“I’m going to yell at him when I go back to Iran,” Maryam Sepehri said while we chatted in the lobby of the Downer Theatre.
She was referring to Mohammed Rasoulof, whose risky new feature “Manuscripts Don’t Burn” screened at this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival. Maryam, a documentary filmmaker from Tehran, knows Rasoulof but was displeased with his angry portrayal of how dissident artists are murdered by hired killers. She found it too bleak, too agonizing. “He didn’t warn me that it would be so grim,” she said. “It was like watching a documentary about some of the worst parts of my life.”
“I think it might be the best movie in the festival,” I replied.
One of the great pleasures of the Milwaukee Film Festival, which closed Oct. 9, is how diverse perspectives collide and mingle, both on and off screen. That’s why I was eager to see Rasoulof’s movie with Maryam. Surely an English teacher from Wisconsin can learn something by listening to a friend from Iran? Being certain about a movie, of course, is much less interesting than being open to thinking about art—and, by extension, the world—in new and sometimes paradoxical ways.
“Manuscripts Don’t Burn” is the most vicious Iranian movie I’ve ever seen, and it’s a shockingly frank attack on censorship from a national cinema known for burying its punches under many layers of allegory and abstraction. The story sounds like a political thriller: When a writer threatens to publish a memoir that will discomfit the Islamic regime, government henchmen come knocking—and learn that two more copies have been concealed in the homes of anonymous collaborators. But what starts as a smart cat-and-mouse escapade eventually gives way to a slow, severe death march. In other words, Rasoulof uses the genre trappings to convey what it feels like to live under the thumb of totalitarianism.
“I can’t work under these conditions. I’m determined to publish without permission,” says one character, but it sounds instead like the voice of Rasoulof, who was arrested in 2010 for creating “propaganda” against the state and banned from making films in Iran. He is currently waiting for a one-year prison sentence to be enforced and made this movie in secret with actors whose names are redacted from the credits to guard against reprisal. For me, watching “Manuscripts Don’t Burn” felt like hearing a wounded cry emanating from a rooftop halfway across the globe. Its existence strikes me as an important fact in the world. For my friend Maryam, though, the movie resembled a mirror that told her what she already knew, and that made its brutality feel like a second violation.
I wonder, then, what Australia’s indigenous people would make of “Charlie’s Country,” which stars David Gulpilil as an aging Aboriginal man unable to adjust to the laws and regulations of colonization. To these Midwestern eyes, the movie—which starts funny but carefully charts how Charlie’s mounting sense of persecution in his own land eventually goads him into lashing out—confirms Rolf de Heer as the leading filmmaker currently working Down Under. Like de Heer’s earlier “Ten Canoes,” this new work is often utterly transporting. For example, a sequence depicting Charlie’s retreat into the bush becomes an impressionistic, sensory experience about birds, insects, flames, dark caves, and the soil underfoot. Pouring rain slaps the foliage, and the noise is thunderous. When Charlie is later caged and forced to shave his head in front of an empty, black background, the contrast is telling; this Aboriginal man has been shorn of more than just his curvy gray locks. Equal parts adventure, comedy, and protest, “Charlie’s Country” finally serves as a requiem.
Ethnography plays an appealing role in “Charlie’s Country,” since de Heer lingers on the details of how to carve hunting spears, cook fish, and dance in the bush. There’s a similar joy of divulging trade secrets in “An Honest Liar,” a documentary about celebrity escape artist The Amazing Randi, whose second career involves the debunking of scoundrels like faith healers and mentalists. What’s the difference between a magician and a swindler? Randi’s airtight answer supplies the philosophical bedrock for his gleeful and public takedowns of hoaxes, and what’s fun about “An Honest Liar” is how it shares Randi’s sense of showmanship. Edited to elicit maximum excitement and laughter, the movie works over the audience—there’s even a late reveal of its own—but directors Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein never lose sight of their central themes of obsession, deception, and hypocrisy.
Perhaps the festival’s most purely enjoyable fiction film was “We Are the Best!,” Lukas Moodysson’s generous and deeply personal comedy about three female misfits who bend their bratty anti-gym class lyric “Hate the Sport” into a punk anthem for ’80s Stockholm. Although the story feels particular—the fashions, the nocturnal metro rides, and the urban architecture all evoke a precise time and place—its real subjects are universal. Who can’t relate to being young, trying on invented identities, navigating school-age friendships, and jostling for greater independence? “We’re no girl band,” the trio declare, as a means of asserting themselves as they stand on the precipice of adolescence.
Youth are also at the center of “The Tribe,” but they probably revere Scarface more than Johnny Rotten. Pools of ink have been spilled about how this despairing crime picture, set in a Ukrainian boarding school for the deaf, is told entirely in sign language without subtitles. But that headline-grabbing stunt is just about the least interesting thing about it. The story, which concerns a new student inducted into a gang dedicated to robbery, extortion, and prostitution, is easy to follow because director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky tells it through body language and a series of long, elegant Steadicam shots that always give viewers their bearings, and always give the movie a rigorous formal magnificence. They also bestow a chill upon the proceedings, converting the school into a metaphor for a lost, forsaken Ukraine. The concrete dormitory is rank with the stench of opportunism, amorality, and disaffection.
It’s tough to quibble with the jury’s decision to give the festival’s Herzfeld Competition Award to “The Tribe,” since the movie’s clearly a towering cinematic achievement. Equally notable, though, is how all that controlled virtuosity is at the service of a closed system of stylish transgressions that seem conceived not as serious narrative necessities (as in, say, “Manuscripts Don’t Burn”) but as mere conversation pieces—a prolonged surgical scene will surely have audiences talking, but what is there to talk about other than its status as an endurance test? Much of the movie’s power evaporates in the second half; the allegory relaxes during repetitive scenes of arguments and blood.
Still, I’m going to leave the first hour of “The Tribe” on my list of favorite films of this year’s festival. After all, as my discussion with Maryam clarified, one of the great virtues of the Milwaukee Film Festival is that local moviegoers have ample occasion to embrace ambivalence, to express doubt, and to be of two minds.
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Five Favorite Films at the 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival
- “Manuscripts Don’t Burn” / dir. Mohammad Rasoulof, Iran
- “Charlie’s Country” / dir. Rolf de Heer, Australia
- “An Honest Liar” / dirs. Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein, USA
- “We Are the Best!” / dir. Lukas Moodysson, Sweden
- “The Tribe” / dir. Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, Ukraine