Chicago International Film Festival 2013: Part I, by Aaron Pinkston
Bluebird, dir. Lance Edmands, USA
Hollywood’s reflex in playing tragedy is often big and loud. Something terrible happens, fractures the community, friends and family yell and scream, seek vengeance, repeat. This tone can work for a film like Prisoners, but it wouldn’t for Bluebird. Set in northern Maine during the coldest time of the year, Bluebird explores how a horrific accident ripples through family and community, but with a melancholic tone that is very difficult to get right.
Bluebird is able to nail this particular tone because it builds from the environment through the characters. It’s a depressed community, economically struggling, covered in ice and snow, lacking in culture. The film expertly depicts the affect this place has on its residents, who seem stuck in motion even before the accident that fills the plot of this film. Built similarly to a hyperlink film, though with a closer connection to those affected by tragedy, the film has the universality usually seen in this genre. Still, the events and the people portrayed could conceivably exist anywhere, but they feel particular to this place because of how well Edmands sets it up from the very first act.
This strange low-key sadness is also built through every performance in the film. Filled with character actors who all give really strong performances, not one is trying too hard to overcommit to the dramatic moments. The actors are smart enough (perhaps not vain enough) to not be unnecessarily showy and make acting choices that would derail this tone. Amy Morton (yes, the mother from Rookie of the Year) plays the central character, an elementary school bus driver who causes a tragic accident. She is able to play a helplessness that you just don’t see much on screen — anyone who has dealt with depression will find a lot of truth in her approach. John Slattery plays her husband, a disheveled, low-key lumberjack equally lost in this world. Basically, he is the complete opposite of his Roger Sterling character, but fits right in. Margo Martindale is seen in a small role, and she’s Margo Martindale, so that’s that. Louisa Krause perhaps has the most difficult role to play as a young mother not equipped for the job. She’s probably the least likeable character, the least sympathetic for sure, and also the most outwardly emotional. This character could easily tip the film’s tone to something more oppressive, but she plays naturally enough to make her “big” moments count while keeping enough of her pain internal. Everyone in this film is on the same page and it helps turn out a cohesive ensemble performance.
Writer-director Lance Edmands is someone to really watch out for. Though only 32 and making his first feature film, he displays an uncanny emotional maturity. As I’ve mentioned, the tone of this film is odd and rarely seen, but absolutely works, and that has to be his doing. Fully realized through his script, direction of the actors, even his editing, it is not the kind of work you’d expect from someone with his limited experience. If Edmands continues to make difficult choices and work with actors so in tune with his vision, he could really go a long way.
Bluebird isn’t an easy film to watch. It is slow and metered, gripped by depression. I didn’t find it overbearing. The film portrays an entire community in suffering, but doesn’t try to punch you in the gut with big moments and capital-a acting. Instead, it seeps into your system with melancholy and quiet hopelessness. If it hits your emotional soft spot, it will be one of the best films of the year.
Show times: Sunday October 13 at 8:30 pm, Monday October 21 at 1:45 pm
The Exhibition, dir. Damon Vignale, Canada
In 2007, the trial of Robert Pickton had begun. Though he was only being charged for the murder of six, it was thought that he may have murdered up to 69 women who had become missing, making him the most notorious serial killer in Canada’s history. Because he targeted sex workers, most who were homeless, drug addicts, and minorities, public perception arose to claim that the police didn’t do everything in their best efforts to stop this from happening. In response to these horrible crimes, artist Pamela Masik began work on a series of portraits, taken from the images used when these women went missing. The Exhibition chronicles both the events surrounding the crimes of Robert Pickton and the work of Pamela Masik. This approach takes the typical murder investigation documentary to a different level by exploring how we process heinous crimes and how art can help do this.
The aims of The Exhibition are quite high, covering a huge scope of information. The documentary certainly isn’t perfect in balancing the crime investigation with the artist profile, but it is a pretty thrilling idea that opens a lot of questions about the relationship between grief and art. Pamela Masik becomes a central figure to this story and the film was given a lot of access to her and her work from the early stages of developing her now controversial collection.
Her paintings are quite breathtaking, showcasing a lot of technical skill and ingenuity, but they are also brutal. They don’t shy away from what happened to these women, taking on a violent presentation including techniques like slashing the canvass and using metal to staple one particular portrait subject’s mouth closed. As we see these paintings being created, Pamela is given a lot time to talk openly about her work, her artistic intent and technical decisions. She seems to fully understand the importance of what she is producing and that her work may not be liked for the obvious reasons. Still, she pushes forward, creating more and more abrasive images as she goes along. She explains her vision clearly, making it easy to understand her intentions — she often says that she is not trying the memorialize these women, but let them confront the public, look into the faces of their onlookers and ask them why they let this happen.
