Out of Balance (2007)

the world is going to hell. you can stop reading now – you already know it.

“out of balance: exxonmobil’s impact on climate change” provides 60 minutes of bad news, none of it new news. unless, that is, you yourself don’t believe that the world is going to hell or are somehow not aware otherwise of the fact that it is, in which case you’re wasting your time reading this and you won’t be sitting through this movie either, unless you’re too drunk or lazy to change the channel, in which case it will have no more effect on you than the shopping channel does, or, no, less.

why was this film made? perhaps the director received a grant. also, existentially speaking, before the end of the world we’ll want a library of cassandra-like warnings like this on dvd, which everyone ignores until it’s too late (now, in other words). also, every rhinoceros needs an ox-pecker on its back.

who was this film made for? in it, a crowd of sweet-tempered rational folks explain why we’re up to our ears in shit. every grammar school kid already knows this, in the same way that kids in the fifties were prepared, if they ever stopped to think about it, for that bright flash of light that might happen any goddamn minute, reducing kid, family, and elementary school to ashes that would glow green in the moonlight.

we all know we’re going to die but we don’t stop living. mostly we just don’t talk about it. some of us go to church or temple or the mosque once a week to be reminded of the fact, and to be reminded also perhaps that the world is, yes, going to hell, and that we also, not just the government and big business and all those other countries out there, are to blame, but holy day services don’t take an inordinate amount of time and can be tuned out in the same way that movies like this one can. granted, every once in a while the notion of death and personal extinction might hit you, perhaps in the dead of night, but hang on and it passes. the world might be going to hell but it probably won’t get there today. i myself don’t bother listening to the preacher telling me that i’m going to die and i don’t pay any more attention than i have to to the world’s downward environmental spiral either. i haven’t seen the al gore film or any other such documentary and i wouldn’t have seen this one if not for being a spout maven. i look away from pictures of oil-soaked birds. the planet is screwed and i could stop consuming but that wouldn’t help much, so i’m ignoring the whole thing as much as possible.

and by the way, out of balance? what’s out of balance? if you piss in a muddy puddle with an oil slick on it, is the puddle now out of balance?

exxon mobil is the largest corporation in the world. a corporation isn’t a person, it’s a thing. in this case it is a huge, godless, relentless, remorseless, unstoppable, soulless, destructive thing that along with your own piddly little contribution will destroy the planet, unless the nukes start flying or a manufactured mutant pathogen kills us all before it can.

the film introduces us to a former exxon ceo who received 400 million when he retired. lee raymond, a big fat ugly pretentious guy you want to paste in the face the second you see him, him blathering some patent nonsense that amounts to his declaration that whatever you happen to think, he and his kind rule the earth, or what’s left of it. corporations might be things, but they’re infested things, crawling with fat ugly humans feeding off the crumbs of corporate profit. if there were any justice in the world, which of course there isn’t, this guy would end up down in the deepest basement of hell.

and ditto for the clean-cut old bastard who replaced him.

or am i being too harsh here?


not that i’m doing anything to change the situation. will watching another hour on the subject make any difference? you think? i recycle. i vote democratic. i stick pins in my president bush potato head. i drive a prius. but oops, i consume just as much as everyone else in this country. i don’t take the train. my 401k can’t go down the drain just to save the planet. the years pass and the world goes downhill, but so do i and i’ll hit the wall before the world does. i hope. but of course that leaves the kids and their kids holding the bag.

after raymond the planet-killer, “out of balance” presents the valdez spill – the devastation and botched cleanup and the coverup and the fact that the company to this day has escaped any significant consequences, financial or otherwise, pertaining to its blame. 200 billion in profits since the spill. exxon, catering to the nazis back in the day, working with any and every brutal dictator that proves useful (sort of like the u.s.). this is one of the companies that is supposed to lead us to glory city after the libertarians turn out the government and get rid of regulation? instead of voting, why don’t we just go shoot ourselves? but wait. let me take a second to tip my hat to our libertarian brothers, who would reduce the size of government because the government just makes things worse. boys, don’t bother with the bush administration. with regard to climate change and any sort of rational meaningful intelligent responsible controls over anything that exxon does, no need to worry about the government messing it up, because the government hasn’t done squat, and won’t. you’ve got your way. you need not concern yourselves. just relax and let big business pillage the world unfettered. they’ll do it a lot more quickly and efficiently than any government ever could.

but i digress. a note to the director: please don’t throw hurricane footage up there on the screen and blame the storm on global warming. folks like to watch hurricane footage. hurricanes are old friends. they have names. they’re fun. they’re comfortable. they can’t happen here. plus, your filmclips use boring overused footage that we’ve seen over and over ever since we first turned on our tv. hurricanes are something that happen down south and provide annual disaster entertainment in the news timeslot, along with the climax to the occasional drama. they don’t work as any sort of warning. also leave out the oil spills. in fact, leave out footage of every disaster that we’ve ever seen before. and skip the melting glacier spots. and the deserts just sitting there, hot and dry. you can’t stop murder by showing the citizenry episodes of the sopranos. the only way to use a burning house on film as a warning is to go over to the viewer’s home, burn it down, film the smoking remains, and show THAT to the homeowner. just a thought. horrific images work in the context of sad hindsight, not as warnings.

and regarding the end of the world, did i mention that jesus christ will arrive when least expected? to me that would be this evening, but my fundamentalist friends tell me that whenever it may be, there will need to be a planet with humans on it here to receive him, so climate change can only get so bad and no worse. whew.

finally, a special shout-out to those who point out that this documentary does not present exxon’s side of the story. hey, even the bible lets satan get in a word or two. you watch this movie and hear climate scientists, glacier specialists, writers, UN officials, and tree huggers explain to you how and why the world is going to hell – but NO i repeat NO dissenting opinions are presented! the filmmakers somehow forgot to let crazy uncle charley out of the attic. they somehow didn’t seek out that one nutty scientist who still believes that it was warmer a hundred years ago than it is today. that it’s warmer now but not our fault. that it’s our fault but there isn’t anything we can do about it. just don’t make me give up my car and take a bus for christ’s sake! i’ll do anything you ask! don’t make me turn off my old grandma’s nightlight so she stumbles and falls trying to go to the bathroom in the dark. don’t make me turn down the thermostat and freeze my children to death. yes, it’s getting warmer but what’s wrong with that? i won’t have to go to florida for my vacation. it’s got hotter and colder ever since the planet formed. sure it’s happening this time in ten years instead of a hundred thousand but so what? evolution will take care of it. it’s only one degree. less than one degree. it’s only six inches more of sea water. hurricanes were down this year. so forth. no dissenting opinions presented in this movie! my god! what are we going to do? it’s not fair! exxon deserves it say, its spin, its junk science, its whatever. just because i’d be crazy to believe anything anybody from that company tells me, on principle, doesn’t mean a fair and balanced documentary can’t throw in some bullcrap, right? and intelligent design, what about that? and let’s hear from RJR while we’re at it. you know what? exxon could tear this little film apart. exxon and the american petroleum institute could flatten this film. exxon could present data, scientists, public relations experts, your momma and daddy and your chosen man of god, and deny and disprove every fact in this movie and all the facts that didn’t make it into this movie as well. they probably already have. hang on. let me search “exxon” in youtube. 428 hits. scrolling and scanning. haven’t come to anything pro-exxon yet. gratifying! looks like “out of balance” has a lot of company. the world is still going to hell but at least i can watch 428 short blasts at one of the companies doing the damage while it happens. to tell you the truth, this film is so even-tempered that i was sort of hoping that the oil company would produce a “Thanks for Smoking” spokesman or two, or the mad scientist they keep locked up in the cellar. and by the way, what does the pope have to say about all this?

you can’t turn around anymore without stumbling over yet another environmental horror story. all the hemlocks on the east coast are dying (new yorker, dec. 10). no new redtails survived in jackson hole because the horseflies hatched early and killed all the nestlings. san francisco oil spill: bayside parks still closed; birds still dead; nobody to blame. dead birds? west nile virus. oil spill in korea. the curves used to go up and down; now they just go up; co2, methane, temperature, all in sync. so forth. the populace relying on technology to save us without impacting our patterns of consumption. will there be a catastrophic series of events, as in the classic sf book Timescape by Gregory Benford, or lesser, repeated ecological insults that finally result in the collapse of civilization as we know it? i just saw a racoon crawl out of a gutter drain. any sign of wildlife is a good thing. google “plastic in the ocean” and see what you get. the world’s largest landfill. the world’s largest garbage dump. a mass of floating garbage larger than a state, out there on the way to hawaii. x thousand bits of plastic for every cubic foot of ocean water. you want out of balance? how about “Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance.”

in the year 2000 we needed to elect a leader who could save us. oh well.

final optimistic thought: maybe the next 9/11 will be an environmental, rather than terrorist, disaster, so that when the government goes fascist again in response, it will be in the cause of saving the planet.

“out of balance: ExxonMobil’s Impact on Climate Change” hasn’t found it’s way into imdb yet. For more information about “Out of Balance,” visit the film’s website at http://www.worldoutofbalance.org. For more information on Joe Public Films, visit http://www.joepublicfilms.com. Contact Joe Public Films at joepublicfilms [at] yahoo.com.

Africa Unite (2008) – Can ganja save Africa?


In 2005, the Bob Marley and Rita Marley Foundations organized “Africa Unite,” a series of events to be held in Ethiopia. Nominally created to posthumously celebrate Bob Marley’s 60th birthday, Africa Unite was meant to encourage and nurture unity between nations and peoples on the African continent and to inspire self-sufficiency and world consciousness in African youth. As an annual event, it has continued: Ghana (2006); South Africa (2007); Jamaica (2008, from February 1 to 21). (http://africa-unite.org/site/component/option,com_frontpage/Itemid,1/)

The film “Africa Unite” is meant to show, and does show, the coming together of peace-minded folks from 40 to 60 African countries (reports vary), for a series of workshops, including three days of African student-delegate dialog sessions, meetings, and a celebratory concert. Marley’s wife, mother, five sons, and sundry grandchildren flew to Addis Ababa from Jamaica for the occasion, together with a collection of elderly lifelong Rastafarians.

Africa Unite is not a concert film; it documents all the elements of the occasion, culminating in the 12-hour concert in Addis Ababa, which was attended by 300,000 to 500,000 people (again, estimates vary) from all over the continent. The movie contains snippits of the concert and the commercial DVD adds more, but if you’re looking for reggae onstage, you won’t find much of it in the documentary itself. Instead, check out YouTube (e.g.,http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5fRBNoDR2Y) for a quick look and listen. In the film there are glimpses of Lauryn Hill, Angelique Kidjo, reggae leaders Bob Andy, Rita Marley and Marcia Griffiths, and a number of Marley’s children, including Ziggy, Damian, Stephen, Cedella, Julian and Kymani, the top shotta himself as he lays out “Crazy Baldheads.”

Released in 2007 and directed by Stephanie Black, a documentarian with limited resume, the film makes no mention of Africa Unite 2006 – 2008. Danny Glover’s Louverture Films and the Marley family’s Tuff Gong Pictures are listed as executive producers. Glover has been a Bob Marley enthusiast since he attended one of Marley’s concerts back in the ’70s. The movie is a standard, old-fashioned documentary, presenting a UNICEF-assisted event in an institutional style that the UN might appreciate. That is, we get a clip from the concert; the Marleys flying to Africa; another clip from the concert; workshops and conference sessions preceding the concert; another clip from the concert; local color; clip; boilerplate; clip; footage of Ethiopia; clip; so forth.


Several aspects of my critical apparatus competed for attention as I watched this movie:

a. Mr. Concerned Citizen. Africa Unite! How wrong can that be? Represent!

b. Mr. Cynic. The Marleys visit a zoo and admire the caged lions. Welcome to Africa! Is the title ironic? Is this the Africa of Kenya, Chad, Sudan, Somolia, Rwanda, Burundi, Angola, Congo, Zimbabwe, etc., etc., that we’re talking about?

c. Young Mr. Unrepentant High-School Viewer, still alive down there in my brain only one layer up from Mr. Id Crocodile Brain Stem. Conjured up from the deep past by the industrial-strength instructional-film vibe radiating like a death ray from frame one onward in this film. Whatever experience in filmmaking the director Ms Black has had, she seems to have designed these 89 lonnngggg minutes to be transmogrified later by young institutionalized viewers into high-school term papers – reports on how to spur economic and educational reform and combat poverty and strife in African nations, via talkin and then more talkin – her movie being a workmanlike, dull, interminable, didactic, social-studies series of scenes unreeling on an old-fashioned projector in Civics 101 in a warm stuffy classroom right after a heavy lunch of meatloaf in the school lunchroom. Heads thunk onto desktops as students doze off and topple forward, necks going all slack.

Mr. Concerned Citizen queued up the DVD and sat down with pen and clipboard in hand. Tapped foot to the beat as the first concert footage poinked out, de dah.

Mr. Cynic took control of the pen as we see the Marley brothers on a plane flying east to Africa for this, their excursion into peace-making. The plane lands in Addis Ababa to the accompaniment of hopeful music and words about Africa peace, political will, and the future. In big red letters on the side of the plane: Kenyan Airlines. In addition to the 1000+ killed so far in the current civil unrest in Kenya, country fracturing along tribal lines, a second parliament member is assassinated – a member of the opposition in the government and a peacemaker. Get onboard the peace train!

Mr. Concerned Citizen yanks back control of the pen as the first African student to be interviewed comes onscreen, talking about the need for African nations to come together, the need for Burundi and Rwanda to kiss and make up. Uh oh. She’s from Kenya. Got to Ethiopia for the peace concert just before the bullets started flying in her neighborhood. Political unrest based on tribal allegiance. Mr. Cynic is back, scanning the young woman for tribal markings or gang signs on her traditional Kenyan costume. Meanwhile, Barack Obama records a cool-it message for broadcast in Kenya, but his father belonged to the tribe associated with the opposition, so conspiracy theories are immediately hatched re his involvement in the unrest. Condi to Kenya to settle things down!

But now, while Mr. CC and Mr. C contend for my consciousness and the hand holding the reviewer’s pen, the film unleashes roundtable discussions, speeches, and canned historical footage of the League of Nations and before I know what’s happening, Mr. High-School Viewer is in charge and trying to put my body, including the hand holding the pen, to sleep.

And how to deal with this neverending civil violence in African nations, per Africa Unite?

Q. Kymani, what do you think it’s going to take to unite Africa?

A. Just the right state of mind. Point blank. That’s all it comes down to. Your thinking. What is your purpose on Earth? My purpose is to make the next one feel up, feel happy. I don’t live for myself; there’s no joy in that. I think if everyone took on that approach then we would have a peaceful and united Africa.

And that goes double for Darfur and its genocide, Kymani, and Chad with its coup and killings, and the hidden civil war and ever-mounting death toll in Congo.

“The efforts of the Bob Marley and Rita Marley Foundations are giving life to the words of Bob Marley: “Africa Unite!” Sponsoring a series of events each year in a different country, the goal of uniting Africa is becoming a reality.”

Bear with me while I quote the message:

“The role of education was emphasized as the critical element in the process of African transformation. This education must be both formal and heartical. We must work with school curricula, children in clubs and informal groups as we seek to have everyone learn about slavery and its effects as well as what our philosophers teach about the way forward. We must all have the same books telling the same story of our Pan African history.

“The Bob and Rita Marley Foundations were requested to investigate publishing books as well as having ongoing discussions with the relevant Ministries in Africa. The Foundations were also asked to continue their scholarship program. Ghana through Professor Nketia has pledged its support to work with the Foundation on this. Different countries both in the diaspora and in Africa should also consider holding workshops for music development at the local level. These could be supported by the Foundations.”

In the movie, it’s all about the old CW reasons for Africa’s current problems: post-colonial damage, World Bank, IMF. Exploitation by the white man. The carving up of Africa by European interests in the late 1800s. The history and consequences of slavery.

To celebrate post-colonialism, Mr. Cynic takes a ganja break.


