NEW YORK – Film festivals offer viewers the opportunity to travel through time and space. Pick a place and a time in history and most likely a good film was made about it. And now with “state of the art” digital projection, advanced film equipment and computer graphics, it’s not hard to feel that you are traveling by horse in Romania in 1862, or witnessing the Armenian genocide in Turkey in 1918. Cinema doesn’t have to be escapist or solely entertaining; it can also afford the progressive viewer the opportunity to study history, experience people’s struggles, and witness social change throughout history. The following period narratives all reflect the effects of war and violence in the storyline, and afford the viewer a vivid opportunity to experience another time and place.
The Romanian “road movie” Aferim! is unique in every way. The stunning black and white film about law enforcement in Romania in 1862 is quite different than anyone would expect. A police officer and his son travel for miles on horseback in the Romanian countryside looking for a runaway gypsy slave. Along the way we learn about religion and politics in Eastern Europe, stopping for weddings, campfires, and religious ceremonies – and they are all presented authentically to the smallest detail. Of course, issues of slavery and racism lie just below the surface, as the police officer gradually develops an enlightened respect for the subject he’s dragging behind his horse, as they head back home to the powerful and abusive landlord who is sure to punish the escaped slave. This is an engrossing story, realistically acted and a major stylistic accomplishment. (Note: Today the name Roma is preferred over the term “gypsy,” which is considered demeaning.)
Around the same time in Kentucky, USA, we find a couple of brothers dealing with the impending civil war while they attempt to maintain their family farm during the harsh winter. Men Go to Battle is a stylish personal story told with minimal dialog and often with natural candlelight. The brothers’ quiet differences on how to save the family farm and the well drawn characters who interact in various ways with them, make for a simple but rewarding depiction of life in early America during the Civil War.
A few decades later across the world, the Armenians became victims of genocide as the Ottoman Empire came to a crushing defeat at the end of World War I. Director Fatih Akin, of Turkish-Armenian descent now living in Germany, has created an epic telling of the Armenian genocide, a term that Turkey to this day refuses to recognize. The Cut takes place in Turkey in 1918 and follows a young Armenian jeweler, married with twin daughters, through the ordeals of forced exile, starvation and torture. He is ultimately separated from his family and in one battle loses his ability to speak. After seemingly endless struggles to survive he miraculously escapes and makes it his mission to find his two daughters, which takes him around the world. In its attempt to solicit mass appeal, this film falls short with a sluggish screenplay and other minor irritants like the inappropriate soundtrack that sounds at times like a rock band in 1918 Armenia. And the lead character seemingly fails to age while his daughters end up looking much older than him. But it’s an important project, being the first Turkish directed film to address the Armenian genocide.
We Are Young, We Are Strong is another black and white gem that tells the unknown tale of post-East Germany racism in 1992. We are transported to the city of Rostock in a true story of young unemployed skinheads who are intrigued by the neo-Nazis and disaffected by the Roma and Vietnamese immigrants they feel are taking their jobs. The passive mayor, father of one of the punks, fails to protect the tenants of a building that is a target for firebombing, and the situation gets out of control as tensions build between generations, races and ideologies.
Starting around the same time, 1992, but in post-Soviet Ukraine, we see the same social disintegration, influx of drugs, family breakdown, loss of jobs and other “joys” brought on by rampant capitalism and Western “democracy.” In the documentary Crocodile Gennadiy, we learn of a young pastor who attempts to rescue children lost to the scourge of drug abuse. Many are kidnapped off the street and taken to his rescue mission in Maripol, and with a tough love approach are given hope to survive. It would be only natural that Steve Hoover, director of the wonderfully moving documentary Blood Brother, would find another hero to make a movie about. Gennadiy’s compassion and concern for these lost youth cannot be challenged in his quest that some feel borders on vigilantism. He took his name from a childhood Soviet cartoon character he grew to admire – a crocodile who fought to defend the rights of children against threatening forces. Tragically, the anti-Sovietism of the main character, as expressed in the Q&A at the festival, fails to connect the dots, overlooking the increase of homelessness, drugs and crime since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Add to that the tragic battle going on in present day Ukraine, jeopardizing Gennadiy’s program. It’s a very moving film despite its political naiveté.
Tribeca featured several memorable films that appeared void of any obvious political content, although we know all films are political in some way. The charming documentary Autism in Love interviews several autistic subjects who prove that they are just as capable of loving and having lifelong partners as anyone else. Transfatty Lives, which went on to win the Audience Best Film Prize, follows the life of a filmmaker nicknamed Transfatty, who is struck with the debilitating Lou Gehrig Disease. But this fails to stop him from completing the fascinating doc Transfatty Lives. He appeared at the festival in a special wheelchair fitted with a voice-generated computer, to accept the top prize. Quite amazing!
Tenured is a broad comedy set in a suburban elementary school where fifth grade teacher Ethan Collins is brooding after his wife leaves him. While his world falls out from around him, he enlists his students in getting his wife back. Being tenured protects him from getting fired, and the snappy dialog and hilarious setups make this a thoughtful human comedy.
For Elvis fans – and there were tens of millions – Orion: The Man Who Would Be King will explain who that guy was that after Elvis died always recorded and performed with a mask on his face, and sounded exactly like the real thing. Another doc about fascinating people is The Wolfpack, a winner at Sundance. The five brothers Angulo and their one sister lived almost their entire lives in a Lower Manhattan apartment, without ever going out of their upper floor flat. They were given names of attributes of Krishna by their Peruvian father. Along with their parents they attempted to live a normal life under the circumstance, by developing a love of film. They would act out scenes from movies they had seen umpteen times, making costumes, learning dialog, filming and editing, all within their small apartment that they never left. Well, aren’t you just curious about what eventually happens?
Photo: Narayana Angulo, Govinda Angulo, Jagadisa Angulo, Bhagavan Angulo, Mukunda Angulo and Krsna Angulo in The Wolfpack, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.