Angela Pressburger reviews movies that premiered in May 2007.
THE GIANT BUDDHAS
95 min.; director: Christian Frei (subtitles)
A sprawling documentary that takes the Giant Buddhas of the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan as its focus. The narration starts with the thoughts and insights of Toronto-based Afghani writer and actress Nelofer Pazira (Kandahar) and then opens into a wide-ranging journey, loosely structured around the book Journey to the Western Regions by the Chinese monk Xuanzang, who traveled along the Silk Road in the seventh century in search of Buddhist teachings and texts. The stories and the stunning scenery are further enhanced by a wonderful score from Philip Glass, Jan Garbarek, and Steven Kuhn.
Why It Matters: This film will give you an idea of the currents, both past and present, that swirl around the fabled statues. There is the French archaeologist who continues to look for the third “sleeping” Giant Buddha, described by Xuanzang as 300 meters long and reported by local farmers to lie under one of the valley’s fields. There are interviews with the Al-Jazeera reporter who covered the statues’ demolition, and a visit to a lab in Strasbourg, France that is digitizing fifty-year-old photos to build an accurate three-dimensional model. Most touching is the tale of a local family relocated from the cliff caves behind the statues to a grim concrete block on a windy plateau, where they are far from water and always cold.
For the plot-driven, this is a rambling documentary with interesting tidbits, but if you can relax into the currents of change and impermanence, you will learn some interesting things about history and fixation. The Giant Buddhas are gone, and no reconstructions—from the simple to the sophisticated—can bring them back. Nonetheless, societies fixate and cling, producing a wide variety of responses and anomalies—from the Western uproar to the sad statement of the former cave dweller that “the Taliban couldn’t comprehend how he could be Muslim and still be proud of the works of the Buddhist ancestors.”
HELEN’S WAR: PORTRAIT OF A DISSIDENT
58 min.; director: Anna Broinowski
An up-close and personal look at Australian physician and author Helen Caldicott, a globally recognized firebrand in the anti-nuclear movement who left her high-profile medical career in 1980 to focus international attention on “the insanity of the world’s increasing supply of nuclear weapons and national stockpiling.”
Why It Matters: In 2003, Caldicott’s skeptical and inquisitive filmmaker niece, Anna Broinowski, asked her Aunt if she would be willing to be the subject of a documentary. Broinowski’s starting point was wondering just how much of a difference one dissident can actually make. To find out, she followed Caldicott on a roller-coaster tour from Baghdad to Washington, via Kabul. In the course of the journey, we discover a humorous, passionate, sometimes vulnerable woman, and learn something of what it costs, in human and emotional terms, to fight for peace.
LOOK BOTH WAYS
100 min.; director: Sarah Watt
Packaged as an entertaining story of star-crossed love, it’s really an exploration of how our emotions color our perceptions. Nick, a photojournalist, and Meryl, a painter of seascapes for sympathy cards, meet at the scene of Australia’s most terrible train accident. Shortly before, he has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and she has buried her beloved father. Despite the seemingly inauspicious timing, they are drawn into a relationship in which they quickly find their concepts of how things “ought” to proceed challenged. Their experience is augmented by several subplots, which are artfully interwoven in the manner of Crash or Magnolia.
Why It Matters: Sarah Watt has inadvertently made a quintessentially Buddhist movie: a film about death that is also entertaining. Enjoy how the taboo subject of death is skillfully blended with the filmmaker’s own brand of wry Australian humor. She never shies from the reality that death is everywhere and can come without warning—but she also suggests that this should not stop us from living. It’s a film about how to live in what Tibetans call a bardo, the in-between place that separates one story line from another. It could be actual death or, as is the case here, thinking your life is ending because you’ve been diagnosed with terminal cancer, then discovering you can still fall in love and think about a beginning.
A SIMPLE CURVE
94 min.; director: Aubrey Nealon
Caleb is the son of hippie, draft-dodger parents who left the U.S. to go back to the land in British Columbia’s Slocan Valley. His mother has recently died, and he and his father, “Hash Oil” Jim, run a cabinetry business, which is failing because Jim is far better at working with wood than people. Caleb is finding the ever-shrinking parameters of small-town life and the pressures of trying to keep the business afloat a bit more than he signed on for, and he wonders if he should step out on his own. Into this scenario comes Matthew, an old friend and rival of his father’s who returned to the U.S. as soon as the draft dodgers were pardoned and has become rich through eco-tourism. Matt makes Caleb an offer that will save the business, but a small deception changes everything and forces Caleb to finally chart his own path.
Why It Matters: Who will reach maturity first, Caleb or his father? Told with wit and warmth, this film is as meticulously crafted as the chairs Jim labors over in his woodworking shop. (The “simple curve” of the title refers to the lines of a chair Jim is perfecting.) The first-time director admits the film is largely autobiographical, and the witty script has the outrageous edge that comes from the authenticity of firsthand experience. In particular, note how well Nealon captures the blurring of the traditional parent–child relationship that seems to occur when everyone lives as equals. For everyone who remembers the sixties—whether they were there or not—this is a smart, funny, and genuine film that is a personal favorite and deserves a wider audience.
WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR?
92 min.; director: Chris Paine
An information-packed documentary on efforts to introduce—and keep—electric vehicles on the road in the U.S. Electric cars got a big boost in the 1990s in response to California’s Zero Emissions legislation. GM moved ahead of the pack and created the EV1, an electric vehicle that inspired a dedicated sales team and found devoted drivers who fell for its stylish contours, smooth ride, and eco-friendly credentials. Despite their growing popularity, six years later all the electric cars were gone, recalled, and destroyed. This film tells the story of what happened.
Why It Matters: Note the juxtaposition of automobiles that require little maintenance and offer low noise levels with no emissions, with the underhanded ways the cars were sabotaged: the existence of better batteries allowing more mileage per charge was ignored, the threat the cars posed to the lucrative infrastructure of automotive parts and gas stations was emphasized, and the willful distortion of market demand by the manufacturers undermined both the sales team and consumers. When we had a major opportunity to improve our environment, we seemed to prefer to keep that opportunity firmly in the future. This film will make you weep at our unwillingness to face the challenge of change and our fixation on what we know and are familiar with—even if change would allow our planet and our children to breathe better.
Note: If a specific source isn’t indicated, our recommended DVDs are widely available through Netflix, Amazon, and other major sellers.