Rastafari started up in Jamaica in the ’30s, when blacks were poor and meant to stay that way. Meanwhile, Africa was still run by Europe. The Rastas announced that every individual is worth something, and that Africa, as Man’s birthplace, is also worth something. By 2000, Jamaica was as much as twenty percent Rastafari, with more than a million Rasta worldwide. The name comes from “Ras” meaning “head” and Tafari, the first name of Haile Selassie before he was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930. The Rasta take Selassie as God on Earth, although now that he’s dead, I’m not sure what his brief visit on this planet is taken to have accomplished. When the Messiah returns, most religions don’t expect him to run a country for a while and then expire, but then, some Rastafaris believe that Selassie’s purported death was in fact a white hoax. That is, he’s out there somewhere and will return in due course to liberate his followers.

The Ethiopian story is that King Solomon fathered a child with the Queen of Sheba, whom she took home and who became the root stock for the black Jews of Ethiopia, who continue today. The presence of these Jews is one reason that Rastafari accept Ethiopia as Zion. Another is that Ethiopia remained independent while all the other countries on the continent were being colonized.

I forget what the dreadlocks are about. Something life-affirming.

I know of no connection between “rasta” and “rasty.”

Ganja is essential to the religion. I cannot overemphasize this.

There is a “live forever” thing going on in the religion as well. Bob Marley wouldn’t donate his organs, even when at death’s door, because he figured he was still going to need them. But how useful are cancer-ridden organs anyway?

Sellassie gave the Rastas 500 hectares of his personal land in the area of Shashemene, 150 miles from Addis Ababa. Whenever he drove by, he would say “Where are my people?” But he also told the Jamaicans to stay home until they had defeated their oppressors in Jamaica, so that’s where they still were every time he drove by Shashemene and asked, except for a few settlers who did go over, returning to Zion. When Sellassie was deposed, Mengistu took back all but 11 hectares. The Africa Unite celebration included events at Shashemene, what’s left of it.

As I mentioned, the Marley’s brought some elderly Rastas with them on the plane and these octagenarians were motored about Addis Ababa. So these gentlemen are looking out the car windows at Zion. Ethiopia, being one of the poorest countries in the world, features scenery that has a lot in common with the slums of Kingston. Taking climate, populace, and ambiance all together, and the grinning crowds of the poor, these men now in the promised land were staring out at something that looked a heckava lot like home. Didn’t seem to bother them.

I asked my Ethiopian friend about black-on-black racism in his country, which has 80 tribes. He went racial on me in a very complicated way and I just let that whole question drop. Something about Negro, Bushman, and Bantu and how the superiority of Hamites over Negroes was no myth. Nose shape. Tall vs short. Smart vs dumb. American Negros looking more Bantu that Negro because of the white admixture in their blood. So forth. You’re black in the US and then you get off the plane in Africa and everybody is black. Great. But oh oh. You’re a little stocky with a flat nose and the next thing you know, it’s “Dude, you Hutu? Cause if you aren’t Tutsi, you’re in a bad place here!”

Mr. High-School Viewer takes a ganja break in honor of the Rasta. Man, I could eat a horse. I checked out “Eating horse in Ethiopia” and got hits about man-eating horses. That’s the kind of thing that can rattle you when your hold on reality is a little shaky anyway.


So the Rastas deplane in Ethiopia – their Zion – with portraits of Selassie – their god – on their T-shirts and words about slavery and colonialism on their lips. No mention of the coup in ’74 that deposed Selassie, or the fact that he’s dead, or the ensuing Communist regime in the country, or Mengistu’s conviction for genocide. Much is made in this movie of the fact that Ethiopia fended off Italy back in the colonizing period of the late 1800s, but I heard no mention of Italy’s occupation of the country from 1935 to 1941. Whatever.

Because if you’ve got to pick a place to represent the cradle of humanity, well, humans have been living in Ethiopia since the beginning, since before the beginning, since before they could pass the human test. The Rift Valley. Formerly Punt and then Abyssinia, Ethiopia is the second oldest country in the world, after Armenia, to become Christian. (But now with a large Muslim population too). Ethiopia is the second most populous nation in Africa, with a secular government since 1974. It was an original U.N. member. The capitol is by no means isolated. The headquarters of the African Union is situated in Addis Ababa.

This constant talk of African unity after throwing off the colonial yoke – Mr. C couldn’t help remembering that Ethiopia only concluded its bloody civil war with Eritrea in 1993, with flareups since then, and that its neighbors are Sudan (Darfur), Somolia (Black Hawk Down), Kenya (current civil unrest, rigged elections), Eritrea (border flareups), and Djibouti (10-year civil war, single-party government) – well, why else so many calls for unity? Rwanda, Burundi, Nigeria, Uganda, Liberia, Mozambique; death and violence past and future, breaking along tribal lines.

While Mr. C snorted, it occurred to Mr. CC that the speakers were not orating in a vacuum, in front of the cameras, but on a continent, in a land, of uncertain freedoms and swift retribution. In the poor and warlike country of Ethiopia, could it be that these men and women were taking care while running on about unity and freedom, to oppose those concepts to past colonialism and slavery, rather than the current situation in at least 145 African countries today where it might be worth their lives to get more particular about present injustices rather than those of fifty years past?

Hmm. Ethiopia ranks 106 out of 167 African countries vis a vis human rights. The country comes in between Cambodia at 105 and Burundi at 107. There is little freedom of the press. 80 ethnic groups contend for power and small privileges in 83 languages. Mr. CC calls to mind the armed and unsmiling troops circulating through the crowd in the concert clips, eying the audience, not the performers.

As a defense against this serious pondering, Mr. C and Mr. HSV take ganja breaks, sharing a blunt.


Mr. CC knows that there are between 18 and 20-odd democracies in Africa (depending upon how elastic your tolerance, or delusion, is); in 1980, there were only 4. This is why Bush can take a victory lap over there without having to dine every night with an outright war criminal, and without getting shot or locked up. He can send Condi to Kenya to straighten things out, ignore Darfur, and accentuate the positive in that special way that he has. Mr. Bush enjoys an approval rating in Africa much higher than in his own country; this is all Mr. C needs to know. But in fact, Mr. C also knows that most of these African democracies are “imperfect,” “fragile,” or “illiberal.” He is familiar with papers with titles like “Who Killed Democracy In Africa?” and ““Support for Democracy Seen Falling in Africa.” Doing our math, we see that if more than 60 countries were represented at Africa Unite, many of the student attendees arrived to participate from countries ruled by a dictator. Did any of these students appear in the movie? Those who spoke on film were identified as citizens of Cameroon, Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania, South Africa, Malawi, and The Gambia – all countries among the fledgling democracies; and even so, these students spoke in careful measured tones and used diplomatic sentences. No fire-eating, to be caught on tape before they returned home. Who are these students fronting the documentary anyway? They all showed up at an Africa Unite banquet in the movie dressed to the nines.

But then, lo, at the 70-minute mark, Ms. Black edits in a more militant voice. Some attitude pipes up here. A fellow saying that knowledge is power and sounding like he means a lot more than that. Name? Country? Withheld. Mr. CC and Mr. C can both go a little paranoid when high, and at this point began to remark on the vanilla flavor of the previous discourse, and the beady, shifty eyes of the Ethiopian official windbags who alternated with the students at the mike and who previously caused Mr. HSV to take control on the couch and nod off. Now, suddenly, the harping on colonialism and slavery and the IMG and the World Bank is dropped in favor of a strong call for a ban on weapons, power to the people, self-sufficiency, and truly democratic policies. A woman speaks as well, and her name is blacked out. She demands peace and quality health care. And Ms Black allows Danny Glover to bare his teeth a little: “Use all means to listen to and celebrate the young people.”

But that’s enough of that. No burning of bridges with future Africa Unites yet on the drawing board. It’s back to colonialism, racism, artificial borders, and debt. Nary a mention of the tradition of central political authority that fosters corrupt and despotic leaders, the habit of African leaders to avoid criticizing each other, or the unbelievable backwardness in much of the continent. Leave the internationally-connected cities, like Khartoum, Nairobi, Addis Ababa, and Kampala, and you’ll discover a continent where the rest of the world seems remote indeed, in time and in space. Here there are communities without the wheel, using ancient methods of agriculture, where tribal law and custom still employ polygamy and do not recognize private ownership of land, and where religions are based on magic and other anti-modern forces (including fundamentalist brands of Islam). There is a chasm between ancient and modern in Africa and Western intervention hasn’t affected it much. Africa is not just another South America. (This just in: Bush visits Ghana but misses the open sewers in the streets and the major poverty in the country, visiting instead the most expensive private school in Accra. Says that abstinence can work in the battle against AIDs.)

On the other hand, huge shanty towns surround every large African city: the young leave the quiet countryside to find work in urban areas. Is this the force that will change Africa? Many thinkers on the subject, including voices like Paul Theroux, Graham Hancock, and Michael Maren, believe that outside aid is doing more harm than good, with the exception for disaster assistance and environmental aid – and, I hope, Bill Gates’ millions for vaccines.

I asked my Nigerian friend about repression in Nigeria. He showed me his scars and I let it go at that.

Mr. C points out that there are ten times as many hits for “democracy in africa” as for “what’s wrong with africa?” Mr. CC responds that there are twice as many hits for “violence in africa” as for “democracy in africa.”

One thing I do like about Africa is that the inhabitants of the continent haven’t eaten all the large animals there. When humans emerged from Africa and spread out around the rest of the world, they consumed everything large in sight and did it damn quick. Mammoths, mastodons, giant sloths, big cats – all eaten. They had no fear of humans. A few critters survived, but not many. Buffalo, moose. But they followed humans and got to North America, for example, during an ice age, with the hungry hunters out of the way down south. Evidently in Africa, where humans and big animals evolved together, the animals learned to fear the humans and so survived; an equilibrium was established.


Africa sometimes seems united in a slow-motion effort to destroy itself. For this viewer, Africa Unite, the movie, is so full of resonances, connections, associations, and questions about that continent that it transcends its subject matter and clunky execution to become a testament to humanity’s ongoing insanity, which is unchanged since those days in the Rift Valley when we could walk pretty good but didn’t do too much thinkin. Cognitive dissonance between the dancing onscreen and children with machetes and Kalashnikovs, refugees, debt forgiveness that lines the pockets of the corrupt, justice at the end of a gun, the species of freedom that comes courtesy of abject poverty, no blacks in the IMF, AIDs, Ebola, West Nile, the new malaria, diarrhea, river blindness. The Internet loaded with African argument and discussion about race, black vs black, not black vs white. Followed by some great reggae concert energy. At this point you can get high and go to sleep, or switch over to the latest episode of Lost, or run outside and burn down a couple of buildings in protest.

13 Tzameti (2006)

Géla Babluani, Director.


The title in Georgian: “13 Thirteen”

Genre: Violence porn.

The director’s excuse: “I was raised in the 90s in Georgia when there were three civil wars. I was exposed to chaos. To violence. And that’s not even counting the TV shows I watched.”

The pitch: “Blood Sport” meets Texas Holdem meets “Deer Hunter” meets early Roman Polanski.

Reviewers’ suggested metaphors: “The inhumanity that comes with wealth and boredom, and desperate attempts to survive in a place that’s simultaneously culturally and geographically alien.” “An indictment of the futility and folly of putting too much metaphysical stock (belief in fate and destiny) in what is a fundamentally meaningless pursuit (sports).” So forth.

The lead actor’s excuse: “I had never done a movie before but my brother was the director, so…”

The director’s reward: Financing to remake the movie in Hollywood.

NRA rating: A+. Guns do not kill in this movie; actors kill.

Budget: The director filmed for 5 months over a 15-month period. Script calls for a castle but all he could line up was a big house, occasioning dialog such as “We used to do this in a castle.” (Doesn’t help the “rich getting richer” metaphor.)

First sign of silliness: Picture yourself on a tile roof, pulling off tiles. Somehow you manage to punch a hole in the roof (Rififi homage). Every time you walk by it, characters below are discussing plot points, which you can hear clearly.

Second sign of silliness: Vital papers blow out of the window and land where the hero can find them.

Third sign of silliness: He doesn’t give them back.

Hiding the silliness: The director did some filming to make the ceiling hole somehow more believable, but he wisely left this work in the Deleted Scenes section.

Subtlety: “There is an ax on the terrace,” says the woman. The ax is not used later in the film.

Music: Mostly silence w/ ambient sounds. The occasional quiet jazz nudge. Great.

Characterization: None to speak of.

Color: One sorehead opined that Babluani made the film in black and white because he didn’t want to deal with the problems and challenges of color. Babluani himself says that his first visions of the story were in black and white and so that’s the way he had to make it that way. Works for me, but I’m a lover of black and white.

David Lynch: In some alternate, parallel universe, the police play out their parts in full. In this movie, we can see only parts of that film, intermittantly.

The crowd: Part of the thrill of a public group performance is having a crowd watch it happen. Get lots of interesting faces and dress the actors in all sort of ways. In fact, have them dress at home and just show up. Feast for the eyes. Note that at least one reviewer will crab about this bunch no matter what they look like.

Handicapping: If you’re going to bet on a last-man-standing, mass suicide event, consider the following:

1. Try to bet directly with the men in the event. You’ll only have to pay off one of them.
2. The star of the movie will win.
3. Turns out, two other guys get to survive. One of them will be the really, really fat guy, because the director is not going to ask him to fall down. He might not be able to get up again.
4. The guy who looks like Russell Crowe can’t win, but he can be saintly because after winning three times already (no mean feat when the odds last time were 42-1), he recognizes innocence in his opponent and so doesn’t pull the trigger.
5. When three bullets are used in a six-bullet cylinder, does it matter whether there is a bullet in every other chamber or three bullets in three consecutive chambers? Experiment to find out.
6. Professional betting makes no sense to the amateur. Ditto movie betting.

The good parts: Some reviewers have suggested cutting out the first and last thirds of the movie. The guys who suggest this are the same guys who back in the day read only the good parts of Lady Chatterly. Probably don’t cuddle afterwards. Probably won’t finish reading this review.

The money shots: Ten or fifteen men stand in a circle. They load their guns. Heft and jiggle them. Spin the cylinders. Each man touches his gun to the head of the man in front of him. The goal is for all of them to shoot at once. The bulb lights up. As is often the case, all the participants don’t shoot at the same time. Also as is common, the experience is better for some than for others.

Sweat: The actors must act as if they are really going to be shot in the head. Because of safety issues, live ammunition, and standing there WITH A GUN TO YOUR HEAD, most of them weren’t acting.

Variations: Each round has to be different, or boredom sets in. (Some reviewers, who have seen too much of this kind of thing, will get bored no matter what you do, if you keep it tasteful.) One participant must have trouble loading his gun; one must be unable to pull the trigger; most must be able to perform only when drunk or drugged; etc.

Useful factoids from the film:

1. Morphine is the drug of choice
2. Stop signs in France say “Stop.”
3. Every French film contains the word “personne.”
4. Chief bad guy has same last name as my brother-in-law.
5. When does a Frenchman say “oui” and when does he say “si”?
6. Which country shows the countryside with fewer inhabitants, the U.S. or France?
7. Do European movies understate the bad guys a little for effect, or do U.S. movies overstate the bad guys for effect? Or both?
8. The protagonist has been up a ladder before. He is pretty nimble moving from ladder to roof and from roof to ladder.

You’re Gona Miss Me (2005)

You’re Gonna Miss Me (2005)
Directed by Keven McAlester. Documentary. Not rated. 94 minutes.

“You’re Gonna Miss Me” is a well-made documentary about Roger (Roky) Erickson, a ’60s lead singer from Austin whose career arc spiked early and then descended steadily, taking him on a long slide from modest stardom to incarceration to abject and lengthy mental illness. The film sketches his history and offers a little rock and roll on the side.

A brief scene from a courtroom intervention opens the film, with one of Roky’s brothers petitioning the court to have Roky removed from the care of his mother and placed with his brother instead. This scene signals to us that Erickson won’t be dead at the end of the movie, that there is family conflict in the offing, and that we can now go back in time to Erickson’s roots with the judge’s decision and its consequences awaiting us when we make it back to the present.

