Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Tenacity of Hope

In Cut Short (an eight-minute video from Hong Kong that was recently shown at the San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival), a reporter finds himself blindfolded in an interrogation room. When he is finally allowed to remove his blindfold -- a condition he agreed to because of the secretive nature of the project and the exclusivity of the scoop he is about to receive -- he finds himself seated across the table from a famous actress.

Alas, celebrity has its costs (one of which is being interviewed by assholes who publish brazen lies about their interviewees). In Jason Tobin Lock's edgy short film, the ritual of a celebrity interview takes a new and unexpected twist.

Noting that the actress he is facing is notorious for staying in character while making a film, the reporter asks: "So, what kind of role are you playing in this movie?"

After a moment of silence, the actress responds "A serial killer. Remember this?"

She then produces a copy of an article the reporter once wrote about her in a sleazy tabloid. After a moment of silence, the audience sees a subtle change in the reporter's body language as he realizes that his fate is now in her hands. His speech starts to sound more pressured. Sweat gathers on his brow.

At the moment his interview is cut short, there is a sudden blackout.

When the picture comes back up we see the journalist lying on a dock that sticks out into a river. He is naked except for an adult diaper whose edges seem to contain dried blood that has leaked onto his thighs. Next to him is a red-and-white insulated plastic container: the kind often used for picnics (or carrying organ transplants).

As he looks down between his legs and sees the dried blood, his body freezes in terror. Slowly, clumsily, he reaches for the insulated container. As he loses his balance, he knocks it over and watches it fall into the river, where it drifts out of reach.

Tentatively reaching one hand into the front of the diaper, he nervously searches for his penis. Upon finding it, he lets out an exultant whoop of joy and screams "They didn't cut off my dick! I've still got my dick!" He then quickly sheds the adult diaper and ecstatically jumps into the river.

Hope springs eternal.

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With funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, The Independent Television Service (ITVS) recently asked 11 up-and-coming filmmakers to extrapolate the current state of affairs in the United States into stories reflecting what this nation could be like in the near future. Why? According to the Futurestates website:
"American society is in the midst of some of the most profound and fastest-moving change in its relatively short history. We face a paradox of great challenges and great opportunities. Climate change threatens our physical survival and the fate of many species with which we are interdependent; yet the promise of green energy technology has inspired great strides in science and the promise of economic recovery.

Political apathy and diminishing faith in public institutions are being countered by technologies enabling greater participation and transparency. The struggle for civil rights rages on, yet we elected an African American man to the presidency. Globalization has both divided and connected us in ways unimaginable just a decade ago. What will become of America in five, 25, or even 50 years from today?

A minute ago, this moment was the future.

A minute from now, everything could change.

Nothing is inevitable but the passage of time.

Futurestates is a series of groundbreaking digital shorts. Each episode presents a different filmmaker’s vision of American society in the not-too-distant future, fusing an exploration of social issues with elements of speculative and science fiction. This series of 11 short films explores possible future scenarios through the prism of today’s global realities."
In a program co-curated by Chi-Hui Yang, the outgoing Festival Director of the Center for Asian American Media and Karim Ahmad, the series manager from ITVS, audiences were given a chance to watch five films from the Futurestates series. Two of them (along with a provocative documentary short from the program entitled Blueprints for a Generation) demonstrate the remarkable resilience of the human spirit.

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Fallout is provocative for its style as well as its substance. Shot in live action and then animated like a motion-graphic novel, Ben Rekhi's 13-minute nail-biter often feels like a video game.

In a dramatically altered landscape (that gives his characters an action comic book kind of urgency), Rekhi zeroes in on the precarious relationship between Rose (Frankie Shaw) and Damien (Jake Muxworthy) at a supercritical moment in time.

Terrified of becoming a father, Damien has just broken up with Rose. Angry, but feeling free for the first time in years, he is driving out of Los Angeles when a nuclear bomb destroys the city and radioactive fallout poisons the landscape.

Frankie Shaw and Jake Muxworthy

After awakening to find himself in a refugee camp, Damien (who insists that the bomb's detonation was all his fault), decides to make his way back to Los Angeles to try to find Rose, who may have been the true love of his life. Miraculously, he does find her -- under the strangest of circumstances -- as the deadline approaches for the military to drop a bomb that will neutralize the radioactive fallout.

The couple's desperate race to a safe perimeter as a neutron bomb reshapes the dimensions of their brave new world is a challenge that captures the spirit of great science fiction. Fans of James Cameron's 1997 megahit, Titanic, will get a kick out of some very familiar dialogue ("Stay with me, Rose!"). Kudos to Rigved Ghia for some stunning visual effects and Kishan Dev for his evocative matte paintings. You can watch Fallout in its entirety here.

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Equally chilling is Amyn Kaderali's short entitled The Other Side. Set in 2040 (when unemployment has reached 86%, the United States is no longer a superpower, and food and water supplies are scarce), it follows the plight of a father (Brady Smith) and his two children (Abigail Mavity and Jake Short) who are desperately trying to get over the border to "the other side."

Abigail Mavity, Brady Smith, and Jake Shaw

Attempting to navigate a safe path between drug runners, gun traders, gangs of armed vigilantes and military border patrols, they try to hide in a commercial vehicle bearing the logo "All Mart, Inc." in a desperate effort to get smuggled across the border. Soon they are joined by a "businessman" (Jon Huertas) who runs drugs in one direction and guns in the other in accordance with the law of supply and demand.

This living nightmare for a degraded and devalued middle-class family (that once enjoyed cheeseburgers, milkshakes, and leisurely afternoons at their local shopping mall) is the kind of film that every anti-immigration, Tea Party wingnut should be handcuffed to a chair and forced to watch. Dripping with irony, this is a film whose tagline could easily have been "Urine for the shock of your life."

The Other Side's priceless twist ending would make O. Henry proud. You can watch all 18 minutes of Kaderali's brilliant short here.

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Finally, we come to a heartbreaking documentary produced and directed by Cynthia Wade entitled Born Sweet. In a remote part of Cambodia, people are alternatively described as being born salty (healthy) or sweet (sickly).

Why? For many years, people have been drinking out of wells which tapped into heavy deposits of arsenic that had long been buried under layers of volcanic ash. Many residents suffer from black spots and open sores on their skin as a result of arsenic poisoning.

Like many of his villagers, a 15-year-old boy suffering from the "black disease" loves karaoke. Vinh's dream of becoming a karaoke star comes true when he is chosen to appear in an educational video that will help others learn the importance of drinking safe water from new wells instead of using the old wells whose water is contaminated with arsenic.

When I traveled to Egypt with the Houston Grand Opera in 1989, I looked through the window of a tour bus to see saw a dead cow floating in the canal from which some local Egyptians got their drinking water. Wade's documentary offers viewers a bracing reminder of how lucky Americans are to live in a society where there is a high standard of living (as opposed to areas of the third world where the safety of the drinking water is, at best, questionable). Here's the trailer:

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