior scenes, this independent, naturalistic film avoids cliches while depicting the everyday dramas of village life, in the kinds of villages that outsiders never get to see.  The mountains are not just gorgeous backdrops for exotic effect but are the land on and around which people survive.  (As opposed to the also outstanding documentary, Meru, where the mountains exist to be conquered by humans.  I loved it anyway, largely because of the photography but also the editing.)   The characters and their lives are real, neither sentimentalized nor overly dramatized and the film has the feeling of conveying a story very much within the framework of real life.  There too one of the internal battles characters must deal with is the pull of education in the city, with the ties to the home villages, and what will be lost in terms of beauty when educated young people must leave these villages for city – which becomes synonymous with modern – life.

Also breathtaking, in a different way, is the documentary Song of Lahore, which hasn’t received anywhere near the critical attention it deserves, although it was runner-up in the audience award for documentaries at the Tribeca Film Festival.  It tells one story spread out over two continents: the suppression of Pakistani, or Punjabi, traditional music under Islamist regimes, and the invitation of the musicians to join Wynton Marsalis at his Jazz at Lincoln Center program.  The film is about love and made with love: the love that the musicians have for their music, but also the love they have for one another and their families, expressed through music, as well as the love for a city and what it once offered culturally.  The way that the musicians in the film articulate their feelings about music, especially when it is silenced, is incredibly moving, and in a way useful to those of us who think about art and culture as a humanizing influence.  Co-directed by a Pakistani Oscar winner and an American, the film is so timely it’s hard to believe it hasn’t gotten distribution, and yet its themes transcend current events.  It’s one of the great films I have seen about music and musicians, shot and edited with warmth and compassionate sophistication.

Films can take us inside worlds we would never think we could see, and in documentary film this is especially true today.  At the Margaret Mead Festival, I saw the recent history of Kashmir and the city of Srinigar through the eyes of three artists – two of whom also incredibly insightful verbally – in the extraordinary documentary, Kasheer: Art, Culture, and the Struggle for Azadi, which is rich and thoughtful on at least two levels: telling the story of human political conflict through visual arts, while reflecting on what visual art can do in a time of upheaval and violence.  It also is one of the rare films I have seen to treat folk art and craft with the same respect as fine and graphic arts, and this is due largely to respectful camera work and editing that is nothing less than brilliant.  Likewise, The Anthropologist, which appeared at DOC NYC takes us to Siberia, Kiribati, and the ice glaciers in Peru with anthropologist Susan Crate to show us her work on climate change and its impact on culture.  My adult students who attended with me came out with the firm belief that we need not only more anthropologists, but more jobs to do this kind of necessary work.

Finally from Tribeca, I want to recall the landmark Romanian film, Aferim!, the first film from that country to acknowledge, let alone criticize, the enslavement and mistreatment of Roma people (known also as Gypsies) well into the 19th century.  Worth seeing for that reason alone, but also for the stunning black-and-white photography, the writing, and the disturbing depiction of Romanian 19th century mores – or is it human nature? – and one really unforgettable, incredible period hat.  I see that it’s going to be distributed in the U.S. in late January 2016.

(There.  Glad to have finally gotten all that off my mind and penned down, so to speak, however superficial it all may be.)

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