Saturday, May 11, 2013

Independent Film Festival Boston 2013 Day 05: The Defector: Escape from North Korea, Remote Area Medical, The Act of Killing, and Berberian Sound Studio

10 days behind!

I suppose I should kick myself on buying tickets for the Red Sox game that I knew would conflict with the festival, but I don't remember if IFFBoston's exact dates were announced back when the Sox four-packs went on sale, and anyway, the Sunday game package is when it's easiest for my folks to come. So, I wound up missing my brother and his girls on the 28th, although that family is big enough now that they need the whole four. From the pictures, it looked like they had fun.

I had fun, too, although that's a funny thing to say about this line-up of movies, which involved human trafficking, large groups of Americans being unable to pay for health care, Indonesian death squads, and, in the one that was actually supposed to be entertaining rather than informative, a man going slowly mad from isolation. Really could have used a movie about cute puppies being adopted by the end there, but at least the movies about ugly things were interesting.

Unlike Saturday, I had plenty of time to get something to eat at Boston Burger Company between shows, in part because only one of the four had a Q&A that would tighten up the gap between shows.

Farihah Zaman &Jeff Reichert, "Remote Area Medical" Q&A photo DSCN02801_zps232239a0.jpg

That's Farihah Zaman and Jeff Reichert, the team behind Remote Area Medical. Like all of the day's films, it was pretty good, although somewhat like Oxyana, it wasn't too hard to get the feeling during the Q&A afterward that they sort of went soft in a few areas to make it palatable to an audience with somewhat broader political beliefs. For instance, you won't hear anybody mention "Obamacare" anywhere in the movie, although it was something that naturally came up while interviewing the subjects. Given the part of the country they were in (Tennessee), there was a lot of objection to it, although a lot of people they interviewed apparently said that they wanted a system like in Canada or the UK, having a hard time accepting that it's impossible to get there all at once. Or, arguably, at all; some parts of the country have a really deep, ingrained distrust of government.

(It also struck me that, not having been ill or just having had a check-up lately, I really have no idea what health care costs me as a consumer. Some of the numbers people floated as to what it "should" cast seemed ridiculously low to me for involving highly-trained professionals, but I just have no context.)

Anyway, they seemed like nice folks; doing this movie came from having worked with RAM before, so they were able to start with a fair amount of trust from everyone on that side, and I suspect that a lot of the patients would want their voices heard in this situation. It certainly felt like a doc with unusually good access for a subject that could have been uncomfortable.

Okay, three more to go. Four, kind of. Might not get to them until Sunday or Monday, but the chance of getting these movies written up before they fall out the back of my brain looks pretty good.

(To be fair: The end of Berberian Sound Studio is kind of hazy. Is it weird that I tend to forget the ends of movies pretty fast, especially in genres where the denouement is so important?)

The Defector: Escape from North Korea

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 April 2013 in Somerville Theatre #4 (Independent Film Festival Boston, digital)

The Defector is a documentary adventure of sorts - it embeds the filmmakers and audience in a situation that has very real danger as things happen, rather than having the filmmakers dig up what they can later. Sure, it's not a big action-movie sort of adventure, but there's plenty of very real tension as a group of North Korean defectors make a 3,000-mile trip to escape to the South.

Such a long trip may seem unnecessary, but the border between the two Koreas is the most guarded frontier in the world, effectively impassable. So what's more common is for people to escape to Yanji in northern China, take the highway via Xian to Kunming, where they can sneak into Laos, cross the mountains on foot, and finally make it to Chiyachi, Thailand, where they can apply for political asylum in various countries. They can't do that alone, obviously, which is why there are brokers such as "Dragon", who escaped North Korea in 2001 and has helped about 500 since. This group includes Sook-ja, who is seeking her missing sister, and Yong-hee, who was kidnapped by human traffickers eight years previous and sold as a mail-order bride.

Ann Shin's film can't quite be a narrative film with real people, for a number of reasons. What would be plot threads in a feature inevitably sputter out unresolved here, and conflict between the subjects will often result not in great cinema but significantly reduced access for the filmmaker. Safety concerns mean that Shin and her crew (presumably just cinematographer Stephen Chung) cannot accompany the defectors on the trek through Laos, which is potentially the most cinematic leg of the journey. And while she does well with recreations when they're necessary, moments when she states her emotions in voiceover because it was prudent to hide them while she was filming are somewhat flat.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

Remote Area Medical

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 April 2013 in Somerville Theatre #4 (Independent Film Festival Boston, digital)

Remote Area Medical takes great pains to separate itself from partisan politics as much as possible, but its very premise - that a service designed to bring basic medical treatment to people in areas without any sort of infrastructure like the middle of the Amazon rain forest now spends 60% of its time tending to small-town America - must at least suggest a need for action, no matter what one feels the action is. And even without having that argument, it's an intriguing look at just how this massive-but-mobile free clinic works.

