Film festival shatters media monotony

By Damon Krane
April/May 2006
The InterActivist Magazine (Athens, Ohio)

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A note taped to the VCR in front of me issues the following warning: “This device may dispense corporate media that lacks the diversity, skepticism and alternative points of view required by democracy.” But as I settle into the well-worn chair facing the VCR, I know I need not worry, I’m in the screening room of the Athens Center for Film and Video to preview a small sampling of this year’s Athens International Film and Video Festival—Southeast Ohio’s largest annual exposition of independent, activist, avant-garde and international cinema.

From Friday, April 28 to Thursday, May 4, the festival will screen 21 feature films and well over 100 competition films. The following are a few of those likely to catch the attention of InterActivist readers. Because only competition films were available for review prior to the festival, readers should look to page 17 for festival highlights such as Peter Kinoy’s presentation of State of Fear, sponsored in part by InterAct and Students for Peace and Justice. A comprehensive listing of films and special events can be found at
http://www.athensfest.org

Untitled interview with Lynne Stewart
Directed by Paul Chan (7:30 min.)
Part of Competition Show # 14: “Politics and Poetry”
Tuesday, May2, 11:00 am, at the Athena Cinema

An activist lawyer who once defended members of the Black Panther Party and the Weather Underground, Lynne Stewart now faces up to 30 years in prison after being convicted of providing material aid to terrorists while serving as a defense attorney for Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, an Egyptian-born Muslim cleric the US sought to connect to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Turning away from the details of Stewarts conviction, and making no claims regarding her guilt or innocence, director Paul Chan instead gives viewers a brief, humanizing portrait of one of the people affected by Bush’s so-called “War on Terror”: a grandmotherly former grade school librarian turned leftist defense attorney who reads passages from her favorite poems to explain how she feels about her case.

In an apparent attempt to break viewers out of the standard, pre-packaged explanations of non-state terrorism and US foreign policy, Chan employs several unconventional visual techniques. He periodically interrupts the text-book composition of a standard sit-down interview with segments in which Stewart’s lips and gestures move out of sync with her disembodied voice. When Stewart reads poetry, Chan cuts abruptly to a series of solid colors taking up the entire screen and changing in accord with the poetry’s emotive effect.

With regard to the 9/11 attack, Stewart contends that most Americans have failed to ask, “Why did these 19 young men sacrifice their lives to do this?” Chan seems intent on getting viewers to ask a similar question of Stewart, suggesting that it is impossible to affect a person’s actions without first being able to come to grips with that person’s motivation. Chan’s success can be measured by the number of viewers who, frustrated by his film’s lack of concrete explanation, find themselves compelled to seek out the truth for themselves.

Venezuela: Revolution in Progress
Directed by Matthew O’Neill
(44 min.)
Part of Competition Show #17: “Politics and Action”
Wednesday, May 3, l1:00 am, at the Athena Cinema

Imagine a country where poor people take part in the political process. A country where 70 percent of registered voters show up at the polls. A country whose democratically elected president proudly proclaims to be “building an alternative path to the nightmare of world capitalism.” The country is Venezuela, and the film -produced for the Discovery-Times cable television station by non-profit media access organization
DCTV– provides a straight-forward and thoroughly accessible introduction to the controversial presidency of Hugo Chavez Frias.

In the summer of 2004, a national referendum was held on whether or not to recall (i.e. remove) Chavez from office. Venezuela’s 1999 constitution, itself championed by Chavez’s government, had created the possibility for the popular recall of a standing president. (This option is not available to the citizens of most democratic countries, including the United States, where only a minority of the population approves of its current president.) The film follows some of Chavez’s supporters and opponents during the lead-up to the referendum.

American viewers will doubtless be shocked to witness a level of popular engagement with electoral politics, likely as foreign to their experiences as is a president who promises to redistribute the country’s wealth and land to its poor majority.

