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Seattle International Film Festival 2008: Dispatch Six

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Seattle International Film Festival 2008: Dispatch Six

In this festival where bombs and duds are commoner than April showers and May flowers, it’s practically a gift from God (if not an Act of God) to discover a movie as provocative, thoughtful, heartrending, and soul-stirring as Abdullah Oğuz’s Bliss, a near-great film that showed up last weekend with no fanfare from SIFF whatsoever: There was no advance press screening; no screeners made available—no attendant hoopla of any kind to alert us that something important was in our midst. Yet we found it anyway, an almost full house on Sunday afternoon at Pacific Place, grateful moviegoers moved to applause—and some to tears—at the film’s end.

Would it be an exaggeration to call Bliss the most significant work to emerge from Turkey in the past decade? The only film I’ve seen that comes close would be Paxton Winters’ still unreleased 2003 satire Crude, but that was written and directed by an American ex-pat, not a native Turk. As for such high-fashionista Turkish directors as Nuri Bilge Ceylan and the abysmally overrated Fatih Akın, their work is mostly hipster crap. More recently, there was Reha Erdem’s Times and Winds, about a bad seed kid and his evil deeds. A showcase for magnificent scenery, it amounted to little more than melodrama, a sort of Leave Her to Heaven with pre-teens and scorpions.

With Bliss, however, we get a film as site-specific to its native land (and sea) as it is universal in theme. It’s a film at once deeply proud of its heritage and yet highly critical of its country. In one scene, Bliss lampoons the Turkish military. Two men get falling down drunk aboard a yacht one night and laugh themselves silly chanting, “Commando! Commando!” One of them, Cemal (Murat Han) is in fact an ex-commando who still wears his dog tags—he’s the kind of macho shithead who’ll tender an unquestioning defense of this male hierarchy of order, even as he’s mocking it, but will end up drunkenly marching in place, holding a mop, before he doubles over on deck. With his collapse comes a long pause: through the haze of alcohol and laughter, Cemal remembers why he’s on board to begin with, and the disparity between his intentions and his fate silences him.

Bliss, based on the novel by Zülfü Livaneli, opens as a shepherd finds the body of a girl lying on the shore. He carries her back to their rural village in eastern Turkey, a community governed by customs more in sync with the dark ages than with the rest of the 21st-century. Yet that’s what Bliss aims for: to bring into the light the ancient, punitive ways of the sexist, small-time Mafiosi who call the shots in these isolated outposts. The girl, Meryem (Özgü Namal), has been “tainted” (to use the local parlance) and as she’s too traumatized to speak, let alone identify her assailant, her relatives and the village elders decree that she must have been “asking for it.” The Turkish approach to dealing with rape: offer the victim enough rope by which to hang herself—a gesture that’s as much an indictment of their backwardness as of the silent “madwoman” they condemn. When Meryem refuses to honor the pious moralists with a suicide, she’s sent packing—off to Istanbul, chaperoned by her cousin Cemal.

It’s impossible not to watch this movie without a sense of rage welling inside. Anyone born into and escaped from a repressive subculture or autocratic family will see the parallels. Growing up in the Deep South, I knew these Turks. Aside from language, mode of dress, and skin tone, there isn’t much that separates O?uz and Livaneli’s rope tossing, “blame the victim” fundamentalists from the Jesus-inebriated Nixon-Reagan apologists of my youth. To know them is to be sickened by them, poisoned by their co-opting of religion as a pretext for their own violence.

On a small passenger boat crossing a harbor, Meryem’s comment on the beauty of Istanbul leads to a brief conversation with a woman seated next to her. While the two don’t steer beyond pleasant chitchat, it’s enough to draw the sheltered, abused Meryem out a bit, to look around, to gain her bearings outside the shadow of family. In the early sections, there’s a gloomy haze to the lighting no matter what the locale. As Meryem and, eventually, Cemal, slowly come out of their pre-conditioning, the world begins to look like a different place—more like itself.

There’s much more to Bliss than I can or will outline here. Suffice to say there’s at least one more extraordinary scene on board the yacht where the provincial cousins become first mates to Irfan (Talat Bulut), a white-maned sugar daddy given to toothsome smiles who sets them up with spiffy new clothes and more freedom than they’ve ever known. It’s almost too much for the petty, self-isolated Cemal, a sad-faced, outmoded macho who denounces Meryem and Irfan as “whore and rapist” when they jaunt to a cove to look at starfish without him. He physically attacks them both on their return to the ship, an act that makes the filmmakers’ thesis demonstrably clear: the violent are useless. Without resorting to the didactic or the sentimental, O?uz and company show up a particular worldview, with its idiotic notions of “tainted,” for what it truly amounts to.

