Tough Love: A Review of “Monsieur Lazhar”

Tough Love: A Review of “Monsieur Lazhar”

Monsieur Lazhar,” Canada’s official entry for the 2011 Best Foreign Film Oscar, concerns an Algerian immigrant that finds work in Montreal standing in for an elementary school teacher who recently committed suicide. It sounds straightforward enough, but nothing is as it appears on the surface–and yet the story does not play out like a mystery in the orthodox sense. The emotional truths that each of the main characters arrive at become a far more interesting journey than determining the bare facts of the tragedy at its center.

Philippe Falardeau’s fourth feature is a tender, engrossing drama played out mostly in a 6th grade classroom with some gifted child actors. The title role is played with remarkable delicacy by a handsome, ex-patriot Algerian comedian, writer and social commentator now living in France who goes by the name of Fellag.

Monsieur Lazhar is saddled with the pressures of enduring a personal tragedy while he attempts to bridge the gulfs that separate him by age from his students, by his differing teaching methods from his fellow educators, and between his native culture and that of his adopted country.

From his opening scene onward, when Lazhar persuades the school’s headmistress to hire him, he seems to comprehend the breadth and scope of his responsibilities and appears equal to the task. Once inside the classroom, her faith in him is confirmed as he demonstrates genuine compassion for the students, continually proving his worthiness as teacher and role model while the children adjust to the uncustomary rigors of his teaching methods and grapple with their grief and confusion over the loss of their esteemed former teacher.

I was surprised to discover that the leading child actors are evidently both quite new to cinema. Emillien Neron, who plays Simon, is burdened with a guilt complex connected to the death of his former teacher. Sophie Nelisse, plays Alice, Simon’s best friend and favorite pupil of Monsieur Lazhar. The movie opens with an exchange between the two that distinguishes their bond. Simon’s behavior reveals a passive aggressive streak that appears as harmless teasing. Alice, being the more mature of the two, takes it for the display of macho affection to which boys their age are prone.

The film unfolds from here as if it was headed directly for the mutual healing of the main characters and we are content to be set up for a heartwarming redemption, for its finale, overflowing with finely-honed performances and sweetly observed details in between. However, there are darker undercurrents to these characters than we are not immediately capable of comprehending yet even when they are exposed, it does not significantly change the mood or timbre of the story. It simply makes the characters even more real, their emotions extra vivid and the entire movie more satisfying. We are brought down to earth and served a helping of real life in a most lucid and loving fashion.

The Joy Is In The Journey: “The Cardboard Bernini”

The Joy Is In The Journey: “The Cardboard Bernini”

Chasing virtuosity, the mid-20th Century born illustrator and sculptor, James Grashow, performs a tour de force over the course of 78 breezy minutes of “The Cardboard Bernini.” In this engrossing, feel-good artist bio, satisfaction comes in the living space of extended bouts of creativity.

I don’t think it would spoil anything about the story for you to know in advance that many of us baby boomers were introduced to this man’s work as an illustrator 40 years ago. His folksy, intricate woodblock prints decorated some of the most classic LP record album art of all time. I hope at least some of you enjoy the tingle of nostalgia that came to me seeing his early work again after so long. As it turns out, James Grashow has made a pretty good living ever since.

Pushing 70 now, Grashow is at the height of his powers and vows to be reaching for something heroic here. There are scenes of him straining his ligaments, blistering his fingers, sweating over his monumental task, dedicating three solid years of his life on an elaboration of Bernini’s Trevi fountain in Rome, made of cardboard, paper and glue, which he then plans to abandon it to the elements.

Mixing interviews with archival photos and movie clips, the documentary playfully reconstructs his unique life, inter-cutting scenes of his latest sculpture being born with flashes from the past. The visual design of the movie helps sustain our attention over the course of a long and storied career.

A highlight of these proceedings is his wife, Lesley. The artist attributes his success to their partnership. The bond between the couple is both admirable and palpable. His adult children call him a “wizard.” Their upbringing was “magical”. We get a glimpse of their exquisite Connecticut residence, which looks like something out of one of his shows.

His family contributes abundantly to the story of this grown man with the child’s imagination who has been producing original art full-time for fifty years. But the real enchantment to which his wife and children refer is the creative swoon that James Grashow floats around in most of the time.

