A terrific review and analysis of two recent Kino Lorber releases PUTIN'S KISS and KHODORKOVSKY in this month's Atlantic.
As depicted in Putin's Kiss, Khodorkovsky, and even in the more equivocal Target, the most damaging way that a state can be tyrannical is by breeding an attitude of cynicism and apathy toward democratic freedom—in essence, censoring the desire for freedom in the mind before it can emerge in the real world. Surely this is the real tragedy of authoritarianism, and it remains to be seen whether the Russian people will be able to overcome it as they choose their new leader in Russia's upcoming elections.
Daring Expose Chronicles Gradual Disillusionment of Pretty Putin Protégé.
Born outside Moscow in 1989, Masha Drakova is a member of the first generation raised in Russia in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the impressionable age of 15, she was recruited to join Nashi, a political youth group created by the Kremlin to shape the country's future leaders via a subtle form of mass mind control.
Consequently, young Masha soon took to heart the benign party line about the organization's primarily being pro-democracy and anti-fascist. And within a year, the poised and pretty patriot was promoted to a top position as the student movement's spokesperson.
Rising through the ranks, Masha was richly rewarded during her tenure as a reliable mouthpiece, enjoying her own television talk show, as well as such perks as a car, an apartment and a college education, all paid for by the government. She also became famous as the girl who had kissed Vladimir Putin after receiving a widely-publicized peck on the cheek while accepting a medal from him.
Totally taken with the President, Masha stated openly that he was the role model for the type of man she'd like to marry someday, citing such virtues as his strength, charisma and intelligence. But in swallowing the proverbial Kool-Aid hook, line and sinker, she was blinded to the secret flaws in her idol's persona.
Truth be told, Putin was a tyrant who was simultaneously discouraging dissent with the help of an army of henchmen comprised of Nashi zealots. His loyal goon squads were willing to advance the power-hungry President's agenda by any means necessary, whether that called for burning books, breaking a journalist's jaw, or by pooping on a political opponent's automobile.
Putin's Kiss is a daring documentary which carefully chronicles all of the above, along with Masha's gradual disillusionment with Putin and his repressive regime. The movie marks the marvelous directorial debut of Sweden's Lise Birk Pederson, an intrepid first-time filmmaker who ostensibly put herself and her brave subjects at considerable risk to shoot such an incendiary story on location in such an unforgiving police state.
An eye opening expose' not to missed, which reveals a "New Russia" that looks a lot like the "Old Russia."
Excellent (4 stars)
In Russian with subtitles.
Running time: 85 minutes
Distributor: Kino Lorber Films
The documentary Kimjongilia is a total experience of North Korea that layers music, animated sequences, interpretive dance, and, most strikingly, harrowing interviews with escapees of the totalitarian state, interwoven with hallucinatory propaganda footage. Filmmaker N.C. Heiken creates a consistent and incredibly unusual sensibility in her film of pain and propaganda. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans fill stadiums in praise of their leader with gymnastics, fireworks and synchronized marching formations – the footage may remind viewers of Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will. This footage is edited together with the voices and faces of victims behind the veneer who reveal a human loneliness and despair that is rarely communicated in life.
This film is a visceral reminder of the devastating injustices practiced around the world today. This is a country where a “crime” committed by one person leads to the life-long imprisonment of three generations of his or her family, and where children are forced to watch their family members publicly executed. In one particularly memorable testimonial, a man recounts how he escaped the prison camp at the expense of his friend’s life: the friend was electrocuted as he passed through the barbed wire fence, allowing him to escape unscathed.
Awarded the EST FILM 2010 from One World Brussels, in co-op with Human Rights Democracy Network, Kimjongilia examines the mass illusion possible under totalitarianism and the human rights abuses required to maintain that illusion.
