Gazing through the lens

The usual subjects take control of the camera in the Walker’s annual “Women with Vision” Film festival

Michael Garberich

The Guerilla Girls famously chided the hegemony of the Hollywood apparatus in 2006 when, just weeks shy of the Academy Awards, they put up a giant billboard on a smog covered Sunset Strip intersection. The image – a shackled “Queen” Kong gorilla, clad in a magenta cocktail dress and clenching an Oscar miniature – caused shockwaves of chatter. The accompanying text proclaimed “Unchain the Women Directors!” and illustrated a few instances of gender disparity in the film business.

Women With Vision: Mirror Image
WHEN: Friday through March 17th
WHERE: Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis
TICKETS: $8 ($6 Walker members) for each program. Pick three films and get the fourth free: $24 ($18 Walker members). For more information: Call (612) 375-7600 or visit www.walkerart.org

We don’t need a billboard to know that the “celluloid ceiling” exists in the house of Hollywood. The glamorous cesspool of stardom is, and always has been, a good ol’ boys club, reflecting and reinforcing American life; its men, its women, and the roles each have traditionally played: men direct the films, focusing their gaze on the leading ladies in front of the camera.

But the self-contained, well-financed Hollywood market (which generates $35 billion dollars annually) is now confronted by a paradigm shift that’s seeing an upsurge of acclaimed international films from women directors.

Like the United States that houses it, Hollywood must, if only slightly, acknowledge its changing role in a global landscape where success is shared, and prepare to relinquish some of its previously held monopoly.

Even as festival circuits across the country provide a home for cinema from the gaps, such films rarely survive outside the harsh elements of the Hollywood-dominated market. For the next three weeks, the Walker Art Center will screen a sampling of these films in their annual women’s film festival, “Women With Vision,” which arrives this year with the subtitle, “Mirror Image.”

Festival Director Sheryl Mousley spends the year gallivanting around the international festival circuit in search of treasures percolating through the film community. She then handpicks films that correspond to an emerging psychic theme for instance, “Mirror Image,” this year.

“I try to find something that hits the zeitgeist of the moment. Right now, it’s this thing of looking at ourselves, whether it’s through surveillance, whether through the way we present ourselves, the way we hold up a mirror and want people to see us, or hold up a camera,” Mousley said.

The films aren’t your vain, provincial, hodgepodge art house pieces lacking in global grandeur. These directors are cinematic pioneers in their own right, nurtured by ripening film industries throughout the world in such diverse places as Iran, Brazil and Austria.

In recent years, the festival screened films like Deepa Mehta’s “Water” and Miranda July’s quirky Independent Film Channel darling, “Me and you and Everyone We Know.”

This year’s films include Jasmila ébanić’s “Grbavica,” from Bosnia & Herzegovina, which won the Golden Bear award for best picture at the 2006 Berlin International Film Festival, and Scottish director Andrea Arnold’s first feature, “Red Road,” recipient of the Jury Prize at Cannes last year.

The box office buffoonery and ideological chauvinism still propels too large a chunk of our filmic repertoire. However, cinema in the United States and the throughout the world, is transforming, and women directors are an integral element in the catalyst.

“It is really interesting cinema. It should be seen for that reason,” Mousley explains, “and then honored that women are the ones that are making it.”

“Intolerable”
DIRECTED BY: Alison Maclean
STARRING: David Rakoff
PLAYING AT: 7:30 p.m., Saturday, March 10, Walker Art Center

A woman walks down a narrow, chair-lined corridor in distress. She cries, holds her hands to her mouth, and those seated watch her leave, perplexed. Some laugh. Some appear afraid. Some ask questions. But no one seems to understand.

A camera captures the action from one end of the corridor leading to a studio in which David Rakoff (slick and bedeviling) waits, with mics and cameras, for actors who believe they are auditioning for a role in a film.

“Your audition is actually your escape from this room – down the hallway, out the exit and you can’t come back,” he tells them.