The movie then proceeds, interleaving scenes of a beautiful, full-voiced, youthful Roky with scenes of the wreck that he has become by the time he reaches his 50s. Interviews with Patti Smith, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, and others suggest that Erickson’s performance style and voice had considerable influence on rock and rock in the late 60s. Janis Joplin considered joining one of the bands that he co-founded, the 13th Floor Elevators. (She went to San Francisco instead.) Meanwhile, the Elevators released an album titled “The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators.” For this, and because of the LSD and grass that they used heavily, the group was credited with coining the term “psychedelic rock.” A quick check of my shelf of 60s wax reveals The Electric Prunes, Ultimate Spinach, and Canned Heat, but no Elevators.

There followed success, the hit “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” San Francisco, drugs and alcohol and women, and then it was all downhill from there. Hepititis. Back to Austin. Lockup in a mental hospital for the criminally insane. Two broken marriages. Back into his mother’s arms. As the story unfolds, we jump back to the present periodically, where Roky’s behavior onscreen convinces us of his mental illness.

Halfway through the movie, in the course of interviews with family members, musicians, the police, and others, there suddenly appears onscreen a 24-year-old young man, talking about his father Roky. His father? This is Roky’s son? Where did he come from? This is a reminder that the filmmaker is compressing 58 years of a man’s life into 94 minutes. If I took an hour’s worth of video from your life, threw in 30 minutes of interviews with your family and friends, and then sat you down to observe the results, would you notice anything missing? Could I capture your essence in that time? However successful McAlester is at doing so, this movie can’t turn me into an expert on Erickson in an hour and a half.

[mild spoilers]

As the past and present converge, we see Roky’s youngest brother decide to petition the court for the right to become Roky’s legal guardian. This means removing him from his mother’s care and a lot more work than the brother realizes. Like when you decide to paint your house.

The core message of the movie now emerges: If you are unfortunate enough to need help in this life, mental or physical, and you don’t happen to be rich or famous, your fate will depend upon the kindness and good works of your family, friends, and possibly of strangers. In Roky’s case, any such kindness was insufficiently strong or committed or lasting or widespread among those who knew and cared for him to overcome his resistance to it. He walked away from one wife; another wife walked away from him. His brothers looked on from a distance. He dropped friends and they let him drop them. The only, unlucky, exception to this lack of commitment to help came from his mother. Year after year, Roky lived as his mother wanted him to live, remaining dependent upon her. No medication. No music. No dental care. This from a mother who comes across onscreen almost as damaged as Roky himself. If I were to tweak the movie in any way, it would be to add footage that somehow helps us understand and visualize the long, long stretch of time between Roky’s youth and late middle age – a lifetime, his life – wasted, frittered away, consumed by an illness that could have been managed by treatment and the involvement of a single person willing and able to make the effort to help him, but instead kept him tied to a mother satisfied to have him near her and broken rather than out in the world and functional.

But, finally, the younger brother does step up and provide the financial and emotional effort to make a difference in Roky’s life. A demonstration of the results, after a long period of treatment, rehabiliatation, and support, is provided quietly by Roky with his guitar in a chair outside his brother’s home in Pittsburg.

The screener disk contained no extras. I’m sure that commentary tracks will increase the value of an already excellent documentary. Rotten Tomatoes rates the movie at 81; the IMDB rating is 8.4. For more on the film, listen to FilmCouch podcast #26. For the latest on Roky Erikson, check out his Wikipedia entry at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roky_Erickson.

Wondrous Oblivion (2003)

This is a feel-good family movie containing a w.i.i.i.i.d.e variety of social and personal issues. If you’re in the mood for something light, but with a heart, watching Wonderous Oblivion might be a pleasant way to spend 106 minutes. It was for me. South London in the early 60s never looked so Harry Potter.

Edit: Wait a minute. Everybody says that this is a feel-good family movie, but what about those multiple lingering tracking shots down Emily Woof’s spine and over her buttocks, just to make sure that we understand where Delroy is headed? And what about those Lindo/Woof lip-locks in the kitchen? Maybe the first one gets a family pass because it snuck up on the two of them, but the movie goes a little Mandingo with the second one, Delroy sweating in his wife-beater and Emily panting with passion, fade to black.

Full disclosure: I haven’t caught Paul Morrison’s commentary track and I can’t write a proper review without it. I don’t know if it’s even available in the U.S. If so, I haven’t been able to find it. Which means that I can only guess at his intentions in making this movie. I mean, his filmography is sparse and he’s no spring chicken, being born in ’44, so this isn’t just one of a dozen flicks he churned out over a period of time to put his kids through college. This one movie is a significant percentage of the man’s ouvre. Did he set out to go feather-light on purpose with this thing? It’s his script; he wrote it. No way this was just a payday for him. But without a phone number or email address for the guy, or that missing commentary track, I’ll never know.

I did spot Delroy Lindo in the Marina Safeway in San Francisco. (He lives in S.F.) My golden opportunity to ask him about working with Morrison!. But damn! I can never remember Lindo’s name. First or last. Delroy. Delroy. Delroy Lindo. Got to find a good mneumonic for Delroy Lindo. Can’t let this happen again. And after I memorize his name, I can take on the names of his wife and son, Neshormeh and Damiri in case I spot one of them in RiteAid instead. Delroy was over there handling the fruit but no way I could approach him without remembering his name. For one thing, he had that series of movies back in the 90s wherein he played various bad mf’s. Scary. Maybe he was all lovey dovey in MO, but when he does that crazy-eye thing that he does, kind of like Calvin in the comic strip when Calvin is going gack!!, I don’t want to be standing in front of the dude. He keeps it under control in MO – it just slips out once or twice, sort of sideways – but still. And speaking of MO, Delroy’s parents are Jamaican and he was born and raised in London, so he’s an excellent fit for his role in the movie. Even though he lives in San Francisco now, he still considers himself British.. I’m perfectly ok with engaging him right there in the produce department because he graduated from ACT in S.F and I consider him part of the community. But not without remembering his name. No way.

Anyway, I understand that Morrison’s commentary focuses on characterization and plot, rather than on making-of anecdotes, so he had his thinking cap on when he made the film, but this is a moviemaker who had to know that he was using a shovel and knee boots to load up his script with motifs that he could never do more than kiss in passing, to mix the metaphor. Was his editor out of town? Was his muse bipolar and running hyper that year? Was he trying to make up for lost time – making two or three movies at once? Or is autobiographical material running roughshod over him? It’s a bad sign, the reviewer wondering about the director’s life goals while watching his movie.

A guy I know gave me an email address that would supposedly get me to Stanley Townsend, who played the Jewish dad in the movie. My friend told me that the address was part of a press packet pimping The Nativity, in which Townsend plays Zechariah. So I wrote a 2000-word exegesis on the role of Jewish father in cuckold movies and got an intemperate two-word response from some sorehead named Townsend who sells Geico insurance in Pores, Nebraska.

Morrison’s previous film “Solomon and Gaenor” (1999) was a romantic tragedy about a Jewish man (Ioan Gruffudd in an early role) and a Welsh woman. Morrison wrote and directed, and filmed the movie in English, Welsh, and Yiddish. It won prizes and respect. Currently, now in his 60s, he’s making Little Ashes, with a script by Philippa Goslett. Set in Madrid in 1922, the movie deals with Salvador Dali at 18 and his friendship with Federico Garcia Lorca and Luis Bunel. Javier Beltran, Robert Pattinson, and Matthew McNulty star. Morrison also did an early movie about Degas and Pissarro. So the man makes movies that are about something.

But in between these efforts we have Wonderous Oblivion. The script runs smooth, fitting into the Billy Elliot, Bend It Like Beckham, predictable coming-of-age genre, but Morrison can’t help letting all of his dogs out of the kennel at once. No ending in scale could possibly put this thing to bed properly. Instead, for example, the movie depicts a black family being harassed, threatened, and partially burnt out of their home and this element/motif is addressed and resolved by restricting the anti-black feeling in the neighborhood to mild glowering and muttering amongst the denizens, but with every actual hostile act assigned to a single vacant-eyed teenage bad boy who can be easily neutralized when/if necessary to the plot. Likewise, when Judy shows up at David’s birthday party and he turns her away, boy loses girl, but since they’re only 11, an apology clears that up.

Let me recommend the first episode of the classic documentary series Seven Up! (1964) as a corrective to this Disneyland version of lower-middle-class England in the early 60s. Or The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) for boy sport in that era.

I asked an agent I know if he could get me a five-minute interview with the Jewish mom in the movie, Emily Woof.. They say that when the time came for her to choose her screen surname, she looked over at her pet pit bull, who travels with her everywhere in spite of the lawsuits, raised her eyebrows, and when the dog barked, she picked Woof. Strange but true. “You have a dog?” she asked me on the phone and I told her that I didn’t like dogs, but that I had 11 cats. Why? Why did I have to tell her that? Stupid.

I will say that like the young protagonist in the movie, I spent a lot of time laying out bubblegum cards and having tussles between two sides – mostly Wings airplane cards, with the airplanes flying to the right fighting against those flying to the left, my favorites on both sides surviving the longest. The oldest cards were the most magical. But with my baseball cards no; they got laid out, team vs team, when Game of the Week came on the radio.

One thing that did bother me in the movie as I was watching was that to my eye the backyard wasn’t really deep enough to allow the bowling that, with some camera trickery, we are asked to accept. A cricket pitch is about 72 feet long, .plus the extra space needed to run up to the line… but wait. I get it. They’ve laid out a junior pitch . Don’t know how long a junior pitch is, but it could fit into a backyard, so never mind.

If you’ve ever seen top-level cricket, or even if you haven’t, it’s just as fast and violent as major league baseball is. Both sports lull with a pace that features lengthy gaps in the action, but then feature frantic, fast-moving moments. At Fenway Park one day, a British friend and I had a long conversation about pitching vs bowling. His contention was that since the bowler was allowed to run up toward the batsman and then optionally bounce the ball on its way toward the wicket, the ball would be harder to hit than a baseball pitched from a standing start and required to come in between neck and knees. Especially since the bowler can load up the ball and the pitcher isn’t supposed to. This seems to make sense, even though the bowler is required to come in overhand with a straight elbow and the striking surface of the cricket bat is much larger than that of a round baseball bat. The question is settled, however, for me at least, by the fact that a good batsman can remain up for many overs (an over is 6 consecutive bowled balls) – which is to say, can prevent the ball from hitting the wicket – as David did, to the annoyance of his teammates who wanted to be done for the day – whereas the best hitter in baseball will almost surely whiff at at least one good strike within, say, ten pitches.

To gather data on this question, I’ve arranged for a visit from pitcher Earl Scrotile of the AAA Sacramento River Cats and Mani Singh of the Northern California Cricket League to a meetup at the San Francisco Community Playing Fields, Gardens, and Homeless Shelter on Battery Street this Sunday, all welcome, where we will each stand in against Earl and Mani and see who is harder to hit. The event will be filmed as part of a new mumblecore movie called “Ouch! That’s My Elbow!”

Manda Bala (2005) – Put down that frog and step away

Before dealing with the end of the world as we know it, which this movie does not explicitly mention but which is lurking there in the unspoken background – before dealing with that, it being a pet peeve of mine, let me mention first an equally annoying pet peeve: many podcasters, the Spout podcasters occasionally among them, use the expression “begs the question” when they actually mean “raises the question.” This error of diction has become so common in the U.S. today that it’s probably useless to even mention it here, but since I heard it again on FilmCouch recently, let me remind those who might be unaware of it that “begging the question” is a form of logical fallacy in which an argument is assumed to be true without evidence other than the argument itself. Thank you.

Meanwhile, back in the day, if you hated documentaries but had to write a paper on one, you could head down to Ninth and Trawler and catch The Nudist Story at the Jewel Box. The Nudist Story is the film where everybody plays volleyball with their backs turned to the camera. Otherwise, you were stuck with “Hemo the Magnificent” or “Our Mister Sun” or a training film explaining how to avoid the clap and why you ought to do so instead of chasing around after the girls at school who were reputed to be the biggest pushovers. These days, in addition to naked flesh, you can find lots of other quite acceptable entertainment in nonfiction films – crime and corruption in its multivarious forms, incest, child abuse, pedophilia, perversions both common and obscure, the apocalypse, and George Bush. Manda Bala, for example, will get you through the night quite agreeably, with a laugh or two, when you can’t count on slipping a review of Hostel II past your Remedial English 2B class instructor.

Manda Bala executive summary: That’s all you got?

But stand by while I rethink that.

Manda Bala Cliff Notes: Frog farm launders money for massively corrupt president of the Brazilian congress; kidnappers are mean; a guy worries about getting mugged in Sao Paulo; bulletproof cars (if it’s good enough for the Pope, it’s good enough for me); plastic-surgery surgery, with blood and music that has a cutting edge; using a helicopter to avoid carjacking; no helicopter-jacking, sadly; and the clincher: politicians can be corrupt.

“Manda Bala” (“Send a Bullet”) is an expression common in Brazil but hard for me to explain in English, at least as I understand it (feel free to correct me). Imagine a situation like Iraq, for example – sixth year of the war, unrelenting violence, little water or electricity in Baghdad, a sense of inevitable disaster – you might look at that and just say “Manda Bala,” meaning “What the hell, go ahead and pull the trigger.”

I checked out a few reviews of Manda Bala while awaiting my screener, just to pick up on the buzz. The temperature ran hot (except for Stephen Holden): “rich vibrancy of threat,” “inexcusable violations of political faith and public safety,” “hauntingly mounted voyage,” “shocking and scary,” “mesmerizing, tense, exciting,” “a country and a society entirely out of control,” “black humor and stomach-churning detail,” “the ravages of political graft and unchecked crime.” Documentary Grand Jury prize winner at Sundance. Cleaned up at the Cinema Eye Awards. “A film that cannot be shown in Brazil.” Wow.

Well, Manda Bala can’t be shown in Brazil because one of the guys appearing in the movie told the young men who made it that he’d sue their asses three ways from Sunday if the film ever opened in a theater in that country. Always some sorehead out there with his hand in your pocket.

So is it true that if the filmmakers have particular interests, a design, and a message in mind, but I don’t share those interests, don’t apprehend the design, and misunderstand the message, then how blame is apportioned between maker and viewer for the disconnect will determine whether the movie is good or bad? Because my executive summary above is not in exact accord with the thoughts and intentions of the filmmakers.

I believe that in the last analysis, the principal interest of Jason Kohn (the director and principal producer – that is, the guy who made the movie) was to make a feature-length theatrical documentary with the film values of a mainstream motion picture – the values of a Hollywood action flick, for example. Like Errol Morris, and maybe because of Morris’ influence, Kohn’s aesthetic here represents the flip side of cinema verite, handheld video cameras, minimalism, and made-for-TV documentaries. For example, Morris prepares sets before shooting, recreates scenes, and uses the “Interrotron” – his invention – when interviewing (a device that, when used correctly, lets viewers make eye contact with subjects in the documentary). A Morris quote has it that style doesn’t dictate truth, so that the handheld camera should not be a prerequisite these days for making documentaries. Kohn hates (his word) the common belief that content will always win out over form; that form is a slave to content. Cinematic effects can be used to make a point with style (vide The Thin Blue Line). There is a provocative element in this idea. Kohn invokes Robocop and Lethal Weapon as film models and Verhoeven, Ridley Scott, and Terry Gilliam as major influences. He wanted to use film rather than videotape in Manda Bala and was able to obtain 35mm lenses adapted for a 16mm camera. Manda Bala is shot in anamorphic Super 16; at 2.69:1, it’s wider than Cinemascope. Kohn says that he made the choice in part as an anti-TV statement. At the time, HBO, the most profitable channel for documentaries, had announced that they wouldn’t letterbox. Kohn also is bugged by TV documentaries that add footage to find a theatrical release. He wanted to make a film that delivers visually in the theater. He wanted to light sets, use dollies, and try out filming techniques used in action flicks. He said that film makes everyone look great, like an actor. He didn’t want to go down to South America, a rich kid by Latin standards, and stick a handheld camera in the faces of the poor. (In the event, the poor onscreen are few and far between. In an odd turn, most of those interviewed about a country gone terribly wrong appear themselves to be saints.) As Kohn expresses it, he wanted to make a documentary Robocop. To him, documentaries aren’t a separate form; they’re just another genre. For example, Morris borrowed from noir when making The Thin Blue Line. Heloísa Passos won the Cinematography Award at Sundance for shooting the movie.

