ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

BYOF—build your own festival: Pick across the many film festivals in San Francisco right now and explore a topic or country in depth

It seems like each March brings an explosion of film festivals to the Bay Area and shifting through the programming can be time-consuming.  By mixing and matching programming across festivals though, you can BYOF—build your festival…and it’s well worth it!   Right now, the 29th annual San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) is screening 108 feature films, documentaries and videos from all points of the globe Asian and across town, San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is offering the Human Rights Watch Film Festival every Thursday evening in March and Iran Beyond Censorship from March 20-27, 2011.  By combining programming from these three festivals, you can meet very specific intersts.  Here’s a small sample of  what’s available for consumption this weekend and in March:

Let’s say you have an interest in Cambodia.   By catching “Resident Aliens” (SFIAAFF) at 7:30 pm on Saturday, March 13 you can see the shocking true story of three twenty-something Cambodian Americans whose American dream crumbled when they became young adult felons and, after serving out prison terms in the U.S., were deported back to Cambodia.  Ross Tuttle’s 2010 documentary tells how these three young adults immigrated to the United States as children during the Cambodian genocide.  All three were eligible for citizenship, but remained resident aliens.  Through visits back to the neighborhoods where they grew up,  primarily poor Cambodian communities in inner-cities, it’s easy to see how they fell into into crime.  When Tuttle meets up with them in Phnom Penh, they are virtually alone without family or the language skills to assimilate back into their native culture. Tuttle follows his subjects as they take different approaches to establishing a new life all while struggling with the fact that they can never return to the United States.

Turning to the YBCA’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival, you can then catch “Enemies of the People” on Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 7:30 PM at YBCA which takes a riveting look back at the country’s past through the eyes of a very intrepid journalist.  Winner of the Sundance World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Prize, Enemies of the People  (2009) follows the intensely personal project of Mr. Thet Sambath, whose parents and brother were among the approximately two million people who perished during the mass killings from 1975 to 1979 at the hands of Cambodia’s Communist Khmer Rouge regime, which was responsible for the deaths of nearly a quarter of the small country’s population.  With unprecedented access achieved patiently over years, he gently coaxes groundbreaking confessions from Nuon Chea, the notorious ‘Brother Number Two,’ (Pol Pot’s second in command) and from numerous grassroots killers, now frail seniors living out their final days.  As Sambath juggles between objective reportage and his intense personal desire for healing and understanding, he uncovers terrifying personal explanations for the genocide.  Somehow, operating like a one man Cambodian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he manages to listen calmly to the perpetrators speak casually about slitting throats and extracting and eating human gall bladder.  When he finally does share his truth, the results are healing but ultimately he has lost almost everything dear in life to him.

Who doesn’t love Iranian film?  SFIAAFF29 offers three new films Amin, Dogsweat, and Gold and Copper while YBCA’s Iran Beyond Censorship offers Offside, Close-up, Crimson Gold and The White Meadows. 

Let’s say, within the genre of Iranian film, you are very interested in storytelling.  Homayoun Asaian’s Gold and Copper has garnered much acclaim from audience and critics alike for its poetic rendering of a story involving Seyed, a man studying to be a mullah, and his family who have just relocated to Tehran.  The family game plan is wildly interrupted when they learn that Sayed’s young wife has MS (multiple sclerosis) and is soon to be completely paralyzed.  Sayed has to juggle his studies and the very untraditional tasks of child-care and home management. Screens: Saturday March 12, 2011 at 12:15 PM (Sundance Kabuki) and Sunday March 13, at 7 PM at Viz Cinema.

Looking for something with more edge?  SFIAAFF29 also offers Hossein Keshavarz’s provocative Dogsweat, shot clandestinely throughout Tehran before the 2009 elections.  Using the urgency of cinéma vérité, the lives of six teenagers intertwine in contemporary Iran.  Misunderstood by their families and oppressed by conservative Islamic society, they act out their desires behind closed doors.  A feminist finds herself involved with a married man; new lovers seek out a place to be intimate; a gay man faces an arranged marriage; a female pop singer risks exposure and a grief-stricken son lashes out against fundamentalists.   Dogsweat uses the rich tapestry of storytelling to show Iran the way it truly is right now.  Screens: Saturday March 12, 2011 at 6 PM (Sundance Kabuki) and Wednesday March 16 at 6:45 PM at Viz Cinemas.

