"Money was maliciously introduced in ancient times as a tool of enslavement" -
Michael Tellinger

"The present belongs to the future and future generations, and all old laws, religious and other, should be abrogated immediately. Free us!" - Vinay Gupta on Twitter

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." - R. Buckminster Fuller

"You find the strangest ways to be positive!" - Diane Duane, Wizards Abroad

Monday, April 12, 2010

AIFF Day Five - Last day and Last Train Home - and It's a Wrap!

Last movie for me: The Last Train Home. Too fitting. This is another great one and I guess it's just a measure of the high quality of the entries this year that this remarkable film seemed to get relatively little buzz. It's yet another unique, fascinating documentary. I loved it for immersing me in another way of life and part of the world. In technique it's different than the others I saw this year (in fact all the documentaries I saw used very different techniques and approaches - could do a thesis just on that; is this a golden age of creativity in documentary-making, or am I just becoming more of a fan than ever?). In some ways it harkens back to the earliest, staged anthropological documentaries, when it shows the family's life, yet it also uses very edgy editing in other places, especially when showing the daughter's adolescent rebellion, both in farm scenes and in the city.

But to set the stage: this is the story of one Chinese family from the provinces: the parents of the children are now migrant workers making clothing for Western countries in a far away city, and have been doing this for years. They go back to the farm to see their children, and the grandmother who still runs the farm and raises the children, just once a year for the New Year festival. Over a hundred million Chinese are in this situation and their trip back home to their villages for the annual get-together is considered the largest human migration in the world. [see recent article on this, tweeted by my niece who works on labor issues] But they are seriously torn by this situation; the children feel abandoned, the hardworking parents are bereft of anything but earning a wage (at presumably slave labor conditions and low reward), and the grandmother - well, she was a fascinating character to me and I wish they'd shown more about how she coped.

The train migration is truly epic - orders of magnitude more crowding than I saw anywhere in India! People really suffered at times, as when a snow storm delayed the train and they had to wait for days, there in their mob, yet they cared for each other too. All this is beautifully filmed. But what really strikes this Western viewer is the incredibly beautiful, seemingly idyllic countryside of the village and farm, once they finally get onto the train, travel thousands of kilometers through mountains, take a ferry across water, and arrive at the ancestral place.

There, the sculptured mountainsides of terraced rice paddies, the healthy looking farm animals, the corn field heavy with fruit, all seem quite prosperous to me: they grow food; they have animals and water on the family farm (is that what this is? Or are they sharecroppers or something? None of this is explained), they are surrounded by all this beauty and seeming bounty. Nobody seems to be starving. Yet the young people all leave for the city to earn money. (At one point the grandmother says they didn't have enough to eat and they had holes in their clothes, but this isn't really enough information!)

I wish the film had explained the economic situation better. I didn't understand why the family was better off with the parents leaving the farm to send back small wages, or how the one old woman, physically fit though she was, kept everything on the farm going by herself with just two children to help. Psychologically, it was a fine portrait of a struggling, well meaning, but normally dysfunctional family (though much of the interaction was obviously staged). And on the macro scale, it showed a country in economic dysfunction much like our own in the West, following a capitalistic model, the illusion of money, rather than connecting with the real world of resources and life and culture and building on that in a positive, sustainable way.

I kept seeing this as Blakean, in the contrast between the green and pleasant countryside and the dark satanic mills of the city. Are they saying that China is now following the disastrous model of the West in the way that we began the economic journey that now leaves us in crisis? Are they presenting this to the Chinese people as a suggestion to return to the farms? And I was reminded also of our own situation here in the Rogue Valley, and the developing economic model of locally sustainable agriculture. The Chinese farm, if it's anything like typical, looks quite viable to me. Again, why does everyone have to leave, when they have all those riches there?

This film will haunt me for a while until I can puzzle out more about it. All my questions are ignorant and naive, I'm sure - but the film left me with them, and I expect a documentary to present information in a way that I can understand. This is one where I really wanted a filmmaker Q&A because I had so many questions: how were these characters (this family) chosen? How was the filming done in those crowds with, usually, nobody in the crowd seeming to take notice of a camera? Who financed the film, and was there any problem with the Chinese government allowing this depiction of a country not just in economic crisis, but also not providing any of the security and stability a communist system claims to make possible for its citizens? And on and on with the questions!

However, I found a two-part Q&A with the filmmaker on You Tube, from Sundance. Haven't viewed it yet but I hope it will give me the background to the film that I feel I need. Here is Part One and here is Part Two of that session.

Whatever the answers turn out to be, it's a special film and well worth seeing. Thank you AIFF!

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It's a wrap! It's been a blast, but now it's over. Neither the cool weather nor the economy dampened the buoyancy of the last five days in Ashland. I don't know how it is at other film festivals, but if you look at this great collection of photos by Rory Finney (the source of the AIFF photos in these posts) you might notice that everyone is smiling. Everywhere. This festival is so well-run and organized and carried out by hundreds of happy volunteers that you simply never hear a complaint. Here's an interview I really liked - this is my favorite of Jim Teece's interviews this year - "It's the complete opposite of the East Coast," indeed! Yep, that's why I live here. Film critic Shawn Levy called Ashland "This most incongruous and delightful of settings" in his blog this year. And here's a really fine account, by a blogger named Todd who visits a LOT of film festivals -- "AIFF 2010: The Ashland Experience."

Here's a roundup of the top winners. There were so many filmmakers here for Q&A's this year! and cast members and critics - everyone is so friendly - it's just the best. I filled out my audience survey at the website, and hope to win a VIP pass next year so I have unlimited access to everything (I can always dream!) (PS - see below for a very fun video of the awards ceremony. You might be surprised by some of it.)

According to an article in the Medford paper, this year exceeded last year's ticket sales by 2,000! Since tickets were running near 100% last year, I don't know how they did that - maybe more screenings at the Armory, which seats 500? Or was it - and Jim Teece deserves a very loud shout-out for this - the wonderful new online ticket order system, which did so much to make ordering, planning, and reading an enjoyable and trouble-free process? Anyway, it was great to hear that because it means we're well set up for the next one. Adios, phir milenge, bon-nit and see you next year, AIFF. It's been great.

Oh, wait - there will be more special screenings throughout the year. Once a month an AIFF benefit screening. Oh, and that's right - I have to work for those vouchers. See you soon - at the office.

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I just can't stay away! Here's a vid of the awards ceremony, by Jim Teece, from Facebook page:

AIFF 2010 Awards Celebration from Ashland TV20 on Vimeo.

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