hotdocs 2008 (Part 4)

The end is nigh!

Included in this set:

  • Green Porno
  • Tehran Has No More Pomegranates
  • The Unbearable Whiteness of Being
  • Be Like Others
  • The Pull
  • Suddenly Last Winter

Green Porno (Jody Shapiro, Isabel Rossellini, USA, 2007)

Sprinkled through the festival in various programs were six one-minute shorts under the collective title of Green Porno.  Rossellini appears variously as a spider, fly, snail, worm, firefly and praying mantis to explain the sex lives of insects.

They are all rather naughty, and for some sex can be rather dangerous what with masqueraders and partners who devour their mates.

I do not recommend the positions involved for human, er, experimentation.

Thursday, April 24

Tehran Has No More Pomegranates (Massoud Bakhshi, Iran, 2006)

This is a film by, for and about Tehran and Tehranis.  Contradictions are everywhere, a Massoud tries to understand the modern city and society by looking at its history.  Modern footage contrasts with archival material, photos and movie footage, showing the city in the years of European colonization.  The poor south of the city contrasts with the wealthy north.  We are left to form our own conclusions. 

Right from the beginning, Massoud warns that “nothing is true in this film”.  He tells us that 94 percent of Tehranis are poets, and the rest are filmmakers. 

A quote from 1241 — Tehran is a collection of towns, waring tribes and criminals.  There is no clean water, but there are wonderful pomegranates grown nowhere else. 

Tehran was not the original capital of Persia, but took on that role as a useful place to keep an eye on the Russian neighbours.  Traffic has always been a problem as people migrated to the city.  Parts of it, especially the bazaars, are intensely pedestrian.  There are two subways, built by China, moving people quickly through the city, but it took 20 years to finish them.

The city is divided into the north, wealthy, with spacious apartments, and the poorer south with small dwellings at high density.  In the south live Kurds and Afghans who are clearly second-class citizens.  The poor shop in the Grand Bazaar, the wealthy own it.

The two cities are linked by bricks:  in the south they make the bricks that will build the apartments for the rich in the north.  Everyone knows that Tehran will eventually be rocked by an earthquake, and when the buildings fall down, it will be the brickmakers’ fault, not the engineers and construction companies who skimped on materials.

One very proud young engineer’s goal is to replace old buildings with new apartments, and much of the city’s architectural heritage is threatened.  He will build small and uninspired row upon row of apartment blocks reminiscent of Soviet architecture in the south, but large and expensive ones in the north.  Like condos here, they will quickly appreciate in value and be resold.

We meet several government officials, but we see them only sitting at their desks — the director was given a camera but no sound equipment for the interviews.  On the street, we hear a poor man from the country, Jafar.  He is dissatisfied with almost everything but is quite articulate about the problems.

The film ends with a scene of withered pomegranates in an unwatered field.

Tehran Has No More Pomegranates shows the bizarre accomodations needed by people living in a country where so much cannot be said and everything is couched in humour and cynicism.

A few films later, we will encounter far more serios effects of this intellectual madness.

The Unbearable Whiteness of Being (Faisal Aziz, Scotland, 2007)

In this short film, we meet two young entrepreneurs, Abdul and Nurjana, siblings who hope to make their fortune with their invention, a skin whitening cream made (in China of course) from only natural ingredients. 

Their big chance comes the UK’s largest lifestyle show for Asians.  They pitch the product to browsing shoppers (one for 35 pounds, two for only 50), but the real goal is a connection with distributors, people who can get their skin cream into shops throughout the UK and beyond. 

Some passersby argue that skin colour makes no difference, but others say that lighter is what attracts in movies and in life.  Astoundingly, this is a growing industry that has already reached $2-billion annually in China and is large part of the Indian cosmetics market.

Be Like Others (Tanaz Ashaghian, Canada, Iran, USA, UK, 2008) 

The contradictions and intellectual bankruptcy of “modern” Iran can product tragic consequences.  In previous Iranian films I viewed, there is a dark current of cynicism, of getting around the rules, of a social agreement that lets everyone get on with their lives.  Not here.