Over at YBCA’s Iran Beyond Censorship, Mohammad Rasoulof’s mesmerizing The White Meadows, set in Iran’s mysterious and remote Lake Urmia region, is an allegorical tale about a boatman who travels the salt islands collecting tears in a glass vial.  In the end, all is for not, as the tears collected so carefully are used to bathe the feet of a dying man and then tossed into the sea.  As an allegory for contemporary Iran, a society pressured to empty its very soul and aware of the sad farce imposed upon it, this film does its work.  Rasoulof, 38, from Shiraz, was recently among more than 100 prominent Iranian political figures and activists who were put on a mass trial in Tehran following the crackdown on opposition supporters claiming President Ahmadinejad fraudulently won the June 2009 election.  Rasoulof was imprisoned in March of this year and released March 18, 2010, just before the New Year holiday on March 21, 2010. Despite his and other prominent Iranian filmmakers’ tricky relationship with the post-revolutionary powers that be, the Iranian film industry manages, under extreme repression, to produce over 60 films annually and you can see three of them at the Yerba Buena Center later this month.  The White Meadows screens March 29, 2011 at 4 PM at YBCA screening room.

Details: 

29th annual San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival:  Screenings are at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, Viz Cinema, Landmark Clay Theatre, Japantown Peace Plaza, Castro Theatre and VIZ Cinema in San Francisco, and in San Jose at Camera 12 Cinemas and in Berkeley at Pacific Film Archive.  Tickets for most events are $10 to $12.  For details, call (415) 865-1588 or http://caamedia.org/  

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission Street, (across the street from SFMOMA), San Francisco, CA 94103.  Several reasonably priced parking garages are located within one block of YBCA.   Human Rights Watch Film Festival screens Thursday evenings, March 10-31, 2011.  Tickets: $8 regular; $6 students, seniors, teachers and YBCA members.  Same day gallery admission with film ticket.  For more information visit http://www.ybca.org, or call (415) 978-2787. 

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Iran Beyond Censorship:  March 20-27, 2011 at YBCA at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission Street, (across the street from SFMOMA), San Francisco, CA 94103. Several reasonably priced parking garages are located within one block of YBCA.   Iran Beyond Censorship screens March Human Rights Watch Film Festival screens March 20, 25, and 27 at various times. Tickets: $8 regular; $6 students, seniors, teachers and YBCA members.  Same day gallery admission with film ticket.  For more information visit http://www.ybca.org/iran-beyond-censorship#overview  or call (415) 978-2787.

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March 12, 2011 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SFIFF 53 review: In Iranian Mohammad Rasoulof’s disturbing new film “The White Meadows,” allegory abounds as villagers cry their tears into bottles…what exactly are we watching?

The White Meadows (Keshtzar haye sepid)(Iran, 2009, 93 min)

In Mohammad Rasoulof's new film "The White Meadows" people living on the remote salt islands of Iran's Lake Urmia cry their tears into bottles. Courtesy of San Francisco Film Society.

Mohammad Rasoulof’s “The White Meadows,” set in the Iran’s remote Lake Urmia region near Azerbaijan, is a surreal poetic fable that addresses the messy topics of sin, guilt, judgment and confession.  In fact, the story has such a strong Biblical feel to it that it’s difficult to discern the Muslim factor but there are several veiled references to contemporary Iran.  The story concerns an old boatman Rahmat (Hasan Pourshirazi) who travels among the desolate salt islands and waterways of Iran’s Lake Urmia (the third–largest saltwater lake in the world) and ceremoniously collects people’s tears in a glass vial and mysteriously takes them away, only to later pour them into the sea.  What the precise role of this man is, we never know, but he is entrusted to hear secrets.  As people unburden their sorrows to him, somehow, they are cleansed.  It all sounds simple and beautiful but in Rasoulof’s world, this shaman is powerless to intervene or give advice against the vast injustices he encounters. 

