Leeds Film Festival 2009 - Day 6

Episode 3: Enjoy Poverty (Ned/Fra) (site in progress)

It is perhaps the most controversial and insulting act to question the actions of organisations such as UNICEF, Oxfam and MSF, but this is what Renzo Martens does in this film. Travelling through the Congo with a set of metal trunks and a handheld camera, he comes across encampments of locals, humanitarian volunteers and, occasionally armed soldiers, stepping over dead and decaying bodies now and again as well. In each place he sees the same thing; photographers taking pictures of starving children, corpses, and whatever else they think will provoke a money-raising reaction back in the west. Positive things such as a carnival or wedding are of no interest, and Martens asks a pertinent question: Why is it that the money from these pictures does not make it back to the subjects themselves? Moreover, why is it always a bunch of westerners taking the pictures and then selling them on? Martens spends the film travelling around the Congo explaining this to the residents of villages and trying to show them that, rather than attempting to eliminate the poverty, which will almost certainly never happen, they make use of it as if it were another resource. A photo session at a marriage might earn them a dollar, they might make a thousand if they get the right pictures of malnourished children.

Ethically, such an idea sticks in the throat with it's ruthlessness of exploitation of people suffering and dying, but the point is; they are destitute, dying and without hope or direction. Putting food on the table and keeping free of disease is the priority. By making use of the countries most marketable resource, they could manage these things, and the revenue would go straight into the community, rather than being lost in the ether. Between 25-50% of all donated aid is apparently swallowed up by technical assistance for the groups that provide humanitarian aid, and perhaps 80% of the total aid eventually makes it back into the pockets of the countries that donated it in the first place, due to the price of logistics, supplies, wages etc. Something has to change.

My only real problem with Episode 3 (aside from wondering where 1 and 2 were) was Martens himself. He carried his camera wherever he went pointing directly at his pretty-boy face while his hired help carried his heavy boxes through the marshes. He came across as a public schoolboy who had just had a tidal wave of attack of moral conscience wash over him and got papa to send him off on the nearest banana boat to mumbo-jumbo land where he could Giles Wemmbley-Hogg himself to his hearts content. Honestly, when he started singing I wanted to hit him. But that is all by-the-by. This film is valuable, well put together and argued, and yet another to highlight the struggles of a troubled sector of the world, and a radical idea met with opposition and roadblock that if enough people get behind, might just make a difference. 8/10

A Thousand Oceans
(Lux/Swi) (review)

This is one of those very clever films that forces you to re-evaluate what you have just been watching once it lets you in on the trick. Michael has just returned from what appears to be a spontaneous trip to an island in the Maldives with his friend, Bjorn. But when it's time to go, Bjorn didn't get on the plane. Once home, Michael has to confront his parents about his actions; his mother is welcoming, but father is silent, the storm gathering above his head. Dad really wanted to have his son follow in the family car sales business, but on the day he was given his own office, everything changed. What comes next would be a shame to spoil, but I thought it was a genuinely original and unique way to look at a major impact on a person and their family. 8/10

Babaji: An Indian Love Story (Ned) (trailer)

Told with great affection, this documentary film shows us Babaji, a supposedly 107 year old shaman of his local villiage in Hazaribagh, India. When his wife died of cancer some years before, he took the unusual step of digging a grave plot for her (unusual because Hindu's are not normally buried), with spaces for both himself and their daughter, for when the time came. He feels so close to his wife still, that he sleeps in the grave on the bare ground to be near her, as if waiting to die.

Thing is, Babaji seems to be more sprightly than ever. When not providing medicines for his townspeople, he trots to and fro at an impressive pace, his eyes still bright and his mind focused. Once word got around, Babaji became a tourist curio, and people flock from miles around to get a picture of him, staring down into his grave as if to catch the moment of death, but it never comes. Instead, he pootles happily along and we have the privilege of seeing his twilight years.

Babaji was a pleasant, gentle tribute to a man and his dedication to his faith and his community, although it did hang a little over the edges with some seemingly unconnected scenes of a couple performing wedding ceremonies and a naughty section where you think he has died and been cremated, and then he climbs out of his 'bed' once more. 6.5/10

Francesca (Rom) (site in progress)

Causing controversy when it was screened in Venice, Francesca is all about a young teacher trying to find work in Italy. A short note before the film explained the currently delicate relationship between Romania and Italy after an murder of an Italian woman by a Romanian in 2007. Since then, the sides have been split. Through a family contact, Francesca finds a shoe-in - working as a care assistant for an old guy with Parkinsons. Francesca's boyfriend Mita is happy for her and intends to follow a month later, but he has bigger problems. He borrowed money from the local mob for an investment that went wrong, and now they want it back with interest. Naturally Mita didn't let Fran in on any of it, so when the sweetly smiling don turns up at her door asking for him, she lets him stay a while to see if he arrives.

Francesca trotted along towards its eventual conclusion, but there never particularly felt as if there were any pace to the proceedings, until the uncomfortable last quarter and the abrupt ending left things a little up in the air, rather unsatisfyingly. 6.5/10

La Pivellina (Aus/Ita) (site)

Patrizia and Walter are a husband and wife travelling circus, with young teen Tairo helping out with stage work and a couple of acts. Their less than encouraging audience figures make for a poor income and they live as gypsies in a trailer park in Rome. Out one evening after their dog Hercules goes walkabout, Patrizia finds a toddler alone on the swings in the local park. With no-one else around and the night drawing in, 'Aunt Patty' takes the child in. Asia is wrapped up like a Christmas star, and hidden between the layers of clothes is a note; mum has abandoned her, but will be back, leaving it to chance she will be picked up by somebody who cares.

Budgetary concerns are quickly ignored as Asia becomes closer to the little group, until the inevitable happens; another letter arrives telling them mum will be back soon to pick her daughter up. Despite this, Asia seems forever unwilling to leave, much preferring her new family.

The little girl was a star. It was difficult to tell how much she said because it was scripted and how much she said as the others improvised around her, but everyone in the audience was blessed with a big stupid smile on their face whenever she was on camera. It was worth it for her reactions to stimuli, but there is much love in the film in general, and rounded off the night nicely. 8/10

Film Count: 26/150

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