DEAR WORLD: The Kids Are NOT All right

1998 FCMM - Features provide gloomy portrait of youth and the future

by Jamie Gaetz Volume 3, Issue 2 / February 1999 13 minutes (3149 words)

In its 27th version, the International Festival of New Films / New Media in Montreal took a leap forward by returning to its roots. In shifting focus from the carnival-like elements that have predominated since the festival’s move to a summer venue and back to the programming, the festival again filled its important niche on the Montreal festival landscape.

By definition, a festival showcasing new films and new media must push boundaries. The works this festival presents are challenging, both technically and in subject, and won’t appeal to the same public as the “mainstream” festivals. Seeing such films is always an adventure and, for the most part, the films programmed this year fully met that challenge.

In general terms, these films demonstrate that there is a new ethic at work in the film world. The look of these films, the method in which they tell a story, the elements which they emphasise, are different from what we’ll see at the cinema on any Tuesday or Saturday night, and from what we’ll see at other festivals. Some of the films merely broach the boundaries of what has been done before, resting comfortably on the edge, while others cross those boundaries, slurring distinctions, for example, between genre, or even medium. As viewers, we are forced to receive and process differently what these productions give us. They are framed and edited in ways that, at one time, might have been considered experimental or “bad,” but are now the norm. Tight close-ups and hand-held cameras are no longer excessive, they are standard. These young directors represent a new generation, they come from a world in which visual media, particularly TV and MTV, have been omnipresent from their earliest years. The result: they are succeeding in making “new cinema.”

As always, after the orgy of images and sounds of a film festival, certain images and ideas rise to the surface, begging to be articulated. The residue left by the 1998 program is a murky one of dysfunction and chaos. Most of the features tell stories about kids and the future-and, like many of us, film and video-makers around the world are not at all optimistic about where we are at or where we are going. With few exceptions, these films could not be categorised as uplifting entertainment. They provide us with sometimes astounding and sometimes highly disturbing images of troubled people in a very troubled world.

Erick Zonca’s La Vie révée des anges (France), which opened the festival, set the guidelines for the coming week. The film begins with Isa’s arrival in Lille to learn that the friend she expected to put her up has moved on, to points unknown. With everything she owns on her back, Isa drifts for a couple of days, but it is cold outside, and getting colder. She approaches a man in a café to buy some of the postcards she makes using cut out images from magazines. An immigrant, one suspects from Eastern Europe, he lectures her and then directs her to a job. The work is in a sweat-shop, sewing children’s clothes. Here, she meets Marie, who has a place to live because a family has been destroyed in a car accident. The mother is dead and the daughter lays in a deep coma, so their apartment is free.

Both Isa and Marie are twenty, and trapped in a world that offers few possibilities, even to dream. Whereas Marie is not content with her lot in life, Isa takes whatever work she can find, rolling with the punches and getting on with it. She is a survivor, but where does Isa’s adaptability take her in the end? To work in another sweat-shop, assembling some sort of electronics parts. One audience member grumbled about the apparent vacuity of the film, demanding “if that’s all there is”-two girls sitting around smoking and having sex. Yes, precisely-and that’s the point. When one considers the images of generations without hope in films from the past, La Vie revée des anges becomes even more disturbing. Knowing that history does tend to repeat itself, this film becomes a marker on the route to the future.

Then there is the fictional documentary by Mexican filmmaker, Carlos Marcovich, about a 16 year-old Cuban girl named Juliette. A first feature for Marcovitch, Who The Hell is Juliette? (¿Quien Diablos es Juliette?) leaves the viewer laughing, touched, concerned, and completely bewildered. Juliette’s father abandoned his family to escape to the U.S. when Juliette was very young. Their mother then committed suicide, and, since then, Juliette and her brother have lived with their grandmother in an extended family situation. To say the least, Juliette is strong-willed, and incredibly lovely to look at. Like so many other young Cubans today, she has fallen into the only life where real money can be earned-she prostitutes herself to tourists. Juliette laughs it off-she’d rather die “whoring than hungry.”

Technically, this was one of the more challenging, and interesting offerings in the feature category. We are set up to read the film as a documentary, but then Marcovitch casts the first seeds of doubt. Is this true, or is it all a set-up? Marcovitch keeps us wondering, enticing us further and further into the conundrum. In a final scene, Juliette finally meets her father in Mexico. The scene is shot in medium close-up when he arrives and introduces himself, and then moves extremely long and high so that we are looking down on the two, as we would upon two ants. We have no idea what they are saying to each other after all this time. Is it important? Marcovitch gives us no clue. In the end, what is important is Juliette. And if she is real, even in part, is another troubling picture of a young woman in a world where something has gone terribly wrong.

