3/25/2013 12:37:03 PM
Sony Pictures Classics
How do you overthrow a dictatorship? If you thought armed insurrection or mass protests were the answer, think again. In this sharp, darkly humorous political thriller about Chile’s 1989 referendum on the leadership of Augusto Pinochet, filmmaker Pablo Larrain shows how the superficial tools of popular mass media—rainbows, catchy jingles, and celebrity endorsements—upended an autocracy. The film follows skateboard-riding ad-man René Saavedra (terrific Mexican actor Gael García Bernal), as he comes up with the upbeat Coca-Cola-inspired commercials to effect the outcome of the election. Facing resistance from the Communists who hired him and the authorities who attempt to sabotage him, Saavedra struggles against all odds to change the future of a nation. Larrain nails period details with a sardonic specificity—from microwaves to “We Are the World”—but most of all, his film brilliantly captures his country’s tense, unsteady transition from brutal tyranny to tentative democracy.
3/21/2013 2:34:22 PM
Long Distance Revolutionary
(DVD, First Run Features)
In late 1996, a year after Live From Death Row appeared in print to wide critical acclaim, Pennsylvania supermax prison SCI Greene forbade its author, radical journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, from conducting press interviews. Widely seen as an attempt to silence Abu-Jamal, a federal district court threw out the ban, saying it unfairly singled out one inmate. SCI Greene complied with the decision by simply prohibiting all inmates from conducting recorded interviews. The ban, which has since expanded to other prisons and states, has become known as the “Mumia rule”.
Chronicling his life before and after a widely condemned murder conviction in 1982, Long Distance Revolutionary situates obstacles like the “Mumia rule” within a long history of racial injustice and silence. Combining archival footage, poetry, and interviews with activists and writers like Angela Davis, David Zirin, and Cornel West, the film documents Abu-Jamal’s effort to explode that silence, especially around issues like black history, police brutality and the prison-industrial complex.
Emerging as a prominent activist and journalist in 1970s Philadelphia, Abu-Jamal’s potent writing always fed into action. In one of the film’s more powerful moments, he describes protesting a campaign rally for segregationist candidate George Wallace in 1968 (at age 14). After being discovered by Wallace supporters, he recalls being beaten by close to a dozen white men, including a policeman who kicked him in the face. “I’ve always said thank you to that cop,” Abu-Jamal says defiantly, quoting a passage from Death Row, “because he kicked me right into the Black Panther Party.”
His induction into radical activism, however, also led to a difficult, and in many ways impossible life of standing up to violence and power. Held until recently on death row in solitary confinement , forced to see his children only through bulletproof glass, Abu-Jamal has managed to defy his “bright, shiny, highly-mechanized hell” through study, discipline, and remarkable humanity. At one point in the film, when his daughter visits for the first time and is devastated to find out she cannot embrace her father, Abu Jamal is heartbroken, but quickly teases her into a smile.
“Most human beings would shrivel up, become very coarse in their consciousness and very hard in their hearts and very chilly in their souls,” says journalist Tariq Ali in the film, of Abu-Jamal’s incarceration. “It’s had the opposite effect on Mumia.” In his three decades behind bars, Abu-Jamal has authored seven books on everything from black spirituality to the prison system. In spite of unimaginable barriers, Abu-Jamal remains a critical and hopeful voice for the justice and freedom denied him.
2/26/2013 2:24:29 PM
Most of us think of dolls as children's playthings, but they have a story to tell about race, culture, heritage, and history.
This is an excerpt from an article that originally appeared at Collectors Weekly.
As a little girl, Samantha Knowles didn’t stop to consider why
most of her dolls—her American Girl dolls, her Cabbage Patch Kids, her Barbie
dolls—were black like her. But black dolls were not common in her upstate New York hometown, whose
population remains overwhelmingly white. So when Knowles was 8 years old, one
of her friends innocently asked “Why do you have black dolls?” And she didn’t
know quite what to say.
But that question stuck with her, and in college, she started to consider
how she would answer as an adult. Finally, as an undergraduate film student at
Dartmouth, she connected with a small but passionate group of black doll
enthusiasts who gather at black doll shows around the country, and for her
senior honors thesis, Knowles, now 22, completed a documentary called Why Do You Have Black Dolls? to articulate the answer.
