Clamor: Your DIY Guide to Everyday Revolution.

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Issue 37

Murmurs: Audio

The Films of Su Friedrich (Volumes I-V)
Outcast Films, 2005

The Films of Su Friedrich (Outcast Films) is a five-volume collection of DVDs from a filmmaker whose work is primarily nonfiction, but often infused with fictional elements. Each innocuously titled film is accompanied by so-called "bonus" work, primarily shorts from early in Friedrich's career, and the quality of these pieces makes one wonder how she found financial backing to produce the later films.

The later and longer works, fortunately, are of greater interest-but more often than not, a qualified interest. While the frequently personal elements of Friedrich's main films may draw viewers in, she utilizes techniques that seem determined to push the viewer away. Indeed, her highest aspiration may be to elicit appreciation, either for the subject matter she has chosen or the manner in which she presents that subject. In many instances, it truly is an either/or proposition, and each film's success depends on which aspect resonates more keenly with the viewer-and how much that viewer is willing to overlook the distracting elements.

One common technique Friedrich employs is to present silent footage accompanied by voiceover narrative. In several of these films, however, the images have little or nothing to do with the narrative, requiring the viewer to either fabricate a connection or make a conscious effort to choose one over the other. There appears to be little room for compromise. And too much juxtaposition without enough justification subjugates either the words or the images, so that they have as much value as misplaced footnotes.

In nearly every film, the medium often overwhelms the message, even if the subject matter Friedrich chooses bears enough significance that it can be viewed unadorned-or with suitable images. But perhaps she doesn't trust this straightforward approach, which may explain why she undermines The Ties That Bind, in which the filmmaker's mother recalls her life in pre-World War II Germany. By utilizing incongruous images, the film trivializes the elder Friedrich's narrative and experiences. It's far too tempting to turn from the screen and just listen to the voiceover-and that shouldn't be any filmmaker's aim. But at least this work is tolerable. The second title in the collection, Damned if You Don't, is the most "fictional"-and easily the most disappointing--of the main leads. It calls upon Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 1947 classic, Black Narcissus, to parallel the longing between a young woman and a nun. And we're not talking about a still or two, but several scenes of a film known for its color images-degraded in this black and white movie, made even worse as they're viewed on a small television set. Watching Damned if You Don't is as uncomfortable as hearing an inept rapper sampling the hook from a classic rock or R&B song-an egregious misappropriation of intellectual funds as one will ever witness.

The fifth title, Odds of Recovery, is the most intimately personal of the main films, and perhaps the best overall. In it, Friedrich chronicles her several operations over the years and reflects on how these trips to the hospital have affected her relationship with her long-term companion. There are, of course, tangents (and some pretty nasty images one might catch on a Discovery Channel medical show), but these tend to complement the central narrative than detract from it.

As with some of the main features, many--but not all-of the bonus films have lesbian content, which reflect the filmmaker's sensibilities. Of these, the 55-minute long The Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire, Too (on Volume I) is the most compelling. Co-written and co-directed by Janet Baus, it is more linear and conventional than Friedrich's other films, and more effective since its message isn't obscured by gimmicks.

Certainly, this entire set can't be recommended, since not all of the features-nor many of the bonus shorts--succeed. It would have been more convenient if the better films were compiled on one or two DVDs and the remaining works lumped into a "Rest Of" collection. Lacking such an option, volumes I (for Lesbian Avengers), IV and V are the most highly recommended.
-Steve Ryan

Refused Are Fucking Dead DVD

Posthumous band videos can truly be a tricky beast. Do you create a film that embraces what the band truly was? Do you try and create a new legacy? Or do you just give the fans what they want?

Refused is a band whose reputation has far, far outlived their celebrity at the time of their demise. They are a band whose average fan was under the age of 18 when they called it a day; a band whose primary fanbase (which is HUGE) never saw them perform live.