The film graphically depicts the clash of class conscious Venezuelans. Chavez supporters are predominantly poor. Like the president himself, they tend to be of darker complexion – the descendants of Africans and indigenous South Americans. Meanwhile, those championing Chavez’s removal are predominantly affluent professionals, with skin as light as their leader Roberto Mendoza, a man whose baseball cap, Khaki pants and wind breaker make him look like he was lifted right out of an LL Bean catalogue. On the eve of the referendum, the film captures Mendoza confiding to his campaign staff, “The only thing that I am worried about is massive voter turnout. If the people turn out in mass, it hurts us. We benefit from abstention, not from voter turnout.”

The largest voter turnout in Venezuela’s history followed Mendoza’s remarks – and it confirmed his fears. In a process which election monitors from the Carter Center and the Organization of American States judged to be fair and clean, nearly 60 percent of voters cast ballots for Chavez. Politically developments in Venezuela are worthy of attention, and this film makes for a good starting point.

Citizen Hauser
Directed by Jonathan Shick (22:48 min.)
Part of Competition Show # l4: “Politics and Poetry”
Tuesday, May 2, l1:00am, at the Athena Cinema

This uplifting underdog story follows middle-aged, laid off steel worker Ed Hauser and his “experiment in civics”: a one-man attempt to prevent the development of Cleveland’s last piece of green shoreline. As Hauser engages in countless hours of research and speaks at some 300 public meetings over a seven year period, the protection of Whiskey Island becomes his top priority in life.

On a tour of his modest apartment, Hauser explains to that he needed to convert his kitchen into another storage room for his endless array of files. “Half of the battle is just keeping it all organized,” he says.
A study in obsessive tenacity and dogged perseverance, Hauser’s experiment proves instructive for anyone thinking about fighting city hall.

Now Promise, Now Threat
Directed by Paul Chan (33 min.)
Part of Competition Show # l0: “The Power of Surveillance”
Monday, May l, 1l:00 am. at the Athena Cinema

Another combination of intellectual and emotive content from Paul Chan, Now
Promise discusses some of the major themes in the neoconservatives’ rise to power while conveying an oppressively palpable mood of cold, grim emotional despondency.

The political commentary of a handful of moderate dissidents and a recent military enlistee from Omaha, Nebraska, are mixed with clips from public access television shows, modified TV weather forecast maps, ominous storm clouds, barren western landscapes, a signature sound effect from a popular prime time TV show, along with some undecipherable voices and imagery. Meanwhile, topics directly addressed include the merger of evangelical Christianity and right-wing politics, the Democratic Party’s failure to connect with working class and poor Americans, the deterioration of the Bush administration’s justifications for war, the false promises of military recruiters and the hypocrisy of the “pro-life” movement.

Regardless of viewers’ politics, Chan’s approach is probably as likely to annoy as it is to inspire. Ranging from eerily effective to overly artsy, it is an undeniably creative and unconventional short film that ambitiously seeks to engage the viewer on multiple levels.

Farming for the Future
Directed by Matthew Kraus (14:36 min.)
Part of Competition Show B: “The Rural Life”
Saturday, April29,3:00 pm, at Stuart’s Opera House in Nelsonville

A lovingly-crafted and unpretentiously poignant tribute to a handful of local organic farmers and the natural beauty of Southeast Ohio-Farming is a film you don’t want to miss. From foggy dawns to golden sunsets, Director Matthew Kraus uses his awe-inspiring mastery of lighting and composition to capture the lush, sun-drenched splendor of the region as his subjects calmly articulate their commitments to sustainable agriculture and ecological responsibility. Add to this a beautiful acoustic score from one of the farmers being profiled, local musician Scott Grady. This is Athens at its best.

More Selected Festival Offerings…

Beyond the competition films I had a chance to preview before the festival, our readers will likely also be interested in the following selection of features and additional competition films. A synopsis of each film has been provided by festival organizers. For show times, pick up a festival program uptown or visit http://www.athensfest.org.