What the Brooklyn filmmaker didn’t know was that her mother felt so strongly
that her daughters, Samantha and Jillian, have dolls of
their own race, that she would stand in line at stores or make special
orders to make sure they got one of the few black versions. “My parents
made sure to get us a lot of black dolls in a wide variety of hues and shapes,”
Samantha Knowles says. “We didn’t have exclusively black dolls, but we had
mostly black dolls. After I started working on the film, I had a lot of
conversations with my mom, and she would say, ‘Oh, you don’t know what I had to
go through to get some of those dolls!’”
Many black doll enthusiasts, like Debbie Behan Garrett, the
author of “Black Dolls: A Comprehensive Guide to Celebrating, Collecting, and
Experiencing the Passion,” feels the same way as Knowles’ mother.
“I’m emphatic about a black child having a doll that reflects who she is,”
Garrett says. “When a young child is playing with a doll, she is mimicking
being a mother, and in her young, impressionable years, I want that child to
understand that there’s nothing wrong with being black. If black children are
force-fed that white is better, or if that’s all that they are exposed to, then
they might start to think, ‘What is wrong with me?’”
Why Do You Have Black Dolls? debuted in October at the Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival
in New York City,
where it won the Reel Sisters Spirit Award. It has also been selected for
the Martha’s Vineyard African-American
Film Festival and the Hollywood Black Film
Festival in Beverly Hills.
In the film, doll maker Debra Wright says when little girls see her dolls,
they’ll exclaim happily, “Look at her hair! It’s just like mine.”
In fact, Knowles says that Wright gave a quote that best sums up her answer
to the question posed by the film: “I think women know that they’re beautiful,”
Wright says. “But when you see a doll, it’s such a wonderful reminder of that
beauty—because somebody took the time to make a doll in your likeness.”
Among Knowles interviewees were Barbara Whiteman, a longtime black doll
collector who runs the 25-year-old Philadelphia
Doll Museum where she has a rotating display of 300 of her collection of
1,000 black dolls. On Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, Knowles’ documentary screens as
a part of the Black History Month programming at the National Black Doll Museum in Mansfield, Massachusetts.
Five black-doll collecting sisters Debra Britt, Felicia Walker, Celeste Cotton,
Tamara Mattison, and Kareema Thomas opened that museum in the summer of 2012 to
teach black history and showcase their collection of 6,200 dolls.
The only black girl at her school in 1950s Dorchester, Massachusetts,
Debra Britt grew up carrying the vinyl white Baby Bye-Lo doll. “I didn’t have a
lot of self-esteem with it.” Britt says. “I had big issues because I was black
and fat, and kids were teasing me. And I had to ride a bus with nobody on it.
When I would get to school, the other kids shook my bus every day and called me
Britt’s grandmother stepped in and started dip-dying store-bought dolls
brown for her granddaughter, and she also taught Britt how to make African wrap
dolls from a gourd, an apple, and vines. These dolls were also made by slaves
on plantations in the South, who would have their children put in a pebble to
represent each fear or worry and relieve them of the burdens. “My grandmother
kept saying, ‘You don’t know where you’re coming from and you need to.’” Britt
says. “And so she made this African wrap doll and gave me the history.”
Read the rest of this article and see more photos of black dolls through history at Collectors Weekly.
Image (top): Jillian Knowles, Samantha’s younger sister, sits with their doll collection from childhood in a still from Why Do You Have Black Dolls?
1/24/2013 9:09:22 AM
This article originally appeared at Reality Sandwich.
Ever since On the Road was published, sporadic attempts to bring it to the screen -- including a series of adaptations by distinguished writers (Michael Herr, Russell Banks, and Barry Gifford) and even announcements of casting calls -- have, until recently, come to nothing. Meanwhile the film has been playing for over fifty years in the imaginations of Kerouac's ardent readers, who have never been troubled by what Hollywood producers evidently saw as the book's great drawback -- the lack of a storyline with that limiting three-act structure that has been imposed upon American filmmaking for far too long. In Kerouac's novel, it was the intensification of language and feeling, rather than plot developments, that brought the book to an ecstatic natural climax, followed by a swift, somewhat melancholy denouement. By the time Jack wrote the famous scroll version of On the Road in 1951, after five years of highly fictionalized false starts, he was already in rebellion against conventional storytelling.
