Monthly Archives: May 2009

El Olvido (Oblivion)

I watched “El Olvido” for two reasons. First, because my parents really wanted to see a “Dutch film” during Hot Docs and were willing to drive for two and a half-hours to accomplish that goal; second, because I wanted to see Lima. 

In a sense, my parents didn’t get a Dutch film, but a film set in Peru directed by a Dutch filmmaker. Who was born in Lima. And returned to Lima after many years to reconnect with the city of her youth.

My parents are so cute, wanting to see Dutch films. Is it because they emigrated in their early 20’s and miss the Netherlands? Probably. I am the child of immigrants and I’ve never lived outside of my birth country. I’ve been to Holland, sure, many times. But I am itching for more…. of the world. Perhaps this is why I was interested in seeing this film. Take me somewhere, Heddy Honigman, I wished. And very competently, she did.

“El Olvido” means oblivion, a place where director Honigman believes Peru to be stuck. It is a country largely absent from the world’s consciousness except for Macchu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas. Yet it is a country of stunning beauty from the Andes to the Pacific Ocean, pulsating with rich and vibrant Amerindian, Mestizo and colonial European cultures. This I don’t know firtshand – only through the lore of friends’ experiences.

All I know of Peru with my own eyes is what Honigman showed me through the lens of her camera: Lima, the nation’s capital, population 7.6 million.

Lima is not an easy city and many of the characters in this film tell their stories framed by decades of political corruption. Politics play a role in this film – they provide the context for life in Lima – but its Honingman’s limited focus on two sets of characters – smiling service staff and circus-performing street kids – that provides deeper insight.

How do you tell the story of a nation’s capital in a little over an hour? Honigman let her characters do all the showing and telling. And she chose them wisely – from the master bartender who has shaken piso sours for a legion of presidents, to cartwheeling sisters performing for coins in the middle of frightful Lima traffic. We follow these characters from classic colonial restaurants to home-life in the barrio.  They are at once lonely lives, and lives rich with memory, all captured by an intimate, natural filmic style unusual to documentaries.

This is not a film about Peru. It will not take you to the spiritual hights of the Andes. It is a frank look at a gritty city. But I think that’s why I like it. I like cities. Now Lima no longer exists in oblivion for me.


The Yes Men Fix the World

Director Andy Bichlbaum of The Yes Men Fix the World

Director Andy Bichlbaum of The Yes Men Fix the World

There must be something sexy about Andy Bichlbaum . I think this as I watch a Naked News TV reporter lean in towards him. He, along with co-director Mike Bonanno, form the core of The Yes Men, “a couple of gonzo political activists [who] infiltrate the world of big business and pull off outrageous pranks that highlight the ways that corporate greed is destroying the planet.” Sounds sexy enough.

The Yes Men Fix the World enjoyed a Special Presentation screening at this year’s Hot Docs festival and much of the crowd lapped up the Yes Men’s pranks.

Here’s one of their capers as described by Hot Docs programmer Sean Farnel:

In December 2004, BBC World viewers tuned in to receive the surprising but welcome news that Dow Chemical was fully accepting responsibility for the 1984 Bhopal disaster, a toxic gas leak in which 18,000 people were killed. Even better, Dow spokesman ‘Jude Finisterra’ announced a $12-billion aid package for the people of Bhopal. The broadcast was seen by millions. The Yes Men had struck again.

Jude Finisterra is of course a character  Andy Bilchbaum creates to represent Dow Chemical, remakably through a fake website the team created called “Dow Ethics,” they landed a interview with BBC World. Just one of their coups.

I’ve been following their pranks for several years now and I’m happy to see that they received a lot of positive feedback from the kind and like-minded Hot Docs audience. Unfortunately for me, the outrageous sex-appeal of their pranks has worn thin. Glad though, to pass on the torch to new fans.

Sound of Insects: Record of a Mummy

When director Peter Liechti introduced his film at Hot Docs, he said that the impetus for the film occurred while listening to the CD narration of Miira ni narumade (How I became a Mummy) by the Japanese writer Shimada Masahiko which was accompanied by music. He said that it haunted him, that it was a mystery he wanted to solve, and that it remains a mystery even after making this film.

