Category Archives: Films

Films

Haitian haunts

This Friday, I went to see the new Danish documentary, “Ghosts of Cité Soleil“, by Asger Leth, son of famed Danish film director, Jørgen Leth. The film is a documentary about the gangs of the slum town called Cité Soleil on the outskirts of the Haitian capital of Port-Au-Prince.

These heavily-armed street thugs are called the ‘Chimeres’ in French which roughly translates as ‘ghosts’ and it was through the raw force provided by these gangs that former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide sought to maintain his rule until the riots in February of 2004 forced him to flee the country.

The film follows two brothers, Bily and 2pac, who are also leaders of rival branches of the Chimere, through their daily lives up until the riots which also threaten to pull their lives apart. It is absolutely incredible to see how closely Leth has been allowed to depict the gang leaders and their surroundings, and how they are extremely honest with him and the camera throughout.

It is hard to believe that it is a documentary considering the action-pace and the military-grade weaponry that they show off. The motion of the camera feels very much like a person’s point of view, moving back and forth, being distracted and surprised. And the editor has done a marvellous job of connecting these frayed images into a coherent and fast-moving whole.

The film reminded me a fair bit of the film “City of God” – a fictitious film which similarly describes the everyday gang life and history of a Rio de Janeiro slum district called Ciudade de Deus. Interestingly, the two directors behind that film had made a documentary about gang violence in Rio previous to filming the fictitious piece, connecting the fiction with reality more closely than most people can appreciate.

“Ghosts of Cité Soleil” makes much the same connection, as you are constantly reminded of all those various Hollywood action films with ever-so cleverly coreographed violence – the only difference here is: This one is real.

Natfilm: Quintuple feature

What is now almost two weeks ago was also the week of the the Natfilm festival here in Copenhagen. And I managed to catch no less than five films in six days. I’ll give each of them a brief mention here.

Ryan Gosling got an Oscar-nomination for his role as the idealistic teacher in this film.

Half-Nelson
The best of the bunch was Half-Nelson. A touching, somber yet curiously hopeful film wrestling with some of the big themes of how change works in our lives. Interestingly enough the title does not refer to the wrestling hold but rather to the song of same name written by Miles Davis apparently referring to the hardships involved in fighting a drug addiction which is in part what the film revolves around.

The film is a debut from the young screenwriting/producing/directing duo Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, and it shows that they have spent almost 4 years working on this. The film has so much depth of detail and forethought that you leave the cinema wondering how all those other films could get away with offering you so little. A fuller review can be found here.

player piano

Vier Minuten
Another good film was German film Vier Minuten which tells the story of a young girl with an amazing talent for playing piano who has been imprisoned for multiple counts of violence and a murder, and how she meets the all-women’s prison’s old piano teacher and a shaky friendship evolves. It is quite powerful and full of evocative piano music.

one canoe...


Ten Canoes

Ten Canoes is the first film to be made with an all Australian Indigenous cast speaking their own language. It has a strange glow of fairy-tale about it of that swimmingly foreign concept of one-upon-a-time. It is built around a simple black-and-white frame story which then allows for the full-colour telling of an ancient aboriginal myth. Filmically, it is not astounding, but the content is so foreign that you cannot avoid being drawn in.

Rolf de Heer


The Balanda and the Bark Canoes

Immediately following Ten Canoes, I saw the “behind-the-camera” documentary about the filming. The title refers to the white men (called Balanda by the Australian indigenous peoples) and the bark canoes which inspired the director Rolf de Heer to make the film. He had seen an old photo of ten aboriginals in bark canoes traversing the Arafura swamp taken by Australian anthropologist Donald Thomson in 1936. It was quite astounding to see the squalid conditions under which the aboriginals live today and follow the (white man burdened) efforts of de Heer to get a film underway with the help of the locals.

The local Yolngu-speakers had forgotten so much of their history and traditions and spend a lot of effort making the ten canoes and javelins necessary for the filming. And amazingly enough, de Heer corrected their designs by referring them to Thomson’s photos which suddenly had become the authoritative source on the culture of which they had lost so much (or rather, which had changed so much with them).

Not only did the documentary set the Ten Canoes feature into perspective, partly explaining and partly excusing. I didn’t like the excusing part, and I really didn’t like how incapable these aboriginals appear, since it only enforces de Heer’s role as the burdened Balanda. But it is well-worth watching, and the two films together will probably soon become a staple in anthropological film clubs for apt discussion about the role of anthropology and the famed good-bye to the Tristes Tropiques.

