Author: capecodfilmsociety

Boston Underground

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“Prevenge” opens the 19th Boston Underground Film Festival tonight at the Brattle Theater.

The 19th Boston Underground Film Festival kicks off tonight with its opening night selection Prevenge, an intriguing-looking British film about a pregnant serial killer. While that selection may have you thinking you know what Boston’s version of “underground” is, it’s actually a much broader category than just bizarre horror movie concepts.

When I first heard the term “underground film,” it referred to films by people like Andy Warhol, George Kuchar, and Jack Smith. But over the years its meaning has changed as it has become easier and easier to access “the underground.” Likewise, underground film festivals have proliferated in the years since I graduated from film school, taking the term in a different direction, as an alternative circuit for films that the more prestigious film festivals that existed 20 years ago would never have shown. But even within the world of underground film festivals, there is no fixed consensus of what “underground” really is.

Boston Underground Film Festival Director of Programming Nicole McControversy (yes, that’s the name she is going by) explains the term is defined differently for each of the numerous underground film festivals around the world. “I think a large part of it has to do with the city context. You know, what’s underground here may not be underground in New York City, for example, because that city may have more access to experimental films or things like that, and maybe we chose not to define underground with experimental films, for example,” she explains. “Although sometimes we do. It’s kind of up to us to decide what it means. And some years it changes a little bit.”

In the context of this particular city, where McControversy says there is what she calls a “conservative liberalism” that permeates audiences. “I think there are certain things that are really touchy for audiences here that might not be touchy in other places. I think transgressive cinema is harder to just bombard people with here,” she says with a laugh. But, she adds, although what the audience wants is paramount in programming the festival, she also programs work she thinks they just have to see because it’s that good and controversial and interesting.

Working with the festival for nearly 8 years, McControversy says she’s seen it grow and change. This year, for example, although the festival is not the most diverse, there is a marked increase in films by women, she says. Increasing competition from Netflix and other streaming services as well as more narrowly defined festivals such as the Boston LGBT Festival have made it hard to program as diverse a program as she would have liked in terms of the themes and directors represented. That being said, I’ve had the chance to preview a few of the films this year and I can attest to the range of types of films in the festival.

Although I’ve been to underground film festivals in New York and Chicago, this is my first Boston Underground Film Festival. I’m looking forward to it. Hope to see you there!

Full lineup and information on the Boston Underground Film Festival

Thoughts on The Salesman

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Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini in Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman”

by Rebecca M. Alvin

At this year’s Oscars, Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi sent two prominent Iranian-Americans ( Anousheh Ansari and Firouz Naderi) to accept the Best Foreign-Language Picture award for his latest film The Salesman on his behalf, along with an acceptance speech that explained his absence as a move of solidarity with the millions of people barred from entering the United States due to President Trump’s Muslim Travel Ban. It brought a great deal of attention to this film, (although Farhadi’s wildly successful A Separation, which won the Academy Award in 2012, had already garnered him an art house following in the U.S. long before the travel ban). But what about the film itself?

The Salesman centers on a married couple, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad (Shahab Hosseini), who have recently had to move into a new apartment when their old building became structurally unstable. In a pinch, the couple rely on their friend Babak (Babak Karimi) who has an apartment they can stay in, although the previous occupant has not yet moved out her things. They agree, thinking it will only be a few days before she comes to get her stuff, but she never arrives. Amid the discomfort of having this woman’s personal things clogging up their apartment, due to a case of mistaken identity, Rana is victimized by a stranger, sending Emad into a crisis of masculinity that speaks volumes about gender, romantic love, and troubling realities about contemporary marriage, with its deep-seated roots privileging male ownership over true romantic partnership.

For western audiences, Americans in particular, the fact that Rana and Emad are actors working on a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman may be distracting. Any connections between Miller’s play and Farhadi’s film are fairly thin, and we are better served by resisting the urge to search for direct comparisons. The fact that these artists are trying to do a production of the play in Iran does have some significance, however, as it also offers a subtle critique of censorship as in one moment where a cast member can’t resist laughing during a rehearsal because a character says she can’t go out because she is “nearly naked,” when in fact the actress is fully dressed with a raincoat on.

Farhadi’s film is not perfect, but it is extremely well constructed and thought-provoking. To begin with, as in his previous films, the acting is magnificent, walking the line of subtle and broad human emotions. Hosseini is understated in his portrayal of a man unraveling as he ruminates on his wife’s trauma, while Alidoosti is equally careful to show the devastation and anxiety Rana feels without veering into melodrama. The supporting cast is natural, matching the handheld, mobile camera style and unobtrusive editing to bring us into the story organically.

But more impressive is the way in which the story unfolds in The Salesman. This is in part due to the particularities of Iranian cinema—which is not allowed to show all (working to the film’s benefit in this case), but also to Farhadi’s usual approach to storytelling. For example, the crime at the center of this drama is never explicitly detailed. Working on assumptions based equally on what is said and what is left unsaid, we piece together an idea of what happened that shifts as the story unfolds. At the same time, Emad becomes obsessed with unspoken possibilities that challenge his sense of himself as Rana’s husband and as a man. As he grapples with this, much is revealed to us about the nature of their relationship and what Rana’s victimization means to him, apart from what it means for her. In this regard it is the antithesis of European and American cinema in which such subtlety is often hard to master with the expectation of more details for the audience at play.

The Salesman is rather quiet in its building tension until the climax, and yet all along it is that very quietness that is so engrossing as we work with the codes of Iranian cinema and our own much broader understanding of marriage, love, and mercy.

The Salesman is currently showing daily on the Cape at Wellfleet Cinemas and Cape Cinema in Dennis.

Required Viewing: I Am Not Your Negro

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Just came from seeing I Am Not Your Negro… Feeling simultaneously inspired and depressed, moved and immobilized, and wondering what more I can be doing to facilitate the kinds of discussions James Baldwin was talking about, where we as Americans look at ourselves and our history – not as separate histories of different groups of people, but as a collective history, taking the blame for all of it, acknowledging the pain and suffering we’ve inflicted and/or benefited from, and really looking for ways to become different people.

The film is based on an unfinished work Baldwin had been writing, structured around the significance of three leaders: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s an essay documentary, not a conveniently digestible narrative-arc type of film, and as such it gets at the larger truths and deeper connections within Baldwin’s work decades ago, but visually and contextually intrinsically connected to the events of the current decade. Baldwin wrote and spoke about the intricacies of race relations in America not as a “race issue” or a “Black issue” or even as a “white issue,” but rather as an issue of immense importance for the entire American population – THE issue in America then, and sadly, now.

Even the inclusion of clips from Baldwin on the Dick Cavett Show were revealing in that they showcased a talk show that actually had guests with ideas that mattered, not just movies to sell or gossip to relate. I think this is required viewing for all Americans. It’s sad that as a documentary, it too will be marginalized, but please spread the word and see it wherever you can. I drop 35 miles today to go see it and I don’t regret one second of that.

[I apologize for this brief review. This film deserves a much longer look, which I hope to give it in the future, but in the interest of getting the word out now, I post these thoughts for you.]

The Personal is Political in Jeff Nichols’ “Loving”

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Ruth Negga (left) stars as Mildred and Joel Edgerton (right) stars as Richard in Jeff Nichols LOVING, a Focus Features release. Credit : Ben Rothstein / Focus Features

With the recent election, the BlackLivesMatter movement, and increased awareness of the lingering racism that underlies so many aspects of contemporary life, it makes sense to revisit the Civil Rights Era.  But so often, in their celebration of the admittedly great strides made by the Civil Rights Movement, films about that period miss the fundamental point that the famous slogan “the personal is political” underlines for us. In Jeff Nichols’ new film Loving, which stars Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton as Mildred and Richard Loving, the interracial couple who brought down our country’s anti-miscegenation laws in a 1967 Supreme Court victory, there are no grand sweeping images of thousands marching on Washington. Neither are the court cases themselves portrayed in any detail. Instead, Nichols focuses the camera and our attention on what is most important: the relationship between two human beings and the power of their love to conquer ignorance, hate, and stupidity.

From the beginning of the film, Nichols keeps the camera focused on the couple, their friends, and their families. We see Richard (Edgerton) working on cars and watching informal races in a multiracial environment. We notice the tensions of his world when the camera briefly shows a group of hostile white onlookers, but the moment is brief. We hear television news reports in the background giving some sense of context, but always it is in the background. What emerges from this strategy is interesting not only for its insistence on this couple’s apolitical nature, but also for its portrayal of marital love. Once they do marry and ultimately have children, the stresses of life are clearly upon them, just as they are with any married couple. The added stress of day to day racism, their forced exile from their families in Virginia, and, ultimately, a drawn out legal battle that puts them in the public eye, must have been excruciating. We see this pressure, but at their core, they are in love, and their respect, compassion, and desire for one another always push through the external forces of ignorance.

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Joel Edgerton stars as Richard Loving in Jeff Nichols LOVING, a Focus Features release. Credit : Ben Rothstein / Focus Features

The performances in Loving are subtle and nuanced, with Edgerton giving us a down-to-earth “regular’ guy from the country and Negga offering a strong, silent wife and mother whose connection to Richard and to her family are paramount in everything she does. There are no histrionics and no melodramatic exchanges, which is remarkable considering the simmering tension that permeates the script. Our investment in this couple’s battle is such that we are tense all the way until the end, when the results that we always knew happened, do come to pass. And yet that tension does reveal itself in subtle ways.

For example there is a scene when the family are in their home in Virginia, despite a court order that they not be in that state at the same time, as a condition of their release. Richard is working on the house and Mildred is caring for the children. Suddenly, Richard hears a speeding car coming down the road. He turns to look and we see that it is a friend of theirs driving toward the house. We don’t know what is going to happen, but decades of reflection upon what did happen in the 1960s and before have us immediately understand why Richard hurries down off the ladder, tells his son to grab the rifle for him, and has everyone else get inside the house. He doesn’t scream or cry or articulate anything specific, but we know he is afraid that there is about to be some sort of attack from local racists, or a police raid, or some other disruption of all that he loves. Edgerton brilliantly encapsulates all of this history and fear and love in his performance.

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Ruth Negga stars as Mildred Loving in Jeff Nichols LOVING, a Focus Features release. Credit: Ben Rothstein / Focus Features

Likewise, Negga is able to articulate her own stress, tensions, and fears non-verbally. Hers is a face that would have been remarkable in the Silent Era for its pure expressiveness. Here, that ability to describe a complicated state of mind with a simple glance is just uncanny.

Loving is not like Selma or 12 years a Slave—remarkable films in their own rights— because it is not about social upheaval. Loving is about the personal upheaval that is caused by an unjust system. It makes us reflect upon how our laws, policies, and systems impact ordinary people just trying to get by in life, just wanting to have and protect their families, just wanting to be with the ones they love.