The Best of SIFF 2012: Week Two

I didn’t see nearly as many films this week as I did last week, and the films this week were not the juggernauts that Goodbye and How to Survive a Plague were.  Still, I found one surprisingly great film, and an honorable mention whose greatness came from its subject, if not always its execution.

170 Hz (North American Premiere)

(d: Joost van Ginkel, c: Gaite Jansen, Michael Muller, Eva van Heijningen, Netherlands 2011, 86 min)

This was the second of two films I saw on Thursday at Pacific Place, which has moved out of the doghouse and into the mansion, based on the quality of films that I’ve seen there during the festival this year.  Digital still looks a bit too harsh for me (not every line has to be delineated), but the cinematography and lighting in this film are gorgeous.  Some of the artsiness, however, is overdone (closeups of eyes, bodies, and red paint thrown in slow motion).  Still, what matters is the impact of the ending, which is not affected by these affectations, and the performances, which filled scenes that could have devolved into clichés with energy.

The movie follows two adolescents, Nick (Michael Muller) and Evy (Gaite Jansen), both of whom are deaf, both of whom have fathers who don’t accept them for what they are. Nick has an especially volatile relationship with his father (Porgy Franssen).  When we first meet his father, he comes home in a new, vintage car.  Instead of signing to his son, as his wife (Ariane Schluter) does, he just looks at him with disappointment on his face.  After his father leaves, Nick opens the door of the car and pees over the interior.  On the other hand, Evy’s father (Hugo Haenen) signs with his daughter, but seems overly protective of her.  One night, he makes the mistake of slapping her over her decision to keep seeing Nick.  Though he is sorry, this pushes Evy to the only solution she believes will allow her to stay with Nick forever: they will run away together, and she will come back pregnant with his baby.  Still, she is surprised when they leave so early in the morning to live in an abandoned Soviet sub. While the audience can guess what has happened from the moment Nick starts hallucinating about his dad, Ely does not find out until later, after which the film references images seen at the very beginning of the film, but which we now have context for, making them all the more powerful for it.

While the movie mostly takes place in the world of sound, occasionally we are plunged into Evy and Nick’s soundless world.  Sign language is the main form of communication in the film.  Because of this, and because it focuses so strongly on the two leads, they must carry the film, and they do.  They, and the gorgeous cinematography, are the reasons why this film works as well as it does.  A real find.

Honorable Mention: the Revolutionary (World Premiere on Sunday)

(d: Lucy Ostrander, Don Sellers, Irv Drasnin, USA 2012, 92 min)

This fine documentary (which I saw on Thursday before 170 Hz) follows the exploits of the now nonagenarian Sidney Rittenberg, who first went to China in 1945 and stayed until the 1980s.  Along the way, he joined the Communist Party, met Mao Zedong and other important communist leaders, was imprisoned twice in solitary confinement, and survived the Cultural Revolution. While the voiceovers at the beginning of certain sections of the narrative play too much like a History Channel special, Rittenberg is that rare individual who can not only recall events that took place almost seventy years ago, but can also be critical of his past actions.  Through his memories, and some from his wife, the entire Chinese communist revolution plays out before us.  As of yet, this film has no distributor.  It should.  It’s an important film about a great man that falls just short of being a great film.

(One of my favorite parts in the film is when Rittenberg comes out of solitary confinement for the first time.  His Chinese wife, not knowing where he was, has divorced him.  Back in his office, he sees a secretary in pigtails enter.  When she returns to the reception area, “she left the door open, which she still does.”  So, he is able to hear the office ladies talking about his wife divorcing him.  They side with his wife.  Only the girl with pigtails sides with him.  When one of the women says, “What should she have done?  She didn’t know where he was for six years,” the girl says, “For love, she should wait six, ten, twenty years!”  That girl with pigtails, named Yulin, is his wife to this day.)

Q&A with directors Lucy Ostrander, Don Sellers, Irv Drasnin, subject Sidney Rittenberg, and consultant Xiaoyan Zhao: Before the Q&A began, I really had to use the restroom.  Unfortunately, when I zipped up, I caught part of the fabric from my boxers in my zipper.  So here I am, in the men’s bathroom, thinking, “Oh crap. I’m going to miss the entire Q&A over a Ben Stiller moment.”  I eventually got it unstuck, but I had to go into a stall so as to have more privacy to really yank at it (the zipper, that is).  Anyway, I missed part of the Q&A because of that.  To compensate, Rittenberg had been sitting at the end of our row during the film, so when he directed glowing words to his wife as part of the Q&A (one person said she’s the only person in the documentary who comes out looking good), I could lean over a bit and see her embarrassed, but pleased, expression, as if a teacher were praising her in front of the class.

In the free SIFF guide, there are two errors in regards to this film: one is that Rittenberg had “divided loyalties” (during the Q&A, he said that his underground name was “Thomas Paine” and that he always wore Western dress, so as to show where his loyalties were), the other that he “befriended Mao” (as Sellers mentioned in the lobby, one doesn’t really “befriend” Mao).  Other topics covered during the Q&A included why Rittenberg left China (once he realized that the problems with Marxist communism were systemic–its main idea is that “through a dictatorship, you can get a democracy”–he left), whether communism has been good for China (Rittenberg said that life expectancy has doubled for babies since the DRC was formed, though Sellers pointed out that not everyone is enjoying the benefits of a long life in China), and the issue of Tibet.  Rittenberg mentioned that the current Dalai Lama’s predecessor tried to find national recognition for Tibet as a country separate from China, but no government agency would do so, and never has.  Also, while Tibet has experienced “tremendous economic success,” that hasn’t carried over into ethnic autonomy.  The main problem with that is what Rittenberg describes as Great Han chauvinism, which is similar to the white chauvinism that occurred in his home state of North Carolina in the 1960s.  In other words, Chinese people believe that all the non-Hans should be grateful to the Hans for all that they’ve given them, which breeds contempt for the non-Hans when they complain.

The final two questions touched on U.S.-Chinese relations and why the Cultural Revolution ended so abruptly (and why it didn’t end earlier).  On the first, Rittenberg said that they will continue to be bumpy, but both countries realize that their economies are interlocked.  We buy cheap goods from China so that they can finance our debt.  Human rights are more a political tool than a serious charge against China; if we ever got serious about human rights in China, then that would be a different story.  On the second, people saw early on that the Cultural Revolution was bad, but nothing could be done while Mao was alive.  Once he died, all that had to be done was to arrest the Gang of Four, and the revolution ended.  Also, the death of Zhou Enlai (Mao’s main political opponent), six months before Mao’s death, brought out an outpouring of national grief in Tiananmen Square, which turned into a protest against the Gang of Four, and Mao.

Out in the lobby, I only got photos of the directors and Rittenberg separately (without my being in them), but as I wandered around the area, camera in hand, I was approached by Xiaoyan Zhao, who asked if I would take a picture of everyone (the directors, Rittenberg, Yulin, and Zhao) in front of the poster.  Handing her much better camera to me, she then asked if I take good pictures, to which I said, “Yes.”  So, although I didn’t get a photo with anyone from the film, I did take the official photo of them.  I’ll take that as a consolation prize. 🙂

Sidney Rittenberg signs a program for a fan
Sidney talks to SIFF patrons
Irv Drasnin and Lucy Ostrander (standing next to each other, center of photo)
Lucy Ostrander and Don Sellers
Irv, Lucy, and Don in front of the poster for The Revolutionary

Here is the official home page for 170 Hz (in Dutch)

And here is the official home page for The Revolutionary: