Before 2000, Abdellatif Kechiche was an actor, presumably finding pleasure and profit in performance. When he came to make movies, the French-Tunisian gravitated to raw, often nonprofessional performers, faces and bodies fresh to the pressure and invasiveness of the camera eye. Reviewing PoeticalRefugee (originally La Faute à Voltaire), Kechiche’s first film, critic A.O. Scott remarked the new director’s “fine and unusual instinct for ordinary beauty.” That instinct has persisted in all of his subsequent work. And from the start, the former thespian celebrated the saving power of creative presentation of self in theater, dance … even by means of splendid cuisine! For this immigrant artist, body-based connections often generate a sense of home and metaphysical sustenance for his refugees, literal and/or existential.
Games of Love and Chance
Games of Love and Chance (2003) features a tribe of teens who live and thrive in dreary housing projects outside Paris. Typically, Kechiche concentrates on memorable faces and feelings, human landscapes of passion and individuality so richly diverse they totally background the unprepossessing environment.
Week Two of SIFF opens with the promise that the screening experience at The Neptune will be, if not restored to previous standards, at least improved. According the Paul Constant in Slog, SIFF is replacing some of the sound baffles removed by STG in the ongoing renovation and transformation of the theater into a performance venue, and replacing the folding chairs on the floor with temporary theater seats (on loan from the Sundance Film Festival). Nothing in the article about the screen (which is smaller than the original screen and not in the best of shape) or the projector issues, which include an underlit image and bright light bleeding and smearing across the screen. I’ll be checking out the improvements later this week, but in the words of SIFF artistic director, “By Friday showtimes, everything is going to be exactly the way we want it to be.”
I clearly have not been doing my job—I spent the week buried in DVD and Blu-ray releases for my day job at MSN Videodrone and have seen almost nothing screening over the weekend. Almost.
Black Venus, Abdellatif Kechiche’s devastating dramatization of the true story of Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman, a black South African woman whose unusual physiological attributes were put on display as the “Hottentot Venus” in early 19th century London and Paris, is a powerful and provocative film. Kechiche observes her exploitation in freak show performances in which she, ostensibly, is a partner in (“I have a contract,” is one of the few things the largely silent woman voices in the film) but ultimately is at the mercy of the sexual and racial stereotypes of savagery and primitiveness that the white “ringmasters” of her show-biz partnership insist she portray in their burlesques. Kathleen Murphy does the film more justice than I possibly could: ” I am on the side of this French-Moroccan filmmaker, an immigrant artist who knows the sharp edge of living between cultures.”
Plays Sunday, May 29, 8:30pm at the Egyptian.
The event of the weekend is the Special Presentation showing of Raul Ruiz’s nearly 4 ½-hour Mysteries of Lisbon, a film of exquisite elegance that begins with an orphan boy in a Catholic boarding school searching for his identity (“They all had surnames: five, six, even more. I had just Joao.”). They have many names, we discover, and some of them titles, their rank becoming their identity. But others have also recreated themselves, through marriage or money or status purchased with fortune and power, and the biggest mystery is the protective priest who watches over Joao. As the boy’s ancestry unfolds in a magnificent tapestry of flashbacks that slowly weave a portrait out of dozens of characters and stories, so does the story of the quietly driven Father Dinis (Adriano Luz), which is inextricably tied to the boy’s past. Chilean-born Ruiz is a director whose love of storytelling and narrative play is often more engaging than the films themselves but with Mysteries of Lisbon, an epic based on a classic Portuguese novel (one yet untranslated into English), his engagement with the characters and their defining stories guides his direction, and his graceful camerawork and unerring eye for images both classical (like paintings in a cinematic frame) and fluid (his camera moves with purpose and grace) are in the service of the trajectories of the characters. I saw the film at another festival in late 2010 and have been dying to see it again in all its exquisite grace. Thanks, SIFF, for the opportunity.
Plays Saturday, May 28, 1pm at Egyptian
Calling All Shorts – SIFF Cinema becomes the home of ShortsFest over Memorial Day weekend. It’s a festival within a festival: 15 programs of short films over four days, opening on Friday, May 27 with the 7pm “Shortsfest Opening Night” program and concluding in Monday, May 30 with the “Shortfest Closing Night” program at 6:30pm.
As you may already know if you attended SIFF’s Opening Night, The First Grader goes down easy, despite pedestrian scripting and direction. Quickie’d and ranked (C+) weeks ago by Entertainment Weekly, this forgettable flick about a onetime Mau Mau warrior determined to learn to read in his old age relies on two attractive performers—Naomie Harris and Oliver Litondo—to gin up inspirational glow. Such feel-good fakery requires the glossing over of inconvenient historical nastiness: Mau Mau butchers morph into Kikiyu Freedom Fighters, while the Brits darken the hero’s memory as brutish killers of women and children.
Like The First Grader, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Black Venus, also based on actual events, deals with troubled relations between Africans and Europeans. But Kechiche’s film breaks your heart and hurts like hell to watch. Black Venus insists that we put skin in the game. It won’t allow us to lean back and look at this African life through a happy haze of unreality.
That short, sad African life was Sarah (Saartjes) Baartman’s, a young black woman brought to England by a South African Dutch colonist around the turn of the 18th century. There she became a circus freak dubbed the “Hottentot Venus,” her huge buttocks (steatopygia) and pendulous genitalia (“Hottentot apron”) the drawing card.