Friday, October 26, 2012

Meaningful movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2007)
Amazing Grace is the story of William Wilberforce, the pioneering 18th century British politician who persevered as a lone voice against the Empire’s involvement in the slave trade, eventually working his way to a Parliamentary majority for abolition. It is not, I should specify, a depiction of slavery – there are few black faces in the film – and as such it adds to the disproportionately large body of films that seek white perspectives on black history. This doesn’t seem too problematic when the life being portrayed is as significant and interesting as Wilberforce’s, but I was never really convinced that Amazing Grace was providing a rich perspective on that life. This is a very proper film, tasteful and stately, with Ioan Gruffudd held rather at a distance as Wilberforce; by comparison, the supporting cast (a typical stream of cameos by the likes of Michael Gambon and Albert Finney) is almost too well appointed.


Even so, it’s a skillful exhibition of old-fashioned virtues; the verbal accounts of slavery are almost as chilling as any visualization would have been, and the climax is undoubtedly rousing. As time goes on I find myself increasingly pragmatic in acknowledging the diverse motives of films – this is a good story about an underappreciated pioneer, and its dramatization of principled idealism and strategic acumen directed against the commercial and institutional muscle of the day remains resonant. Would it be better to read a good book about Wilberforce? – sure it would, but for most viewers, that’s just not going to happen. And if a film like Amazing Grace seems to belong more to the classroom than the art house, at least it thereby adds to the shallow educational value of most of the popular discourse.


God Grew Tired Of Us


Obviously though, a film rooted in present day Africa  - with black faces – ought to be more what we really need right now. Well, maybe it’s not quite so obvious. The documentary God Grew Tired of Us (if only it were as evocative overall as its title) looks at the experience of male Sudanese refugees, a handful of who obtain refugee status in the US after languishing for many years in a Kenyan camp. Initially their modest subsidized apartments seem to epitomize the land of plenty (maybe too much of the film’s oddly modest running time is taken up with standard, if cute, fish-out-of-water stuff), but after the initial charitable period runs out, they end up in menial jobs, aghast at the country’s distorted values and lack of heart.


They keep striving to better themselves though, or at least the three men at the movie’s centre do: after a few years, they’re all solidly within the educational system, with big (and from what we see of them, not at all implausible) ambitions. This aspect of the film constitutes a plausible testament both to human versatility and to America as a land of relative opportunity. But the film is littered with unexplored hints of sadder fates – not just the vast majority of their friends who remain stranded, but also others who came to America and succumbed either to the lure of the street, or to mental problems, or worse. The calculation becomes obvious – show us enough of the underbelly to be credible, while tapping the standard triumph of the human spirit stuff. And get Nicole Kidman to narrate. I was not convinced.




The new Iranian film Offside, although not a documentary, is a far more fascinating document of the here and now, seeping immediacy and reality. Like director Jafar Panahi’s earlier film The Circle, the focus is on the treatment of women, focusing here on their exclusion from soccer stadiums: the official explanation is that this protects them from the cursing and excesses of the excited males, but of course that’s merely rationalization. Iran are playing Bahrain in the final qualifying match for the 2006 World Cup; there are more than 80,000 men in the stadium, and among them a handful of women who sneak in, in disguises of varying effectiveness. Some of these are rumbled and taken to a holding pen, en route to the Vice Squad.


Presented almost in real time, the film is mesmerizing, and extremely subtle. Again as in The Circle, the focus on the women doesn’t preclude awareness that such an ideology traps both sexes, and there’s much humanity in the guards’ treatment of their captives. Similarly, even though Panahi’s film has been banned within Iran, it’s a real celebration of the country’s spirit; the ending is one of the year’s most jubilant sequences, notwithstanding the continuing undertones. From this you glean that the film isn’t didactic – there’s some (albeit bleak) comedy in many of the exchanges, and the most compelling argument for change is contained simply in the energy, eloquence and commitment of the women themselves. When I saw Offside, on Good Friday afternoon, I was astonished to see so many children and teenagers in the audience. I don’t know if it’s just the soccer or whether this reflects some shrewd marketing I didn’t pick up on, but this is exactly the kind of eye-opening, progressive, and (even so!) entertaining cinema that you’d want them to be seeing.


The Hoax


On a lighter note, The Hoax, directed by Lasse Hallstrom, reconstructs one of the 1970s’ wackier (and not insignificant) episodes – the story of Clifford Irving, who claimed to be the exclusive conduit for an autobiography of Howard Hughes. Irving played this stunt all the way to a million dollar advance (intended for Hughes, but actually deposited into a Swiss bank account by Mrs. Irving) before the great man himself broke his obsessive silence and brought the whole thing down. It’s a fun story, and Hallstrom works here in a looser vein than he usually does; his star Richard Gere has an obvious good time too. Ultimately though, they’re inherently on the more stolid end of the artistic scale, so that the film never acquires the momentum it should.


There’s another huge problem – the looming shadow of Orson Welles’ wonderful 1973 film F for Fake, which blended footage of Irving and other con men into a dazzling essay on art, storytelling, and Welles himself. Welles’ film remains massively imposing, exhibiting more imagination in any random chosen minute than the new film does in its entire length (Hallstrom’s use of the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” over the closing scenes might sum up his propensity for taking the road most traveled). It doesn’t seem actually that The Hoax means to evoke “deep thoughts” of any kind. In the later stretches, as Irving’s project becomes dangerous to powerful vested interests, the film’s parameters broaden, but in too cursory a way to allow much thematic payoff. And there’s nothing in the movie about art, storytelling, nor (more understandably) Orson Welles. I think my F for Fake-fueled interest in Irving gave me a head start on enjoying the film for all its problems; if you don’t come in with that much, it’s probably not worth it.


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