Dominic Ambrose Blogblot

of words: narrative, film and non-fiction

The Last Jew from Drohobytsch, a film by Paul Rosdy, opens in Vienna

Click on the image for the website link.

A fascinating new film by director Paul Rosdy opened Friday, March 9 in Vienna. Der Letzte Jude von Drohobytsch (The Last Jew from Drohobytsch) is the true story of  Alfred Schreyer, a man who has lived through an entire century of often cataclysmic changes in this small Ukrainian city. Before the arrival of the Nazi troops he had been the student of the Polish painter and writer Bruno Schulz, but then when war and occupation came to this land he was sent to a concentration camp. After the war he returned to his hometown and for sixteen years he was a singer and violinist in an orchestra that played in a cinema lobby.  Alfred Schreyer still lives in Drohobytsch and in this film he leads the filmmaker on a tour of his city and his life.

click here for the film’s photo gallery on flickr.

Paul Rosdy is an Austrian documentary filmmaker who is interested in the little known stories of MittelEuropean culture. In the cauldron of political turmoil that has characterized Central European societies during the past century, there are many stories which sometimes seem on the verge of disappearing into oblivion either through callous ignorance or willful malice. In Central Europe, whoever controls memory controls history; Paul Rosdy would like to be one of the filmmakers who can keep the memory alive for the most vulnerable, and bring their stories to life.  His first success was with the 1998 documentary, The Port of Last Resort, which he co-authored. It presents the story of 20,000 European Jews who fled to Shanghai during World War II.  Then in 2005 he wrote and directed New World, which is a journey through the old Austro-Hungarian lands of Serbia, Romania and Hungary. That film used a collage format that weaved century old photography and footage with present day scenes of these traditional lands and people.

The film Der Letzte Jude von Drohobytsch was part of the Viennale, 2011. It now begins its theater run in Austria. Hopefully it will also be seen in New York soon, too.

Click for Rosdy Film website. 

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March 11, 2012 Posted by | cinema | , , , , | Leave a comment

Orestes: Pasolini Lost in Africa

Appunti per un’Orestiade Africana. Pasolini’s genius shines through, even when he stumbles.

In 1970, Pier Paolo Pasolini went to Africa to shoot film and make notes for a possible film based on the trilogy of Greek tragedies, the Oresteia by Aeschylus. The resulting documentary has a great impact in two ways: showing what a potentially great film this could be, given the resources and talents of the great filmmaker, and showing what a disastrous concept that this project really was. The project was eventually abandoned, and the reasons why may be evident right here in this film.

murderofAgamemnon

Pasolini begins by giving a short synopsis of the trilogy Oresteia in voiceover, as we see the faces of people on the streets of Uganda and several other countries. After the synopsis, he begins assigning these people possible roles in the first play, Agamemnon. There are returning warriors, an unfaithful wife and plotting offspring and just like that, we are drawn in, because we can immediately see the larger than life characters of greek tragedy merging with the throbbing humanity in these images. The magic is powerful

Agamemnon

Agamemnon

and there is the feeling that Pasolini could go on just like this with his project, narrating the action in voiceover, and depicting the scenes simply with the faces and gestures of the people.

In fact, maybe Pasolini should have gone ahead in just that way, making this his private Greek tragedy overlaying a collage of fascinating African scenes. At least then there would be an honest distinction between the European fantasies and the African realities. Everyone would have come together on their own terms and would be able to go their separate ways at the end.

But Pasolini believed in the correctness of his approach, and the beneficial effects of the progressive forces he represented. He had high hopes for his film. However, the scenes with the African students in Rome brings this high flying project crashing back to earth.

About ten minutes into the documentary, we are transported to an auditorium at the University of Rome. Pasolini is there with a group of African students, all male, all dressed formally, many wearing jackets and ties. He explains to them that he wanted to make this film in Africa because he saw so many similarities between modern Africa and Ancient Greece. So the question that he puts to the students is, should he set the story in 1960, at the time of independence, or in 1970, that is, in the present day. The question seems incredibly banal, superficial and irrelevant. Doesn’t he want to hear the students’ opinions on anything they have just seen, or is he just interested in some technical advice?

The faces of the students are like stone. This is 1970, they certainly know that they are in the presence of one of the great artists of the new “revolutionary” Italy, the part of society that is really their hosts and protectors in this storm tossed and politicized Europe. Yet they seem torn, and unsure what to say. In many instances, the

Ethiopian student

Ethiopian student

speaking of just a few words is enough to allow a break in the impassivity and let through a peek at the sea of discomfort beneath. One student, from Ethiopia, speaks in measured objection to the concept, and seems to be controlling an urge to shout out his protests. He doesn’t know Africa, he knows Ethiopia, you cannot generalize about the whole continent. Another student objects to the use of the word “tribes” and wants to refer to races and nations instead. Pasolini’s response sounds insensitive and dismissive, telling him that it was the European colonialists who had drawn the maps of Nigeria, and thus Nigerian history was a falsehood. The student is visibly frustrated, but keeps his counsel, and accepts the great filmmaster’s observations.

