Sundance: Different Lives

When we selected the films we wanted to see, we only had one over-riding thought, which was to choose films we may not get a chance to see at our local theaters any time soon. We avoided the big Hollywood premiers because we can see those eventually at a local theater. One thing I find interesting is that without intending to, out of the eleven films we saw, four centered in the Muslim world and five were directed by women. Try to find that ratio at your local multiplex.

I've grouped the two films below, both directed by women, because they strongly evoke places and times with which I'm unfamiliar and gave us insight into lives we are unlikely to experience except through the movies.

In her directorial debut , visual artist Shirin Neshat adapts Shahrnush Parsipur's novel Women Without Men to the screen with mixed results. The story takes place in Tehran during the summer of 1953 as the Shah stages his coup. Following the lives of four women from different classes and circumstances, it weaves their stories together to illustrate how they attempt to break free of the oppressive restrictions imposed on them by the men who control their lives either directly or indirectly.

Shot with a tremendous amount of creative flair resulting in arresting visuals and set-pieces, the film is always interesting to watch and the actresses form a tight ensemble giving powerful and sympathetic portrayals. The scene where Orsi Toth, playing a young prostitute, escapes from a brothel and scrubs herself raw in a hammam in unforgettable. The story features a heavy dose of magical realism, working best as an allegory rather than as a realistic representation of the time, but Neshat succeeds in recreating many facets of the era in a wholly believable way. Shot in Morocco, the street scenes and houses look and evoke what I imagine Tehran would have looked like in the 50's. However, viewers not familiar with the book will find themselves puzzled over a particular element in the story which is never fully explained by the film's narrative and eventually works against it. This one component actually keeps the film from being as satisfying as it could have been.

Nevertheless, Women Without Men is an impressive debut from an artist whose next film should be worth keeping an eye out for. One thing that came to my mind during the Q & A which followed the film: in contemporary Iran this film stands no chance of ever being shown in a theater or sold as a dvd. Thus it will never be experienced by the audience who would likely appreciate it the most- and that's a conundrum that I find simultaneously intriguing and depressing. It raises a lot of questions for which I have no answers but is the start of an interesting conversation.

Tanya Hamilton's Night Catches Us (the title refers to a Jamaican proverb) takes place in Philadelphia, 1976. Originating in a Sundance lab, it took Hamilton ten years to get this picture made. What floored me after viewing it was learning it was shot in only eighteen days. It looks and feels like they took a lot longer to shoot. Featuring a truly stellar cast (with one odd major exception), Night Catches Us is a period piece that looks at the very personal aftermath of the Black Panther movement from those who were involved in it.

When Marcus (an outstanding performance by Anthony Mackie of The Hurt Locker) returns home to his old neighborhood from prison, he has to contend with a reputation as a snitch, a Muslim brother who wants nothing to do with him (Tariq Trotter of The Roots), and some old relationships that have never been resolved.

He ends up staying with Patty Wilson (Kerry Washington, oddly unbelievable in this role) and her daughter Iris (excellent young actress Jamara Griffin). There's something between these two, but the audience isn't let in on exactly what it is for awhile and Hamilton lets the tension stew for an appropriate amount of time. All we know is that is that Marcus and Patty's deceased husband were both Panthers. Marcus has to avoid the neighborhood's kingpin (Jamie Hector aka Marlo from "The Wire") and a cop who has something on him (Wendell Pierce, also a "Wire" alum). Patty's still living in the past and no one can pull her into the future, though many men would like to. Marcus can't gain a foothold in a society that has no place nor use for him. The drama in this small, intimate story revolves around how people deal with the past and learn how to leave it there.

For me, the only thing that kept this film from being one of my favorites of the festival was Kerry Washington's performance as the neighborhood matriarch and widow with a secret. I found her completely unbelievable in this role, as if she were in another movie entirely, though which one I can't quite think of. A shame too, because hers is really the pivotal character in this gritty morality play with a heart.

The movie also features an outstanding soundtrack by The Roots.