After three days of film-on-film, day four presented an intrepid viewer with a series of video-to-film encounters. Of the three features and three featurettes that made use of the electronic medium, the most successful were those that acknowledged, even if only implicitly, their origins.
First up was the Polish TOUCH ME (Dotknij mnie), a first feature from the team of Anna Jadowska and Ewa Stankiewicz. Shot on relatively high-grade video, set largely in a single working class neighborhood, using in-scene light sources and a cast in natural dress, the film inevitably calls for comparison with Dogme films. But Jadowska and Stankiewicz aren’t nearly so dogmatic as their Danish contemporaries they have a layered-on musical soundtrack, not just ambient sound and dialogue, for example as well as a keener response to purely social realities.
Daringly, the movie’s action is centerless, beginning with a scene in a run-down television studio that’s part of a home shopping channel. Two young hosts, Silvo and Sylwek, are doing their best to be charming and competent, but are not nearly good enough at either, and soon enough lose their jobs. Shortly after, we watch a scene of domestic violence in an apartment that’s part of run-down development. The police break it up, apparently closing the chapter, until one of the officers, a handsome young man named Greg, begins an obsessive courtship of Eve, a 60-year-old woman who was in the middle of the family squabble.
These two plots, insofar as these meandering developments can bear so precise a term, are surrounded and interrupted by a series of tangents and anecdotes that testify not to life’s hopelessness, but to the difficulty in hoping. The difficulty leads to frustration and frustration leads, of course, to violence, but also to patience. What it doesn’t seem to lead to is realistically planned escape. The directors’ hand-held camera, with its sometimes-grainy images, employs a darting, hand-held style that seems to reflect these constraints and blocked avenues all at once.
The Thai film, THE ADVENTURE OF IRON PUSSY (which is not about a cat), has the worst looking video I’ve ever seen, resembling the lined, blurred image of a transmission from outside the galaxy. If director Apichatpong Weerasethakul didn’t have some significant films to his credit already, and star and co-director Michael Shaowanasai wasn’t an installation and performance artist, I’d say the degeneracy of the image was an outgrowth of a cheap budget or sloppiness. As it is though, it’s clearly part of the artistic project.
Shaowanasai plays the title character, a bald, average Joe who, at the first sign of trouble, dons an elaborate hair-do and fancy togs to become Iron Pussy, avenger of the weak. If the set-up doesn’t get it through your head that we’re in camp territory, a few of the first few scenes should do the trick. In faux silent-film footage, we see how Iron Pussy met his/her boyfriend Pew: Frothing from the mouth, Pew had taken his girlfriend hostage to keep a howling mob at bay. Iron Pussy, who had been passing by, removed an earring that doubled as a flying weapon from her ear and let loose, intending to knock out Pew but killing the girlfriend by mistake. The error seems to discombobulate no one; as a matter of fact, no one seems to even notice, and before long Pew and Pussy are riding a motorcycle off into the sunset.
Pussy’s gradually developing role as a superhero had left him at the beck-and-call of the Thai government, which contacts Pussy at the market where he works when in his Joe mode. This time, he’s summoned to a cave where the Thai prime minister and his cabinet give him his assignment, breaking into an impromptu musical number when normal give-and-take doesn’t seem to get the job done.
Weird, yes. And the camp humor, as it often does, gets a little tiring before the movie’s 90 minutes are over. But from the cheap video to the dancing ministers, THE ADVENTURE OF IRON PUSSY provides some moments of clever fun.
THE LAST HOURS OF CHE (Le ultime ore del Che), a documentary from Italian filmmaker Romano Scavolini, is exactly what its title says it is, a recreation of the final days of Che Guevara as he tried to organize a hopeless guerilla movement in Bolivia during the 1960s. At 60 minutes and broadcast-style video, the film is apparently made for TV, though Scavolini apparently has enough additional material to fill it out to feature length.
