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Faces of Democracy

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Black Gold
  • Black Gold

There's no end of chatter about democracy these days -- on the news, during the recent elections and in marketing campaigns -- even as the word feels increasingly free from fixed meaning. Is it about open voting, more consumer goods, better human rights, the even more amorphous "freedom," or simply cover for the imposition of Western interests on troublesome regimes? And as an "export," what varied forms does democracy take throughout the world?

In response to these queries, undergraduates in Carnegie Mellon's humanities department organized the Faces of Democracy International Film Festival. These 11 foreign films (along with short films and guest speakers) offer windows into various aspects of democracy, from struggles for national identity, human rights and economic justice, to the costs of democracies imposed under threat.

The films, most of which make their Pittsburgh premiere, screen at SouthSide Works, CMU's McConomy Auditorium and Regent Square Theater. The festival runs tonight through Sun., Dec. 3, and then Thu., Dec. 7, through Sun., Dec. 10. Tickets are $7 ($3 students); tickets for the opening film and reception -- My Country, My Country, 7:30 p.m. Wed., Nov. 29, at SouthSide Works -- are $10 ($5 students). A festival pass is available for $35 ($20 students).

The following films are scheduled to be screened:

AVENGE BUT ONE OF MY TWO EYES. Avi Mograbi's documentary explores the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict by comparing the myth of the Jewish martyrs of Masada, now a popular and emotional tourist stop, with the current anger and frustrations of the Palestinians. His premise is not new -- that the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist is which side of the fence you're standing on -- but using the sacred Jewish site of Masada and glorious-martyr story of Samson is intentionally provocative. While it's clear Mograbi wants us to feel dropped in -- he usually just lets his camera run -- some context could have made the material less confusing. Likewise, editing could have tightened up scenes, several of which are repetitive. In English, Hebrew and Arabic, with subtitles. 7:30 p.m. Thu., Nov. 30. McConomy (Al Hoff)

BLACK GOLD. Mark and Nick Francis' documentary about the Ethiopian coffee trade could have easily been a screed -- there's the familiar villain of globalization, the economic colonization of African resources, the WTO, the feckless First World obsessed with its luxuries. Instead, the filmmakers quietly build their case, cutting from impoverished coffee-producing villages of Ethiopia where a tireless advocate for fair trade tries to rally the workers to a pair of Starbucks drones prattling on about their great jobs to that same advocate forlornly searching a London supermarket for his coffee amid the mega-brands. When the Feel-Good Coffee you buy hypes that its beans come only from worker-owned collectives, note that such a collective in this film is offered only criminally low prices -- or nothing -- by buyers. Bags of coffee beans leave Africa for several spectacular mark-ups in price, while similarly shaped bags of food aid arrive to keep those growers barely alive. No wonder your coffee tastes bitter. In English and Amharic, with subtitles. 3 p.m. Sat., Dec. 2 (McConomy). Also with closing reception, 6 p.m. Sun., Dec. 10. $10 ($5 students) (Regent Square). (AH)

CZECH DREAM. You'll goggle as two Czech film students hatch a plan to promote a new hypermarket named Czech Dream, outside Prague. Roping in an ad agency, they launch a brilliant campaign ("Don't come." "Don't spend.") upon eager consumers. The two students -- Filip Remund and Vit Klusak -- documented their prank/agit-prop/behavioral experiment, right through the store's opening day, when a thousand would-be shoppers end up confronting a façade. The reactions garnered from the tricked shoppers are fascinating and varied, from anger and sheepishness, to phlegmatic shrugs ("That's Czechs for you") and heated denunciations of the country's embrace of consumerism and its impending entry into the EU. An entertaining and provocative film that will cause even seasoned consumers to question their gullibility. You'll likely laugh at the deluded Prague shoppers, but you'll do so knowing you're just as vulnerable. In Czech, with subtitles. 7 p.m. Sat., Dec. 2 (McConomy) and 8 p.m. Sat., Dec. 9 (SouthSide Works) (AH)

FACES OF CHANGE. Prior to an international conference on human rights, five activists are given video cameras to help record their struggles. A Bulgarian roma and an Indian Dalit (lower caste) explore their marginalized peoples; a single black mother in Brazil works with at-risk teen-age girls; a woman in New Orleans fights environmental racism and a nearby toxic dump; and an abolitionist in Mauritania fights to expose slavery (technically only outlawed in 1981, and still practiced). Director Michele Stephenson intercut these stories to show that "oppression is the same everywhere," as one participant says. While the film does illustrate that suffering knows no artificially imposed boundaries, it also clearly depicts that some miseries are worse than others. Regardless, even the most abject find strength, and one act of human rights emboldens others. In English and various languages, with subtitles. 5 p.m. Fri., Dec. 1 (McConomy) and 8:30 p.m. Fri., Dec. 8 (SouthSide Works) (AH)

