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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 13, No. 3, 2014
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Bernard Dubé
  Contributing Editors
David Solway
Louis René Beres
Nancy Snipper
Farzana Hassan
Daniel Charchuk
Samuel Burd
Andrée Lafontaine
Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
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Serge Gamache
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
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Marcel Dubois
Emanuel Pordes
  Film Reviews
  Bowling for Columbine
Shanghai Ghetto
Talk to Her
City of God
Magdalene Sisters
Dirty Pretty Things
Barbarian Invasions
Fog of War
Blind Shaft
The Corporation
Station Agent
The Agronomist
Maria Full of Grace
Man Without a Past
In This World
Buffalo Boy
Shake Hands with the Devil
Born into Brothels
The Edukators
Big Sugar
A Long Walk
An Inconvenient Truth
Sisters In Law
Send a Bullet
Banking on Heaven
Chinese Botanist's Daugher
Ben X
La Zona
The Legacy
Irina Palm
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days
Poor Boys Game
Finn's Girl
Leaving the Fold
The Mourning Forest
Beneath the Rooftops of Paris
Before Tomorrow
Paraiso Travel
Necessities of Life
For a Moment of Freedom
Blood River
By the Will of Genghis Kahn
The Concert
Weaving Girl
Into Eternity
When We Leave
Le Havre
Presumed Guilty
A Separation
Take This Waltz
Beyond The Walls
The Place Beyond the Pines
The Past







Over the next week, Concordia University in Montreal will play host to Encuentro 2014, an academic conference and performance festival put on by the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics. For nearly fifteen years now, the Hemispheric Institute – a self-described “collaborative, multilingual and interdisciplinary network of institutions, artists, scholars, and activists throughout the Americas” – has hosted Encuentro on a semi-annual basis in different cities across the Western Hemisphere: from Rio de Janeiro to New York City to Monterrey, Mexico. The stated goal of these gatherings is to bring together scholars, activists, artists and students for a weeklong program of lectures, discussions, exhibitions and workshops, all focused around a central theme. This year’s topic is “Manifest! Choreographing Social Movements in the Americas,” and refers to both physical manifestations – street demonstrations, in particular – and spiritual ones.

In collaboration with the Hemispheric Institute, the non-profit documentary-screening organization Cinema Politica has put together a week of screenings in connection with this topic, to be held at the J.A. de Sève Cinema at Concordia. Started in 2003 in Montreal, the Cinema Politica network has grown across Canada and the world, with locals popping up everywhere from Newfoundland to Colombia to Indonesia. Cinema Politica makes it its mission to screen alternative and radical political documentaries, with a goal toward viewer engagement, inspiration and provocation. As such, the films and videos shown by the network tend to be chosen more for their progressive content and independent viewpoints than their avant-garde formalism or polished appearance; that’s not to say that the movies are lacking in quality, just that the subject matter is more important than the presentation.

Keeping with this year’s Encuentro theme, Cinema Politica has assembled a program of 14 works of varying length under the title “Creativity, Colonization, Contestation: Indigenous Cultures and Peoples of the Americas on Screen and Stage.” Though comprising of documentary and feature films from across the two continents, the program specifically focuses on First Nations artists in Canada working with ideas of identity, history and politics. Ranging from full-length narrative films to multiplatform virtual projects, the titles all form a coherent series of politically engaged and culturally vital works, emphasizing the importance of lived experience, personal history, and the revolutionary spirit.