Lagos, Nigeria, a city of 15 million people, is the capital of contemporary African cinema. Since 1992, with the popular success of Living in Bondage, a film in which the Nigerian elite use black magic to maintain their social and financial prestige, the Nigerian movie industry (christened Nollywood) has become the third largest in the world after Hollywood and Bollywood. In this exploding market for locally made home videos, Nigerian filmmakers cast, shoot and sell films at lightning speed in the heart of Lagos. A truly populist cinema, Nollywood produces up to 2,000 films a year, reaching African audiences throughout the continent and the world.
Nollywood Babylon demonstrates the power of cinema to speak to and create a social identity. According to filmmakers Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal, the themes of these films "reflect the collision of traditional mysticism and modern culture." The films temper frightening, ecstatic visions of cult practices and witchcraft with redemptive Christian endings that seek to reconcile their deep contradictions. Despite this sensationalism, Addelman and Mallal show how these films deal with the defining conflicts of African life, and hone in on the profound, universal human struggles contained within the films’ melodramatic excess. Addelman and Mallal take the viewer into the complex world of Nigerian cinema in this captivating documentary, and leave us with the feeling that we are on the brink of a truly immortal Nigerian cinema. The Great African Film will come out of this movement.
I think festivals should always pray for chilly, rainy weather because there is a direct correlation between screening attendance and sunshine, i.e. the better the weather the fewer movie goers, which might explain this years long lines and inability to get in to watch some films last week in Austin. With all the rain, I felt like I had never left the East Coast.
Much has been said about the films in Austin and how it is a growing festival with a unique angle on the intersection between film distribution and technology. Panel after panel discussed why some digital ventures don’t deliver, the future of independent film distribution, and how to succeed in making a video go viral (without kittens). We are entering what is probably phase 2 of DIY film distribution, where ventures such as BSide proved that there were audiences to be reached using online outreach to get niche audiences to screenings, but failed to generate sufficient revenue for their investors. We have the Auteurs who offer a proprietary VOD platform but can’t get eyeballs, suggesting that technology and content alone are not sufficient. And now YouTube has announced that it will offer Pay Per View to independent filmmakers. Is it the solution filmmakers have been waiting for or is the habit of free to deeply entrenched in the YouTube culture to translate to Pay Per View? I guess we’ll see… one of our upcoming Knitting Factory Entertainment releases is a YouTube Pay Per View feature and so far it is going well at more than 166,000 views.
On the film side, I had my favorites. I think the highlight was the after-party for CANAL STREET MADAM. Talking to the (in)famous Jeanette was a pleasure and only proved my hunch that the lady might be a whore, but she isn’t anybody’s victim. Another viewer over at Indiewire suggested that she is simply ‘libidouness,’ but that is like saying that most people go to work in the morning not for the money but for the pleasure. Perhaps that is true for the guys over at IndieWire, but tell that to your average joe and he’ll probably spit in your coffee. Most of us, alas, must work for our bread and Jeanette earned hers the old fashioned way. Nothing wrong with that – like she said, if it is between two consenting adults it shouldn’t be illegal.
The EyeSteel Films crew was out in full force. Omar Majeed, the filmmaker behind TAQWACORE: THE BIRTH OF MUSLIM PUNK will be keeping fans new and old abreast of all things Taqwacore related at taqwacore.myfilmblog.com. Sign-up and stay tuned for updates regarding festival screenings, the upcoming NYC premier and theatrical dates throughout the summer.
REEL INJUN, which will open theatrically at MoMA in June, and THE SOUND OF INSECTS also garnered attention. Stay posted for further updates.
Nice to see that Last Train Home from EyeSteelFilm, the same production company that produced Up The Yangtze and the documentary Taqwacore, is getting a phenomenal reception. Ella Taylor from NPR writes:
And the Chinese documentary Last Train Home ended up as my favorite film of the festival, bar none. Director Lixin Fan followed a migrant-worker couple trying to get tickets for trips home to their village to see the kids they left with their grandmother years ago in order to earn a meager living. Watching this devastating portrait of a family trying to glue itself back together, you wonder how China, on its way to becoming the world's richest nation, will avoid civil war if it doesn't also attend to the needs of the millions of poverty-stricken families like this one.