I, on the other hand, received Manda Bala on DVD in the mail and watched it letterboxed on TV. I might as easily have watched it on a laptop or even on an Ipod. So while I can sing the praises of Lawrence of Arabia or a Terrence Malick flick as seen in the theater, I was never going to be watching this one there. So the sad fact is, I’m not in a position to comment on this aspect of the movie, perhaps the most important to its director. Besides, isn’t this supposed to be a golden age for documentaries? Seems like most of the Rotten Tomatoes 90+ movies are documentaries, and there is quite a list of them. And if the theatrical version of a documentary is made with TV values and 30 minutes of extra footage, it might bug Kohn but it doesn’t matter to me because I won’t be paying $10 to see it in the theater anyway. And with the current lively DIY movement and mumblecore and me having just reviewed LOL for example, I’m not especially focused on the photographic values of a film, documentary or fiction, anyway. Although Ten Canoes did knock me out.

So watching the film on my couch without knowing anything about what I’ve said so far, Manda Bala looked ok. It looked good.

In addition to these theatrical and cinematical considerations, Kohn wanted to investigate several interesting subjects. In particular, he wanted to go to Brazil and shoot some footage of a frog farm that he knew about and of matters pertaining to a plastic surgeon that he had heard about. And in the process, he wanted to avoid polemics. In Kohn’s opinion, feature documentaries are a poor way to push political agendas. With Bush getting elected in spite of Fahrenheit 9/11, maybe I agree with him. And Kohn wasn’t interested in documentary filmmaking as journalism. Viewers expecting an expose or other newsworthy story will not find it here. Kohn wanted to go expressionistic, not journalistic. He wanted to experiment and discover what could be done with a documentary, not set out with digitized video in mind. Maybe do something like Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control.

I, contrariwise, am not intrigued by frog farms or plastic surgery and I don’t have a problem with, and in fact might lean toward, polemical documentaries that observe high journalistic standards and push agendas. So that’s another strike against me vs Manda Bala, going in. And the Sundance prizes perturbed my attitude as well. I mean, this is a film made by three very young and inexperienced filmmakers and needs to be, must be, approached and appreciated that way, which in my case, because of the buzz, sadly wasn’t.

Finally, Kohl learned that he needed a story. He needed to tell a story and make it look good. His second of three editors, Doug Abel, taught him what that meant. Kohn credits Abel with cutting the film into a coherent story. I could be interested in a story. A story, that I could go for.

But to back up a little: Jason Kohn graduated from Brandeis in 2001 and got a job as a researcher for Errol Morris. He visited his dad in Brazil at Christmas, 2001, to look into the filming of the frog farm and the plastic surgeon. His dad knew a lot of folks down there and had some influence in the community; Brazil has a lot of poor people, and a collection of the super rich, but the middle class isn’t so big. Then, in the summer of 2002 at the age of 23, Kohn flew down to actually shoot some film. He called a friend, Joey Frank, and asked him to come down for a couple of months too, to help in Sao Paulo. Kohn knew Frank from Brandeis, but Frank had transferred to Brown, where he was scheduled to graduate in 2003. When Kohn called him he was 21.

Kohn’s father is Argentinian, his mother Brazilian. His father had been robbed in his car four or five times in the past seven years and talked about it a lot, and also complained continually about the rampant corruption in Brazil. Jason knew that the frog farm was used for money laundering and that the plastic surgeon specialized in rebuilding the ears cut off kidnapping victims, and he thought that he might make a short film dealing with corruption and the country’s concomitant street violence and how they might interrelate, with the farm and surgeon serving as framing examples for the central idea of the film.

Frank joined Kohn in Sao Paulo and they asked a third friend, Jared Goldman, who was working at Miramax, to provide backup from the States. Kohn, Frank, and Goldman are credited as Manda Bala’s producers. Kohn is also the director, Frank the assistant director. Kohn and Frank spent two and a half months doing preproduction work in Sao Paulo. They used Kohn’s dad’s house as one office and his mom’s house in the States as the other for the duration of the project.

Kohn had sold his car and saxaphone to raise money and had otherwise managed to raise 10K or so. Frank brought 10K too. The film began with a summer budget of 25K. Kohn talked Heloísa Passos into shooting the movie. Then they filmed the frog farmer and surgeon, and a detective on kidnapping detail, a paranoid businessman, a microchip salesman, an assistant attorney general, and a kidnapping victim. They came home with 25 hours of film, cut together a trailer, got grants from Sundance and Brandeis, and found an investor.

As they worked on their thesis that corruption at the top breeds violence at the bottom, they came to realize that they needed more than the frog farm and some ear surgery to make a decent Robomentary. They went back to Brazil the next summer and shot 25 more hours of film. With that they had a feature film without an ending, as they put it. In fact, “ending” here might be code for “story,” “arc,” “compelling narrative.” They decided that they needed a kidnapper in the film and waited around with 10K in bribes to interview one that they had found in prison. However, a bookkeeping error dealing with the exchange rate meant that they were 20K behind, not 10K ahead. And, the kidnapper was transferred to a different prison. The interview never happened.

After finding, finally, funding for a third phase, Kohn went back to Brazil, hung out for six months until a taxi driver taking him to the dentist told him that he could hook him up with a kidnapper. Kohn met the kidnapper at a McDonald’s, handed over some money, was taken to the kidnapper’s home, interview him multiple times, and also got a brief interview with the corrupt politician at the center of the film. A final version of Manda Bala was cut together and finally, after five years of effort, the filmmakers had their film. Six months later it won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance.

So, young men make a movie and it is what it is. No, it isn’t what it is; it’s something else. It isn’t what Kohn says it is, exactly, and probably not what I thought I saw it was, but it’s in the neighborhood of what it is.

It really struck me how young these fellows were when my daughter, in her last year at Brown, mentioned that one of the boys from her high school, who is also at Brown, was friends with Joey Frank. Frank’s Facebook page is not exactly that of a graybeard, either.

After Manda Bala was released, Kohn and Frank in commentary and interviews seem to be finding their way a little toward an explanation of the movie that they had made. They represent Manda Bala as an impressionistic collage of scenes that, taken together, recontextualize the relationship of political corruption to street violence.

I, however, took the movie to be telling me, as if I might not know it already, that kidnapping is currently a growth industry for the poor in Brazil.

This was not Kohn’s intention. He well knows that street violence in general and the kidnapping industry in particular in Sao Paulo are not expose-worth in 2008. City of God was released in 2002. In Kohn’s view, while City of God (one of the great Brazilian films in his estimation) is a pretend documentary, Manda Bala is a pretend fiction. They make a nice pair. In fact, Manda Bala crew members claimed to belong to the City of God crew a time or two. Opened some doors.

So kidnapping for profit isn’t popular in the U.S. because there is too much risk for too little gain, penalties too stringent, and a strong law-enforcement focus on the crime. For example, my parent’s house was robbed twice before the two addicts across the street decided to go for a bigger payday and were immediately arrested for kidnapping a kid down the block and botching the ransom pickup. But on the other hand, kidnapping for ransom is now common in many parts of the world. In 2007, Baghdad was dubbed kidnapping capitol of the world by whomever it is that does that dubbing. Previous title holders include Mexico and Colombia. You’re also a high snatch risk in Haiti, Moscow, and parts of Africa. And in Sao Paulo. Manda Bala does get a little breathless over this fact.

In the U.S., selling drugs provides the standard entry-level employment opportunities for some of the poor who can’t get a job at Wal-Mart. We’re just not into kidnapping-as-a-business yet. I was visiting in Bogota last year and my friend’s daughter was crossing from her parked car to the front door of the apartment building one night and got grabbed on the sidewalk. A flash kidnapping. Her abductors drove her to a bank machine where she withdrew the max allowed. This was at 11:55 PM. They drove around for six minutes and then had her do it again. Then they drove her out to a dump on the outskirts of the city. She told them that she was a doctor working with the poor (which was true). Whether or not that was the reason, they let her get out of the car and drove away without shooting her. When the police brought her home, she went into her room and closed the door and didn’t come out for three days.

Meanwhile, the ear-cutter-offer in the movie tells us that his ill-gotten gains are spent helping the poor in the slums where he lives. A Hezbollah/Hamas/Sadr militia model of social welfare.

I’m guessing that the vogue in kidnapping in the past decade has something to do with technology: the spread of cell phones, the Internet, and the availability and affordability of an arsenal of new, powerful weapons. In Sao Paulo, kidnappings are running at a rate of one per day. In Manda Bala we see, first, evil faceless kidnappers. Then, the tough cops who hunt them down like dogs (81 cops in a city of 20 million, poorly paid and prone to accept bribes). As mentioned above, the filmmakers try to find a kidnapper to interview. They learn about one in prison but the bribes necessary to get to him would have busted the movie budget, so eventually, by luck, they hooked up, through that traditional source of connections, the cab driver, with a kidnapper in a ski mask. (Hard to find a ski mask in Brazil? Couple of the classic ski resorts in the Andes have closed because their glaciers have melted.) This man in the mask had killed and would kill again (but as he tells us in his defense, he’s mostly just killed policemen). He has robbed. He has kidnapped. He’s done ears. He’s probably instantly identifiable in that mask to anyone who already knows him, cop, neighbor, or victim, from his eyes, mouth, and voice. This is a man who has lived his life in the slums. Gives freely of his ill-gotten gains to his needy co-slum dwellers. Nine kids. Wife pregnant with number 10. For me, him talking about his family is the most affecting moment in the film. As he is interviewed, police snoop around nearby and the filmmakers are wishing that they had worn Kevlar vests for the occasion. Later, after the movie was completed, the police caught up with the man. He killed two of them and they shot him in the stomach and shoulder. On the way to the hospital, he acquired a third bullet hole, this one in the head.

Juxtaposed with the kidnapping material are scenes documenting a serious case of political corruption. That juxtaposition is the point of the movie, not the fact of the corruption itself, which has been endemic in Brazil from the jump in 1500. Europe’s relationship with the country was exploitive for centuries, as wood, gold, sugar, and coffee were carried off across the Atlantic. (And if memory serves, the pre-Columbian Native Americans were a shifty-eyed lot around those parts as well.)

Regrettably, as I did with the kidnapping segments, I took Manda Bala to be informing me of something that I already knew, not recontextualizing the facts being presented. As I watched, I had the thought that finding corruption in Brazil is like finding penguins in Antarctica. You can make an interesting documentary about your discovery, but the basic fact of it is not surprising. Just to say again, Kohn wasn’t finding penguins in Brazil, because he knows a hundred times more about corruption in that country than I ever will, for sure; just that it seemed that way to me as a first-time viewer of the movie.

The politician highlighted here, Jadar Barbalho, President of the Senate (or something), took millions – make that two billion, so greedy – from the government via public works programs, and sent it out of the country while in the process created over 400 businesses to wash the money, employing the poor of his state. Who knows how much he kept for himself, but enough trickled out into the community to get him re-elected. Naturally he never paid for his crimes. Compare and contrast this with a president of our own who takes a trillion or so for a bogus war, most of which finds its way into the pockets of the corporations of his buddies. Would he have been reelected in Brazil as he was in the U.S.? But no more snark. I’m just sayin. An oil man becomes president and the oil companies make more money than any business in history. As someone asked the other day, if Colonel Sanders were elected and the price of fried chicken went up 500%, would anybody ask why? But no more snark. Those of us who are Americans (as we blithely call ourselves in the U.S.) live in an environment that fomented the savings and loan debacle of the 80s, the tech collapse of the 90s, energy deregulation and Enron, and the current mortgage crisis. What do I care about a corrupt official in Brazil when the government here has turned me and my 401K over to a global business culture as immoral and rapacious as any fallen angel let loose in the Sacred Heart girls dormitory on the Night of the Dead? Nah, I’m just kidding. But there is a reason to care about corruption in Brazil, in addition to simply exercising our basic humanity, a reason which I’ll get around to in a second.

Brazil wants and needs foreign investment, but the country’s reputation for corruption is a problem for it. Lula da Silva ran on a platform to clean up the government, but whether he really meant that or not, he has encountered a bureaucracy designed, built, and endlessly refined over centuries to encourage and nurture bribery and all the other time-tested methods of fiscal chicanery specific to the human species. Voters hoped that Lulu’s election would bring change, but money laundering and manipulation of large government contracts in thousands of cases like the frog farm have continued to be reported. Public trust in the political system is poisoned. Although Lula da Silva himself seems to have remained clean, some of his closest political allies have been or are being investigated. He governs by coalition, and coalition means political bribery. A mensalão (‘monthly pay-off’) bought votes in Congress; scandal resulted in 2005. Polls indicate that a majority of Brazilians still believe that Lula is honest, but only 16% trust the political parties to be honest. The government may be one of the most corrupt in history and that corruption interferes with the government’s attempts to control the imbalance in economic status and the unrest and crime that it causes.

If it were just a matter of humans preying on humans, the situations in this movie could be applied to many different countries. But unfortunately, Brazil happens to be home to most of the Amazon rainforest. I’ve already pointed out once, when reviewing Out of Balance, that the world is going straight to hell. But since that is sort of a trippy concept and there are infinite engaging examples that adumbrate the approaching darkness and chaos, a few more words on the subject might not come amiss.

That is, forget about the kidnappers and their predilection for de-earing their captives. Brazil is busy tearing out the lungs of the world and has been for years. While Brazilian engineers tout the use of satellite technology to save the Amazon rainforest, loggers, miners, and farmers keep on cutting. 20% of Earth’s oxygen is produced by the rainforest (soon to be remembered only as that place down there that gave Amazon.com its name). Marina Silva, Brazil’s environment minister and an Amazon native, has developed a plan to stop deforestation, which is currently progressing at 1.3 million hectares a year. She breaks the problem down geographically into specific areas. However, in spite of Brazil’s struggle to implement her plan, the country remains the fifth-largest global contributor to greenhouse gases. It’s up there with the big boys: the U.S., China, and India. Deforestation is the second most significant source of atmospheric carbon dioxide in the world, contributing 25% of carbon emissions to the atmosphere. In a major operation in 2005, nearly 90 public officials, businessmen, and loggers were arrested. Environmental protection agency (IBAMA) employees charged with protecting the forests from illegal loggers had been accepting bribes from logging companies in return for falsifying permits to transport timber to markets within Brazil and abroad. The illegal logging takes place primarily in Mato Grosso, where environmental organizations estimate that two-thirds of all logging was being carried out illegally. IBAMA has been reorganized in an attempt to eliminate corruption, but it’s too early to see if that’s doing any good. (Care to hazard a guess?)

I’m sure that you’ve read or heard factoids like “One square mile of rainforest can contain more than 50,000 insect species” or “One hectare (2.47 acres) of land can contain more than 480 species of trees” or “Amazon rivers contain over 2,000 species of fish.” 1.5 acres of rainforest is lost every second in the world – 78 million acres a year. At this rate, 85% of Earth’s remaining rainforest will disappear by the year 2020. 137 species of plants and animals go extinct every day.

Every so often, a ray of light gleams out, such as a recent conference of 11 Latin American countries in Brazil, with Indonesia and Congo as observers, held for and attended by leaders of indigenous groups in those countries. They explored carbon-trading policies that would compensate thier governments for conserving rainforest. In Brazil, indigenous tribes currently retain permanent rights to 12% of the country and 21% of the Amazon, plus 49 million acres of “extractive reserves” for rubber tappers, brazil-nut gatherers, and river communities. They pressure the government, which promises to get tough on logging. Deforestation rates in the country have been declining for several years (with a spike a couple of years ago). But the good news doesn’t stretch much farther than that.

