April 23, 2010

MSPIFF 2010: Week 1 Roundup

I made it to only three films during the first week of MSPIFF 2010 - significantly fewer than any other year in recent memory, but a major feat nonetheless considering all things (moving, working, wedding planning, etc.). I still have ambitious plans to make it to ten total films before the festival wraps up next Friday, though it may require booting up my time machine or employing the Zack Morris Time-Out.

Thoughts on the first three, in order of viewing:

Bananas!* - That both the exclamation point and asterisk in the title go entirely unexplained during this documentary is a curiosity, as is the fact that it's really not about fruit at all. While Swedish filmmaker (emphasis on Swedish, because this film is produced and titled in a decidedly non-American way) Fredrik Gertten presents an admittedly interesting legal drama about the Dole corporation's use of a controversial pesticide that rendered sterile a significant number of the company's banana farmers in rural Nicaragua, the film is the victim of unfortunate timing as it exists as simply a lesser version of last year's Crude, which had an almost identical story to tell about ExxonMobil and a community in Ecuador (including a championing American lawyer using the "David vs. Goliath" analogy). 

I'm glad I saw Bananas!* because the courtroom scenes are engrossing and issues like this deserve to be shared with the world, but at the same time I don't feel I received a complete picture of the banana industry.The film boasts the already tired claim that we'll "never look at ______ (insert bananas) the same way again", which is partly true. I'll never look at them the same way again without wondering, "why didn't I learn more about bananas from Bananas!*?"

The Oath - Leave an Oscar nomination slot open on your ballot next year for Laura Poitras' riveting documentary about Osama bin Laden's former bodyguard, Abu Jindal, and his ideological struggle to remain loyal to the al-Qaeda oath without advocating terrorism. As I've already mentioned, Poitras was previously nominated for My Country, My Country, an underrated film about an Iraqi doctor in the months following the U.S. invasion in 2003 (Poitras, an American, was reportedly placed on a no-fly list because of the film's critical stance). This is the second film in her planned "trilogy" about Iraq, and I'm here to tell you that the positive buzz out of Sundance in January was warranted. Summarizing the storyline is not really helpful, but suffice to say it is extremely rare that you will see a documentary cover this much material and still remain grounded in its primary subjects.

If you have any interest in international relations, history, war, terrorism, Guantanamo Bay, the Supreme Court, Islam, or the Middle East, The Oath may be considered required viewing. Not surprisingly, it will be broadcast as part of the upcoming P.O.V. season on PBS (My Country, My Country was a selection during the 2006 season). If you miss it theatrically don't miss the chance to see it for free at home. 

Night Catches Us -  I noted in my festival preview that Night Catches Us is an example of a film rarely screened as part of MSPIFF (no doubt the influence of guest programmer Linda Blackaby), and sure enough there were only a couple dozen people at the Wednesday night screening. Oh well, those who missed it missed out. On the surface, Tanya Hamilton's directing debut doesn't necessarily transcend the familiar trappings of other racial-historical dramas, but there's no denying this really is an unique story that lingers in the mind for further reflection. The Hurt Locker standout Anthony Mackie shows impressive leading man potential as a former Black Panther re-acclimating to life in 1976 Philadelphia. Kerry Washington holds her own as his moral compass and love interest, but the film belongs to Mackie whenever he is on screen, almost to a distracting degree. To boot, the cinematography is beautifully absorbing and the original music by Philadelphia natives The Roots adds immediacy and authenticity.

The film does not dive headlong into the history of the Black Panthers, but then this is a film about relationships, not politics. Nonetheless, it's easy to view the Panthers' militant spirit in the context of the brewing social unrest in America in 2010 (earlier in the day I'd listened to a local right-wing conservative radio host justify violence on behalf of the Tea Party by quoting JFK: "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.") . In any case, whatever Tanya Hamilton's motive was in telling this story I hope she receives a deserved amount of attention for it.


  1. Well Dan, I don't know of any of these three, but it's a fantastic accomplishment all things considered, that you were able to manage a trifecta with all you have on your plate at present. THE OATH is the one that intrigues me the most for a number of reasons, though that's interesting too that Anthony Mackie is in the cast in the third film, which I also see you note has great music and cinematography. Hopefully more than just the second one will receive release dates.

  2. Thanks for continuing to check in, Sam (and forgive me for being out of the loop at WitD lately). I think you would find The Oath really intriguing - anybody interested in political/social/religious issues will be able to build a number of talking points from it regardless of their own personal persuasions. It's accessible to all, in other words. I hope it doesn't languish in festivals and on PBS all year, because in my opinion documentaries about Iraq/9/11/etc. for the most part have been wanting, with the exception of No End in Sight and The War Tapes.

  3. Dan, at this point in time, and into the foreseeable future, you need only focus on one thing and it's the most important matter in your life. I won't hear of anything else now!

  4. Bless you for understanding. My goal (or soon I should say "our goal") is to one day raise a family as cinematically certified as yours.


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