The artist appears intoxicated with life, yet claims he is afflicted with existential blues. The notion of eternity’s indifference to his creations and the notion of his own death is an ever-nagging bummer. Grashow recounts a life-changing story of when his close friend, the art dealer died. The artist went to pay his respects and some favorite sculptures of his, giant paper people made of maché and wire, his friend had displayed for years, were piled in the back yard decomposing, exposed to the elements. It upset him, but he also saw the beauty in it. This event made Grashow plan the most ambitious art project of his career. We are invited into the process from conception to last rites.

His wife, while obviously proud of her husband’s accomplishments, is not 100% onboard with his decision to dispose of his newborn masterpiece in its infancy. You wonder what his wife does for a living besides being mother to their grown kids and an accomplice to the wizard. She’s got her own inner life, for sure, and can be as interesting a study as her husband.

I’m not suggesting the life of a professional cardboard bender is devoid of struggle. Birthing original art can turn into a decidedly more difficult proposition at any point in the process. Imagine the deep doo-doo this holy fool must have found himself in, from time to time, over the 150 solid weeks it took to construct and display his pulp homage.

The finished work emerges in the third act, exhibiting a mature decorator’s sense of style and execution, but resembling Bernini’s monument in design only. You can’t make cardboard do what marble can. He does, however, achieve just about everything you could imagine, given the material.

Concerning what he calls “the back end of my art,” its disintegration becomes vitally important to Grashow. In embedding the demise of this piece into the project, it becomes a ritual to address his deepest fears. He finds peace now when it’s all over, instead of regret. “It was perfect,” he says. It was pretty good for us too.

– – – – – – – – – – –

The Current State of Polish Cinema

The Current State of Polish Cinema

I had the pleasure of attending one of the 2011 Santa Fe Film Festival’s panel discussions Friday afternoon at Zane Bennett Gallery. Brent Kliewer, this year’s program director for the festival, hosted the conversation. The audience was made up of hungry local film lovers like me and guest filmmakers, from various parts in and outside the US, whose movies are screening at this year’s festival.

For 25 years Pawel Wendorff has worked in Poland as a cinematographer, having shot about a dozen feature films and documentaries. “Odd One Out,” which plays on Saturday, 5:15pm at CCA, is his first feature as full-fledged director. The film has already begun gathering awards on the festival circuit.

Brent began the program by asking him, “How did the Polish film school happen to be located in a place like Lodz, which is a factory town? Why not one of the obvious cultural centers such as Krakow or Warsaw?”

“It probably had to do with the time period in which the decision was made to open a film school,” the filmmaker answered. “That was 1956. Warsaw was still a heap of ruble from the war. Lodz was conveniently located nearby. It was nothing but gray factories and factory workers.” He then began to paint a rather amusing picture of what it must have been like when this Polish industrial town of 90 percent blue-collar workers was suddenly infiltrated by a group of artists with movie cameras. I am paraphrasing heavily as his English came forth in halts and gallops. At the very least, it sounds like the students made the most of Lodz’s gritty locations for their student films.

Brent then asked Wendorff to compare his first encounter directing features with his extensive experience as a cinematographer. “I have done so many pictures as a cinematographer that it begins to feel like just another job.” the filmmaker replied. “Directing provides the most creative inspiration for me now. It feels more like art.”

When one of the audience members asked if he would ever consider wearing both hats simultaneously while making a feature film, he was not enthusiastic. “I would like to have the camera operator be someone else,” was his answer, “then you can better focus on things that are most relevant to the film, such as the conduct of the actors.”

Wendorff’s film “Odd One Out,” is a kaleidoscopic narrative revolving around a man who lands his first job as a delivery driver and inadvertently becomes a witness to a traffic accident. When he gives his statement at the police station, he finds himself suddenly entangled in a surreal web of intrigue. The movie has a quality of paradox and absurdity characteristic of the great tradition of literature from countries where oppressive bureaucracies assume the visage of labyrinthine nightmares.

Being the fountain of film facts that he is, Mr. Kliewer engaged Mr. Wendorff in a lively discussion on the Polish film tradition, which dates to the invention of motion pictures. Mention was made of early associations with Yiddish theater, prior to the Nazi and Soviet Invasions, and the cunning adoption of Aesopian codes by those filmmakers forced to find ways around political censorship. From there the discussion progressed to more recent milestones in film including Polanski’s “Knife in the Water” Bugajski’s “Interrogation,” and Kieslowski’s “Decalogue.”

