September 4, 2002

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Your America, and theirs

YOU KNOW YOU'VE entered a higher realm of civilization when the theater manager introducing the film announces, "Please turn off your cell phones to avoid the embarrassment of having it ring during the film." I am from the United Wreckingball of America, where shame is not really a tool you can ply on a crowd of entitled theatergoers. The last time I complained about a cell phone ringing during the course of a screening in the United States, I was told it was actually the manager's own. "Please turn off your cell phone under penalty of death" would be more like it.

No, the alternate universe I am inhabiting as I write this is Vancouver, British Columbia, where Vancouver International Film Festival juror and celebrated auteur Olivier Assayas has just been welcomed by a sea of boos for warming an audience with "This is the first time my film has come to America." Technically, true, but if he had added a "North" to the sentence, he would have saved us all a lot of trouble. His film Demonlover, a hilariously elliptical thriller that pits Connie Nielsen against Chloë Sevigny and Gina Gershon in a war over international anime rights (yes, true), leads its protagonists into a pit of evil: the making of snuff films, which, like plastic toys, are created in the third world and shipped directly to your neighbor's preteens.

Before the film, Assayas announced he'd taken on the project as a "fun" departure from all the hard work of his last film, Sentimental Destinies, but afterward, talking to the puzzled crowd, he tried out another version: it was a socialist film. "The circulation of money and the circulation of images are one in the same," he explained, in answer to where this oddball business thriller came from. Clearly, a few images have been circulating in Assayas's own mind: echoes of Irma Vep (a torture scene of a woman in a cat suit and a break-in that involves climbing outside a window) are prominent. But no plotline is actually ever truly elucidated. Said Assayas, "I just didn't want to waste time on the bullshit that no one really cares about anyway." I'm all for it.

Dedicated international fans of Vancouver's hospitable filmgoing environment generally descend on the festival in its second week, when the curtains open on Tony Rayns's always state-of-the-art "Dragons and Tigers" program, which, as usual, did not disappoint. But it would be a huge mistake to overlook the rest of Vancouver's international programming. Last year gems that I didn't realize would never see the light of day – films like Andrew Kötting's beautiful brain-fart This Filthy Earth and its naturalistic nonfiction spiritual twin La libertad – turned out to be the outré highlights of my year.

For those who don't want to fit themselves for the evening-gown glitz of Cannes, buzz films working the circuit find a comfortable home (meaning: you can get a seat) among the city's not overly excitable crowds. The best of the Cannes leftovers that probably will come to theaters near you, I felt, was Gaspar Noé's latest, Irreversible, an essay on happiness that found anything but love: it was roundly hated by the shocked Cannes crowd. It's not just a movie; it's an assault – but it's a stylish assault that makes you feel the pain of rape, hate, and rampage as anything but entertainment. By the same token, a vividly violent, rhythmic, true story-based City of God (Fernando Mereilles) shocked audiences to the point of walk-out, but – in spite of its Tom Tykwer snapshot moments – overcame its high-gloss packaging with a rich story line. The latest from Pablo Trapero, whose sweet Crane World brilliantly maneuvered through the lowercase world of a would-be crane operator, does another job on the concept of work with El bonaerense. It's a little slicker but just as gorgeously off-kilter and heartfelt. And Abbas Kiarostami has come up with one of his very best films to date, Ten, which – without ever leaving its car seat (it's filmed in a Taxicab Confessions mode) or relying on professional actors – manages to hit just about every generalizable nodal point of women's lives in urban Iran, from child care to divorce to prostitution to religious devotion.

In the realm of "Dragons and Tigers," the Indonesian film Eliana, Eliana – another story of women stuck in a car for nearly the entirety of a film – was truly breathing fire. The mother-daughter pair in this movie offered a whole new model for bickering. They're both from West Sumatra, where bad-ass women apparently are commonplace, and their arguments don't take any kind of female passive-aggressive format but rather center on a pride and aggression stemming from unique cultural conditions and matriarchal traditions. The film's director, self-proclaimed "mama's boy" Riri Riza, painted the film in dark strokes with enough puzzling story lines to hold anyone's – even Assayas's – rapt attention.

So many more films are worth a mention – Lee Chang-dong's Oasis, the earnest, awkward, and honestly sweet story of love between a brain addled ex-prisoner and a girl with cerebral palsy; Catherine Breillat's understated stupefier, Brief Crossing; a film from Australia that goes operatic in the outback, Rachel Perkins's One Night the Moon; the always boisterous San Francisco icons Jon Moritsugu and Amy Davis's Scumrock, which I only wish I had the time to see (it'll play Nov. 16 at the Film Arts Festival)– but the margins are closing in.

