Considering that I only saw about twelve films, and I totally bailed on the last three days of the Film Fest due to a cold and springtime gardening duties, I hardly feel able to comment on the Fest as a whole. I still plan on catching a few holdover films Tuesday and Thursday, but for now, here is how the later part of the Fest went for me:
Ghosts of the Cité Soleil
I can't believe there isn't more talk about this documentary. Not only is it well made, but intense in every aspect. The documentary tells the story of the Chimeres: gangs in the Cité Soleil district of Port au Prince that were hired (and armed) by former President Jean-Bertrand Aristite to attack those who opposed him, and especially protesters. The impoverished youth of Cité Soleil had nothing to lose, making them all the more volatile. When Aristide fled the country, the reigning powers were committed to dis-arming (and as a result dis-empowering) the Chimeres. The leaders of the Chimeres, intimately portrayed, wore many different hats: civic leader, common thug, celebrity, outlaw, and narcissistic power hungry men. There is some very brave filmmaking in this film where it seems pretty obvious they were in danger. The heartwenching reality of life in Cité Soleil then, and more than likely now too, is just a harsh reminder of the injustice that happens daily behind our back.
Chinese Botanist's Daughter
This heavy-handed love story between two young women in 80s post-Gang of Four era China was just too much for me. Min is an orphan who has been given the chance to study with a botanist. It turns out that the botanist has a daughter about her age. The two secretly fall in love. Their days are filled with illicit trists and being scolded by stern but "caring" teacher/father for gathering the wrong herbs or serving him his breakfast a half an hour late. Enter the botanist's unmarried son, who takes a shine to Min. The remainder of the film shows how the two young woman attempt to navigate this patriarchal mess. Mylène Jampanoï, who plays Min, was obviously chosen for her physical attributes than her appropriate performing abilities. The poor dubbing job was more distracting than poor Mandarin. And while I'm sure Dai Sijie had the best intentions of representing the plight of two women in love in Communist China, the images of these two women sweating together in their herbal sauna just made me feel like I was watching a guy's wet dream. Dai should stick to the novels; these things translate better to the page.
A moving drama from Germany that tells the story of a family torn apart from the war in Bosnia. Senada, now 30, is still searching for her daughter who she was separated from nine years earlier. Although her search seems endlessly in vain, she finally stumbles across a lead that sends her to Germany. Labina Mitevska is great as the unflappable young woman who has lived beyond her years.
On a Tightrope
The filmmakers of this documentary take no time at all establishing that the Chinese authorities are not keen on what they are doing. But the subject matter is not all that furtive. It is hard times in the western province of Xinjiang in China, and when it is orphanage of Uighur children, it is even harder times. Like most large groups of minorities in China, the Han do everything possible to assimilate them into good communist soldiers and keep them from getting ahead. Although this very important issue of the repression (and rebellion) of the Uighurs seems to be the motivation for the film, that focus is lost due to the captivating personalities of these children who want to learn the tightrope. It's a fascinating documentary on many different levels, but maybe a little misguided in it's goals.
What the big deal about Summer Palace and why are the Chinese censors so upset? Sex. Lots of very frank sex. Lou Ye took his unauthorized edit of Summer Palace to Cannes last year and got in trouble. As usual, it was not the politics the censors were upset with, it was the sex. In fact, even though the heart of the film takes place at Beijing University in 1989, there is not much in the way of politics involved. No heated discussions about democracy, or the death of Hu Yaobang, or how they were going to change the world, etc. The protagonists of this film were only discussing who was sleeping with who. Summer Palace breaks the mold for contemporary Chinese film, and while it captures the social revelry of the time it doesn't wallow in it. And I think Lou takes some artistic license in order to push mainland Chinese film into what may be a new phase. A film about longing and regret, I think this film does wonders with an incredible cast of unknowns.