The Sundance Film Festival is hours away from dropping its vaunted Day One offerings in Park City. In the span of five-plus hours, a staggering total of seven feature-length films and one shorts program will open the eight main sections of the Film Festival, introducing audiences to a broad array of cinematic voices from around the globe.
However, this cinematic “orgy in the snow” has already been overshadowed by news of ill portent from Washington DC: in advance of the Presidential Inauguration on Friday, Day 2 of the Film Festival, staffers of the President’s transition team have signaled a massive shrinking of the federal budget. Among the multitude of changes designed to reduce federal spending by $10.5 trillion over 10 years: the privatization of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the wholesale elimination of National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. While no further details have been spelled out as the incoming Secretary of the Interior (under whose jurisdiction the NEA, NEH, CPB, as well as the Department of Library Services fall) has yet to be confirmed, these changes are sure to affect the Independent Television Service (ITVS), which is funded in large part by CPB dollars.
I can’t imagine that frivolous taglines as “I love dick” (the loaded double-entendre title of an episodic series that is slated to screen during the second half of Sundance Week) could now possibly overshadow this news thunderbolt from the nation’s capitol: over the past several years at least, nearly half of all the competition documentaries at Sundance owe their existence in large part to ITVS support, and for just as long, ITVS staffers have enjoyed a pronounced presence in Park City as agents of support and incubation for a whole generation of emerging and “on-the-verge” filmmakers of all backgrounds and nationalities. With the silly pronouncement that the incoming President plans to hold an increased number of military parades to be a “great cheerleader for the country,” it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where “wasteful” spending items as arts and culture funding might very well be redirected.
This sense of “misplaced” priorities and the consequences that are bound to visit underserved and “outsider” communities in all aspects of life weigh heavily on my mind as I assess the sobering impact of viewing Wang Jiu-liang’s PLASTIC CHINA and Ramona S. Diaz’ MOTHERLAND, two minimalist fly-on-the-wall productions that are part of the Sundance World Cinema Documentary Competition. If nothing else, the two serve as a commentary on the “new” globalization of commerce and healthcare, areas in which the underclass are still suffering. As well, both films implicitly condemn the government priorities of the two countries they were produced in — the Peoples Republic of China and the Philippines, respectively (in the case of the PRC, territorial expansion and a growing militarism; and for the Philippines, allegedly misplaced priorities in undoing generations of government corruption, rampant drug trafficking, and extremist Islamic militarism).
PLASTIC CHINA opens in the dark — literally. The director’s camera gazes upward as two small children arrange plastic refuse in an effort to build a temporary shelter for the night. The older kid’s assurance that the plastic strips shredded from used bags and garbage liners will keep them warm. From this discomfiting opening, we are drawn immediately in to the lives of Kun, the owner of a countryside recycling facility. Kun, his wife and young children are inured to this life as a way to eke out a living, yet Kun sees a way out by saving his money as a means of making a better life for his family — by sending his kids to school, expanding his severely limited skillset and finding a better way of life. For the meantime, there is the recycling plant, a toxic, isolated dump built upon imported plastic from various first-world countries. Kun has among his employees Peng, a journeyman from Sichuan province who himself has a small family and is constantly demanding a raise in pay despite the fact that, as Kun is quick to point out, Peng frequently drinks his savings down in alcohol. Not surprisingly, Peng’s daughter Yi-Jie, age 11, also dreams of a life outside of the recycling center. Due to his constant drinking, however, Peng cannot afford schooling for Yi-Jie. Thus, little Yi-Jie finds a kindred spirit of sorts in Kun, even as the working relationship between boss and employee fizzles and dissolves. A visit to a swanky car show, elementary school presentations, and seeing the sights in and around comparatively ultra-modern Beijing serve as a taste of what could be attainable for the two, even as they must negotiate the harsh realities of their current situations. Certainly, PLASTIC CHINA may not be the kind of PRC the current government wants the world to see — they have enough problems stemming the negative fallout over last year’s Sundance sensation HOOLIGAN SPARROW by Nanfu Wang. Yet in an age in which the world order is undergoing seismic shifts, the social and economic situations foregrounded by the likes of director Wang are likely to hang around and haunt us for a long time.
Taking place within the walls of an overcrowded maternity hospital (reputed to be the world’s busiest), MOTHERLAND is an unflinching portrait into the lives of dedicated but underfunded, understaffed, and under-equipped health-care providers as their jobs straddle the uneasy alliance between medical experts and social workers. Indeed, as the film’s epilogue makes soberingly clear, the Philippines is the most populated country in all of Southeast Asia, with over 100 million and counting. What kind of world will the children who are born here face? And will they have the opportunities their parents undoubtedly do not? Shot with a fluid, vérité, camera courtesy of veteran cinematographer Clarissa de los Reyes, the shock of watching MOTHERLAND comes from observing the mundane lives and attitudes of the many clients that the doctors and nurses care for. Many of the mothers depicted in the film have absentee husbands or boyfriends. Other clients have been coerced by their own mothers or husbands into refusing even the most affordable methods of birth control. And others still have come to deliver their fifth, sixth, or even seventh child. Anyone acquainted with the decade-long trend of vérité-styled “poverty-porn” that has distinguished, for better or for worse, the Philippines’ resurgence onto the world cinema stage as a film festival “fetish” can certainly understand the places where MOTHERLAND takes its cues. In fact, the noted Filipino director Brilliante Mendoza, arguably the “godfather” of this style of filmmaking, serves as executive producer on this project, which seems to confer a sense of “legitimacy” to the film’s visual style and structure. In a word, as far as a traditional storytelling arc is concerned, MOTHERLAND seems to have no beginning, no middle, and certainly no end. The steady, mind-numbing stream of clients, deliveries, referrals, delivery room dramas, and tumult mimic the life outside the walls — an uncertain world made even more hazardous since the election of Davao mayor Rodrigo Duterte as the Philippines’ “law-and-order” President. Those distractions aren’t even on the plate in director Diaz’ new film. Instead, the squalid conditions of the maternity hospital foreground the community of women — healthworkers and clients alike — who bring MOTHERLAND to vital, chaotic life.
Somewhere among the forest of feature-length films at this year’s Park City film festivals are compelling short subjects that open a window on worls we don’t often see. One of the better ones is biracial African American/Chinese American Christine Turner’s equally minimalist, yet intimate HOLD ON, in which Troy, a petulant twenty-something, is stuck with caring for his grandmother. An embarrassing accident, a slip-and-fall, and Troy is compelled to make the inevitable passage from diffident b-boy to devoted caretaker. Just as spare in its own storytelling as PLASTIC CHINA and MOTHERLAND, HOLD ON is incisive, yet no less compelling and touching.
And on that note, I head off to Day One, the Final Day of the Obama Experiment. What will the next twenty-four hours hold? Stay tuned, I’m about to find out…