Reviews: Films on life and death at Jonestown, American anarchism, & more
Shot in Iraq
Against all odds, a new film college in Baghdad graduates its inaugural class
by Ali Jaafar, from Sight & Sound
A young Iraqi woman stares into the camera, her eyes betraying unimaginable experiences. A student-turned-taxi driver smokes his way through each road-blocked day. A respected artist salvages the covers of books looted from the burnt remnants of Iraq's fine-arts library. These images were captured by three of the four inaugural graduates of Baghdad's Independent Film and Television College: Hiba Bassem, Kifaya Saleh, and Mounaf Shaker. The college was set up in 2004 by Maysoon Pachachi and Kasim Abid, a pair of Iraqi filmmakers back in the war-torn country after 30 years of exile to give young Iraqis free access to courses on lighting, editing, and documentary filmmaking. It produced its first three films in December 2005. Since then, its alumni have been touring their work overseas.
Bassem's Baghdad Days, which won the silver award at Al-Jazeera's international TV festival in March, details how she returned from northern Iraq to Baghdad to finish her studies at the city's Academy of Fine Arts only to find herself and her family caught up in the insurgency. Saleh's Hiwar depicts the valiant attempts of a group of Iraqi artists and writers to establish a cultural center in Baghdad. Shaker's Omar Is My Friend is a poignant portrayal of a Baghdad University student compelled to drive the Iraqi capital's dangerous streets in a clapped-out Volkswagen Passat in order to provide for his wife and four daughters.
'After 13 years of sanctions, two wars, and 35 years of no filmmaking outside of governmental control, we got back to find a film industry that was less than zero,' says Pachachi of the Herculean task that faced her and Abid in setting up their college. 'There were no labs, no film stock, and no digital equipment.' As if concerns over the lack of equipment and funding weren't enough (the college is entirely dependent on donations), the duo have also had to contend with daily violence in Baghdad. Relatives of two students have been kidnapped, one student's cousin was badly injured by a bomb, another student lost an uncle in an explosion, and a shop owner in the school building was kidnapped. 'It is very difficult,' says Abid. 'In Baghdad anything can happen. One student left the country after his uncle and wife were killed.' What's more, the rise in Islamic militias, both Sunni and Shia, patrolling the city streets and their disdainful attitude toward cinema as a heretic pastime has meant the college cannot advertise its location for fear of reprisals. Not that any of this has stopped young Iraqis filing through the doors. 'Even I don't know how, but every day they keep coming and concentrating,' says Abid. 'Sometimes I ask what a film can do in this situation when there's no meaning to life, but this is a period which needs to be recorded for history.'
The college is just one sign of a hesitant rebirth of filmmaking in Iraq. The first post-Saddam features have been completed: Oday Rasheed's Under-exposure, which has screened at film festivals around the world; and Mohamed Al-Daradji's Ahlaam, whose production history could make a film plot in its own right, given that Al-Daradji was kidnapped twice while filming on Baghdad's streets and threatened with execution by insurgents. And in September 2005 the inaugural International Iraq Short Film Festival took place. As for the documentaries that have emerged from Pachachi and Abid's college, all three contain unbearably affecting moments, offering a more haunting insight into the everyday lives of Iraqis than any number of blood-soaked headlines. 'We pray that today marks the beginning of a new day for all Iraqis,' says Bassem at the end of her film, her voice cracking with weary emotion. 'If Iraqis make their voices heard in peace, then congratulate us. And if anything destroys the referendum process, say prayers for the dead for us.'
Reprinted from Sight & Sound magazine (Aug. 2006). Subscriptions: £61/yr. (12 issues) from Tower House, Sovereign Park, Market Harboroug, Leicester LE16 9EF, United Kingdom; www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound.
Church of the Poison Mind
JONESTOWN: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple
(Seventh Art Releasing; in theaters October 20)
'Don't drink the Kool-Aid.' These days, we drop the phrase without thinking about its horrible origins. But director Stanley Nelson's gripping new documentary about Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple exposes the painful story behind the more than 900 people who died in Guyana in 1978, many by drinking a cyanide-laced grape punch. The film traces, in chilling detail provided by former Peoples Temple members, observers, and never-before-seen archival footage, Jones' rise-as both death-obsessed eccentric and social activist-and fall, right up to his gruesome final hours.
