There was good and bad fruit at the Big Apple’s film festival.
New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, launched in the wake of 9/11 and now in its third year, attracted a good slate of films and talent this time around. With a range of titles from Latin America, Asia and Africa, the fashionable European prejudice of dumb Americana seemed a long way away.
But perhaps this was part of the problem, since it struck me that many of the films and documentaries were selected for their ‘worthiness’. One case of this was Memoria del Saqueo (A Social Genocide) by director Fernando Solanas and co-shot with director of photography Alejandro Fernández Mouján, a mammoth documentary that explores Argentina’s economic and political experience over the past 30 years, with added historical flashbacks.
The film is divided into sections, a bit like an abbreviated economic history lesson, and becoming increasingly dull as it goes on. We are presented with titles such as ‘1. Debt’, tracing the history of Barings Bank’s loans in 1857 and role of British colonials, through OPEC and the Vietnam War up to Reagan and Thatcher’s liberal economic policy. Then, ‘2. Treason’, showing how former Argentine president Raul Alfonsin’s populist stance was dispensed with for the realpolitik of running the country. This continues through privatisation, oil, mafiocracy and ultimately to the conclusion ‘9. Social Genocide’.
Despite the brilliant musical score (by Gerardo Gandini) and the shocking images of poverty, we soon become acclimatised and start hoping the director gets to the end. While some important points are highlighted, such as the relationship between the Western institutions and Latin America throughout the 1980s and 90s, and the plundering of the state’s resources, the film too readily draws on a droll anti-globalisation perspective.
Solanas promises a follow-on to this one, entitled ¡Cantos de una Argentina Latente! (Songs of an Argentina Still Alive). Solanas is clearly a brave individual (he has been shot at before, supposedly by people in power whom he had criticised), and he is emphatic about his subject matter. One hopes that the next film may present somewhat more original ideas to accompany his tight story-telling.
We also saw tight story-telling in UncuT by Gionata Zarantonello, and the director achieves this with only one uninterrupted shot…of a penis. Usurping the conventional obsession with the female anatomy, Zarantonello weaves a fascinating story about Ciccio, the bedridden character of which we only ever see his male member, and his attempts to bed all the women who come and visit him. With a broken pelvis, police interrogations and his girlfriend dead, this boyo has a whole heap of problems. The clever dialogue and commentary, with twists and humour, made this a winner for all 78 minutes.
I finished the festival with Finding Eleazar, a charming documentary by director Paula Heil Fisher, which tells the story of the charismatic tenor Neil Shicoff’s journey to revive Jacques Halevy’s 1835 opera La Juive that was banned by the Nazis. There is a lot of humour from this dedicated artist, who is fascinated by the opera that was set in Rome in the fifteenth century. I was also impressed by Shicoff’s argument that he didn’t want the film to be staged in Nazi Germany to ‘knock the Germans on their ass’ (again). But then came the dreaded words…we wanted to make it contemporary. So the film is set in Ramallah. While Shicoff says ‘the last thing the audience needs is for me to lecture about the suffering of the Jews’, he ends up lecturing us about the suffering of the Palestinians.
Unfortunately, the film’s final montage reiterated a prevailing theme: that life is full of hatred and crazed violent acts by intolerant people. In the Q&A after the film, we were reminded of Jean-Paul Sartre’s quote: ‘It is enough that one man hate another for hate to gain a little bit over mankind.’ According to this view, all would be resolved if we could all be a little more tolerant. It’s totally intolerable.
Still, going to an after-screening event, thinking about opera and New York, I bumped into James Gandolfini, larger than life in every way, then apologised and continued on my way. There’s opera and there’s opera, but there can only ever be one Tony Soprano. New York, don’t ya just love it.
Alan Miller is the co-founder of London’s Old Truman Brewery Media Centre as well as a film producer and director (see his recent documentary Eroica!).
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