Provocative and visionary!
The MadCat Women’s International Film Festival is based in San Francisco, but one hesitates to call it a “San Francisco festival.” Programmed for the past ten years (this September marked its anniversary) by one of the more imaginative curators on the scene, Ariella Ben-Dov, MadCat explores a wide geography, physically and philosophically. Featuring recent work by women filmmakers from around the globe, the fest emphasizes “provocative and visionary” — a tall order that, based on a sampling of three of its twelve programs, this year’s fest fills with panache.
Each program is based on a theme, with several works illuminating it. They vary from “Rural Women: Finding Independence” to “Surveillance Times.” Interwoven throughout were several 3D programs, including a live Viewmaster show by Portland-based artist Vladimir and a 3D featurette, Charming Augustine.
One of the highlights this year was the documentary, Maquilopolis, (2006) by Vicki Funari and Sergio de la Torre. Funari made a big splash on the festival circuit in 1998 with the documentary Paulina, an intense portrait of a maid who survives a particularly grim childhood. Here Funari and collaborator de la Torre turn their cameras on another survivor, actually a group of them — women who toil at some of Tijuana’s 800 “maquiladores,” those multinational factories that bum’s-rush into town, set up shop with a cheap labor force and no pesky environmental oversight, then slip away, sometimes practically overnight, to more obscure locations where they can pay even less and have even fewer eco-regulations.
In wrenching tableaux, the film shows these women stumbling through landscapes wracked by pollution to floorless houses made of discarded garage doors, their children playing in polluted, mercury-green “rivers” reduced to filthy streams. The architects of this and by inference many other such disasters are clearly identified though, like any savvy criminal, they refuse to speak on camera: multinationals like Sony, Sanyo, and Panasonic, catering to the first world’s unending appetite for new electronic gadgetry (big-screen TVs here); “ghost unions” run by the companies to preempt worker-run unions; corrupt overseers like the Mexican government’s environmental department PROFEPA; and individuals like Jose Kahn, who smooth the maquiladores’ way before fleeing, in this case to a plush life in San Diego.
But unlike so many activist documentaries from the past few years (“documentary fatigue” should be a wikipedia entry), this one spends as much time on the hopeful aspects of its subject as on the horror. These women don’t take their situation lying down. They become promotoras (community-based activists): they organize, study their rights, hold workshops, advocate in every venue imaginable, and — despite official indifference, company intimidation, and work-induced health problems — sue Sanyo for contractually promised severance when the company skips town. Led by charismatic Carmen Duran, the women maintain their equanimity and even humor in the face of seemingly impossible circumstances. The filmmakers abet them in this with unusual and unexpected formal touches. The women studied video production and shot some of this footage themselves, showing an artistic and witty side that’s perhaps part of their arsenal of empowerment. When one says, “We are just objects, objects of labor,” the camera shows them revolving, object-like, as the screen clogs up with corporate brand names. In another evocative scene, the women are shown standing firm, unmoving, while the background whizzes by — a brief but powerful moment that typifies this model documentary. Happily, they continue to record their struggles on video.
The “Rural Women: Finding Independence” show typifies what’s so engaging about this festival. Nahid Rezaei’s Water and Atefeh (2001) is a powerful double portrait of a section of Iran blighted by drought and one woman’s unwavering struggle to cultivate the land. The country’s lack of rainfall during the early 2000s turned lush fields into cracked desert, but Atefeh, who had lived in the U.S. and Germany before returning to her native country, is determined to get her wheat farm going again. To do so, she adopts all manner of strategies from bullying to cajoling to sweet-talking neighbors, agricultural experts, and government officials into helping her tap an underground stream. Atefeh’s no remote landowner; she’s right there with the workers being lowered into the running stream inside a cave, processing the wheat, watering her land. It’s a bracing picture of an indomitable woman pushing back when nature — and men — resist. Like Maquilopolis, this film has a kind of alternate narrative running in lovely, lingering shots of serene water flowing and fields of wheat swaying in the wind. These scenes add an almost mystical backdrop to Atefeh’s struggles and show what is at stake here.
Also on this bill, Astrid Bussink’s sardonically titled The Angelmakers (2005) limns another kind of struggle at another time. In 1929, some of the women of the remote Hungarian village Nagyrev began poisoning their husbands through an ingenious method involving flypaper and arsenic. The eventual death toll was 140 men not only in Nagyyrev but in adjacent and then increasingly far-flung villages. The pioneer of this method of ultimate divorce was a respected midwife, Auntie Zsuzsi, whose apothecary was so extensive it put the local dentist’s to shame. Zsuzsi poisoned herself once her activities were discovered; some of the other women killed themselves, some went to jail, and a few continued their lives unscathed.