The legacy of filmmaking that Wendorff was born into is very different from ours. We take for granted the demands of a free market that determines which projects attract investment and which do not. With few exceptions this has been our model since the beginning. Though it may sound like an advantage to have lived in a country where motion pictures were subsidized by the State, film projects were, often as not, paralyzed by red tape and burdened with the agenda of the party in power. For better or worse, State funding in Poland came to an end in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In the present day, a movie tax goes to the Polish Film Institute that helps pay half the budget for qualifying movies and the filmmakers raise the other half. If their film makes a profit, they refund the seed money for the benefit of future film projects however, in a country with only six million people, it’s hard to make your money back.

I was surprised to learn that, throughout Europe, movies do not generally reach profitability, at least on non-English language films. Even when Italy was numero uno in international cinema in the late fifties and early sixties, it only commanded 50 percent of its returns from the home market. Importation to America is practically essential for a movie to financially succeed.

If this trend continues, it portends the eventual death of national cinema. When you consider the extraordinary treasures that Polish cinema has contributed since its beginnings, such a development is heartbreaking if not outright outrageous.

In response to this news, I asked Wendorff if he wouldn’t prefer to come to America to make movies. “There are currently no Polish directors working in Hollywood,” he said. “Polish filmmakers may dream of making movies here but it’s a far-fetched notion. They are more focused on earning enough money to survive and finishing the next film.”

Wendorff appeared to be humbly gratified to be attending our festival and discussing his national cinematic heritage. Capturing attention at prestigious American film festivals will support him in being able to make his next film when he returns home.

Spotlight on NM Filmmaker’s Shorts

Spotlight on NM Filmmaker’s Shorts

Director/Screenplay: Jocelyn Jansons
Category: Comedy | 4 minutes

A young couple must decide the fate of a lobster they’ve brought home for a special dinner.

Directed/Written by: Don Gray
Category: Drama | USA 2011 | 19 minutes

When two broken people collide in a dysfunctional relationship, one tries to escape – with the help of an unexpected source. Sometimes, you have to take your angels where you find them.

Directed by: Adrien Wayne Colón
Category: Comedy, Mockumentary, Action| 7 minutes

Mixed Martial Arts fighter Rex Sharpe takes energy conservation to the EXTREME!

Directed/Written by: Brad Wolfley
Category: Drama, Family | 2 minutes

With The Story of an Engine, I stood at the bottom of the stairs, caught the objects as they fell, and rearranged them to win my mother’s approval. Like allart, its intent is to reveal a piece of one’s self, in this case, my own interest in memory, machines and our collective construction vis-a-vis the sequencing of image and sound in relation to story.

Director: Yvonne Latty
Category: Documentary| 30 minutes

The documentary shows the devastating toll past uranium mining has had on the Navajo people and discusses the potential risks posed by a renewal of uranium mining. It lays out the complex and conflicting economic, political, environmental and spiritual issues involved. However, this documentary in no way portrays the Navajo as victims of outside forces, but rather agents of change within their community and beyond.

Directed by: Joanne Schmidt
Category: Nature, Wildlife, Art, Adventure | 4 minutes

Join the party! It’s Bird Feast Day in the Bosque for a family of Sandhill Cranes.

Director: Josh Klein
Category: Drama, Sci-Fi Fantasy | 31 minutes

An elderly wanderer is placed in a psychiatric institution upon being discovered drifting through traffic on a New Mexico interstate. A young psychiatrist becomes enchanted with this new patient when the man reveals himself to be none other then Captain James Hook. Through in-depth questioning, Hook reveals how he barely escaped Never Land after a maniacal bloodthirsty Peter Pan killed every last pirate aboard his ship. After he’s institutionalized against his will, Hook is transformed from the fictional character whom he believed he was, into a man without a past, or so he is made to accept. The chilling outcome of the film involves the Captain pitted against that which he fears the most, the truth.

Brent Kliewer to Select Films for SFFF

Brent Kliewer to Select Films for SFFF

It’s great news that the Santa Fe Film Festival has engaged Brent Kliewer as Director of Programming for this year’s Festival October 20-23. Brent loves the movies and knows more about them than anyone I’ve ever met. He’s the guiding force behind The Screen, Santa Fe’s premiere art, classic, and foreign film venue and has been so for the past dozen years.

