Sundance Time Again, Pt. 4: Down In The Lowlands

Okay, so more Hollywood entertainment stuff went down today while the Sundance Film Festival was going on: the Oscar nominations were announced this morning, and I didn’t really care. Instead, I spend a good portion of my Tuesday screenings following live Tweets from the State of the Union address that went down tonight. Barack has spent way too much time taking crap from Republicans the past year, and I needed to know how hard he was going to spank those GOP M-Fers. But then, more sad news: I find out that the great Greek director Theo Angelopoulos was struck by a motorcycle while on the set of his latest movie and passed away from his injuries. In a way, this whole week in Utah has been an emotional roller-coaster for most, veering from exhilarating to shocking and then to tragic.

On this day, I decide to skip Park City and instead stay down in Salt Lake City and take in screenings at the Broadway Cinemas, located somewhere in the City’s business district. While waiting for my screenings to begin,  I look around for the elusive Chinese restaurant that eluded me the night before, when tradition tells me that I shouldn’t be celebrating the Lunar New Year in a Mexican eatery. GOOD NEWS: I find the Chinese restaurant! BAD NEWS: it’s run by white people (check that, white people who look like the rhythm section of Lady Antebellum), and the cooks in the back are Latinos. I can’t win. I…just…can’t…win (sniff). Looking at my other viable eating options in the area — Burger King — I swallow my shame and order a lunch special. And then, I head back to the theater.

I know when a film really inflames me and roots for the underdog, to say nothing about the effort of the filmmaker to make us care about the subject. Few films make me sit up in my seat and take notice. Fewer still make me admire the filmmaking involved in bringing stories to light in ways I haven’t seen before. 5 BROKEN CAMERAS, by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi, is that kind of film. Over the course of six years starting with the birth of his son Gibreel, Burnat, a farmer from the Palestinian village of Bil’in, observes his village’s non-violent resistance to repeated efforts by the Israeli Army to clear Palestinian homelands to make room for Jewish settlements. Starting with a tiny Mini-DV cam and working his way to a prosumer camcorder, Burnat documents and archives an escalating struggle in which the Israeli Army is cast as the evil agents of an expansionist government that arguably doesn’t belong there in the first place. Each camera, whose duty cycle and progressively more violent demise serve as chapters in this riveting story, documents good times (birthday parties, friends, colleagues and neighbors, and tranquil Palestinian village vistas), but mostly bad (bulldozed olive trees, confiscated lands by Israeli soldiers, an escalating string of arrests, even fallen colleagues and neighbors). Mostly, it is the images of Israeli soldiers that inflame the senses — like a cavalry that comes in bully, intimidate and ultimately kill, this Army is far more Gestapo than the real Gestapo itself, each Jewish soldier more militaristic and fascist than, say, the 1980s-era Los Angeles Police Department of equally fascististic Chief Darryl Gates. It’s harsh to say this, I know, but when Israeli soldiers are shown leveling their AK-47s at men and women armed with little more than rocks — not to mention little kids, for crying out loud — and doing the bidding of Jewish policy-makers…how can one NOT become enraged by it all?

At the time of the film’s completion late last year, the wall that was built to segregate Bil’in from burgeoning Israeli settlements has finally come down, Burnat’s son Gibreel turns 5, and a sixth camera is now put into the service of documenting the ongoing struggles of the village. The film itself received a standing ovation at its conclusion, and the directors were inundated with pointed questions that spilled over into the lobby. Me, I felt that I have just watched a film that could very well be a Grand Jury winner by Festival’s end. 5 BROKEN CAMERAS was a fantastic work of self-determined filmmaking. It was brutal. It was honest. And it moved me in ways I could not imagine.

After that, it would be understandable that the film I booked right after, Denis Côté’s experimental riff on the nature of “the gaze,” BESTIAIRE, would be a letdown. Not so. Set in a rustic animal preserve, the film was billed as a “filmic picture book where both humans and animals are on display.” In reality, the film is much more about the composition of filmic space and what inhabits that compositional frame. Composed of a series of static frames with a grand total of perhaps two “trick” transitions — a couple of no-nonsense fades to black — BESTIAIRE invites multiple interpretations, though I think the director was deliberately coy during the surprisingly active Q&A session. Me, I came to an appreciation of the power of pictures, a much-needed filmgoing experience this week. Now, this week doesn’t seem so bad…at least, not tonight.

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