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Mar del Plata International Film Festival 2015: Homeland (Iraq Year Zero), Balikbayan #1, El Cielo del Centauro, & More

The festival provided an opportunity to compare these modern works to epochal, recently restored Argentine documentaries from the 1960s.

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Mar del Plata International Film Festival 2015: Homeland (Iraq Year Zero), Balikbayan #1, El Cielo del Centauro, & More
Photo: Nour Films

Since its inauguration in 1954, the Mar del Plata International Film Festival has endured several name changes, switched governing bodies, been moved to different months, and been canceled for decades. Yet, since its definitive return in 1996, it’s grown into a stable and vital cinephile event. Some of the best movies screened during its latest edition, celebrated earlier this month, echo its resilience and demonstrate what can be achieved with a tiny budget and in unorthodox, even dangerous conditions.

One such film is Abbas Fahdel’s Homeland (Iraq Year Zero), an epic six-hour documentary about life under Saddam Hussein and, later, under coalition occupation. Back in 2002, when Fahdel, who has lived in Paris since the 1980s, overheard rumors of war, he decided to grab his camera and return to Baghdad to visit his family. As he told the Montreal Gazette, he had the superstitious belief that, by documenting his loved ones, he might protect them and preserve a “trace” of their culture.

The film begins with Saddam still in power. His figure is perpetually televised, as he lectures on international affairs and stars in bizarre musical montages that mix newsreel footage with patriotic music. Since armed conflict is imminent, Fahdel’s family stocks up on supplies and digs a well in their backyard. They also enjoy their leisure time. Haidar, the director’s 12-year-old nephew, walks around the countryside, admires ancient ruins, and later visits the Amiriyah shelter memorial site, where more than 400 civilians were killed by an American “smart bomb” during the Gulf War. No one really talks about Saddam. Publicly denouncing his regime was illegal, so certain things cannot be uttered before the camera. Protests can only be mute and physical: As the family watches the musical montages, Saddam’s exaggerated vigor seems grotesquely fake next to the tired, reposing bodies in the living room.

When the dictatorship falls, after the U.S. invasion, whatever is gained in freedom of speech is lost in other ways. Reams of molten celluloid coil through the bombed-out skeleton of the former Baghdad Cinema Studios. A man who was once employed there reflects on what’s been burned, countless hours of material that might have served the historians of tomorrow. But film footage is just one victim among others: institutions, political parties, thousands of lives. Streetside discussions among citizens hint at profound ideological disagreements. Yet these debates happen in the vacuum of foreign occupation. Whatever democratic or monarchical destiny they outline seems not for the debaters to bring about. Violence is a constant threat, whether from American forces or local armed groups. Fahdel and his family are disconnected from their surroundings, from their city, from their government. In every direction, they find amorphous chaos. They can hardly think about a future when nothing around them could sustain it. A few go to college and seek an education. Hope is the last thing to go. Yet the ghost of futility hangs over their classrooms.

Much of the conversation on the Iraq War, especially in the West, has been focused on the United States, either criticizing or applauding its actions. What both stances have in common is their privileging the American perspective. Homeland refocuses our attention on the more fundamental matter of what Iraqis have to say about themselves. It can be viewed alongside another gargantuan documentary screened in Mar del Plata, also about the destiny of an entire country, Kidlat Tahimik’s Balikbayan #1.

More than 30 years in the making, this anarchic movie is many things at once: a budget-conscious recreation of Ferdinand Magellan’s globe-spanning voyage; a comic biography of Enrique of Malacca, the Portuguese navigator’s (possibly) Filipino slave; a study of modern-day Filipino art and culture; a contemporary tale about a photographer who tracks down the mysterious, elderly artisan he accidentally captured in his photos; and, last but not least, a playful historiographic essay on the writing and rewriting of history. Despite spending so long in the creative oven, the film is militantly rough and unpolished. Tahimik accepts the fortuitous, unplanned nature of his artistic process and makes no attempt to hide the passage of time, visible on his aging body (he plays Enrique, the elderly artisan, and himself) and through the various recording technologies he employs, both celluloid and digital.

Balikbayan #1 is a documentary about its own creation, about what it means to talk about the past and who does the talking. Enrique, likely the first person to circumnavigate the planet, has been forever overshadowed by his European owner, and the movie attempts to reinstitute his place in the historical narrative. But Tahimik knows that simply adding points into a timeline is insufficient, and that how this narrative is woven is equally important. Which is why the film, in its fragmentary expansiveness, reflects the complexity of a culture splintered by centuries of Spanish and American colonialism.

Like Homeland, it interrogates how national and personal identities are closely intertwined, and for all its perambulations across Filipino time and space, the author’s personal point of view is never ignored. Whether from behind the camera, like Fahdel, or in front of it, like Tahimik, these directors can be said to be making so-called “first-person documentaries.” But as Argentine academic Gonzalo Aguilar has written, in his recent book Más Allá del Pueblo, they’re not first, second, or third person, but rather areas of indetermination, where the very concept of identity is in doubt.