Homosexuality is illegal in Iran, a capital crime punishable by harsh methods such as stoning.  People, even the gay men and women we meet in Be Like Others, cannot bring themselves to talking about being gay and of having sex “that way”.  What is the alternative?  A sex change!

Here we meet Theocracy at its worst personified by a cleric who is Iran’s theological expert on transexualism.  Over 20 years ago, Khomeni himself made the original ruling that, since anything not forbidden by the Koran is not a sin, there is nothing wrong with sex change operations.  Indeed, the state will change the legal sex of someone after an operation.   Shielded by this policy, some convince themselves Iran is an enlightened state where people whose sexuality does not match their bodies can be brought into some sort of harmony with themselves and with society.

In theory, gays are proscribed, but if they have a sex change, all will be well.  We meet Vida, a beautiful, well-spoken post-op transsexual who is almost a poster girl for the change, an advocate of what men can become.  She counsels candidates and provides support during their recovery.

We meet a woman wanting to become a man.  She’s really enthusiatic, but we don’t follow her story and never know whether she went through with the operation. 

We meet a man who likes lots of makeup and dresses as a rather trashy, slightly pudgy girl.  His lover is clearly gay with every intention of staying male, but they cannot legally have sex while both of them are men.  As the operation nears, the lover is getting cold feet and a post-op marriage is not in the cards.  The jilted bride grows ever fatter and unattractive.

Another man clearly doesn’t want the change, but it’s the only way to avoid harrassment and death.  After the operation, he is not at all pleased.  Much later we find he is living with other trans women and working as a prostitute.  Here we have yet another theocratic fix — a temporary Islamic marriage — whatever men must do to convince themselves of the legitimacy of their couplings.

Be Like Others confronts a government policy that effectively condones gays only if they undergo expensive, invasive, transformative surgery.  They will probably lose all contact with their families and remain outcasts.  Doctors make a living to provide the operations.  They may do good work, but on patients whose consent is only under legal duress and prejudice.

This is a deeply troubling film about the effects of disgusting social and religious bigotry.

The Pull (Andy Blubaugh, USA, 2007)

Andy and a friend decide to become lovers.  So far so good, but they’ve put a time limit on their relationship of a year.

Hmmm … long before the year is up, Andy tires of the relationship, but at least he made a short film about the breakup.  They seem like a nice gay couple, but forever isn’t part of their plan.  Was this a good idea?  Well, if Andy’s already got one foot out the door, I have to wonder whether he was ever fully inside and part of the relationship at all.

The Pull is a mere 8 minutes long, and that’s all it deserves. 

Suddenly, Last Winter (Improvvisamente L’Iverno Scorso) (Gustav Hofer & Luca Ragazzi, Italy, 2007) 

Yet more documentary lovers.  There seems to be a theme developing here.

Gustav and Luca live in Rome and, as their names suggest, one is Italian, one is German.   Fresh from an election creating a supposedly liberal coalition government, our couple and many others with unconventional domestic arrangements, hope for less restrictive marriage laws.  The government promises recognition of civil unions, or “DICO” to use the Italian acronym.

To us this seems reasonable enough.  However, the legal wrangling, the political footdragging, the paralyzed government, a right-wing media monopoly and the omnipresent Church are more than enough to frustrate the most ardent advocates.

I have to give Gustav and Luca credit — they do “man in the street” interviews with people coming from a papal youth gathering, not the most likely place to find support.  The responses are predictable.  Initially polite, but don’t push your luck too far.

The hoped for political action finally arrives — a bill sneaks into the Senate but stalled by right wing.  The Vatican and the press unleash torrents of homophobia with the usual rants that civilization is almost at an end.  Always it’s the same political story — some day, but not now.  In February 2007, the Italian government fell in attempting to pass the law.  Now, it is dominated by the right, and there is no hope for any reforms in the near future.

Ever hopeful, our happy couple celebrate in front of a supermarket “dico — discount italiano” who even get a “thank you” in the credits.

Watching Suddenly, Last Winter I felt it a bit rambly, but learned during the Q&A that it was a low budget, kitchen table edit.  This explains the limited ability to chase every thread in the story.  The narration, in English (by Frank Dabell) in the print we saw, is sardonic, the only way to approach the subject.