In 1986, Brent began a decade of building the film program at CCA, which houses the other excellent alternative movie venue in Santa Fe. CCA has just finished a superb renovation to their theater. Though Brent moved on, a tradition of impeccable programming continues.

You remember those charming jewel box cinematheques that sprung up near college campuses in the days before home video? They brought to our towns important works that revealed to us the wide world of different cultures, expanding our big picture, broadening the contexts of our lives. It took a lot of heart to run those little movie houses. Thanks to Brent, Santa Fe had its own, The Jean Cocteau Theater.

I knew about him before, but I came to really appreciate Brent after taking a couple of semesters of film history from him at College of Santa Fe. By the time I found my way there he’d been teaching for years. His lectures flowed effortlessly without notes. The class became more dazzled each day as he explained the ropes from motion-picture patents to starlets and studios, bad breaks to high hopes, maps of power, the Feds, and how a small strip of photos can grow huge with life in our heads.

Along with having been a film critic at the Santa Fe New Mexican for 10 years, Kliewer also contributed a featured essay to the collector’s edition of Alone Across the Pacific, a movie on DVD by master filmmaker, Kon Ichikawa.

It’s odd how movie programmers get so little notice considering how much romance and adventure they inject in our lives. We always honor the actor and filmmaker. Meanwhile, day after day, month after month, for almost thirty years, Brent Kliewer has been helping audiences better understand themselves and their world through the window of moving pictures.

I suppose, if it did draw more attention to him, Brent might not like his job. He’s notoriously modest. Perhaps the best way to appreciate all of his dedication and expertise is to go to the Santa Fe Film Festival this year. I would not dare miss it.

Art In Film: A 2012 SFFF Panel Review

Art In Film: A 2012 SFFF Panel Review

No less than nine documentary filmmakers and artists offered their first-hand experiences to the audience for the “Art in Film” panel discussion and breakfast kicking off Saturday’s schedule for the 2012 Santa Fe Film Festival. Presenting a range from musicians to sculptors to photographers, I count no less than ten films at this year’s festival were feature length documentaries of artists at work.

The two hour event at the Hotel Santa Fe took almost an hour to get under way because there was such a tempting array of goodies and hot drinks in the back of the room that people couldn’t stop nibbling, networking, and chatting about the films they’d watched on Friday.

When we finally sat down, the conversation was begun in earnest by Diane Karp, executive director of the Santa Fe Art Institute.

“Films are art in themselves. They’re made by artists,” Karp reminded us, “but these films are about art and artists as well.”

She highlighted the responsibility of the filmmaker for what she called, “sovereignty of the context,” the challenge of presenting the context of the work and artist accurately so that a clear understanding can be had. Karp kicked the conversation off by giving each filmmaker an opportunity to clarify their intent.

The first to share was Bernadine Santistevan–the sole panelist not presenting a documentary on the panel. Her six-minute animation “Wolf Dog Tales” took a year to complete and involved many different contributors. The film aims to bring the local indigenous storyteller’s craft alive with animation borrowing from the tradition of Navajo sand painting. “When a native boy from Pojoaque Pueblo saw my film he cried and said, ‘Now I can take my ancestors with me.’ That’s why I make art,” the director confides.

The feature length “Cardboard Bernini” by returning filmmaker Olympia Stone, was a six-year-long project about sculptor and illustrator James Grashow. Stone described her approach: “I asked if I could follow Jimmy around with the camera.” Take note, aspiring documentarians, Stone made her feature without a crew. “There are minuses to working like this, because the film isn’t as beautiful as it could be,” she admits, but Stone gets inside Jimmy with all his humor, angst and brio, while documenting the birth of his magnum “pulpus.” The director exhibited at Santa Fe Film Festival in 2006 with a documentary about her father, NY contemporary arts impresario Allen Stone.

Christy Hengst is a painter, sculptor and public installation artist. She and her work, “Birds in the Park”, have become the subject of the movie by the same name by German filmmakers Tom Meffert and Dagmar Diebles. Hengst hand-built birds of porcelain then stenciled lines of text about war on them. This doc shows how people connect with the work as it premieres in destinations as diverse yet interconnected as Los Alamos, New Mexico, the Galapagos Islands, and Peenemünde, Germany. Though Hengst had conceived the piece prior to Meffert’s and Diebles’ involvement, she reflects back now on how, “the project feels much more complete than it would have without the film.” This becomes increasingly true for artists. If you believe the subject of your work deserves global attention, tapping the digital potential of it becomes as important to perfect as any other aspect of the creative process.