Bliss strikes a false note here and there: a short sequence involving Irfan’s hoity-toity wife blowing in for a visit feels out of step (her only real function in the script is to feed Cemal’s paranoia), and when Irfan drops his gold wedding band into a glass of red wine, I wish O?uz had resisted the urge to amplify the sound effect. Be that as it may, Bliss, largely owing to Namal’s intuitive performance of a damaged person learning to believe in herself, is the most emotionally accurate movie about surviving sexual assault that I’ve seen.

And it lacks a U.S. distributor.

~

Two days after Bliss, the festival struck gold again with Tia Lessin and Carl Deal’s Trouble the Water. It isn’t only the best documentary to play at SIFF this year; it isn’t only one of the few genuinely great films to burst through the festival dross: it is a superbly paced and directed, at times ferociously angry masterpiece on the worst moral failure in modern American history—that is, our conservative Christian government’s “response” to Hurricane Katrina—and it is one of the imperative movie-going experiences of ’08.

On August 28, 2005, in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, a feisty young black woman named Kimberly Rivers Roberts took her new camcorder around the neighborhood, filming her husband Scott and the people on their street. Initially, the handheld zooms off in all directions, mostly roving over the floors or feet, as if it were too heavy to be borne aloft and kept slipping. Yet if Kim’s technical expertise takes a while to steady, her storytelling instincts bloom from the first. Nineteen hours before Katrina hit, she videotapes little girls who say they aren’t afraid of a hurricane. The insouciant locals on the stoop or outside a convenience store have an easy-going authenticity. One man’s glad not to have to go to work that day; they joke about the impending storm, “You know the police ain’t gon’ come.” Lessin and Deal’s crosscuts remind us that although an evacuation was called, no one arranged public transit for residents without cars. “We couldn’t afford the luxury” of getting out, Kim says, and so she stays, videotaping, narrating, sometimes in her own persona, noting that if the rains fell on a Sunday she didn’t go to church (yet nonetheless prayed) and sometimes switching to an imaginary newscaster, objectively reporting on what’s to come.

The co-directors, Kim, and their editor T. Woody Richman (he also cut Fahrenheit 9/11) seamlessly move from the everyday to a sense of the inexorable. From within the Roberts’s besieged house on August 29, the camera’s eye captures a front steps view of how the levee system failed, and the dark shots of water rising, especially those where the only light source is a flashlight, are terrifying. Those who stayed behind, garrisoned in Kim’s attic, comment on the rain seeping through windows below, watching the wide swath of waves where paved roads were: “like an ocean out there.” The filmmakers mix in audio of phone calls made to police operators, who tell residents trapped inside their engulfed bungalows, “At this time, they are not rescuing.” The water, meanwhile, has risen nearly to the top of a stop sign; perched above it, a one-way arrow takes on an ominous dimension. As the voices on the phone attest, there was no way out.

Inserted here and there are clips of FEMA figurehead Mike Brown, whose fleeting appearances drew hoots of contempt from the audience I saw the movie with, and George W. Bush, whose colossal phoniness has rarely seemed shriller than in his live broadcast on the day of the devastation. While patients defenselessly drowned in their beds at New Orleans Memorial Hospital (the photo still of this serves as yet another perspicacious memento of our 43rd President’s legacy), there was Bush at an Arizona country club, surrounded by beaming high-whites and cue cards. Bush, of course, refused to bring U.S. troops out of his Iraq fantasy to assist in Louisiana. Kim refers to him as “this President Bush character,” and indeed, that character’s every utterance in Trouble the Water reaffirms Justice John Paul Stevens’s phrase following the Supreme Court betrayal of democratic principles in the 2000 election: “The identity of the loser is perfectly clear.”

A few National Guardsmen show up in the Ninth Ward, long after the waters have receded; Kim and Scott’s friend Brian tells them, “I hope you don’t have to go back to Iraq, ’cause it’s not our war.” He points along the street to houses full of the waterlogged dead: “This is our war.”