So while Manda Bala doesn’t say much on the subject, here’s a toast to that ticking end-of-the-world clock. Brazil is another of America’s crazy brothers. When the awards are handed out for biggest environmental f**k-up, Brazil, like the U.S., could be jumping out of its seat to accept a gold statue in the shape of a dead planet. The sanctimonious super-rich in both countries are on their easy ride straight down to the hottest chambers of hell. Brazil, entrusted with the largest, most diverse, most important stretch of biosphere on the planet, contains the struggling yet increasing armies of the poor who are systematically reducing the country to barren baked red mud, so that “Amazonia” will in due course become a synonym for “Martian landscape.” Governmental corruption, taken to a degree that proves without doubt that humans, who learned to walk long before learning to think, are true experts at f**king up the world and each other with no hope for the obverse in sight.

A Brazilian friend told me the other day that at one point she was worried that the U.S. would send down troops and attack her country because of the way it is destroying the rainforest. I explained to her that we’re happy to attack a desert country with oil under it, but that the current E.P.A. wouldn’t know a rainforest if it found itself staggering around in one, or care.

Another angle to this is Brazil’s use of sugar-cane waste to produce ethanol, and the concomitant questions raised about the effect of this production on the environment – encroachment on the rain forest, the practice of burning the fields at harvest time, insecticide and fertilizer runoff, etc. We’ll save this for another time.

Anyway, do you believe that the Amazon will be saved? We can now see the scars on it from space.

But I digress.

In addition to the kidnapping and corrupt-politician threads, there are threads for the frogs and Mr. M. I know that the frogs are part of the corruption story but as I watched I just took them to be frogs. I know that they are an in-your-face unsubtle metaphor for the Brazilian people or the Brazilian poor or the Brazilian rich, or whatever, at least until they get eaten, but I remained oblivious to this idea while watching the movie. The frogs remained frogs. At what point in the making of the movie did Jonah, Joey, Jared, and Doug appreciate the metaphorical character of the frogs? Surely not before Jonah and Joey went down to shoot them for the first time?

Mr. M, I know now, was meant to show how the current social situation in Brazil can engender a kind of paranoia in its citizenry but unfortunately, while watching the movie, I took Mr. M (originally from Tel Aviv) to be a sort of spokesman for the film’s theses. Given my mindset, his exposition of the dire situation in the country went over the top to the detriment of the movie.

So is this user error? Missing the expressionist vibe? Merging instead of contrasting the frogs and Mr. M with the kidnappers and the corrupt politician?

Because Sao Paulo is huge. Skyscraper gardens. More money than the rest of Latin America. 20 million people is a whole lot of people, poor, rich, and otherwise. Within city limits, only Mumbai, Karachi, Istanbul, and Delhi are larger. (NYC is 9th.) For whatever reason, the sheer size and diversity of the city makes me want to take everything I’m seeing literally. The complexity seems too large for metaphor, too complicated to submit to Mr. M’s simple paranoia.

The first time in Sao Paulo, I was alone. I walked down to the edge of Paraisópolis, the city’s largest favela, and sat down and watched the activity in the street. There was a street game of some kind going one, played by a gang of young boys. One of them, small but intense, was obviously their leader. When in due course they made their way over to me, I hired that boy as my guide for a week, paying him a lot even by U.S. standards. He turned his gang over to his second in command and took control of my stay in the city. By the time I left at the end of the month I was almost dead from exhaustion.

By the way, Sao Paulo’s U.S. sister city is Miami.

Before finishing here, we must deal with the charges of sensationalism lodged against Manda Bala by various reviewers. The filmmakers dismiss the charges by pointing out that: (a) They’re exhibiting reality. Calling it sensationalism is snobbish and elitist. It’s the movie’s responsibility to portray reality. The viewer needs to know that what they are seeing and hearing about is real. (b) The filmmakers are themselves curious. They want to see how things are, what things look like. (c) Kidnappees suffer. It’s necessary for you to see that suffering, not just listen to descriptions of it.

Regarding the surgery scenes, which were storyboarded, lit, shot using a dolly, but fortunately not rehearsed, I refer you to Nip/Tuck. Regarding the ear-cutting-off footage, I refer you to Fox News any night of the week and to my Abu Ghraib album. Regarding the guns, I refer you to The Wire.

Rebuilt earlobes are hard because they’re made out of rib.

“I watched The Birds the same day they cut my first ear off. That night I dreamed the birds pecked my ear off.”

Jars of ears cut off with knives, scissors, teeth.

“I said to him, How could you sleep? You cut my ears off last night.”

The filmmakers left out the footage of a frog eating an ear.

They did not leave out the footage of a frog eating a frog.

And that frog abattoir… the slaughtering and skinning and dressing out and carving up and flouring and deep-fat frying and eating of the frogs. Is this Fast Food Nation, or what? Didn’t make me want to buy a bag of Frog McNuggets.

Car paintball.

Weener dog on pool slide.

Wait a minute. Which way am I arguing here?

Point is, the scenes in question don’t rise to the level of sensationalism, not in today’s suicide-bomber-a-day world, nevermind true docuporn. I remember sitting in Symphony Cinema II in Boston watching Mondo Cane in 1962. The guy getting hair plugs – that stayed with me.

Would it be so wrong to put in at least one scene at a topless beach?

What’s wrong with the Sundance awards? We’ll deal with that question another time.

Is the film fair and balanced? Is it too dark? Is Kohn afraid to show anything positive because it might diminish the points that the movie is attempting to make. Does the lack of good news weaken the film’s arguments? Just saw a headline in Drudge: “Global Temps Have Not Risen Since ’98.” See?

From the NYT: “Good News From Brazil. The global economy may not be the happiest of stories these days, but it would be a far more tragic one had Brazil suffered a financial implosion in the past year, as many had feared. If Brazil, Latin America’s largest nation, had defaulted on its $250 billion public debt, as neighboring Argentina had done, the consequences would have been catastrophic. The resulting panic would have affected not only Latin America, but all emerging markets.” More good news. The rich are not getting poorer.

And that recent epidemic of dengue fever, causing many deaths? The good news is that it wasn’t the hemorrhagic variety in most cases, which causes a much higher death rate.

Manda Bala II: The Good Politician, The Kidnapper Who Found God, and Frogs As Pets.

The music track is excellent.

So Jonah, Joey, and Jared worked hard and did good and I congratulate them. As Jonah says, “Making the first one is about making the second one.” He’s currently working on a screenplay. Winning a big award the first time out can be both blessing and curse. Let’s hope that it’s more of the former and less of the latter for these three. And if you haven’t seen Pixote or Cidade de Deus, please do so.

Äideistä parhain (Mother of Mine) (2005)

In my capacity as a Spout Maven, I’ve reviewed a number of films distributed by Film Movement, including Mother of Mine, the movie under discussion here, A Peck on the Cheek, Be With Me, and Drifters. The promotional material included with the DVDs of these movies and the introductions on the disks themselves describe Film Movement as a film-of-the-month subscription club. Members receive award-winning foreign films in early release, by mail, “to keep,” once a month. The films can later be found at Netflix, Blockbuster, or your local library. A nifty idea for some few film buffs, but every time that I hear about this club, I worry about its health and survivability. What kind of market can there be for a little club like this? How long can a company like Film Movement survive, if it relies upon a subscription base that is bound to be relatively small?

Visiting the company’s website, I saw that Film Movement now also acts as a film distributor, with theatrical, institutional, television, DVD, rental, retail, wholesale, in-flight, and emerging-channel segments. Larry Meistrich, who founded the company as a film club in 2001, has since moved on. I contacted Film Movement to ask about their move into distribution and how it now compared, revenue-wise, with the subscription side of the business. After some back and forth, the president of the company, Adley Gartenstein, was kind enough to update me on Film Movement’s current direction. His response, in part: “The original plan was to be a DVD-of-the-month club. Now we pride ourselves on being a full-service North American distribution company with many creative and successful windows of exploitation. We still have a DVD of the month which gets an exclusive window, often before the theatrical. We think of it as a private preview club. But it is the smallest revenue generator for us. It is still important to us and we feel very devoted to our loyal members, but we have over the last two years put a lot of resources into building our theatrical distribution and our VOD channel. I am proud to say we have had our greatest box office success with our recent theatrical releases, and we launched a VOD channel called Film Festival on Demand which is available in approximately 9 million homes and we expect it to grow to 18 million during 2009.” So I can enjoy watching and reviewing their films without feeling concern for them.

Meanwhile, Äideistä parhain (Mother of Mine) is a well-made Finnish film that I enjoyed and that I can recommend. Solidly acted and beautifully shot around Turku, Finland and Ystad, Skåne, on the southern coast of Sweden, the movie tells the tale of a boy taken from his mother during World War II, who must adjust to a new family in a neutral country but then return home, fundamentally altered by his experience.

The boy Eero (Topi Majaniemi) is called upon to look concerned, angry, pensive, and occasionally to ask a question or blurt out a passionate protest, and does it all well. I watched Birth the other night and Cameron Bright, another ten-year-old actor, comports himself well in the same way, including his time in the bathtub with Nicole Kidman. The dialog in Mother of Mine is limited, the expressions heartfelt. Eero’s Swedish foster parents, Signe and Hjalmar (Maria Lundqvist and Michael Nyqvist) made me want to go live on the farm, too. I’ve got a soft spot for movie dads who stand up straight, square their shoulders, and with great sympathy say and do the right thing when it isn’t easy to. Atticus Finch comes to mind. In my younger days I had a good friend who was a farmer. He didn’t say much, but he was as solid as a rock and when he spoke, he meant what he said and he always made sense. Michael Nyqvist in this film reminds me of him.

Eero’s mom, Kirsti, played by Marjaana Maijala, provides the Finnish glamour. Esko Salminen and Aino-Maija Tikkanen, Eero and Kirsti in their twilight years, both seem sufficiently worn down by life to contrast dramatically with their younger selves. And what is it about Scandanavian husbands and wives arguing with each other? Have we been trained by Bergman to just settle back and enjoy it as the two of them go back and forth in that Scandanavian tongue while outside their mossy-roofed houses the wind bends the grass in waves on the förtöja?

It says here that the movie is quite different from the book it was based upon. Or does it say that? Sample Google translation to English of Swedish webpages on the subject:

“Härö not, in any case would like to condemn other people more closely than themselves. Haluaisin olla rmollisempi mutta toisaalta myös rohkeampi sanomaan stop silloin, kun tiedän, että jokin asia on väärin. “I would like to have Merciful but on the other bolder also say stop, when I know that one of asia is wrong. Haluaisin astua rohkeammin heikkojen puolelle.» I would like to enter braver the weak side.”

He’s just sayin. The director Härö is in his thirties, whereas the author of Äideistä parhain, Heikki Hietamies, was born in 1933 and would have been the age of Eero during the Russian/Finnish conflict. Hietamies is known to include considerable autobiographical material in his fiction.

And finally, this is a golden age for cinematographers. Having just admired Raúl Pérez Ureta’s work in Madeinusa, I got to feast my eyes on Jarkko T. Laineen’s Skåne. Some of these movies are so good-looking, it’s worth putting up with any other problems in them just to take in the views.

One question I did have: The boy goes from Finland to Sweden. He has to learn Swedish, which probably wasn’t easy, as Finish is not an Indo-European tongue and completely unrelated to Swedish. There is a great deal of correspondence by letter in the movie – writing letters, reading letters, reading the letters out loud, so forth, shots of the letters lying around. Did Kirsti write in Finnish? If so, how could Signe read them as she did (the movie made clear that she didn’t speak or understand Finish). Likewise with letters from Signe to Kirsti. I’m guessing that Härö skated over this one.

This concludes my review of Mother of Mine. In what follows, I speculate about why the director, Klaus Härö, made some of the choices that he did as he shot and cut together the movie.

Note: The movie features a busy flock of Skåne geese. These good-natured birds have lived in southern Sweden since the Stone Age and I was all awww at the sight of the notable fowl until while chatting with a relative from Ystad, I learned that, at least for him, the main function of the Skåne goose is to act as centerpiece at the family’s annual Martinmas dinner.

I was listening to a movie podcast the other day and one of the hosts on it opined in passing that there has never been a movie with bookends that wouldn’t have been better without them. (Bookends are single scenes at the beginning and end of a movie that together serve as a framing device for the narrative, providing context or serving a variety of other dramatic and esthetic purposes.) This caught my ear for two reasons: I had just watched Flawless, an ok though silly movie that uses bookends to first misdirect and then uplift the viewer, effectively, I thought; and Chaos Theory, the bookends for which just provide extra time to enjoy the happy ending; and somewhere recently I heard or read that Mother of Mine itself included bookends. As I listened to the podcast, I imagined myself on it, called upon to defend the Mother-of-Mine bookends. Later while actually watching the movie, I discovered that while bookends are present, I was interested in all of the movie’s non-sequential scenes, not just those at start and finish. I ended up noting all of Härö’s chronological editing choices and herewith speculate on why he made them – why he arranged scenes in the order that he did. Was he shuffling clips in time to mask a lack of dramatic material, or to reset expectations in the narrative arc, or infuse the film with artificial nostalgia, or perhaps gin up a little auteur before releasing his small Finnish film into the Eurocinema market?

*****SPOILERS ALERT: Various plot points are discussed below, in detail.*****

First, the bookends:

An onscreen notice informs us that during Finnish/Russian hostilities at the beginning of World War II, 70,000 children were sent from Finland to safety in non-combatant countries, most to Sweden. Then, the movie begins with Eero the boy standing in the woods, staring up at the stars at night. We hear him, voice over, now sixty, saying “Mother, do you still remember how it all began? How the war began?” Russian bombers approach and bombs fall. (At first impact the boy is startled and jumps so convincingly that the director might have fired off a gun right behind him on the set.) The boy runs to his mother and they cling to each other outside their home. Cut to present day for the opening bookend. Eero at sixty brings his mother a birthday present, late. It is clear that they are estranged and have been so for a long time. He tells her that he’s been to a woman’s funeral in Sweden. Quick cut back to his visit to a farm in Sweden for the funeral. We understand that he spent time there as a boy and that he had a strong bond to the woman who has died; his mother comments about this in voiceover. Härö, the director, is telling us immediately that war came, that mother and son survived it, but that something happened in Sweden to destroy the bond between them – the bond dramatized as they held each other during the bombing raid. Given the notice at the beginning about war children and this awkward moment between the two adults, the theme of the movie is announced: sending the children to safety was not to be all good. The leading bookend ends with a cut back to a time when mother, father, and boy were still together and happy.

The movie ends with a trailing bookend, again mother and son: the old Eero, touching his mother’s arm as he leaves her, signifying reestablished emotional contact after a lifetime, makes his way outside to look up again at the stars, and the scene fades into the original image of him as a boy looking up.

In my last review, I wondered why some movies are better the second time around. One reason, or so I supposed, was that in some cases on second viewing you aren’t waiting for something bad to happen when nothing bad is going to happen. You know what’s coming and what’s not coming and can spend your time enjoying the movie scene by scene, without, for example, worrying that someone is going to get killed at any moment. One way that a director can help the viewer get a leg up on such enjoyment the first time around rather than the second, is to serve notice up front of what to expect. Such might be the case with the director of Mother of Mine. Before the movie begins, he posts the notice about war children. Then he shows us the child of interest and informs us with the bookends that Eero and his mother both will survive the war and live out their lives. And so, with this introduction, we know in advance that the boy and his mother and his temporary alternate mother are all going to live through the war, that he will develop a bond with the alternate mother, and that he will become estranged from his mother. Perhaps this presages some trauma to him that will cause this fifty-year emotional separation from her. We do know that no resolution of their problems will come when he is young; whatever happened back then, it has taken the man fifty years to approach his mother with reconciliation in mind. In other words, the bookends are not entirely volitional for the director. He can start with a bookend or, at the end of the movie, he’s going to have to do a “fifty years later…” jump to get to this resolution. The other, untaken, option would have been for mother and son to settle up while they were both still young. But with the bookends, as viewers we are invited to experience the unfolding film as one instance of the lasting bad effects of war on a child. Or so we imagine.

