IDFA, Raising Resistance

This was about small farmers in Paraguay being edged out by enormous international corporations with enormous GM soy crops. The soy is engineered to ensure resistance to certain weeds. However, after a year or two, the farmers have to start spraying for the few weeds that it will succumb to, and every year the weeds become more resistant so they have to use more and more pesticide. The poison spray blows over onto the small crops owned by the independent farmers and they lose their crops year after year. Interestingly, the soy crops are owned by Brazilian businessmen, so it has also become a nationalistic battle. The small farmers set up a protest commune with tents (a sort of Occupy Paraguay) but are soon forced out by a police decree.

As you can probably tell, this movie didn’t really move me. It was an interesting topic, and I’m very glad to know more about it, but the story-telling technique was very basic. Many interviews and shots of fields, without much imagination. We didn’t stay for the Q&A; I’m sorry to say that I’m glad I saw it, but wouldn’t recommend it in particular.


IDFA #9: National Gallery 6/10

Almost the same film as last week “The Great Museum.” Fly on the wall, no outside commentary, boring meetings to show internal organizational dramas. But this was much better because there were also scenes of docents lecturing on paintings. This was very interesting, esp the one woman specialised in 16/17th C, great lectures. But I was sick and tired and only lasted 1 hr of the three.

IDFA, Red Forest Hotel

Interestingly, the two movies I liked the least this year were the two environmental ones. Odd; I usually love exposes, but somehow both of these left me a bit cold. As The Redhead said, “The director was very lucky that what should have been a simple investigative report turned into a thriller.”

Red Forest Hotel began with its Finnish director investigating another mega-national, Stora Enso, and its planting of eucalyptus trees in massive plantations in southern China. Apparently eucalyptus are extremely bad for other species as they such up enormous amounts of water. Once again, the small farmers were being edged out and thrust into poverty. Stora Enso had sent bullies to beat up local villagers and, of course, denied any association.

The movie became a thriller when the director was stopped in his tracks at his hotel by government officials who used every technique in the books to stall his investigation. “We just have to call for someone to accompany you, it won’t take long.” “We’re very happy to help you out, and we promise we’ll give you unbiased, objective information.” Yeah, right. The lawyer and his assistant who were helping in the investigation were both kidnapped and removed so he no longer had Chinese accomplices. He had to leave China for a year and when he returned, things went right back to where they left off.

The final verdict? Multi-nationals are terrible. China is still a police state. Hats off to the very brave director who put himself in harm’s way numerous times in order to get the story to us. Yet once again, I found the story-telling rather pedestrian. Perhaps that’s the only way an expose can work — there’s not much room for creative depiction in such a storyline. But I think of Michael Moore, who some may say goes too far the other way, but would never be accused of a cold approach. Once again, I’m glad I saw it, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it.

IDFA 2016, Singing with Angry Bird

Completely charming and heartwarming. ‘Angry Bird’ is a Korean tenor, obviously of operatic background, who somehow fell into the NGO world and is teaching choir to slum kids in Pune, India. How he communicates with them is a mystery, as his English is quite terrible and he mostly yells and sputters.
This was probably the most traditional ‘documentary’ I saw at IDFA this year. Go to an exotic destination, see how different/difficult the native way of life is, put together a project that challenges them, watch them struggle and seemingly fail, follow them to the ultimately successful culmination of the project, feel warm and fuzzy while being thankful for the distance between your life and theirs.
I began this review by calling this film heartwarming and charming, but that doesn’t preclude an innate colonial disdain. I’m feeling an increasing discomfort with films that treat the natives as Natives, fundamentally different from Us in their bumbling quaint ways. The films I got the most from this year were Radio Kobani and Prison Sisters. Radio Kobani began in utter desolation and desperation, but ended with a note of hope, while Prison Sisters had a longer trajectory – desperation, hope, back to hopelessness. But neither of them had an ‘other’ approach. We were watching other cultures but without a feeling of preciousness. I can’t put my finger on the difference, but it is increasingly important to be aware of it.