Refused Are Fucking Dead comes off as vilification of Refused more than praise. Though compiled by the band, you learn the truly self destructive and incredibly pretentious nature of the band at its demise. Refused is a band that imploded under its own weight and scenes such as the "New Noise" video overdubbed with opera, and artistic scenes of the band walking down deserted streets amplify that notion tenfold. Luckily, it is exactly what I wanted from a video retrospective.
-tv's seth Anderson

Street Fight
Marshall Curry, director
Marshall Curry Productions, 2005

I've been involved for 12 years in urban politics in a city where our mayor pled guilty in a real estate deal and a quarter of the city council for which I work and that mayor is currently under investigation. Our governor copped a plea on an ethics charge, our attorney general is under federal investigation, and the entire state and local Republican hierarchy, including two local GOP county chairmen and Toledo's highest Republican office holder (a county commissioner, the detestable Maggie Thurber) are targets of federal and state probes into laundering money for Bush/Cheney '04. I've worked on campaigns in Windsor and Toronto in Ontario, and Toledo and Lorain in Ohio, where I also managed a statewide campaign and worked for senate and presidential campaigns. I've seen the sometimes ugly ways in which politics operates.

But the campaign activities of Newark, New Jersey Mayor Sharpe James that Marshall Curry exposes in his excellent film Street Fight genuinely shock the conscience. Curry's film documents the 2001 mayoral campaign of Newark councilman Corey Booker, a 30ish Yale law grad, Rhodes scholar, and Stanford football star against longtime incumbent James, a former schoolteacher and activist. James, a product of the black urban machine politics that produced figures like former Detroit mayor Coleman Young and New York congressman Charlie Rangel, looks like a figure from an another time, the generation that heeded Young's famous dictum "only radicals and capitalists can change the world" and balanced a black power ideology with corroborations with big-developers, often lily-white building trades unions, and reactionary police and fire unions to keep power in majority black cities.

Corey Booker, especially as Curry sees him, is an entirely different creature. Booker, whose civil-rights generation parents earned for him a comfortable suburban lifestyle, comes off as an honest if ambitious, bright, and gifted campaigner with a genuine interest in Newark's future and poor citizens. Coming back to NJ after school, Booker set up a non-profit, moved into the projects, and ran for council. While Booker's (and Curry's) assertion that running for office grew out of the work he was doing as opposed to the other way around is difficult to take seriously, Councilman Booker makes both a compelling case for change and presents an appealing package as the agent of that change. His campaign team is also obviously committed and seemingly sincere and we will soon be able to judge his abilities as mayor - Booker was elected to full term this year against a James protégé.

Sharpe James comes off significantly worse. As the mayor of a city with serious problems, James does little to inspire confidence. Making nearly $200,000 as mayor of a city with only 200,000 souls and serving, after wrangling for himself an appointment, as Newark's member of the NJ Senate for another paycheck of $50,000, James comes off as jaded, vain, and arrogant. And Street Fight diligently documents the appalling abuses that James uses to stay in power. A thoroughly-politicized police force intimidates people, city inspectors threaten to close businesses of Booker supporters and follow through, and Curry himself is pushed around a couple of times by cops as he films.

James also, at various times, accuses Corey Booker of being a Jew, a Republican, a tool of rich whites, a white guy himself, a carpetbagger, a chicken little, and gay. In a blackly amusing instance of overkill, James excoriates one Booker's aides of being a patron of underage prostitutes due to a visit to a strip club that proved, uh, less than scrupulous in documenting their workers. Later in the campaign, however, the club's owner, aggrieved at the implications of Sharpe James's increasingly heated accusations, points out that lots of people have visited his club, including the Snapple-sipping mayor of Newark, Sharpe James.

This film makes abundantly clear that Sharpe James is a venal and vicious politician and deserves to be tossed out on his ass. Curry's black-and-white take on a brutal black-on-black campaign between two Democrats, however, carefully elides one fact: When it comes to white reactionaries supporting his opponent, Sharpe James has a point. Corey Booker's campaign was feted by such GOP-types as columnists George Will and Arianna Huffington and former upstate NY congressman and Bush I cabinet secretary Jack Kemp. Bob Dole's 1996 running mate and one of the most aggressive and consistent supporters of failed supply-side economics, Kemp championed the ideological and punitive urban policy that the Reagan/Bush administrations used to put cities like Newark (and Toledo, for that matter) into crisis conditions. As Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Kemp encouraged a half-baked experiment in urban free-marketeering to rebuild central L.A. after the Rodney King riots - it didn't work and the Clinton administration subsequently funded real help - and is currently pedaling this same snake-oil to rebuild New Orleans. Kemp no doubt believes that the solution to Newark's capitalism-caused problems is . . . well, more capitalism. The support of someone like fellow gridiron hero Kemp legitimately raises valid questions about Corey Booker's plans for Newark, but Curry buries them under Sharpe James's indefensible attacks on Booker's blackness and faith and the incumbent mayor's despicable anti-Semitic and homophobic slurs. The support of the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton for Sharpe James is, while shown, never explored, it is instead merely countered by showing the support that Booker has from prominent African-Americans like Spike Lee and Princeton's Cornell West and, in a move to burnish Booker's Democratic bona fides, former NJ Senator Bill Bradley.

In Street Fight, Curry brilliantly captures the often-claustrophobic atmosphere of campaign life and gives us an insightful glimpse into urban politics at its worst. If Curry's sense of balance is sometimes skewed a little, being pushed around by cops would tend to make anyone less objective. As both a veteran of politics and the study of politics, I think Curry's work stands with some of the best work done documenting campaigns. If Curry isn't always entirely dependable as a reporter, he more than makes up for with his storytelling and filmmaking abilities. And, ultimately, aren't political campaigns about picking sides?
-Keith McCrea

Deepa Mehta, Director
Mongrel Media, 2005

According to the Laws of Manu in Dharamshastras (Sacred Hindu texts), "a virtuous wife, who remains chaste when her husband has died, goes to heaven. A woman who is unfaithful to her husband is reborn in the womb of a jackal."

If that is not oppressive enough for India's females, factor in the fact that for many (if not most) Indian girls, their parents arrange her marriage. She cannot earn money like her male counterparts. Mind and body she is handed over to her husband from marriage until her death. Sold into marriage and held there until her death is a long time to be devoted to someone, especially if you did not marry for love. Now imagine that the girl has been married and widowed by the age of eight and you have the tragic story chronicled in Deepa Mehta's Water, a compelling film about India's "widow houses," where women of all ages are taken to live apart from society following the deaths of their husbands.

Water follows the story of Chuyi (Sarala), a girl — a widow at eight — who cannot count higher than 10. Hiding economics behind religious custom, Chuyia is required by ancient Hindu laws to leave society. She is brought to a dilapidated widow house where, according to custom, her hair will be short, her clothes exchanged for white robes and the rest of her life will be spent in renunciation. A girl who has not even entered her menstrual years is to deny sex for her life. (Nonetheless, the child is raped later in the film.)

Chuyia begins to have an effect on the other women who live there. There is the devout Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) and the rebellious Kalyani (Lisa Ray), who has been forced into prostitution by the head widow, Madhumati (Manorma).

As Chuyia's presence instills a rebellious attitude on a microcosmic level, Gandhi (Mohan Jhangiani) is taking India by storm, reaching out to everyone, including these social outcasts. In particular, Gandhi influences Narayan (John Abraham), a younger man whose liberalism differs from the patriarchal order, individually and collectively. For him, Kalyani's body is not a prop or property for consumption. It is the structure that exposes and protects her beauty and soul.

But Narayan and the other men in the film are supporting characters. Water is about women and how these ostracized women who must beg in the streets and live quiet lives of desperation and isolation accept their oppression on some level. They accept their oppression and, indeed, some take advantage of it. For example, Madhumati is a pimp who sells Kalyani and Chuyia.

Their married female counterparts offer no compassion either. In one telling scene a widow bumps into a "respectable" woman (Dolly Ahluwalia Tewari) while running. The woman scolds the widow because she must now cleanse herself again after touching a widow who dares to run. With woman like this, who needs men to keep you down?

Yet the skills of Mehta cannot be denied. She constantly sets up India as some idyllic place if you stand back from it. The camera gazes on gardens and statues with loving care only to move in closer on a way of life that is brutally ugly. Things may look nice from afar, including nostalgia for the gold old days, but up close they are not pretty.

Water has been years in the making, and Mehta ultimately had to shoot this flawed but very important film in Sri Lanka after receiving death threats by Hindu fundamentalists during her shoot in India. Alas, in one form or another, extremely religious men (and women) never stop trying to control what women do with their lives or their bodies.
-John Esther

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