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Sunday, May 25, 2003

SIFF, Day 1
Ah, the glorious day dawned … the opening of the 2003 Seattle International Film Festival. It was a bit of a stretch to get to the Harvard Exit in time for the first movie (4 p.m. on a weekday? Where do these other people work? Not on the east side I’m guessing.), but even though I lost my jacket and my phone along the way (I think—I hope—I just left them in the van in my headlong rush to get into the theater before they closed the doors), I made it to see …

Under Another Sky, an Algerian-French co-production, focused on the life of Samy, a young Frenchman of Algerian descent (perhaps just on his mother’s side), who, after getting into some serious but unpremeditated trouble at home is sent to live with his ailing grandfather and cousins in Algeria. It’s one of those movies where, if you’re avoiding spoilers, the plot boils down to very little—a young French-Algerian guy has to flee to the land of his ancestors but doesn’t fit in very well—but it was still a fascinating look at being an outsider. Samy now looks like the people around him, but he still doesn’t fit in—he can’t speak Arabic, he knows nothing of Islam, he is totally unaware of all the political and social signifiers that surround him or of the history of the independence struggle in Algeria. In some ways he’s a reminder of colonialism, despite his heritage. Samy was a cipher: When faced with tough problems, he strikes out, not violently against others, but against himself—punching a bag until he’s physically spent, slapping his head, going at the ground with a pickaxe until his hands are mincemeat. Despite his physical strength (as Ken Rudolph observed, Samy’s “ripped body is photographed with loving attention”), he’s very vulnerable, almost soft. Although the movie had a lot of ponderous scenes where nothing much happened, I liked the way the director, Gaël Morel, weaved in the constant presence of danger—from thieves, or terrorism, or random events. The tone of the movie reflected that feeling generated by the action of the move where nothing much happens, then something massive and life-altering just comes out of nowhere.

This was a great SIFF opener—the kind of movie that gives you a glimpse into at least one part of another culture. I actually prefer my first SIFF movie to be something where nothing much happens—it’s good re-education after a few months of Hollywood. (The last two movies I’d seen in the cinema before this were X2 and The Matrix Reloaded!)

Then came Autumn Spring, an excellent film from the Czech Republic about an old couple (both characters are 76, to be precise) and the struggle to “grow up.” Fanda and his pal Ed love to act—usually they live out fantasies of wealth and influence—visiting mansions and taking advantage of the lavish perks laid on by the folks trying to land a rich buyer, but sometimes just for the fun of it, to get a kiss from cuties riding the subway without a ticket or to cheer up a depressed old man. When Fanda goes too far, his long-suffering wife Emilie, who frets about practical matters like who’s going to pay for their funerals, tries to divorce him, but the patient judge asks just the right questions so that she reconsiders. Fanda is so grateful he gives up all his idiosyncrasies and bad habits and becomes a crossword-working couch potato who Emilie can’t stand. I won't spoil it by telling you how it all works out in the end, but suffice it to say it's lovely.

The film is a fabulous ode to not giving up the ghost just because you’re old, and an inspiration to see the incredible actors—who, even though I’ve never seen them before, I can tell are geniuses of the art—strutting their stuff. Because they really were very old people—not middle-aged gorgeous stars made up to look like crinklies—their vulnerability is heart-breaking in an unsentimental way (I was really afraid that they’d fall over and break a hip every time they went out on all their adventures, or even on tasks as basic as doing the shopping or heading off to the train). Apparently, the actor who played Fanda became seriously ill soon after the film wrapped and committed suicide last April. It saddens me to think how awful the American version of this film would/will be.

The movie also made me realize how much Russian I’ve learned. At first the Czech language blew my mind—I couldn’t even tell where words ended and new words began—but after a while I sort of tuned into it and noticed how similar it is to Russian, though I suspect that without the crutch of the subtitles I’d never have realized that.

By the way: Apologies for the mess in the post below. I somehow lost the edit function, but my cries for help from the Blogger folks have gone unheeded. The caption was supposed to say:

My dear, simply everyone's doing it these days.