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Bringing the Mountain to Mohammed: Global Lens Spotlights the "Underserved"

Indiewire By Howard Feinstein | Indiewire January 5, 2009 at 3:20AM

You may recall some excellent atypical, against-the-grain films that, against all odds, found over the past six years screening venues in the U.S. and Canada. Most would probably never have been viewed in these parts were it not for the efforts of the nonprofit Global Film Initiative, which acquires and distributes around 10 titles a year for its exhibition sector, called Global Lens. The label is a misnomer, possibly even a turn-off... These films are often referred to pejoratively as the runoff from "underdeveloped" countries, or from the "Third World," but truth is, as GFI chief cog Susan Coulter puts it, they are from "underserved" nations. The bottom line, however, is that whether they arise from the First, Third, or Fourteenth World, they are for the most part really good films.
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You may recall some excellent atypical, against-the-grain films that, against all odds, found over the past six years screening venues in the U.S. and Canada. Most would probably never have been viewed in these parts were it not for the efforts of the nonprofit Global Film Initiative, which acquires and distributes around 10 titles a year for its exhibition sector, called Global Lens. The label is a misnomer, possibly even a turn-off... These films are often referred to pejoratively as the runoff from "underdeveloped" countries, or from the "Third World," but truth is, as GFI chief cog Susan Coulter puts it, they are from "underserved" nations. The bottom line, however, is that whether they arise from the First, Third, or Fourteenth World, they are for the most part really good films.

As always, Global Lens launches at New York's Museum of Modern Art (January 14-30) before traversing the continent for the remainder of the year. Forget that trip to Ulan Bator or Lima: The mountain does indeed come to Mohammed. Without the GFI and Global Lens, there would be little outside the conventional and predictable to recall.

Around the World

Here are some simple recall tests from earlier Global Lens exhibitions. Does Chinese filmmaker Li Shaohong's "Stolen Life," a powerful melodrama about finding love in all the wrong places, ring a bell? How about "Buffalo Boy," a '40s-set film from Vietnamese director Nguyen-Vo Nghiem-Minh about a rural youth learning life's ups and downs the hard way while serving in a herding collective? Asia has been from the beginning, and continues to be, the source of the series' best films. Updated every year, new works take those slots (though the older films remain available through First Run Features' catalog).

Three of the new Asian films are exemplary. "Getting Home," by Chinese director Zhang Yang (Shower), is a powerful tragicomedy that valorizes the distinctiveness of male friendship and loyalty in that hierachical society. Indonesian filmmaker Nan Triveni Achnas's "The Photograph" (which has a solo "run" January 21-26) is a poignant, stunningly shot tale in which Achnas grants a state of grace to two marginalized individuals: an abused prostitute from the countryside and the tormented, somewhat off-beam geriatric photographer from whom she rents a room.

The third is a major discovery in a film world that, with tracking and constant follow-up, offers few surprises. Kirgyz-born director Marat Sarulu's "Song From the Southern Seas," a Kazakh film, is a brilliant narrative about salt-of-the-earth characters, a young Russian couple and their Kazakh counterparts, who ultimately succumb to the region's long-standing ethnic mistrust. The fair-skinned Russian husband suspects his equally pallid wife of infidelity when their son is born with the swarthy coloring of an indigenous Kazakh, and develops, like most Kazakhs, a strong kinship with horses. The film succeeds on every level, form, subject matter, and performance, for starters. Brilliant acting, breathtaking natural sets--it's organic, integrated, of a piece.

International sales agents, however, have shied away from this original drama. Do the ballsy non-narrative inserts of mythical shadow puppets, which provide oblique commentary on more contemporary action, scare off people in the biz? Or is the elegant flashback structure in which the Russian protagonist's bearded grandfather provides a personal and political explanation for the film's racial dilemma too sophisticated for the average moviegoer? We might never know the answers, but then again, we wouldn't even know the questions to ask if GFI and Global Lens lacked the moxie to test the waters.

If you so not recognize any of the earlier Asian films, you may have better luck with Latin American titles. Pablo Stoll and the late Juan Pablo Rebella's droll "Uruguayan Whisky," for instance, a deadpan dose of reality about an old Jewish man and his tedious routines, was one of the best films to come out anywhere in 2004. How about Rodrigo Moreno's deceptively complex Argentine feature "The Custodian," which analyzes a bodyguard from psychological as well as sociological vantage points? Once again, newer films have taken over their spots (though overall, the Latin American movies lack the bite of their Asian counterparts); GFI appreciates the refresh button.

One of the Latin American films is special. Sandra Kogut's "Mutum," a close look at rural Brazilian society through the (literally damaged) eyes of an endearing ten-year-old boy. Brazilian-born Teresa Prata set the curious "Sleepwalking Land" in Mozambique during the brutal civil strife of the '80s. The series' opening night film, which will have a "run" January 14-19, "Sleepwalking Land" is an ambitious attempt to chart the carnage through the verbal exchange of an old man and a naive youth, with a found literary "diary" theoretically adding texture. Yet the fusion of the folkloric with cruel acts of war feels contrived. The thesis of consciously mistaken identity once a beloved spouse goes missing is thin in Sandra Gugliotta's "Possible Lives," from Argentina, yet this spare but paradoxically sumptuous visual celebration of the austere Patagonian landscape is a sensual treat.

The Middle East is another geographical focus of the Global Film Initiative, yet, once again, the new crop does not compare to some of the earlier achievements. Tawfiq Abu Wa'il's seductive "Thirst" (Palestine), from 2005, was a unique insight into an Israeli Arab community and its conflicted characters, who suffer from the harshness of both nature and a Jewish state that doesn't want them around. It's possible that GFI's loss is someone else's gain. Sales agents and distributors are more and more interested in Israeli and Palestinian films; this was not the case just a few years ago.

The Balkan tragedy of the early '90s was, as war often is, a catalyst for resurgent artistic expression (technically this is Europe, but unique circumstances--ethnic cleansing, for one--make the area fair game for inclusion with continents in which deprivation is the norm). The Balkan wave, however, may have run its course. If you did not see such earlier GFI selections as Pjer Zalica's Bosnian film "Fuse," a tragic satire in which Bill Clinton visits a peasant village, or Dalibor Matanic's Croatian "Fine Dead Girls," a very dark metaphor for the horrors perpetrated by nationalists a decade before, you may have missed a historical moment that can not be recaptured.

The more recent "I Am From Titov Veles," directed by Teona Strugar Mitevska of the ex-Yugoslavian republic of Macedonia and one of the films in Global Lens 2009, is seductive but a bit too artful. It lacks the immediacy of its forerunners. Three sisters (the Russian reference is conscious) remain in a sad, failed industrial town following the collapse of Communism. Filmmakers shooting during the war and in the years immediately following did not have the luxury of time. Aesthetics played second fiddle to message and to the immediacy of experience.

On the Road - And Off

Most likely a reflection of twenty-first-century economic and anthropological circumstances, the films in Global Lens 2009 fall neatly into three distinct groupings. Group one: road movies, essentially kinetic works with narratives following a peripatetic bent ("Song From the Southern Seas," "Getting Home," "Sleepwalking Land"). Group two is the inverse. These are films fraught with entrapment, a cinema of stasis, of withheld energy, works like "The Photograph," "Mutum," and "I Am From Titov Veles."

Group three is, for a host of reasons, more troubling. These films exist outside the templates that circumscribe both the road and the sedentary movies. Yet atmosphere and mood alone rarely provide the oomph a good narrative requires. As Godard famously pointed out, motion is emotion--as is held-back motion. Ambience in and of itself is often artistic onanism. Faouzi Bensaid's "What a Wonderful World," from Morocco, is an empty genre film that satisfies few searching for genuine alternatives; ditto Ecuadorian director Victor Arregui's "My Time Will Come." Hollywood, London, and Paris do the genre thing so much better; so why bother?

Straddling the three categories is "Those Three," Iranian director Naghi Nemati's story of three freezing soldiers who desert their military unit during a blizzard. Nemati is a filmmaker to watch: He shows a lot of promise, even if "Those Three" ultimately falls into an inert groove. But, for me anyway, Global Lens is mostly about possibilities and growth. Polish won't fix a broken nail, and collagen only makes thin lips appear...thinner.