PSIFF Diary #3

Like a lot of festivals, PSIFF is pretty aggressive about getting attendees to rip score cards after each film and drop them into a box; I think they specifically train volunteers block and tackle maneuvers, because it always requires significant dexterity to dodge the ballot people crowding the exits. I usually ignore this routine unless the screening is sparsely attended and I’m particularly excited about the film. But at each of my screenings this week, the presenters noted the ballot results “could affect whether or not a film will get distributed.” Whoa. After hearing that, I resolved not only to rip a card for every film I had even marginally positive feelings about, but to also give all of them the very highest rating. I’d like to think some bleary-eyed distributor, pen in hand hovering over a dotted line, will say to himself, “If I see one more positive response to this film, I’m buying it” . . . and lo and behold, my ballot will appear. Vive le cinÈma!

The House of Nina (France, 2005)

Agnes Jaoui may not be the most trail-blazing of filmmakers, but as an actress, writer, and director, she typically offers sensitive and nuanced reflections on life. Working here with writer-director Richard Dembo (who died during the final editing of the film), she plays a woman who runs a Jewish orphanage during the Liberation of France in the final months of World War II. This is a very thoughtful and moving drama about the survivors of the war and their efforts to re-engage life that maintains its potency by combining a pragmatic acceptance of pain with quiet hope. “We could cry all our lives for good reason, but the children need us,” Nina gently tells a coworker. While many of the children at Nina’s house are initially secular French Jews, near the end of the war, religious Jews begin to appear from eastern Europe, concentration camp refugees with severe emotional trauma who wish to preserve their religious heritage, and the mixture proves to be culturally volatile. The film could easily have been trite or melodramatic, but it navigates its philosophical and emotional terrain with genuine grace and proves to be a beautiful swan song for Dembo. I would imagine the film has a good chance for US distribution, and it deserves it.

Salvador Allende (Chile, 2005)

This is a pretty straightforward essay film by Patricio Guzm·n that made me want to see The Battle of Chile, his famed three-part account of General Pinochet’s US-backed coup d’etat of Allende, the democratically elected leftist president of Chile, on September 11, 1973. As we now know, Pinochet’s 18-year reign of terror left a devastating legacy on the people of Chile–including the torture of thousands and the exile of hundreds of thousands–that has only recently received wider attention in the form of released documents and the ongoing trial of Pinochet. Guzm·n narrates the film and reconstructs the impact of Allende’s career and vision on his life. He mixes archival footage (much of it his own) with assorted interviews, including footage of former US ambassador Edward Korry gleefully describing the millions of dollars spent in anti-Allende propaganda by the Nixon Administration. It’s a fascinating summary of a dark era that foreshadowed our own in more ways than one; giving a UN speech in the early ’70s, Allende warned about the growing influence of multinational corporations and their unaccountability to people or governments, a fact that now virtually defines the global economy.

Occupation: Dreamland (USA, 2005)

This observant and compelling documentary opened in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, but disappeared before I could catch up with it, so I was glad to see it here. It follows the 82nd Airborne squad in early 2004 stationed in Falluja, a city considered unimportant during the invasion of Iraq but which was later thought to be a stronghold for Sunni insurgency. The only talking heads in the film are the soldiers themselves, who reveal a surprising diversity of political opinions and interpretations regarding their mission in Iraq, and a pessimistic view regarding any potential for sociopolitical change in the region. The filmmakers record the soldiers on patrols, evading fire, searching homes, interrogating and arresting prisoners, attempting to converse with civilians, and lounging around in their barracks. “If this was my home in Chicago and some Iraqis were coming in and waving guns, I’d probably be running up to the roof with a couple of guns, too,” one soldier remarks. In the midst of this tactical and ideological confusion, the soldiers are periodically given re-enlistment pep talks that sound more like manipulative scoldings than sober evaluations. While I could’ve done without the accompanying pop music to the images of Falluja’s destruction in the film’s closing sequence, by and large it’s a film that invites empathy for both the American soldiers and the Iraqi civilians in ways that penetrates the gloss of most embedded journalism.

CafÈ Transit (Iran, 2005)

The basic premise of this film resembles Juzo Itami’s Tampopo without the silliness. A woman’s husband dies, but instead of succumbing to culturally accepted norms and remarrying, she remains single and reopens a roadside cafÈ. Churning out one exquisitely rendered dish after another, she also offers strength and companionship to a gathering band of misfits, including a loyal waiter, a wandering Greek, and a Ukrainian refugee. The film was written and directed by Kambuzia Partovi, whose previous credits include Jafar Panahi’s sublime The Circle and the screen adaptation of Atiq Rahimi’s Earth and Ashes, and the film has a smart construction that showcases his scripting talents. Panahi is actually credited with editing the film, and it’s a carefully assembled critique of patriarchal culture. First-rate performances and an unwillingness to compromise its thematic principles (while keeping the film relatively light) makes it a genuinely inspiring tale, and its adoration of well-prepared food makes it a strong Iranian contribution to the culinary genre established by films like Babette’s Feast, Like Water for Chocolate, and The Vertical Ray of the Sun.

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