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The World at the Movies - SF Film Festival
French policy makers
consider cinematography part of their nation's cultural identity; they exclude
it from the list of commodities subject to trade agreements. Hollywood, of
course, disagrees. For the mighty and powerful of the Dream Factory it's a
business like everything else. That difference was underlined by the words of
the renowned French filmmaker Michel Ciment. In his first ever State of Cinema
address at the SF International Film Festival the guest festival programmer
praised American directors who must deal with "illiterate" producers with "no
moral conscience" shooting for "moronic and mindless". Too harsh, you say? But
don't we need that token Foreigner we can hate for telling it like it is? Be it
Michel Ciment, Simon Cowell from the American Idol or foreign news agencies. Too
bad, mass media largely ignores the world unless it's interfering with US
interests, but that's where cinema comes in, believe it or not.
A well made documentary can tell you more, and certainly convince you more, than
a brief news announcement. And this year at the festival there was no shortage
Here comes another "British invasion" that will rock your world. This time it's
a 4-hour BBC documentary "THE CENTURY OF THE SELF" that was screened at the SF
Film Festival. (415-931-FILM or sffs.org)
This film is a must-see for every American, especially now when our collective
psyche is being exploited and manipulated like never before. It explores the
world of Public Relations (formerly known as propaganda) and its influence on
the hearts and minds of ordinary people by tracing the history of psychoanalysis
and its "creative" use in business and politics.
It is not enough for businessmen and politicians to rely on your reasonable
choices when they can use your subconscious to cajole you into buying or
thinking what THEY want you to buy and think. They can mold you into a perfect
consumer and a pliable controllable citizen. And the best thing of all - you're
not even aware of it. You still think there is no puppet master in this puppet
This personality makeover is also changing the political climate. Look behind
Bill Clinton's reelection campaign and Tony Blair's surge to power. Mourn their
respective parties' ideals sacrificed on the altar of popularity.
The top PR achievement? Weasel its commercial messages into the mainstream
informational media thus removing the visible hand of the puppet-master.
What is the media's role in all of this? When your very existence depends on
business' ads and commercials, would you rock the boat? Would you side with
business in trying to create a perfect consumer or attempt to educate the public
raising its awareness and stimulating minds by bringing more conscience-raising
and thought-provoking programming and contents?
BBC tried and was criticized as elitist and condescending. But look at the
American alternative. Local media moguls give the public what they think it
wants feeding the population mostly hollow entertaining fluff. Even news
programs reflect "my back yard first" approach. This media diet of thought and
fact starvation only perpetuates ignorance, narrow-minded attitudes and lack of
respect for other cultures. And then we wonder why the world hates Americans?
So how do we change all that? The film does not give any answers. It only
raises our awareness by exposing the outrageous PR stunts in business and
politics. Most importantly, it eliminates any doubts in authors' objectivity by
presenting interviews with "puppet-masters" themselves or their immediate
Quite a few films, documentaries and features, dealt with problems in the Middle
East. Dehumanizing and vilification of the enemy are some of the tactics used
by armies and governments in soldiers' training and propaganda. These films are
trying to dissipate that smoke by presenting the "enemy" as people with similar
worries, aspirations and desires. What do we really know about Iran, for
Iran, Veiled Appearances, made by a Belgian documentary filmmaker Thierry
Michel, presents two opposing sides on the Iranian political spectrum:
completely brainwashed religious zealots who worship their "guide"- an ayatollah
with real political power, and a growing number of progressive thinkers who are
supporting reforms pushed by the democratically elected president Mohammed
Another documentary, Our Times, made in Iran, shows determination and relentless
pursuit of reforms by a group of teenagers working on Khatami's election
campaign. Seeing these passionate young men and women, students, political
prisoners, ordinary people who might be afraid to express their true feelings,
but who support the reforms, one can't help but question the "axis of evil"
Women's Prison. winner of the Amnesty International prize in Rotterdam, is a
testimony of Iranian regime's brutal treatment of women.
Speaking of prisons, an unusual film from Japan Doing Time offers a glimpse
inside a Japanese detention center for men. Sparkling clean and bright but
austere interiors and complete lack of emotion emphasize unique way of
punishment in this establishment: complete control of prisoners' needs and
movements, (bent fingers while marching are not allowed) reducing them to
child-like state. Even the guard is addressed as Teacher. Melancholy music and
a stubborn weed flower in the prison's dirt yard shown in the last frame of the
movie only underline the sad reality.
Think you are not affected by a war in a far-away land? Watch Eat, Sleep, No
Women by Heiner Stadler from Germany. In his vignettes shot in different
countries around the globe he demonstrates how the US bombing of Afghanistan
influenced the lives of ordinary people all over the world.
Palestinian-Israeli conflict is reflected in very personal accounts of two
documentaries: My Terrorist and For My Children. In the first film a stewardess
who survived a hijacking attempt in 1978 is fighting for the release of her
assailant from a British jail. The other picture portrays every-day life and
fears of a liberal Israeli family torn between their patriotism, their
conscience and the desire to protect their children.
An artistically mediocre Palestinian/US co-production The Olive Harvest enjoyed
additional screenings. Yes, its message is valuable: Palestinians are people
like you and me; most importantly, peace cannot be achieved through violence, as
one of the protagonists, a reformed terrorist, noted after returning from an
Israeli jail. Still, Israelis are the aggressors here. No solutions are
offered, though. Two brothers, like two nations, are still in conflict over the
beautiful bride/land covered with tears.
Any thinking spectator with an objective mind would notice this festival's
"affirmative action" with a twist. There is a rainbow of colors in that
conflict. If the black and white view is propagated by both sides, no true and
lasting peace can be achieved.
The only Russian film at the festival, The Cuckoo, reaches minds and warms
hearts far better than any one-sided preaching ever could. This delightful
comedy shows how ordinary people can get along in most horrendous of
circumstances even without speaking each other's language. A must-see for all
the warmongers of the world.
A Spanish-French co-production The Spanish Apartment is touching on the same
idea showing students from different countries crammed into close quarters in
Barcelona. They manage to get along, cooperate, help each other and form
friendships in spite of their differences. Some governments should learn from
More often than not, in any society, progressive ideas and efforts to implement
them come from university campuses, from bright and educated young minds
stirring the complacent masses. We often take for granted our many freedoms
these "troublemakers" were fighting for. Some of their tactics might be
questionable, but their hearts are in the right places and they eventually find
the appropriate means to wake up the masses.
One important testimony to that is a new documentary The Weather Underground
about a militant group of young men and women, mostly white students from the
middle-class background, who protested the government's violence by terrorist
acts in the 70s. Born from frustration over escalating war in Vietnam and lack
of tangible results from peaceful protests the Weather Underground was
successful in organizing bomb explosions with no human victims over a decade.
There were a lot of decent films at the festival. Latin-American cinema almost
always presents an array of quality movies.
Brazil's cinema is as strong as ever. The documentary Bus 174, features Madam
Satan and The Man of the Year expose harsh lives of the country's forgotten
citizens driven to desperate measures in order to survive on the streets and in
Cuba's Nada screenings at home attracted crowds forming lines stretching for
blocks. San Francisco will flock to see Comandante, an interview with Fidel
Castro filmed by none other than Oliver Stone. Once again, this film
demonstrates American left's fascination with Cuba. Comandante could have been
directed by Castro himself. Stone barely touches sensitive questions, and when
Castro skillfully avoids direct answers the director changes the subject. One
wonders who was really in control. Castro appears witty, sympathetic,
intelligent and down to earth. So do many dictators. Once again, viewers are
not given other points of view from Castro's victims, political opponents of the
regime or even footage depicting every-day life in Cuba with its misery and
despair. Nevertheless, it's a valuable document for mainstream Americans who
rarely have access to all facts or have a chance to hear the opposite opinion.
And Castro's analysis of American mentality and American politics is right "on
Argentina's Dark Side of the Heart 2, Historias Minimas and The Last Train,
Norwegian Music for Weddings and Funerals, French features The Devils, Fear and
Trembling are all worth seeing. By the way, France also co-produced the
above-mentioned Extrano, Madam Satan, Nada, My Voice and several other films.
To finish on a lighter note, if you ever wonder what might happen if you are
stuck in a traffic jam and open your door to a stranger go see Friday Night.
And if you feel embarrassed to go watch porn at seedy joints, direct your feet
to a respectable movie theatre screening Good Old Naughty Days - a collection of
early 19th century porn from France.
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