Sunday, March 20, 2011

Japan, Iran, and Newsmakers On Screen

When a foreign nation is in the news, do we find ourselves more drawn to the cinema of that nation than we had been before? I'm not sure that those of us who normally avoid subtitled cinema are much likelier to suddenly seek out the cinematic traditions of a country that, thanks to natural disaster or political events or anything else, is now on the "front burner" of our brains. But those of us who regularly watch foreign films anyway may be prompted by news-making events to choose a film made in a topical country, whether out of curiousity or in a gesture of solidarity with its suffering citizens. The latter is the motivation for next Saturday's Viz Cinema benefit screenings of Hula Girls, a cheery film about a 1960s dance craze, set in the region of Japan most severely affected by the recent earthquake. Though the VIZ is no longer in daily operation, it continues to hold more frequent screenings of Japanese films than any other Frisco Bay venue, mostly as special events. Its screen will be in use for more of April than it has in recent months.

In a recent conversation with Michael Guillén, scholar Thomas Elsaesser advises, "If you want to invest your money right now in a festival idea, get to know Egyptian cinema." He's referring to the fact that we Western cinephiles almost uniformly know little to nothing of Egypt's vast cinematic heritage. The imdb lists 2052 film titles with Egypt as a country of origin, surely an undercount. Compare against the eleven titles from Libyan cinema history - quite possibly not much of an undercount. I'm unaware of any locally planned Egyptian or Libyan screenings on the horizon- perhaps it's "too soon" from, at minimuim, an organizational standpoint. I suspect it's luck rather than intentional synergy with current events that brings a Tunisian documentary At The Bottom Of The Ladder to the Tiburon International Film Festival next month.

No, these kinds of programming maneuvers usually are the result of months of pre-planning, which is why I was so impressed that Yerba Buene Center for the Arts was able to announce a short series of Iranian films so soon after Tehran filmmaker Jafar Panahi was sentenced to prison for his "crime" of putting into production a film presumed to be sympathetic to the "Green Revolution". That The White Meadows, by Panahi's filmmaking compadre Mohammad Rasoulof was added to the program belatedly is a tribute to YBCA programmer Joel Shepard's commitment to making this as current and multi-faceted as a small series can be. The White Meadows was one of the gems of last Spring's San Francisco International Film Festival, and Frisco Bay audiences should be eager for next Sunday's chance to see this beautifully-shot film in a cinema.

The inclusion in the YBCA series of Close-Up, the meta-cinematic masterpiece by Abbas Kiarostami provides context and counterpoint. After Close-Up secured his spot as Iran's most internationally-known director, Kiarostami contributed the screenplay to Panahi's first feature film The White Balloon. But Kiarostami's recent response to his country's suppression of filmmakers has been to work outside of Iran. His latest film, Certified Copy, is a thoroughly European production, and I saw it at last year's French Cinema Now festival hosted by the San Francisco Film Society. It's every bit the masterpiece that Close-Up is, in part because of the way it transplants Kiarostami's usual concerns into an entirely new environment for him. It's now playing at the Clay and other Frisco Bay venues, and should be a high priority for any cinephile to see on the big screen.

Panahi, by contrast, insists that he does not want to make films outside of Iran. Though his films are made with formal rigor, their social critique seems inextricable from the society he knows first and best, although proposed readings of Offside, for example, which plays at 2PM today at YBCA, have also suggested he may be commenting on restrictions he's encountered trying to bring his films to an international audience as well as restrictions in his homeland. Three of Panahi's films will play this YBCA series. I recently revisited Offside, and found it to be even more stunning than I'd remembered it. the technical feat of shooting documentary-style at a live sporting event is jaw-dropping on its own terms, and that leaves aside the panoply of social observations the film makes. Crimson Gold, his previous feature, is probably his most critically beloved, although it's the one I've seen least recently in this series and will therefore withhold personal comment.

Preceding both today's and next Sunday's screenings of Panahi's last two features will be the last film he was able to complete before his sentencing, The Accordion. Made as part of an omnibus film Then And Now: Beyond Borders and Differences, which just had its world premiere in Geneva, this piece is so short (under six minutes, not inlcuding titles and credits) that to say almost anything about it seems to constitute a spoiler. I was able to preview a screener copy of it, and I can say that it's brilliantly Panahi for its entire running time. It particularly showcases one of the filmmaker's great stregnths: his ability to shoot characters moving naturally through a crowd. There's a tempatation, as might be expected, to read the Accordion at more than just face value as a grander political statement, and I'm not sure the title card "Any reference to real facts or real people is purely accidental" is likely to diffuse this tendency (it might in fact exacerbate it!) Anyway, if you can make it to either of the Panahi screenings, don't be late because you won't want to miss this short!


  1. I'm always so happy when a new entry goes up on HOFD, not only because you inform of local events, but because as the years go by I'm keen to hear your voice on issues such as those raised by Elsaesser.

    I would add to your praise of Joel Shephard at YBCA, high marks to Santhosh Daniel from the Global Film Initiative who approached Joel about adding The White Meadows to the series, not only because they distribute the film and could provide a print; but, more importantly, because as Michael Sicinski has recently pointed out in his Cinema Scope article, Mohammad Rasoulof deserves our prayers and good efforts no less than Panahi. To consider that The White Meadows might be the end of his filmmaking career, it simply sickening to the heart.

  2. Michael, I'm glad you're here to set the record straight on how the added screening of The White Meadows came about. I came this close to adding a line and link to Global Film Initiative, but I must admit I cranked this post out more quickly than I usually do, and therefore thoroughness suffered.

    If I'd been more thorough I might have noticed that there will be another screening of Offside (most likely on DVD, I'd wager, but I'd love to be proven wrong) at USF on April 1st. There will also be a conversation about recent Egyptian and Tunisian activism, and a screening of a short US/Egypt co-production directed by Mustafa Eck, called I Don't Understand. It's all part of the USF leg of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

    One link I'd have included if it had only been available online at the time is the latest Look Of The Week episode, this time focusing almost entirely on Certified Copy. This time Sara Vizcarrondo interviews Stanford's Middle-Eastern film expert David Giovaccini, and Veronika Ferdman of Slant on Kiarostami and the film.