It’s that special time of year at Northwest Film Forum when our staff shares their “Top 10 Lists” from the past sun-round. Some are styled on the more traditional Top 10 Best Films lists we see regularly in the media at this time of year. And some push the boundaries of the Top 10 format. From our film loving hearts to yours: happy holidays, and here’s to a film-filled 2014.
TOP 10, BY PROGRAM DIRECTOR COURTNEY SHEEHAN
Taking the top ten list as an opportunity to introduce myself to the NWFF community, I thought I’d dive a little further into the past to share ten of the most memorable movie-watching experiences from the year I spent researching film festivals abroad on a Watson Fellowship (2011-12). Many of the festivals mentioned here reflect a conscious effort to get off the beaten path of the well-trodden festival circuit in order to explore local communities and in some cases, films that fall outside the scope of the mainstream fest network. Whether for their weirdness or their social power, all these stories shaped my understanding of why movies matter.
At the International Documentary Festival Amsterday (IDFA), the world’s largest doc festival, I saw the world premiere of The Ambassador. This farcical hidden camera doc chronicles Mads Brügger’s (The Red Chapel) neo-colonialist scheme to buy a diplomatic title and subsequent promenade in the Central African Republic as an undercover journalist wearing thousand euro boots. To pull this off, Brügger fooled a Dutch businessman into selling him a fake passport and Liberian consul papers for $50,000. When he caught wind of the film, the dubious Dutchman flew straight from Africa to appear on TV, threatening to sue the festival. Along with every other audience member, upon entering the theater I was handed a copy of the irate businessman’s lengthy statement of outrage and proclamation of innocence.
In Spain, I co-founded Cine Migratorio, a migration-themed film festival. One of my favorite submissions was Dime Cuando… (Tell me When…), a documentary by a German visual anthropology student that follows three migrants in Melilla, a Spanish exclave on the North African coast. Here migrants wait, sometimes for years, in the Centre for Temporary Stay of Immigrants (CETI) for their chance to enter Europe. During the festival screening, the audience member sitting next to me started to point excitedly at the Pakistani migrant on screen. “I know him,” he whispered. As it turned out, the Bangladeshi migrant sitting next to me had lived in CETI for two years and knew most of the main subjects in the film. While programming this festival, I spent a lot of time contemplating the immensity of physical distance. In that moment, the personal experience of migration forged an intimate connection between the northern coasts of Africa and Spain.
I chose Pula Film Festival as my first stop for its historical significance as the official state festival of Yugoslavia (now it’s the national film festival of Croatia). Since 1954, the festival has taken place in one of the world’s oldest and best-preserved Roman amphitheaters, making for an unparalleled viewing experience–even if conditions fall short of a proper theater, with stone seats and compromised sound. The Croatian president attended the opening night, which featured a modern dance performance set inexplicably to the famous plane chase scene from North by Northwest.
At a festival of Eastern European films in Utrecht, the Netherlands, of all places, I witnessed a post-screening Q&A-turned-debate of epic proportions. The film: Ekumenopolis, a sleek and searing critique of urban development in Istanbul that focuses on the working class people who are driven to the city outskirts by Istanbul’s dizzying rate of expansion. The debaters: director Imre Azem and a successful Dutch-Turkish architect who sported a blingin’ wristwatch and an indignant defense for the modernization of Istanbul. Contemplating the consequences of destroying the city’s green spaces, the partially animated doc–and the tension between the independent filmmaker and the corporate architect–contributes valuable context to the Taksim Square protests earlier this fall.
The conversation after Ekumenopolis was heated, but the award for biggest post-screening brawl of the year goes to Land of Knowledge, a film about the Croatian student blockade that effectively shut down part of the University of Zagreb for 34 days in 2009 in protest of a new tuition policy. The Belgrade screening was followed by a discussion with students from the Serbian counterpart to the Croatian movement. A venerable professor who had been an activist in an important student movement of yester-year voiced criticism of the current movement’s methods. This did not sit well with one of the student leaders. My friends tried their best to translate the blow by blow but it quickly became impossible to keep up with the verbal fisticuffs, especially when the students started to split into factions. Even without comprehending much of the content of the debate, I was struck by the film’s ability to spark such a passionate argument.
The world premiere of 5 Broken Cameras packed an 800 seat theater in Amsterdam. When the film ended, a palpable electricity buzzed in the audience. Both the Palestinian and Israeli directors were present for a Q&A. Dozens of hands shot up, eager to ask the first question. My jaw dropped as I listened to the lucky winner not ask a question but instead scold director Emad Burnat for bringing his young son to sometimes violent protests against Israeli occupation of their village. At least the other 799 people in the audience responded with a resounding “boo”!
One of India’s most beloved movie theaters is the Raj Mandir in Jaipur, Rajasthan. The confectionary orange and pink palette of the building moved Lonely Planet to remark that it “looks good enough to eat.” The Bollywood film I caught was indeed a trifle: Desi Boyz, a tale of two pals who become “escorts” to pay the bills after the economic crisis hits London (ripe fodder for post-colonial critique crystallized in the video for its highly boppable single). More than any cinema I went to in India, spectatorship is as much a spectacle as the silver screen in the Raj Mandir. Audience members stand, cheer, and dance at will.
Arguably the most bizarre festival I attended was Trash: a film festival in small town Croatia featuring extremely low brow camp and Golden Chainsaw awards. The theme for the year was “Westerns” and attendees and organizers dressed accordingly, donning ten gallon hats and “Indian head dresses.” On opening night, the organizers staged an elaborate cowboy and Indian battle in the theater, complete with faux gun smoke and a public hanging. Afterward, a Kiss cover band from Hungary played long into the night. My delicate American sensibility would take weeks to recover.
I ended the year in Rio de Janeiro at another scrappy festival with an activist bent, the world’s only Uranium Film Festival. The festival took place in a well-worn art museum and showcased films like Peter Greenaway’s Atomic Bombs on the Planet Earth, an experimental remixing of footage from the nuclear canon, as well as docs about the nuclear plants polluting the lands of indigenous Guarani people just outside of Rio. The same streets I walked at this festival are now full of protesters demonstrating against the Olympics and World Cup.
It may be hard to believe that three and a half hours of an activist documentary can fly by–until you see Anand Patwardhan’s Jai Bhim Comrade. In the 1970s, Patwardhan pioneered the political documentary form in India, making films about urgent social issues likes the Emergency, nuclear arms, labor, and the role religion plays in constructing gender norms. In the beginning of his career, Patwardhan staged improvised screenings in non-traditional venues in order to share his films, and despite winning national awards, he still fights against state censorship of his work. Jai Bhim Comrade looks at the political music movement that celebrates the legacy Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, the beloved Dalit political leader who was asked by Gandhi to draft India’s Constitution. In 1997, the desecration of a statue of Dr. Ambedkar in Mumbai ignited a public protest among Dalits. Police fired into the crowd, killing ten. The event drove Patwardhan on a fourteen year mission to shed light on the fearless intellectualism and entrancing craft that characterizes Ambedkar’s lasting impact, a constant source of knowledge and inspiration for Dalit thinkers and artists. I saw it at the state-sponsored Mumbai International Film Festival, which Patwardhan and others had boycotted in 2004 when the festival refused to show any films produced about the recent Gujarat genocide of Muslims–in turn launching a new wave of activist filmmaking.