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25th Seattle International
Film Festival (1999)

by Carrie Gorringe

Truth ...
Posted 18 June 1999

The Seattle International Film Festival, as a matter of policy, groups its yearly offering of documentaries under what can only be described as the mantra, "Truth With An Attitude," and the documentary section this year, as usual, was one of the festival’s strongest offerings. Here, then is a cross-section of the "attitudes" on display at this year’s SIFF:

Keepers of the Frame (USA, 1999, 70 minutes)

On occasion, I’ve been asked, "Why is your site called Nitrate Online?" The reason boils down to a paragraph I read as an undergraduate student in film studies. In that paragraph, it is explained that nitrate film, the only material used in commercial filmmaking from 1894 to 1951, is "a first cousin to gunpowder." Chemically unstable, it decays from the moment of its creation, becoming more potentially explosive in the process. As it decays, nitrate film can give off fumes that encourage other films to decay. As a result of studio indifference to the historical treasures under their purview (until the 1980s, when video sales made studio heads take notice of the profits rotting away in their vaults), nearly ninety percent of the pre-1951 output, including newsreels and short subjects, are gone forever. That’s why this site is called Nitrate Online: as a reminder that film is the most valuable and yet most fragile of the recording media.

Keepers of the FrameKeepers of the Frame is the riveting and heartbreaking account of the valiant souls who struggle against time and a lack of money (ten years ago it cost anywhere between five and ten thousand dollars to preserve an amount of tri-strip Technicolor equal to five minutes of screen time -- you do the math in the case of a two-hour feature) to save whatever film they can from its own built-in time bomb. Not even so-called "safety" film (non-nitrate) has been an invulnerable alternative; it is prone to shrinkage, and the post-1951 switch to tri-pak Eastmancolor has resulted in colors that fade to pastels within twenty years of a film’s initial release.

There is another important point made: despite the digital age now prevailing, the preservation of the master negative should remain on a good old analog format: film itself; electronic media, no matter how advanced the processes available, simply don’t have the staying power or ease of transfer that celluloid provides. Magnetic tape loses its images after fifteen or so years and computer images may require complicated programs to "translate" data from one system to a more modern system. Film restorers can take any film stock, regardless of its gauge and the position of its sprocket holes and, providing sufficient funds are in place and the stock is of reasonable quality, create a new copy with relatively less trouble. Unfortunately, the audience never gets to actually see any real restoration efforts, particularly in regard to film that is severely damaged. Granted, it’s not a process that excites an audience in large doses, but how else do you effectively convey the problem at hand without displaying the technique?

No better case is made for the preservation of films than the one made by the late Roddy MacDowell, one of the commentators in Keepers of the Frame, The fact that he now speaks from the grave makes his plea for film preservation all that more relevant. Naturally, the filmmakers intelligently concentrate upon the pressing issue at hand and carefully avoid the political pitfalls of film restoration that, as the cognoscenti are well aware, yawn just outside the frames; any attempt to capture the clashing of egos, greed and simple purblind stupidity that often works against this well-intentioned aim probably would have resulted in no film whatsoever and, in the end, no one’s ego is more important than saving our cinematic heritage.

Shadow Boxers (USA, 1999, 72 minutes)

In Shadow Boxers, a documentary which generated a lot of local buzz (but a theatre only two-thirds full at its final screening), we encounter Dutch boxer Lucia Rijker in her quest to win boxing titles (she now holds two: the Women’s International Boxing Federation’s junior-welterweight and the Women’s International Boxing Organization’s super-lightweight, with a 13-0 record and twelve knockouts). In case you weren’t aware of this fact, women now have the right to pound themselves silly in the pursuit of big-time money, or at least that’s the initial premise set up by the filmmaker. Gradually, however, we get to the main event, and that is Rijker herself. Shadow BoxersShe is a woman who inspires boundless admiration, even among the socially-unreconstructed males whose opinions about the "proper" roles of women in society still dominate the boxing establishment, primarily because she is the equal of any man in her division; as the former trainer for de la Hoya and Holyfield stated to a Rolling Stone reporter (in the magazine’s June 10 edition), "It’s just unfortunate that she’s not able to fight like a man, because she would be the Sugar Ray Leonard of boxing right now in that weight division." Indeed, Rijker’s credo, delivered with a straight face, is one of gratitude for her opponents, since they underscore her weaknesses and force her to focus on her strengths. This is an uberfrau that Nietzsche would have loved, if Nietzsche had had any regard for women. The film seeks to generate discussions of the appropriateness of women competing on men’s turf and on men’s terms, though it does so very through implication rather than an outright declaration. Anyone who doesn’t appreciate the prospect of watching women pounding each other senseless will find very little to like about the first half hour of Shadow Boxers; the images are very disturbing, but then so is the question they pose.

