Films that reflect our times
From <i>The River and the Wall</i>.

Films that reflect our times

Two themes — the environment and the lives of working-class people — emerge in 16 titles

DUMMERSTON — Illuminating the dark side of brilliance, the 16 films (one is a 15-minute short) playing in the upcoming eighth annual Brattleboro Film Festival will infuriate and enchant you, often at the same time. As my mother used to say as she forced castor oil down my young throat, even bad things can be good for you.

If my experience is any indication (I've seen 12 of the films), it will be hard to forget some of them.

As always, the person behind the festival is Brattleboro's Merry Elder, who told me that she and her film committee went through 50 films to select these.

Two themes have emerged: the environment and the lives of working-class people. Neither theme leads to much comedy, much less romance, and a few lead to suicidal thoughts.

“We had some difficulty finding upbeat films this year because of the state of the world,” Elder said. “People are not feeling upbeat. It's more serious.”

Elder, who also collaborates with the Vermont International Film Festival, said both festivals usually want to begin on a high note, with a more inspirational or feel-good film.

“We both had difficulty,” she said. “The films this year are so dark. It's just a reflection of the times we're in.”

Themes build by luck and happenstance, Elder said.

“There were a lot more environmental films available for us to watch, and we ended up picking five and a short,” she said.

A full day of films - Nov. 2 - will be dedicated to environmentally themed films.

“It's definitely time for that topic to be taken with all seriousness,” Elder said.

* * *

I've always looked at the Brattleboro Film Festival as a place of discovery. For one thing, without the festival I wouldn't know how much I love Agnès Varda.

I'm grateful that the Festival is playing her last film, Varda by Agnès, which she made at the age of 91 with her daughter's assistance. The film, which opens the festival, sums up her enormous body of work and is one of this year's best showings.

Varda was the only female member of France's New Wave Cinema. While the boys - that would be Godard, Resnais, Truffaut, et al. - hung around drinking, talking film, and smoking, Varda was out making documentaries and narrative films.

She had a long and productive romance and marriage with filmmaker Jacques Demy, even though he was gay. She made the narrative Cléo from 5 to 7 in 1962 and Faces Places, her documentary with the large-scale portrait photographer JR, in 2017.

That's 56 years of continuous work. Warm, witty, and creative in life, costume, and thought - what a career!

“Beaches are places of inspiration,” Varda says. “And if you open people, you find landscapes.” See the cartoon seagulls, smile, and send a prayer of thankfulness that we had the joy of her artistry for almost 60 years.

* * *

Another film brought tears of great joy, at least to my dry eyes. The documentary by David Charles Rodrigues, Gay Chorus Deep South, is also known as “a lavender ripple of love.”

The film follows the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus as it deliberately tours the Southern states with the most discriminatory anti-gay laws.

We get the singers' stories and their music; the travel, the heartwarming reunions, the final acceptance of families; the love and the spirit.

As the choral director, Tim Seelig, says, “We're going to sprinkle some water on some very dry land.”

Bring lots of tissues.

* * *

In Ága, a slow, riveting narrative about an elderly Yakut couple living on the frozen tundra of northeastern Siberia, the horizon is endless. This is a world we would never see if it were not for director Milko Lazarov, who directed the film at a glacial (pardon) pace in extreme closeup.

It took me half the film to figure out that this was a drama and not a documentary, as the couple, dressed in fur and hides, go about their daily chores. They heat their yurt with wood. Their water comes from collecting drops of melt from giant dangling ice cubes. They use every part of a trapped snow fox. They speak little. They love a lot.

The reason this film will stay with you is the inexhaustible beauty of the frozen landscape and the film's representation of a long-gone way of life.

It is so real you'd think you were watching Nanook of the North, Robert Flaherty's 1922 ethnographic documentary that introduced Inuit culture to the big screen. And to make sure we catch the reference, the old guy's name here is, as well, Nanook.

The film does not represent accurately the way the Yakut live, fish, or speak, according to The New York Times. You can guess that from the scene where Nanook, lying on the ice in his vast, snow-covered world, watches the jet planes flying overhead.

The film is stunningly photographed and deeply felt. I loved it.

* * *

Then there's the dark side.

Sorry We Missed You, the new Ken Loach drama, is a great film that will break your heart. I found I could watch it only in short spurts, maybe 20 minutes at a time, because it puts a new face on hopelessness.

It's the story of a young, stressed out British working-class family: a father who drives a van for a package delivery service, a mother who works as a home-health caregiver for the elderly, an angry adolescent boy, and his younger, peacemaker sister.

We are forced to watch as the father is reduced to rubble by the business owner who refuses to employ him. He's a “contract worker,” responsible for his own van (he has to sell his wife's car to buy it, thus condemning her to move from patient's home to patient's home by bus), his own insurance - everything his own except his time, for which he is roundly berated every step of the way by his supervisor.