Dagmar Diebles was a medical process filmmaker before she teamed up with Tom Meffert who had first studied architecture before connecting the dots to cinema. When he started, he didn’t understand the difference between features and documentaries. “I saw it all as telling a story with pictures,” he said. Diebles and Meffert believe in shooting until the story emerges. “You are always connecting, hunting for something. You keep the overview and search for things that really fit together.” That is so true, and remains so all the way through post production.

Beth Kruvant, director of “David Bromberg, Unsung Treasure”, practiced law for 20 years. Her “Heart of Stone” which won an editing award here in 2009, was about inner city gangs in New York and New Jersey. “For my next film I wanted to do something less intense,” she said. She saw David Bromberg perform at one of Levon Helm’s Midnight Rambles in Woodstock and that lit the fuse. Beth respected the artist’s boundaries while she was filming. When she couldn’t get something from him, she was allowed to run to his brother. She wanted more of the artist’s personal life. The artist wanted her to focus more on his musicianship. She brought that through in the end and they were both happy.

Michael Pettit’s “Living Traditions” is a film about the National Heritage Fellows from NM. The project began when Michael met one of them at Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art. He decided to get interviews of all the artists, or those that survived. “Already, ten of the fifteen are no longer with us. I traveled all over New Mexico to collect the record of the remaining ones, plus stories from the survivors of those past masters. The living artists themselves are so humble, you learn more sometimes from interviewing family members, many of whom practice the art themselves.” The strongest trait among them turned out to be that these artists all possess a deep underlying faith.

Christina McCandless’ first feature, “From Zimbabwe to Santa Fe,” follows two communities of artists in Zimbabwe competing for highly coveted, very limited booth space at the largest International Folk Art Market in the world, which convenes in Santa Fe, NM, every July. The narrative of McCandless’ story is of the way that art builds and connects community. She volunteered at the Folk Art Market, met an intern from Africa and was invited to Zimbabwe to film the artists. “I try to be sensitive and not overlay European culture on indigenous cultures,” she said.

In the Q&A that followed, an audience member opened with an inquiry into production costs. Responses from three of the panelists were similar in that they financed largely with support from family foundations and or museum foundations. All acknowledged the value of achieving tax-exempt status. Ms. McCandless said she staged a successful Indiegogo campaign. All of the filmmakers present reported to have put some of their own money in.

Onward we finally plunged into more filmic discussion. Another question came from the audience: “There is the creator and the act of creation being captured in your films. How much are you as a creator and your act of creation influenced by the creations and their creator you are filming?”

Beth Kruvant captured David Bromberg making an album with other well-known artist including Keb Mo, Dr John and Vince Gill. “From a strictly technical viewpoint,” Kruvant said, “the camera had to be put in different places as per the individual wishes of each of the artists.” Olympia Stone reported that James confessed if she hadn’t been filming him he might not have gone through with it. So this points to a collaborative bridge between film artist and featured artist, that strengthens both sides.

An audience participant turned the question around, quizzing Christy Hengst on how having filmmakers Meffert and Diebels watching her influenced her work. “I liked allowing for many repeated installations of the work to be strung together by the film,” she answered. “It made it much more solid.” Dagmar Diebels added, “We didn’t always agree on everything and had discussions until we reached a compromise.”

Michael Petit joined in with another view: “I did another film with four Africans and four Europeans and there was so much animosity and tension, it was not good for the project.” A hazard of any documentary project can be that you aren’t prepared for what happens.

A final question from the audience was taken by Karp. “Do you show the movie to the artist while you’re making it?” Diebels and Pettit confessed to have shown the rough cut to the artist while it could still be changed. Stone and Kruvant informed us the artists never saw their films until they were finished. The same could be said of MeCandless’ film, no doubt, since she edited it after returning from Africa.

It was an enjoyable conversation that multiplied geometrically after the panel was adjourned. There were still croissants and Danish pastries left at the buffet and the coffee pot was still flowing so, after a round of applause, the conversation