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Film Festival Day 9, 03/08/2013

Why do I have blended ice drinks, when they seem almost guaranteed to give me a temporary headache? Curse you, frozen tastiness!

Film #42: Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel With The World

This was a documentary made in the 1960s, with parts taken from lectures and seminars that Robert Frost was doing at the time. He would have been in his 80s, and they panned around the audience looking at all the university students intent on his every word. I hadn’t realised that his father had been closely involved with the running of the Democratic party, and that he’d been there rather than at school – that would probably give you an education on the public and the democratic process that is something like a butcher’s education on cows. He was also clearly pro-military and pro-America, which can’t have hurt his chances to be embraced by the establishment.

But he also seemed to have a sense of humour about people who wanted to over-analyse his work, seeing avatars of doom in images of crows and hemlock trees (which, to him, evoked his local environment rather than dark portents and Socrates’ suicide). And many of his poems have a nice melody, shape and feel. The images of him pottering around his old house, making himself coffee from crystals out of a jar and packing a battered suitcase, and wandering about doing the gardening made me think of someone’s grandfather.

I kind of wish for a more modern version of this film, but it was nice to hear so much of him in his own words, and interesting to try and put yourself in the tenor of the time. For example, he mentioned talking to men that he saw with a copy of his book, who apparently invariably said, “Oh yes, my wife is a great fan of your work.” 🙂

Not great, but good.

Film #43: Ilo Ilo

Set in Singapore, a boy has been acting out since his grandfather died, and his heavily pregnant mother (who is still working) dictates to his father (who is secretly in trouble, work-wise) to hire a Filipino maid to help out around the house and keep an eye on him. We see the mother locking up the valuables before the maid arrives, and taking the maid’s passport off her as soon as she walks through the door (so she won’t run off, the mother explains). The maid is then shown where she is to sleep – on a trundle bed in the boy’s room.

It was interesting to see how this kind of family lives. (Or possibly, lived – the movie was set in the economic downturn in the 90s, but the Tamagochi that the child plays with is one of the few things that suggest that it couldn’t be set during today’s shrinking economy.) The maids have only one day a month off, and will often take another job illegally during that time; the maid is advised to sneak out during the day and work, as well. But none of the characters are saints or villains. Even the mum, who is bossy and sometimes mean to the maid when she’s feeling insecure about her relationship with the boy, is mostly just worried rather than actively malicious, and does not (for example) confront the maid over the little touches of lipstick that she has stolen.

Ultimately, the story is a little sad, but not tragic. I quite liked it.

Film #44: Three Sisters

I felt every one of the 153 minutes. Actually, that’s a lie – I’m pretty sure I nodded off briefly during it. This documentary watches three girls who start the film living by themselves in a small house in a rural village in northern China – the eldest is 10, the youngest is 4. Their father is in the city, trying to earn money; their mother is… just absent. They eat at home, or at their auntie’s, or with their grandfather. The houses are hazy with smoke in the evenings from the pine and turf that they burn (as well as the tobacco from any adults); many of the kids, particularly the eldest, are continually coughing. And we watch them herd sheep, and make a mash for the pigs, and squabble among themselves, and generally live life.

The documentary style they used was to just have the camera there, and shoot what happens – no questions, no commentary, and no context. I often find this style to be a bit frustrating, since it provides a lot of flavour, but unless the subjects are particularly talkative, there’s usually not as much substance as I’d like. It felt like you saw some of the bits of how this life worked, but it was just not what I was hoping for.

Film #45: The Selfish Giant

The original Oscar Wilde story has a happy ending.

This one didn’t.

It was probably more powerful for it; but I don’t know whether I’d watch it again any time soon.

The main character is a hyperactive kid from a broken home, whose medications are stolen by an older druggie brother, and who can’t stay still or stop talking. He and his best friend see thieves pulling up cable from beside a railroad and laying it on the tracks, using a passing train to cut it. While the thieves are distracted by a guard, the kids run off with the cable, and sell it to a scrap merchant… which starts the main character’s obsession with finding scrap (including stealing more cabling) and making money.

I really dislike people who steal from public spaces and infrastructure. Lead from church roofs, telecommunications cables, public artworks – they’re basically saying, “I am more important than all the other people who use this put together.” And the fact that they’re basically wrecking something more valuable (e.g. working cabling) in order to make something less valuable (wire scrap), that adds to my dislike. It’s no different to large companies coming in and poisoning rivers with mercury in order to extract gold more cheaply, or knocking down historic buildings to build shoddy new ones (with shell companies that can conveniently declare bankruptcy when problems arise).

Anyway, rant aside, this film was very good at showing a slice society that felt real, and that I was very glad that I don’t live in.

Of course, the next film made my dislike of thieves seem really petty.

Film #46: Silence in the House of God

This was a film that I didn’t want to see. I knew it was going to be hard to watch, and that I would not leave the theatre happy. But it felt hypocritical and disrespectful to the victims to go to Gardening With Soul, and not go to this.

It was well made, if a bit focused on America – but given that it was made by HBO that’s not terribly surprising. It set out the steps taken by a group of deaf men who had been systematically abused by a particular priest while at a school for the deaf that he ran, and the stonewalling they received from the Vatican hierarchy. The film did a good job of talking about some of the internal politics that have made the situation worse – while the Vatican prefers to present itself as a monolithic entity, there has always been a tension between the pontiff, the Vatican bureaucracy and the College of Cardinals. And there is always a temptation, when you’re inside an organization, to look at how things will affect that organization, rather than looking for the right thing to do for everyone involved.

There were some things that made me a little uncomfortable about the film itself – for example, using the words “young zealots” to describe one of the Catholic societies that one of the guilty priests formed is not a neutral way to describe that organization; though to be fair, I’m not a big fan of the Opus Dei crowd, and those guys sounded similar. Or the claim that the Vatican state was an invention by Mussolini, ignoring the long existence of the papal states in “the Italies”. And there was a weird thing going on where winning compensation from the Church was somehow a measure of success, which might be an American thing? (I would have thought that putting those people responsible in prison or the psychiatric ward would be more of a success.) But it is hard to criticize this film without feeling like you’re in the same camp as Men’s Rights activists who try to claim that lower funding for prostate cancer is equivalent to (or worse than) the many inequalities faced by women. Not every documentary has to give equal time to “both sides” – sometimes one side is demonstrably in the wrong.

The people who did these things should be punished and prevented from hurting anyone else; those who protected them and failed the victims should be made accountable; and the victims should be acknowledged, and helped.

I hope that things get better.

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