The real tragedy is that it is almost the same everywhere. From Washington, D.C. in the U.S., Slam gives us a brilliant young “slam” poet. Ray Joshua happens to be Black, which means he lives with different expectations than someone with the same talent who happens to be White. Caught with some marijuana, he is arrested and sent to prison, where he uses his fiery and breathtakingly visual verbal rants as a defence against the pervasive and terrifying violence. But it is also in prison where he finds his “hope,” in the form of a writing teacher, Lauren. Witness to one of his spontaneously combustible performances in the prison yard, she recognises Ray’s talent. When Ray is released from prison pending his trial, he visits Lauren at home. Here he comes into contact with a whole other world-people with intelligence, education and, futures. Before he can actually become a part of this world, though, Ray will have to do time. And this is his best option.

My Brother’s Gun (La Pistola de mi hermano) from Spain, Made in Hong Kong (Xianggang Zhizao) from that city, and Blue Fish from Japan, all incorporate the violence that permeates the lives and imaginations of the young. In the Spanish film, a 16 year-old, armed with a gun and three bullets, kills a supermarket security guard when he is mistakenly accused of shoplifting. Hunted manically by the police, the boy commits a second murder at a gas station. The ending of this film contradicts the opening, so it is difficult to say it is completely successful. However, the story is disturbing and, consequently, memorable.

Autumn Moon, in the film from Hong Kong, is a petty thief and local thug whose only hope for advancement in the world is to join a triad. He doesn’t want to, but what else is there? Desperate to help Ping, a young girl he seems to love and who is terminally ill, Moon steals money from his mother. Unable to cope any longer, the mother simply leaves him. At one point Moon makes a disparaging comment about the educational system that has left him and his peers out in the cold. It is more than the schools that have let down these kids however. No where, in either of these films, are adults present in traditional roles of parents or supportive guides. Generally from one-parent families, they are on their own, dealing with the multitude of influences and impressions that the world throws at all of us. There is no sense that any of these filmmakers are passing judgement on these situations-they are simply presenting the facts.

In Blue Fish , an 18 year-old girl falls for a young drug dealer working for the Shanghai mafia. The drug dealer has overstepped himself and is in trouble with Taiwanese rivals. Unwittingly, this naïve young woman is skirting a terrible kind of violence and brutality. Blue Fish has some stunning images and sequences in it but, overall, does not succeed in either developing a consistent visual style that works with the story, or in developing a compelling story. It is unfortunate but, as Blue Fish is Yosuke Nakagawa’s first feature film, I think we can safely expect greater things from him in the future.

No discussion of contemporary dysfunction as represented by the films shown at the festival would be complete without looking at Todd Solondz’s Happiness . Solondz weaves together the separate but shared stories of three sisters and their parents-each story about one form of emotional, psychological or sexual dysfunction.

One of the plot-lines is about the sister who “has everything.” She is married to a psychiatrist who fantasises about young boys and, as father of an 11 year-old boy, has access to a bounty of material. Fantasising and jerking off to magazines is one thing, but then he moves from fantasy to practice and rapes two of his son’s schoolmates. What makes all of this truly creepy is Solondz’s apparent ambiguity about this character and this crime. He has placed it alongside the story of the rape of an overweight woman by her doorman. The woman gets revenge by breaking his neck, then chopping his body into bits and, over time, depositing them in the garbage. It is a horror story at which we laugh, because Solondz makes it funny. The woman is at least twice the size of her rapist and very easily snaps his neck. The rape of a drugged child by a grown man is a violence that produces different chills, and cannot be used as comedy in the same way. Buried within the satire of Happiness , this non-satirical story provokes an uneasiness that is far from funny. Hopefully, this was his intention.

Other films on the features program gave us views of the future, more specifically Y2K, without necessarily focusing on youth. All are bleak: we are heading toward a world that is, if not apocalyptic, unpleasant. Don McKellar’s Last Night covers the last few hours of life in Toronto before the world ends. It is anarchy in the streets as everyone prepares to die. This is a provocative concept, and the film has some good moments, but I can’t help but wonder what the film might have been had McKellar cast someone other than himself in the lead role.

Liang’s The Hole

The Hole , by Tsai Ming-liang from Taiwan provided a subtle antidote to the other films about the future. The new millenium has barely begun and a terrible plague, carried by cockroaches, is attacking the citizens of Taiwan. The symptoms are cockroach-like behaviour. Huge sectors of the city are quarantined, the infrastructure is in shambles. Meanwhile, the rain pours down, relentlessly, keeping the city in a terminal gloom. Inside a woman’s apartment, water cascades down the walls, lifting the wallpaper and leaving pools of water everywhere. A plumber visits the apartment above hers to find the source, hollowing out a hole in the floor around a pipe that does not appear to be leaking. The man who lives in that apartment has a curious and lonely life. He drinks a lot and, one night when he returns home drunk, vomits down the hole. A curious, antagonistic relationship begins and, when the woman becomes ill, the man fixates on the hole. Slowly he enlarges it so that, at the end, he can extend one arm down and slowly lift the woman up through it. Intercut with this harsh reality are flights of fancy in which a night club singer performs in the familiar locations of the besieged apartment building. The voice is that of Grace Chang, who, in the 1950’s was a popular singer in Taiwan and a huge star in China. In an absurd and almost perverse way, and despite its grey and gloomy images of our not-too-distant future, The Hole ends up telling one of the most hopeful stories of all the films shown at the festival.

