Wednesday, December 7, 2016

'Fire at Sea' by Gian Franco Rosi goes deep beneath the surface

By Moira Sullivan

Gian Franco Rosi told me that the US does not show his films. Now they have. "Fire at Sea" was screened at the Mill Valley Film Festival in October and the Short Story Doc festival here in San Francisco. It won the Golden Bear at the 2016 Berlinale Film Festival, and is Italy's Official Submission for the Foreign Language Oscar at the 89th Academy Awards, already one of 15 contenders. Rosi took home the Golden Lion at Venice in 2013 for his film about the periphery highway around Rome called "Sacro Gra" where migrant communities live. The same provocative film style with Rosi behind the camera is used for "Fire at Sea", a documentary about a small island near Sicily, Lampedusa, that receives refugees that have voyaged primarily from Sub Saharan Africa risking life and limb. The way they are received by the villagers is important. The Eritrean born Italian who went to film school in New York at NYU shows some of the villagers such as 12-year-old Samuele and his family to make this a very personal film. "Fire at Sea" is made without traditional interviews but creating a story out of the conditions of the refugees at Lampedusa and the villagers on the island.  The picture language is both engaging and contemplative.

Rosi said he at first was only going to film a 10 minute story of Lampedusa until he met the island’s doctor Dr. Pietro Bartolo, who certifies deaths , and provides treatment to survivors, and he realized that the situation was larger in scope. He spent more than a year on the island, speaking with villagers about how the migrants seeking refuge has affected them. Today, they are intercepted by a boat called Mare Nostrum and never make it to Lampedusa proper, only its old port and then they are bussed to detention centers on the mainland.

Amnesty International has reported on the growing death toll of refugees crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa from Eritrea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Nigeria and primarily Syria. They report about the increasing use of negligent rubber dinghies that smugglers transport refugees in and the smell of oil on the survivors that reach shore. The day before I interviewed Gian Franco Rosi in early November there was a news report in the San Francisco Chronicle about the 31 survivors of two shipwrecks that reached Lampedusa with over 250 fatalities. Last year, the International Organization for Migration reported 3,777 dead crossing the Mediterranean. Rosi said that the figure was only half of the deaths this year or more - those we don’t know about could increase the total.

 "Fire at Sea" moves us about an issue that concerns us. The example of Lampedusa that reaches out its hand to help these tragic victims of a war not their making in their countries should inspire those who think that a wall between Mexico and the US is a solution to prevent migratory refugees from seeking humanitarian rescue and protection. Here now is Gian Franco Rosi in an exclusive interview with Movie Magazine International.

© 2016 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 12/07/16
Movie Magazine International

People's Republic of China's 'Old Stone' shares health care neglect with the US

Chen Gang as Lao Shi in 'Old Stone'

By Moira Sullivan
"Old Stone" by debut director Johnny Ma from the People’s Republic of China received funding from the Sundance Institute,which explains why it has been pushed to the top of distribution channels. The film has an excellent soundtrack*, which is one of its many virtues.

The story concerns Lao Shi (Chen Gang), a taxi driver who accidentally hits a motorcyclist in a road accident – an incident that occurs when a drunk passenger shoves Lao Shi’s arm on the steering column. The victim is taken to a hospital and is in a coma. The situation evokes what health insurance companies will look like under the president elect if he succeeds in being installed in this country. Lao Shi is confronted with a bill for the hospital for the victim. The insurance agents and police tell him that he should never have taken the injured man to the hospital because it is against procedure – even though he probably would have died. In a bungle of bureaucracy, an unsympathetic wife, the uncaring spouse of the injured, a clinically efficient and inhumane hospital staff and unsupportive witnesses and friends, even legal assistance, Lao Shi is in a dire predicament. He follows his conscience and sense of duty, though no one else does. Meanwhile his daughter practices dance and his wife continues to pay the bills that they cannot afford because of the new expenses.