The Man Who Drove With Mandela
    (Britian/USA/Belgium/Netherlands, 1998, 82 minutes)

At the point at which South Africa has survived its second election open to all races, it is instructive to go back to the bad old, pre-Mandela, world. The Man Who Drove With Mandela is the story of Cecil Williams, a private-school teacher turned illustrious theater director who moonlighted as a Communist, an anti-Apartheid activist, and, oh yes, a fairly openly gay man during the 1940s and 1950s -- not an era in South Africa noted for its tolerance toward any one of these "affiliations" (for want of a better expression), never mind all three. Admittedly, the film’s content has less to do with Nelson Mandela than with the social and political milieu that became the recruiting and training ground for organized resistance. The title refers to the incident that placed Mandela behind bars for twenty-eight years. Mandela, having left South Africa covertly in 1962 to go on a fund-raising tour, wanted to return, and the idea was formed that Mandela and Williams would meet at a border where Mandela would then drive the director’s car back to Johannesburg, under the protection of a chauffeur’s cap. Nothing more than a careless act on the director’s part (he was driving the car, with Mandela sitting in the front seat) made the apprehension of Mandela on 5 August possible. Williams was freed from jail after an overnight stay, but Mandela was not so lucky; sentenced to a life term for treason, he was released in 1990.

Although the film never really states the obvious conclusion to be drawn from this incident, it’s quite apparent that, rather than seeing this slip-up as a singular transgression, this was one act of recklessness among many in his life. The Man Who Drove MandelaFrom the diary excerpts, as personified in full-bodied detail by Corin Redgrave (himself of the leftist political persuasion), one can’t help but see Williams, from time to time, as something of a dilettante in political matters, arrogantly presuming that he was immune from the wiles of society courtesy of his prestige as a famous theatre director. In fact, had his heart not sincerely been in the right place vis-à-vis the racist regime against which he was fighting, it would have been easy to dismiss him as yet another Pink Palazzo Socialist, dabbling in politics as a hobby without a willingness to go to the barricades for his beliefs. And yet, there is a nagging sense that his capitulation at the hands of the regime (he obeyed every directive given during his brief arrest and then fled the country, to die an exile in 1979), was less the behavior of a coward than of a man who didn’t quite comprehend how high the personal cost of defying the Apartheid regime could be. In any case, Mandela was able to forgive Williams his mistake (the current South African constitution, drafted under Mandela’s mandate, is the only one in the world that codifies -- and rightfully so -- the basic civil rights of gays and lesbians, so Williams must have acted as an exemplary role model), and, as the "wronged" party, Mandela’s attitude toward the aftermath of that ill-fated cross-country drive is the only relevant one.

The issue for filmmaker Greta Schiller, of course, is of one outsider helping another, because, it is implied, only they shared sufficient common cause to do so (and she’s covered this historical theme before, in the 1995 documentary, Paris Was a Woman and, more famously in Before Stonewall, made in 1985) . The Man Who Drove With Mandela is also, not so tacitly, a plea for tolerance toward gays and lesbians; after all, if a gay man could risk his life and livelihood to fight for an end to Apartheid, then surely gay and lesbian people deserve to have their own "apartheid" ended in places other than South Africa; the argument contained herein could be called "innocence by association"(and the very fact that Schiller has to couch the argument for gay rights within a general movement for civil rights is both revealing and depressing simultaneously), and it is accompanied by a wealth of material of all sorts (some of it relevant in only the narrowest of political senses, such as 5 August being the date on which Marilyn Monroe died) to buttress its case and to present the social and moral complexities of the historical contexts through which the two men and their compatriots made their way. This is a remarkable document, somewhat tendentious around the edges, but a necessary reference point for anyone hoping to make sense of the early struggle for the conscience of South Africa.