Not the first film based on Che’s own diaries, LAST HOURS does have some more pages from it, as well as additional written material from his compadres. Scavolini mixes recreations of encounters between the guerillas and government troops with some of the guerillas own footage of behind-the-lines activity.
But the most valuable material he has to offer are interviews with the Bolivian commanders responsible for tracking Che’s band down in the field. These now-elderly men not only describe the details of the hunt, but also the background to, and exact nature of, the orders that came down to murder Che while he was safely in detention.
Unfairly or not, Scavolini’s film assumes that viewers will already be familiar with some of the historical background to Che’s historic and deadly Bolivian farce. The film’s voice-over narrator (Franco Nero), refers to Fidel Castro’s release of the “good-bye” letter “supposedly” written by Che before he left for Bolivia; he also mentions how it took almost two years for the letter to come out. Similarly, questions over Che’s choice of Bolivia are left hanging. Students of the era know that Castro has been reported to have dictated the letter and to have ordered Che to Bolivia, knowing full well that Che would die and the he, Fidel, would end up with a cover story in the dead man’s hand. LAST HOURS doesn’t contradict any of this, but only hints at it.
Staying with TV-style documentaries, the Berlin Festival also offered two episodes from PROJECT 10 REAL STORIES FROM A FREE SOUTH AFRICA, each coming in at 48 minutes.
The first, THE DEVIL BREAKS MY HEART 10 YEARS LATER, from director Lederle Bosch, is a bit like the second episode of South Africa’s version of the 21-Up documentaries by Michael Apted. Having done a film on four South African kids in 1993, just before the election of Nelson Mandela to the country’s presidency, Bosch revisits them 10 years later to see how they’re doing.
One visit is so problematic that it’s hard to draw any conclusions from it. The one Afrikaans kid, Heino, is now only 16-years-old, not the best age to elicit frank information. Add in the fact that the kid’s father is a proudly self-admitted child-beater and you get the impression that Heino, when he speaks at all, is going to make sure he says the most socially acceptable statements that won’t get him a whipping. Thus, he says he has many black and mixed-race friends but he wouldn’t want his sister to marry one.
Two of the black Africans have not done well, though they were born in such poverty that it’s hardly a surprise. One, Tshepo (now 19), is mostly still stuck in sub-subsistence agriculture with his family. Donovan ((age 21) is doing very badly, not just because he’s sunk into a life of crime. Rather, his real tragedy seems to be both a sweet nature and a keen sense of exactly what he’s doing to himself and a helplessness to do anything about it.
Bolla (24), on the other hand, has become one of the nation’s rugby stars, receiving all the money and fame the niche-sport can gain him. Not bad.
The second film was far better. With HOME, Omelga Hlengiwe Mthiyane follows her mother and aunt as they set out for Bhambayi, the hometown they fled years earlier when it was torn apart by savage fighting between the Inkatha Freedom Party and the African National Congress. These are two very strong women, but they’re up against very powerful memories; the conflict between the two is palpable. It’s a testament to the film’s power that its drama simply can’t be reduced to an account of its narration. Just to see Mthiyane’s mother stare out of her kitchen window in lost reverie is a moving, if indescribable, moment.
The worst of the video works was the feature “film” CONTRA TODOS (Up Against Them All), by first-time director R. Moreira. The filmmaker seems to have chosen video simply because it was a cheap alternative to film and hasn’t made any creative use of the new medium. On the other hand, there’s nothing creative about the rest of the picture, either.
Set in a working class neighborhood in Sao Paolo, the movie starts off as a domestic drama that’s supposed to ratchet up when, half an hour into the action, Moreira reveals that the father and one of his friends are professional hit men. Waiting the 30 minutes adds nothing to the movie; it seems like a perfectly arbitrary decision and is, at the very least, a waste of time. But ratcheting up is all Moreira ever does, like a little kid who’s gotten a tool kit for his birthday, and goes around banging everything in sight without rhyme, reason or skill.