Even after his son lashes out at him for not spending time at home, even after he's beaten and robbed, the father still shoulders his responsibilities and goes to work.

This brutal film is truer than true in this Age of Oligarchy and Amazon, where the rich get richer by robbing the poor of everything that moves. Could feudalism have been any worse than what we have now?

* * *

A visually stunning documentary film from China, Our Time Machine portrays Maleonn, a master steampunk artist, puppeteer, and craftsman. He is the son of a man who was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution but who survived to direct 80 Chinese operas for the Shanghai Chinese Opera Theater.

Maleonn wants to create an art project with his father, who is slipping into dementia. So the son builds a time machine to help his father capture memories, and he creates a play that gives his father joy.

The film touches our heart, it offers splendid views of Shanghai, and every frame is a piece of art.

* * *

Can you have fun while debunking an abomination? Sure. I especially loved The River and the Wall, a documentary by Ben Masters about a 12,000-mile trip that he and four of his environmentalist friends took down the Rio Grande from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico.

Using canoes, horses, and bicycles, the friends are young, fit, funny, and game. There's an ornithologist, a National Geographic filmmaker, a river guide, and a conservationist, plus the filmmaker himself.

Do I need to say that “the Rio” is also the border between Mexico and the United States? You can guess what the wall is.

Every politician from Reagan down to the slumlord we endure today has talked about building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Still, have they ever been there? The vast open beauty and the wilderness of the Rio Grande territory was something new and wonderful to me. The brightness and camaraderie of the five friends was also deeply enjoyable.

Along the way, they talk with people who live along the border. They don't find anyone who doesn't think the wall is a hideous idea. It will disrupt wildlife migration patterns, kill bird species, and at one point has to be built inland, far away from the river/border, so that it will cede 3,000 acres of the most productive farmland anywhere in the world to Mexico by default.

“It's a land grab,” says one farmer grimly.

The River and the Wall is a joy to watch. If you're like me, you'll wish you had been invited on the trip.

* * *

Another brilliant environmental film, The Map to Paradise by Danielle Ryan, is part of a growing genre of films about the islands of the South Pacific which are “writing the obituary of the oceans.” This film covers five continents but is mainly set on Apo Island in the Philippines, where a culture based on fishing is running out of fish.

Not only whales are endangered; it seems that 90 percent of all the sharks in the sea have already been pulled out. The rules for protecting endangered species exist but are not enforced.

This film allows us to get involved in the work of people who are trying to reverse these trends.

* * *

Instead of being the late stages of the Holocene Epoch, we are in the first stages of the Anthropocene, where human action, instead of geology, is changing the face of the Earth.

That's the message of Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, by Jen Baichwal, Ed Burtynsky, and Nicholas de Pencier. It makes the case that we, as a planet and a species, have abandoned our protection of the planet.

Here we get beautiful, romantic shots of unspeakable things. Case in point: Carrera, Italy.

Deeply scarring the landscape, Carrera marble is being sucked out of the Earth - not to supply another artist like Michelangelo with the marble to create his own statue, but to make copies of Michelangelo's David to sell to tourists.

Do you want to see your planet destroyed for that? Hell, no!

* * *

The most infuriating film in the festival is also the most important one. Synonyms is a narrative film and also the thinly disguised autobiography of the filmmaker, Nadav Lapid.

It begins with a fit young man entering a Parisian AirBnB, putting down his backpack, going into the bathroom, and taking a shower. While he's in the tub, everything he owns is stolen. Naked, he runs around the building banging on doors (lots of impressive full frontal here). Then he meets two young Parisians willing to help him out with clothing, shoes, money, and friendship.

The young man is just out of the Israeli army, and he's very, very angry. He's angry that decades of his country's need to have a strong army left its young people drowning in a stew of toxic machismo they cannot shake and which, they recognize, will lead not only to their own destruction but to the destruction of the country they love.

This young man wants to shed his Israeli identity and become French. He is obsessed with a French dictionary and constantly recites new words as he makes his way around Paris.

This is a bizarrely beautiful film - Paris is always lovely in films, isn't it? - but infuriating. You're not going to like any of the people in this film, which won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival. But you're not going to forget it, either.

* * *

There's always one film I'm sorry I watched, and here it's the narrative film The Chambermaid, by Lila Aviles. It's the story of sly little Eve, a shy, quiet, hard-working chambermaid in a luxury high-rise Mexican hotel.

The lack of plot causes suspense. What bad thing will happen to Eve? She works hard. She studies in her off time, trying to get her GED.

For inexplicable reasons, she strips and masturbates while a window washer watches from outside. Other than that, Eve is colorless and drab and so is the film.

* * *

I'm going to stop here, before the editors of The Commons have heart attacks over the length of this piece. But from the films I've seen, this will be a festival few of us will forget.

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