"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 15, 2013

AIFF 2013: Sweet Dreams (film review)

"Suffering and survival: A decade of women in Africa" shouted a Guardian (UK) article headlined on the Internet today--adding, for the faint of heart, "warning: graphic content".

Well, make room for...

We're so used to horrific tales of women's suffering in "Africa" (so many countries, how can we group them all together really?) that it is almost confusing to encounter the first images of this new documentary set in Rwanda. There on the large screen, seemingly larger than life women in swirling, colorful African textiles danced and drummed, and their faces were infused with a joy that brought tears to my own. How beautiful! And how transcendent. How very real. 

These are women who survived the genocidal civil war of 17 years ago. When it ended, one of them started the drumming troupe. Traditionally women were not even allowed to come near to drums; it was a male domain, but the war broke a lot of traditions and apparently it also brought, in the shock of its wake, opportunities. In the Q&A following the screening, a woman in the audience asked the filmmaker (Bob Fruchtman, who co-produced and directed with Lisa Fruchtman) whether the women had encountered a backlash for breaking tradition; he said there had been some resistance but no, not really. They were taught in the beginning by one of the country's greatest male drummers, and then they surpassed him. (Later, when we see traditional male drummers in a joint performance with the women's group, it's clear that the women have developed their own distinctive style.)

The "sweet dreams" of the title refer to the idea of forming a co-op, consisting of members of the drumming group, to begin a money-making business-- Rwanda's first ice cream shop. With the assistance of two women who run an organic ice cream shop in New York City, and many others, they visit other co-ops -- honey, dairy -- and learn the basics of business. A modern soft-ice cream machine is donated by a group in South Africa, they fix up a building, choose co-op members, and (after some nail-biting glitches) open on time. Those are the bare bones of the news story. 

For me, three underlying elements of the narrative have me still thinking about the film a week later.

First, of course, are the women. They are beautiful, they are strong, they are charming, and they are full of joy in their new lives. Their war stories are of course terrible and terribly sad, but as the film takes place 17 years later and they have truly moved on to better lives, their histories are fascinating. One had been sent to another country when she was a young child--sold into servitude by her poverty-stricken parents. When Rwanda's war ended she returned as a young adult to find her mother widowed, and lives with her now. Another woman barely survived the massacre of her family as a small child by running into the jungle; she was briefly sheltered by strangers at the risk of their own lives, starved, and finally was found by a man (we might expect the worse, but no - he took her to an orphanage, where she grew up). Each woman has a different story, of course, and bit by bit they unfold, past and present intertwined  Wisely, the filmmakers chose not to include coverage of the Rwanda civil war (for anyone who does not remember it, I suppose) until well into the film, and it's not extensive. The real story here is the present.

The second theme that really intrigued me was the way Rwanda leaders established a template for dealing with the trauma of the past, and for moving beyond it. Every year the entire month of April (with the first week a complete holiday from work) is dedicated to remembrance, grieving, and building new ties between these people whose neighbors and family members were victims or perpetrators. During the course of the film the President invites the drummers to perform in one such ceremony in the national stadium, where we see that even now first aid, ambulances, and counselling are very much needed, as many of the attendees are overcome with emotion.

Immediately following the war, 100,000 "perpetrators" were identified; they remain imprisoned and are used as labor to rebuild the country. Two of them are the parents of one of the women in the co-op. Her fellow co-op members could have been their victims. In building the drumming troupe and now the ice cream shop, they are all moving beyond that past and finding new ways to live, with joy, in the present and future. It seems that the rest of the world could learn much from Rwanda and what it has learned about reconciliation. 

Co-op members at organizational meeting
The third theme that sticks with me-- but this one troubles me -- is the commercial venture of the ice cream shop itself, or rather, the way they go about it. The women are mentored in a hard-line western capitalistic model by -- I forget the details here, but she's an American woman who seems very inflexible. The Rwandan women eagerly absorb her lessons about business plans and so forth, but also, it appears, her top-down attitude. Later, when they must limit the number of co-op members to begin the business to those who can afford a hefty buy-in fee, and reject a number of women from the dance troupe who want to participate but cannot afford the fee, it's very sad. (In the post-screening Q&A a member of the audience asked the filmmaker about that, and he responded that as the events unfolded he was hoping the women would create some sort of "sweat equity" arrangement for the women who couldn't afford the buy-in fee, but the leaders chose to be "very hard-nosed" instead. Later, as the business prospered and more positions opened up, some did join though.) 

Dolley Madison stored her ice
beneath this "temple"
Another aspect of the business that troubled me was the complicated machine they used for making soft ice cream. Apparently this was the same sort of equipment used in New York and it was a donation. But to get this high-tech monster going seemed to require large amounts of fossil fuels and expertise. I couldn't help thinking back to my time working in the gardens of the historic James Madison estate, Montpelier, where they still spoke proudly of how Dolley Madison had introduced ice cream to local society. It was a huge hit. All they needed for Dolley's product was ice, which was collected in winter and stored underground, below a gazebo, all summer. That, and the same ingredients used in Rwanda. The manufacturing process was completely low-tech. The Rwandans didn't have easy access to ice, but I couldn't help thinking they could have started with a wind or solar power source for basic refrigeration to freeze water, and as for the rest, might been as happy with old-fashioned ice cream.

It also gave me pause to see how the women take readily to the tricks and deceptions of advertising. We laugh when they compete with, and out-do, each other in coming up with advertising slogans such as "it will make your children healthy," and we have to admire their creativity and sense of humor - but ... well, it's just a little creepy how easily they adopt this aspect of Western culture which has made uncritical nincompoops of most of the population here.

The crux of the matter is the co-op's desire for "modernization" and "development" (words used repeatedly by the Africans) in the context of their country's rise. Though they do have co-ops, basically they seem to be following a very recognizable Western model which incorporates the same values that colonized Africa and are currently making serfs of us all worldwide. I felt very sad that they are jumping onto the industrial-civilization-fossil fuel train just as it is heading toward a catastrophic (if possibly slow-motion) derailment.

But at the same time, they're living in the moment, as we all do, and they did create something wonderful. The first ice cream in Rwanda! Whatever rogue waves the future might bring, these women are likely to surf them with strength and joy. May we all do as well.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

AIFF 2013: the first four days

Apologies for the long hiatus recently. I've just gone through a rather thorough reordering of my life and now that I"m getting back to normal, I'm not sure what I"ll be doing with this blog, whether returning to it or starting something new. Anyway, here's just a brief report on what I have been lucky enough to see so far at this year's AIFF. I recommend all of them! Every one I've seen so far has had a Q&A with the filmmakers present at the screening. If you love films, the ashland independent film festival (they stubbornly refuse to capitalize their name for some reason) is The Best!

Sweet Dreams: fabulous, uplifting story of joy and recovery in Rwanda 17 years after the genocide. Wonderful women. Beautifully filmed documentary and beautifully told story. There is some footage of the genocide, but it's brief and only presents itself about 40% of the way into the narrative. (I guess they had to provide some information about it, for anyone who doesn't know about it, though that's hard to imagine.) The film is a very affirming look at people at their best, nationally and as individuals, acting with great resilience to overcome and get beyond an unbelievable national and personal trauma. Full of joy, this one is. (I wish the US would take a hint from this and deal with our own Civil War, past and present. The Middle East too.) Must-see!

Gideon's Army: the public defender's role in today's mandatory sentencing-prison industrial complex-student loan scandal-so-called US "Justice" system. Very moving - and a beautiful piece of investigative journalism. It was Gideon who, 50 years ago, won the Supreme Court case that ensured all accused a defense attorney. The mandate was, of course, never adequately funded, and that's just the beginning of what they have work with. Another must-see. The film will, I hope, help to redress a big part of the current injustice.

Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings: Lovely documentary whose visual rhythms are perfectly matched with the virtuoso music of this ukelele superstar. Must-see! Fascinating, and ultimately very moving, This was paired with another great film, the inspiring and funny 16-minute Slomo.

Casting By: Another must-see, especially by any film buff. A rare glimpse into the history and workings of an important aspect of the collaborative film making process that has been steadfastly unrecognized by the industry and the Academy, clearly because it's been mostly a female-dominated profession.

From Nothing, Something: A Documentary on the Creative Process:  a very interesting and well-made film about creativity as experienced by innovators in several different arts. It was very well received by the audience and I'd say it's well worth seeing, but there were too many talking heads in this one for me; I'd have edited it down to an hour, myself. But others were more enthusiastic about it than I, so there you are. Maybe I was just a little too fatigued when I saw this one to give it my full attention. It was paired with a beautiful, witty short Scottish documentary, Perfect Fit, which alternated between the tough guys who make ballet shoes and the equally tough ballet dancers who wear them to create their ethereal effects.

Redwood Highway: This locally-produced feature film is the only non-documentary I'll be seeing at AIFF this year. It was very well received, which is not surprising since most of the sold-out Armory 550-member audience seemed to have played some part in it, if only to watch some of the filming. But I really did like it as a story of an elderly woman (Shirley Knight) who escapes the gilded cage of a resort-like 55+ community (beautifully filmed, by the way - Mountain Meadows really is that fine, though with a much livelier ambiance than what you see in the move; I know because I lived there several years myself before making my own recent radical change in situation)... who escapes a guilded cage to go on a vision quest of sorts. I'd recommend this to anyone, and the filmmakers expressed a determination to make more films for older actors on themes of interest to seniors. It's about time!

Filmmaker Talkbacks: I also enjoyed the three free Talkbacks (panel discussions): No Borders (though this one could have done with a better moderator, the filmmakers were great when they got a chance to say anything, especially on the topic that was supposed to be under discussion, filming in other cultures); Close up and Personal; and Transmedia 101: The Future of Storytelling. The Talkbacks are a great way to hear from filmmakers whose films you might be missing - and from those you have seen, or will see. And the Transmedia one was a fascinating introduction to a new project of AIFF, joining in some cutting-edge work around storytelling and new technologies.

I didn't see nearly as many titles this year. I skipped the first and last days (on the first day we did see My Fair Lady at Oregon Shakespeare Festival though). "You can't do it all" is a mantra well known to Ashanders. Here are some of the films I won't be seeing, but which I wish I were - either because I saw the filmmakers discuss their work during Talkbacks, or because I heard very good buzz about them from others at the festival. I'll be watching for them. (Several are already in some form of release, since AIFF occurs near the end of the annual film festival circuit; some have been bought by HBO or PBS and are scheduled to be shown there later in the year; but sadly, it's likely that others will be hard to find; Google their websites!):

Aqui y Alla (feature film)
The Moo Man (documentary)
The Forgotten Kingdom (feature film)
William and the Windmill (documentary)
Before the Spring After the Fall (documentary)
God Loves Uganda (documentary)
Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself (documentary)
The World According to Dick Cheney (documentary)
Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago (documentary)
Joe Papp in Five Acts

None of which is to say I wouldn't also be recommending every other choice of programming this year, if I'd been hearing about them too... Independent filmmakers are heroes, every one.