When Jack was a kid spending his Saturday afternoons at the Royal Theater in Lowell, Massachusetts, the Depression films that taught him about the America he would one day explore were all in black and white -- just like the only Beat film that in my estimation qualifies as art, Robert Frank's 1959 Pull My Daisy.... By the fall of 1957 as film offers started to come in, Jack was willing to visualize On the Road's American landscapes in Technicolor and Cinemascope, but for him the important feature of any projected adaptation remained language rather than spectacle -- the brilliant zigzagging flights of riveting talk in the intimate darkness of a speeding car through which two restless, troubled, highly articulate seekers turn on and come to know each other. The secret storyline of On the Road, influenced by Jack's admiration for Celine's Journey to the End of the Night, was in fact Sal Paradise's pursuit of his alter ego and spiritual brother, Dean Moriarty, in an attempt to make himself whole and rediscover the joy of being alive even in the shadow of death. "Let the dialog roll," was Jack's main advice to both Marlon Brando and the Twentieth Century Fox producer Jerry Wald -- advice the Brazilian director Walter Salles essentially ignored.
"I had to betray the book in order to be faithful to it," Salles announced too confidently last spring shortly before On the Road was released at Cannes. One of his earliest decisions was to junk most of the dialog Kerouac had written and replace it with clumsy approximations of Beat talk and the inept improvisations of his stars. Most of the memorable theme-bearing lines are gone from the film, including Dean Moriarty's famous statement "We know time." I knew something was very wrong from the moment Sal meets Dean for the first time and greets him with, "How's it going, Cowboy." As played by the British actor Sam Riley, Sal is a vacuous figure with little to say for himself rather than a young man with a brooding and profound understanding of all that he sees. Apparently, Salles' screenwriter Jose Rivera wasn't up to the challenging task of creating dialog for this character, who is more of a listener and observer than a speaker in Jack's novel.
Salles has put his emphasis upon spectacle, giving us beautifully shot scenery in Canada and Patagonia as well as the U.S. and attractive and bankable young stars who disbrobe throughout the film at the drop of a hat. What's gone from his version of On the Road is not only Kerouac's language but Kerouac's spirit. There is little trace of the spiritual search for belief that motivates the novel's characters, and hardly any of the social context that would give moviegoers a sense of what Sal and Dean were rebelling against and even caused them to identify with all that acting out. Instead we get episode after episode of frenetic but essentially meaningless physical and sexual activity. I doubt that Jack, who brooded deeply upon the ways Hollywood "only enhanced our own wild dreams" and whose books are full of cinematic references, would have been surprised by this outcome. In 1952, standing in a crowd watching as a Joan Crawford vehicle was being filmed on a foggy San Francisco street, he presciently observed that "the movies have nothing now but great technique to show."
In his twenties, Kerouac sporadically supported himself by synopsizing scripts for film studios and tried his own hand at screenwriting. He wrote a Christmas tearjerker that he unsuccessfully tried to sell. The abandoned novels he wrote between 1947 and 1950 provide proof that he developed considerable facility at dreaming up exactly the kind of elaborate, sagalike plots that movie producers might have gone for. But the writing he began to do in 1951 marked the resurgence of a very old idea he'd put aside but never forgotten. He was only eleven when he'd had a radical thought: instead of imitating the heroes of the movie serials he'd seen, why couldn't he be the hero of his own movie, watching himself as he went through an entire ordinary day? By the time Jack finally succeeded in writing On the Road, he had nearly lost all interest in producing novels in which he disguised himself, created composite characters and fictionalized real events. No sooner had he finished his road novel than he felt there was far too much fiction in it and started work on the "inserts" that would lead to Visions of Cody, the book that finally fully liberated the spontaneous voice of his mature "true life" novels.
The weeks following the publication of On the Road in September 1957 were an overwhelmingly bewildering time for Jack and the old misgivings about his six-year-old novel that he kept to himself may have contributed to it. Hungry to experience every reward and aspect of his unexpected fame, Jack simultaneously wished he could go off and hide in a mountain cabin. While On the Road was being both praised to the skies and torn apart with unusual ferocity by members of the American literary establishment, he harbored a secret fear: "Tonight I'm worried that I can't write as well as I did in 1956."
By mid-October, the spoils of Jack's fame included a $110,000 bid for On the Road from Warner Brothers, which included the opportunity to play Sal Paradise himself. Meanwhile, in Hollywood, Jerry Wald, the prototype for the venal producer Sammy Glick in Budd Shulberg's novel What Makes Sammy Run, had already dispatched a memo to the story editor at 20th Century Fox. Eager to make a film about the hot subject of the "beat-up generations," Wald, who would not come forward with an offer until January, was dredging up some sure fire ways to give On the Road "the dramatic fury" that would lead to an uplifting moralistic message (the very opposite of what Jack had intended) and "box-office attractiveness."
