Monday, August 11, 2008

Desperate Times, Desperate Measures

In September 2005, while touring the relief efforts at Houston's Astrodome in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, former First Lady Barbara Bush famously remarked:

"Almost everyone I’ve talked to says we're going to move to Houston. What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them."

Before being booted from John McCain's campaign team, the smug and loathsome Phil Gramm (another clueless Texan) recently characterized Americans as "a nation of whiners," telling people that their economic woes were all in their minds.

This week veteran newswoman Cokie Roberts criticized Barack Obama's vacationing in Hawaii (where his sister lives) with the following pearls of wisdom:
"I know his grandmother lives in Hawaii and I know Hawaii is a state, but it has the look of him going off to some sort of foreign, exotic place. He should be at Myrtle Beach and if he’s going to take a vacation at this time. I just think this is not the time to do that."

Such statements are a fatuous luxury coming from a vantage point of accumulated wealth. Not everyone can enjoy such a pampered perspective.

"So far this year Hawaii has had 2.596 million domestic visitors," dryly notes Oliver Willis . "I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that that number is far smaller than the amount of people who visited the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine (how many of you have a "family compound"?), or the amount of people who vacationed at the Bush family ranch in Crawford, Texas (I don't know about you, but the Willis family does not have a ranch, not even in southern Maryland or in the rural areas of Jamaica), and 2.5 million is way way more than the amount of visitors to Camp McCain, where a professional staff saw to the needs of the assembled journalists (themselves often on the receiving end of an elite lifestyle far beyond the average middle class American)."

In a summer travel season during which many trips have been replaced by creatively-engineered "stayvacations," more and more Americans are finding themselves just one paycheck away from financial ruin. Few of them will need to see Courtney Hunt's harrowing new film Frozen River, to experience the kind of anxiety felt by Melissa Leo's character.

Ray Eddy's no-good gambling addict of a husband has run off again (taking the money she had saved for the first payment on their new double-wide, three-bedroom trailer home with him). Left with two young sons, no food in the house, and bill collectors eager to repossess the family's big screen TV, Ray is facing desperate times. With Christmas just a few weeks away she has nothing to put under the tree for her children, can't get promoted to a manager's position at the dollar discount store where she works and, for lack of a better term, is up shit's creek.

Make that a frozen creek.

On second thought, make that a frozen river.

Hunt's low-budget thriller -- which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival -- is a taut narrative which follows the increasingly desperate Ray as she ends up helping a young Mohawk woman (Misty Upham) smuggle illegal aliens into the United States during the brief period when the St. Lawrence River is so thickly frozen that the ice can even support the weight of a semi-trailer.

As the two women transport Asians and Pakistanis from the Canadian province of Quebec, through a Mohawk reservation, into upper New York State, they make Ridley Scott's Thelma and Louise seem like a sun-drenched all expenses paid vacation. Predictably, the one last trip Ray needs to take in order to accumulate enough money to pay for the double-wide is the one where things go horribly wrong.

For her first feature film, Hunt has pulled off a major indie success, anchored by Leo's solid portrayal of Ray as a woman determined to do anything for the sake of her children. Shot in the dead of winter, it will make you very happy to walk out into the sunlight and count your blessings.

Sometimes even people who count their blessings have the rug pulled out from under them. During the recent San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, Slawomir Grunberg's documentary Saved By Deportation shed light on a little known aspect of World War II. In 1940, Stalin ordered the deportation of 200,000 Polish Jews from their homes in Russian-occupied Eastern Poland. Stripped of their belongings, many were sent to labor camps in Siberia and other Russian outposts where they struggled to survive the fierce winter and hold onto their dignity.

Because the Russians in these areas had no concept of what a Jew was, the deportees were welcomed without prejudice and put to work. Despite the brutality of their surroundings, many survived until their release. To their horror, upon returning to Poland, they found themselves reviled, spat upon, and in some instances killed by the Poles who had been left behind.

Grunberg's film doesn't just document the flight/plight of the Polish Jews who ended up in Russian encampments. It follows the journey of an elderly Jewish couple from Brooklyn (Asher and Shyfra Scharf) as they retrace their travels -- some 60 years later -- from Lvov, Poland to the southern Siberian town of Chelyabinsk, where Asher worked in a coal mine. Although the mine has been abandoned, Russian families are still living in the dilapidated barracks in which he and his family struggled to survive until their release in 1941.

In Khujand (formerly Leninabad), Tajikistan, they visit the neighborhood where they lived from 1941 to 1945. In Samarkand, they visit the home where they were married in 1945. As they retrace their steps -- without ever hiding their identities as orthodox Jews -- they are welcomed by Muslim communities as they were 60 years ago, with warmth, respect and overly generous hospitality.

Several other Polish survivors contribute memories of being transported to work camps near the Arctic Circle -- as well as their ongoing battles against bed bugs, typhus and other diseases. As one witnesses the cozy warmth of the Scharf's home in Brooklyn and contrasts it with the conditions they survived in Chelyabinsk, one wonders what would happen if the families of George Bush, Phil Gramm and Cokie Roberts were ever subjected to such daunting challenges.

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