Their goal is to convince the others awaiting their audition that the room, and, by extension, the audition, is intolerable.

The result is a clever, hilarious, and subversive treatment of “reality” media. It’s a slick, 32-minute short that makes you question the verifiability of media that claims to represent “the truth,” including the film itself.

“Avenue Montaigne”
DIRECTED BY: Danièle Thompson
STARRING: Cécile de France, Valérie Lemercier, Albert Dupontel
RATED: PG-13
PLAYING AT: 9:30 p.m., Saturday, March 3, Walker Art Center

Paris. Film. Love. Clichés don’t arrive much more prepackaged than that, and yet Danièle Thompson’s whimsical tale spun with an irrepressible joie de vivre reminds us why we allowed them to become clichés in the first place.

On the famed Avenue Montaigne in Paris’ 8th arrondisement, chic by every account – home to high fashion and high art – sits the Bar de Théâtres.

And Jessica (Cécile de France), jubilant and provincial, finds work as the café’s first serveuse, where chance mixes her among a famous pianist (Albert Dupontel), a celebrated television actress (Valérie Lemercier), an ailing art collector (Claude Brasseur) and a cameo by American actor/director Sydney Pollack.

Although its themes pertain to old age as well as aging, to success as well as modesty, “Avenue Montaigne” is a fable whose mood carries an air of “L’Auberge Espangol,” its empathetic chords and its irresistible smile.

“In Between Days”
DIRECTED BY: So Yong Kim
STARRING: Jiseon Kim, Taegu, Andy Kang, Bokja Kim
PLAYING AT: 2 p.m., Sunday, March 11, Walker Art Cente

Determinedly minimalist filmmaking is a hard sell, especially in America.

Consider the critically celebrated but audience-resistant “Three Times” by Hou Hsiao-Hsien and “L’Enfant” (recipient of the Palm d’Or at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival) by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, to cite two examples from 2005.

Their lyric pacing and modest, almost abashed cinematography give the impression of narrative reluctance, as if too grandiose an event, or response to one, would compromise their characters’ integrity.

“In Between Days,” the debut by So Yong Kim, finds its place along this revered, if overlooked, lineage.

It follows Aimie (Jiseon Kim), a young Korean teen who has immigrated to Canada with her mother.

The typical teenaged experiences are accounted for – sex, social life, family – as well as the particular condition of assimilation, and the entire experience flourishes with the keen, minute foci prized by and commended of the genre.

“Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams”
DIRECTED BY: Jasmila ébanić
PLAYING AT: 8 p.m., Friday, March 2

In the afterglow of a war-ravaged neighborhood in Sarajevo is where “Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams” begins to breathe. The film, which won the Golden Bear at the 2006 Berlin International Film Festival, illuminates the layers of texture inside the microcosm of a broken city.

A widowed single mother named Esma (Mirjana Karanovic) deals with the psychic wounds of her past as life goes on in its own uncanny ways. As Esma works as a waitress at a disco to support her daughter, she attends support groups and walks through the mediocrities and quirks of life.

The film excels in its ability to cultivate compassion and redemption in war’s shadow, but in the process it becomes much more than that. Tragedy forever changes the ethos of a life, but the days continue to morph us.

“Red Road”
DIRECTED BY: Andrea Arnold
PLAYING AT: 2 p.m., Sunday, March 4

Jackie – armed with a joystick, a motherboard and a room full of grainy television monitors – spends hours spying on the city of Glasgow, Scotland through her private security company’s extensive surveillance system. A most unlikely voyeurist, she nonetheless gorges herself on everyday viscera, and her life becomes marked by a series of spastic televisual narratives and fragmentations. She engages in unrewarding sexual liaisons and steals and analyzes surveillance tapes. She is consumed by the reflexivity of her own gaze, and by the activities of a man who further facilitates her isolation.

The film forces us to digest not only the consequences of alienation in a post-industrial society, but prods at the very core of our most bizarre and self-deprecating behaviors. Better yet, the film’s visage is transitory, spastic and floppy, laying the bedrock for an unlikely thriller.

“Antonia”
DIRECTED BY: Tata Amaral
PLAYING AT: 8 p.m., Saturday, March 17

In the past decade, Brazilian cinema has really come into its own. It has not only harvested some of South America’s most juicy and scandalous telenovellas, but films such as “City of God” have helped shape the promising future of the blossoming industry while putting subjects such as social violence and urban disparity under a global microscope.

But Tata Amaral’s film “Antonia” goes beyond portraying the stereotypical urban slum violence that characterizes many Brazilian films. “Antonia” stories the lives of four female hip-hop artists in their struggle to make it big in a largely disinterested music industry.

Set in the outskirts of São Paulo, the Southern Hemisphere’s largest city, the film uses naturalistic, candid techniques to portray these women’s daily struggles – both fable and folly – of violence, friendship ailments and the overbearing confines of a machismo culture.

“Antonia” possesses a double intrigue: the film portrays hip-hop artists, and the characters themselves are well-known Brazillian musicians, who created an original soundtrack for the film.

A documentary follows urban explorers and their adventures to find forgotten mills and sewer systems

BY SARA NICOLE MILLER

In December 2003, just as the dust was settling in the wake of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, police arrested six dark-clothed men by moonlight in an abandoned brewery factory in St. Paul. The men – who were carrying with them maps, night vision gear and two-way radios – were held for the weekend on suspicion of terrorism. Local papers devoured the incident.

But as it turns out, the men were far from terrorists. They called themselves “urban explorers” – people who seek out the visceral experience of exploring urban or man-made places that have been deserted or rusted over. The story caught the attention of filmmaker Melody Gilbert, who immediately began searching out members of the international subculture.

She became connected with a local group of urban explorers called the Action Squad, who are well-known in the international exploring community for their adventures and interactive Web site.

Many of the explorers, according to Gilbert, “agreed to be filmed on the condition that I would use only their exploring pseudonyms, not their real names. They also asked me not to show how to get in a location or say exactly where it was. I agreed.”

“Urban Explorers: Into the Darkness”
DIRECTED BY: Melody Gilbert
PLAYING AT: Walker Art Center, 9 p.m. March 16, 4 p.m. March 17 www.urbanexplorersfilm.com

Soon, Gilbert found herself whisked away to cities and networks of urban explorers that spanned the globe – from old, gutted-out futuristic theme parks aside a Miami highway, to aging mill plants on St. Anthony Main, to the catacombs underneath Paris. She was even present to document the first UE convention in Scotland.

“Once they trusted me, I started filming. I had to pass a few tests like slogging through a drain, squeezing through tiny holes and jumping fences with my camera – I do most of the filming myself – but I managed,” Gilbert explained in an e-mail.

The explorers Gilbert captures in her film are far from punk kids with a fetish for graffiti and ransacking. They follow a strict code of conduct that frowns on vandalism or theft. Many, according to Gilbert, also follow the backpacker’s commandment: “Take only pictures, leave only footprints.”

“Urban Explorers: Into the Darkness” documents a handful of urban explorers – many of them local – as they trek into decaying spaces that once stood in glory as giant mechanisms of commerce or humongous machinery of urban squalor and metropolitan life. The camera morphs into a functioning set of human sensory organs, through which trudging in a foot of floating poop or precariously wading underneath gelatinous “snotsicles” in an elephantine West 7th Street sewer engages a collapsible sense of immediacy.

The mise-en-scène has its own way of savoring the illicit gazes, epitomized in the clandestine view of the St. Paul skyline – as seen from the top floor of a factory whose walls have been gutted. Gilbert also fuses together clips of the operations with charming interviews of various explorers, who are known only by their aliases: Danarchy, Max Action and Katwoman, among others.

The thrills of the operations are what suture the film together and provide its backbone, but it wouldn’t be nearly as introspective and curious if it weren’t for the meticulous awareness of place and the industrial phantasms of human geography. Every space breathes differently. And each artifact, manhole and architectural dinosaur narrates its own history.