The students know something is wrong, even if they can’t quite put their finger on it. But Pasolini is oblivious. The rebel, iconoclast and literary revolutionary pictured himself outside of the colonial and imperialistic hierarchy of European and Italian history, as though his good intentions alone were enough to subtract him and cleanse his project of the stain of colonialism. We never see a frank and open discussion of the meaning of the director’s relationship with his subject, Africa, no matter how many times the students dance around the problem with their inarticulate answers. It is difficult to watch.

Mercifully, the African footage comes back on, following the storyline of the second play, The Libation Bearers. The action is brutal and murder is the pivotal action in this play. The tone is different in this footage as well. There are scenes of war, executions, mourning, graveside rituals. Some of this is newsreel

Orestes

Orestes

from the war in Biafra, Nigeria. Pasolini may be in over his head here, but he pulls it off, bringing these scenes together with the help of the words of the iconic Greek drama. The Africans in Pasolini’s viewfinder grow immensely symbolic, and he finds the main character, Orestes, in the person of an exquisitely expressive African man who calms the air with his powerful presence. Once again Pasolini reminds us of his unequaled sense of cinematic art and his deep understanding of what is beautiful in a man. But then there is the musical interlude, a combination of exquisitely hysterical riffs by the Argentine saxophonist Gato Barbieri, and some excruciatingly absurd singing by two African American singers, Archie Savage and Yvonne Murray. He sings overly legato lines in a Paul Robeson bass voice that could be effective, but she has a problem coming to terms with her segments. This is operatic, in the way that opera sounds when caricatured by someone who hates opera. And Miss Murray certainly looks like she hates this gig. Her voice is annoyingly shrill and hollow at the same time, her melody repetitive and impoverished. This is the exact opposite of bel canto, and if there were a performance indication at the top of her page, it would probably say something like “a squarciagola.” In other words, shout like a hoarse hyena.

In the second session with the students, Pasolini begins with a question about whether these Africans identify with the character of Orestes discovering a new world. He gets the same cryptic and troubled answers as before. He does manage to get them talking about the uniqueness of the African soul, though, when he switches to a discussion of the power of traditional culture to ameliorate the effects of modern consumerism. But when he asks them how he should continue the story, and how he might render the transformation of wrathful Furies into forgiving Eumenides, he is back to talking about his project as though it were a game or a masquerade. These students are talking about their destinies, the lives and deaths of their countrymen, their own identity, and Pasolini wants to focus on the minutiae of scene building for his film. In all, there are no smiles in this room, no enthusiastic confirmation of Pasolini’s insight into Africanness, no spontaneous identification with the African Orestes.

handsupThe African footage returns with the final play, Eumenides, as its focus. Pasolini searches for the way to present that transformation of the Furies. He shows scenes of street dancers, processions, wedding receptions. These are wonderfully evocative scenes, and his possibilities seem to multiply before our eyes. Truly, Pasolini could make a great film out of this project, in spite of it all.

But Pasolini must have been profoundly disappointed by the responses from the auditorium, and considering the depth of his knowledge and his appreciations of irony, and his genuine humility, I don’t think that the true nature of the problem escaped him for very long. His questions had ignored the real problem that was there as plain as day. Could this Greek Orestes have any significance to the African situation, and indeed, why should it? Did he have the license to make such a film, using Africans as his workers, forever ordered here and there and never given the chance to make their own decisions and create their own tragedy as they saw it? Wouldn’t his film be in many ways just another exercise in colonialism?

For some reason, Pasolini never completed this project. In a way, it is a great pity, for Pasolini could have simply ignored all those extraneous implications, could have followed his own artistic muse, and created a

DVD

DVD

personal work of immense beauty. But being such a politically engaged artist, he could not travel alone, he had to have a revolutionary context, and sadly, that context did not exist. Thus, the documentary remains, a solitary, powerful statement showing the tragic disconnect between European and African, and judging from the difficulties encountered by both Pasolini and his musicians, the inability of either one to truthfully express the beauty of Africa using the tools of European art. Perhaps someday it will be possible, but not in 1970, and probably still not today.


Critique by Anne-Violaine Houcke in Critikat (en français)

May 23, 2009 Posted by | cinema | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Beyond the Kosovo rainbow. Today’s gay people trapped in a deadly past.

Sarajevo FF, 2007. A film review
It’s easy to forget with all of the other ethnic, social and economic problems that the people of the former Yugoslav republics face, but intolerance toward gay people in this region can be particularly cruel and violent. This is a first look at homophobia, Kosovo style, with its world premier at the Sarajevo Film Festival, 2007.
The courageous and pioneering documentary, Beyond the Rainbow, was written and directed by Ismet Sijarina and produced by Kastrati Cooper for Crossing Bridges Production. “Crossing bridges” is a particularly significant phrase in a Kosovar context, as the simple act of straying across the wrong one can be deadly for the Albanian residents of this province of Southern Serbia. The symbolism works well for gay people as well, as they must be doubly concerned about wandering into dangerous territory. There are many bridges that need crossing in this part of the world, and many people massing on one side yearning to get to the other. In this case, it’s the bridge over the chasm of dangers that separate the dark, secret world that Kosovar gays are forced to live in and the world that they can see and hear just across the way in western Europe. They can look across at what people in other European societies have been able to achieve, but it is solace and torment in equal parts. They have the unpleasant choice of staying locked up in their dark houses staring across the divide, or they can make a run for it, across the dangerous bridges, dodging the snipers that exist all around them.
A considerably amount of time in this documentary is given over to interviews of four gay men who sit uncomfortably perched on stools, silhouetted in shadows to protect their identities, talking about their feelings, their fears, their humiliations and their hopes. The story is often told between the lines: the way they make excuses for the actions of others, the way they spin their own rationales in ways that western gays would never dream of explaining themselves, the way that some of them put up smokescreens of bisexuality to hide from others and from themselves. This is unfamiliar territory for Western Europeans, like the societies of sixty years ago, when there was no freedom for gay people, not even in their own minds. In fact, one of the characters says that people cannot allow themselves to be free neither in their actions nor in their thoughts. This mental prison is taken up again in the recurring staged scene in which a gay man debates with his embittered alter ego, which ridicules his sexual orientation and almost succeeds in convincing him to accept the deception.
Other citizens speak as well, including social workers and religious spokesmen. A lesbian who is eloquent about her situation, says in contrast to the religious figures, that we live heaven and hell right here on earth, and the interviews given by young straight men on the street, as they cruelly mock the calls for gay rights, is a frightening reminder of the physical danger that the silhouetted interviewees face.
I saw this film in Sarajevo, a city that itself has lived through the era of deadly bridges. It was just a decade ago that the low, harmonious bridges that span the city’s river were some of the most dangerous urban places on earth. And yet today, in this peaceful place, it seems so impossible, so absurd. But what about those other bridges that the gay people of Kosovo are so worried about? Do the gay Sarajevans have any better access than their Kosovar cousins? Sadly, the answer is, just barely. It seems that even here, in this intelligent, cosmopolitan city, homophobia is rampant as well. There isn’t even one gay bar in Sarajevo, and the one organization, Queer BiH, that holds gay parties every month or so, does it with hired security guards. While the film festival was going on, Queer BiH announced that it would organize Bosnia’s first gay pride march in June, 2008, and the news was immediately taken up on the front page of a scandal sheet, ready to stir up trouble for the benefit of circulation. Even here, where people have lived through years of suffering over foolish sectarian divisions, this shameful homophobia still holds sway.
Beyond the Rainbow is a proud, courageous film that reminds us that there is still much work to be done to chase out the secret ghosts lurking in ex-Yugoslav societies. Some bridges are peaceable thoroughfares, for sure, but there are many more that still need to be secured, and all declarations of victory are still very premature as long as gay people are still forced to speak from the shadows.

May 9, 2009 Posted by | cinema | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Mosquito Problem. Bulgarian Film wins Human Rights Award at Sarajevo, 2007

