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SFIFF 54 Day Eight: The Redemption of General Butt Naked, Sound of Noise, Pink Saris, Master Critic

SFIFF 54 Day Eight: The Redemption of General Butt Naked, Sound of Noise, Pink Saris, Master Critic

San Francisco cinephile Meredith Brody continues to cut a swath through the SFIFF programme:

Cheerful way to start the day: watching a famed “General” of the unbelievably brutal 14-year Liberian civil war, known as General Butt Naked for the attire (or lack thereof) of himself and his followers, metamorphize – or is it re-brand? – into Joshua Milton Biahyi, an evangelic preacher seeking forgiveness for his unspeakable crimes. I’m not much fonder of organized (or disorganized) religion than I am of war – noting in passing that many wars are fought on religious grounds. I’m repulsed by both of the General’s incarnations. What I think he’s mostly seeking is airtime, not redemption as in the movie’s title The Redemption of General Butt Naked. He’s playing to the cameras that I kind of wish were not following him around, despite the effectiveness and skill of the filmmakers. Even his mea culpa before the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, which might recommend his later prosecution for war crimes, smacks of hunger for the spotlight –“I Was Responsible for 20,000 Deaths” – longer time on the 15-minute clock. Once a patholgical narcissist, always a pathological narcissist.

The canny directors, Eric Strauss and Danielle Anastion (this is their first feature film after much television work) are letting us make our own minds up. Powerful moments include Naked/Joshua’s rationale for using child soldiers – “they haven’t thought about the future” – and his method for convincing them to kill: showing them Hollywood action movies in which an actor who died in a previous film magically reappears.

There’s Senegalese, the General’s erstwhile bodyguard, whom Butt Naked shot in both legs after a perceived transgression and prevented from seeking medical help for five days. Now a double amputee and beggar, we follow his miserable story in a series of increasingly cynical-feeling photo ops.

In camera veritas. General/Joshua’s wife, who met him in church, has born him a passel of children, and early in the narrative sings his reformed-new-man praises, has this to say after he returns to the family from a long period on the road: ”I’m tired, tired of everything. Tired of being his wife. I’m just tired.” Amen, sister. I know just how you feel.

I would like to ask the filmmakers a couple of philosophical questions, but, ala, they’re not in attendance.

For the second slot of the day, I have a choice between Asleep in the Sun, blurbed as a “beguiling metaphysical mystery” set in Buenos Aires, with “period-perfect ‘50s décor” (yay!) but a “Kafkaesque world of pseudo scientists and self-possessed pooches” (uncertain; quite a bit of cultural damage has been done under the adjective Kafkasesque), or Sound of Noise, a “delightful comic cocktail mixing modern urban symphony, police procedural and love story,” with “the most complex and wacky musical numbers since…Delicatessen”, which is not a money review in my book.

I’m actually standing in line for Asleep in the Sun when I have a sudden change of heart and go off to Sound of Noise. I enjoy it (but I might have enjoyed the other, too!) It’s not quite Sophie’s choice — !! – but I prefer Hobson’s, as in this morning, when there’s only one choice offered. The film festival buffet is kinda cruel – placing an international feast before one in times of otherwise sketchy distribution of independent, foreign, and non-fiction films.

I like many things about the rather charming Sound of Noise, including the intelligent face of its lead actor, with an especially nice curly upper lip (way down deep I’m shallow), and the lived-in, un-altered face of the lead actress. During the Q-and-A afterwards, I’m also charmed by the director, Johannes Stjärne Nilsson, who’s brought along his production designer, Cecilia Sterner, in lieu of his co-director, a childhood friend with whom he’s made many short films. One of them, Music for One Apartment and Six Drummers, was the inspiration for Sound of Noise. It’s “all over the internet,” we’re told, so you know where I’m headed later, where I see the same musicians as in Sound of Noise, magically a decade younger. (When the filmmakers refer to the drummers as “terrorists,” I’m shocked. They seemed so benign, so amusing. I was missing the point! We’re all watching our own movies.)

I am saddened to learn that they had to augment and improve the skyline of Mälmo, where the film was shot after a last-minute cancellation of the intended Berlin locations. One long picturesque panning shot of its supposed skyline, dotted with fairytale spires had made me long to visit it. The magic of the movies!

There’s not enough time before Jean-Michel Frodon’s Master Class in Criticism to see all of Pink Saris, a documentary about the charismatic founder of India’s Gulabi Gang, which challenges India’s class structure and violence against women, but I seize the opportunity to see over an hour of its 93-minute running time on the big screen, figuring I’ll catch up on the rest on DVD or TV. A festival regular, who asks me what I’m going to as I pass by her standing in line for Silent Souls, seems to think I won’t mind leaving it early.

I’m not quite sure why. It’s another portrait of a charismatic publicity-seeking narcissist, but one that I think is trying to use her powers for good. I don’t see much more than the self-mythologizing Sampat Pat Devi racketing around India, terrorizing the police, hapless husbands (including her own, as well as her live-in male partner), and assorted onlookers in her quest to protect women from domestic violence and challenge India’s caste system. (The Gulabi Gang, her pink-sari’d followers, serve mostly as a silent chorus in the hour that I see, no more vocal than those ladies in purple dresses and red hats that you sometimes see eating en masse in restaurants.) There are plastic pleasures, too: the beautiful women, even the poorest attired in lavish-seeming brightly colored clothes; the rich greens of the countryside.

Frodon, articulate veteran of Le Monde and Cahiers du Cinema, has a take on film criticism that’s both permissive – the critic’s only duty is to write about his response to a work of art – and, conversely, intent on what film criticism is not. He says film criticism is not journalism, consumer advocacy, advertising, or academia. He has interesting things to say about the confluence today of the film critic and the proliferating film festival in creating alternative methods of distribution as well as international reputations for emerging directors. (You can watch it all yourself on the seemingly ubiquitous U-Stream.)

Tonight the Festival will get him back to Palo Alto, so we say our adieux. I’m confronted now with a choice even more difficult than the one I made earlier: should I see Tilva Rosh (coming of age in Serbia), End of Animal (apocalypse in South Korea), Foreign Parts (car salvage in Queens), or The Whistleblower(Rachel Weisz in Sarajevo).

I take the coward’s way out, heading homeward to an overstuffed TiVo, intending an early night. But somehow I find myself emailing Steve Jenkins, the Deputy Director of the San Francisco Film Society, at 2 a.m., because I’d forgotten to tell him the day before that the print of Salvador was flawless – he’d warned the crowd that it was scratched and tired. Amazingly, he pings me right back. “We’re both up too late!” I respond. But he’s been to the star-studded (I quote the catalogue) Film Society Awards Night at Bimbo’s 365 – feting Oliver Stone, Frank Pierson, and Terence Stamp – as well as dropping by Tosca afterwards for drinks. What’s my excuse? Surely not the Royal Wedding. But I do catch a glimpse of the actual ceremony by accident when I switch off TiVo’s must-see TV moments later. Looks fancy. Good luck to them.

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