The most exciting prospect, as far as Jack and his agent Sterling Lord were concerned, was a film starring Marlon Brando, who had started his own production company headed by his father, in conjunction with Paramount. By October 15, Brando, who had just gotten married, had expressed interest in the novel, but had not gotten around to actually reading it. Brando as Dean Moriarty! -- the idea seemed so perfect, if not bound to work out, that Sterling Lord raised his asking price to $150,000 and turned down the offer from Warner's, hoping Warner's and Paramount would bid against each other. From Orlando, Florida, where he just had escaped to the quiet of his mother's house, Jack over-confidently wrote Neal Cassady: "Brando definitely interested soon as he crawls outa bed," forgetfully offering his old buddy the option of playing Dean.
Read the rest of this story at Reality Sandwich.
Joyce Johnson is the author of The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac and the 1983 memoir Minor Characters.
, licensed under Creative Commons.
9/26/2012 10:28:49 AM
Directed by Natalia Almada
POV, premieres Sept. 27 on PBS
Death carries with it a heavy responsibility. That’s one profound lesson we can glean from Natalia Almada’s POV documentary El Velador, which chronicles a side of the Mexican drug war many viewers are not accustomed to seeing. In Culiacán, death has become an industry, a way of life, a way of surviving. The documentary follows a young woman sweeping a family member’s mausoleum, cemetery workers constructing gravesites for another 300 expected customers, and a lone cemetery night watchman who protects the sprawling memorials. The people in Almada’s film each have a daily connection with the dead.
There is no physical violence in El Velador, but it is a strikingly violent film. In one scene, a young girl buys a piece of fruit from a vendor as a woman (just off camera) wails loudly during a funeral. In another, explosions ignite the starlit sky just behind the night watchman, who is so unfazed he doesn’t bother turning around. We’re left wondering whether the thunderous flashes were fireworks or gunfire, but it seems for the watchman, neither would be particularly remarkable. The violence of El Velador lies in these contrasts, where the effects of brutality and absence are powerfully present in mourners, families, and communities.
Almada has written that the mausoleums and memorials in her film function in the community as “a grand expression of remembrance, a refusal to be invisible, anonymous and forgotten.” This is certainly true for the small army of mourners, cemetery workers, and watchmen that maintain and protect that memory. But at the same time, Almada has hidden that memory from her viewers. El Velador is itself deeply anonymous, with no named characters, no conventional narrative, and only a couple of hints at the story’s geographic landscape.
Most of us understand the drug war through the mechanical details of news media—who, what, where, when—along with value judgments and prescriptions for change. El Velador obscures all of these, in favor of a unique intimacy that can only be produced through familiarity, repetition, and deceptive silence. What the film conveys most forcefully are these heartbreaking details, how a culture of violence has seeped into ordinary life in what seems like every possible way.
7/3/2012 3:59:41 PM
Dr. Mahir Saul at the African Film Festival in Istanbul.
Photo by Emrah Gürel / Hurriyet Daily News
Dr. Mahir Saul has three things on his mind—continents, connections and cinema. He is a one-man tectonic plate, attempting to bind Europe, Asia, North America and Africa into one large land mass. For him, accepted geographic norms aside, it makes perfect sense. Now, he wants to shift and align public perception to see the world as he does.
In early 2012, he curated the first-ever African film series, to be held in Turkey, for the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art. Saul, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign anthropology professor, 62, brought to the project over three decades of academic research, an entire career studying West African cultures in places like Burkina Faso, lengthy fieldwork examining Istanbul’s Afro-Turk population, and a thorough knowledge of African filmography. As a native of Istanbul, a city located in both Europe and Asia, he wanted to give something back to his country.
Africa, the world’s second largest continent, is a region that he holds in high esteem, resenting that it is always negatively associated with Somali pirates, disease, famine, and pot-bellied kids. Western media coverage tends to focus on pessimistic, crisis-oriented stories that equate Africa with misery—a place filled with unimaginable horrors. In Istanbul, the only interaction most citizens have with an African is when they pass by seemingly invisible street peddlers selling watches out of a suitcase. When teaching African Film and Society, for the past 15 years, he isn’t surprised to hear new students describe the Hollywood film, Blood Diamond, as an example of African cinema.
He wants to debunk stereotypes about Africa. “It’s important to show these films, by Africans, proving the vast intellectualism that exists there, beyond just ethnographical documentaries, but rather avant-garde works that enrich our knowledge,” he says.
In the African film series, Saul showcased 10 movies, attempting to focus on the connectedness between African lives and the common themes that other people around the world might experience; and, to prove that rich imaginations exist beyond Western shores. He thinks that anthropology has gone in the direction of stressing cultural differences and he does not like it. “As a person, I am directly the opposite. At a basic level, we are all the same and our shared historical and family connections are very important,” he says.