Sarajevo FF, 2007. The Mosquito Problem and Other Stories. A film review

In a field of serious documentaries addressing problems that deeply affect the citizens of this recently traumatized city, how was it possible for a satirical documentary from Bulgaria to win the Human Rights Award at the Sarajevo Film Festival? With a subtle and irrepressible love of life. The Mosquito Problem and other stories, directed by Andrey Paounov, was this year’s surprise winner of the Human Rights Award at the Sarajevo Film Festival. Among the many documentaries that directly addressed the difficult social and political problems that have sprung up in the post-Yugoslavian Balkans, such a seemingly lighthearted satire was definitely a dark horse. But on closer inspection, the subtleties and significance of this playfully subversive film become apparent, and the prize quite reasonable. It is the story of an impoverished small town in Bulgaria that does its best to celebrate the little that it has: an unfinished nuclear power plant, an overgrown island in the Danube River, the ruins of a communist concentration camp for political dissidents, and above all, the billions of mosquitoes that plague this riverside town. Various townsfolk speak into the camera, giving their quirky take on things, their sometimes laughably naïve judgments invariably buoyed by their innate good humor and love of life. There’s the laid off construction worker from Cuba who occupies himself by collecting found art in the forest, the raggedy man in workclothes who ceremoniously introduces his piano works before pounding them out on a badly tuned piano, the caretaker at the former prison camp who dreams of turning the crumbling ruin, the scraggly marshland and the enormous annoyance of the swarming mosquitoes into a unique agro-tourist experience. The past is omnipresent, and the enigmatic story of a woman who, in the 1960s worked as a guard in the political camp acknowledges the political ambiguity and the impossibility of true reconciliation in the present Balkan conjuncture. She has recently died of Parkinson’s Disease, and her story is told from the daughter’s point of view, a sort of everywoman who represents the present generation, heirs of a whole Pandora’s Box of conflicting traditions and responsibilities. Her acceptance of her mother’s conflicting histories is at once deeply personal and symbolic of the instinctive goodwill of the townspeople.

The film’s framing images, coming at the beginning and the end, show young kids on bicycles and on foot following in the poisonous path of a truck spewing beautiful white clouds of insecticide. The sight of these children running in and out of the billowing poison joyfully jumping around and coughing unselfconsciously, while the exterminators watch impassively from the truck, is a fitting image of the irony and sadness of the situation… and the reckless, irrepressible joy. The Bosnian audience at Sarajevo was highly entertained, laughing often, sometimes at the idiotic squalor of life among the detritus of socialist central planning, something the Bosnians know first hand, though never to the same degree of absurdity. And sometimes at the goofiness of the citizens. Bosnians have never experienced the absolute abysmal economic and political system that Bulgarians lived with during socialism, so they can afford to laugh at this town which seems to have inherited only artifacts worthy of a junkheap. But I believe that their laughter was informed by a true respect for these people, and for their talent to turn lemons into lemonade. It must have been with admiration and envy that they watched these people who, without the resources to turn guns into ploughshares, did at least have the good sense and respect for human life to let the guns rust away into obsolescence. It has given them a great luxury that Bosnians were forced to forget about: the luxury of passing from Communist oppression to the long dreamed of western liberal society in peace. In this way, this hopeless little Bulgarian hicktown looks a little bit like paradise on the Danube. The Mosquito Problem and other stories. Bulgaria, 2007. Directed by Andrey Paounov, written by Lilia Topouzova and Paounov and produced by M. Bozhilov for Agitprop.

May 9, 2009 Posted by | cinema | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sicko is sickeningly good

If seven years of George W. Bush haven’t made you thoroughly ill yet, then get a load of this.

July 02, 2007

Michael Moore’s new feature length documentary about the barbaric state of medical care in the United States is yet another achievement that should send some lobbyists, politicians and company execs into paroxysms of anger. It is as hard hitting and right on target as ever. By now Moore’s scripting is familiar, an initial expository section where various people tell their personal stories, then an opportunity for the bad guys to put their foot in their mouths and generally show their horns, and then a seemingly aimless quest for a solution, which brings us to a whole new level of understanding of the problem. At over two hours, it is a bit long, and I suppose that it could use some clipping here and there, perhaps in the expository section, though this is the heart of the story. The stories that these people tell are heartbreaking, but Moore runs the risk of losing the audience’s full attention by the time he starts to really get some information out there. The Nixon tapes are very revealing, giving us historical perspective for this medical nightmare, and highlighting Kaiser Permanente’s seminal role in all this. The interviews with the former insurance company employees are also excellent, revealing how the companies consider the premiums they receive as “their money” which they find every possible way to keep firmly in their own pockets. The film really takes off, however, when Moore brings us into the hospitals and homes in Canada, UK and France to get a first hand look at those systems which our politicians so love to denigrate and scorn. It is a true eye-opener. Then Moore ends up on one of his signature tangents that is not really a tangent at all. Having heard the bureaucrats boast about the hospital facilities at the Guantanamo Bay concentration camp, he decides to go by boat to the camp with some 9/11 volunteers who have been denied health care in the U.S. They can’t get into the facilities at Guantanamo Bay, but end up in Havana, where the health care that they receive, no questions asked, should make any American squirm with shame, … and then shout for change in Washington. The expressions of solidarity that they receive from the ordinary Cubans that they meet is truly beautiful, and a fitting way to finish this film.
Bravo Michael Moore, once again, you prove that freedom is not dead in America, it just needs far better health insurance.

May 4, 2009 Posted by | cinema | , , | Leave a comment