In the quest to find films that could work for a continuing series of international films for children to be programmed at future Free First Saturdays, an interesting quandary emerged. While I strongly believe that it’s important to use film as a tool to introduce cultural competence and interest in other cultures, it was clear that themes and content of some of the films would be difficult to translate to audiences in the U.S.
This first came to light when I saw a market screening of Kirikou and the Wild Beasts, directed by French animator Michel Ocelet. His earlier film, Kirikou and the Sorcerer, was the closing-night program of last year’s Childish Film Festival sponsored by MFA. The film is sure to be a classic international film for children, but it will have a difficult time being shown to young audiences in the U.S. due to issues of nudity which are culturally appropriate for the setting of the film. Ocelet has adapted an African folktale set in a remote village where the women and most the men are not clothed.
After the screening, several of my colleagues from North America agreed that it was a great film, but worried about how to introduce the film to young audiences without raising fears from parents, sponsors and the press. It turns out that these fears have been shared by North American distributors who have not picked up this film for distribution. Even by addressing the issue in the press release, informing funders, introducing the film and providing talking points for parents, I’m dreading the reaction of some parent who is not prepared and just walks into the screening.
A similar thing happened a few days later when I went to a screening of a highly recommended Dutch children’s film Winky’s Horse. The film, about a young Chinese immigrant girl’s first Christmas in Holland, included some important lessons about cross-cultural understanding and tolerance that are important tools to teach young children. Her classmates, and the audience, learn that cultural celebrations are not shared across each culture, and in this case, Winky needs to be walked through the celebration of St. Nicholas.
This celebration was also new to me. St. Nicholas is honored by Dutch children on his birthday, December 5. He travels with his white horse to each house from his home in Spain to deliver small presents to the children. Kids prepare for the holiday by stuffing shoes with carrots for his horse and leaving them by the fireplace.
What was troubling to me was the image of Santa’s helper, Black Pete. Donning blackface, Pete, is an elf-like character who distributes toys to the good kids from one bag and has a switch in the other for the bad kids.
Cis Bierinckx explained this holiday to me later and agreed that it was a racist cultural icon that was influenced by Holland’s colonial past. He also mentioned that Pete could also be black from climbing down the chimney, but I wasn’t buying it as Pete has an impeccable costume that is not affected by soot.
My jaw dropped to see the character in blackface with no commentary. I was so confused and upset watching the film when there was no commentary on this. For a film dealing with cross-cultural acceptance, how did they miss the mark on this aspect?
I ran into a friend from the British Film Institute and a programmer from the London Film Festival after the screening and they were equally baffled. The LFF programmer explained that he’s had more trouble with issues of swearing within films that he’s seen that are supposed to be for children. We all agreed that through our efforts to provide opportunities to investigate other cultures, our cultural biases were becoming more apparent. The best we can do is to provide environments where these issues can be discussed.
Another film, not one for children, about the lack of cultural understanding is going to be a top runner for the Golden Bear. The Road to Guantanamo, directed by Michael Winterbottom (he won the top prize for In this World two years ago), was one of the most coveted tickets of the festival. There were no seats available at the press screening and I managed to snag the very last ticket for the final public screening, much to the dismay of the man behind me in line. The film follows a group of Muslim friends from Britain who travel to Pakistan for a wedding. On a lark, they travel into Afghanistan in October 2001 and become stranded when war breaks out. Having lost their guide they are left to their own devices. Not knowing the language, they are captured in a Taliban enclave and turned over to the U.S. Suspected of being terrorists, they are held for over two years in Guantanamo. This docudrama packed a punch and has such currency with this week’s call by Kofi Annan to close the camp.
Another highlight was a screening of Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 9 followed by a discussion of the film with Barney (who is on the competition jury). Bjork was the composer of the musical score and co-star. This new film revolves around the theme or resistance that he had started in the series back in the early ’90s as a student at Yale. At that time, he created a number of physical challenges to the act of drawing, such as being tethered away from the drawing surface or having to jump great distances to access the surface.
In this new incarnation, he develops a myth set on a Japanese whaling vessel. Several tons of liquid vaseline are poured into a mold on the deck and congeal to form an image of a whale. The tension between old and new forms plays throughout the film; Vaseline, a petroleum-based product, serves as a substitute for whale blubber, once a form of heat and light.
A documentary on the making of Drawing Restraint 9, screened in Panorama, helps make sense of his influences, working style, and development of the material. Matthew Barney No Restraint even features an interview with former Walker Chief Curator Richard Flood. The documentary has yet to find a U.S. distributor and I pressed one of the acquisitions executives from IFC, who are distributing the feature in the U.S., to also pick it up. We’ll see if it can be added to schedule for May when we screen the feature in our First Look: Premieres program. Landmark will handle the theatrical run which will open Memorial Day weekend.
The audience of the Barney screening and discussion at the Talent Campus, a conference for emerging filmmakers, had clearly been preparing their questions for Barney. Maybe questions isn’t the right word. They were more like long-winded statements or comments on his work followed by “ Wouldn’t you agree?” Barney tried to answer as best he could, but some audience members weren’t wild with some his answers. When pressed to talk about his film influences, snickers went out when he mentioned slasher films defined by space, such as Friday the 13th, which was set at a summer camp.
Charlotte Rampling had a much more adoring, albeit smaller, audience for her dialogue with Peter Cowie two days later. As president of the competition jury, Rampling was feted to aRegis-style dialogue with clips from her films. My biggest disappointment with this event was that it was fairly brief and Cowie’s questions could have been more probing. For example, he opened the event by asking her if she had been influenced by the Swinging ’60s in London. With a career that started out with roles in The Knack and How to Get It and Georgie Girl, this seemed a no-brainer. Rampling politely took the questions and even answered his questions about the differences in making films in the U.S. and Europe. She could not have displayed more class, tact and effortless cool.
Earlier: The first dispatch from Berlin, the second, and also, Drawing Restraint 9 will be screened at the Walker in May. Tickets are not yet on sale; to get first word on tickets, sign up for the Walker email alerts or RSS calendar feed.