“You see tidbits of the lives left behind in the abandoned and decaying asylums, hospitals, seminaries and even drains. And you wonder about those lives. It’s walking through history in a way that you can’t get in a museum,” Gilbert explained.

In the three years of making the film, Gilbert has a newfound appreciation for those alluring yet discarded places that are often just a jaunt away from our front doorsteps.

“After seeing so many beautiful buildings that are left to rot, I think about how, as a society, we are so obsessed with what’s new that we forget about the past and simply pretend it never happened. The urban explorers don’t forget.”

‘Day Night Day Night’ takes away assumptions and stereotypes of terrorism

BY MICHAEL GARBERICH

“The film is about a girl’s first trip to New York City,” said director Julia Loktev with a laugh on the phone.

The film, so euphemistically synopsized, is “Day Night Day Night,” Loktev’s fiction feature debut. And it’s as much about a girl’s first trip to New York City as, what’s the saying? “Moby Dick” is a story about a whale.

It’s about more than a whale.

And the girl, played with hesitation and poise by Luisa Williams in her first role, wears a backpack into which a wire runs from her headphones to a finger-sized digital music player, connected to a bomb.

But the inflammatory scenario, with its inherent, seemingly opportunistic fear-mongering edge, only touches the surface of a deeper meditation. It’s one that ripples through our modern society, brimming with Ws and so often expressed with the third person, too rarely self-reflexive: Who is she? Why is she doing this? Where is she from? Or to phrase the question with more currency, using the word with which we’ve all grown accustomed: Who is this terrorist, and why is she in our country?

“Day Night Day Night”
DIRECTED BY: Julia Loktev
STARRING: Luisa Williams
PLAYING AT: 7:30 p.m., March 9

Yet these questions are precisely those that Loktev resists.

The girl – Luisa Williams is plainly credited as “she” – speaks in polite, unaccented English. She enters New York City dressed as if she is attending a high school basketball game; she is, by every perceptible stereotype, not a terrorist.

“Too often people walk out of movies feeling as if they’ve done something,” Loktev said.

Indeed, to know this girl’s history, to know her motivations, her affiliations, would merely fill our knowledge-starved minds with untranslatable bits and bites of information that can be organized, classified, typified and economized.

Such information would falsely provide the viewer with an empowering sense of detection, as if the signifiers, always intended, required some grand intuitive act to piece into a recognizable image.

She’s a suicide bomber? It must be because she is Ö or she is from Ö or this happened whenÖ

“A lot of movies are just a reaffirmation of people’s expectations,” Loktev said.

In “Day Night Day Night,” Loktev hasn’t simply translated this will to subvert expectations with a narrative twist or jumbling of signifiers – which would only reinforce them through their opposites, a double negative of sorts – she has, rather appropriately, done so with a sharply tuned visual and aural explication.

In the first half, Loktev maintains a tight frame while the girl alternately waits in a blue and gray desaturated hotel room and stark white bathroom. We see fragmented shots of her lathering soap on her feet in the tub or clipping her nails on the bed.

The scenes are quiet, meditative and inspired by an ascetic cropping – of hands, of feet – akin to Robert Bresson (“Au Hazard Balthazar,” “Mouchette”). They would feel serene, were they not so tense.

Then in the city, the lights, the traffic, the people and the buildings obscure perception in a different way, whereas the hotel room, though not entirely depriving, contained and restricted the viewer’s capacity to process information, the city delivers, as Loktev put it, “a sensory overload,” both for the girl and for the audience.

She eats a soft pretzel and the city momentarily fades behind the sound of her chewing. But then the horns, the chatter and the bus engines return, blaringly.

“Sometimes she wins. Sometimes the city wins,” Loktev said.

If film, today, is sight and sound, then words, which often tiptoe along didacticism, are one alternative. And words will always tell you what to think.

The other is that taken by “Day Night Day Night,” a film about a girl’s first trip to New York City who happens to have a bomb.