The Honor of Knights
This “film” was bigged up in the festival programme but turned out to be utter shite. It continues the long tradition that Don Quixote cannot be made into a decent or complete film.

Ze Germans were here!

Also, this weekend I hosted 3 German engineering Ph.Ds. Which was somewhat odd, since I don’t really hang out much in engineering circles (well, I’m going to be hanging out in software engineering circles, but this was Chemical engineering of some sort, I think. They’d been to a conference in Lund and had a weekend to spare before going back to Zürich where they are doing their research. So they wanted to come by Copenhagen.

Oh, how I know them? Well, one of them is Thomas, whose room I rented in Manchester. That is to say, he moved back to Germany, and I got my name on the contract instead of his. But back then, we had one week of overlap which was good fun, and it was also good fun to see him again. And his friends Tobias and Philip.

It’s always funny to see what people like about Copenhagen, and the Germans were particularly fond of the Danish hot dogs. I guess it compares well to my fascination with the German Currywurst.

Cultural differences in food is always a favourite topic of mine. One of my professors at the Department of Anthropology is big on food anthropology, and he has a good collection of films that portray food in different cultures and in different situations.

My favourite is clearly Tampopo, which I think everybody ought to see. It is mainly about how to make the perfect bowl of noodle soup. Anyone watching will be sure to be hungry afterwards.

Game Game

I guess it was just a matter of time before the growing field of ludology began using games themselves as a way to explore its boundaries.

Finnish ludologist Aki Järvinen has made a game about games which he obviously had to call Game Game. He says that it is the same kind of meta-referential use of its own medium as in Scott McCloud’s famed Understanding Comics (which I incidentally can only recommend).

I wish that more people would see the rhetorical and educational potential in these new forms of media. It is obvious to use the comic book format to show the limits and poetics of the comic book, but it isn’t until you see stylistic experiments such as Matt Madden’s that that potential is realized.

I’d like to use some of these methods as a way to explain philosophical concepts. How would you produce philosophy or social theory in other forms than text? Could you make philosophy-on-film or on self-help tapes? I fondly remember how the old Danish children’s science program on Danish TV, called Vitek explained Einstein’s theory of relativity by using the “people conveyor belts” at the airport.

(by alternately putting the camera on or off one belt, and the presenter on the other, how can you tell whether it is the camera or the presenter that is moving – and relative to what? It is a wonderfully visual way to illustrate a difficult concept)

It reminds me of Fight Club where the narrator finds a bunch of educational articles about body parts and organs in Reader’s Digest, all written in the first person:

“I am Joe’s Lungs. Without me, Joe could
not take in oxygen to feed his red
blood cells.”

Later on, the narrator uses this form to express states of mind and ideas – submerging his ego in a statement such as “I am Jack’s complete lack of surprise.”

Could you make films with philosophical concepts as the main characters? “I am Jack’s Kierkegaardian Anxiety“? “I am Jacks Heideggerian Being-in-the-world“?

Probably not – or at least not in any ordinary sense of making film. But maybe you could do it through video games, comic books or cartoons which offer markedly different ways in which you can be visual and engaging.

I am reminded of Timothy Asch’s anthropological film “Ax Fight” which is basically the same short fight seen three times. First, as it were. With lots of shouting and incomprehensible stuff going on for the un-initiated. Second with interpretation, stopping up and explaining the scene with kinship digrams, hierarchies and motivations. Third, the entire scene again, now interpreted and “making sense” to the viewer.

One of my old pet projects was to make a film (or a text) like that as an experiment of anthropological style. 99 different ways to interpret the same scene. All depending on what you wanted to focus on. Is it kinship? Economy? Religion? Inter-tribal relations? Or gender roles? Are you going for the structuralist view or the functionalist angle? Or the ethnoscientific or the evolutionist?

Combining these would easily offer such a broad variety of interpretations that it would probably be slightly disheartening for the aspiring anthropologist. But much closer to the actual nature of anthropological work, all the same.

A few films…

This week, I’ve had time – or, rather, taken time – to go to the cinema twice.

On Sunday, I went to see the new Danish documentary, Guerilla Girl. Two young Danish filmmakers were allowed access to one of the secret training camps of the Colombian Marxist Guerilla known as the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).

This is the first time that a film crew has been allowed to film the way that the guerillas are trained, and it is quite fascinating. The film centers on a young girl, Isabel, who has left her life in the city behind – university studies, family, boyfriend, security – in order to fight with the FARC.