Director Bussink lets relatives, descendants, and gossipy locals, both men and women, explain why the women did this, and it’s a provocative picture. Some blame the husbands for domestic violence, drunkenness, infidelity, and laziness, and there’s a kind of black-comic acceptance of the events that brought brief notoriety to Nagyrev before its backslide into oblivion. One woman, who says men were called “My Lord” in those early days, remembers the poisoners’ mantra: “My Lord is not needed.” Another says the men “deserved it” because they were “rude . . . rude and drinking.” In this macabre world, one-upmanship became the order of the day, with women arguing about who was “better” at killing her husband. One crone laughingly recalls the hypocrisy of one of the murderers who piously inscribed “I will come to my loving husband to rest” on his tombstone. Scenes of the modern-day women dancing in native costume look at first glance like a charming ethnographic moment but take on an unsavory aspect when the viewer recalls the other “women’s club” that the film describes. The only drawback here is that director Bussink does not have archival photographs to show us “Auntie Zsuzsi” and the other villains and victims in the film, but the result is engaging nonetheless. (Fans of mass-murdering Hungarian fraus from the ’20s can go here to find the missing pictures.)
Nothing is harder to resist than poking into other people’s lives. Individuals do it unceasingly (novelist James Purdy once identified “staring” as “the best human activity”); and increasingly, so does the state. Despite the general feeling that this is a modern phenomenon, it actually goes back decades, to a time when technology first permitted an astounding level of access to people’s private moments. Using technology to “connect” with other people — some of whom have no idea they’re being watched or heard — is the subject of three especially worthy films in the “Surveillance Times” show. All three are from Great Britain.
Esther Johnson’s Tune In (2006) surveys the fading ham-radio hobby in Britain, mixing interviews, abstract images, and the hypnotic low hum of radio intermittently interrupted by ambient sound. The film features several “hamateurs,” some of whom fit the stereotype of the aging, lonely, somewhat desocialized geek using the medium as a safer substitute for in-person communication. Others seem quite well-adjusted, affectionately describing the pleasures and surprisingly complex aspects of their hobby. We learn that, remarkably, ham operators knew about 9/11 before the BBC did, thanks to the simple devices they, in many cases, have built themselves. There’s also an unexpected cosmic connection with this seemingly earthbound activity: “At the peak of the sunspot cycle, you can speak to the world on low power” — an insight Johnson illustrates with dazzling images of sunspots. A poignant scene shows one operator on a rooftop talking into his radio, requesting to no avail that “anyone” respond, a striking metaphor for an alienated world in which technology ultimately can’t overcome the limitations of human nature. Ham, ironically, is an acronym for “Help All Mankind.”
Rebecca Baron’s How Little We Know of Our Neighbours (2006) is another of the festival’s double narratives, at once a history of “detective photography” and an exegesis of the famous surveillance experiment, Britain’s Mass Observation Movement (with the amusing acronym MOM). The film traces MOM’s origins in 1937 in a three-way collaboration between a surrealist poet, an anthropologist, and a filmmaker. This trio conceived the idea (all from different standpoints) of training volunteers to secretly observe Britons as they went about their daily life, the driving idea being to create an “anthropology of ourselves” documented in diaries, film, and photographs and cutting across class lines. This experiment, which ended in its original form in the 1950s, is described in heady detail, with enlightening interviews with surviving participants like photographer Humphrey Spender; a wealth of archival imagery and diary entries; and the inevitable historical developments as some of MOM’s “objective observers” were folded into the country’s covert spy organizations as part of the war effort. The film shows how MOM paved the way for the contemporary “snoop society” of reality TV, webcams, and political surveillance; a startling statistic says that today’s average Briton can expect to be photographed unaware 300 times a day. It’s surely no surprise that MOM morphed into what it had to become today: a marketing research firm.
Eva Weber’s The Intimacy of Strangers beautifully sums up the kind of world that the two previous films posit. Weber and her clandestine crew wander around London grabbing moments of cellphone chats from unsuspecting citizens. Here the filmmaker (and her minions) is the all-seeing eye, ruthlessly observing and recording oblique bits of people’s lives. These are unwitting mini-melodramas at their most evocative — a man revealing unpleasant realities in his social relationships; a seemingly happy woman who ends a call with “I love you! Bye!” followed by a lost, blank stare that the camera lingers on to the point of discomfort. The film counterpoints the chattering crowd with the individual isolated in his or her own private world, casually revealing intimate details of their lives while those nearby pay no attention. This portrait of a society overwhelmed by gadgets marketed as tools for facilitating communication shows just how chilly human relations have become. The Intimacy of Strangers is typical of the kind of unsparing, artful cinema we’ve come to expect from MadCat.