The Living Museum (USA, 1999, 80 minutes)

The Living Museum, the newest film from this year’s Oscar winner Jessica Yu, (for Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien) explores that old artistic cliché concerning the relationship between artists and insanity. At New York’s Creedmoor Institution, there reside artists who have long since forgotten when they last passed that boundary on the way to madness. The Living MuseumThe ailments of the artists run the gamut from depression to schizophrenia. Much of their work challenges the perception that mental dysfunction is the equivalent of a complete mental incapacitation; without sounding patronizing, the art stands on its own merits and gives no indication of the artists’ mental states (put another way, many of the so-called "artists" who aren’t currently committed would have good reason to worry about their financial futures were these talented individuals able to function autonomously). The audience is left in the disquieting position of admiring the artistic genius (not a term of exaggeration here) while having to admit that all of these artists will probably be committed for life. Moreover, there is the more disturbing issue of knowing that these are the "lucky" ones who are subjected to incarceration; their higher needs are being fulfilled, while the basic needs of so many mentally ill are not. The film thus places the viewer in an awkward position: whether to applaud the merits of the program, or condemn it as mere window-dressing over a larger, more intractable problem. More serious is the charge that the film fails to recognize its own intrinsic contradiction, content only to unveil yet another artistic miracle in a state of logical myopia.

While it is difficult to find fault with Yu’s beautifully-photographed and well-meaning account of the program run by one Dr. Martin on the face of things, one could be forgiven for concluding that she has been somewhat bedazzled by the artistic brilliance placed before her camera and by the generous soul of the Museum’s chief, a Hungarian émigré named Martin, and has forgotten the important aspect of documentary filmmaking, namely, the need to ask some hard questions pertaining to the general accessibility of the program, its structure, the costs involved (is the program self-sustaining, or does it require infusions from general revenues?). Given the incapacitating nature of mental illness, and the overwhelming need for services, one is obliged to ask the old qui bono question: who are the real beneficiaries of this expose?

Rabbit In the Moon (USA, 1999, 85 minutes) 

Rabbit In the Moon explores the disgraceful spectacle of Japanese-American internment during World War II and demolishes many of the myths about the internees, thereby restoring the human dimension to a group of people usually portrayed, if at all, as tragic, almost passive victims. The typical, at times almost surrealistic, outrages that one might expect to occur in the midst of persecution are recounted here (among them a Japanese-American woman, needing several teeth filled and under threat of violating a curfew, is forced to have the teeth pulled rather than repaired so that she won’t be arrested; opportunistic whites who offer a Japanese-American storekeeper only $1500.00 for a store and stock worth at least twenty times that amount), and the victims’s sufferings are on full display. But the filmmaker, Emiko Onori, reveals quite quickly her personal perspective on the subject: as a former internee whose life was altered beyond conception by the experience (she was interned with her family at eighteen months of age and released when four years old, losing her mother to bleeding ulcers in the process), she details how the Japanese-American experience was altered irrevocably from its pre-war state, most often, in her opinion, for the worse.

In addition to losing property, and their communities, Japanese-Americans experienced the magnification of divisions already present in the community, but which were kept in check, as it were, by the need for solidarity. The Rabbit in the MoonAs if white racism and internment weren’t sufficient insults to their right to exist peacefully and their loyalty, the Japanese-Americans had their own "quislings" in their midst, in the form of the Japanese-American Citizens League. The JACL was the only "official" Japanese-American organization recognized by the US government (because it was the only one left in place by said government) but refused to include as members any member of the community who had been born in Japan, effectively pitting one part of the community against the rest.. Some of the JACL members angered the other internees to the point of murder. Some of the teenagers, taking advantage of the changed circumstances, defied their elders, joined gangs and otherwise indulged in the socially deviant behavior one might have expected would result from too many hormones and too much time on one’s hands. Once a booming post-war economy and social mobility were added to the movement away from traditional mores in the post-war era, Japanese-Americans, on the whole, experienced a new way of life, but often at the cost of tradition.

Nothing could have been the same, and, as this detail-packed film illustrates, it never really had been; the effect of internment was to underscore deep divisions already in place in the pre-war era. Certainly, in retrospect, Onori understands on an intellectual level that the idyllic life that her family was living may not have been all that idyllic and was itself living on borrowed time; the emotional aspect is the most painful and difficult one to reconcile. In a most poignant moment, she explains why she refused to have children, despite her most apparent wish to do so: her children would always be American, but "trapped in the body of an unwanted alien race." Yet, her own pain and self-loathing do not prevent her from exposing those in her community who collaborated with whites to make the internment as trouble-free (for the whites) as possible. Assigning blame to certain members of the Japanese-American community, however, should not be construed as absolving whites of their share of the responsibility for the anti-Japanese hysteria of the time, or for the actions such hysteria attempted to justify. Omori is not rewriting history as much as she is writing it for the first time; acknowledging the divisions in the pre-war Japanese-American society is not an act of disloyalty, but rather underscores the uniqueness of every Japanese-American, something the racist propaganda of the pre-war era didn’t want to do.

The Lifestyle (USA, 1999, 79 minutes)

At the risk of antagonizing Catherine MacKinnon, The Lifestyle is the most persuasive argument for pornography in all of its unrealistic depictions of sexuality; watching forty and fifty-somethings participating in group sex (in between trips to the buffet table for jellied salad) is a truly bizarre and extremely non-erotic experience. The LifestyleIt seems as if the filmmaker searched under every rock in the country to find the most narrow-minded individuals possible as a means of fulfilling some sort of preconceived notions about what type of people do this sort of thing (in an inadvertent irony, Littleton, Colorado is one of the locations depicted in the film). If these people are swingers, they qualify only by virtue (or lack thereof) of their wife-swapping activities. In all other aspects of their lives, the members of these groups could best be described as politically conservative, if the rules by which they conduct their "parties" are any indication: married couples only and no male-on-male sexual activity (though female-on-female is quite acceptable). These people are easy targets at whom accusations of hypocrisy can be thrown with impunity. One could be forgiven for making the obvious connection between wife-swapping among this select group of conservatives and the urge to discredit every aspect of what is often snidely referred to as "middle-class morality". Certainly, the audience in attendance was more than eager to draw this conclusion, cheering on one of the more "liberal" swingers who declared that he had lived an exemplary life for fifty-odd years and now it was his time to party. One wonders how many of those cheering had heard only the latter half of that bargain…

Prior to the screening, director Mark Schisgall informed the audience that no pay-per-porn channel would carry the film because of its explicit nature. After watching the film, it’s obvious, as stated above, that the real issue is the film’s power to de-eroticize graphic depictions of sexual activity. Put another way, people who pay for the Spice channel pay to see breast implants, hard bodies and flawless sexual choreography, not stretch marks, wrinkles and other human imperfections; they’re not paying to watch themselves. It’s a pity that the outlets for this film are nearly non-existent, because this directorial debut is truly an audacious one -- challenging the audience to consider -- or reconsider -- the various definitions that its members hold concerning all things sexual and marital.

Hitchcock, Selznick and the End of Hollywood
    (USA, 1998, 86 minutes)

Hitchcock, Selznick and the End of Hollywood, directed by Michael Epstein (who also compellingly covered The Battle Over Citizen Kane in 1996), is a concise-yet thorough exploration of two legendary figures whose paths were conjoined at the point in American cinematic history where the monopolistic studio system was about to give way to the world of the independent producer. Hitchcock, SelznickThe documentary also reveals less about how their seven-year collaboration (Hitchcock was signed by Selznick in 1939) resulted in some cinematic classics (Rebecca and Notorious) and some duds (The Paradine Case) and much more about how the intersection of personal style and historical circumstance played a role in their respective rise and fall in Hollywood. Selznick was the scion of a wealthy family, a philandering spendthrift and compulsive gambler, possessed by an equally erratic working schedule and his success with Gone With the Wind (he feared that he would never be able to replicate it, dreading that his obituary would start out describing him as the producer of GWTW, regardless of whatever else he did). Hitchcock was, of course, the quiet, methodical, monogamous, disciplined son of an English greengrocer with a wickedly droll, self-effacing sense of humor. Who survived best the shift from a sheltered economic world to one built on the principles of competition would be self-evident, even if the outcome already wasn’t well-known. It is Epstein’s task to make the journey in between these two points worthwhile, and he does it with a light but persistent touch. With any luck, this documentary, as with Kane before it, is also destined for a PBS showing. And, yes, Selznick’s fears concerning his obit were legitimate…

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