Essays

Film criticism, thoughts on the state of cinema, etc.

What’s the Point?…Or Something Like a Manifesto

For about a year now I’ve been struggling with my “cinephilia.” What is the point in writing about movies? What is the point in going to movies? What is the point of making movies? Wouldn’t my skills, time, and effort be better used in the service of something more directly meaningful in the world?

If you guessed that I am middle-aged, you’re correct, however I don’t think this concern is confined to my age range. You can probably recall numerous times in your life when an existential crisis stared you in the face and left you temporarily paralyzed; I know I can. And if you are, like me, someone involved with the arts—a field that I feel stronger every day has much to offer this disturbing world, but which is rarely celebrated as “important”—that questioning of your life’s purpose probably pops up more often for you than it does for those in fields more readily accepted as valuable to society.

So why write about movies? Isn’t it a medium that vacillates between meaningless Hollywood product and inaccessible, irrelevant “small films”? I don’t really have the answer, but I do know that for me at least some of the most enlightening experiences I’ve ever had have been in a dark theater entranced by someone’s vision. And on occasion, I’ve even been transfixed by such visions on the small television screen in the comfort of my living room. I’ve seen worlds I could never witness first hand. I’ve met characters that help me understand my place in the world even as (or maybe because) they do not resemble me in the slightest. When I learn about a film coming out by a director or writer that has given me this in the past, I am delirious with excitement. So often I find that the film I am anxious to see never makes it to a movie theater near me because I do not live in a city anymore. I travel hundreds of miles to film festivals to see such films so I can share them with someone either through this blog, through my work at Provincetown Magazine, or even just in private conversations and on social media. This deeply held connection I feel tells me there is something there that is worth writing about.

Why make movies? There are lots of ways to communicate with the rest of the world creatively and otherwise, but in the 25 years that I’ve been making films professionally, I have found that there is no better way to learn about aspects of life that mystify you. Whether interviewing feminist sex workers, Cold War era veterans, or Catholic nuns, spending time with an eccentric recluse, or exploring the dimensions of my grandmother’s religious faith and mental illness, each film as forever changed me and made me into who I am today.

I can’t make any promises because this is a blog I write without compensation from anyone and with very little feedback from anyone, so it is hard to sustain my motivation. However, I am going to try to continue writing here about films and filmmakers that move me. I do not want to write about films that don’t move me or that are poorly done unless they hold some mirror up to our society and show us something about ourselves that needs discussing.

There is something beautiful about the empathy films can generate.

There is something enchanting and magical—even now, in the age of the Internet —about losing yourself in someone else’s dream on the screen.

Film is not the only art to have the capacity for building empathy or for mesmerizing us, but it is an incredibly important one because of its sheer ubiquity. Cinema came about as a working-class art form and remains that way for me, even as it’s been elevated in academic departments and media studies echelons (even ones I belong to as a Associate Teaching Professor at The New School). It will always be an art for the masses, and I think it could become an art by the masses as well. We are finally seeing films by people of color, women, and others who have been relegated to small projects in the past, and I am heartened by this.

So I will continue to write about films that stand out to me as much as I can, and I will continue to make films about people who do things I would never do. I still don’t know why I make films, why I obsessively see films, or why I write about them, but I continue to feel this powerful urge to engage with others about what I experience on the screen, and so I will continue to do that here. I hope the point will become clear to me some day, but in the mean time please forgive my self-indulgence, if that’s what it is.

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Tom of Finland Opens in New York

c474032a-dd9f-485b-8ff5-0b69c9abf9c0.jpgI caught this film at Tribeca earlier this year and, coincidentally, there was an art gallery in Provincetown showing original works by “Tom of Finland.” The movie is opening on Friday in New York and I really hope it will make its way to the Cape, because it was a really interesting perspective. I really never knew much about Finland’s position during World War II, and although the story is about an artist whose depictions of homoeroticism have made him a household name in Finland as well as in the gay community around the world, the impact of the war that is shown this film is really quite fascinating. Anyway, here is a story I wrote about it in Provincetown Magazine this past spring.

Closing Night: Yallah! Underground

This year the festival was diverse in its offerings, but with a common goal of offering different views of life in Arab and Middle Eastern countries.

So often I hear from people who say they think Muslims should be doing more to combat terrorism or people who have never heard of Arabs who are not anti-American fundamentalists. This is a fundamentally broken system of media at work, presenting only horrifying images to us, with no element of hope. This is why the Arab Spring was so surprising to us, in the U.S., at least. We didn’t know there were regular, normal people in the Arab world. We didn’t know there were courageous revolutionaries who want the same things we want: freedom of expression, tolerance, and the ability to pursue their lives without undue government interference.

