Monday, May 3, 2010

Out Of This World

One of the great blessings of cinema is that it transports us to worlds we might never be able to reach on our own. Whether through documentary footage of nature and history or by creating a fantasy world constructed with the building blocks of a writer's imagination, film allows its audience to indulge in the kind of armchair adventures that are exceeded only by our dreams.

Four films recently screened at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival took their audiences to new and sometimes frightening worlds in which life as we know it has little relevance to what is happening onscreen. Working with surprisingly small budgets, each of these filmmakers managed to create an environment that was far more provocative and arresting than a lot of the drek regurgitated by Hollywood filmmakers. Whether or not one liked their films, it was impossible not to applaud the boldness and singularity of their artistic visions.

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Sara Eliassen's 13-minute short from Norway, Still Birds, creates a terrifying world in which bird-like creatures are losing their ability to communicate. Starved for language, they try to get a young redhead to speak so they can swallow her words. As the filmmaker explains:
"Still Birds is a dystopian tale set within an enclosed world where meaning is on the verge of extinction. The theatrically constructed universe is independent of geography or time and only children, who have lost their use of language, remain. Despite the post-apocalyptic setting, the fable is a glimmer of utopian hope. Operating between narrative filmmaking and the world of visual arts, I want the viewer to enter my created room, sometimes physically as well as psychologically. By entering the imagery, I believe we can get closer to understanding the world of images by which we are surrounded in everyday life. I wish to materialize our entering the imagery, to reflect upon how the omnipresent imagery of today can be used when not dominated by artificially constructed values aimed to enhance our lives as consumers. I want to explore how the imagery can work as an opposition to this -- as a space of clarity and for an emptiness to be filled.

The purpose of this project is to investigate the role of language as a creator of meaning, loss and confusion. In developing this project, I looked at certain uncomfortable aspects from our world and used them to create a new land with its own rules and language. I aimed for the spectator to be seduced into this fictitious world and make it a space of reflection. I hope for this reflection to focus on the reason that the fictitious society is unable to articulate or make its own reason for existence. I am using simplified imagery of our own world as a platform to open up for new universes with their own complexities, laws and language. By seducing the spectators into the created lands and stirring them up with fear, humor, and unexpected narratives, I wish to make them awake, perceptive, and vulnerable. My ultimate goal is to create a space for reflection where the unpredictable can live and ways of thinking can be questioned."
There can be no doubt that Eliassen has created a unique world in which actors with frighteningly skinny limbs imitate birds reacting to the often painful and annoying musical soundscapes created by Aslak Dørum. There were many moments in Still Birds that reminded me of a certain kind of "agony theatre workshop" I used to see which stretched the actor's dramatic skills while keeping the audience on edge.

While I didn't necessarily enjoy watching this film, there was no question that it had been executed with great skill and determination. You can watch a brief clip here (which will not only give you a sense of Dørum's percussive background but an idea of how depressing Still Birds can be). Although Eliassen is hoping to expand this into a lengthier feature, I had my fill with her short.

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On the other side of the world, Vimukthi Jayasundara takes his audience through harshly realistic and yet often mythical parts of Sri Lanka in a film which can fill the viewer with awe, dread, wonder, and moments of nervous laughter. Whether focusing on rioting in Sri Lanka's capital city of Colombo (where televisions and computer monitors litter the streets) or seeing a man fall from the sky and wash up on shore as crabs roam freely over his body, Jayasundara's camera makes the ordinary seem extraordinary as his storytelling shifts from one style to another.

Rajith wanders the streets of Colombo

With an often haunting original score by Lakshman Joseph De Saram, Between Two Worlds is broken up into nine chapters entitled:
  1. The young man fell from the sky.
  2. Communication relay burns.
  3. Flee from the city and its commotion, return to nature.
  4. Become part of another story.
  5. That of the legend of the prince.
  6. In the hope of a love.
  7. Hiding behind the hollow in a tree.
  8. Nothing magic is improbable.
  9. What happened yesterday, may happen again tomorrow.
Some of the movie makes sense, most of it does not. The mysterious young man's bad eye is partially cured with milk from his sister-in-law's breast. Rajith (Thusitha Laknath) takes turns making love to his sister in law, Kanthi (Kaushalya Fernando), and then beating her brains to a bloody pulp. Rajith escapes from groups of military thugs scouring the jungle, only to end up hiding inside a tree.

Thusitha Laknath as Rajith

In Between Two Worlds nothing is as it was, nor will it ever be as one expects. A tree bursts into flames. A van falls off a road and careens into a lake. In a village whose water has been poisoned, a group of young men who have been in hiding reappears to try to help solve the problem. Two fisherman sit on rocks by the ocean spinning tales about a mysterious young man who will be the prince that saves the world.

As the filmmaker explains:
"In The Forsaken Land, my aim was to be an architect of the landscape, molding it from scratch. In Between Two Worlds, my goal was more to create something inside the landscape, to invest it radically, to interact in it in order to reinvent it. I know that coming from me this can sound surprising, or even like a form of provocation, but Between Two Worlds is not narrated in an original way.

I grew up listening to people telling stories. And when you’re listening to stories, whatever the story is, you need to follow its flow, not to interrupt it, not to ask questions. Orality induces that the same story is never told twice the same way because the listener is someone else, but also because the moment and mood are different.

In my culture, as soon as you start writing down a story you imprison it, you weaken it. But if you film it, then you’re freeing it because you are combining its different elements. You are leaving room for the audience to explore its shadows, to experience it entirely, to receive it its own way (similar to the experience of a painting). Orality, like cinema, can restore the scope and all the resonances of a story. You can feel all its layers, sense all its meanings, and not necessarily what is symbolic about it.

In Between Two Worlds the forces of history, of the past, the forces of nature, the forces of each character, the forces of the institutional powers, the forces of cinema, all come to a clash and explode. All these forces flow through time, come from the past, reappear in the present, and are tensed into the future. I am highly aware of what nature produces (for example, landscapes and emotions). The film allows us to flee from the city, inhabited by signs and violence, to this unknown. Rajith undertakes a sort of spiritual journey -- taking us to surroundings (first the countryside then the mountains) where life is not something that is obvious, where signs are invisible, where the sensation of the unknown, mystery, horror, can arise, where one starts to understand that all of this has always been possible for human beings.

The city makes one mad, but nature might be even worse, reawakening the past, legends. It is testimony of each and every thing, it talks to us without pause, referring to myths, arousing our imagination and ghosts. It is also the site of great violence. Nature never ceases fighting back, being born again where man has built. It cannot be controlled. In this sense it isolates us, it goes both before us, and after us."
Viewing Between Two Worlds is a strange experience for the audience, almost as if instead of following Alice down the rabbit hole to Wonderland, they ended up on the opposite side of the earth, in a Sri Lankan world of fantasy, enigma, and irreconcilable contradictions. Nevertheless, it is a powerful visual experience which will haunt one for hours after the film has ended.

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Whereas Stanley Kubrick's groundbreaking 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (written and directed by Steven Spielberg), and 1997's Contact (based on the novel by Carl Sagan) all dealt with the concept of making contact with alien species from distant galaxies, a new breed of science fiction has started to emerge. Like last year's provocative and tantalizing Moon (directed by Duncan Jones), a new film directed by Ivan Engler and Ralph Etter looks at corporate malfeasance in outer space.

Cargo is set in the year 2267. Earth is no longer habitable due to series of ecological disasters. Those lucky enough to have been sent to cramped space station cities that orbit the earth hope for a chance to be transferred to habitable extraterrestrial bodies like Rhea, where life is said to replicate the joys of life on earth.

Which may or may not be true.

Laura Portmann (Anna-Katharina Schwabroh ) is a young doctor hoping to get reassigned to the planet Rhea, where her sister, Arianne (Maria Boettner) is currently living the good life. She enlists with Kuiper Industries to be the physician on board a space cargo ship named Kassandra.

Its destination? Space station #42, some 8-1/2 years of travel time from earth.

If one wanted to find hidden symbols in this film, it would be easy to point to 8-1/2 has one of Federico Fellini's greatest films, Kuiper Industries as sounding like Kaiser Industries, and Cassandra as the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba, who foretold the destruction of Troy. However, since Cargo is the first science fiction film to come out of Switzerland, I doubt that any of that matters.