This stunning movie cuts to the quick of each issue it touches on. It implicitly condemns the U.S. military simply by reporting on what the U.S. military so blatantly failed to do. Scott recounts how his flooded-out neighbors sought shelter at an empty naval base, only to be told, facing cocked M-16s: “Get off our property or we’ll start shooting.” Two uniformed officers (one white, one black) don’t exactly dispute this version of events, other than to claim that they, “served the interests of our government,” a statement that tells you everything about the benighted dictatorship we’ve been living under. There’s equal time in Trouble the Water granted to the ignorant views of young white enlistees, seen holding their cigarettes on what appears to be an indefinite smoke break, criticizing the “survival skills” of the flood displaced persons. Kim, in turn, succinctly characterizes these recruits as “sittin’ on they ass waitin’ for a terrorist attack,” instead of serving the people who need them.

Musically, the filmmakers’ choices are spot-on. Citizen Cope’s “Hurricane Waters” underscores tracking shots of thousands of evacuees stranded at a debris-littered shelter, the contrast between the song’s lovely humanity and the reality of how America let everyone down being absolutely bracing. Later, trying to make a go of it in Memphis, Kim finds that her relatives there have the only remaining copy of a CD she recorded, and she turns to the camera and performs for us a song she wrote, the aptly titled “Amazing.” It’s one of those moments in movie history when you unequivocally know that you’re in the presence of the real thing. This profane rap number becomes Kim’s anthem of self-affirmation, just as assuredly as Trouble the Water exalts the heroism of the ordinary men and women of the Ninth Ward who risked their own lives to save a few of their neighbors. A more inspiring portrait could scarcely be possible.

If only all nonfiction features playing at SIFF were made with such integrity. Alas, it is so rarely the case, as our next film, an instance of mere festival filler, so regrettably demonstrates.

~

The cinematic equivalent to being battened with a trowel for two hours, Todd McCarthy’s insufferable Pierre Rissient: Man of Cinema plays like an overlong rough cut of a home movie on the joys of being an insider. It’s surely a formidable task to make a documentary about the supposedly impeccable taste of someone fat and bald, and McCarthy, shooting this 115-minute self-congratulation fest in extreme close-up, impales our eyes on Rissient’s porcine jowls. McCarthy’s cameras are so close-in that nearly every time a hirsute talking head holds forth on the Frenchman’s vertus (the exception being James Toback) the bristles and whiskers and stubble of their facial hair appear like daggers ready to gouge us, with one white-bearded old nightmare painfully impossible to look at. You would think that McCarthy, Variety’s chief film critic, might have adduced a thing or two re camera placement during all the time he’s spent in the dark judging other peoples’ work. Why doesn’t he pull the camera back to give subjects and viewers alike some breathing room? It’s a fairly uncomplicated lesson to grasp.

Over and over in Man of Cinema we’re told, either by Rissient, or by his all-star cast of fawning acolytes, oh, yes, Pierre—your taste—how exquisite it is. Or—oh, yes, such good taste, such brilliant work you champion, etc, etc, ad nauseam. There isn’t a single voice of dissent to be heard anywhere. And while Rissient, in his various roles as critic, activist, publicist, and professional bully toward impressionable critics (as well as a director of two self-indulgent flops) undoubtedly shepherded a handful of worthwhile films in his day, he also promoted schlock (Tarantino, Eastwood), thereby lending the sheen of old-world culture to complete trash.

When Rissient proclaims Eastwood’s Bird “the best American film of the last twenty years,” I cringed with embarrassment. What’s worse, he goes on to state that no white director was more attuned to or empathetic with the black experience than Eastwood. Which, were I in the habit of talking back to the screen, would most certainly have elicited a rejoinder of: Bullshit. If anything, Bird testifies to Eastwood’s ignorance about black culture. Eastwood has a failed horn player toss his saxophone into the East River. Well, perhaps that’s what the trust fund honkies in Bel Air would do, on realizing that they would never be the Charlie Parkers of their particular mediums, but would a Harlem musician in the 1940s have done that? Hardly.

So we have Rissient to blame for Eastwood’s knee-jerk nihilism being celebrated, not only in France, but by truckloads of white, middle-aged male critics in America, who might otherwise have been counted on to see through or ignore Eastwood altogether.

Out in the lobby of SIFF Cinema after the screening, one aspect of PR: Crock of Merde that came in for (well-deserved) derision was the oft-repeated view that Rissient exerted his influence to get this or that unlikely duckling into Cannes. “Not even Pierre,” piped up one passholder, “could have gotten this film into Cannes.” Agreed. And while there are two or three choice bits embedded here and yonder (Bertrand Tavernier relates a hilarious story re Rissient’s falling out with Joseph Losey; also, the clips of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1970s Taiwan films are instructive and fun to glimpse) much of the assembled footage cries out to be shoveled up and hurled into an incinerator.

Well, now. (I guess I’ll never eat lunch in this town again.)

~

So as not to end this sixth and final SIFF dispatch on such a dour note, I’ll sing a short chorus of praise apiece for two good, but not great, movies, one on a boorish daddy who has perfect children; the other on a saintly mum saddled with a horrible son and worse granddaughter. Already in limited release, there’s Anand Tucker’s surprisingly effective adaptation of the Blake Morrison memoir When Did You Last See Your Father?, a film I had no intention of catching, yet dashed into, partially to get out of last Saturday’s pouring down rain and because I desired an antidote to Clark Gregg’s Choke, figuring a nice British drama might be as soothing as a cuppa tea. How right I was.

The movie has a trio of outstanding performances, among them Sarah Lancashire’s too-brief turn as “Auntie” Beaty, a flirtatious old roué with more than a platonic interest in the Father of the title. The red-haired Beaty, lit up at a Christmas party in the 60s, looks as if she could take the father’s son as well, cornering the teenage Blake, wondering aloud where that mistletoe could be when you need it. Beaty treads a fine line of ambiguity; she seems always on the brink of doing or saying something she ought not, and Lancashire finds great shading in a role lesser hands might render as caricature. She loves this slightly unnerving woman (and so did I).

In the somewhat larger role of the family’s Scottish maid Sandra, Elaine Cassidy, playing her as both a teenager and an adult, imbues a potentially hardscrabble archetype with mischievous beauty; she might initiate young Blake sexually, yet as she makes clear more than once, he doesn’t own her. And as the adolescent Blake, Matthew Beard achieves a richness of characterization that eludes Colin Firth’s grown-up Blake. (But then Beard has the better part.) He has a supreme moment of rage in front of a bathroom mirror, having fled the dinner table to escape his father’s embarrassing behavior in front of a girl he fancies. Beard confides to his reflection, “I hate him. I fucking, fucking, fucking hate him!” in such a truthful way that all those fuckings aren’t in the least bit gratuitous.

~

Lastly, there’s Dorota Kędzierzawska’s lopsided Time to Die, which, despite its shortcomings, remains well worth finding for the majestic 91-year-old leading lady Danuta Szaflarska. And for Artur Reinhart’s visually layered, black-and-white cinematography that uses deliberately smeary effects to lend dreamlike, fable qualities to an old woman talking to her dog. As long as Time to Die centers on Szaflarska’s Aniela and her monologues to a gentle-natured, yet protective border collie named Phila (the most expressive canine actor in many a moon), or on the silent or sometimes musical passages of Aniela spying through binoculars on her neighbors across the glen, the movie manages to be a fine meditation on the solitude of an elderly freethinker.

Kędzierzawska less successfully integrates scenes with other actors. Save for the children scampering among the densely wooded grounds, slipping in and out through a broken stretch of fence, most of the other characters are such uniformly obese, repugnant nightmares that they puncture the reverie. Aniela’s fat-faced, middle-aged son and her beached whale of a granddaughter (always stuffing her open mouth) are complete horrors, as are the bald, nouveau riche neighbor who covets Aniela’s property and the Hawaiian-shirt sporting goon he hires to scare her into selling. An episode of a child scaling the second story of her ramshackle house to beg for money doesn’t work either.

The fairytale aspects of Time to Die are infinitely more compelling. In one of those passages where the movie ascends to a hallucinatory loveliness, Aniela, again with binoculars, spies young ballerinas and other children awkwardly, yet sweetly, learning to waltz to Strauss’s Blue Danube. She observes kids, aged seven or eight, twirling around individually or with partners. She closes her eyes and smiles, tilting her head in time to the music. She looks again at the children, always seen from the distant, circular perspective of the portals—and then she sees herself, full screen, as a young woman in a flowered frock, slow-dancing in the same woods with her handsome husband, a tall blond figure in white. All around the couple, the lens distorts the greenery in convex quivers while the two figures at the center remain somewhat steadier—a funhouse mirror equivalent of love in a fading memory.

Well, soon enough it will be SIFF’s time to… expire—for a term, if not actually die. Still to come are the local premiere of Alan Ball’s Towelhead and the announcement of Golden Space Needle Awards and jury prizes. I’ll report on them, plus dole out a few choices of my own for festival bests and worsts, sometime next week in SIFF 34: The Post-Mortem! Until then…

N.P. Thompson lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest.