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May 23, 2000 2:00 AM
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FESTIVALS: Globalization and its Discontents at San Francisco

FESTIVALS: Globalization and its Discontents at San Francisco

Carl Russo



(indieWIRE/5.23.2000) -- For fifteen days the political zeitgeist played to
sold-out movie houses during the 43rd San Francisco International Film
Festival
. From Argentina to Yugoslavia, a thread of globalization and the
struggles that have arisen in its fallout, ran through many of the fest's
191 selections.


The May 4 closing awards ceremony reflected the spirit. Audiences chose
Rituparno Ghosh's "The Lady of the House" (India) as Best Feature and Julia Query's "Live Nude Girls, UNITE!" (US) as Best Documentary, two films
exploring the choices women make in the face of exploitation. The $10,000
Skyy Prize was given to Alice Nellis' "Eeny Meeny" (Czech Republic), a comic take on a meaningless election fussed over by a housewife while the town
stays home. The winners of the Golden Gate Awards explored confused
identities on US soil: Jasmine Dellal's "American Gypsy: A Stranger in
Everybody's Land
" (Best Documentary) and Deann Borshay Liem's "First Person Plural" (Best Bay Area Documentary).


As in past years of global tumult at SFIFF, the celebrity spotlight was
eclipsed. True, Ethan Hawke hawked "Hamlet," Sofia Coppola and hubby Spike Jonze pushed "The Virgin Suicides," Winona Ryder and Esther Williams each got their splashy tributes, and the corporate-sponsored galas rivaled those of Hollywood's golden era. But the hottest tickets were for two films that dealt with politics of the sexual kind.


The first was tailor-made for SF's kinky night crawlers: "Lies," Jang
Sun-Woo
's notorious s/m love story, whose authentic beatings sent one critic
fleeing and held a rapt audience overtime for a Q & A with the filmmaker
currently fighting a censorship rap in South Korea.


The other film pleased activists and onanists alike. Julia Query, a dancer
at the local Lusty Lady Theater, helped spearhead the battle at the peepshow
to form the first strippers' union in the country. Picking up a Hi-8
camcorder for the first time, she interviewed her fellow employees about
working conditions and alleged racist policies of management. The indie
project became "Live Nude Girls, UNITE!" after she enlisted the help of
co-director Vicky Funari (director of "Paulina" and a one-time Lusty Lady
dancer). Although the film was picked up by First Run Features for a fall
release, Query is not anxious shoot again.


"It's so much work to make a union and it's so much work to make a film and
in my case I put my personal life out there," a tearful Query told indieWIRE
after receiving the Audience Award. "It's extremely expensive. I sold my
house and I'm in debt. I put all the money I have in this and all the hours
I had for four years. I'm not willing to do that again until something is
just as important to me."


While the Franco-centric programming (29 French titles plus seven
co-productions) may reflect supply if not demand, several Gallic offerings
echoed struggles depicted elsewhere in the fest. Unsexy issues like class
disparity, downsizing and the 35-hour work week were all given bright, human
faces in "Nadia and the Hippos," "Farewell, Home Sweet Home," "New Dawn," and "La Dilettante."


Claire Devers' "The Thief of St. Lubin" -- a North American premiere --
brings the weight of a hypocritical justice system crashing down on a young
woman. Based on a true incident, the trial of a single mother caught
shoplifting meat to feed her kids becomes a larger debate. As Dominique
Blanc
's exhausted, slightly unhinged character morphs into a national
symbol, both the left- and the right-wing claim her as proof of a failed
society.


Several more premieres scrutinize the built-in conflicts of their respective
countries with colorful narratives. Randa Chahal Sabbag continues her
critique of the moral ambiguities found in war-torn Lebanon with the
ironically titled "Civilized People." In this absurdist comedy punctuated by
machine-gun fire, Christians and Muslims kidnap each other and a Palestinian
maid offers to kill the hostages starving in the basement because "Madame
will hear their screams." Fundamentalism and a bullying, amorous school
teacher upset the relationship between a working mother and her son in Atef
Hetata
's "The Closed Doors." Their ramshackle Egyptian village serves as a
symbolic rat maze for the boy struggling with his emerging, Oedipal-tinged
sexuality. The arbitrary nature of authority plays out to comic effect in
Dimos Avdeliodis' "The Four Seasons of the Law" (Greece), when a succession of guards are sent to police an insular rural town and in Valery
Ogorodnikov
's "Barracks" (Russia) the setting for a clash of refugees, war
criminals and perverts following Lenin's death.


As with the frantic citizens of "Eeny Meeny," a sense of confusion and loss
haunts the Germans interviewed in the documentary, "After the Fall." The
collapse of communism may have been the most celebrated event of this
generation, but uncertainty stands in the place of the one-time "death
strip" known as the Berlin Wall. That and a mega shopping complex. Berliners
east and west explain with sadness that assimilation was simply a given in
the government's haste to demolish the barrier. Using images of spinning
carnival rides and ominous construction cranes, filmmakers Frauke Sandig and
Eric Black ponder the ironies of a democratic victory that erased history
overnight.


A proposed shopping mall disrupts a vibrant corner of Beirut when a family
of settled refugees are presented with an eviction notice. Joana
Hadjitthomas
' "Around the Pink House" resounds with the familiar promise of
gentrification: a shining future and an end to the old, inefficient ways.
The battle lines are drawn, neighbors become enemies, and the extended
family plans an uproarious revenge.


Perhaps the most devastating portrait of globalization at this festival was
Jean-Marie Teno's "A Trip to the Country." Returning to his home town in
Cameroon after 33 years, Teno finds that the promises of freedom and
modernity his people were fed have been broken. The once thriving villages
and fertile cocoa fields are now junkyards and squats following years of
"colonizing missions." Tragically, the colorful communal gatherings of a
village that marked the highlight of his childhood summers have degraded
into an annual drunken brawl sponsored by Coca-Cola and various beer
companies.


Yet a ray of hope dazzled audiences in an April 25 world premiere at the
Castro Theatre. "Blossoms of Fire" discloses the way a Mexican village has
coped with modernization: by mostly ignoring it and, when necessary,
fighting it. The Zapotec town of Juchitan -- for eons rumored to be an
indigenous matriarchy of sexually voracious women and henpecked men

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