And now, the other flashback and flashforward cuts in the movie and my speculations about them:

CUT: Back to Eero’s happy family time before the bombs fall. Having set the context, the director returns to the beginning of the story and the movie now proceeds sequentially in time. Father leaves to fight. Jump ahead to news that father is dead. Jump ahead from there to Eero being shipped out to Sweden. The movie moves forward steadily now in time, with no flashforwards and only three flashbacks to Finland that serve to emphasize how much Eero misses his mother and worries about her, and how hard it is to get a straight answer out of her about the dangers ahead. These come one-quarter, one-half, and three-quarters through the movie.

Up to this point, the movie has fleshed out its central thesis with a variety of dramatic incidents, that thesis being, again, that in the fog of war, the adults try to shield the children from physical and psychological harm, in this case by (a) removing them to a distant safe place and (b) refusing to share with them any meaningful details about the actual situation at hand. Kirsti (the boy Eero’s mom) and his dad (before his death) tell Eero only that everything will soon be fine and as before. However, children hear things. Eero hears of the Russian bombing of Helsinki. He hears that his mother is working for the Nazis. His overriding concern for his mother interferes with him forming any sort of connection with his new foster mother, Signe. The adults’ refusal to share information with him is only exacerbated by what he does manage to learn on his own.

A word on war children: The term can refer to children forced to serve in the army during a war (widespread in Somalia), children left behind when their soldier fathers go home (children of Viet Nam fathered by American soldiers; children of Finland fathered by Nazis), or children displaced by war, like those in England (the Narnia books), Finland, and Germany. The first of the Finnish children sent to safety in other countries (mostly to Sweden) left during the Winter War between Finland and Russia (30 November 1939 to 13 March 1940). At that time, most believed that Russia would easily invest Finland. Finnish parents feared the coming Russians and their mistreatment of women and children. In the event, Russia took Karelia and then the struggle bogged down and a truce was agreed. After an interim, Finland signed a pact with Germany, Great Britain declared war against Finland (but didn’t do much fighting there), and with Germany’s assistance, Finland took back Kerelia. This second phase of their war with Russia the Finns named the Continuation War (25 June 1941 to 19 September 1944). Russia and Germany saw it simply as part of the struggle against each other. Most of the children sent out of the country left as their parents returned to Karelia to rebuild. Finland later fought Germany in Lapland. Between 60,000 and 80,000 children were moved out of Finland during these periods of conflict, most during the Continuation War. (If the children were all as much trouble as Eero, 80,000 seems like an awful large number.) 20% never returned (about 15,000), because they had no family to return to, or because of concerns that Russia wasn’t finished with the country, or because the Finnish economy lay in ruins. Of those who did return, a large number went back to Sweden during Finland’s economic doldrums and Sweden’s hot economy of the 1950s and 1960s. Studies conducted later suggest that the children who stayed behind in Finland made out better than those who left, psychologically. There were 2,000 civilian casualties in Finland during the war, some of them children, but a much greater number of the war children struggled to adjust once the war ended, part of their problem being that the country was unaware of any such problem. There is a documentary, War Children (Sotalapset)(2003) on the subject. The movie seems a little casual about chronology, but we know for sure that Eero doesn’t arrive in Sweden before late 1942, because that’s the year on Signe’s daughter’s gravestone. Yet after Eero talks to his mother over the phone at Christmas dinner, we’re given a scene where the Russians bomb Helsinki and to me, the implication was that this was happening for the first time; that bombing occurred in December, 1939.

To this point, one hour into the movie, the director’s use of cuts to jump back and forth in time seem straightforward to me. He sets context at the outset by placing a scene in present time and he uses three flashbacks during his telling of Eero’s story to emphasize the impact of events in Skåne on Eero’s frame of mind. We have seen Eero grow increasingly concerned about his mother and her welfare, making two attempts to return to Finland, at the risk of his own life. As he tells Signe, he doesn’t want his mother to die. But the director now jumps forward into bookend territory again. Why? The immediate impression is that we’ve reached a point of inflection in the narrative and this jump lets us catch our breath and serves as a semicolon: the boy now will settle in at the farm. The old Eero says to his mother, “You did survive, but I wasn’t important to you.” Puzzling. Where does this come from? He was obviously important to her, in every scene so far. Or does he mean that she didn’t keep him adequately informed? “Do you want me to have a guilty conscience again?” she asks him. “No, Mother. That’s exactly what I don’t want.” “Why didn’t you ever talk about it?” his mother asks. Aha. So we now learn, in advance, that after he returns from Sweden, he won’t talk to his mother about his experiences there. “I tried but you didn’t listen,” he says. Hmm. So obviously we don’t know what’s going on here. The conversation is essentially a foreshadowing. “Not true,” Kirsti says. “I would’ve listened. I’m your mother.” “You just wanted everything to be all right. That’s what you wrote me and I never knew how you were doing.” “You were only a child. You must understand that. I couldn’t burden you with my worries. Why didn’t you talk when you came back home?” she asks. “Talk to you?” “Who else?” “Don’t you understand? You weren’t my mother anymore.” So. Foreshadowing. We’ve already seen that Eero is constantly frustrated in his need to know how his mother is doing back in Finland. Her failure to be forthcoming is the cause of what is to come, it seems. We’ll now see how his mother’s refusal to share her situation with him culminates in his rejecting her as his mother and taking Signe to replace her.

Why this jump to what seems to be bookmark 1b? Why foreshadow Eero’s apparently upcoming lifelong change of allegiance to Signe? Is this break in the nature of an intermission plus recapitulation? Or is the director unsure of his case and arguing for it in advance? Will Eero’s concerns for his mother simply ebb now? Has he maintained his relationship with Signe up to the present day? (Recall that he’s just come from her funeral.) Why come to his mother now to discuss this after fifty years of silence? Is Härö just reminding us that we’re vectored in the end to this elderly couple, so that we don’t come to the end of the movie and think “Oh, yeah, forgot about this part” when we get there? The answer is that Härö has a couple of revelations in store for us and needs more time to set them up than the end of the film allows, but watching the movie in real time, my reaction was “Huh?” All signs up till then pointed to a simple but powerful human drama, told without artifice. So that perhaps here Härö here is simply articulating what he has been showing heretofore – that Kirsti chose the wrong path in addressing the concerns of the child by not talking/sharing frankly enough with him. This should be the essence of the movie. Eero here implies that it is the essence, that because his mother would never share the truth with him, he finally transferred his emotional attachment to Signe (who, ironically, shared even less with him than his mother did, in the end). The director, however, did not trust this human truth enough to let it carry the movie, even though he showcases it here. Instead, in what follows he extends the lack of communication between adult and child into the realm of soap opera, ruining the film’s chances for emotional greatness. It turns out, as we come to see, that Eero isn’t talking as much about his mother’s refusal to share up until this point in the narrative, as about a misapprehension that he acquires later on. Given that fact, the dialog in this interlude was a real head-scratcher. Quite a bit of plot machinery, relatively speaking, will be required to resolve it while I, as a simple viewer watching it, was still back on the farm with Eero recovering from his frantic attempts to escape.

The movie proceeds, with Signe and Hjalmar learning that Kirsti has a German lover; Kirsti asks them to keep it a secret and raise her boy. Eero learns of this. After all his worry, he now learns that his mother doesn’t want him back. He is accepted into the Jönsson family. Flash forward to see him at Signe’s funeral; this cut is used in the same way as the three flashbacks in the first half of the movie – to accentuate his feelings and experiences when young, in this case by contrasting them with his grief at Signe’s death.Back to his happy life with his new family. Signe swears that she’ll never let him go. The war ends. A letter comes from Kirsti; she’s changed her mind. Signe doesn’t tell Eero. She struggles to keep him, but can’t. He returns to Finland, unhappily.

And so, now, one-and-a-half hours into the movie, in the final less-than-ten-minutes of the boy’s narrative, Härö has one last opportunity to dramatize the effect of the war and Eero’s separation from his mother. Eero arrives in Finland not knowing that his mother wants him back and not knowing that Signe only let him go because Kirsti did want him so badly. This information has been withheld from him. As far as he’s concerned, an indifferent mom ordered him back and a promise-breaking Signe made him go. If the director had trusted the simple power of the situation, he could have let Signe tell the boy that his mother wanted him, and then they could have both dealt with their conflicting emotions, and Eero and Kirsti could have done the same. Or Härö could have let Signe withhold that information but then let mother and son have it out in Finland, with all revealed and dealt with at that end. But such would lead to reconciliation and healing and would undermine the whole point of the movie: that war children in many cases concluded their escape from war in a permanently damaged condition. Thus, the boy must refuse to talk to his mother and she must dither and let him remain silent, even though most moms at this point would force the child to discuss the situation presenting us with the scene we want to see and deserve to see without having to wait for a fifty-year jump for it to arrive, drained of its power by the decrepitude of the protagonists – the scene that could raise this film above melodrama. Eero confronting his mother with the fact that he knows about her lover. How could she be unfaithful to the memory of his father like that? How could she ask Signe to keep him if she truly loved him? And how could Signe, who also claimed to love him, now unaccountably send him back like this? The rage and grief of a damaged young soul, bared.

But no. Härö goes so badly wrong from the moment that Eero steps off the boat, back in Finland, if not already by having Signe stay mum. Härö turns his back on a grand dramatic opportunity. Instead, he sticks with the machinery of melodrama, which dictates that there are things that Eero must know and other things that he must not know. In the course of the movie, he must learn that his mother is in Helsinki, not at home; that she’s with a German; that she doesn’t want him back; that Signe wants him desperately and swears never to give him up. He must not know that his mother gives up the German for him and tells Signe so.

The children descend from the boat into the arms of their loving parents, with only Eero left to wait on the dock, isolated, for his mother’s late arrival. None of the other children demonstrate any visible damage, as Eero does. Why his mother’s late arrival? No reason. It’s a cheap melodramatic) beat, not meant to show that she is uncaring or unloving or irresponsible, but to mislead Eero into thinking that she doesn’t care enough to show up on time. It also suggests to the viewer that the mother is feckless, whereas her real faults in the movie have been, first, to try and protect her son by reassuring him in the face of evidence and fears to the contrary that he has nothing to worry about, when instead she needed to share more with him a fault that many parents would naturally fall prey to, and which might be part of an argument for not separating the family in the first place – and second, to fall in love while he is away and briefly consider giving him up – something that she then completely abjures, sacrificing her love for Jurgen instead of that for her son. So Härö does her a great disservice in the return scene, having her hustle in late for the return of her son, so as to unnecessarily ratchet up Eero’s alienation another notch. (And by the way, the smooth return of the other children, with only Eero having a problem as a consequence of the knowledge denied him, undercuts the director’s focus on the general damage incurred by the children because of their government’s policies.)

At any rate, Eero has nothing to say to his mother on his return, but instead of staying with this while his mother pursues it, we jump ahead an unspecified number of days to a knock at their apartment door. A letter arrives from Sweden as his mother prepares for a job interview. Eero answers the door. The postman knocks to deliver this letter? Eero tells him that Kirsti doesn’t live there anymore. The postman is mildly surprised but takes the ten-year-old’s word for it and mosies off, letter in hand. “Who was it?” Eero’s mother asks. He doesn’t answer, so as not to spoil the plot. “Eero,” his mother says, conveniently letting that go. “All the bad things are over. Mother is here now.” So much for confrontation. We’re just riding along on the missing information here. The letter sent back, we learn later, contains an explanation from Signe of why she hadn’t told Eero that his mother wanted him back, plus his mother’s original letter saying how much she loved him and wanted him back. The rigors of world war and their lifelong impact on a mother and child have here been reduced to Eero answering the door instead of his mother and sending an acquiescent postman on his way. Did Signe try again? We presume not. Did Kirsti ever write to her? We presume not. Did the two exchange xmas cards? Guess not.

In the present, the old Eero says, “I could never believe what you said. I thought you’d disappear at any moment. I felt I could lose everything at any moment. This,” he shows her the letter he caused to be sent back, “Signe had always wanted to give me. She’d always hoped I’d get them. Or we. They came with the funeral invitation.” His mother has never known that Signe’s letter existed, or that Signe had never shown her (Kirsti’s) letter to Eero.

Now he’s back weeping in the Skåne graveyard. and he reads the two letters. (As I mentioned above, presumably one letter is in Finnish and the other in Swedish. How did that work? We get glimpses of the pages but I couldn’t tell if this was so. Signe didn’t speak Finnish and I don’t imagine she read it either. Did Kirsti have her letters translated before sending? Ditto Signe? Just wondering.) The director is cutting around here to mask the simplicity of his plotting.

Bear with me now as Härö makes his final, climatic run at our hearts. He’s locked in to the final cuts, forced to spin out the reveal. The cuts are dictated to him by his initial lack of confidence in the power of his basic story idea. To repeat myself: wanting to make his point that the trauma of relocation can have, and did have, a lifelong negative effect on many of the children “saved,” he’s got to pay for earlier turning to the shopworn and fundamentally dishonest device of denying his protagonist necessary knowledge, not once but many times throughout the movie, instead of relying on truth in life and film, to propel the narrative forward. So that, the true climatic moments of “Mother of Mine” having been passed by, their power unrealized, moments used as no more than plot highlights, Härö is constrained to juggle the elements of what is really just coda material as he winds up the clockwork that he hopes, unrealistically, will trigger that release of powerful emotion in our breasts that he… How many metaphors have I mixed here? Sorry, I lost control there for a second.

Or, even worse, he had these cuts in mind from the beginning – this is the payoff that he wants – and he employed his gimmicks specifically to get us here.


Eero stands weeping in the Skåne graveyard and reads Signe’s letter, as we see her standing, looking like she did back when she wrote it, staring out to sea, and as she tells his mom to show him her (Kirsti’s) letter, and that she (Signe) was wrong not to show it to him when it came (although actually he probably heard Signe and Hjalmar arguing about it, but pretended that he didn’t), but that she loved him and didn’t hink that Kirsti did, although later she came to her senses about that, after Eero was gone, and wrote this letter. Signe faces the camera. “Please, Kirsti, let him read your letter so he’ll know.” (We presume that she’s sent the letter back with her own.) “And give up any hope of an Oscar.”

In the graveyard Eero puts the letter away and reads his mother’s. “Dear Signe. There is peace now in Finland, which is a huge relief to us all. Hans-Jurgen returned to Germany without me.”

The elderly mother Kirsti, who wrote the all-important returned unshared letter, is now shown continuing to read it aloud as Eero listens. “The German loves me more than anything and I love him, but I have to ask myself whom I love the most?”

Cut to Eero a week earlier, back in Skåne, staring out to sea after having just read this himself. Kirsti continues, voice-over, “I must’ve been blind and insane. How could I even consider leaving my own child? I may have to carry this guilt for the rest of my life.”

Now she’s young again, looking out at us. “But I ask of you, thankful for all that you’ve done, to send me my beloved son as soon as possible. And you’re right. This sort of thing blasts any Oscar hopes for us both.”

Back to the old Kirsti, reading. She and Eero eye each other. “60 years. a lifetime.” “It sounds ridiculous, but somehow it feels that a part of us has been left there in Skåne. That’s where I decided never to miss you,” Eero says.

I’m sitting on the couch regretting that last toke as I try to keep all this straight.

“But you did,” Kirsti says. “I did, Mother,” Eero says. “Now I understand it.” Huh? Understands what? That as a child he had known the part about the German and Kirsti asking Signe to take care of him, but not the part about Kirsti asking Signe to please send him back, after which Signe made him go home even, as he thought, Kirsti didn’t want him? Kirsti, Signe, and Eero are all just culpable enough, in just the right order, to replace a world war’s blame with their own.

Onscreen, mother and son touch. They’re reconciled after fifty empty years, but I’m not. I’m still reeling from the sequence of rapid cuts, back then and now, images of the pensive trio, all perhaps wondering, like I was on the couch, HOW THEY AVOIDED TALKING ABOUT THIS FOR HALF A CENTURY. He never went back to Skåne? He never asked his mother why Signe sent him back if she, his mother, wanted to go with the German? But there is no point in asking questions like this because the whole narrative is artifice.

