Friday, April 24, 2009

Ebertfest Report #2: Life is Where You Make It

The first time I ever saw a film buy Guy Maddin was in 2005 when Roger Ebert selected his “The Saddest Music in the World” for his Overlooked Film Festival. I did not attend the festival that year but approximated it as best I could at home with the help of Netflix. As a film aficionado the name Guy Maddin had floated around my area of interest for a few years. I even had one of his films floating around in my rental queue, but Ebertfest allowed me the excuse to finally plunge into the world of Maddin. There is no other world in cinema as unique, impenetrable, and ultimately satisfying.

Maddin’s “My Winnipeg” is another satisfying folly that smacks of half remembered ideas from childhood about the city in which the filmmaker grew up. Ebert, with the use of his MacBook yet again, provided a glowing introduction of the movie. Roger commented on how much the movie reminded him of his own childhood growing up in Champaign, remembering things from a child’s perspective that he later realized were dramatically incorrect, such as that Green St. was the greenest street in town. He concluded with the statement, “Reality means nothing compared to the way we remember things.”

Maddin related a story from his childhood in which his mother would tell him that they were going to go to some exotic place when he returned from school, like Morocco. He would then go to school and tell everyone that he was going to Morocco when he got home and got beat up for it. He admitted, “It was a really gooby thing to say.” He also relayed that his mother would fill his belly with lint-covered mints during their home travel sessions. “I hope you brought your lint-covered mints with you,” he told the audience in the Virginia Theater.

Watching this movie brought me right back to a conversation I had with my best friend Trev over this past weekend. We were waxing nostalgic, and he brought up this old house in our childhood town. Somehow before he even described the house I knew what he was talking about. We used to take great pleasure in scaring ourselves, and there was a house near a railway trestle on the Androscoggin River that we were convinced was haunted.

As we remembered how much that house scared us, we began to realize we weren’t quite sure where we had gotten the idea that the house was haunted, beyond the fact that no one lived in it. Trev was sure either I or one of our other two best friends had actually been inside the thing when an “incident” occurred. Well, it wasn’t me and I was pretty sure it was one of those situations where one of us knew someone who had been in it, but hadn’t been in it ourselves. However, we came across our “knowledge” of the house’s supernatural qualities, all four of us were too scared of what we thought we knew about the place to even think about entering, although we plotted how we would break into the boarded up abomination on many a dark evening. How wonderful to think of what horrors an imagination like Guy Maddin could produce from those memories. But like much of Maddin’s Winnipeg, that old house has since been demolished to make way for an unexciting highway bypass between Topsham and Brunswick. Maddin says in his film “destruction is a growth industry in Winnipeg.” I think that is true of any place that encompasses our childhood memories. That is what makes Ebert’s comment so true.


“Chop Shop” was one of my favorite films from 2008. Director Ramin Barahni said before the screening that a friend of his told him he just had to see this auto shop jungle that exists “in the shadow of Shea Stadium.” He was so impressed with this hidden world that looks like it belongs in a country like India more than America that he had to make a film based there. Most New Yorkers are probably unaware of this area known as Willits Point, even Mets fans. In fact there was a man in the audience from Queens who expressed his shock in discovering this place existed “in [his] back yard.”

Barahni’s evocation of place is only one of the remarkable things about this movie. More notable is his evocation of life style. That this bubbling world of survival exists in anyone’s back yard would be a shock to many. “Slumdog Millionaire” was recently praised for its harsh depiction of survival in an India that seems exotic to us, but that film is really merely a fantasy of survival. The people in “Chop Shop” struggle day in and day out, and then begin again without becoming national heroes through a hit game show.

That is not to say this movie is all the doom and gloom of real life. It is very much a story with a beginning and an end and embodies a different kind of hope. The kind that people really survive off of. The story’s hero, Ale, is real kid with real dreams who unfortunately has to make real choices in life. But he never lets those choices crush him. Barahni noted the irony of a billboard picture in one of the scenes posted by a bank that claims, “We give you your dreams”. How humorous, or sad, considering the state of banks and the economy today.


The documentary “Trouble the Water” gives us a look at Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath from the inside. More specifically inside the hardest hit area New Orleans 9th Ward, given to us via camcorder images recorded by residents Kimberly River Roberts and her husband Scott Roberts. Directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal provide a good deal of shaping and buffering of those images with follow up material and coverage footage from various news sources, but it is the footage filmed by Roberts before and during Katrina that places the audience right in the middle of one of the greatest atrocities of the Bush administration.

Now I’m going to have to get this out of my system…

Aaaaaaaaarggghhh! Uhn! UM! AAAAAAAaaaah!

That is what this film makes you feel inside as you witness this great nation we live in during its darkest hour. Forget lies about WMDs. Forget elections being decided by the Supreme Court rather than the country’s citizens. Nothing has ever made me ashamed to be American than the way our government’s response to Katrina did. And seeing this movie, I realize it was worse than I ever thought at the time. Our response to the Tsunami half a world away was quicker than our response to a disaster in out own yard. But the 9th Ward was neglected long before FEMA ever forgot about them.

But what the filmmaker’s accomplish so well in this film is not losing their heads with anger. First through Roberts’ remarkable story of survival in the storm and then through all the frustration created by government facilities that seem more determined to delay any sort of relief or help with just about any excuse they can come up with, the Roberts and the filmmakers remain upbeat and determined to be grateful for what they do have.

At one point in the film the Roberts decide to leave New Orleans. In some way, this is almost a concession of defeat. I was happy to see they eventually decided to return to New Orleans so they could affect whatever change they could on the environment they call home. The experience of Katrina in many ways straightened their lives out. Approaching life with a new determination and no more illusions that their government will have their back, Kim and Scott have begun to realize potential they never knew before. Scott has become a respected carpenter helping to revitalize the 9th Ward and Kim has launched her hip-hop career in earnest under the name Black Kold Madina with the release of her debut album ‘Trouble the Water’. They are proof that a positive attitude will overcome—a lesson our government needs to learn only works if you also approach it with honesty.

Kim and Scott performed a few of Kim’s songs live for the Ebertfest audience and there was something both strange and sublime about the mostly white and middle-aged audience bobbing their heads to some pretty hardcore rhymes and beats. The talented couple brought their daughter Skyy out at the end of their performance and it was as if she were the real miracle to come out of the Katrina catastrophe. Washington take note—American’s don’t need you to be the greatest, you need us.

Black Kold Madina’s album “Trouble the Water” will be rereleased May 9. Look for it at

“Trouble the Water” premiered tonight on HBO. Check for encore presentation schedule.

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