'Old Stone' is a curious title, suggested that Lao Shi is cut from the stuff that is disappearing from society. The People's Republic of China has emerged as an economic power but despite all its wealth, just as the US, cannot bear to help provide decent health care to its citizens. Until Obama Care this country was able to avoid the horrible moral dilemma of this film. "Old Stone" is about the rapidly disappearing values of citizen towards citizen in the absence of a government that provides basic benefits to its population. The film takes a diabolic turn after it slowly builds its case against apathy, and shows the futility of trying to live with decent human values. The cinematography is excellent in this engaging human interest narrative.

Kobiki-uta for Orchestra, Koyama
Four Studies of Peking Opera: II. Aria, Shanghai Quartet
Rohan · Men Ha Tan Bagad, Doudou N'diaye Rose (end credits)

© 2016- Moira Sullivan  - Air Date: 12/07/16
Movie Magazine International

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Julie Dash's 'Daughters of the Dust' re-release

By Moira Sullivan
Yellow Mary (Barbarao)  and Trula (Trula Hoosier) on the beach of St Helena

Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust made in 1991 has long been considered an extraordinary film make within a story space perfect for the range of what cinema can do beyond merely recording moving figures. It is the first feature film made by an African American woman and it is now being re-released, proving again its status as a cinema classic.

The making of Daughters of the Dust written by Dash, which includes the film script, is the filmmaker’s account of the many setbacks that occurred before the film was finished. But the film has earned its merits and its long standing following, and although it has received some new notoriety because of some of the images in Beyoncé’s Lemonade with characters dressed similar to the characters of Dash's film from the early 20th century, that music video is not and never can be Daughters of the Dust.

The film is re-released in a 4K restoration and now today’s audiences can experience its richness. Julie Dash continues to receive commemoration as she has from the beginning (best cinematography at Sundance in 1991)  for a film that the commercial film industry decided to ignore. Its film language is unconventional and it is a film that invites multiple readings because of its construction. For that reason it will always be ripe with new meaning for the spectator.

Daughters of the Dust is about the descendants of the salt water slaves from Africa, the Gullah and members of a small community on St Helena Island who have decided to go up north and leave their 88 year old matriarch Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day) and remaining members behind. The Gullah settled in the coastal sea islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia and were able to preserve their language known as Gee Chee and their traditions because of their remoteness from the mainland. These customs are shown in the film, many of which are from African spirit religion such as vessels used for the souls of the elders. The younger Gullahs have heard the oral history of their elders but they are anxious to be up north to learn new ways. This is a time after slavery in 1902 but its living presence remains in the waterways, especially a wooden statue of a slave who serves as a reminder of those who drowned at Ibo Landing rather than be enslaved.

 The film begins with the voyage of Yellow Mary (Barbarao), a woman who returns from living abroad. She is transported by a river boat by her cousin Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) dressed in the modern church going clothing of the time, and her boyfriend Mr. Snead (Tommy Redmond Hicks), who is a photographer. Yellow Mary is scorned by some of the inhabitants including Viola because of her lifestyle as a prostitute in Cuba. She returns with her young lover Trula (Trula Hoosier) who has very few lines in the film and who is not prepared to give up her plans to go to Nova Scotia. Trula represents the Yoruban goddess Oshun, the golden coquette according to Dash.

The story is told through the voice over of The Unborn daughter of Eula Peazant (Alva Rogers), and Nana Peazant. Dash proclaims that the narrative construction of conventional films is not suited for the oral traditions of Africa - that salt water slaves passed down their heritage to their enslavement lands through these stories, so the film is created with many voices that weave and join with the other passages of history. Most of the film takes place on a Sunday picnic on the beach prior to the departure of some of the settlers up north.

Dash incorporates in an authentic way the ancestry of the Gullah, the experiences of the early settlers and those that were separated from their families only to return again while other new ones set out, never to be seen again by their families. The beautiful photography is by co-producer Arthur Jaffa, and the original music is by John Barnes.

© 2016 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 11/30/16
Movie Magazine International

Killer Tomatoes - Book Review

By Monica Sullivan
If you are a late night movie buff, here’s the deal: There is no cure.  But you really aren’t looking for one, are you?  What you need is hard core information about late night stars.  Has McFarland Book Publishers got the book for you: “Killer Tomatoes” by Ray Hagen and Laura Wagner.