These is a deep irony in this movie. Two mothers, one blood and one surrogate, love Eero. As a consequence of their own weaknesses, their actions taken together rob him of the ability to trust either of them. Only at the age of 60 does he come to fully understand this. Thus love, rather than hate or indifference, wounds him worst in the war. Love and a clunky script. See, if THIS – the letters – caused the problem, then it’s no wonder all the other kids ran to their parents when they got off the boat in Finland. All this talk in Finland about alienated children – never happened – because the chain of events that we watch causing the problems is so unlikely. Perhaps the director did not trust himself to tell the basic story, with it’s raw simplicity. Perhaps he made up his mind early on that the boy, in later life, would finally come to terms with the traumas that he suffered as a child. Whatever the reason, to tell his story, he fell back on, or was made to use through lack of imagination, a number of tricks of the melodramatic trade that perforce weakened the movie – its narrative and its impact. So wrong. The point of the movie is to demonstrate why the strategy of moving kids from their homes and relocating them in a foreign country did as much harm as good, and here, this is why? Because a Desperate Housewife/Hollywood Romantic Comedy sidetracked a boy’s affections for his mother for fifty years? The obvious conclusion to be drawn by the viewer, then, is that it was a good idea to ship Eero out, if only Signe and Kristi had stepped up to their responsibilities as in real life they would have (or wouldn’t have, but for more quotidian reasons).

Eero leaves his mother now. Outside in the night, he looks up. He sees the stars. He smiles. Smile if you wish, oh Eero, but you’re sixty, your mother is in her eighties, and Signe has moved on to make another movie.

Segue fade to the young boy staring up at the night sky at the beginning of the movie. Back at the beginning. And this time, Härö, just tell the truth.

LOL (2006)

If I’m in the mood for a Western, I want horses. If I’m in the mood for explosions, I go to a Jerry Bruckheimer or Michael Bay movie. In either case, I don’t want, say, Max Von Sydow playing chess with Death in some black-and-white hovel on the rocky shores of Sturnnveggloven. In the same way, if I’m in the mood to watch echo-boomer twenty-somethings filming their friends hanging out with each other in small apartments and on the urban stoop and in the homes and basements of their parents and grandparents, none of whom will ever appear onscreen, then for those of you who haven’t seen one such film before, this would be mumblecore.

I mention this in case you’re confronted with the movie LOL on one of those evenings when you in fact don’t want an unscripted little semi-plotless handheld film, but instead crave a Hollywood-du-jour mind-destroying offering like those which are currently available at the Metroplex. No sense wasting a tasty little morsel like this one when you really want a Big Mac, to torture the metaphor.


But no, actually, I don’t think that I can spoil LOL for you just by writing about it. On the contrary, I’m guessing that the more you know about this movie before you watch it – the more prepared you are for it – the more you’ll appreciate it. But if you’re the type that likes to screen a movie cold, sans preconception and foreknowledge, then stop reading now and go do something else. Thank you.

Meanwhile, from Joe Swanberg the director: “LOL more than any other movie I’ve shot was a process of throwing things into the pot and seeing what comes out.”

Out of the pot this time came three young men, Alex (Kevin Bewersdorf), Chris (C. Mason Wells), and Tim (Swanberg himself). The conceit here was meant to be that cell phones, PCs, and other electronic means of communication would interfere, ironically, with the boys’ relationships with women – Alex with Walter (Tipper Newton), Chris with Greta (Greta Gerwig), and Tim with Ada (Brigid Reagan). Modest underlying plot points and arcs to the three stories are provided, but I didn’t pay much attention to them, and still don’t understand at least one of the climatic moments at the end of the film. In this respect, I treated the movie in the same way that I treat those complicated action flicks with convoluted plots. That is, I ignored the details and trusted that if I ever did take the trouble to pay attention, if I ever did truly make a study of the film, then all would in fact make sense to me in the end. But I didn’t.

In my defense on this point, it seems ok to me to watch the movie in the same way that it was made, which is to say, incrementally. Swanberg started out working on a little two-week to one-month film. Bewersdorf was back from Germany for his sister’s wedding and signed up to do the music for the film. Tipper Newton agreed to come over to Chicago for a month. Wells was going to be leaving the city but had some time before he did. So forth. Without a script or shooting schedule, Swanberg went out every day, camera in hand (Panasonic DVX 100, 24p mode, 16×9, standard definition video because this was pre-HD, but nobody at the time was shooting with this except for documentaries, because it wasn’t considered a narrative camera. And at least five guys handled it, depending upon who was in the scene), to see what would develop. So that instead of visiting Beversdorf’s grandmother’s basement once to shoot everything that they needed, for example, they ended up going back ten times. Then Swanberg looked up one day and eight months had passed and he was scratching his head and asking himself how this had happened. Ideas, bits, plot points, and the next thing he knew, he was wrestling with a feature film. Not to say that the results aren’t worthy, but as a viewer I’m ok with letting the finer points of the interior story slide by the first time while I lounge back and take in what bits of invention, inspiration, and invention I can.

I’ve seen the movie labeled by some a comedy, and Swanberg himself refers to hilarious scenes and the laughter of audiences at different spots in it. Although I liked the movie, I never smiled once. I know that LOL was filmed in the summer of ’05, and Swanberg meant for the boys’ techie behavior in the movie to be over-the-top comedic (e.g., video clips and pics transferred between phones, online stripper webcam, beatbox videos, etc.). But that’s all normal behavior now.

Anyway, Swanberg planned to put the three geeky guys in motion and, as they made a mess of their personal relationships, to follow along and record the hilarity that ensued. The movie gods, however, intervened.

Alex, geeky guy number one, misses out on the girl in front of his eyes, the 19-year-old Walter, because, ironically, he is obsessed with Tessa, an online webcam suicide girl. ($5/mo. subscription)

But wait. Alex’s obsession with Tessa and his hopes for meeting up with her are not believable. Not these days. Swanberg says that back in the summer of ’05, such naivete was still possible. No it wasn’t. The immediate effect of this weak setup is to free us from the plot and allow us to pay more attention to the Alex onscreen in front of us.

Or, no, hang on. When I was in college, I myself was obsessing over Freda, a young woman who sat 15 feet away from me in orchestra, holding a cello between her legs. I gave her a lot of thought, way too much thought, but I couldn’t bring myself to actually approach her. Meanwhile, Sophie was stopping by my dormroom every couple of days to hang out and get high and talk about her boyfriend in Spain. Finally, after orchestra rehearsal one day, our conductor asked Freda and me to go out and put up some concert posters around the campus. We had just started and I was just warming up to finally ask her for a date when somebody ran by shouting that President Kennedy had just been shot. We split up to go watch the TV broadcasts from Dallas and I never did ask her out. Instead, she just kept soaking up my dating psychic energy. I now realize that Sophie and I… Well… She never did get back together with her boyfriend. And there she was, stretched out on my bed night after night smoking dope and eating Ho-Ho’s. What the hell was I thinking? So maybe Alex’s behavior with Tessa and Tipper isn’t so unbelievable after all.

But nevertheless, as for Alex being a geeky loser: first of all, Bewersdorf wrote all the music in the movie and it’s not bad. I knew that up front and for me that knowledge manufactured some serious Alex aura onscreen. Plus, secondly, he had been living and working in Germany, which for me enhanced the aura. Thirdly, he did the A/V beatbox-type montage clips that divide up the movie and they’re pretty neat. Fourthly, his dog Button is present. Alex feeds Button cookies. Must love dogs. Aura builder. Fifthly, Tipper Newton is right there next to him throughout the film and she obviously likes him. Chemistry. Sixthly, he’s got a little Tim Roth vibe going up there. Seventhly, yes he obsesses over the webcam stripper, but she’s Kate Winterich from “Kissing On the Mouth” and I was starting to obsess over her a little myself.

(And, btw, speaking of how the movie evolved, Swanberg called Newton and described the project and invited her to Chicago to meet Bewersdorf and see what she thought about working with him. She flew out and showed up at a party where Bewersdorf was performing. Swanberg filmed her watching Bewersdorf, whom she hadn’t met yet, and then her talking to him, and decided that the vibe was right, so he put that film in the movie as Alex and Walter’s first meeting. If the vibe hadn’t been right for him, Tipper would have gone back to school (she was 19 and in college and can be seen doing her homework onscreen in the St. Louis scenes) and the whole thread would have been dropped.)

So in the event, Alex, the supposedly hopeless geek, builds a screen presence that might not equal Brando in “On the Waterfront,” but ain’t too shabby, either. By the time the credits roll, he’s the man in this film. The way I read it, he wises up on his way back to Chicago from St. Louis, calls Walter, and they push the reset button.

Geeky guy number two is Tim. Tim spends all of his time on his PC and cell phone. His woman fumes. He’s hopeless! What a loser!

But hang on again. This Tim happens to be Joe Swanberg. Of course the dude is working on his PC. Of course he’s on the phone. His woman? Hell, he hired her to be in the movie. You’re telling me that he’s a hopeless geek because he’s acting like Joe Swanberg probably acts at home? Let’s ask Swanberg’s wife what she thinks of the movie. Or go ask Kevin Smith’s wife about husbands online. (Actually, listen to Smodcast and she’ll tell you direct.)

For example, there is a scene at the beach, with Swanberg working on his PC while his girlfriend flirts with a surfer dude. “You don’t look too comfortable out there,” somebody says to Swanberg on the commentary track. “Well,” he says. “I hadn’t been outside in three weeks.”

In other words, Tim and Ada aren’t right for each other. If she was right for him, he’d log off/hang up more often. No way his phone and PC take the rap for the couple’s problems in the sack.

Speaking of which, I’ve had a Blackberry in my back pocket since March ’01. Initially it was a litte thing powered by a single AA battery, with my corporate Exchange account on it and nothing else. Now it’s been replaced by a PPC, a Treo, and a SmartPhone, all of them running browsers, media players, with phones, recorders, cameras, and other options I don’t even know about. In bed before lights out at night, while the spousal unit reads a book, I’m surfing. And who’s on the cell more during the day, my SU or me? Her. Swanberg says that he filmed the Tim/Ada relationship with the idea that the two were almost through with each other anyway, so how to blame the electronics? The two could be any everyday modern couple.

So Tim, the supposedly hapless geek who loses his girlfriend at the end? He’ll find a better fit next time. Or the time after that.

You can see where I’m going with this.

Geek number three, Chris, is winding down his relationship with his girlfriend over the phone. He’s in Chicago and she’s in New York. Greta never actually appears live in the film. Instead, we hear her voice and see pictures of her that she sends over the phone. As the movie progresses, Chris and Greta, onscreen and in real life, spiral downward, relationship-wise. (Swanberg, because he uses non-actors and no script, frequently employs the technique of filming real-life situations.) Meanwhile, Chris gets lucky at a party. I’m not casting the first stone here about that. Chris and Greta are essentially separated. The phone is the only thing left keeping them in contact.

So yes, Chris does ask Greta for some naked pictures. Greta (the real-life Greta) was studying for finals and when Swanberg nudged her to produce, she closed her notebook, went into the college library bathroom, stripped in a stall, adopted a wide stance, took a set of photos, sent them to Swanberg on the spot, got dressed again, and went back to the books – in case you parents are wondering what your kids are doing at school this semester.

Post-movie, I see Chris, like Tim, meeting somebody new, whom he can spend time with in the flesh.

So this result in LOL – that the protagonists grow stronger in the face of Swanberg’s efforts to render them helpless – reminds us that for the millennial generation, so called, as for most kids in their 20s over the years, it’s the time of first experiencing true social connections and intimacy as an adult – life’s greatest adventure, not to get sappy about it. In LOL, the actors and their characters are left free at the end to move on and seek out whatever and whomever comes next for them. In the meantime, if you’re in the mood for it, spending 81 minutes with these young people could be a great idea. It was for me.

A Peck on the Cheek (2002)

Spoilers: This review contains spoilers.

I like movies that immerse me in a foreign culture. I’m a stay-at home vicarious traveler and I depend upon cinema to transport me from my couch to unfamiliar lands and introduce me to new cultures. “A Peck On the Cheek” fills the screen with 136 minutes of scenery, music, culture, drama, and life in southern India and Sri Lanka. I returned from my trip well satisfied.

The film tells the story of nine-year-old T. Amudha and her search for her real mother. On her ninth birthday her father tells her that she is adopted. Shocked, upset, disbelieving, she decides on the spot to find her birth mother, no matter what. When her adoptive parents are slow to cooperate, she runs away from home to search on her own. Then does it again. With this, her parents relent and agree to go with her and help her on her quest. Their search takes the three of them from their home in Chennai (the former Madras) south to Rameswaram, a coastal town in southern India just across the straights from Sri Lanka, and thence over to Sri Lanka and the Tamil provinces of the island itself.

“A Peck On the Cheek” is a regional film made in the Tamil language, but it is replete with Bollywood characteristics. That is, it’s completely melodramatic, romantic, and sentimental, without containing a hint of irony. As a Western viewer, I needed to keep checking that last fact, to confirm that everything I was seeing was as straight-ahead as it appeared to be; it was. The acting is solid, the visuals are arresting, and if you wear your heart on your sleeve, the movie should work for you. In the same way that you don’t go to a Marx Brothers movie expecting subtle humor, you don’t watch a Bollywood movie if you crave an exercise in understated angst. These characters do not spend much time staring off into space.

The film’s title comes from a line by the nationalist Tamil poet Mahakavi Subramaniya Bharathiyar (d 1921). I found the poem, but not in English, so I can only surmise whose cheek is referenced and who is doing the pecking.

And just to note here that Tamils are a Dravidian racial group located in southern India, especially in the state of Tamil Nadu, and in northern Sri Lanka. Because a civil war has been fought between the majority Sinhalise and minority Tamils in Sri Lanka for the past 25 years, and is still being fought, many Tamils have been displaced and fled the country. There are Tamil expatriot communities in countries around the world, including Malaysia, South Africa, and Singapore. In addition, a diaspora of 77 million Tamils to every continent has been caused by the socio-economic pressures typical in many third-world societies in modern times.

The Tamils occupied and controlled areas of southern India before the Aryan invasions from the north that occurred millenia ago. The desire of some Tamils in Sri Lanka and to a lesser extent in India to form a separate state has something in common with the current situation of the Kurds in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.

During the movie’s opening credits, I was surprised that all of the actors used a single name. The adoptive father and mother, named G. Thiruchelvan and T. Indra in the movie, are played by Madhaven and Simran respectively. Is Madhaven the only Indian actor with that name? My friends tell me that he’s a big star who has made more than 1,200 TV episodes and 10 films, and no other “Madhaven” actors come up in IMDB, but still, with an Indian population of one billion, I didn’t expect single names to be common, but so it is. In any event, the Tamil naming convention is to use a single name with one or two initials prepended as necessary for further identification. The initials can represent town or region of origin, or father’s name, or other indentifier. So that, as Amudha searches for her mother, she asks for “Shyama” and then “M.D. Shyama.” (In the movie, her birth mother is known to be from Mankulam.)

The movie begins with an arranged marriage. The bride and groom meet for the first time at the wedding ceremony. I have four or five friends whose marriages were arranged and the marriages have all worked out nicely so far. “When eyes meet, words are not needed” goes an ancient saying. The usual explanation for the high success rate is that the parents of the prospective husband and wife know their children well and so are able to make a good choice for them. In “A Peck on the Cheek,” the arrangement is accomplished by Shyama’s brother.

In the bedroom on the wedding night, the groom teases the bride about her skin color, darker than his own. He tells her that he could rub her cheek and use the color that came off as kohl for her eyeshadow, and that her name means “black.” She replies that she’s as light-skinned as he is. I wondered, first, whether this signaled that the groom was to be an abusive husband, and second, what role skin color plays in Indian cultural life. Turns out that the groom wasn’t being abusive; he was just doing a little light courtship teasing. In the end, he says “Well, a dark skin hides a pure heart.” (There are no bad guys in the movie.)

The complete range of Indian skin color is present in the movie: ebony black, tawny brown, olive, honey gold, wheat, pale tan, golden copper, almost-white. Polling ten or twenty Indian acquaintances here, I am told that lighter is considered more attractive than darker, but that there are no racial overtones involved with skin color. Color consciousness, yes, but racism, no. For example, kids may nickname the darkest in their group “blackie,” regardless of his standing otherwise. “I had to come to the U.S. to learn about the racial significance of skin color,” one friend told me. In the U.S. we have tanning salons and creams; in India it’s “fair and lovely” soaps and “return to whiteness” skin-lightening creams. “If the skin is white, it is love at first sight” as another old saying has it. Someone did tell me that light color symbolizes status and success. One Indian man told me that most of the personal ads in the newspapers and online in India specify a requirement for a “fair” or “wheatish” woman.

A Tamil friend did disagree about the racism, saying that the matter was not so cut-and-dried. He pointed out that in this movie, for example, the Tamils of Sri Lanka are depicted as much darker than those of southern India, and that some viewers take this as a negative statement about the Tamil insurgent movement.

Anyway, at some point following the wedding, M.D. Shyama tells her husband that she wants seven or eight children. He replies seriously that he doesn’t want any children at all until peace comes. Of course, anyone watching the movie in India would understand this sentiment immediately, being well familiar with the relentless suicide bombings, assassinations, and massacres of the past several decades. In a night scene with thunder and lightning foreshadowing the bomb blasts to come, the husband hears or imagines troops marching past. But since no conflict has been shown yet onscreen, his feelings caught me a little by surprise, even though I knew about the civil war in an abstract way. In the event, his resolve notwithstanding, Shyama becomes pregnant. It is while a refugee, separated from her husband, following a sea crossing in a storm that’s staged at the highest possible pitch of visual drama, that Shyama gives birth and loses the baby to adoption – exactly why, I don’t know.

With this, Amudha is introduced in Chennai on her ninth birthday. She tells us that she wants to be a dancer when she grows up, or a famous space scientist. We meet her family: her father, a mechanical engineer and well-known writer with a short temper; her mother, a TV broadcaster who does the morning news in Chennai; two younger brothers whom she teases; her grandfather; and her father’s sister and the sister’s husband. A happy, modern, extended family.

Amudha is quickly established as an independent, spunky young woman and, at fifteen minutes into the movie, I experience my first Indian-movie musical segment. Just minutes before, Shyama has been carried into a decrepit building, screaming in pain, to deliver her baby. Cut to the introduction of Amudha and her family a few years later, followed immediately by what seemed to me to be an MTV song-and-scenery montage, dropped into the movie from some other movie universe. (A.M.Rahman has done the music for all of director Mani Ratnam’s movies.) One reviewer suggests that the musical segments in the movie (there are three of them) are Amudha’s fantasies. Since she’s featured in all of them, this could be so. More likely, the first is point-of-view for Amudha, the second point of view for her mother, and the third for her father.

The first segment runs eight minutes and features a bright and perky song about Amudha and what she is like. As the song is sung, we see her at school with her chums. The school appears to be Catholic parochial, like the Sacred Heart schools around the world, with the children in a uniform of red-checked shirt and gray short pants or skirt. The kids run, wrestle, march, and play in quick scenes as Amudha is described:

Can you drive a nail into a cloud?
Can you shut Amudha up in a bottle?
Sundari, my little twin-tailed beauty!
Naughty Sparrow.
Waterfall on wings.
She can melt a stare and make it laugh.
She plans impish little acts.
She wipes away your anger with a smile.
She tucks sorrow deep into her dimples.
She traps the sky in her hair.
She is the peak of happiness and of trouble too.
She is a breeze with nails tearing into you.
Cah you catch a wave and bind it with a rope?
Isn’t she a wave born only to dance?
A butterfly with teeth, she bites your cheek and then kisses it.
She’s a mother to me and a mother-in-law too, in a daughter’s guise.
She’s the villain of the classroom.
A heroine at studies.
She’ll ask 1000 questions that only she can answer.
She’ll take classes for the teacher.
The poor fool who marries her, what won’t he endure?
He’ll have to cook in the water she washes her foot in.

So that’s Amudha in a nutshell. To reiterate, emotion is not hidden or buried in this film. It’s up there on the screen for all to see. If there is subtlety present, it does not involve the characters keeping their own counsel. They say what they think, in short scenes. The bright, upbeat musical segments, juxtaposed with issues of adoption and war, set up a certain dissonance, which, for me at least, heightened the feeling and impact of both the music and the scenes of conflict and violence.

During the Amudha song/montage, my head was still in narrative mode, back with the storm at sea and the screaming woman. By the time I started to pay attention to the music, the segment was over. I made a note to pay better attention when the next such segment arrived.

And now it is Amudha’s birthday. Her mother Indra applies a red mark to her forehead between the eyebrows. I asked my Indian friends if the ninth birthday has any particular significance, but was told no. I’m thinking, though, that her mother applying the mark was meant to be symbolic of her growing up, because at the same time her father decided to tell her the truth about her birth. In southern India, unmarried women choose to wear the mark (called a vermillion, or pinjar) between the eyebrows. In other areas, it’s the prerogative of married women to do so. In the south, married women wear the mark up near the hairline. It has been a tradition over the ages for Indian women to wear this dot. However, its actual meaning has been lost. One explanation is that it was a symbol indicating that the woman was married. Now, though, unmarried girls also wear the mark. In some cases, it’s treated as a fashion mark and anything goes. Widows don’t wear it. One interesting explanation of the mark is that in the past, women were not allowed to be in the presence of the elders of the house or to participate in anything that the men did. As an Indian woman says, “This led to tension in the minds of these women and application of pressure at the point between the eyes to relieve the tension. The use of saffron before applying the colourful kumkum would have been for its antiseptic effect.”

The mark is also sometimes used in religious observance. In the U.S., the woman might wear the mark in the household, but remove it in public. A male Tamil friend of mine had such a mark the other day made of ashes, applied in the course of a Hindu religious ceremony earlier that day.

Although her father has determined that Amudha is old enough to know that she was adopted at birth, his wife and her father don’t agree. He tells her anyway. When Amudha learns the truth, naughty sparrow that she is, she runs away from home and her father must retrieve her from the train station. This incident is the occasion for a great deal of brow-knitting by all concerned.

Next Amudha enlists a friend, borrows money from her grandfather, and catches a bus with her friend to the port city of Rameswaram, where she was born and where she hopes to find her mother. Scenery galore but no luck in Rameswaram. Her parents retrieve her again. Madhaven, playing the father, has the strong, charismatic screen presence of a major star, and Simran (Indra) and P.S. Keerthana (Amudha) stand up to him admirably throughout the film. (Or perhaps I’ve got this backwards: http://inadeeptrance.blogspot.com/2007/09/mani-ratnam-top-10-part-2.html.)

Aumdha is struggling here with her confused feelings about Indra. Does this woman who is not her true mother even love her? Does Indra love her as much as she loves her two real sons? Deeply upset, Amudha notes that her skin is darker than her mother’s. “Did you find me in a dust bin?” she asks unhappily.

Indra’s feelings are expressed in the second musical montage:

There is a throbbing in my chest
and a thudding in my ears
when you kiss me so tenderly.
Oh flower that God gave me
What are you looking for in my eyes?
You are the spot where our life begins.
You are the spot where the sky ends.
You came like the gentlest of breezes
…then stayed on as my breath.
You’re the life that takes its source in my heart.
You are the one that is close to me.
You are my foe as well.
You are the flower of love.
You are the thorn in my womb.
You are the beloved rain.
You are the small burst of thunder.
You are the newborn and the life that departs.
You are the birth that is born in death.

The song is accompanied by upbeat images of mother and daughter together on a vast beach of white sand, with the wooden bones of an ancient shipwreck, the couple splashing in shallow water, and much more, all in white and blue with vivid color in the clothing of mother and daughter. Not something that you’ll see and hear in a Hollywood film.

In spite of these strong maternal feelings that Indra has for her, Amudha remains concerned. From time to time, she stops talking to Indra entirely, as if she were fourteen or fifteen, not nine.

Here we get some extended backstory about how Thiruchelvan and Indra met and married and how they came to adopt Amudha. Back in the present, Amudha’s father realizes that she will not give up until she finds her mother. He promises her that he will help her do so and the movie breaks for an intermission at the one hour and fifteen minute mark.


The movie was made by Mani Ratnam, credited as the man who revolutionized Tamil-language cinema. Ratnam (54), has made many hit movies and is arguably the most important director in south India, with 22 films to his credit. He is known for making movies with style but also substance, movies that deal with personal and political issues of the day, both in north and south India, and in Tamil, Hindi, and other languages. “A Peck on the Cheek” is a product of the “Madras Talkies” studio.

After the intermission, mother, father, and daughter fly to Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka, where a friend takes them in hand. This half of the movie is filled with a mix of the ancient and the modern, sacred ruins and new buildings that were run-down before they were finished. Jungle and town. The poor and the very poor. Birdsong and birds, insects, green vegetation, running water, elephants. Black children with guns. War and armed conflict.

Part of the fun of watching this movie, by the way, is listening to the language. Tamil is designed to run very fast over the tongue and out of the mouth. No glottals or plosives to slow things down (I don’t know what I’m talking about, but one does wonder how the syllables can flow so quickly). Tamil is pre-Indo European, spoken by the Dravidians who inhabited India before the Aryans showed up. It’s one of the world’s ancient languages. It’s agglutinative, meaning that it starts with a root and adds bits in front of and after the root to designate noun class, number, and case, verb tense, and other grammatical categories. English does a little of this, such as adding an s for a plural; an extreme example in English would be “antidisestablishmentarianism.” Words like this are the norm in Tamil. Listening to the dialog is like listening to a brook in the forest – a rapid dahdtity dahdtity dahdtity candence that seems almost impossible to articulate or understand, like a continuous string of tongue-twisters. Amudha notices a difference in the Sri Lankan Tamil and comments on it immediately.

English words like “sorry,” “happy birthday,” “selfish,” “OK,” “intentions,” “conditions,” “honorable,” “please,” and “promise” have been absorbed into Tamil, so that the flow of dialog is punctuated by little dots of English.

While in the northern, principally Tamil, capitol of Jaffna, Amudha’s father Thiruchelvan gives a speech on writing to a hall full of appreciative listeners. Outside, Amudha wanders across to a park and chats with a man in a wheelchair. Shortly thereafter, a scene of violence occurs that truly surprised and shocked me. If I had been watching the latest Hollywood blockbuster aimed at the teenage male demographic, I wouldn’t have thought anything of it. I’ve seen much, much worse. But here it happened after an hour and twenty minutes of mother-daughter conflict, father-daughter discussions, music, color, and birdsong. Before I had quite recovered from it, a third musical segment presented itself.

One sense of the foreign in this movie comes from the film’s lack of conformance with any single Western plot template, as with this sudden, unexpected act of extreme violence followed by a pleasant musical interlude. The power of the music is multiplied by its position just after the explosive moment. Of course, Hollywood makes frequent use of soft following loud, quiet following violent and vice versa, and the principle is the same here, I suppose. But I don’t recall a Hollywood film in which, for example, Bruce Willis blows up a building and then Doris Day comes out and warbles.

The third musical segment, the most visually arresting of the three, features Amudha and her father. He sings to her but to my great annoyance the song isn’t subtitled. Father and daughter are happy and the screen is full of waterfalls, mist, steep rock cliffs, statues of the Buddha, monks, elephants, white flags, and innumerable picturesquevistas. I assume that the song and montage are to take some of the sting out of the preceding violence, and to provide a respite before continuing into the civil war while describing the father’s feelings and hopes for his daughter. Or something similar. Perhaps the father is waxing philosophical. By now I was able to sit back and enjoy the music and visuals without pondering the meaning of it all.

And now, as the trio makes contact with the insurgents, they are warned that the army is nearby, and wherever the army is congregating, they should avoid. Amudha refuses to stop her search. The tension builds, because we know that the trio is not going to make it out of harm’s way. A firefight suddenly erupts between insurgents and the army, with flying bodies, a flaming helmet, and death all around as parents and daughter hide behind a bench. As my friend mentioned, the insurgents were noticeably darker than the soldiers.

Then on to the birth mother’s town, Mankulam, and more army activity. The townspeople are evacuating, explosions are heard. During the evacuation scene in the countryside, I had the thought “cast of thousands” because it approached spectacle class. And at the conclusion of quite a battle scene, in a clunky twist, the searchers learn that there is a second Mankulam, to which they must now make their way.

The civil war is taken to have started in Sri Lanka in 1983. A group named LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) had been assassinating moderate Tamils up to then and then attacked in the north and killed 13 soldiers from the majority Sinhalese army. In the resulting riots, up to 300 Tamils were killed in Sinhalese areas. The LTTE gradually absorbed or eliminated all the other rebel (or freedom-fighting) Tamil groups, or drove them over to the other side. So that in additional to the largely Sinhalese army, there have been Tamil paramilitaries and political groups opposing the LTTE as well. Over the years, the insurgents and army have been involved in various offensives and massacres against each other, with civilians in the crossfire or used as targets. The LTTE carried out its first suicide bombing in 1987. (Anyone who somehow has the idea that suicide bombing is peculiar to Muslims, can note the fact here that it is a prominent tool of the Tamil Hindu insurgents as well.)

For more on the war, refer to, for example, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sri_Lankan_Civil_War.

I wondered if the movie was making a statement about the civil war – whether it was taking sides. After all, Mani Ratnam is Tamil and the war has been going on for half his life. To me, the uninformed viewer, it seemed that the Sri Lankan army was portrayed as sinister, in the sense that it wasn’t wise to stick around anytime they were seen to be arriving in force, whereas the LTTE rebels were made more sympathetic, struggling in the jungle and prey to the army, with Shyama caring for lots of little kids. On the other hand, the first violent act in the movie was a rebel blowing himself up along with numerous members of the military. A Tamil friend of mine from Chennai who saw the movie felt that the conflict was simply meant to be a backdrop for Amudha’s personal struggle, and that Ratnam did not take sides. I asked my friend if he, himself, personally leaned one way or the other and he said that after the Tigers assassinated Rajiv Ghandi, the Indian Prime Minister, the popularity of the LTTE and its struggle dropped precipitously in southern India. For my friend, the Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka seem culturally very similar, although the Tamils are Hindu and the Sinhalese Buddhist with some Muslims and Christians. As in Northern Ireland and Iraq, cultural brothers or cousins can fight each other as brutally as strangers ever could.

The movie dialog, at any rate, simply asks why peace can’t come, when it might come, or if it ever will come. “When will we live in peace?” “It’s the commercial interest of the weapons makers,” comes the reply, “to try out their weapons in undeveloped countries.”

Reading the history of the last 25 years – each massacre remembered, each bombing detailed, the maneuvering between and within sides, the deals with India and, according to most Indians I talked to, with the CIA, displaced population all over the island and the world, the compounding of misery caused by the tsunami and subsequent conflict over the administration of tsunami aid, the seesaw over decades of military force, conquest, loss, always accompanied by and causing the death and suffering of the innocent – Iraq at its worst, but stretched over decades, intractable, with only the total exhaustion of the people able to stem the tide of violence even for a little while – the questions raised – when peace, how, if – are in themselves a cry against war.

In the end, Shyama (Nandita Das, another famous actress) and Amudha – birth mother and her daughter – come face to face, as the adopted parents look on. The scene, the climax of the movie, does not disappoint. The situation itself, mother and daughter reunited in a war-torn country, two good actresses, the embrace of pure unironic melodrama, and the mother’s need to choose between her daughter and her cause, is a combination, after two hours of spectacle and histrionics, that is bound to jerk some tears from you if you’ve got any to be jerked.

Amudha and her adoptive parents can go home to a normal, productive life, but Shyama is caught in an unending conflict that she can’t hope to escape, one of the many wars around the world that grind on, unstoppable and remorseless, with the outside world doing nothing to intervene.

This film won nine awards, including the Silver Lotus at the National Film Awards, India.

The DVD was provided by Film Movement (www.filmmovement.com) “Early access to award-winning independent and foreign film.”

IMDB rating – 8.2.