I forgot to mention the winner of the Audience Award, but you could already guess – the most elegant anti-American statement of them all: Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. And just because I only get one chance a year to say it, I will: Oh, Canada. (Susan Gerhard)

Arab Film Festival

Timelier than ever, Cinemayaat's sixth annual Arab Film Festival offers an antidote to the dismal, hate-mongering rhetoric of Bush's war machine, substituting human stories from across our interconnected cultures for the dehumanizing abstractions of a propaganda mill. Few filmmakers are better versed in such humanistic storytelling than the husband and wife team of Jean Chamoun and Mai Masri.

This year's festival highlights their internationally acclaimed work, which has given voice to stories of ordinary people in Lebanon and Palestine since the 1980s. Part of a program emphasizing Palestine, the Chamoun-Masri retrospective contains three documentaries and one feature exploring war's impact and the resourcefulness of human beings suffering exceptional deprivations. With an impressive sensitivity to the subject matter and a minimum of narrative intrusion, the filmmakers display a consistent knack for capturing the familiar in the extraordinary. Jean Chamoun will attend selected screenings.

The documentary Suspended Dreams (1992) follows four survivors of Beirut's devastating civil war. A middle-age actor and playwright speaks at one point from inside the rubble of a once grand theater; a woman heroically searches for her kidnapped husband, eventually organizing with other women left behind by 17,000 such kidnappings; two house painters become best friends after fighting in opposing militias, in which they spent literally years firing across the street at each other.

A well-acted, well-told fiction feature with roots in the reality seen in Suspended Dreams, In the Shadows of the City (2000) follows a young man whose dreams of becoming an artist are thwarted by Lebanon's decent into civil war in 1975.

Hanan Ashrawi: A Woman of Her Time (1995) profiles the West Bank intellectual and political activist who came to world attention as the eloquent Palestinian spokesperson of the 1991 Madrid peace talks. By 1995, Ashrawi, unwilling to participate in the problematic Palestinian Authority, worked for an independent human rights group dealing with the daily crises associated with an ongoing Israeli occupation. In a down-to-earth look at her political and family life, the film muses on the competing commitments of a modern Palestinian woman and public figure, as well as the day-to-day mechanics of promoting peace in the region.

Masri, a Palestinian American who studied film at San Francisco State University, gets remarkably close to two articulate, precocious girls as the director of Frontiers of Dreams and Fears (2001). The film looks at the life of children in two Palestinian refugee camps through the budding, Internet-instigated friendship between 13-year-old Mona, of Lebanon's Shatila camp, and 14-year-old Manar, resident of Bethlehem's Dheisha camp in the occupied West Bank. Their seesaw lives are typical of girls the world over and filled with a profound longing and sadness that comes from a displaced and dishonored existence.

Fortuitously timed, Masri's film captures Mona and Manar meeting for the first time across a barbed-wire border as, in the aftermath of the Israeli pullout of Lebanon, families reunite for the first time in 52 years. Shortly afterward, in September 2000, the second intifada sweeps through the camps.

These stories will be a revelation to many, a portrait of our world far richer than our finger-painting president manages. For a full schedule see First Runs, in Film listings. (Robert Avila)

Un-presidented

Did I say president? I apply the term loosely. Funny how the papers had us all laughing over the Iraqi election (you know, the one that garnered 100 percent of the vote for dark horse Saddam Hussein?) You'd think recent episodes in American-style democracy would make that laughter a little less throaty. Take the 2000 election, for example. But that's the point: it's already been taken. In fact, long before the Supreme Court stepped in and spoiled the party (or the two-party system anyway), Jeb Bush and his state's GOP leadership were letting nothing as risky as democracy come between brother George and Florida's 25 electoral votes. This according to a reportedly potent new documentary from the producer of Waco: The Rules of Engagement showing how they hedged their bets and rigged an election. We haven't had a chance to screen it, but Richard Ray Perez and Joan Sekler's Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election is said to point unwaveringly to a conspiracy at the highest levels of Florida's government to disenfranchise thousands of mainly African American voters before the election and shape congressional aides into an angry mob to storm the recount at the Miami Dade County elections office afterward. In what amounts to a real coup (again, I apply the term loosely), the Berkeley Film and Video Festival screens it Sat/2, right around election time.For a full schedule see First Runs, in Film listings. (Avila)