After years of work costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, Pamela finally sets up an exhibition with the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. Soon after, the controversial work comes to light, sparking protests from the community, including families of the victims, women’s and racial groups. Many of the complaints stem from families and friends of the victims not wanting to remember their loved ones in the way they are depicted in these portraits. Showcasing the women merely as victims sparks an interesting question of whether this is a positive message. Smartly, the documentary spends time exploring the lives of a few of the women who were killed, talking with their family, getting to know them as people. This is a clear advantage a documentary has over a painting that is specifically trying to convey this message. Other complaints directly attack Pamela Masik, portraying her as an ambitious artist looking for notoriety and personal gain off of women she has little relations to. This question is a lot more difficult for the film to fully address.
The film gives us both sides of the argument, but those against the exhibition aren’t given quite the same favor. In the end, the film leans heavily on pro-art, and that’s fine, but there is a disconnect between the arguments. Some of this is inevitable, given the placement of Pamela in the film — because she is such a central focus, she gets a lot of time to explain her intentions and put the audience on her side. Then, when we see very reasonable arguments against her work, the first inclination of the viewer is to think that they are wrong in their outrage or just misunderstand what the artist is actually trying to do. There is also a disconnect between one of the film’s themes and how it actually builds itself — the film seems to have a viewpoint that discussion is an important part of art, but we don’t see any discussion happening between the two opposing sides. Yes, it asks a lot of questions for the audience to consider and can spark a great debate among those that watch the film, but it could have been beneficial for the two sides to do more than simply state their cases.
Even with these problems, The Exhibition is a pretty powerful film that asks a lot of really important questions when thinking about grief and art. What is the responsibility of the artist? Even when art is made with the best intentions, what are the limits? Should intent be considered when art is controversial, or at all? Should the artist be held responsible if work is misinterpreted or used in negative ways? Specifically in the case of Pamela Masik’s work, who should tell this story? Who has the right to speak for aboriginal women sex workers? A middle-class, white artist of those directly from the subject’s community? The Exhibition doesn’t have the ability to answer these questions (who does?), but it offers a really complex look into why these questions are important, no matter your own personal viewpoint.
Show times: Saturday October 12 at 4 pm, Monday October 14 at 6 pm
Infiltrators, dir. Kahled Jarrar, Palestine/UAE/Lebanon
Similar to 2012 Oscar nominated documentary 5 Broken Cameras, Infiltrators captures intense moments in the Israel-Palestine conflict from the side of the Palestinians with a cheap consumer-grade camera. This film is perhaps less overtly political, feeling more about the human struggle (which, of course, is inherently political) and not getting into the specifics of the conflict in the Middle East. Infiltrators follows a number of Palestinians who attempt to be smuggled into Israel over a 20-foot wall. There is no overarching reason for people to attempt this dangerous act — some wish to go to Israel to pray, some to access better hospitals. The lengths these people go through speak volumes. Throughout the film, it is obvious that the subjects and the filmmaker are in constant danger of being captured, arrested or even killed. This tension makes for a powerful film, though it is much more refined than you may expect.
Jarrar’s use of a hand-held inexpensive camera is done for obvious necessity, but beyond the practicality, it is really the only way to capture this type of story. The shaky movements of the camera really help emphasize the danger that is ever-present. The shooting style is very similar to 5 Broken Cameras, though, this film doesn’t use a voice-over narration or through-line story.
Throughout the film, the director and camera operator does well to identify a number of different individuals, giving the documentary a more personal touch and narrative. Infiltrators is by no means a narrative film from start to finish, but only covering the crossing of the wall, however suspenseful and cinematic, would only get the film so far. We are able to see the faces and hear the voices of these people making this tense journey, and though we don’t spend much time with any particular individual, their profiles are important.
With this shooting style, the film catches a number of small, human moments that really make this film feel complete. At one point we see smugglers and clients arguing over a fair price. When a group of men notice that they are being filmed, they gloat that they will be on Al Jazeera. We even see a man pissing on the wall — presumably not for any political statement, but just because he had to go. The film in whole is immediate and tense, but these kinds of moments really help flesh out the film into a more rounded emotional experience. Jarrar probably didn’t need to take the time to capture these moments to make an important film, but his choice to do so really takes Infiltrators to a higher level.