“Killer Tomatoes” is an essential buff’s book.  The cast includes: Lucille Ball, Lynn Bari, Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, Gloria Grahame, Jean Hagen, Adele Jergens, Ida Lupino, Marilyn Maxwell, Jane Russell, Ann Sheridan, Barbara Stanwyck, Claire Trevor, Marie Windsor and more.  Ann Sheridan, for example, was SUCH a hard-boiled presence throughout her career that her early death deprived us of her voice and insights.  Extensive interviews cover that gap here.

Filmographies for each are included, and there are over 80 stills of these tough women with their male and female costars. 

Laura Wagner is one of the more perceptive contributors to Classic Images.  It’s a pleasure to read her punchy reports on the tough tomatoes. 

The introduction is by Jane Russell and there is an extensive index and a bibliography for more late night research.

“Killer Tomatoes” is highly recommended by this reviewer and you can obtain a copy of the book at or call 800-253-2187.

© 2016 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 11/16/16
Movie Magazine International

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Park Chan Wook’s technically executed "The Handmaiden" follows Amazon's orders

By Moira Sullivan

Official poster is a narrative of the narrative

Park Chan Wook’s “Mademoiselle (Agassi, South Korea)” - "The Handmaiden" in its US Theatrical release, is a skillfully made narrative on sexual bondage during the Japanese colonization of South Korea in the 1930's. Set designer Ryu Seong-hie won the “Vulcain Prize For An Artist Technician” at the Cannes Film Festival in May 22, one of the top prizes for technical achievement, a prize that is seldom given. The set designer also worked on Park Chan Wook’s “Oldboy” and “Thirst” and is definitely a brilliant craftsperson who brings high quality to film. The virtues of Ryu Seong-hie’s work shines through and at first glance the film is so exquisitely composed that for a moment the Palme d’Or comes to mind. 

However, for that to succeed there has to be more cohesion than just set design, for neither Park Chan Wook nor 2013 Palme d'Or recipient Abdellatif Kechiche (who directed "La Vie d' Adele -Blue is the Warmest Color") have shown themselves capable of making a film with authentic lesbian characters. Certainly, the actors in "Blue is the warmest color " (Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos) agree and complained how the director exploited them. This time, whether or not this kind of voyeurism took place on the set of” Mademoiselle”, the relationship between the two women is done more for heterosexual titillation, including the love scenes between the two women. 

Primary focus is the usage of an overdone theme of pornographic writing in the style of de Sade's ilk that has been given ample room in films of today. A young girl is bred to read pornographic literature for a wealthy man’s clientele by her Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo). He is a book collector but later we learn that it is only porn that he collects. The nightmares of his niece have to do with the sexual violence she is subjected to by him via image, text and touch where there has been a criminal betrayal of trust by him and his housekeeper. The womans mother, in fact, was driven to suicide by the uncle. When the girl grows up she has become the wealthy heiress Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). A dastardly plan is created by Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) who schemes to get a pickpocket Sook-hee (Tae Ri Kim) to pose as a handmaiden, gain her confidence and assist in making Count Fujiwara her future husband. Their plan is to drive Lady Hideko mad like her mother and make off with her fortune. 

It is not only this complicated plot that is the foundation of "Mademoiselle"but the fact that Park Chan Wook chooses to tell the story from different perspectives in three parts to allow the spectator inside information that is not possible by following just one of the narrative arches. This is done well, but not as cleverly designed as the art direction. The house where Uncle Kouzuki lives is a composite of half western and half Japanese architecture in this Korean screenplay based on the Victorian novel by Sarah Waters" Fingersmith" (made into a minseries in 2005). However, Park Chan Wook’s adaptation, though seductive, relies heavily on heterosexual porn and sexual violence against women to be considered an LGBT classic. When asked about his film, Park Chan Wook said it was about "three people with secrets". It became known through the Cannes Festival trades that VOD distributor Amazon Studios requested that  the same sex nature of the film be toned down and the South Korean director complied. He also is on record stating that the story is "cute".

© 2016 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 10/26/16
Movie Magazine International

Sônia Braga in Cannes selection "Aquarius"

By Moira Sullivan

Aquarius directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho was part of the official lineup of the recent Cannes Film Festival. The contemplative and well-crafted film rests on the laurels of Brazilian actress Sônia Braga who plays Clara, a 66-year-old woman who has lived in the same apartment for over 25 years. A management firm has persuaded everyone in the Aquarius building to move out so that they can presumably demolish it and put up a new one - all except Clara and her housekeeper. The film is divided into three parts ‘O Cabelo de Clara” (Clara’s Hair), ‘O Amor de Clara’  (Clara’s Love), and ‘O Câncer de Clara’, Clara’s Cancer.

Aquarius opens with a series of black and white stills of the Boa Viagem beach front in Recife during the 1980’s, tree lined, spacious, a few cars notably several VW Beetles and the foreboding presence of many high rise apartment buildings. The opening song “Hoje” (Today) accompanying the photos is written by Brazilian singer/songwriter Taiguara whose work was often censured in Brazil.

A 30-year-old Clara (Barbara Colen) is playing on the beach with her brother Antonio and his wife and kids. In their Chevy with a prominently displaced Recife license plate, Clara plays a hit tune on the car stereo written by John Deacon from Queen, “Another One Bites the Dust”. A 70 year birthday party for Clara’s aunt Lucia (Thaia Perez) is being held in her apartment and her husband Adalberto (Daniel Porpino) anxiously awaits her. The tribute to Aunt Lucia by her grand nieces and nephews lists her accomplishments and major life events such as being imprisoned presumably during the military coup of 1964, but her mind is far off in sentimental nostalgia for her lover Augusto. The images from her memory are raw and unexpected. Kleber Mendonça Filho’s opening surprise may detract from political realities but as Lucia mentions, her little niece left out the sexual revolution. Perhaps the somber portrait of the exploitation of Recife is too strict a portrait and Sônia  Braga as Clara who made her career playing a seductress needs to do more than exercising and swimming on the beach, napping in a hammock and watching her grandchildren.  

Along with the tribute to Aunt Lucia, Adalberto makes a tribute to Clara who has successfully recovered from breast cancer. The next scene is set in the same apartment ca 2014 with some architectural changes. Clara has returned from the beach and removes her swimsuit revealing a mastectomy scar. Kleber Mendonça Filho makes it a point to show that Clara is still attractive, still takes care of herself and can still attract men.

The management team clearly wants Clara out and are behind stunts such as packing the building with church going people and without notice, renting out the empty apartment to a group of men and women directly above Clara who play loud music and party.

Photographs are used in the film like vinyl records and vintage cars to evoke the past – pictures of powerful men lining restaurant walls, digital photos on the internet of the management team, and family albums. Gazing upon these affects Clara’s dreams which are depicted with regularity.

Aquarius is a memory bank where the artefacts of yesterday are uncovered by the day to day modern  Recife. Sônia Braga deserves great parts after an entourage of fluffy films from the past. Her talent as a serious actress is outstanding in this film and she continues to garnish international attention. Braga who became a US citizen in 2003 appears in Netflix’s Marvel series “Luke Cage” and in a forthcoming film opposite Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon in John Turturro’s  Going Places which builds on his role as the bowling king Jesus Quintana in the Coen brothers 1998 hit The Big Lebowski.

© 2016 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 10/26/16
Movie Magazine International

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

United Nations Film Festival screens powerful documents on world issues today and yesterday

By Moira Sullivan

Producer Sharon Stone interviews Sam Harris, the youngest remaining survivor 
of the Holocaust, in An Undeniable Voice October 29 at Stanford University.
Once again it is that time of year for the United Nations Film Festival, a collection of 60 films from around the world that have been created to help make our world a better place to live in. Many of the films this year are directed by women. The films will screen in venues in San Francisco and Palo Alto from Oct 20-30.

The countries for the 19th edition include Afghanistan, Cuba, Ethiopia, India, Iraq, ,Nepal, Pakistan, Peru, South Africa, and the US. Some of the topics this year are climate change, the impact of industrial and military ocean noise on whales, efforts to restore violins recovered from the Holocaust, Islamic seminars for children, refugees using the power of theater, and the historic inspiration to the Black Lives Matter movement today.

Agents of Change will screen 10/26 directed by Abby Ginzberg and Frank Dawson which traces protests on over 1000 college campuses around the world in the 60’s for  civil rights and black power. Many of these students went on to change the forces of racial inequality in the US.  In so doing the film hooks up with the "Black Lives Matter" movement of today.

Among the Believers is a film from Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US which screens 10/29 by  
Hemal Trivedi, Mohammed Naqvi. The film is about Abdul Aziz Ghazi, a cleric that not only supports ISIS but the Taliban and who is a powerful radical advocate for Sharia Law in Pakistan. Two students from madrassas, schools where young people are trained in Islam, are part of Ghazi’s Red Mosque Network. The film is instrumental in providing an ideological background to the radical forces in the Islamic world today.

The Brainwashing of My Dad by Jen Senko to be screened on 10/25 is presented as another way of looking at radicalization- a term that is applied to recruits for ISIS. Think of right wing media such as FOX that exist to recruit followers and change their opinions. In this case Jen Senko’s father transformed from a Democrat into a right wing fanatic fueled by the media strategy of Roger Ailes who once worked for Richard Nixon.

Poster Girl directed by Sara Nesson is a documentary screening 10/20 about Robyn Murray, a National Merit Scholar and cheerleader who enlisted in the Army in a civilian division to help rebuild Iraq. She witnessed sniper attacks and combat fire all around her and as a result suffered from Panic attacks and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) when she returned home. One of her ways to help heal herself was to transform her uniform and army manuals in to an art project by using her body as a model with these materials.

Nefertiti’s Daughter is a film from Egypt screening 10/27  by Mark Nickolas, Racha Najdi about women graffiti artists in Egypt. The film chronicles how their street art was instrumental in the fight for political change during the Egyptian uprisings. The graffiti icon of Queen Nefertiti is a symbol for women’s rights in Egypt today.

There are many more excellent examples of film at the United Nations Film Festival and the complete schedule can be found on

© 2016 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 10/19/16
Movie Magazine International

Southwest of Salem - human rights violation of Latino lesbians

By Moira Sullivan

The title of this film about four women who were put in prison and sentenced to long terms:  Southwest Of Salem: The Story Of The San Antonio Four accurately describes how a Texas judge and those who testified against these four Latina lesbians were involved in a homophobic witchhunt. Their outrageous sentences - 37 years of imprisonment for one women and 15 years for the other three amounts to a hate crime. The women  did not plea bargain and have all served 15 years.
Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh, and Anna Vasquez are now out of prison awaiting their exoneration appeal. Their case was submitted to lawyers in the "Innocence Project of Texas" for this purpose. No evidence was presented in court that the alleged crimes took place.

One of the interviewees in the film, Debbie Nathan, wrote together with Michael Snedeker, Satan's silence: ritual abuse and the making of a modern American witch hunt (1995) on the Satanic Panic witchhunts of the 80s and 90s. She came to the attention of Director Deborah S. Esquenazi with news of this story. Esquenazi assembles interviews with the four women, witnesses, footage from 2000 when the alleged crime took place, and how the trial was conducted. There are also interviews with their lawyers at the "Innocence Project of Texas" who took their case.

These women are now in their forties and have been deprived of years of their freedom for being Latino lesbians. As it turned out one of the accusers was in love with one of the women and disapproved of her lifestyle. The women are interviewed in and out of prison and they are always close to tears when they report the history. Two of the women were lovers and have drifted apart because of the trial and aftermath.

The film is not only made to talk about what happened but also to gather support for the women and bring international and national attention. The Salem witchraft trials were hundreds of years ago but this case has similar characteristics. Stories from little girls are related and interpreted by adults and officials get involved. In this case the lack of evidence points to negligence in the Texas courtroom and violations of human rights.The film debuted at the Tribeca film festival this year and also at Frameline this summer.

© 2016- Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 10/19/16
Movie Magazine International