STEVE GARDEN shares notes on some of his favourite – and least favourite – discoveries at the New Zealand International Film Festival to date. Appraised: Theater of War, Teza, Firaaq, The Baader Meinhof Complex, Van Dieman’s Land, Samson and Delilah.


JOHN WALTER’s impassioned and inspirational Theater of War raises many though-provoking questions, such as what do we do with the knowledge of our complicity, what do we do with our powerlessness, and how does our work (and actions) define us? Bertold Brecht attempted to answer these questions by facing them head on in his writing, notably his 1939 masterpiece, Mother Courage and Her Children. Theater of War is structured around the 2006 Public Theatre production of the play in New York, which Walter uses as a pretext for an examination of the meaning and value of Brecht’s great work, particularly in a post-911 world. At one point, he shows the burning of the Reichstag, a reminder of how Hitler consolidated power. 70-years on, the Twin Towers collapse, another consolidation emerges, and Mother Courage takes to the stage once again.

Brecht stressed the importance of taking responsibility for one’s own making (rather than ‘being made’ by the dictates or machinations of others), but he also acknowledged the near impossibility of doing so in a world governed by dependency and fear. For Brecht, ideological enmity is the perfect pretext for warmongering and moneymaking; money is the primary means by which everything is measured and motivated; idealism inevitably gives way to cynicism, and virtue is the root of demise. God is the ultimate justification for evil (and for doing nothing), and the cowardly and self-serving are the most likely to survive. And yet, despite all of this, there is hope in Brecht, and it resides in active participation: standing up, speaking out, writing a play, making a film, or just going to see one!

The make-believe of cinema occasionally connects people with their conscience, but more often than not, the world of dreams and illusion keeps us dozing. Theater of War may not be a deafening wake up call, but it pokes us firmly in the ribs as we snooze. However, one film that encapsulates the ideas discussed in Theater of War (and with as much force and conviction as you are likely to see in this festival) is Haile Gerima’s Teza. Gerima is deeply aware of the wickedness of the world and the futility of idealistic fervour in the face of raw hatred. Mother Courage is referenced in a scene where a woman tries to stop soldiers dragging her son to war, a moment that brings the philosophical ruminations of Theater of War into stark and palpable relief.

Teza is a very ambitious film. It has a relatively complex narrative structure spanning many decades, cultures and characters, and with a running time of nearly 2 ½ hours, it’s something of an epic. While the humanity and courage depicted in the drama is reflected with equal intensity in the filmmaking, Teza is not without flaws (some of the worst acting this side of Yang’s Mahjong, and an old-fashioned, overwrought style of direction). But none of this really matters – the passion and sincerity come powering through regardless.


‘Firaaq’

Given the film’s account of a country in which children are rounded up as war-fodder as soon as they can hold a weapon, it would have been quite justified for Teza to end in anger. Instead, it closes on a celebration of new life – a near revolutionary note of obstinate everyday hope. When the lights came up the audience responded with an outburst of genuine applause, and while other films in this festival are sure to receive similar approbation, few are likely to elicit as heartfelt a response as Teza. That said, Nandita Das’ debut feature, Firaaq came close. Firaaq is another ambitious film based on tragic historic events, specifically the violence between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat, where thousands of people (mostly Muslim) were killed in 2002 in what was widely thought to have been a government-sanctioned bloodbath.

Das and her writer (Auckland-based Suchi Kothari) framed their film around a handful of loosely related characters whose lives were directly affected by the violence. Their intention was to elucidate the social, religious, political and racial conditions that give rise to enmity. It is a bleak and sombre depiction, but again, not without hope. Das deserves credit for not only managing to get the film made, but for doing so with great sincerity. Firaaq is nicely put together, and one can’t argue with its objective to address the injustice and suffering of racial violence, but the need to produce a movie that reaches as wide an audience as possible has made for a rather conventional film that almost works against its intentions.

