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SFIFF: Sam Green teases out Utopia and the possibilities of documentary

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One of Utopia's movements examines the potential of forensice science in a manner quite different from pro-law enforcement US true crime television, showing how the smallest reinforcement can be regained from sites of mass tragedy. But the movie's sojourn in China is in some ways its most vivid. There, Green takes an extended trip to the world's largest shopping mall, in China. The subject matter is akin to dramas such as Jem Cohen's Chain and Jia Zhangke's The World (both from 2004), but this is a case of reality trumping fiction. "Almost every article I read about China and capitalism talked about how the world's largest mall was there now," says Green. "But nobody described it as a total failure. We were at the mall for ten days, and it was soul-killing. There's something about a gigantic failed mall that is profoundly depressing." Luckily, an encounter with a Teletubby who eventually removed its mask added some life to the experience.

The world's largest shopping mall — at least for now: Green says it is slated to be bulldozed — may be grim, but it's also richly symbolic when history is integrated to the picture. "Victor Gruen who essentially invented the [shopping] mall in the US in the 1950s was a socialist who came to America," Green says, as "This Monkey's Gone to Heaven" gives way to "I Feel Love" on the Phone Booth jukebox. "In turn the mall has gone to China, and the grounds of cultural revolution became the site of a government-funded bust of a mall. In a way, it's the trajectory of the 20th century."

Today, we tiptoe into the 21st century, with a new president and old-new ways of seeing and making movies. "A year ago, when I was looking at [Utopia], people were saying 'Aren't you going to change everything because of Obama?'," Green remarks. "It felt like cotton candy hope. When [U.S. presidents] are the limits of your possibility, it's pretty lame." Truth: Green may have used utopia in his title, but perhaps it's time to come up with some fresh formulations of hope as well. *

UTOPIA IN FOUR MOVEMENTS

Sun/25, 9:30 p.m., Kabuki

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