Aguilar’s examples are culled from movies by the children of Argentina’s disappeared, whose own identities, and of those around them, “have been in suspense” since childhood. But the same idea applies, for different reasons, to Fahdel and Tahimik, who cannot ask what it means to be Filipino or Iraqi without accounting for their own subjectivities, either as a Filipino who studied economy in the United States or as an Iraqi who lives in France. There’s no resolving one matter without engaging with the other.

The festival provided an opportunity to compare these modern works to epochal, recently restored Argentine documentaries from the 1960s. It can be tempting to now see them as naïve, but they were made in a different context, with a different set of priorities and objectives. They sought to rescue the underrepresented from invisibility, whether they be slum kids from the outskirts of Santa Fe (as in Tire Dié by Fernando Birri) or artisans of indigenous ancestry (as in one of Raymundo Gleyzer’s more belligerent shorts). They were urgent wake-up calls, swift hooks to the jawline of the political conversation.

Whereas Fahdel and Tahimik probe inward, into themselves and their families, as much as outward, into their countries, these firebrand documentaries, while not denying their subjective slants, hope to move past them and toward broader collective social truths. This can seem simplistic, even authoritarian, yet it should be remembered that, 50 years ago, they were creating images where there were none, showing what had yet to be shown, pushing back against the symbolic erasure that threatened—and continues to threaten—certain sectors of Argentine society. Their booming voices, from an era when filmmakers believed they could transform the world, now call into question the same forum that hosts them. Snuggled into the festival schedule, their dreams of change—still unrealized—are too big for it.

The exuberant ‘60s continue to challenge and haunt present-day Argentine cinema, even from within new releases, like a festering reminder of what used to be. Hugo Santiago’s latest opus, El Cielo del Centauro, ends the informal Aquilea trilogy he started in 1969 with Invasión, which he co-wrote with none other than Jorge Luis Borges, from a story idea by Adolfo Bioy Casares. Regularly named the greatest Argentine film ever, Invasión finds opposing bands of men and women fighting a clandestine war in the stark black-and-white streets of Buenos Aires. Despite its attempt at mythical timelessness and vagueness, its aesthetic vigor, experimental and dissonant soundtrack, ambitious urban photography, and bold narrative abstraction open it up to its historical moment. The final scene, in which dozens of college-age youths line up to retrieve their handguns, walking out of the frame into a hopeless battle against a better-equipped oppressor, forecasts (likely unintentionally) what would happen in Argentina’s turbulent ‘70s.

El Cielo del Centauro is either Santiago’s attempt to recapture that mystique or to admit that it’s impossible to replicate. Instead of openness, there’s closure, a cinematic riddle whose solution we know beforehand, dead on arrival. Local critic Oscar Cuervo likened it to “funeral rites,” and even Roger Koza, in a more charitable essay, admitted it seems to have been plucked “from another time.”

The film’s smooth camera movements, impeccably beautiful shots of Buenos Aires’s oldest districts, and nonsense story about a Frenchman looking for an actual phoenix in the Argentine capital suggest the quaintness of a musical box. El Cielo del Centauro marks a retreat from the present, absent in its gorgeously but unrecognizably archaic Buenos Aires, and from the past, reduced to the antiquarian delight of a dusty board game. It has none of the vibrant energy of Invasión and none of the melancholic poetry of The Sidewalks of Saturn, the second part of the Aquilea trilogy, shot in Paris shortly after the end of Argentina’s last dictatorship and soaked in the sadness of exile and dashed hopes.

But in its failure to preserve the past, the film reveals our current distance from it, and distance is its dominant theme. Santiago has resided in Paris for decades, and his return to his homeland, though clearly not as traumatic as it was for Fahdel, is still problematic. In his review, Cuervo complains about the film’s “touristic” vibe, and that’s exactly it. Santiago has become a visitor in his own city and, as a result, his Buenos Aires is magical, unreal, distant.

El Cielo del Centauro proves that what used to be is no longer, and that whatever is right now must be found elsewhere. Among the many Argentine films at the festival, two in particular, utterly unlike each other and equally independent, hold the promise of new territories, even as they wear their influences on their sleeves: Raúl Perrone’s riff on kabuki theater and silent cinema, Samuray-S, and Pablo Parés’s embrace of genre conventions, Daemonium.

Perrone, after years of devotion to suburban realism, has lately veered into dreamy experimentation. Like a less ironic Guy Maddin, he revives avant-garde tricks from the 1920s, using a barrage of superimpositions, odd angles, expressionistic lighting, isolated bodies in dark backgrounds, and layered sound effects, not just to reference these techniques so much as to rediscover where cinema might have gone a century ago. Geishas and swordsmen fall in love, travel across snowy peaks, cower under endless rains, trudge through sinister forests—and the actors never leave what appears to be a living room.

Daemonium flaunts more impressive production values, but they’re deceptive. The project was financed piecemeal thanks to fan contributions and parts were released on YouTube until a theatrical release could be cobbled together. Unlike other cheesy forays into ‘80s iconography, like the similarly YouTube-bound Kung Fury, this is a mostly straight-faced science-fiction/fantasy/action hybrid, barring the occasional knowing wink. Which isn’t to say its story of urban wizards, killer androids, transdimensional demons, tightly clad warrior women, and dystopian anarchy is particularly profound or even interesting. But there’s almost nothing like it in Argentine moviemaking, outside of Fernando Spiner’s forgotten The Somnambulist, which had the misfortune to come out in 1998, when New Argentine Cinema’s neorealist tune was coming into vogue. Now things have changed. A public hungry for local genre fare has formed and something like Daemonium, warts and all, can find its viewers.

If Daemonium represents one alternative to New Argentine Cinema, to the intimate social dramas and observational art house pics the country has specialized in, Samuray-S offers another option, albeit far less commercial and accessible. Like forking paths, one veers into nerdgasmic excess and the other, into obscure experimentation. One might point out how Invasión, so many years ago, combined both tendencies: It was modern and popular, experimental and generic. Yet as Santiago himself demonstrated, its lightning can’t easily be caught in a bottle twice.

Perrone and Parés, at any rate, do an awful lot with very little. And like Fahdel and Tahimik, they heroically combine boundless ambition with humble means, rebuilding Japan from South America or aping Hollywood blockbusters with more spunk than resources, just as the latter documentarians hauled their cheap cameras across Iraqi ruins and Filipino fields. Due to their outsize length, fragmentary construction, or Internet origins, their works don’t conform to the formats usually projected in movie theaters, though all are natural products of our digital, hypermediated age. To watch them is to be surprised by their content as much as by their very existence.

The Mar de La Plat International Film Festival ran from October 30—November 7.

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Watch: Two Episode Trailers for Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone Reboot

Ahead of next week’s premiere of the series, CBS All Access has released trailers for the first two episodes.

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The Twilight Zone
Photo: CBS All Access

Jordan Peele is sitting on top of the world—or, at least, at the top of the box office, with his sophomore film, Us, having delivered (and then some) on the promise of his Get Out. Next up for the filmmaker is the much-anticipated reboot of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, which the filmmaker executive produced and hosts. Ahead of next week’s premiere of the series, CBS All Access has released trailers for the first two episodes, “The Comedian” and “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.” In the former, Kumail Nanjiani stars as the eponymous comedian, who agonizingly wrestles with how far he will go for a laugh. And in the other, a spin on the classic “Nightmare at 20,0000 Feet” episode of the original series starring William Shatner, Adam Scott plays a man locked in a battle with his paranoid psyche. Watch both trailers below:

The Twilight Zone premieres on April 1.

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Scott Walker Dead at 76

Walker’s solo work moved away from the pop leanings of the Walker Brothers and increasingly toward the avant-garde.

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Scott Walker
Photo: 4AD

American-born British singer-songwriter, composer, and record producer Scott Walker, who began his career as a 1950s-style chanteur in an old-fashioned vocal trio, has died at 76. In a statement from his label 4AD, the musician, born Noel Scott Engel, is celebrated for having “enriched the lives of thousands, first as one third of the Walker Brothers, and later as a solo artist, producer and composer of uncompromising originality.”

Walker was born in Hamilton, Ohio on January 9, 1943 and earned his reputation very early on for his distinctive baritone. He changed his name after joining the Walker Brothers in the early 1960s, during which time the pop group enjoyed much success with such number one chart hits as “Make It Easy on Yourself” and “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore).”

The reclusive Walker’s solo work moved away from the pop leanings of the Walker Brothers and increasingly toward the avant-garde. Walker, who was making music until his death, received much critical acclaim with 2006’s Drift and 2012’s Bish Bosch, as well as with 2014’s Soused, his collaboration with Sunn O))). He also produced the soundtrack to Leos Carax’s 1999 romantic drama Pola X and composed the scores for Brady Corbet’s first two films as a director, 2016’s The Childhood of a Leader and last year’s Vox Lux.

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Watch: The Long-Awaited Deadwood Movie Gets Teaser Trailer and Premiere Date

Welcome to fucking Deadwood!

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Deadwood
Photo: HBO

At long last, we’re finally going to see more of Deadwood. Very soon after the HBO series’s cancellation in 2006, creator David Milch announced that he agreed to produce a pair of two-hour films to tie up the loose ends left after the third season. It’s been a long road since, and after many false starts over the years, production on one standalone film started in fall 2018. And today we have a glorious teaser for the film, which releases on HBO on May 31. Below is the official description of the film:

The Deadwood film follows the indelible characters of the series, who are reunited after ten years to celebrate South Dakota’s statehood. Former rivalries are reignited, alliances are tested and old wounds are reopened, as all are left to navigate the inevitable changes that modernity and time have wrought.

And below is the teaser trailer:

Deadwood: The Movie airs on HBO on May 31.

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