The Best of SIFF 2012: Week One

Inside AMC Pacific Place


(d: Mohammad Rasoulof, c: Leila Zare, Hasssan Pourshirazi, Behname Tashakor, Iran 2011, 104 min)

Last year, I didn’t go to Pacific Place, mad as I was that the previous year, they had shown two movies (on two different screens) with bulbs that wouldn’t have lit my closet.  This year, however, I decided to give them another chance (especially after seeing a well-lit screening of Shame there and realizing that perhaps their bulbs were just in need of replacement near the end of a three-week festival).  On the positive side, it wasn’t the picture this time.

Instead, a speed demon had possessed the subtitle machine, churning out subtitles faster than the characters could speak the words in their native language.  Luckily, as is true with most great works of art, even a poor production couldn’t hide its brilliance.  (I should note that refunds and vouchers were given to people who wanted them.  As my pass allows me to get into movies for free, I stayed, more concerned that I would be working the next and final time that this movie plays. Hopefully they’ll show it again during the Best of SIFF.)  Despite the subtitles completely throwing off the rhythm of the dialogue, at least they came before, and not after the action had occurred.  As a result, it required a strong memory to remember what had been translated a scene or two before, and then to match it up with what was being heard at present.  If anything, I should thank the faulty equipment for helping me learn Persian.  Had the film been longer, I might have become fluent.

The film deals with Noora (Leila Zare), a pregnant woman trying to obtain a visa so that she can leave Iran.  The woman has been stripped of her law license, which she used to defend advocates against the regime.  Her husband (Shahab Hosseini, who was in the excellent A Separation) is working somewhere in the south, and is unreachable by phone.  He used to write articles critical of the government.  She has several unpleasant encounters with the authorities, and several with the associate of a man who might be able to get her out of Iran, despite her own activities and those of her husband.

From the SIFF brochure: “The director, Mohammed Rasoulof, was imprisoned in 2010 for ‘propagandizing against the regime.'”  Goodbye is not him playing nice (in fact, it was the last film he made before he was imprisoned).  In it, he gives us a beautifully shot film about life and oppression in Iran, filled with little details that say so much with so little (Noora’s turtle trying to escape its cage, Noora removing her fingernail polish on the train ride back home from the doctor’s), and a great balance between words and silence.  Much of the action occurs off-screen, allowing the audience to think on what they are seeing, and focus on the reaction of the characters they can see.

Last year, I named The White Meadows (also directed by Rasoulof) as the best film at SIFF.  Without seeing it with its subtitles at the proper speed, I can’t say whether this film is its equal (though I suspect that it is), but I can say that these two films, in addition to A Separation and the films of Kiarostami, show that something special is happening in Iran in regards to filmmaking, even as life for the artists there is becoming more and more unbearable.

UPDATE: After the festival ended, I got to seen a screener of the film with the subtitles intact.  It’s as powerful as I imagined, though I still give the edge to The White Meadows as the slightly better film.

I then had a short break before my next film, so I decided to buy some overpriced food in order to support the theater (distributors aren’t good at sharing) and my stomach.  In retrospect, I shouldn’t have bought the large soda, as it took me two days to finish, and was larger than the pizza I ordered.

I’d hate to see their X-Large.

How to Survive a Plague

(d: David France, USA 2012, 110 min)

The next movie I saw had no subtitle issues.  I was going to say that’s because it had no subtitles, but it actually did have some closed-captioning, which worked fine.  As fine a film as the previous one, but with even more emotional heft, How to Survive a Plague documents ACT UP New York, as it raced to get affordable drugs on the market for people dying of AIDS.  Though there are roughly two more weeks left of the festival, I seriously doubt any other films I see will be better than this one.  Informative, exhaustive, uplifting, sad, and consisting almost entirely of archived footage shot by amateurs, this is one incredible film.