I was intrigued. All I knew was that the film was based on the diary of a man who had walked into the woods and committed suicide by starvation. That it took him over two months to die, and that he left behind a detailed account of his experience.

The film is from the point of view of that unnamed man. We see the woods, the grass, the raindrops on the leaves. We see the plastic tarpaulin he has arranged as a shelter. We see his world in his final days and as we see this we listen to his diary entries. Some entries are perfunctory: how he had bought items to aid him in his quest for death – the plastic sheeting for shelter, shaving items, a radio, even eau de cologne. Other entries are more philosophical: “Listening to Bach, it erases hunger. Is music food?” His connection to the radio is as close as we get to feeling that this man may feel nostalgia for the world he is leaving behind. After several days without food, he hears an announcer’s voice and claims it is “bell-like.” It is so lovely that he remarks that even while starving, he can still fall in love.

The sound recordings of the film are truly eerie. It is the sound rather than the images that create this world of life between death. The dripping of rain, the swooshing of leaves, the sound of insects (naturally.) As the pine needles collect on the plastic sheeting, the man writes about how he would like to reverse the insignificance of his life by the remarkableness of his death.

After 30-odd days sans food, the man begins to hear things. He imagines that a taxi driver has arrived to take him to the other side. He calls out “I’m here!” He thinks, “was I already dead when I started fasting? Death is only the remaining 2%.” And I sat in my seat contemplating how close we are to death at any given moment. I felt my senses open up to the film, and allowed the rain to wash over me, and I accepted the director’s interpretations of what the man’s memories might be – a plane flying upside down, a woman’s face, a tear rolling out, then rolling back in. A boat with two jolly passengers.

But the man will not die. He subsists beyond Jesus’ forty days – and yet he can still write lucidly. As he thinks about his compatriot, Jesus, he does not become religious. He remains a non-believer and his only overarching emotion is fear. Towards the “end” he jokes about his tenacity – how he should be entered into the Guiness Book of Records. I myself, at this point, question his ability to be so lucid – it’s been two months now of no food and very little water. His legs have failed him long ago, but he can still write?

As the credits roll, I notice that the film is based on a novel by Shimada Masahiko. A novel? Instantly I shake my head. If this film is an interpretation of a novel, doesn’t that make it non-fiction? I am curious to hear the Q & A with the director. Sure enough, the very first question that is asked by an audience member is “Was there any truth to this film? Was it based on fact?” The film-maker avoids the question with a “what is truth” kind of answer. The next question is “Was there a diary? Was there a man that died in this fashion and was the novel based on the diary?” Apparently, Masahiko had come across a diary of this sort, but Liechti never saw it. Essentially, the film is an interpretation of an interpretation of a questionable suicide by starvation. At this point, an audience member calls out “Why was this film at Hot Docs?” To me, a reasonable question – it is a festival celebrating and showcasing non-fiction film. I have to say I felt a little bad for Liechti (I always cringe at hecklers – artists have a tough enough time as it is “putting themselves out there”) and I was satisfied with his response: “For the answer to that question you would have to ask the festival programmers.”

So now I have a question for the programmers! And it’s a good question – what is a documentary film? A part of me thinks the programmers allowed this film in the festival in order to spark that very debate.

For more about “Sound of Insects: Record of a Mummy” visit the Hot Docs site here.

Up the Yangtze

This gorgeous film deservedly won the Genie Award for Best Documentary this year.

It airs tonight:
Sunday May 3, 2009 at 10pm ET/PT on CBC Newsworld


Up the Yangtze tells two Chinese stories – the wide-angle story of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s biggest construction project since the Great Wall, and the close-up story of Yu Shui, a teenager whose house is destroyed by the rising waters. Ironically, Yu Shui gets a job supporting her destitute family on the very tour boat that takes rich Westerners up the Yangtze river for a nostalgic ride before it is all but destroyed by the rising waters.

Click here for much more information about the film, and links to a Q&A with director Yung Chang, photos, trailer and discussion.