IDFA 2016, Radio Kobani

This one was a shock. Because I order so many tickets at the beginning of IDFA, I often don’t really remember what all of the movies will be about. I knew this was about an underground radio station somewhere in the Middle East, but only learned where and how during the course of the film.
Kobani is one of the major cities in Kurdish Syria and was completely, totally destroyed in 2012 and 2014 by IS. We see two young women beginning their radio program in the middle of complete devastation – somehow they’ve managed to find a building that still has walls, not an easy task. The first 30 minutes are some of the most brutal and horrifying I’ve ever seen on screen. We see not only the utter wasteland of a former metropolis, we see the snipers and rebels in shootouts which they treat as video games. But most monstrous is the bulldozer as it comes to clean up the corpses, many dismembered. Absolutely stunning in its cruel matter-of-fact depiction of the fate of all those innocent civilians and the pragmatic actions of the men (and boys) who are just trying to clean up and rebuild their city.
Of course the radio program is the focus of the film, but it really functions only as a pivot to allow us to get a glimpse of these girls’ lives. It is almost ludicrous to watch as they get the station set up, feeling that there is no hope whatsoever for its survival. However, despite the utter grimness all around, people somehow manage to create lives in the desperation. We watch as the town begins to resurrect and we must stifle cheers of support as we see Dilovan go shopping for cheap bangles. There is very little humor in the film and so when we see her mother looking disapproving as a boy flirts with her, the humorous relief is palpable. As we see her marry and it seems that a beautiful future is possible, we can only pray that she, and the city, gets a second chance at happiness.

IDFA 2016, The Promise

Extremely disturbing and, once again, hopeless story. A middle-aged man tells his story in German in a prison interview room. As an impressionable 18-year old exchange student, he fell desperately in love with a beautiful rich girl. Elizabeth seemed to be sufferin from some mental disorder and believed that her parents had abused her. One weekend she concocted a weekend away with Jens as an alibi and slipped back home, where she (or someone) brutally murdered her parents. As a naive, privileged foreigner, Jens believed that he had diplomatic immunity and, if convicted, would be extradited back to Germany where he would serve a few years and then be released for good behavior. So he confesses to a crime he did not commit and spends the rest of his life regretting it.
That’s basically the movie. There are lots of twists and turns and old footage with bad 80’s glasses, but, as we are informed before the credits, his parole hearings have all been unsuccessful. Heartbreaking to see such a waste of an intelligent young man.

IDFA 2016, Prison Sisters

I only went to see this because it was continually at the top of the Public’s Prize rankings. I’m so glad I did, although it was completely and utterly heartbreaking.
The movie begins by showing a women’s prison in Afghanistan. The women are washing clothes in a courtyard and we see them saying goodbye to one of their own, who walks out the gate a ‘free’ woman. She has been a subject in a film about women’s jails in Afghanistan, made by an Afghani/Swedish director, and after her release she is invited to Stockholm for the premiere of the film. While there, she extends her stay of 10 days in order to request asylum, as she fears for her life if she returns to her homeland. At 17, she ran away from home with her boyfriend, was imprisoned for this crime and has therefore brought shame upon her family, who she fears will kill her if she returns.
Sara stays for an unspecified time with the filmmaker and his wife, Afghani refugees in Stockholm, although we never hear their story. While we watch her wait, we see her deal with setbacks (a pregnancy by her husband who she married after her release and before her immigration), trying to learn the language, figuring out how life works in a country where women have as much value as men. We watch her on the phone with her husband, who resents her being in school and not wearing the hijab, claiming that she has become the man of the family and that there is no room for him. We cannot understand why she conti ues to phone him, as it is extremely clear that she needs to move on and embrace her independence.
The title of the film comes from a secondary story involving a friend of Sara’s from prison. Her friend was young, headstrong, independent and aggressive. Sara and the filmmaker try to hint her down after her release from prison. After many false alarms and red herrings, he finally finds her in Kabul and we see a very emotional skype call between the two friends, in which the girl admits to turning to prostitution after her release as the only way she could survive. We feel, ‘There but for the grace of god’ and feel relief that Sara has been spared this fate. We then learn that shortly after this call, the friend changed her number and cut off all contact.
We watch with joy as Sara is finally informed of her residence permit coming through and the official beginning of her new life. She giggles as she imagines calling Navid and of welcoming him to join her. But as she prepares to go meet him at the airport, she becomes pensive and says, ‘I don’t have a good feeling about this. He’s not going to fit in here.’ As we see them joyfully greet each other, we pray she’s wrong but as we see the silence that falls between them, we feel sure this the end for their story. As the screen goes black and the credits roll, the ominous paragraphs roll over the screen: ‘Two weeks after Navid’s arrival, Sara moved in with him and cut off all contact with the filmmakers. He started school but she quit it. She is now wearing the burqa again and is expecting their first child.’ Completely heartbreaking. Oh please, please, please, Sara, leave him and make your own life!’