FOUNDATION. Filip Bajon's drama depicts a con man who works his wiles on law enforcement, even from behind bars. In Polish, with subtitles. 5 p.m. Sat., Dec. 9. SouthSide Works

I LOVE YOU. Two young Croatians Ana and Kreso are living the "good life" -- full of consumer goods but not much time -- until Kreso learns he is HIV-positive. Dalibor Matanic's drama was made for television, and receives its American premiere during this festival. In Serbo-Croatian, with subtitles. 3 p.m. Sat., Dec. 9, and 3 p.m. Sun., Dec. 10. SouthSide Works

MY COUNTRY, MY COUNTRY. Beginning six months before the elections in Iraq, Laura Poitras' documentary follows several interested parties up through the historic election day in January 2005. Dr. Riyadh is a Baghdad physician and Sunni running for office, even as he remains distrustful of the process; his children are more optimistic about voting, though less so about simply going outside safely. Election workers train private security forces to guard the ballot box; American forces are counseled to lay back; ordinary citizens express guarded hopes. It's a fascinating look at how the Iraqis perceived the unfolding process -- and understandably it varies from the versions we received via American media. Sadly, what should have been a success story, a step forward to self-rule, has already been overshadowed by the current sectarian crises in Iraq. In English, and Arabic and Kurdish, with subtitles. 7:30 p.m. Wed., Nov. 29 (SouthSide Works) and 5 p.m. Thu., Nov. 30 (McConomy) (AH)

THE RED-COLORED GREY TRUCK. A truck driver and a female hitchhiker share a journey hindered somewhat by the Yugoslavia civil war in Srdjan Koljevic's politically wise comic adventure. In Serbo-Croatian, with subtitles. 5 p.m. Sat., Dec. 2. McConomy

STATE OF FEAR. In one respect, Pamela Yates' film is a lucid and clear-eyed account of Peru's recent tumultuous history. It details the rise of the terrorist group Shining Path deep in the impoverished Andes, the government's bungled military response, and the subsequent election of President Fujimoro and the establishment of a virtual dictatorship in the 1990s, rife with corruption and ruled by military justice. But Yates also casts her story as a larger cautionary tale about democratic governments who exploit fear, waging a "war on terror" with no clear goals or strategies, until the very ideals they claim to be fighting for become subsumed in military oppression. Interviews with Peruvian soldiers sent to defeat the Shining Path in remote villages in the 1980s sound eerily familiar today: We didn't know the language, we just drove in on tanks, we couldn't tell a terrorist from a sympathetic farmer -- so we made everything worse. So too do interviews with Peru's elite, some of whom confess they hardly noticed when it was tens of thousands of poor, non-white people being killed. In English and Spanish, with subtitles. 3 p.m. Sun., Dec. 3. McConomy (AH)

STOLEN EYES. Set in Bulgaria during the last throes of the Soviet Empire, Stolen Eyes, a Bulgarian/Turkish co-production, depicts the highly unusual romance between two Bulgarians, one Muslim and one not. It's 1989 and the Bulgarian government is forcing all Muslim citizens through a "regeneration process" in which they must surrender their Muslim names and identities and adopt Bulgarian names. Aiten, a Muslim woman, tries to sabotage the process, which puts her on a collision course with government employee Ivan. Stolen Eyes questions whether love can (or should) flourish in such a hateful environment. Director Radoslav Spassov (and co-writer with Neri Terzieva) employs a lightly stylized style to tell the story; the camera work is fluid and impressive, and jumps back and forth through time to keep the audience as unmoored as the characters. Though the ending's a bit implausible, Stolen Eyes is both a rich and a bleak look at a sad chapter in recent history. In Bulgarian and Turkish, with subtitles. 5:30 p.m. Sun., Dec. 3 (McConomy), and 6:30 p.m. Fri., Dec. 8 (SouthSide Works) (Ted Hoover)

YOUR NAME IS JUSTINE. Franco de Peña's film examines a problem spurred by the collapse of the Iron Curtain, as young women from the East are transported into Western Europe to work as prostitutes. In this fictional account, a young Polish woman, traveling to Germany, is sold into prostitution by her boyfriend. In Polish and German, with subtitles. 7:30 p.m. Fri., Dec. 1 (McConomy), and 7:30 p.m. Thu., Dec. 7 (SouthSide Works)

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