Utne Reader Film Reviews, November-December 2008

The People’s Filmmaker
Still Life
(New Yorker Films; on DVD)

Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke chronicles his country’s blind rush toward capitalistic excess with a wry, exquisite eye. While many of his compatriots create dazzling spectacles that celebrate China’s achievements–Zhang Yimou’s Olympics opening ceremony, for example–Jia quietly and artfully captures the nation’s reckless disregard for its citizens in his dramatic features. From his earlier independent work, such as Pickpocket (1997) and Unknown Pleasures (2002), to the more recent Still Life, which won the top prize at the 2006 Venice International Film Festival, Jia’s films track the lost rural souls the country is leaving behind.

A provocative tour de force set around China’s controversial Three Gorges Dam project, Still Life focuses on a man and a woman on parallel searches for their families. Less a traditional story than a strange and lyrical travelogue with a sharp political edge, the film expresses its rancor through portraiture and landscape: Witness the sullen face and toughened body of the coal-miner protagonist and the stunning images of half-demolished buildings and piles of rubble that he passes.

Of Jia’s seven films, only Still Life and The World (2004) have been officially approved for showing in China (the others are widely available on pirated DVDs). Despite the film’s unabashed critique of government corruption (relocation officers beating up residents) and an ultra modernizing China (shots of a gaudy, glittering bridge counterpoised with working-class drudgery), it seems cultural officials are beginning to acknowledge the rising auteur as one of their own–perhaps to watch him more closely. –Anthony Kaufman

Our Drying Earth
(Oscilloscope Pictures; in theaters)

The world is running out of drinking water, according to the documentary Flow, and battle lines are drawn in the fight over the last drops. Anti-privatization activists, protesters, and journalists are clashing with massive multinational corporations like Nestlé and Vivendi, who push privatization and prepaid water cards on the poor while claiming “water for all.” Though she clearly sympathizes with the protesters, director Irena Salina interviews people of all stripes, including powerful CEOs, authors, scientists, and even T. Boone Pickens, about who owns the world’s water (people like him, it turns out). The film enrages and frightens as it reinforces one central point: Powerful oligarchs are stealing water from the poor, and now is the time to take it back. –Bennett Gordon

Mommy Dearest
Manhattan, Kansas
(Carnivalesque; on DVD)

“Do you want to lick the spoon?” Usually, it’s the parent who poses this cookie-baking query to the child. In the evocative personal documentary Manhattan, Kansas, the roles are painfully reversed. Tara Wray has always wanted a “normal” mom; what she got was Evie Wray, a free spirit and undiagnosed head case who flipped out when Tara left the nest at 19. After five years away, Wray returns, with a documentary camera crew in tow. The result is a dysfunctional family portrait that unfolds with increasing resonance. Wray’s movie isn’t just therapy; it’s a poetic, universal journey about everyone’s need to connect with Mommy, no matter how crazy she is.  –A.K.

Through the Microscope
(First Run Features; on DVD)

Writer-director David Lebrun’s Proteus is by turns a conventional biographical documentary, cleverly curated museum show, animated college lecture, and precision instrument of trance induction. The movie tells–and, importantly, shows–the story of zoologist Ernst Haeckel, who discovered and described thousands of the one-celled animals known as protozoa. It involves Goethe’s Faust, Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, and the occasional trippy montage of lovely, grotesque, endlessly shape-shifting microscopic organisms. The result is a bewitching, cinematically fluent unification of science and imagination. –Jonathan Kiefer

Big Waves, Big Hearts
Sliding Liberia
(VAS Entertainment; on DVD)

Sliding Liberia feels strange at first, combining action footage of surfing Westerners on holiday with a documentary view of the war- and poverty-wracked people of Liberia. But settle into the film’s gentle groove and the distance between those worlds collapses. Filmmaker Britton Caillouette makes no pretense about his original mission: He came to Liberia to catch some gnarly waves. Like a good tourist, though, he listened to the locals and learned their story, and in Sliding Liberia he lets them tell it in their own words. Two civil wars and loads of heartache make for intense interviews, and ultimately the surf interludes give the viewer’s mind
a much-needed break at the beach. –Keith Goetzman

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