Predominantly character-driven, Firaaq relies heavily on its actors. Unfortunately, a few of them appeared to struggle with the gravity of the task. The handsome Sanjay Suri and the equally faultless Tisca Chopra play an affluent young business couple (he’s Muslim, she’s Hindu) whose shop was looted in the violence. Both actors seemed quite out of their depth, as if their work in romantic comedies has caused them to forget how to frown convincingly. One could be forgiven for thinking that they were primarily cast to attract an audience, distributors and/or funding. The exposition is similarly earnest and overly telegraphed, occasionally to the point of cliché. Aarti (Deepti Naval) is the downtrodden housewife (servant, more like) of the brutish, unprincipled chauvinist and racist Sanjay (Paresh Rawal). Guilt-ridden for not helping a distressed Muslim woman fleeing her attackers (and who was most likely killed), she eventually finds the courage to leave her all-bad husband to follow her conscience, which of course we are primed to expect she will do.

The problem I had with Aarti’s story (and other stories in this film) is that because it is so blatantly didactic it lacks the conviction and power necessary to be truly effective. I’m not saying that Firaaq is a bad film, but (like Teza) its use of commercial cinema tropes to communicate a non-commercial message comes across as ingratiating. That said, judging by the enthusiastic response of the audience, such criticisms are not likely to be widely held, and (once again) it doesn’t really matter. Like Teza, Firaaq gets its points across with unmistakeable clarity, and frankly, whatever faults it may have pale in comparison to what has been (and hopefully will remain) the worst film of the festival so far, Uli Edel’s gratuitous The Baader Meinhof Complex. If, like me, you cringe at the memory of Volker Schlöndorff’s overrated lost opportunity, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1975), you might want to think twice about going to see Edel’s over-hyped political-thriller – although seeing it could be very instructive, not so much for what it is, but for what it pretends to be.


‘The Baader Meinhof Complex’

The Baader Meinhof Complex is as specious as a big-subject, big-gesture movie can be, and while I don’t wish to overstate the point, I couldn’t find one redeeming feature in this dubious travesty. I gave the film the benefit of the doubt for the first 30 minutes... actually, for the first 130 minutes! I thought Edel might have been setting the audience up with all the in-your-face generic tropes, a ruse to lure them in before shifting focus to something genuinely thought-provoking, if not challenging – but no. From the get-go we are ‘entertained’ by one visceral cliché after another: an insistent action-movie score; actors chewing the scenery and shouting the odds at every opportunity; exciting sequences of protestors pummelled by right-wing thugs, or the ‘fascist’ establishment being riddled ‘Bonny and Clyde’ style with endless volleys of bullets. We can virtually feel them whiz by our heads, and are encouraged to thrill in the excitement of killing for truth, all the while reminded that these were wrong actions carried out by wrong-headed people. We are literally invited to climb into the bath with sexy Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), and to be impressed by the righteous conviction of her (and her cohorts) anti-establishment anger. Or are we?

Well, yes – we are. Edel tries to have it both ways, but it’s obvious that he cares nothing for the people on whom his film is based, and less for what motivated them. His only concern (seemingly) was to ensure the best investment return for its financers. Of all the films discussed here, The Baader Meinhof Complex attracted the largest audience, and yet this adolescent wet dream is little more than a cartoon posing as a serious film. Judging by the reviews, many have been suckered into believing the hype of this sexed-up rock‘n’roll fantasy, which I guess gives it one unintended virtue, that of separating sheep from goats: “What did you think of the Baaaahder Meinhof film?” “I liked it.” “Right oh. See ya”.

There is a scene early in the film where Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) laments her attempt to ‘make a difference’ through filmmaking. This is one of many cynical touches in what is essentially a defeatist, amoral, and ultimately right wing movie. The Baader Meinhof Complex is more than a lost opportunity. It flagrantly sidesteps the pertinence of a contemporary examination of the Red Army Faction, opting instead for jaundiced sensationalism. At one point, Horst Herold (Bruno Ganz) – the man charged with the task of combating the group – proposes that changing the conditions that give rise to terrorism could be the best solution. It’s a fair comment, but it goes nowhere, and is in fact rendered impotent (and tokenistic) by the other 149 minutes of sexually charged comic-book violence, which (when all is said and done) is the real subject of the film.