Nelson, who is best known for his award-winning documentary The Murder of Emmett Till, investigates the Jim Jones 'paradox' recounted by a former follower: 'having this vision to change the world, but having this whole undercurrent of dysfunction.' Indeed, we see the charismatic sunglasses-wearing preacher, vividly captured in vintage 16mm color film, coming of age during the '60s, advocating for utopian goals such as racial and economic equality. But we also see hair-raising examples of abuse, manipulation, and despotism.
The film's claim to fame may be its thrilling 15-minute finale,
a blow-by-blow account of Congressman Leo Ryan's visit to
Jonestown, the Guyana outpost where Jones relocated his flock,
complete with a startling outbreak of violence captured by news
crews. The film's emotional punch comes not simply from mass
murder, but also from the killing of a collectivist dream. The
testimony of survivors, who saw hopes and loved ones die before
their eyes, will leave audiences shuddering, deeply wary of those
who twist our ideals and take us headlong into cataclysm.
THE BIG ANIMAL
(Milestone Films; on DVD)
'You never know who you'll end up with.' Or what you'll end up
with, as is the case in Jerzy Stuhr's sumptuous black and white
film. In Poland's early morning fog,
a camel appears through bank clerk Zygmunt Sawicki's window. He and his wife take a shine to the humpbacked beast, though the same can't be said for their neighbors, whose reactions range from picketing the family's home to trying to buy the creature for commercial exploitation. The flick saunters from scene to scene, mimicking the pace of Zygmunt and the camel's languorous strolls through town. In an ad-libbed moment before a backdrop of cottages tucked into rotund hills, Zygmunt sums up the movie's hopeful moral: 'They can do us no harm because we're together, and want to be this way.'
BURN TO SHINE 03: Portland
(Trixie; on DVD)
The Burn to Shine project records a snapshot of a
city's music scene in a house slated for demolition. Each band gets
one hour to sound check and sound off for
a handful of milling musicians and a film crew. The latest and best edition of the series, set in Portland, Oregon, is structured by the eclectic taste of its host/curator, Chris Funk of the Decemberists. Obvious picks like Sleater-Kinney and the Shins share the living room with regional up-and-comers (including the charming preteen combo the Ready), who play a wide range of musical styles. The performances are, across the board, intimate and warm; the production values and sound quality are superb. And like any artwork structured by randomness, the set has a strange poetry all its own.
ANARCHISM IN AMERICA
(Pacific Street Films/AK Press; on DVD)
First released in 1981 but newly available on DVD, Steven
Fischler and Joel Sucher's engaging 75-minute documentary follows
the filmmakers' cross-country search for anarchist currents in
everyday life. It finds them not just in self-professed anarchists
but also in an African American worker-owned clothing plant, the
poetry of Kenneth Rexroth, and the raucous performances of the Dead
Kennedys. The film examines popular myths about anarchism and
interviews such political thinkers as recently deceased AK Press
author Murray Bookchin and Karl Hess, a Republican speechwriter who
turned libertarian. The disc also includes Sucher and Fischler's
1980 documentary The Free Voice of Labor: The Jewish
Anarchists, a 55-minute oral history featuring interviews with
gray-headed Jewish Americans involved in publishing the now-defunct
Yiddish anarchist newspaper Freie Arbeiter Shtime, with
context added by historian Paul Avrich. The old people seem full of
spirit and good energy as they articulate how anarchism for them is
not simply an ideal but entails living one's life well: loving,
considering community, and striving for justice.
BREASTS: A Documentary
(First Run Features; on DVD)
You wouldn't know it from X-rated clubs, fashion magazines, or
even a sidewalk survey of ladies bound in the latest
shape-of-the-moment bra, so it's worth reminding women and men
alike that the perfect rack is an ever-changing and elusive
archetype. Breasts does that and more as it plumbs the
depths and shallows of what director Meema Spadola calls 'women's
most public private parts.' There's no groundbreaking cultural
analysis here-just 22 women, often topless, talking candidly about
their breasts. A cancer survivor glides her hand over the space
where her left breast once was and speaks of reconciliation. A
barely A-cup dancer muses on the Lolita complex she's glimpsed in
lovers' eyes. Quirky archival clips thread such tales together,
adding a dose of historical heft, but what really connects them is
the shared experience-wonder, insecurity, pain, joy-evoked by each
woman's unique story.