Show times: Saturday October 12 at 8:45 pm, Monday October 14 at 8:20 pm
Lad: A Yorkshire Story, dir. Dan Hartley, United Kingdom
The title Lad: A Yorkshire Story basically tells you what you’ll get. The story of a 13-year-old boy on the path toward juvenile delinquency after the unexpected loss of his father, it is a coming of age story through-and-through. After a particularly serious offense, young Tom is forced to take community service with a park ranger in the Yorkshire countryside. Given the nature of the genre, Tom learns about responsibility, sexual experience and how to be an adult. His friendship with Al Thorpe, park ranger, serves a direct need for Tom, helping him move past his loss and straighten his life.
The second part of the title is the film’s biggest draw. The Yorkshire countryside is absolutely stunning and director Dan Hartley does well to capture its beauty. From the rolling green hills stretching out to infinity to the man-made stone fences lining them, it is the kind of environment specific to this part of the world. If you’ve ever been to the United Kingdom or Ireland you know just how cinematic this land can be — Lad: A Yorkshire Story captures the scenery as well as any film I’ve seen. Even when the film doesn’t totally work, it always have a backdrop worth a view. I often found myself wanting to examine the environment even when character moments were happening in the foreground.
Despite a pretty serious storyline involving the death of a father and the newly widowed mother struggling to pay the bills, the drama is kept light. All the dramatic beats are announced by the actors, playing them like the film is a melodrama. Bretten Lord, who plays Tom, gives a pretty good performance, wearing the pain and confusing of growing up firmly on his face, without a lot of outward emotion.
Except for a bit of language, Lad: A Yorkshire Story seems well suited as a film meant for the entire family. It is the kind of heartwarming dramedy that won’t challenge you — no matter how grave the circumstances become, you just know there is a happy ending coming your way. It’s the type of film where a single mother drives to the bank owner’s house to triumphantly stand up against the big, bad bank. It is sweetly old-fashioned, at times more than a little saccharine. In the right situation and with the right audience that is certainly not a bad thing, but Lad: A Yorkshire Story is far from hip.
Show times: Saturday October 12 at 5:45 pm, Monday October 15 at 8:30 pm, Thursday October 17 at 1:30 pm
Northwest, dir. Michael Noer, Denmark
Casper, the central character of Northwest, is a young petty thief who breaks into houses to steal electronics that can be resold on the black market. Sick of how he is treated by his his gang boss and the small income he is making, he decides to go for personal scores. New job prospects come with Bjørn, a pimp and drug dealer who offers Casper a job with a little more potential. This, of course, doesn’t stand well with the old gang, leading to a dangerous conflict. Northwest is a small crime drama not too interested with the big picture, instead with a focus on how the choices of a young man lead him into a pressured situation.
Casper’s rise in the criminal world is countered by his family life — he is the man of the house, providing for his sad-sack mother, impressionable teenage brother and much younger sister. When Casper interacts with his family, you see that he isn’t a bad kid, just caught up in circumstances, like so many real-life and cinematic criminals. The film really breaths in quieter moments spent with this family and Casper’s criminal family. It never delves too deeply in the criminal world, picking through motivations or larger societal issues. You can pick up snippets of issues specific to Denmark, like racism and masculinity, but the story is simple enough to transport into any culture.
When the big dramatic moments come near the climax, they come from the disintegration of the family, which ultimately gives the film a much more personal feel even while it is intentionally broad. As Casper works his way into more responsibility with Bjørn, he must take on a partner who he can trust with his life. Though not his first choice for obvious reasons, Casper’s brother Andy comes along, spurring the dramatic tension in the film. It’s clear that Casper wants to protect Andy from this life, so when he is forced to bring him in everything ramps up to a surprising conclusion. Played by real-life brothers, their chemistry comes through. Given the narrative developments in the third act, if this relationship doesn’t work the film certainly wouldn’t.
The main character is a blank slate, for better and for worse. Obviously, as the film seems to be going for a universality, having a central figure that most anyone could relate to is important. Casper has motivations that spark events, but the character’s role is more of a reactor, especially when his problems reach a place of no return. Still, it is hard to get a really good sense of who he is outside of the relationships he has. He blows through emotions, exhibiting a range from fear to anger to melancholy that don’t really have a consistent growth. Casper certainly learns and grows by the end of the film, but the film’s limited scope and the character’s blank mentality make it difficult to view this film as a character study so often seen in youth crime films. There is a definitive contrast between Casper and the people around him, who really give a character to the film. Even Casper’s brother, who initially appears to be a meeker version of Casper is able to break out through the narrative, build as a character.
Show times: Saturday October 12 at 2 pm, Tuesday October 22 at 6:30 pm, Wednesday October 23 at 4:15 pm