As an aside, both The Hole and McKellar’s Last Night are part of a series about the millennium commissioned by the European TV network, La Sept Arte.

At the heart of this discussion is Lars von Trier’s The Idiots , winner of the audience award. (This was the only feature to gather enough audience to fill the large cinema, so I suspect the win was purely due to the number of viewers present to vote). Although not explicitly about either youth or the future, von Trier’s depiction of a group of young people seeking their “inner idiots” says something about his protagonists and their world, in von Trier’s typically confrontational way. It is almost impossible to determine what his message actually is, however. With his hand-held and manic camera, von Trier keeps his audience in a state of shock and discomfort. Maybe he’s trying to tell us something about the boredom of the bourgeoisie, who get their kicks out of shocking and making those around them uncomfortable. Apparently unable to connect emotionally with anyone or anything, this group of unsympathetic characters has latched onto the most superficial expression of “misfit.” It takes an outsider, Karen, to meet their ultimate test by playing the idiot in front of her family-and to prove the shallowness of the group’s experiment.

Certainly intended to provoke, as are all of von Trier’s films, The Idiots works only to a limited extent simply because the point he wishes to make remains a mystery. He employs a visual style we recognise as ultra-real and associate with a “guerrilla” style of filmmaking, yet many segments of the film, and the entire premise for that matter, are completely contrived. The camera becomes completely erratic when “the idiots” decide to have an orgy, and von Trier takes us on a visual odyssey that includes a shot straight out of hard-core porn. Out of context, this particular shot is so shocking that it overpowers everything else about the film. In the end, von Trier completely undermines his work in using it because it is all we will remember.

Two other films presented at the festival present a somewhat different image of young people. From the U.S., we have Thirteen , the story of Nina, an African-American girl who abruptly leaves her close-knit community shortly after her thirteenth birthday. Nina simply wanders away, spending one night in the woods and then being cared for by several very kind and generous people throughout the rural area. She stops speaking, so does not share a word with any of those who feed her and give her shelter. They have no idea who she is or where she comes from but all reach out to help this lost girl. Our instincts are prepared for the worst but, amazingly, Nina returns home unscathed. She begins to talk again and, through the incredible support of her family and friends, finds a new track for her life. This film tells an unusual story in many ways and flies in the face of film convention by allowing a girl to runaway from home and come back unharmed. The director, David Williams, like Marcovich from Mexico, is also purposely working in that sludgy area between documentary and fiction. Thirteen is not as successful in this respect as Marcovich’s Who In The Hell Is Juliette? , but it is an intriguing work full of social commentary.

The Traveller From the South , directed by Parviz Shahbazi of Iran, takes us on a journey from the south of Iran to the capital of Tehran with twelve year-old Reza. On the train, he comes to the assistance of an old lady who is also travelling alone, and who has been robbed. Upon their arrival in Tehran, Reza helps her get to the airport through a labyrinth of negotiations with drivers of various vehicles. The old lady is overwhelmed, but the boy handles everything with assurance and independence. However, at the airport, the woman has a heart attack and is taken to the hospital. From this point, the boy becomes her guardian, dealing with the doctors, the officials and, even more, with raising the money necessary to pay for her operation. Once again, our North American sensibilities click in, believing that the boy will rob the old woman as he rifles through her purse looking for documents and money. He takes a piece of jewellery and sells it; we expect him to make off with the proceeds. However, this is Iran, and he is an Iranian boy, and this is, in every respect, a conventional Iranian film about a child.

Fine Tuning – The Pacific Music Festival Experience , by Charlotte Zwerin of the U.S., is startling in its uplifting and hopeful perspective, and stands out in comparison to all the other films discussed here. The film is a traditional documentary that focuses on young people. These kids are musicians who have been accepted to the Pacific Music Festival held annually in Sapporo, Japan. From every corner of the world, just 112 kids are chosen from the more than 1,000 who audition for the festival. They must have had years of musical training to be among the selected few, the kind of training that does not come freely or even cheaply. We know that these are the children of the privileged, and their expectations of life are necessarily different from all the other kids in the rest of the films discussed here.

Not all of the features shown at the festival were about youth, the future, and dysfunction, but they were numerous enough to become noticeable. In retrospect, what surfaces is the thought that cultural differences are a thing of the past. Everywhere, we see the same uncertainty, the same despair, the same violence, and the same fear of the future. Separation of the have and have-nots is a reality in every corner of the world-and it is only the “haves,” and their children, who have hope for the future.

Volume 3, Issue 2 / February 1999 Festival Reports   festival of new cinema   festival_fcmm   tsai ming liang