Faat Kine, a Senegalese film, examines the daily life of a successful business woman, a single mother who faces the challenge of raising her son and daughter, while protecting the family unit against the fathers who abandoned them. It’s a universal story that could easily be understood in California or China. In the film, Waiting for Happiness, villagers interact in a remote Mauritanian seacoast town, dealing with mundane tasks such as restoring a home’s electricity to more weighty subjects like acceptance and migration. Someone in rural Kansas or Kazakhstan might identify with the same themes.
Filmmaking, in some African nations, was once banned by the Laval Decree, a mid-20th century French colonial law. Before the 1960s, it was feared that films could be used to denounce the French occupation and promote subversive activity. Effectively, it shut out artists from using the medium to create visual representations of how they viewed their own identity and culture. It would be like prohibiting America’s greatest jazz musicians from developing their craft in the 1920s and 1930s during the Harlem Renaissance.
The Istanbul Modern Film Series is a testament to how much has been accomplished by African filmmakers in recent decades. The term avant-garde is too diminutive a description for the genre-defying film, The Bloodiest (Les Saignantes). In 97 minutes, a wild thematic mixture of politics, eroticism, suspense, horror, and science fiction leaves the mind wondering what was seen on the screen. It’s a cult classic that needs a worldwide cult following. And, if Hyenas wasn’t an African film, it could be mistaken for something imagined by Woody Allen.
Müge Tüfenk, Istanbul Modern’s Director of Film Programs, is an expert on her city’s culture scene. Although she is a veteran film and arts journalist, she admits that prior to collaborating with Dr. Saul, African cinema was completely unknown to her. If this void existed in her own mind, she knew that it most certainly existed for her museum audience. She felt compelled to introduce Turkish people to an opportunity that had never been provided to them and that they had never even thought about.
“Mahir was very passionate about his ideas. He made me aware, all of a sudden, that there are many African people in Istanbul, they are part of this city, and even their native restrictions and lifestyles are similar to our own. It was worth discovering.” she says.
After the success of his project, Saul hopes to take the accomplishment to other venues in North America – perhaps starting in Chicago or collaborating with other universities might be a next step. It’s not within his reach, nor is it his intent, to compete with more established events like The Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou, created in 1969, or The Pan-African Film Festival in Los Angeles, established in 1992.
However, he found an isolated audience in Istanbul and he knows that there are other people and places that are yet to know the value of African cinema.
Other notable films in African cinema:
The Wind (FINYÉ)
Souleymane Cissé (Mali)
The Law (Tilaï) - 1990
Idrissa Ouedraogo (Burkina Faso)
Karmen Geï - 2001
Joseph Gaï Ramaka (Senegal)
Dry Season (Daratt) - 2006
Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (Chad)
6/19/2012 12:43:38 PM
Directed by Jennifer Fox
Premieres June 21, 2012 on PBS
While the conflict between a father’s expectations and his
son’s desires is a story as old as the hills, Jennifer Fox has managed to
capture a unique twist on that experience with her documentary film My Reincarnation, which kicks off the 25th
season of POV on PBS.
Like most ambitious children, Italian-born Yeshi Silvano Namkhai
has plans for his life. He likes playing music and taking photographs. He has a
knack for computers. He wants to be a father.
But Yeshi’s father, exiled Tibetan Buddhist Master Namkhai
Norbu Rinpoche, believes that Yeshi is the reincarnation of his great-uncle, Khyentse
Rinpoche Chökyi Wangchug— a revered Tibetan Buddhist Master who died in a
For Namkhai Norbu, the path is clear: maintain the ancient
spiritual and cultural traditions of Tibet through service to the
Tibetan Buddhist community. But Italian-born Yeshi views the responsibility as
an unwanted burden even though he acknowledges having the special dreams
associated with being reincarnated. “I’m not afraid of dying, but I’m afraid of
living,” Yeshi says as he struggles to reconcile his desire to be a “normal” Westerner with his father's hope that he will embrace his destiny.
Fox’s film is compelling because it isn’t just a snapshot.
Filmed over 20 years, we’re introduced to Yeshi as a defiant
18-year-old intent on pursuing the life he wants, and we follow him through
adulthood as he evolves into the man he’s become. In that same time frame, we
also see the seeds for Yeshi’s strained relationship with his father, and how
both men work to better know and understand each other. Despite its unique
circumstances, My Reincarnation is
remarkably accessible for anyone who has tried to balance their own desires with
the expectations of a parent.
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