It won the IDFA Best Documenatary Award and is apparently poised to storm America.
PopMatters took a look at two latest aquisitions by Alive Mind Media that stresses their commitment to releasing “specialty documentary programming in the areas of enlightened conscious: "So Help Me God" directed by Simon Cole and "Meditate and Destroy" directed by Sarah Fisher:
Meditate and Destroy focuses on former bad boy turned author and Buddhist teacher Noah Levine. As much a teaching tool as a mini-biography, we learn of the drug addled and crime filled life that transformed this self-proclaimed punk into a force for good in the realm of spiritual guidance. While Levine’s story has much more dramatic punch, it is frequently compromised by director Sarah Fisher’s desire to hard sell the man’s ‘ministry’ and teachings. Cole, on the other hand creates a Religulous like experience in which questions of dogmatic inconsistency provide fodder for humor - and occasional insight.
Indeed, So…Help Me God accomplishes the basic tenets of its set-up. Cole comes across as good natured and genuine, never openly confronting his hosts like HBO pundit Bill Maher did during his documentary. Certainly he lets the subjects spewing hate hang themselves with obvious clarity (a family of rabid homosexual hating zealots are exposed for the robot minding morons they are), but he also wants to understand and experience the substance of religious devotion. After speaking with all manner of types - Muslim, Jew, Hindi, Buddhist, etc. - he decides to confront his quandary head on. Setting up a tent in the desert, he explores the reasons and the need for faith. His last act revelation falls in line with the rest of So…Help Me God‘s direct designs.
U.S. press missed a lot in Gaza according to the article in SF Chronicle:
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visits Israel and the West Bank this week, giving the U.S. media another opportunity to tell the story of the 22-day war between the Israeli military and Hamas in Gaza in December and January. To San Francisco-based Middle Eastern media watcher Jalal Ghazi and other analysts, few Americans saw as many of the devastating images from Gaza as the rest of the world did.
Ghazi did. He is an associate producer for "Mosaic," a Peabody Award-winning daily aggregation of Middle Eastern news programs produced by San Francisco's Link TV. "Mosaic" culls broadcasts from 36 stations in 22 countries in the region.
The Prisoner, Or How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair is a quiet film. By this I mean that there is no hyperbole, no drama, just one man's story about how he was falsely arrested and imprisoned for nearly nine moths by the American forces in Iraq. His story is a simple one, detailing faulty intelligence, a prison system based on an assumption of guilt, and finally his anti climatic release, accompanied by a "Sorry" from an American general.
It reminds me of Kafka's The Trial, even down to the epithet of "dog," that an American guard repeatedly hurled at Yunis during his interrogations. Fortunately, Yunis was released rather than executed "Like a dog!" and he tells his story to Michael Tucker, who filmed Yunis's initial arrest in 2003 while shooting Gunner Palace.
Unlike Josef K. in The Trial, Yunis is never brought before a judge, nor does he have a lawyer, since apparently he has no rights. What good is a lawyer when you are arrested, presumed guilty just because you are arrested, and there is no judge or jury?
Yunis is arrested, interrogated, and finally released. During his stay at Ganci 6, a camp next to Abu Ghraib, for prisoners deemed of "low or no importance," there is no hope of justice, just survival-the odds, however, are not good as the food is rancid, there is disease, and the resistance frequently hurls grenades into the camps, which then erupt into riots and shooting by the U.S. guards in a futile attempt to keep order and calm. Yunis is by training a journalist and was imprisoned as well under Saddam Hussein. In both instances of imprisonment, there is no trial, and upon release, he simply returns to his family and civilian life.
Abu Ghraib is internationally synonymous with humiliation and abuse: both forms of torture, one psychological, the other physical. As I watched Yunis speaking, I was struck by his dignity in the face of degradation. Again I was reminded of Kafka's novel and Herr K's final lament, "Like a dog!" Imprisonment without due process-without the assumption of innocence-robs people of their dignity and humanity. Perhaps dignity is one emotion that separates us from animals, or is it our elaborate legal system?
Yunis maintains his dignity throughout the telling of his story. As he speaks you see that for him his dignity is more important than refuting the false accusation, which amounts to nothing less than plotting to kill Tony Blair. At the end of the film he quips that he and Tony Blair are forever inseparable, connected like twins separated at birth by history: one a powerful man, the other an anonymous man swept up by events, quite literally a mere number in the machinery of U.S. policy in Iraq and our war on terrorism.
I'd like to think that Yunis's story is unique, an anomaly, an aberration; that like Herr K's trial, it was all a mistake. Yet the film suggests that all of Camp Ganci was populated by other Yunises: even his two brothers were yanked from their homes by American soldiers in the middle of the night, after a wedding party, loaded onto trucks, and sent for interrogation. When they did not supply confessions of their guilt or corroborate the evidence gathered by INTEL, off they went to Abu Ghraib or Ganci, which at one point had a population of 6,000.
No, Yunis was not unique. He most certainly was not alone. Due to his training as a journalist, he could speak English, a skill that he put to good use at the camp, working with the guards, and one in particular, Specialist Thompson, to keep the peace. If it were not for Thompson, the veracity of Yunis's story would be questionable as there is no official record of prisoner number 151186 in detainment.
Thompson's testimony lends the film its powerful objectivity. Specialist Thompson, a new recruit and former real estate agent, finds himself at Ganci. He describes the deplorable conditions and the efforts that he made with Yunis's help to ease the physical discomfort and keep calm in block 6 among rampant fear of attack, hunger, and sickness due to malnutrition and lack of sanitation. Thompson's testimony regarding Yunis's imprisonment and his role in helping to keep calm and order among the prisoners paint a picture of people in dire circumstances and tell how two individuals managed to penetrate the metal fence between guard and prisoner for their common good.
Yunis's story is one of quiet victory: His freedom is restored, and he receives an apology from the American general. The presence, however, of Thompson and his willingness to talk on camera about his experience at Ganci remind one that while bureaucracy under the guise of any ideology can be inhumane, and that guards can and do abuse prisoners, there are individuals who do not succumb to the lure of power because they have a gun or the anonymity of a uniform.
Tucker and Epperlein's film is powerful because it does not exaggerate, seek to accuse, or manipulate the viewer. Yunis tells his story in a stoic voice, occasionally pausing as he seeks to find the best English word, at one point even resorting to Arabic. He does not cry but he smokes continually. His voice is even and soft.
As an American viewer listening to his story, I experienced the emotional complements of Yunis's dignity: shame, guilt, and embarrassment. He never criticizes America or the American people, being very precise to distinguish between the army as an instrument of the American government's policy in his country and America as an ideal and its citizens.
Yunis is generous, even funny when he quips that the Americans have mistaken him for Rambo, given what he is accused of plotting. The comment is even funnier as he is physically slight, with glasses and a goatee speckled with gray. He is clearly no gun toting terrorist or assassin, just a journalist, a son, a brother.
This article originally appeared in The WIld River Review.
Peter Kaufman in Indiewire writes that DIY distribution will be a viable option for independent producers in 2014. My question is: Why wait for the year 2014? The scenario described is here now... but with an unexpected twist.
I agree that the days of traditional distribution are coming to an end as
distributors face decreasing box ticket returns from theatrical releases and
DVD sales and the promised pot of gold at the end of the proverbial digital
rainbow remains a mirage. Sundance, and top tier and some emerging niche
festivals, will remain key to generating recognition for independent films.
But the days of large advances from an independent distributor who relies on
DVD sales to recoup the theatrical cost from big box names, brick and mortar
outlets and online sales are waning. DIY distribution is already here and
is being successfully implemented… by a distributor.
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