The opening film of the festival, Occupy the Imagination: Tales of Seduction and Reduction, certainly embodies that mentality. Directed by Rodrigo Dorfman, son of Chilean-American academic, writer, and human rights activist Ariel Dorfman, the movie takes on an essayistic form as the younger Dorfman traces his family history back to the Chilean Revolution of the early 1970s, finding echoes of its democratic insurgency in the contemporary Occupy Wall Street movement. Utilizing his father’s radical text How to Read Donald Duck, a Marxist analysis of Disney comics, as a jumping off point, Dorfman examines the turbulent and violent history of Chile’s authoritarian rule under General Augusto Pinochet, focusing on individual stories of torture and bloodshed by the military government. Though he stumbles a bit when attempting to link up the far-more-compelling Chilean anecdotes with the Occupy Wall Street protests, Dorfman’s use of juxtapositional montage and subliminal imagery to encapsulate his anti-capitalist thesis is pitch-perfect, and the talking-head interviews he compiles (including with his father, now a professor at Duke University) are informative without becoming didactic. As a highly personal bit of essay-filmmaking, it’s deeply affecting.

* * * * * * * * * *

Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer, which premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, is not the sort of film usually screened by Cinema Politica: it’s not a documentary, but rather a narrative feature, and more precisely a work of science-fiction. Set in the prescient near-future, it concerns a young Mexican man who, after a personal tragedy, makes his way to Tijuana in order to find work and support his family, becoming a kind of futuristic labourer by operating construction robots remotely. In keeping with the political quality of the festival, the film is quite overt about its leanings, sardonically tackling drone warfare, illegal immigration and third-world outsourcing in a manner not unlike the best of Gilliam or Verhoeven. However, Rivera’s methods are not nearly as accomplished as those aforementioned auteurs, perhaps owing to the relatively miniscule budget of the work, and his film’s cheap-looking digital effects and low-rent production design certainly does the political messaging no favours. It’s not necessarily a requirement that sci-fi films possess stunning visuals and dazzling vistas, but for a low-budget futuristic work, something less showy and more realistic would have sufficed.

After the screening, the director was present for a short Q&A, where he discussed his inspirations behind the film and his intentions with the work. Spawning out of Rivera’s own observation about the inherent contradiction between growing telecommuting and increasingly closed national borders (especially between Mexico and the United States), Sleep Dealer is a way of reconciling this discrepancy by having transient foreign workers essentially telecommute across the border. Furthermore, subplots about the privatization of public services (such as something as elemental as water) and the restriction of emigration grew out of contemporary issues analogous to such, and the director’s fear of these issues growing into actual policy. But as the film is a sci-fi, futuristic work, and not necessarily beholden to current events, Rivera was free to speculate and postulate about potential economic and geopolitical developments, imagining what life could be like a decade from now. Rivera also claims that his film was possibly the first future-set film to be located in the, as he calls it, “Global South,” i.e. not in Canada, the United States, or Europe. While the truthfulness of this declaration may be questioned, it’s important to note that Sleep Dealer is one of the few sci-fi works to portray the future from an alternate, non-first-world perspective. If for no other reason than this, it’s an important inclusion in the Encuentro program, despite the genre trappings.

* * * * * * * * * *

Returning to Cinema Politica’s documentary-first credo, the hour-long Cantadoras: Memorias de vida y muerte en Colombia (roughly translated, Singers: Memories of life and death in Colombia) is a non-narrative look at five black Colombian women who use song and music as a form of resistance against racial oppression and gender inequality. These women, who sing while they work at cutting down banana trees and cleaning fish, are descendants of African slaves and proud of their Negro heritage, participating in ancestral rites and contemporary traditions. The film, directed by María Fernanda Carrillo Sánchez, takes a mostly observational approach, depicting the women’s quotidian activities without any voiceover narration or relational editing pattern. Though this method leads to a nearly objective viewpoint, the ostensible goal of any documentary, it also results in a rather uninteresting and monotonous work, failing to hold the attention of viewers for its entire runtime.

A different fusion of music and documentary is presented in the ten-minute short film The Ballad of Crowfoot, produced by the National Film Board of Canada in 1968. Directed by Mi’kmaq filmmaker and musician Willie Dunn, it consists of a montage of still photos and newspaper clippings concerning the titular Blackfoot chief, set to a folk ballad performed by Dunn himself. With the imagery cut in time to the song, it is one of the earliest examples of the contemporary music video form, although its serious subject matter and solemn tone grant it a cultural importance that cannot hope to be topped by the latest Lady Gaga monstrosity. Dunn’s words and rhymes are nothing groundbreaking, but it’s the manner in which he edits the archival photographs together that makes the most impact, telling the tragic story of Crowfoot and the Native American people through cross-cutting and song. Like most tales of First Nations mistreatment, it’s a sobering, infuriating work, and Dunn’s measured, low-key intonations only make it all the more incensing.

Keeping with the theme of First Nations history, the multiplatform project TimeTraveller™ is a unique look at the aboriginal experience and identity. Taking the form of nine machinima (a form of computer-generated animation) episodes, it follows a 22nd century Mohawk man, Hunter, as he utilizes futuristic technology to explore the history and heritage of his people, visiting such past events as the Oka Crisis of 1990 and the occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969. Though the style of animation used lends the material a low-rent, amateurish feel (it resembles mid-‘90s computer games more than anything else), the level of introspection and self-analysis is thorough and impressive, granting the project a cultural importance not indicated by the animated form. As Hunter travels through time, from the Aztec Empire of the 15th century to 19th century Indian massacres to imagined future history (which includes both Quebec separation and indigenous sovereignty), he comes to understand the ancestry and significance of both the Mohawk people and Native Americans in general; as he journeys, so too do we.

Another side of Canadian Aboriginal identity is presented in the NFB documentary Finding Dawn, directed by Métis filmmaker Christine Welsh. Using the mass disappearance of Native women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside as a jumping off point, the director/narrator resolves to investigate a single missing woman – Dawn Crey – after her DNA remains were found on the farm of notorious serial killer Robert Pickton. Following the trail to Crey’s brother, a Native rights activist, Welsh eventually tells the stories of two other missing Aboriginal women – one in British Columbia, one in Saskatchewan – as well as several others who had been assaulted but managed to survive. In discovering this vast network of victimized and vanished Native women across Western Canada, Welsh uncovers a legacy of violence and discrimination (both racial and sexual), doing her part to prevent it via information dissemination and subtle moralizing. In this way, the film is vital more as a piece of news journalism than personal essay-filmmaking, although it’s clearly effective as both.

An analogous story is told in the Mexican documentary Missing Young Woman, directed by Mexican-American filmmaker Lourdes Portillo and about the rash of unsolved female murders in the border city of Cuidad Juárez, which lies across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. As in Finding Dawn, Portillo takes an investigative approach to the disappearances and deaths of hundreds of young women, many of them assembly line workers or prostitutes, but the film is less concerned with the cultural treatment of a single ethnic group than the blatant injustice done toward females of a lower economic class. The director – an award-winning documentarian for more than 30 years – presents a myriad of suspects and motives for the mass killings, but mostly focuses on the systemic corruption and malfeasance of the Juárez police department, which was likely directed involved in the murders. As such, it’s much angrier and less serene than its Canadian counterpart, metaphorically shaking with rage as it details the fundamental failings and illegality of the very public service designed to uphold the law.

As a whole, then, the documentaries and feature films accompanying Encuentro 2014 do revolve around a central theme: the attempted empowerment of disenfranchised and persecuted minorities, whether they be indigenous peoples, third-world citizens, or simply underprivileged women. From the mean streets of Chile to the dark forests of British Columbia, and from the 19th century Great Plains to a futuristic cityscape, these works traverse time and space in order to tell their stories of oppressed individuals trying to best societal inequality. Occasionally they succeed (notably in the sole fictional features, Sleep Dealer and TimeTraveller), but frequently they become even more downtrodden by the degradation of the world around them. But despite this intrinsic corruption of the most basic social orders, these individuals continue their missions of progress, valiantly struggling to change the planet even as it works to suppress and quash their ideals. If nothing else, it’s deeply inspiring.




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