Rasoulof, 37, from Shiraz, was recently among more than 100 prominent Iranian political figures and activists who were put on a mass trial in Tehran following the crackdown on opposition supporters claiming President Ahmadinejad fraudulently won the June 2009 election.  Rasoulof was imprisoned in March of this year and released March 18, 2010, just before the New Year holiday on March 21, 2010.  Despite his and other prominent Iranian filmmakers’ tricky relationship with the post-revolutionary powers that be, the Iranian film industry manages, under extreme repression, to produce over 60 films annually.  A rigorous vetting process entails censorship that begins with the script and follows a film through distribution.  The result is a rich set of low-budget films with an allegorical bend that offer some means of exploring social, political and religious codes within Muslim society.  “The White Meadows” carries on this tradition by offering a fable that can have as many real world applications as a poem–or–it can be taken as just as a story about strange people living in a strange land with stange customs.

The old boatman arrives to gather tears when tensions are most high—first, at a funeral for a young woman who has died suddenly and was buried in a mountain of preservative salt until he can transport her body off the island.  The male elders of the village mourn her but declare all is for the best because she was a temptress “to beautiful to live among us.”  Even the presence of her corpse on the island would cause men to dig her body up.   After collecting their tears, he takes her wrapped body off the island and then sneaks a forbidden peak.  He discovers that a fraud has been played out and that he is transporting a young boy Nassim (Younes Ghazali “Among the Clouds”) who intends to escape this bleak island life to find his father who also left the island.  An arrangement is made whereby the young man can accompany him by pretending to be his deaf and mute son. 

Remembering that tears turn into pearls, the boys steals a jar full while the old man sleeps and it is just a matter of time until he is caught.  They arrive next at an island where a young virgin is about to be cast out on a raft and offered as a bride to the sea, destiny unknown–the perfect metaphor for the unpredictable route that Iranian women travel.  Despite her mother’s pleadings, the old man does nothing to stop this act and the more tears that flow, the faster his vial fills.  Before the girl is carried off, the male elders certify publicly, one by one, that she is an undefiled virgin, worthy of sacrifice.  It is soon discovered that the boy has set out to rescue her but has been intercepted.  He is barbarically stoned to a bloody pulp by the village elders.  He survives but the old man proves to be more interested in protecting his position as confidant than in protecting the boy.  At this point, we glean another reference to contemporary Iran– a group of men in power are dictating the terms of societal behavior to their own advantage and ignoring universal moral rules.  

The next village is even more bazaar…inhabitants whisper their secrets into glass jars and then tightly cap the lids.  The crippled village dwarf (Omid Zare) is chosen to deliver these secrets to the fairies deep in a well before daylight.  With dozens of jars tied to his body, and carrying the symbolic weight of an entire village’s woes, he moves slowly through the crowd and down into the dark well.  When it is feared he will not make it in time, his rope is cut and he perishes.  This sacrifice allows the secrets of others to be assuaged but he leaves behind a young bride who will surely face a horrible future alone and ostracized.

In Mohammad Rasoulof's new film "The White Meadows," screening at SFIFF 53, a painter is punished for using red instead of blue paint for the sea. Courtesy of San Francisco Film Society.

On the next island, a painter is buried up to his neck in sand and left to bake in the sun for the crime of painting the sea “red” instead of “blue.”  He refuses to alter his reality to avoid punishment and the tear gatherer transports him and the boy to an island penitentiary. And on it goes…the tension builds into a set of heart-piercing scenes and bizarre circumstances where ritual and senseless judgment, have more importance than compassion or real justice.  In the end, all is for not, as the tears collected so carefully are used to bath the feet of a dying man and then tossed into the sea.  As an allegory for contemporary Iran, a society pressured to empty its very soul and aware of the sad farce imposed upon it, this film does its work.  

Some viewers may be put off by the lack of clarity and slow meandering tempo of the film.  Those who can pace themselves and handle high levels of ambiguity will be mesmerized by images that are both picturesque and eerily disturbing.  Ebrahim Ghafouri’s camerawork makes the film—much is shot from a distance, capturing darkly clad and covered women moving across the barren salt flats with some close-ups that provide clues for elements that come full circle at the close of the film. The sound is handled simply but eloquently enhancing the sense of isolation in a remote setting.  Extemporaneous guttural wailing has haunting power.  On one level, this is an exceedingly simple film expressing a human dilemma that should be comprehensible to all but whose solution remains incomprehensible… this about sums up contemporary Iran.

Screens: Friday April 23, 6:30 PM, Kabuki Theatre, Saturday April 24, 9:30 PM, Kabuki Theatre, Sunday April 25, 8 PM, Pacific Film Archive

April 24, 2010 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment