SFIFF at the PFA 2007, Part II

Here's the second of a few short posts about my favorite films of the San Francisco International Film Festival, shown at the Pacific Film Archive in the Spring of 2007

The most memorable film of the festival, because it was unlike any other film I've seen was Colossal Youth, the third segment of a collaborative piece of poetry, an improvised documentary/performance film about displaced Cape Verdians from the Fontainhas district of Lisbon, directed by Pedro Costa.

The main character, Ventura, is a Christ like "Daddy" figure to his real or imagined children -- recovering heroin addicts, real people featured in his two previous films, Bones and In Vanda's Room. It uses repetition, the memorization of a love letter (a poem for his absent wife Clotilde) penned by "Papa" (recited as a favor to one of his illiterates, who also longs for his own wife) to circle into the depths of anomie and longing.

This unwritten letter, repeated and composed, line by line, inscribed without a pen (for honest lack of a pen) each time starting again from the beginning, out loud (like the antithesis of the song, The Twelve Days of Christmas) is used to speak about hopes we sustain, even when we know the answer to our wish will only come long after it's too late to wish for an answer.

We sing to ourselves, and to our past lovers, our long lost friends, about the gifts we plan to give them (a hundred-thousand cigarettes), once we find them again (without an address), if only they will wait for us (in a place of exile), return (to a home that can only be imagined), come home (to a city that has been razed, to furniture thrown from windows).

"Papa" begs for more space from the government housing authority for his many "children", standing against the sterile architecture of the refurbished housing units on the outskirts of Lisbon, built to replace the destroyed slum of Fontainhas. He visits decrepit transitional buildings, still inhabited by many of his "children's mothers." As he recites his lines (his familiar songs) he speaks about the many "mothers" who have left him behind. He cries out to the "children" who should take him in. Even as he attempts to shelter them, he is also seeking shelter. Many of his children don't recognize him as their father, telling him he must have come to the wrong apartment, using the same mysterious phrases, calls, and counter-calls when he begs for their company.

Costa reduced these scenes from about 32 hours of video taken of his non-professional actors. The flat Hal Hartleyesque delivery of lines between characters propped up against one another, (like two sitters without chairs, who must sit back-to-back in order to rest) takes the audience into an experimental slum-scape that simultaneously elevates and enervates the consciousness. We identify with those lost, disillusioned card players, who can only make the sounds repeated to them, because of the fear of losing the words that can never be penned or even approximated, words that make rhythm into hope, and thought concrete, as concrete as the key to a clean housing unit for a clean addict, in a clean project as transparent as memory, and the flights of youthful addiction.

Costa's long takes are uncut meditations, like the literal interpretation of the phrase, "motion picture." Each scene is like a discreet photograph, unexpectedly and subtly moving, like a ghost encountered in a museum, or a paralytic security guard fantasizing about flight, thought to be a sculpture, or the corpse of a thought.

Costa's stillness is exhausting, like a dream with a death-grip, or a sticky molasses that keeps one from reaching.

The injuries that may never heal: the death of a child; the guilt of the addicted mother; the impossibility of satisfying labor for displaced migrant workers; the malaise of a home that will never feel like home (and never contain the many children ministered to by "Papa"), the odor of poverty that prevents Ventura from visiting the Gulbenkian Foundation, all of these wounds pass with time in the repetition of monologues, duets, letters, poems, conversations, games, and television theme songs.

The spoken word, the static government building, the immobile motion picture, each one invents it's own method of day-to-day survival, it's own tone that does ring, lovely and regenerative and dull.


SFIFF at the PFA 2007, Part I

Here's the first of a few short posts about my favorite films of the San Francisco International Film Festival, shown at the Pacific Film Archive.

First was Ghosts of Cité Soleil, a documentary about the poorest neighborhood in Haiti, by Asger Leth. The main characters 2Pac and Bily are armed gang leaders, or chimères who develop a close, at times sexual relationship with a somewhat flawed French aid worker Lele. This is surprising in the context of such a brutal documentary. I wonder how much her devolving from being a sympathetic negotiator, then nurse, then Florence Nightingale was played up for dramatic effect. Of course the narrative was most likely composed in the editing room, and it is unclear if Lele actually opens her heart during a wake. Was she mirroring or experiencing the effect of a power outage, rage, and the hunt for an emergency generator, or was it Leth choosing to splice her story in the mythic order of love following death? The sibling rivalry between 2Pac and Bily make for Shakespearean tragedy that is completely devoid of comedy.

The soundtrack features music by Wyclef Jean, and by 2Pac and his brother who reach out to Wyclef from a great distance, performing for him via speakerphone. It left me wanting to learn much more about Aristide, Haiti, and the U.S. involvement or lack of involvement during the various power shifts, protests, and bloodbaths. I'm afraid I question whether or not Aristide was a champion of the poor, after seeing this film, and the hypocrisy it reveals. Certainly the post-Aristide regime was not any easier on the people of the slums there. Asger has Lele shift from being philosophically opposed to guns to advising the chimères to hide and stockpile their weapons during peace talks with the U.S. backed unelected interim government, led by a wealthy Haitain-American. Ghosts of Cité Soleil is a soulful documentary, shot at great risk, that leads to a deep desire for investigation and critique. It also champions music and art as a vehicle to drive out violence in the hearts of child soldiers.