In this case, the RAM team is spending a weekend in Bristol, Tennessee, not terribly far from their Knoxville headquarters. They set up shop at the racetrack, hand out tickets at 3:30am - which would seem early except that some cars have been waiting for days - and then at 7am sharp they take people in the order that they arrive. Many are there for routine checkups, mammograms, and the like, while some have more specific symptoms. A large number are there for eye exams and dental care; there are facilities on-hand to manufacture glasses and dentures. Roughly two thousand people will be examined by the volunteer physicians on-hand.

That dental and vision are so prominent may be surprising to some in the audience, but perhaps it shouldn't be. As much we often tend to think of health care in reactive terms - not necessarily emergency services, but something done after a problem has shown itself - filmmakers Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman have the patients receiving that kind of assistance explain how a degenerative gum disease that leave's one's teeth a mess can certainly make it difficult to get a job that involves dealing with people, or how not being able to see well enough to read can undermine a person's confidence. There are bits where people talk about what health care costs and what it should cost, sure, but if Remote Area Medical makes any contribution to the debate about affordable health care, it's in framing it as something that improves everyday life as opposed to just something needed in bad situations.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

The Act of Killing

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 April 2013 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Independent Film Festival Boston, digital)

The Act of Killing opens with a group of dancing girls emerging from a covered bridge shaped like a fish. This may not seem like a particularly apt way to start a film about the criminal and paramilitary gangs who systematically murdered dissidents during and after Indonesia's 1965 military coup, but in this case, the absurd is called for. This is one of the most self-referential, strange documentaries one can imagine, and a rare one that uses that inward gaze to find power rather than express ego.

What director Joshua Oppenheimer does is to have his subjects shoot their own movies about what happened back then, while his behind-the-scenes video captures them speaking about murder, intimidation, and other injustices in plain view. The killers take on various roles behind the camera and in front of it, sometimes portraying themselves, sometimes playing accomplices and victims, while Oppenheimer, co-director Christine Cynn, and their collaborators (many of them anonymous) fill the audience in with details about the country's recent history and present.

The men he works with.. Well, they're a transfixing group of people, if nothing else. Anwar Congo quickly emerges as the central figure; he's a rail-thin, dark-skinned, silver-haloed fellow who dresses like a pimp, cheerfully talks about having been a "movie-theater gangster" who later moved up to torturing and killing the government's enemies, and how he was inspired by a desire to top the violence of Hollywood movies. Herman Koto is like his sidekick, a tubby former paramilitary fighter who winds up cross-dressing when the picture needs a weeping mother and undertakes an ill-advised run for government in the middle of production. The less-flamboyant Adi Zulkadry flies in from where he's been living abroad for many years, and newspaper publisher Ibrahim Sinik brags about people being tortured in his office. Then there are the more conventional monsters, including a paramilitary group founded by Congo and now led by Safit Parede; gangsters like Congo and public figures like Vice President Jusuf Kalla mingle at their rallies.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

Berberian Sound Studio

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 April 2013 in Somerville Theatre #4 (Independent Film Festival Boston After Dark, digital)

Berberian Sound Studio brought a film called "Amer" to mind, even though the two are spectacularly different in the way they pay tribute to Italian giallo movies. What they have in common is a deep affection for the genre, a remarkable attention to detail, and an incredible ability to create atmosphere from sound and a barely suggested plot. This movie just takes those qualities into post-production.

Post-production on a film called "The Equestrian Vortex", to be specific. Gilderoy (Toby Jones), an English audio engineer, has been hired to record and mix the movie's soundtrack, but he didn't quite know what he was getting into - aside from the bloody, violent content of the script taking him by surprise, he's a quiet Englishman surrounded by brash Italians; he doesn't speak the local language; and he's having a hard time finding someone to reimburse him for his airfare. Producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) switches from ingratiating to domineering at the drop of a hat, and the director who specifically requested him is mostly absent and eccentric when he is around. The closest thing he finds to a friend is Silvia (Fatma Mohamed), one of the actresses dubbing the film, though some of the other men on set claim she's trouble.

If I were producing next year's Academy Awards, I'd look into using clips from this movie to illustrate just what is meant by Sound Editing and Sound Mixing; a fair amount of time is spent on showing how Gilderoy and his colleagues go about their work, whether it be smashing vegetables to approximate the sounds of the human body being abused, carefully raising and lowering sound levels to just so, and watching women scream their hearts out while standing in a booth with nothing to react to. It's great fun to watch for those who like to see how things work and how movies are made, but the way writer/director Peter Strickland uses this environment to tell the story is kind of brilliant. Certainly, it's dark and claustrophobic and kind of run-down; that's kind of a given. But it's Gilderoy that grabs the attention; Jones and Strickland let us get to know the man by how he goes about his work, usually separated from the girl he may fancy by glass. The machines he uses are analog, mechanical things, an extension of his actions in the way that digital interfaces can only approximate, and the instinctive way he is able to manipulate them stands in stark contrast to how nervous he is in his interaction with the other people.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

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