How to Survive a Plague covers the years 1987-1996, beginning when ACT UP began and when AIDS was at its peak, and continuing until the correct cocktail of drugs was found so that people could live long lives with the disease.  It focuses on the heroes–including Larry Kramer, Mark Harrington, , Bob Rafsky, Jim Eigo, Ray Navarro, David Barr, Gregg Bordowitz, and Peter Staley–as they first stage protests, and then (with the help of Iris Long, a retired chemist and another name that history should remember) learn to navigate through scientific waters, even preparing a report on how the United States should handle the epidemic, something that no one in the U.S. had yet done.

Eventually, TAG (Treatment Action Group) forms within ACT UP to work with pharmaceutical companies and government agencies in getting effective drugs on the market to combat AIDS and its effects. It is one of these companies, MERCK, that finds the first protease inhibitor, and later discovers the three drugs needed to reduce the HIV virus to undetectable levels.

Beyond being a film about the fight to find a cure for AIDS, the film is also about a grassroots organization that evolved into the most potent weapon against AIDS.  While millions of people still die from AIDS every year (2 million from not being able to afford the necessary drugs), millions more would have died if not for ACT UP and TAG and their relentless efforts to get affordable and effective drugs on the market.

Q&A with director David France: David France was in attendance and received a richly deserved and prolonged ovation after the film.  Also, the Q&A session was the best one I’ve ever attended at SIFF, with Carl Spence (artistic director) as moderator.  The first “question” was from a man who talked a little about ACT UP Seattle, which had been the first branch to create a needle exchange (later copied in other cities) and adult hospice care during the day. As French explained, there are over 200 branches of ACT UP around the country (245?), though the film only dealt with the one formed in Greenwich Village.  He also mentioned that he thought he would have enough archival footage to tell the story, since AIDS was first identified in 1981 and the first camcorders came out in 1982.  Since the news media ignored AIDS when it first appeared, it was mostly documented by activists.  Some of this footage came from the New York Public Library, and organizations within ACT UP, such as DIVA TV (Damned Interfering Video Activist Television), whose job was to document police brutality.  Most of the footage, however, was in private video collections not stored in optimal conditions.  As videotape deteriorates fast, the sound quality on some of these tapes was horrendous.  To help, Skywalker Sound allowed their technicians to work on it pro-bono, including Lora Hirschberg, who won an Oscar for Sound Mixing on Inception.  France said that she found inflections where they couldn’t hear words.

The next question involved the Occupy Wall Street Movement. France said that he was already editing the film before the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring occurred, but he did see similarities.  He also said that it takes time for organizations–“great organizations”–to decide what they are about.  ACT UP began with anger channeled into confrontational protests before Iris Long explained to them that this would not get drugs on the market faster, which subsequently led them to research the science behind drug toxicology and the process behind FDA approval of new drugs.

The last question of the night was merely a statement that all of us in the room felt: a thank you to David French for making the film.  Though I had ample time to ask for a photo with French, I merely shook his hand on the way out and said, “Thank you for making such a great film.”  I then went into the restroom, where I was blocked in by a small dumpster.  All I have to say is, good thing I’m skinny.

P.S. Before How to Survive a Plague began, I talked with the two women next to me about Goodbye, and I found out something highly significant about the last scene in The White Meadows (SPOILER ALERT). When the tears are used to wash the feet of an old man, Iranians would recognize that the old man is the Ayatollah.  In other words, their tears (grievances) are being wasted at his feet.  Same with pouring them in the water.

Honorable Mention: Sleepwalk with Me

(d: Mike Birbiglia, c: Mike Birgiblia, Lauren Ambrose, Carol Kane, USA 2012, 90 min)

The funniest film so far at the festival, it brings This America Life contributor Mike Birbiglia’s one-man show to the screen, which follows a struggling comic named Matt Pandamiglio (Birbligia), who has been going out with his girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose) for eight years but can’t commit.  And, oh yeah, he acts out his dreams in his sleep.

There is no official website for Goodbye, but here is an interview with Rasoulof, talking about the film  There are a couple minor spoilers, so you might want to read this after you see the film:

IFC Films will be distributing How to Survive a Plague in the fall. For more information, you can go to the official website, which has a great press package page

And finally, here is the official website for Sleepwalk with Me: