Saturday, August 2, 2008

Garbage Warrior: A man on a mission

The word inspirational is over-used but there is no other to describe the film Garbage Warrior and its hero, Michael Reynolds. The excited chatter of the audience leaving the Auckland Film Festival screening left me in no doubt others felt as I did about this incredible testament to human ingenuity.

The documentary film follows radical architect Michael Reynolds who over the last 30 plus years has been building ecological houses out of beer cans, used car tyres and a host of other recycled materials. Reynolds is clearly a visionary. Referring to the challenges of climate change and peak oil Reynolds says he feels like he's in a herd of buffalo running towards a cliff edge and it's his job to try to turn the herd - but he's not a self pronounced messiah on an ego trip - he says its simply self preservation.

While the rest of us moan about separating our rubbish for recycling and struggle with reusing carrier bags, Reynolds has been out there building houses that are totally solar powered, off the grid and independent of the sewerage system. And he says it's liberating. A trained architect, his philosophy is to try things without fear of failure and to learn from his mistakes. He just gets on and does it.

The houses (known as Earth Ships) are built from old car tyres filled with rammed earth, they have glass fronts that catch the low winter sun and thick walls that provide thermal mass to keep the heat generated in at night. They seem to be light and open with bags of character, and not a little quirky. But I could actually see myself living in one.

We meet a selection of characters Reynolds has inspired along the way. People are clearly attracted to him and with his support and encouragement a whole settlement of `spaceship' houses sprung up in the desert. When the powers that be challenged this eco-settlement and declared the development illegal, Reynolds took a bill to the US senate which would allow him to bypass building regulations and continue to experiment with sustainable building techniques. Watching this long haired straight talking eco-builder telling administrators and senators how it is in the outside world is a treat in itself, albeit a little frustrating when he comes up against people playing a political game or trying to justify their own job.

After the Asian Tsunami devastated the Andaman Islands, Reynolds leads a team of builders who build one of their sustainable houses for the local community. Teaching local men, women, engineers and architects along the way they leave their building skills and a little hope with the community. A heart warming story but also an interesting comparison with the administrative challenges his work faces at home in the United States.

Maybe it is easier to change a system from within, but sometimes it takes a radical to force change, especially if the system itself is part of the problem. This film is not just for `greenies' and anarchists but is for everyone. Its eye opening, empowering and a testament to what the human spirit can achieve.

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Thursday, July 31, 2008

The final curtain has fallen on the Auckland Film Festival 2008

Seventeen days saw thousands of punters watching hundreds of films in the City of Sails. It was above entertainment, it was an education, an inspiration and a chance to watch and listen to the world in film. A Rwandan drama, an animated Iranian autobiography, authentic action from Rio de Janeiro and a light British comedy played alongside a showcase of home grown talent.

Films I was determined to love (A Complete History of My Sexual Failures) left me untouched whereas others I was hesitant about watching played in my mind for days and left me feeling elevated (Persepolis).

In A Complete History… we follow scruffy film-maker Chris Waitt contacting his numerous and unimpressed past girlfriends to discover why his love life is a failure. At first obvious and contrived, it gets going when he admits to an erectile dysfunction problem – every man’s second worst fear (marginally better than death). Disturbing, sad, funny and knees-clamped-together-both-hands-pressed-to-groin moments provide the entertainment as he seeks a cure among psychosexual counselling, Viagra and a particularly enthusiastic female dominatrix.

After Persepolis, my festival honours were split between Mongol and Elite Squad. In Mongol film-maker Sergei Bodrov builds a swell of empathy for Gengis Khan, a man famous for his 12th century war mongering, showing us a brutal childhood and demonstrating a capacity for love, inner strength and integrity. We are treated to vast landscapes on the steppes of Mongolia where simple nomadic settlements are framed by dusky mountain ranges.

Elite Squad was co-written by a retired captain of Rio de Janeiro’s BOPE special police force. Incorruptible and feared throughout the underworld they raid the slums dressed and armed like commandoes. They are the last bastion of law and order in a world run by the drug lords – even the NGOs have to get permission to operate from the local drug baron. Elite Squad is imbued with an authenticity which transforms this all action film into something of a cultural discussion. Brutal, violent and very personal this film made my palms sweat throughout.

So my time in Auckland is up. I won’t miss the cramped dorm-room in the hostel where I scrubbed and cleaned in return for my bed but I will miss the camaraderie and characters that call it home. I’ll also miss my morning walks up Mount Eden to sit and contemplate the urban skyscape that stands against the dusky silhouette of the Coromandel Peninsula, my adopted home in the land of the long white cloud. A chance to sit and silently thank whomever may be listening for not being in the crawling line of cars heading towards another fluorescently lit day in front of a computer monitor on a 3rd floor somewhere.

And what now? To Brisbane. Where, coincidentally, the Brisbane International Film Festival plays until 10th August. Oh, what to do? More film reviews? Maybe.