What does matter is that there is a stowaway on board the Kassandra, a mysterious force that causes enough trouble for Dr. Portmann to insist that the resident security officer, Samuel Decker (Martin Rapold), awaken Captain Pierre LeCroix (Pierre Semmler) from his cryosleep chamber.

Anna-Katharina Schwabroh as Dr. Laura Portmann

What follows is basically a whodunit on a space ship (just once I wish the mysterious cargo could turn out to be a circus elephant). There are some questionable choices of special effects which could make one wonder (a) why it is snowing inside the space ship, and (b) how the two leaders of an anti-machine protest group managed to sneak on board. But, as the old saying goes, in space no one can hear you scream about working on an extremely limited budget.

The supporting cast includes Regula Grauwiller as the very butch second-in-command (Anna Lindbergh) and Yangzem Brauen as the spaceship's navigator (Miyuki Yoshida). Michael Finger (Vespucci) and Claude-Oliver Rudolph (Prokoff) are two very macho (and fairly stupid) space cowboys while Gilles Tschudi plays the environmental terrorist, Klaus Bruckner.

Since I'm not a major science fiction fan (and was therefore not referencing every shot against Star Wars, Star Trek and any other number of space exploration dramas), I was able to enjoy Cargo quite a lot. The writing was solid, the special effects surprisingly credible, and much of the acting quite decent. The suspense in Engler's film is immeasurably helped by Frederik Stromberg's driving musical score.

The big secret revealed at the end of the film is a sure sign that corporate deceit will continue to thrive long after humans have abandoned earth. Here's the trailer:

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At most film festivals, one entry stands out so far above the others that it generates a noticeable buzz. At the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival, that film is The White Meadows, which was shot on and around the salt formations of Lake Urmia (the largest salt water lake on earth). Located in northwestern Iran, the geography of the region seems like a cross between the baked heat of the Mediterranean and the stark landscape of an alien planet. One often feels caught in a tug of war between the barely literate residents of Lake Urmia's tiny, sun-baked islands and the creatures from Planet of the Apes.

In Mohammad Rasoulof's breathtaking film, Rahmat (Hassan Pourshirazi) is a mysterious figure who travels between a small group of islands in Lake Urmia collecting the tears generated by the grief of their inhabitants. These tears are treated as sacred. No one but Rahmat knows the purpose for which he collects them. But the ritual is one of long standing and his visits are solemn events.

In many respects, Rahmat functions as a shaman for groups of people isolated from the rest of the world by their culture and location. His compassion and understanding overlay what is essentially a business and family tradition.

After collecting the tears from a grieving family, Rahmat discovers a stowaway in his boat. What was supposed to be the body of a dead woman, turns out to be the very live body of Nissim (Younes Ghazali), a young man hoping to find his father.

In the course of their travels, Rahmat and Nissim witness a young woman being sacrificed to the sea (in order to prevent her from inspiring lust among the island's male inhabitants), meet a young man covered in bottles containing whispers who must descend to the bottom of a well, and encounter two brothers who cannot find peace because one insists on speaking the truth about what he sees.

Thanks to the extraordinary work of cinematographer Ebrahim Ghafouri, editor Jafar Panahi, and composer Mohammad Reza Darvishi, Rasoulof's 92-minute film grips the audience in his artistic vision from its opening moments. Even in the film's slowest passages, the audience never loses interest.

This is a film of such lush visual beauty, such intense theatricality, and such powerful imagery that one exits the theater deeply moved and yet unable to articulate why. Rasoulof's ability to combine the rituals and hardships of an alien landscape with the drama of souls tortured by the inanity of their culture is an astounding achievement in cinematic art.

The White Meadows comes with a heavy political price. Both Rasoulof and Panahi were imprisoned earlier this year by the Iranian government and their fates remain uncertain. While it would be easy to try to look for political messages in their film, one would be better served by just sitting back and enjoying a cinematic gem so dramatically captivating and visually entrancing that the experience leaves one struggling to think of another film quite like The White Meadows. If and when it becomes available on Netflix, you won't want to miss it.

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