One of the most shameful moments comes just before Meinhof’s demise, where Edel frames Gedeck against a stark prison wall, hair cropped short to look every bit like Dreyer’s Jeanne d’Arc. If that wasn’t bad enough, the final risible insult is the use of Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ over the closing credits. Edel knows no shame, and considering the stature and achievement of New German Cinema in the 70s, Brecht and Fassbinder must be turning in their graves. The Baader Meinhof Complex is an example of the sort of cultural and political colonisation they sought to combat, and a product of the mindset the RAF were at war with. The real travesty is that the film is being held up as an example of the ‘new’ German cinema, while the work of truly great new German filmmakers, such as Valeska Grisebach and Nanouk Leopold, struggle to find an audience. What does this tell us?


‘Van Diemen’s Land’

One film that handles its potentially sensationalist subject matter with intelligence and respect (for story, audience, and [crucially] cinema itself) is Jonathan Auf Der Heide’s Van Diemen’s Land. Co-written and co-produced with actor Oscar Redding (who plays the central character, Alexander Pearce), this impressive feature debut is based on Pearce’s confessions relating to his 40-day ordeal surviving the Tasmanian bush with seven other penal colony escapees in the 1820s. Pearce was the sole survivor. The others – well, they were dinner.

Viewers expecting to revel in an hour or two of cannibalism will be disappointed. As grim and murderous as the story is, Heide and Redding eschew sensationalism for a more contemplative approach, pitching the film somewhere between the sodden frontier grittiness of Deadwood and the philosophic poetry of Terence Malick and Werner Herzog at their best. Everything about the film – cinematography, direction, acting, editing, the superb score and equally fine sound design – is pure class. That it was achieved by pulling favours and scrimping together the resources necessary makes it all the more remarkable. Van Diemen’s Land may not be political in nature, but this thinking boy’s-own adventure is an example of a film that deals with potentially lurid subject matter in a respectful, artful, moral, non-judgemental and non-gratuitous way, indicating a direction that politically orientated filmmakers could take.

But there is another Australian debut feature in this festival that is an even stronger example of how one might address political subject matter (and anger) in a formally rigorous cinematic manner without pandering to or alienating the viewer, Warwick Thornton’s exceptional Samson and Delilah. Without resorting to the audience-pleasing tropes often employed by earnest filmmakers anxious to get their message across (Teza and Firaaq), Thornton’s film is a great example of politically focused cinematic fiction. One could quibble with a few of the directorial choices, but for the most part this is filmmaking of a very high order. Mature, intelligent, compassionate, artful, sensitive, respectful, perceptive, understated, serious-minded, genuine in its depiction of the world, focused and measured in its expression of anger, but with no lack of potency, vigour, conviction or rigour. What more can I say? This film is superb.

There is very little dialogue in Samson and Delilah. The principle actors hardly speak, which of course is a metaphor for a people without a voice. On paper that might seem rather trite, but on screen it’s barely noticeable thanks to Thornton’s skill. The sun may be shining, but it bears down upon Samson and Delilah like a burning reminder of their worthlessness as Aboriginals. Thornton’s formal restraint speaks volumes. There is no need for explanatory expositional dialogue. He trusts his images, the perception of the viewer, and the power of cinema to speak for him. Thornton is in total control of his art, and works within the context of the markers laid down by the great artists of silent cinema. Like Albert Serra (the director of arguably the best film in this festival, Birdsong), Thornton has no need for cinematic conventions, fabrication, predictability, cliché, emphasis, tugging at emotional heartstrings or laying blame, and yet his film packs a walloping politically grounded punch. Samson and Delilah is humane, focused and sincere, free of the need to pander to the dictates of cinematic consumption. One could say that as a filmmaker Warwick Thornton is truly free.

At this point, I had intended to comment on what is probably the highest profile and most anticipated political film of the festival, Steven Soderbergh’s Che. But this report is already way too long, and frankly, as good as Soderbergh’s film is, it’s not the best or worst of the political films in the programme. It deserves consideration, but it will keep. There is also Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, as challenging as it was 30 years ago (perhaps more so), and in an indirect way there is Albert Serra’s Birdsong, not at all concerned with political or social discourse, but which, by its very nature, contributes to the implicit politics of non-narrative art cinema. These, and others, will have to wait, for right now there are movies to watch...

See also:
» Harsh Frontier: Van Diemen’s Land
» Making Van Diemen’s Land




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