FEATURE FILMS:

Almost Normal
A lighthearted film set in a parallel universe where being gay is the norm for American high schoolers presented in person by Director Marc Moody, a graduate of OU’s MFA Film program.

Darwin’s Nightmare
Nominated for the 2005 Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary, this film presents a case study of the socially and ecologically devastating effects of corporate globalization, focused on the fishing villages that surround Tanzania’s Lake Victoria.

Iron Island
An Iranian drama in which a group of homeless families have taken refuge in a rusting oil tanker stranded off of Iran’s coast. “Iranian cinema at its most playful, ironic and sophisticated,” according to the Edinburgh Film Fesival.

Liberia: A Fragile Peace
Director Steven Ross presents his film on a war weary people’s current struggle to rebuild the African country founded by freed American slaves.

Shakespeare Behind Bars
This documentary follows the casting, rehearsal and presentation of Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, by convicted felons inside Kentucky’s Luther Luckett Correctional Complex. Hollywood Reporter’s James Greenberg called it “A remarkable, moving experience [that] poses tough questions about the nature of forgiveness [with] a generosity of spirit.”

Sophie Scholl – The Last Days
A historical drama about members of the White Rose, an underground resistance group of young German’s who fought against their country’s government during the Nazi’s reign. Captured by the Gestapo and sentenced to death for treason, Sophie School struggles to vindicate her ideals and protect her uncaptured comrades.

State of Fear: The Truth About Terrorism
A documentary about Peru’s own “war on terror” in the 1980s and 90s which serves as a cautionary tale about the basic potential for governments to engage in terrorism in the name of fighting it. Presented by the film’s editor Peter Kinoy.

Working Man’s Death
A documentary that goes to some of the most dangerous places on Earth to profile the laborers who risk their lives every day to barely make a living, compassionately depicting the struggles and hopes of Ukrainian coal miners, Indonesian sulfur miners, Nigerian butchers, Pakistani ship breakers and Chinese Steelworkers.

COMPETITION FILM GROUP SCREENINGS:

Stuart’s Opera House Show B: “The Rural Life”
Includes Farming for the Future, a compellingly beautiful portrait of what motivates several Athens County farmers to use sustainable organic practices; and A Forest Returns: The Success Story of Ohio’s Only National Forest, in which 93 year-old Ora Anderson recalls the conditions of Depression- era Ohio and the New Deal programs that established the Wavne National Forest.

Show #l: “American Iconographies”
Includes Wartime, USA, a short piece exploring comfortable American’s quiet resignation to an ongoing and unpopular war; and Lost in Gainesville, in which 3 American immigrants retrace their journey from Mexico to the heart of the American South while recounting their stories of growing up amid economic depression and racism.

Show #12: “African American Histories”
Includes At the Wall, a documentary of the black activists who battled Frank Rizzo’s racist Philadelphia police force during an important but often over-looked chapter in the American Civil Rights Movement.

Show #14: “Politics and Poetry”
Includes Sebrenica, a story about a massacre inn Bosnia told through the artwork of a young girl; an untitled interview with Lynne Stewart, a longtime activist attorney recently
convicted of aiding terrorists; and Citizen Hauser, the documentary of a laid-off steel worker struggling to preserve Cleveland’s last stretch of undeveloped shoreline.

Show #17: “Politics and Action”
Includes Tasers and Lies, activist filmmaker and OU alum Roger Hill’s documentary on military recruitment and activist repression; andVenezuela: Revolution in Progress, a documentary that provides an easily accessible introduction to Venezuelan politics during the current presidency of avowed socialist Hugo Chavez.

Show #22: “Prison Stories”
Includes In Loving Memory, the stories of maximum-security inmates in the US told exclusively in their own words; and Up the Ridge: A US Prison Story, a documentary on the prison industry’s practice of moving hundreds of thousands of inner city minority offenders to distant rural outposts.

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