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Its a free world...

This is the second film I’ve seen recently tackling the hot topics of immigration and exploitation, the other being Lorna’s Silence. It’s a Free World is a familiar story of economic migrants from Eastern Europe and beyond travelling to the UK looking for peace and prosperity, or just to raise a family in a safe environment. However when they arrive they find themselves at the bottom of the social ladder, living in cramped and often unhygienic accommodation devoid of work or dignity.

The scene was familiar to me – when I lived in Reading in 2003 we had an extended Polish family living next door to our Victorian Terrace. By 2006 the Pakistani run corner shop at the end of the road was selling a copy of the Reading Chronicle in Polish and you could buy your herrings in at least three different specialist Polish food shops along Reading’s infamous Oxford Road. Much of the talk was of hard working Polish and Czech Republic tradesmen with their willingness to work for (often less than) minimum wage undercutting local tradesmen. That’s free market economics people.

The migrant characters were lightly drawn and only one had even a little colour sketched in – almost enough for us to care for him as a person, but not quite. The acting was average and the cinematography uninspiring.

The story of a single mother struggling to earn a living and raise her young son, she works for a London workforce company on whose behalf she travels to Poland to recruit teachers, nurses and engineers to become window cleaners and labourers. When she gets laid off she takes it personally and convinces her flatmate to start an agency with her. They make a go of it, building up a clientele of factories and building sites that will hire casual staff by the hour or day. Their ethical code is ignored at every turn as they exploit work hungry migrants who have to arrive each morning in the yard of a local pub to find out if they have a job that day.

The most interesting element was watching the two women debating their morals - my favourite character, Angie's father, clearly represented the good conscience - a dapper retired east ender in his flat cap and Polo shirts, drawing a comparison with post-war workforce exploitation. As young British women they struggle to find rewarding and stable careers and so chip away at their own ethics and justify their uncaring attitude towards the migrants with an ‘every woman for herself’ attitude. A thought provoking social observation not unrelated to the themes within Lord of the Flies. This is not quite a descent into barbarism but shows the human instinct for self preservation has not been suppressed within modern civilisation.

I felt that the contemporary nature and honest treatment of the subject went a long way to justifying the Festival invitations and the awards but I’m not convinced that it stands up as a great piece of cinematography and has perhaps been picked up due to the reputation of director Ken Loach. It neither challenges our collective assumptions on this subject, nor presents any new insight.

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Mongol - the fall, fall ,fall and rise of Ghengis Khan

I’d been looking forward to this film for weeks – in fact it was the deciding factor for me to stay in New Zealand for the film festival – and I wasn’t disappointed. The scenery was as stunning as expected – vast plains and simple nomadic settlements framed by dusky mountain ranges on the great steppes of Mongolia. In this first part of the planned trilogy I don’t know whether Director Sergei Bodrov challenged the genre but he certainly made a good job of it.

We follow the early years of Ghengis Khan (then known less ostentatiously by his first name, Temujin) as he is relentlessly harried and floored by his fathers’ enemies in the years following his murder by an ememy tribe. Too young to fight back but not old enough for his enemies to murder him and retain their honour. This first part takes us to the point where he has united the Mongol tribes under his leadership – showing his ruthlessness in battle but generosity and integrity in dealing with his people. He is portrayed as a man of inner strength and integrity – whether this accurately reflects the man is open to debate – leading by three simple rules: Always repay your debts, do not betray your Khan and never kill women or children.

The story has obviously been dramatised for film and although based on history the accuracy of events and characters are questionable. According to Wikipedia there is very little factual information about the early life of Tem├╝jin and the few available sources are often conflicting – ripe ground for filmmaking I would suggest.

I felt there was a big unexplained leap from his escape from prison after being sold as a slave to his leading a vast army to take his place as leader of the Mongols. However the gaps in the narrative have left me inspired me to find out more about the great Khan, rather than annoyed at a hole in the plot. What more can you ask of a film than entertainment and inspiration?

Bodrov has successfully built a platform of sympathy and understanding for his young Gengis Khan, the intimate love story and tragic early events running through the film have made him a worthy hero. We are now ready to follow Gengis as he rampages across the globe, creating the largest Empire in the history of the world.

I reluctantly left the theatre feeling like I could take in parts two and three of this trilogy in one sitting.

Bring on part II.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A complete history of my sexual failures

Twenty minutes into this film and I couldn’t see where it was going or why it was granted anything more than a late slot on national television. I decided it had been titled ‘…sexual failures…’ rather than ‘…relationship failures…’ in a sensationalist attempt to draw in the crowds to this home-studio documentary of a failed love life.

We follow our scruffy protagonist as he stops girls in the street to ask ‘why do you think I always get dumped?’ as most of his (numerous) ex-girlfriends refuse to be drawn in to his self-indulgent film. Why won’t they add public humiliation to the pain of a broken relationship I hear you say? I couldn’t understand either.

