DIFF’s hits and misses
Film festival selects high- and low-calorie films for 2008

Josh Bensick loads film onto the reel at the Abbey Theatre earlier this week. The Durango Independent Film Festival runs through the weekend and will feature more than 100 films./Photo by David Halterman

by Judith Reynolds

If you can see only one documentary at the Durango Independent Film Festival, don’t miss “The Listening Project.”

Buried among all the other documentaries, “Listening” has taken a back seat to “War/Dance,” one of two Academy Award nominees on this year’s roster. (Alas, “War/Dance” didn’t win the Oscar for Best Documentary; “Taxi to the Dark Side” did). Festival organizers have given “War/Dance” the coveted 9 p.m. Friday night slot. “Listening” screens in the Abbey at 6 p.m. Thursday and again at noon Friday. See both and compare. Judge for yourself.

In both style and content, “Listening” is a superior film. Here are some reasons. The premise, structure and cinematography are clearer and more innovative in “Listening.” Beginning with images of travel – airplanes, cars – a vocal collage introduces the film’s principle dilemma: America’s image abroad. Listen carefully and you can easily identify a few famous voices, but most are ordinary people, patches of an aural quilt to be heard and assembled later in the film. What comes through is a deep love-hate relationship toward the United States, a vision of an empire where people are afraid or oblivious and whose rulers want to impose their values on the rest of the world.

How does one listen to the world? Filmmakers Dominic Howes and Joel Weber, co-owners of Minneapolis-based Rikshaw Films, assembled four friends, nonjournalists, to be their “listeners.” With a small crew, Carrie Lennox, Bao Phi, Bob Roeglin and Han Shan traveled to 15 countries for most of 2006. They conducted street, pub and home interviews, engaging people in conversations about America. Where needed, they found translators. The recorded interviews have been translated into English from Russian, Mandarin, Masai, Arabic, Dari, Kanadda and other exotic languages. The key questions were: What do you think about the United States? What message would you like to send to the people of the United States? The responses fall into a few categories – arrogance, greed, power – but there are also some surprising arguments between people of opposing views.

From 280 hours of interviews, Editor Todd Grabe culled the 76 minutes you see, and it’s beautifully structured. The four listeners are briefly introduced then they become background figures in London, Shanghai, Vancouver, Bangalore, the West Bank, Tel Aviv, et al. At two intervals, the listeners reflect on what they’ve heard and learned. These pauses, as well as interludes where cinematographer Weber pans over faces, crowds or aerial views, become transitions. They provide an opportunity to take a breath. Most of all, the directors avoid static talking heads. The style throughout is cinema verité. All the speakers are caught in vivo, casually conversing.

To wrap up this human tapestry, the directors return to a short reflective sequence. Then by quick-cutting short clips from many of those interviewed, we experience a kind of summary. Collectively, the messengers suggest Americans learn, listen and question. Keep an open mind and to see with our own eyes. Become a citizen of the world – as the participants in the film seem to be.

The documentary relies entirely on discovery, then shapes what has been found into a structure that is concise, colorful and telling. In contrast, “War/Dance” feels highly contrived.

It’s hard to criticize a film for proscription when the subject is so wrenching. But “War/Dance” could have been a much better film had the co-directors not been so deliberate in setting things up. There are moments that even seem exploitative.

The documentary is set in Northern Uganda where after two decades of civil war, children in the Patonga Refugee Camp have a hard life and questionable future. One thing they appear to look forward to is a national dance and music competition. There’s pressure to achieve perfection. Given the physical circumstances and personal losses, it’s heartbreaking. The journey toward the competition constitutes the dramatic arc of the film. Yes, this is another film in the competition genre, now so ubiquitous it includes spelling bees, crossword tournaments and music “championships.”

Filmmakers Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine have selected three children to follow. They fill in their histories and see them through the big event. Much of the cinematography is conventional.

Dominic, Rose and Nancy are each pinned center screen for their monologues. As they tell their stories, the filmmakers imagine the events. Horrific experiences are re-visualized as we see the children walk through tall grass back into their childhood. Night raids, escapes into the bush, brutal beatings are abstractly suggested. Unfortunately, the artificiality of the visual storytelling just doesn’t match the horrendous oral accounts. Most upsetting is a contrived return to a father’s muddy grave where one of the children becomes hysterical – and the camera rolls on.


The genre has conditioned us well, and you can predict the outcome. On the plus side, the music is energetic and uplifting. The trip back home to a cheering refugee village can be anticipated. It’s welcome, but it, too, feels like a set up.

Among other films:

• The documentary “New Year Baby” may initially feel contrived, but it unwinds with unexpected twists and turns. A young Cambodian-American returns with her parents to their homeland only to uncover several long-held secrets. None are what you expect. The people and the story are so engaging that the film is quite compelling. This is Director Socheata Poeuv’s tale, and it’s told in first person. In the process, we meet her whole family, strong or vulnerable, witty or sad, alive or dead, through encounters and photographs. The only flaw is the film’s length. It could have been edited down from its 135 minutes without loss of emotional content.

• “West Bank Story” is such an outrageous spoof that it makes you wonder about Director Ari Sandel. It has won a menu of awards including the Oscar for Best Short Film at last year’s Academy Awards. With a title that leads you directly to the Middle East via Leonard Bernstein, the film is a fast moving musical about family and country rivalries. It’s great fun and hard to believe satire as lively as this could be made about a supremely touchy subject.

• “The Job” is a one-joke short film, and it’s a good one. Director Jonathan Browning has turned the immigration debate on its head, a good tactic for any satirist. At only three minutes in length, it’s a winner.

• “Yours Truly” may be the most technically clever animated film in the festival. Director Osbert Parker from the United Kingdom patches together a variety of clips and stills to comment on scraps of movie history – literally and figuratively. Fascinating from beginning through its entire seven-minute length.

• “One Rat Short” demonstrates more conventional animation techniques with a serious upgrade. This little 10-minute narrative begins and ends with an errant fast-food wrapper. In between lies a story of love found and lost in contrasting worlds – the real one and one in a technological bubble. Director Alex Weil has won several awards, all well deserved.

• “Brave New West,” a film about Moab curmudgeon Jim Stiles, is a nicely wrought documentary about our part of the world. With at least five film clips of Edward Abbey reading or talking, the grounding in environmental protest is complete. Stiles illustrated several of Abbey’s books and is also known as the editor, publisher, writer and cartoonist of The Zephyr, an independent newspaper if there ever was one. This is a portrait of a man who has carved out a life of his own far away from his roots in Kentucky. Within you’ll find the Abbey tribute and a nice rendering of Stiles’ friendship with Herb Ringer, a photographer and friend of the West.

• “Niñas Mal” has to be the biggest disappointment of the festival. It may have sounded good on paper, but in reality it’s a stinker. Talk about contrived. This bit of commercial fluff has been fostered on the world by Sony Pictures Classic/Mexico. I’m not sure how or why it got into DIFF’s lineup. Perhaps the spoiled teen-age heroine at the center of this Mexican trifle plus a phony sprinkle of Jane Austen made them choose it.

Adela is an insufferable teen-age brat, the daughter of an aspiring, widowed politician. Adela despises school, mocks her father, misses her mother and considers any restraints on her mouth or movements intolerable. She’s an angry goof-off who surprisingly agrees to go to charm school. There’s a condition, of course. Her father promises to foot the bill for drama school – in England. Adela, it seems, is an aspiring actress who can’t wait to leave her upper-middle class life in Mexico City.

Our little Brittany sabotages charm school, ruins other people’s lives, and loses, or gives away, her virginity in a preposterous romance. Then in an overwrought moment of contrition, Adela makes everything right. What a fairy tale. But, then, this was meant to be a spoiled girl’s fantasy in the first place. The moral is: be as hateful as possible and you, too, can patch things up. Sorry, but this 102- minute film was 101 minutes too long. •




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