Monday, March 22, 2010


I lilypad through the Independent films by ordering via Netflix from previews on the DVD’s. They are always remarkable. For example, I’ll tell you about the last three I watched.

FESTEN or THE CELEBRATION is a Danish film, the first in a category of films called “Dogme 95.” “Dogme” isn’t about canines: it’s Danish for dogma. “Dogme 95” is a list of principles in a manifesto by filmmakers with a thirst for reality. Here are the first three rules of the list of ten:

1. Filming must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in. If a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found.
2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. Music must not be used unless it occurs within the scene being filmed, i.e., diegetic.
3. The camera must be a hand-held camera. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. The film must not take place where the camera is standing; filming must take place where the action takes place.

One of the rules is that the director must not be named, so I won’t. The truth addressed here is not just in terms of film technique. One Dane in comments could he hardly bear to watch it because he recognized so much hypocrisy in the “dogma” about families and his society uncovered in this devastating account of a sixtieth birthday celebration of the patriarch of a family clearly askew, soon revealed as psychotic due to the beastly conduct of the man they are celebrating. The filming technique makes it convincingly a home movie, artfully spontaneous. It’s hard to remember that the actors are not actual people, that there WAS a director, cameras, crew and so on.

I was also struck by the variety of reactions in the reviewers. The film opens with a man walking on a country road in what one man described as a “bleak landscape,” but the character (who is talking on a cell phone as he walks) says it is beautiful and that’s how it looked to me as well. I think that many movie viewers are only urban.

It’s pesky to deal with film that has subtitles, but I’m willing to put up with it and quite unable to learn Arabic, which is one of the languages of “INDIGENES” or “DAYS OF GLORY.” I could occasionally get the snatches of French. Actors were far more than actors in this true account of the soldiers of North Africa (Tunisia, Morocco, and other Arabic countries), the brown and black people who were drawn into WWII because they were part of the French empire. Incredibly proud, sometimes professionally military for centuries as mercenaries, and dirt poor in the most literal sense, the story follows four men whose stories were shaped by the ancestors of the actors. The director, Rashid Bouchareb, waited many years for experienced Kurdish actors to develop, infusing them with determination to help get this film done.

Four major characters, quite different, emerge to claim our hearts. “Said,” Jamel Debbouze, is the poorest and most simple, the traditional rustic always on the edge of comedy. “Abdelkader,” Sami Boualija, is the educated one who insists on justice. “Yassir,” Sami Naceri, is the professional soldier, hoping to make enough money to set up his brother for life -- if he lives, since he’s also a soldier. “Messaoud Souni,” Roschdy Zem, the dignified marksman, wishes to be French and at liberation in Marseilles is instantly attracted to a French woman who returns his rapport and takes him to bed. Their love is aborted by military censors who ridicule their heartfelt letters and throw them away. Only one man survives: “I alone escaped to tell you.”

This relatively simple movie is easily as powerful as any Hollywood production full of special effects and explosions. The actors are skillful and the fact of their strangeness to an American makes them seem altogether real. It was a shock to see the actors interviewed as themselves. They were working to illuminate the injustices that triggered the post-modern Marxist thought that underlies so much resentment and justification for terrorism among students who were never there, who would be the great-grandchildren of these men if they were Arabic, and yet who know nothing about it -- just that they are angry and defiant. They do not know that these men, who fought in sandals during mountain winters without resentment, waited patiently to be paid until they could stand it no longer because their families desperately needed the money. When they demonstrated, the French simply massacred them.

is Kurdish for TURTLES CAN FLY. This Iran/Iraq joint production has no actors: all parts are played by refugee children simply being themselves as they retrace events. Four are main characters: a tall bespectacled boy, a little older and beginning puberty, is a natural leader and keeps his horde of raggedy children organized enough to earn food money by clearing the barren fields of mines. Many are missing limbs. A little “family” of sorts has its own leader, another boy like the first but with a keen blade of a face, no arms, and an ability to see into the future. He can find mines which he disarms with his teeth. A stunned but beautiful young girl is with him: the film opens with her stepping over a precipice into space. A small child, blind, is with them.

There’s much more to this story, much mysticism and Kurdish symbolism, which I might unravel if I watched this film again, but it was so painful that I could hardly make it through the first time. There are funny moments and strongly political ones, especially when the US soldiers, just beginning the invasion of Iraq, appear on the road: healthy, strong, equipped, running alongside their vehicles as though the refugee camp didn’t exist. Suddenly you realize that there are no fighting-age men in the movie until this moment. It is a world of children who try to help themselves as well as guiding the old men charged with running the village.

This is the least sentimental film of the three. Sentimentality, easy emotion for people who have life easy, is not a characteristic of Independent films. I’m so grateful. “No sentimentality” is one of my “dogmes.”

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