It is a well made film, and it fulfills a lot of the criteria set by anthropological film making as I’ve been introduced to it in Manchester: No speak, no interference from the film crew, no mediating or interpreting (only through basic cinematic means such as various montage techniques). Almost all of the words spoken are from dialogues between the relevant characters. And some of the images from the Colombian jungle are both breathtaking and disturbing.

Especially one scene where the experienced guerillas are trying to harden the young recruits to a life of violence by making them slaughter a cow. From a phenomenological view point, the scene is brilliantly done. The guerilla soldier shows Isabel where to stab the cow with the machete. She gives a weak try which only fuels the panic of desperate, tied-up cow. They make her try again. Same result. As a viewer you literally feel like you’re in Isabel’s position: Feeling the blade against the throat of the poor animal. Would you ever be able to kill something like that?

Isabel realizes that she hasn’t even considered that she might one day have to kill somebody. You’d think that would be the first thing you’d consider before joining a military guerilla group. Yet she persists.

It is very strange to watch such a film, because it seems to be strangely anachronistic: Here we have a group of people fighting for Simón Bolívar‘s vision of a Grand Colombia – though coloured in a Marxist hue. And I can’t help but think: Didn’t this sort of thing stop with Che Guevara? Are people really still doing this?

But after a bit of thought, I came to the conclusion that even though we ought to be in the age of flying cars and telepathic internet, most of the world is still stuck with semi-feudal societies, where people are indirectly bound by debt or tradition to a few rich families. Still, as the film carefully avoids taking sides and only shows the sheltered life of the training camp, it is very difficult for the viewer to know exactly what moved these young people to go to such extremes.

***

Last night, I saw Serenity which I have heard a lot about from the Internet geek grapevine where it had been hailed as the new king of Space Opera – continuing where the original Star Trek and Star Wars left off. It’s based on the tv-series Firefly which I haven’t seen – but it was apparently very good, even though it still got cancelled after one season.

The film is thus an extended episode of the series, much like the old Star Trek films of yore. All the cast from the tv show are here, but there are so many of them that there’s hardly room for any character development. I find it interesting, though, that the main characters are so much like the ones from Alien Resurrection which, incidentally was written by Joss Whedon who also did Firefly and Serenity (and Buffy the Vampireslayer (*rolls eyes*)).

Apparently, Whedon is becoming the new king of geek, and it is already possible to buy the shirt that confirms it.

The film manages to follow some celebrated clichés and still be a lot of fun. And, as is often the case with this kind of films, the bad guy was definitely the most interesting character. On top of that, there’s some nice cinematic effects and action scenes, as well as clear political stab at anti-depressive medicine.

Both films are recommended.

Prequels

LUKE: No, my father didn’t fight in the wars. He was a navigator on a
spice freighter.

BEN: That’s what your uncle told you. He didn’t hold with your
father’s ideals. Thought he should have stayed here and not gotten
involved.

LUKE: You fought in the Clone Wars?

BEN: Yes, I was once a Jedi Knight the same as your father.

LUKE: I wish I’d known him.

BEN: He was the best star-pilot in the galaxy, and a cunning warrior.
I understand you’ve become quite a good pilot yourself. And he was a
good friend. Which reminds me…

Ben gets up and goes to a chest where he rummages around.
As Luke finishes repairing Threepio and starts to fit the
restraining bolt back on, Threepio looks at him nervously.
Luke thinks about the bolt for a moment then puts it on the
table. Ben shuffles up and presents Luke with a short handle
with several electronic gadgets attached to it.

BEN: I have something here for you. Your father wanted you to have
this when you were old enough, but your uncle wouldn’t allow it. He
feared you might follow old Obi-Wan on some damned-fool idealistic
crusade like your father did.

THREEPIO: Sir, if you’ll not be needing me, I’ll close down for
awhile.

LUKE: Sure, go ahead.

Ben hands Luke the saber.

LUKE: What is it?

BEN: Your fathers lightsaber. This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not
as clumsy or as random as a blaster.

Luke pushes a button on the handle. A long beam shoots out
about four feet and flickers there. The light plays across the
ceiling.

BEN: An elegant weapon for a more civilized time. For over a thousand
generations the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice
in the Old Republic. Before the dark times, before the Empire.

Luke hasn’t really been listening.

LUKE: How did my father die?

BEN: A young Jedi named Darth Vader, who was a pupil of mine until he
turned to evil, helped the Empire hunt down and destroy the Jedi
Knights. He betrayed and murdered your father. Now the Jedi are all
but extinct. Vader was seduced by the dark side of the Force.

LUKE: The Force?

BEN: Well, the Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy
field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us.
It binds the galaxy together.

Artoo makes beeping sounds.

BEN: Now, let’s see if we can’t figure out what you are, my little
friend. And where you come from.

LUKE: I saw part of the message he was…

Luke is cut short as the recorded image of the beautiful
young Rebel princess is projected from Artoo’s face.

BEN: I seem to have found it.

Luke stops his work as the lovely girl’s image flickers
before his eyes.

LEIA: General Kenobi, years ago you served my father in the Clone
Wars. Now he begs you to help him in his struggle against the Empire.
I regret that I am unable to present my father’s request to you in
person, but my ship has fallen under attack and I’m afraid my mission
to bring you to Alderaan has failed. I have placed information vital
to the survival of the Rebellion into the memory systems of this R2
unit. My father will know how to retrieve it. You must see this droid
safely delivered to him on Alderaan. This is our most desperate hour.
Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.

There is a little static and the transmission is cut short.
Old Ben leans back and scratches his head. He silently puffs
on a tarnished chrome water pipe. Luke has stars in his eyes.

BEN: You must learn the ways of the Force if you’re to come with me to
Alderaan.

… maybe Lucas should just have left it at that.

Having now seen all three of the prequels, I find that between them, they only have enough material for 2 films at the most. The story is stretched thin, reaching and exposing foregone conclusions of the original Star Wars trilogy, positively ruining all the plot twists and surprises of those films, as well.

By adding the three prequels, the total six films now put focus on Anakin Skywalker, a hero turned villain. The prequels were to describe his rise to power and fall to the dark side. Potentially good stuff – high drama and space opera of the best caliber.

But no.

The first film is pissed away with Jar-Jar Binks antics, pod-racing and similar irrelevancies, introducing Anakin, but hardly making him very interesting (annoying, rather).

The second film introduces romance, saber-fights, lots of action and digital effects, but no nerve, lots of building up, but no climax. All of it suffering from bad dialogue, lack of humor and a distinctive cartoonish feel. Now a teenager, Anakin is an even more annoying sulk whose inner conflicts of unallowed love, ambition for wondrous abilities to change what he cannot bring himself to accept and lack of belief in the jedi code completely fail to capture the audience.

The third film (and this is the meat of the matter) is meant to be the climax of the series. The Peripeteia of Anakin’s fate. Amidst all the colourful digital effects,
the love story, the story of hopeful ambition to change the for the better, the story of a failing democracy are concluded to some degree. Anakin is now grimly determined young man, but he appears even more one-dimensional than farmboy Luke ever did, and his expected destruction lacks the epic drama hoped for. His teenage sulk skips mature anger in order to go straight to homocidal insanity.

All the way through these prequels, it feels like Lucas is just going through the motions rather than wanting to tell the story that could be. It all feels very forced, very uneven and very, very dumb. Sure, the characters of the original Star Wars weren’t brilliant, but they were believable in a way that the characters of the prequels simply are not. It often feels like Lucas prefers doing the action sequences as he won’t have to actually write any dialogue. And the dialogue he does produce is really, really bad:

Man: “You’re so beautiful.”
Woman: “It’s only because I’m so in love.”
Man: “No, it’s because I’m so in love with you.”

Argh.

All the way through, the actors aren’t allowed to act, as much as they have to say precisely what they feel at any given moment: I love you, I hate you, I loved you, You betrayed me.

It’s comically thin, and it’s an awful shame. All the epic, shakespearian potential for drama and criticism of American war-mongering is easily drowned in special effects and headless directing.

And though it probably would make a good computer game, I’d rather have been without it. The grandeur of just hinting at great battles and bold heroism is ever greater than spelling it out so unconvincingly as here. And perhaps that is the biggest trouble with these three films. They’re telling stories already hinted at, already imagined by thousands of fans – and in this case, film is indeed a weak aid for the imagination.

Evil empire?

George Lucas finally admits to the political undertones in Star Wars:

Asked whether Star Wars Episode III openly alluded to the Iraq war, he said: “When I wrote it Iraq didn’t exist. We were funding Saddam Hussein and giving him weapons of mass destruction. We were going after Iran. But the parallels between what we did in Vietnam and what we are doing in Iraq are unbelievable.”

Maybe he’s just being anti-imperialist because he’s currently in France promoting his new film, but it is a big step to put the entire Star Wars mythos into a current political context. Good stuff.

