Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Frameline 32 -- Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Nobody likes to feel trapped. But situations in which people must conquer their enemies or overcome societal hurdles provide the core conflict critical to many a movie plot. For lesbians and gay men, the conflict often stems from their limited freedom to express themselves or simply exist in a society which is determined to ignore, disenfranchise or destroy them. Prejudice is difficult to overcome. It is easy for anyone to feel powerless against societal oppression.

Shami Sarif has adapted her award-winning novel into a screenplay and directed the cinematic version of The World Unseen with a strong hand. Set in South Africa during the early days of apartheid, her film reminds us of the ugliness of racial hatred seen not only in South Africa but in the American South as well. Watching the film makes the viewer wish such behavior had never existed and reminds one how far we still have to go to achieve equality.

The are many things for white men to fear in Sarif's film: strong, independent women who wear pants, empowered black and Indian workers, and wives who question the amount of sexist crap they must tolerate in an unhappy marriage. While the breathtaking Sheetal Sheth glows in the central role of Amina, Sarif has assembled a remarkably strong supporting cast, with solid characterizations by David Dennis as Jacob (Amina's business partner), Grethe Fox as the local post office manager, and Colin Moss as a belligerent policeman. As the object of Amina's affections, Lisa Ray's Miriam shows a slow awakening to the possibilities of putting her own needs above her husband's dictates.

One often encounters the phrase "lush cinematography" in film reviews, but Michael Downie's visual framing of the story and his artistic contribution to the film's overall look cannot be underestimated. Downie was helped tremendously by Tanya von Tonder's loving attention to period detail in sets and costumes.

While The World Unseen captures the frustration of being trapped in a world that knows all too well what it wants to do to you, Argentinian director Lucia Puenzo's much-acclaimed XXY presents the world with a challenge it has little information on how to deal with: a 15-year-old hermaphrodite trapped in a body which is beginning to develop through the later phases of puberty. Although raised as a girl, Alex is starting to respond to her body's conflicting urges. Her pain and confusion are telegraphed to the audience in a truly remarkable performance by young Ines Flores (who can anticipate a major career as an actress).

The challenges presented in this film are not just situational. Alex's mother has sprung a surprise visit by a plastic surgeon on the family. The surgeon's young, confused son (already showing potential as a major bottom), stirs feelings of dominance in Alex that are difficult for the two of them to understand. Because she is reaching an age where corrective surgery might be appropriate, the clock keeps ticking remorselessly. What no one seems to be considering is Alex's desire to remain the way she was born -- even if it means retaining both male and female sexual organs.

A deeply introspective film, XXY presents a challenge to any audience accustomed to having tough decisions spoon fed to them. It also offers audiences a rare chance to see concerned, conscientious and caring parenting in which a couple faced with an incredible challenge try to do their best to help a child who is without peer. Watching Puenzo's film is like slowly witnessing mini-explosions go off in people's minds as Alex finds the most acceptance from two young friends who take her just as she is.

I was particularly struck by the performances of Ricardo Darin as Alex's father, Kraken (who, in one scene, seeks out a mature hermaphrodite to find out what life was like after corrective surgery), Luciano Nobile as Alex's friend Vando, and young Martin Piroyansky as the surgeon's shy son Alvaro, who confronts his father's homophobia in a beautifully written and poignantly-directed scene. This is a slow and quiet film which keeps much of its anger and confusion beneath the surface. It takes patience and will test your limits. But I think it is an experience well worth any cinemaphile's time.

If only the same could be said for Japan, Japan, a horrible Israeli mishmash which could not be saved by the inclusion of some tired Jewish mother jokes, a bit of luscious Asian porn and a short clip from a Japanese bukkake party. In his director's statement, Lior Shamriz writes: "I intentionally went to shoot this movie without a completed script, but not because of an urge to toy with a camera in front of improvising actors. I wanted to see what happens when a fictional story is structured as a documentary one would be.... I planned the shooting as if I was planning the scenes I would have liked to have in a documentary about the daily life of such a young man, leaving the structure of the film for the editing process. After constructing on paper the surroundings of the hero, I went to shoot his encounters and relationships on different points of time over an imaginary year. Every such scene was fictionalized as an independent episode, with its own suitable film technique, should it be scripted, improvised or a real event visited by the hero/actor."

Oddly enough, the Israeli filmmaker's statement reminded me of a famous scene from Leonard Gershe's Butterflies Are Free in which, after being lectured by an angry artist who boasts of trying to capture all of the agony and pain of real life in his work, Eileen Heckart (in her wonderfully acerbic voice) replies: "Let me tell you something, young man. Diarrhea is a part of real life, but I wouldn't pay for it as entertainment!"

Feeling trapped in a movie theater is nothing like being trapped in a hermaphroditic body or a repressive South African society. Quite a few people picked themselves up and voted with their feet. After sitting through nearly 80% of the film I, too, walked out of Shamriz's film. Directly across the street from the Castro Theater, In-Jean-Ious had a window display which included a T-shirt that summed up the Japan, Japan experience with remarkable acuity.

Its bold letters stated "I shaved my balls for THIS?"

Next: Wednesday, June 25, 2008

No comments: