IDFA Part 2, Mrs. Carey’s Concert

This movie was part of the “PLAY” mini-festival that was the musical part of IDFA this year. All of the selections dealt with music in some way and I was surprised that there were so few people at this, the opening movie of the festival, but perhaps 12.45 on a Saturday wasn’t a popular slot.

This documentary followed the extremely well-funded and exemplary music department at a private girls’ school in Sydney. Every two years, the eponymous teacher presents an enormous gala concert in the Sydney Opera House. We follow her travails as she deals with recalcitrant and sulky teenage girls and tries to motivate hormonal cellists. Two girls in particular are the focal points: the beautiful and very obnoxious Iris, who has no wish to be within 500 miles of this concert, and the awkward and formerly rebellious Emily, a very gifted violinist.

Iris was, of course, fun to watch. She was a master manipulator and it was enjoyable to watch her transformations between good/bad girl while being relieved that I’m not that age any longer, but she didn’t really seem to learn anything. If it had been a Hollywood film, she would have discovered herself through music and become a new person but that didn’t even come close to happening, thank goodness.

Emily was given an enormous task; to learn the first movement of the Bruch violin concerto. It was very interesting to follow her learning process and see her frustration when her teachers asked her to express in words what she felt musically. And of course, the final performance was a resounding success.

I was quite envious of the situation these girls were in and full of admiration for the dedication the teachers put in. I was in a good youth orchestra when I was in high school, but there’s no way we would have tackled some of the music these kids were performing. Ravel String Quartet? I don’t think so. Where on earth did the money come from for this sort of funding and coaching? Very impressive, but also not really realistic for most of the world. How can we turn it to our advantage when we don’t have a private school’s budget?

I stayed for the Q&A afterwards, always interesting. The directors said they had a surprise — and there was Emily! 4 years later, she has lost her awkwardness and has turned into an elegant young woman. She is currently studying at the Royal College of Music in London. After the session, I went up to speak with her and asked if she would just stay here for her studies or if she was planning on staying like so many of the rest of us. She said that she had called her mother last week and told her she didn’t want to come home. Good luck, Emily, and welcome to the club!


IDFA; Planet of Snail

It’s hard for me to write a review of this movie because since I saw it on Saturday night, I’ve told so many people about it that I feel all my words have been used up. Still, I don’t think there will be much overlap (hi, C!) between the two groups so I’ll just go ahead and be repetitive. Sorry in advance.

To put it briefly: this is a beautiful, touching, inspiring movie. To put it longly: I was afraid it would be too slow and was not sure I would have the patience to sit through it after already having seen two movies that day. I even chose a seat on the aisle so I could sneak out if I needed to. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Yes, it was slow. Yes, there were lots of silent beauty shots of water, waves, rain, trees. But the stillness didn’t bother me. You needed it to absorb the story and get to know these two beautiful characters.

So what’s it about? you ask. Very little, in fact. It follows a couple in South Korea, Young-Chan and his lovely wife whose name I forget right now. Young-Chan lost both sight and hearing at a young age and now lives in a self-described fog. “Snails” are how the deaf-blind community call themselves in Korea. He must have gone deaf after learning speech, as he can speak to communicate with the outside world. Of course, as a non-Korean speaker, I don’t know if he is particularly difficult to understand. She suffers from some unnamed spinal disability which is implied to influence her lifespan, although that is never spelled out clearly. She communicates with him by tapping Braille on top of his fingers; this is made even more touching by her gently speaking the words as she types them. They are truly, madly, deeply in love and a more genuine and loving relationship has seldom been portrayed on film.

There are many scenes in which we are gently laughing with them at the sometimes ridiculous situations they find themselves in. Young-Chan lives with a quiet dignity, but tackles many tasks which may seem silly to the outside world. His elegant approach and ability to laugh at himself makes us only want to cheer him on. There is a wonderful scene towards the beginning in which she notices the light bulb in their bedroom has gone out. She tries to stand on the bed to reach it but she is so tiny that there are still 2 meters between her and the fixture. He then stands on the bed and she gets on his shoulders, but that dissolves into laughter and collapsing on the bed. The only possibility is him changing the bulb, but this is not a simple arrangement. It is a complicated circular fluorescent bulb with two connections. Once he gets it out, she writes down very carefully the details before going out to replace it while he waits patiently at home. When she returns, he tears eagerly into the package and then they’re back at it. He does what he can by touch, but when he’s not sure of the next step, he has to bring his hands down so she can tap directions on his fingers. When it finally seems correct, he gets down and we all hold our breath as she flicks the switch… nothing. But it’s fluorescent, and takes two seconds to flicker on. When it does, the entire audience clapped in relief and congratulations.

On the website, if you click on “Media” and then on “Clips,” you can watch another charming excerpt on the top left. They go to the park and he hugs a tree. She asks him what he’s doing, and he replies, “Talking to the tree.” “Is it fun?” “Yes, we’re dating.” How sweet is that?

We see him sledding, swimming, getting buried in the sand at the beach, examining the raindrops. He says in a voiceover while sledding, “I have never seen a starry night. But that does not mean that I don’t believe in their existence.” He is a poet, typing away incessantly on his Braille machine and we see his anticipation over an essay contest that he has entered. Many of the beautifully filmed sequences are accompanied by his voice reading his own poetry.

If I go on, there will be no reason for you to go see this movie and everyone needs to see it. I saw this four days ago and haven’t been able to shake it; it is by far the best movie I’ve ever seen at IDFA. Please, go out and find it. And let me know what you think.

Breaking news: Planet of Snail won Best Documentary at IDFA this year. And to think I just went because it was one of the few that wasn’t sold out! Glad to see others shared my opinion.

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.