When he does meet with one who’s not telling him to fuck off he doesn’t even listen, let alone hear, what she’s saying. He doesn’t learn from his mistakes, he’s lazy, he doesn’t commit to the relationship, he behaves badly (drunkenly pinning her mother against a wall and kissing her at a party). He seems to revel in this, as if he knows it’ll make good footage, and struggles to hide a smirk.


But then he tells us about THE BEAST. And the beast’s name is Erectile Dysfunction, every man’s second worst fear (marginally better than dying). And it had been chasing him for 3 years and wouldn’t let him hide in the cave of diversion, or up the tree of blame, or under the floorboards of laughing it off. And how did the beast come alive? He’s still in love with his ex-girlfriend of three years ago and couldn’t emotionally (or physically) participate in any other relationship because he hadn’t dealt with it and wasn’t able to move on.

In order to confront THE BEAST we take a tour of psyco-sexual counsellors, doctors, a husky voiced S&M dominatrix and a packet of Viagra. Disturbing, sad, funny and knees-clamped-together-both-hands-pressed-to-crotch moments follow.

He finally visits the ex-girlfriend in question, having rearranged the interview after over-sleeping the first one (what a surprise). I felt like the worst kind of voyeur, intruding on a moment of honesty and fragility too personal to share. He finally admits that the whole project was a grand way of trying to reconcile with her but he’s too late.

It made entertaining viewing for the large part, and I took away the message that deep down we know what our issues are and what causes them. We just aren’t always brave enough stare them full in the face and deal with them mano a mano. And if you ignore them they don’t go away – they grow two heads and come back at you.

A complete history… might not be the best film of the year but I learned something and I’m damned sure he did. But like the guests on Oprah – why do it in public?


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Monday, July 14, 2008

Persepolis - a powerful animated parody

This film came highly recommended by a friend, and although animation doesn’t usually attract me I went along. And by God, I’m glad I did. Persepolis is the autobiographical account of the Iranian born Marjane Satrapi; a tale of ordinary growing pains and young adulthood set against a politically charged climate in Iran.

Early on Marjane’s parents explain to her how the Shah came to power (allegedly aided by the UK and US in pursuit of oil) and the political message is clear yet easily digestible. Daughter to politically active parents in a divided community she develops strong beliefs and questions those around her; encouraged and inspired by her formidable grandmother among others. The child becomes a teenager with a strong rebellious character and the courage of her convictions – railing against the regime, wearing Iron Maiden t-shirts and questioning the oppression of women.

After trouble at school her family send her to Europe for her own protection. In Vienna she struggles to fit in or to find her place in normal society, carrying with her the guilt of knowing what her friends and family suffer at home. Her experiences of familiar issues such as going away and coming home, relationship with her parents, first love and standing up for what you believe in are magnified by the exterior issues of cultural misogyny, war, a divided community and an oppressive regime.

Marjane’s story is told with the brutal truth that animation allows, at times hilariously funny and at others deadly serious – like life itself. Somehow the characters and events feel more real than if they were played by flesh and blood actors, perhaps in the way that reading a book can evoke a more tangible experience than watching a film?

I found much to relate to within the film; Marjane portrays herself as a fallible human being, likeable in her combination of vulnerability and strength. What a fantastic way to bring the story of Iran alive for those of us on the outside – a real insight and an elevating experience. Parody is indeed a powerful weapon.

My favourite so far...


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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Munyurangabo - a long slow look at Rwanda

It’s a tough life being a film-maker. You want to get a point across, to make something with artistic merit, to express yourself – but you also have to keep your audience happy and entertained. And when many of us have grown up watching films with Spielbergesque happy endings – we like to leave the cinema with a smile on our face. But it demeans some subjects to treat them like this.

Don’t expect any happy endings in Munyurangabo, don’t even expect it to be softened by romance (Blood Diamond) or inspirational aid workers (The Last King of Scotland). Munyurangabo is about the lasting impact of the Rwandan genocide on her people – both Tutsis and Hutus.

Director Lee Isaac Chung was inspired to make the film after working at an aid camp in Rwanda, and I suspect he wanted us to take a long slow look at a situation he would have lived with daily. We watch uncomfortably long stills and slow paced dialogue. At times it feels like a reel of documentary that hasn’t been edited yet. The lack of action and simple plot give us plenty of time to dwell on the unsaid. What the film doesn’t say is more powerful than what it does.

But I don’t believe you can call long slow shots intrinsically poignant – for me none of the characters were likeable enough for me to really care about them personally – instead I felt that familiar hopeless feeling that arises when I contemplate Africa, combined with pity.

Watch out for the poet who delivers the only hope in the film in his poem in Kinyarwanda (Rwandan language).

Both I and the person next to me left slightly confused by the ending – not sure what we had seen in the final moments, or what the meaning was. It could have been one of two things in my mind – either with a message to deliver. Maybe it was supposed to be ambiguous – or maybe I missed the point.

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