a page of madness

film writing by nicholas vroman

Yamagata Film Fest 2007 – boxoffice.com blog #2

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There’s a ghost haunting the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival. Sato Makoto is his name. Longtime festival-goer, filmmaker, and genial presence at the festival since the late 80s. At the age of 49, Sato committed suicide a month ago. The talk at the sprawling Komian Bar, the evening after-screening hangout, often leads to the question, “Did you know Sato-san?” Often followed with, “What a great guy.” Sato-san first arrived at his first YIDFF in a junker car, pitched his tent under a bridge, and proceeded to soak up documentaries, eventually becoming one of Japan’s leading documentarians. His presence is felt in the screening halls and in the dark corners of the Komian Bar.

Personal documentaries were the highlight of the International Competition films on Saturday. When considering the all-night partying the fresh and sunny morning (Yamagata is in the mountains) started a bit too early at 10am with Hala Alabdall and Ammar Albiek’s interminable experimental doc, I Am the One Who Brings Flowers to Her Grave. Inept home-movie style imagery, repeats of the same scenes from different angles, far too much of the filmmaker self-reflexively explaining, rather than showing what her movie is about, the audience suffered through its two hour plus length. What should have been a compelling story of Syrian expats dealing with the legacy of torture and 25 or more years of exile from their homeland became a self-indulgent mess that left the viewer numb, rather than moved.

Following was Canadian filmmaker, Ryan Feldman’s loving portrait of his endearing and whacky grandmother in Lick Salt – A Grandson’s Tale. Armed with video camera he shows her warts and all, as she deals with dementia and loneliness. Not a perfect film, but only the heartless would not identify with old Cecile. When Cecile begins talking to the pictures on her wall and wonders about all those people in the TV set who visit her, one could not help but give a bittersweet sigh.

Q and A brought a particularly cogent comment by Philippine director Kidlat Tahimik, who’s been involved in a similar project with his own grandmother. He stated that in his country, siblings vie for who will take care of aging parents, whereas in the first world the issue becomes, who will take care of the old. From this he noted how the technology of video may be the tool that can bring a bit of solution and resolution to this problem.

And speaking of Kidlat Tahimik, why haven’t we in the ol’ USA seen any of his work since his 1977 film, The Perfumed Nightmare? It’s not that one of the most important and influential filmmakers in Asia hasn’t been working all these years. He’s at YIDFF this year as a jury member (a powerhouse group of folks which includes hot Portuguese director Pedro Costa, Thai wunderkind Apichatpong Weeraswethakul (gotta love that name!) and Canadian First Nations filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin). Tahimik did, however, make a hilarious little installation of old 16mm and 8mm cameras poised as if they were at a dinner party – or perhaps were dinner. He’s called the piece D.V.D – Dinner for Visual Dinosaurs.

The afternoon brought a strange, but well made hagiography of Finnish political folk-rock political groups from the 1970s, Revolution. If you didn’t live in Finland at the time, I suppose you would never have heard of these soft pop groups singing pro-Soviet, politically charged songs. Revolution is well made, but I think you gotta be Finnish to really appreciate it – and the bands really aren’t that great.

The evening screening brought the best of the personal docs with M, Argentine director Nicolas Prividera’s heartfelt journey, searching for information about his mother, disappeared in 1976 by the military dictatorship. His somewhat long, though very moving film takes him through myriad state institutions and bureaucracies, interviews with old friends of his mother, and most touchingly, through old home movies. Prividera’s sadness and anger are palpable.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

October 6, 2007 at 3:19 am

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