2007 SYRACUSE INTERNATIONAL FILM AND VIDEO FESTIVAL
seen prior to the festival
Caché (Hidden) (Michael Haneke, France / Austria) 
See review here.
Dans les villes (Catherine Martin, Canada) [W/O]
See comments here.
Something Like Happiness (Bohdan Sláma, Czech Republic) 
See review here.
films previewed prior to festival
As any regular attendee of the Toronto IFF can tell you, the quality of the Canadian entries is, to put it diplomatically, highly variable. In short, if you're a Canadian filmmaker and your work doesn't get a slot at TIFF, either it's just the bottom of the barrel ([don't] see Stryker or Hank Williams First Nation) or your film has really rubbed some people the wrong way. I don't even know whether Kashmere submitted this essay-video to TIFF, but I can certainly imagine it falling into the latter category, because Valery's Ankle is angry, ferocious, and pulls no punches in its exploration of the dark underbelly of Canadian masculinity. Kashmere's film examines hockey, and hockey violence in particular, as the return of the repressed in the Canadian psyche, the place where fears of cultural inferiority and an overdeveloped sense of polite civilization suddenly burst forth as animal vengeance. Valery's Ankle's jumping-off point is a legendary (and according to Kashmere, tacitly disavowed) act of thuggery on the ice during the 1972 Summit Series between Team Canada and the U.S.S.R. Philadelphia Flyers superstar Bobby Clarke sideswiped Russian powerhouse Valery Kharlamov in an allegedly premeditated attack, shattering Kharlamov's ankle and effectively ending his career. Kashmere's editing is, as they say, bravura. His escalating montages of slashes, highsticking, and frequent bareknucle brawls not only demonstrate his thesis; they also viscerally convey the horrific intensity and secret vicarious pleasure such violence produces in the spectator. We're implicated by Kashmere's neo-Futurist cavalcade of speed and savagery, and this makes the artist's grave tone all the more disturbing. Other Canadian filmmakers (most notably John Greyson, Atom Egoyan, and Guy Maddin) have explored hockey as an essential yet problematic part of Canadian identity, although not in this degree of depth. But where those men leavened their considerations with humor, Kashmere never lets us off the hook. If the official history of Canada is one of clean cities, good government and multicultural tolerance, the counternarrative of Valery's Ankle demonstrates a kind of Law of Conservation with respect to masculine brutality. It all ends up on the ice, under the sanction of sport, and Kashmere tells us in no uncertain terms that this simply isn't good enough. And I wouldn't be surprised if this bracing message is one certain cultural gatekeepers weren't particularly eager to hear.
This drab J-horror entry strikes me as the result of some bizarre cross-cultural version of the "whispering telephone" game, Rather than seeming like the wholly homegrown product it is, Vanished is more like what you'd probably get if a Japanese studio did a remake of an American remake of a Japanese horror film. Kumazawa has a eye for suburban landscapes, and the film's unhurried pacing could be soothing and contemplative for a more sympathetic viewer. But this story of a children's game gone wrong, a vengeful spirit, and a curse that will take those now-grown-up children one by one, hits its marks with an unnerving lack of imagination. In a way, this is the prototype for the Syracuse IFF film: domestic commercial product from around the world, the sort of films that major or even other minor festivals would never look twice at, for good reason. As such, it's of anthropological value, I suppose -- a sort of rote hack riff on Kiyoshi Kurosawa. One odd note: actress Ito Ayumi, who plays the "final girl" with a dark secret, has worked with Shohei Imamura, Shunji Iwai, and Tian Zhuangzhuang. I hope that stooping to appear in this tedious nonsense yielded some spending yen.
Kontroll as edited by Sammy Jankis? This first-film from Korea comes road-tested from the Pusan festival, where several seasoned critics didn't seem to know what to make of it. I'll happily line up behind them, partly because Suh is either over- or under-reaching and it's never clear which. The film's beautifully evocative title has no specific referent in this film about train operators working on the Seoul Metro, but the oscillation between tunnel and station, between bright, colorful fluorescent and the dark, dank underground would seem to be the intended meaning. At first it seems that Butterflymole is going to be a collision of fragments or a linkage of elliptical passages, with the formal pleasures of the trains, the city lights, the yards and the telephone wires offering the only real structure. We meet two operators, one of whom, Kyungsik, is having money problems due to loans he's floated to his architect brother. The brother and Kyungsik's wife both go missing, and before long the film has evolved (from inside its cruddy little DV chrysalis) from mood piece to inept murder mystery / police procedural. In this light, the moody scenes that go nowhere, the indistinct secondary characters, and the fact that certain locations look more like public bathrooms than the intended police interrogation rooms, all collude to make Butterflymole a weird, blobby failure. I wouldn't write Suh off entirely, but I'd need some very encouraging advance word before I gave this director another chance. One final thought: in its consideration of the day-to-day grind of subway workers, Butterflymole initially behaves as though it is going to pay attention to the toll taken on them by suicide jumpers, a trauma that punctuates their work lives but over which they themselves have no control. This is a worthy topic for exploration, and one I personally have thought about a lot, since my father was a rail worker and had to cope with this horror a few times during his career. The fact that Butterflymole ultimately treats it with such flippancy simply shows just how jejune this film is.