The Closing Night Selection is Yallah! Underground, a film by Farid Eslam that shows us alternative, underground artists in Jordan, Egypt, Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon. These are young musicians and artists with something to say who are not afraid to say it. It is so inspiring to see younger musicians expressing themselves joyfully on stages in front of other young people having a great time. There is always the need to share music, around the world, and always the need to come together and experience the arts, whether as a release from the tensions of life, or as a provocation to change our lives. I am so happy to be presenting this film tonight, co-sponsored by WOMR, at their studios in Provincetown.

The film will be preceded by I Am Palestine, a short film by Farid Kirreh and Kai Staats that profiles various Palestinians. You can watch a trailer for that film here. One of the directors, Kai Staats, will join us via Skype for Q&A (hopefully!). I look forward to seeing you all tonight in Provincetown

The Cape Cod Festival of Arab & Middle Eastern Cinema closes tonight, Sunday, May 7, at 7 p.m. with Yallah! Underground at WOMR Studios, 494 Commercial St., Provincetown. Tickets ($15) can still be purchased online this afternoon, and then at the door.

From Iran to Egypt: Saturday Spotlight Screenings

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Homayoun Ershadi in Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (1997). Courtesy of Criterion Collection.

So far it’s been a lovely rainy weekend on Cape Cod, perfect for going to the movies. Today that movie weather continues as we offer two programs at Wellfleet Preservation Hall.

One of the few Middle Eastern filmmakers I had been familiar with before I founded this festival was Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami. The first film of his I saw was Through the Olive Trees, and I was struck by the quiet, reflective nature of his work. Since then, I have seen numerous Kiarostami films, and always I had the same feeling about them. In some ways, they reminded me of Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, with their simple situations and everyday characters struggling with the human condition. When Kiarostami died suddenly this past July, I knew I wanted to include one of his films in the festival this year.

The film I chose is Taste of Cherry (1997), which we will screen today (Saturday, May 6) at 4 p.m. The film, about a man driving around northern Iran looking for someone to help him with his plans for suicide, is, again, a quiet film, but there is constant motion as Kiarostami liked to film in cars. After seeing the film on the Criterion Collection DVD, I watched the supplemental documentary, a rare interview with Kiarostami, conducted by Iranian film scholar, Dr. Jamsheed Akrami, a professor at William Paterson University. I tracked Dr. Akrami down, and he has agree to present the film this afternoon and lead a post-screening discussion as well. This is an amazing opportunity, and I am so grateful that we can learn from him, not only about Kiarostami, but also about where that work fits in both world cinema and Iranian cinema, in particular.

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Bassem Youssef, the subject of Sara Taksler’s Tickling Giants. Photo: Ellen McDonald

This evening at 7 p.m., also at Wellfleet Preservation Hall, we will be screening a documentary about “the Egyptian Jon Stewart,” Bassem Youssef. The film Tickling Giants was directed by Sara Taksler, a producer at The Daily Show, and it chronicles his career from its heights, reaching more than 40 percent of the population in Egypt, to his eventual arrest and exile. It is an excellent example of an Arab voice using comedy and satire, in particular, to combat injustice and intolerance. This is something we rarely hear about in the U.S. I hope you will join us tonight to learn about this courageous comedian.

Each screening will be preceded by a short film, as well. For the Kiarostami Tribute, we will screen a short film by Mohammad Mohammadian that is dedicated to Kiarostami, called Only Five Minutes. The film looks at life through the eyes of a blind woman, featuring a black screen and audio only.

Tickling Giants will be preceded by another Iranian short film, Light Sight by Seyed M. Tabatabaei, an animated student film that demonstrates the desire for freedom and the obstacles to finding that freedom. You can see the trailer for it here: https://vimeo.com/162086737

I look forward to seeing you tonight in Wellfleet!

The Tribute to Abbas Kiarostami featuring Taste of Cherry presented by Dr. Jamsheed Akrami screens this afternoon, Saturday, May 6, at 4 p.m. and Tickling Giants screens tonight at 7 p.m. Both shows are at Wellfleet Preservation Hall, 335 Main St., Wellfleet. For tickets ($15 per film) and information on this screening as well as the entire festival schedule, click here. Tickets will also be available at the door 30 minutes before screening time.