Being a geek, I will hope to see the film sometime Friday, but until then, you can test your mad Jedi skillz here.

Oh, and in completely unrelated news, I’ve turned in three essays so far, leaving only the one on time and technology which is due on Thursday. Summer is beckoning.

Films that will make you want to change the world

As I said before, I’ve seen several films that made me want to change the world, and with that I mean in a change for the better, obviously. The list looks like this at the moment:

The Corporation – an extremely thorough documentary on the history and influence of the modern multinational corporation. With several surprises, especially for those with strong views pro and con.

Life and Debt – a documentary taking a closer look at how a globalised capitalist economy has affected a small third world nation, in this case Jamaica.

Hotel Rwanda – a feature film based on the events of the Rwandan genocide of 1994. It indirectly deals with the consequences of the power vacuum of the post-colonial era, and shows the West’s indifference to the heartbreaking suffering of millions of africans.

The Edukators – a feature film focusing on three young Germans and their attempts at rebelling against a economic system so pervasive [link to article in Danish, sorry] that only through brave hope and passion can they see a different way to live.


I feel like I’ve forgotten some important ones, but I can’t say which. Maybe it was just Supersize Me, but everybody already seems to know that the golden arches are bad for you.

When I saw “the Corporation” at last year’s Copenhagen documentary film festival, I immediately wanted to go out and get the dvd to show the film to everybody, or at least all who would seem the least bit interested. Back then, the dvd hadn’t even been released in North America, much less Europe where most countries are still waiting for the cinema distribution deals to go through, so I couldn’t actually, legally get my hands on it.

But now, with The Corporation and The Edukators, I think that I’ve found a matching set of films that will shake people up and grab their attention. As soon as I can acquire both in proper legal fashion, I’ll be arranging proper illegal screenings near you, but until then, the best I can do is some bits and pieces I found while researching my essay on the Nike swoosh and the Eiffel Tower as empty signs.

The point being that brands are usually signs empty of meaning until streamlined through cunning marketing strategies to associate certain ideas and values with the brand. I used parts of Naomi Klein’s research on branding (a summary of which can be found here) and stumbled upon this telling song about the power of brands.

Enjoy.

Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei!

This evening I saw a film that made want to change the world.
This is not the first time that a film has made me feel this way, yet this was the first that didn’t leave me with feeling of total impotence. And that is indeed some achievement.

The film is German and is called “Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei“, which rather unceremoniously has been turned the English title: The Edukators, though with the excellent catch phrase “Your days of plenty are numbered.”

The film is about three young Germans, the idealistic Jan, played by the amazing Daniel Brühl of Goodbye Lenin fame, the cool Peter and his heavily indebted girlfriend Jule. In different ways, they’re fed up with an authoritarian system which cares little for the welfare of its members, of being part of something that is so pervasive that is seems impossible to escape, and most of all of the of the hypocrisy of those so rich they cannot find enough things on which to spend their money.

Jan and Peter breaks into rich people’s houses at night, but steal nothing. Instead they rearrange the furniture and other valuables into telling positions and leave a little note: “Your years of plenty are numbered” or, as it may be: “You have too much money”.

This is what you get from seeing the trailer and I won’t reveal much more, but merely say that the film not only understands and shows the sentiment of many young people and the passion and hope that they live with, and even the sentiments of the many older ones against whom they wish to rebel. I was very impressed, and a little shaken.

See, writing all this essay stuff on montage, I naturally sat down and noticed stuff about how the film used montage to achieve its effects, such as the 180 degree rule or the Shot Reverse shot, yet after 30 minutes, I had forgotten all about it. And when the film ended, I realised that I had been tensing my entire body for the last 30 minutes of the film, so immersed I was in the happenings on the screen.

The true magic of the film is that it takes perfectly ordinary people and slowly drags them into unexpected situations but so convincingly that you can relate and understand their actions and reactions throughout.

I wanted to send an email to all my friends in Denmark with semi-leftist sympathies or at least potential for such (and of course, my Bling buddy Nicolaj) to urge them to see this film, to give them that feeling of power and potential that the film left me with. Yet, I am sadly disappointed to see that it isn’t even in Danish cinema distribution. Instead it could only manage a few screenings at the Copenhagen Night film festival this April.

What I’ll actually end up doing in order to change the world is as yet unknown, but I have written this severely heartfelt plea for people to go see this film – which I hope will open their eyes a bit.