[SPOILERS] After shelving this well-regarded video-doc for many months, I took its (unsurprisingly late) inclusion in the Syr. Fest as an opportunity to catch up with it, and I'm certainly glad I did. From the outset, Block's semi-diary format is extremely frank about its aims and its limitations. The filmmaker is working to cope with the shock of his mother's recent death, and his father's almost instantaneous remarriage to his longtime secretary. Part of what 51 Birch Street captures, craftily and often painfully, is the way in which we continue to require a particular vision of our parents and the family structure in which we grew up, even well into adulthood and despite all evidence that contradicts that vision. One of the things that makes this film unusual, certainly among our current and seemingly endless documentary glut -- that is, one of the key aspects that elevates 51 Birch Street from mere reportage into memoir and eventually into a bracing work of art --, is the fact that Block is willing to follow his film / investigation into places he never suspects it will go. What looks like a garden-variety treatise on male infidelity opens up again and again, becoming something far more complex: a study of the alienating effects of suburbia, the social structures that thwart female sexual fulfillment, and the tenuousness of the bonds that keep nuclear families together. In fact, think about that word, "nuclear," and the film's case is pretty evident; it takes an unbelievable amount of energy to combat the entropy that is always fighting to tear families apart. In the end, self-deception is the secret to this cold fusion, and even the filmmaker himself cannot escape this trap. (The conclusion between father and son, though touching, finds Doug accepting his father's explanations at face value, something the film itself has trained us not to do.) If 51 Birch Street has any real failing, it's that Block is too present to ever allow the film to elevate itself completely beyond the confessional mode. Had he turned the material over to more objective hands for organization, he might've come away with something truly magnificent along the lines of Capturing the Friedmans. At the same time, Block is to be commended for displaying his implication in the structures he's interrogating, unlike certain filmmakers I could name.
. . . in which we learn once again, minimalism is hard. The generous reading of Bird Savior would be to say that it's a complex idea undone by shoddy execution, but the ideas, such as they are, comprise a virtual parody of everyone's worst Eastern European cinematic nightmare. A young boy is walking to the neighboring village, caged minah bird in tow, to meet his true love. On the way, he meets a bearded visionary who sets little birdies free from the traps the villagers set for them. Oh, and he talks to the birds, and speaks in vague aphorisms. Needless to say, the film is set in the medieval era. Despite its crushing self-seriousness, it might have partially worked if Szaladjak had any eye for landscape. But this film, which is almost entirely comprised of the two men traipsing through the tall grass of the rural Hungarian hills, just looks awful. The editing, the camera movement, and the overall sense of space are just D.O.A. on the screen, and it's a shame. Incidentally, the film is broken into semi-detachable little fragments, and perhaps they have a specific structural meaning, like a Book of Hours or something, but you'd have to consult with someone who gives two shits on that one.
Almost from its opening frames, Vanaja announces itself as something altogether unique in Indian cinema. Although Domalpalli's film is in the Telugu language, his style and approach imply a vibrant pan-Indianism. This hybrid cinema draws on the Hindi traditions of Bollywood, the Bengali art traditions of Satyijit Ray and especially Ritwik Ghatak, and the fitful rebelliousness of Mani Ratnam's Tamil films. This could be a political gesture on Domalpalli's part, but it's just as likely an expression of the many cinemas that have pervaded his consciousness as a student and a filmgoer. In any case, Vanaja operates at a different pitch, especially in its opening twenty minutes. We are immediately immersed in the South Indian dance tradition of kuchipudi, the sort of highly formalized storytelling performance that will serve both as the driving passion of young lower-caste Vanaja (the remarkable Mamatha Bukhya) and the overall structure of the film itself. Once we leave the stage and begin to follow our young protagonist around the village, meeting her layabout father (a drunken fool straight out of a Ghatak film) and Rama Devi (Urmila Dammannagari), the wealthy landowner and kuchipudi master who will wreak havoc on Vanaja's life, Domalpalli moves us through the streets in uninflected realist follow-shots, ending each scene with a crane outward. In this way, Vanaja continually place its characters in their larger social context by shifting us from the Bazinian ground-level of Bengal art film into the ether (and the wider world) of Hindi pop cinema. Although Vanaja does settle down stylistically, finding a groove somewhere between observational realism and a slightly declamatory formal mode, Domalpalli hasn't finished surprising his viewers. Vanaja is extremely plot-heavy and to get into specifics would be cumbersome and spoil the film's hard-earned melodramatic thrust. But like those crane shots that afford us a wider perspective than mere realism could by itself, the rest of the film avoids easy answers or simplistic victim / aggressor dynamics. Although this is a film about the unconscionable abuse of a child, an act sanctioned by patriarchal and class privilege, Domalpalli is astonishingly gifted in his creation of plot and character, thereby avoiding easy lapses into victimization or blanket vilification. In this regard, Vanaja is bracingly modern, even as it adapts Indian cinema's earlier cultural modes. For instance, Vanaja is abused, but uses both her tenacity and her self-expression through dance in order to cope. However, these salves are not compensatory for the grievous losses she sustains. Likewise, Rama Devi acts cruelly toward Vanaja, but only in accordance with custom, and subverts those customs when she can, but only inasmuch as she can avoid bringing misfortune onto her own family. Most shocking of all is the character of Rama Devi's son Shekhar (Karan Singh), who in a lesser film would be a two-dimensional hate object (and justifiably so), but whom Domalpalli wisely invests with a complex psychology. Moreover, this makes Shekhar more frightening, not less. So in summation, Vanaja is a modernist examination of the crushing force of tradition over female desire, one that ultimately owes as much to Henry James and Henrik Ibsen as to the grand legacy of film on the subcontinent. In fact, Vanaja's exploration of resiliency and loss, hatred and forgiveness, makes it seem like nothing so much as a de facto eighth New Crowned Hope film, produced with a fraction of the support. And then, as the credits roll, the kicker: "This film was submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Masters of Fine Arts at Columbia University." Wow.