The questions have echoed since the first grainy moving pictures were unspooled more than a century ago: Can film truly capture reality? Does the medium compromise it, or change our perception of what's true? Is truth best expressed by so-called documentary, in emotionally accessible narrative features, or in more complex structures, like satire? And how does a viewer account for the participation of the director, who unilaterally chooses what we see?
Needless to say, there are more discussions around these queries than answers, and the debates will continue at Faces of Realism, the Carnegie Mellon University International Film Festival which begins this Thu., Feb. 26, and runs through March 8. The nine recent films were selected for the series because they all blur the line between feature and documentary in some fashion.
Besides the roster of new world cinema, this year's festival offers an opening reception (with food and drink), a graffiti tagging session, and appearances by film directors.
Those up for pursuing the truths (or untruths) of cinema in earnest can attend three free workshops: Polish cinematographer and producer Arthur Reinhart on the myth of realism; American indie director Antonio Campos on his short film "Buy It Now"; and filmmaker Azazel Jacobs, using his college film project to examine collapsing realities.
With the exception of opening night, tickets are $7 ($3 for students); a full-access festival pass costs $35 ($15 students). Films screen at the Melwood Screening Room (477 Melwood Ave., N. Oakland); Future Tenant Gallery (819 Penn Ave., Downtown); McConomy Auditorium (5000 Forbes Ave., CMU campus, Oakland); and SouthSide Works (425 Cinema Drive, Southside). For a complete schedule (including workshops) and ticket reservations, see www.cmu.edu/faces.
The following is the schedule for the featured films, most of which will be preceded by a short film and followed by a discussion.
IL DIVO. Paolo Sorrentino's 2008 film is a nervy, stylized bio-pic of longtime Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti. Foreknowledge of contemporary Italian politics is admittedly useful for fully appreciating Il Divo, but this is an arena where the broad strokes are universally familiar -- corruption, gamesmanship, self-delusion -- and Sorrentino's directorial flair for combining fact and fiction is frequently arresting. The Feb. 26 screening will be introduced by local filmmaker Tony Buba, who will also screen one of his short films, with a reception afterward. In Italian, with subtitles. 7:30 p.m. Thu., Feb. 26 (Melwood, $10; $7 students), and 5 p.m. Sat., March 7 (SouthSide Works)
AFTERSCHOOL. After a tragedy involving two popular girls occurs at his East Coast prep school, a student -- the not-quite-fitting-in Robert -- participates in the production of a "memorial video" designed to facilitate "healing." Though constructed in a slow, idiosyncratic manner that's at times frustrating for viewers looking for more immediate engagement, Antonio Campos' film, which picked up an Independent Spirit nomination, explicitly examines both whether film (and its cousins, video and cell-phone cameras) can reveal the truth of an event, and how after-the-fact recreation of "actual footage" can alter that reality. Also on the agenda: the established miseries of adolescence as filtered through the YouTube generation. Director Campos is scheduled to appear. 7:30 p.m. Fri., Feb. 27. Melwood
FORBIDDEN LIE$. In 2001, Jordanian Norma Khouri wrote a widely published memoir which told the shocking story of her best friend's murder, a so-called "honor" killing by male family members. But then it appeared that the story might be a hoax, and the ever-shape-shifting Norma became the focus of investigative journalists, law enforcement and those left bobbing in her wake. Among those fascinated: Australian filmmaker Anna Broinowski, whose film is variously a documentary and a dramatic recreation, as well as an ongoing investigation-cum-trial in which the viewer makes the final judgment. Khouri speaks extensively with Broinowski, so there is in essence a prosecution and defense. The truth here is elusive, but the film is recommended for fans of outsized, real-life cons. In English, and some Arabic, with subtitles. 5 p.m. Sat., Feb. 28. Melwood
TIME TO DIE. In Dorota Kedzierzawska's recent Polish drama, a elderly woman (92-year-old actress Danuta Szaflarska), holed up in a crumbling old house with her dog, is left to contemplate her life and its outcomes. The film's cinematographer, Arthur Reinhart, is scheduled to appear. In Polish, with subtitles. 7:30 p.m. Sat., Feb. 28. Melwood
IT'S A FREE WORLD. Those who've followed the career of British filmmaker Ken Loach won't be surprised to learn that his latest film depicts the exploitation of the immigrant labor force that facilitates the shiny new Europe, and how that ugliness is ensnaring a new generation of working-class Brits. Angie (Kierston Wareing) isn't the ennobled worker of British myth: She's happy to run a semi-shady day-laborer service in London. "It's a free world," Angie says, in an attempt to justify both her venture and the workers' decision to accept her jobs. These transactions certainly violate the spirit of "free," as both the workers and Angie feel their choices are made from few options. 4 p.m. Sun., March 1 (McConomy Auditorium), and 7:30 p.m. Thu., March 5 (SouthSide Works)
BOMB IT. Just as the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist is which side of the fence you're on, so does the definition of graffiti as "art" or "vandalism" depend on whether you're holding the paint or cleaning the wall. In his entertaining and occasionally illuminating documentary, Jon Reiss travels the globe to give graffiti artists a chance to explain themselves and their art -- beyond, of course, surreptitiously covering public and private spaces with spray paint. While checking in with some anti-graffiti people, the film is admittedly sympathetic to graffiti as an art form and/or social necessity borne of various circumstances (boredom, the desire for identity, too much concrete). Ironically, the one place Reiss visits without graffiti is a South African township too poor to buy paint and too strapped to expend the time. The screening will be followed by sanctioned tagging, plus refreshments. In English, and various languages, with subtitles. 5 p.m., Sun., March 1. Future Tenant Gallery
THE MOTHER. The day-to-day grind for Liubov, a middle-aged mother of nine who works at a Russian dairy farm, is vicariously exhausting: child care; dealing with drunk men; stoically bearing inevitable tragedies and disappointments; and watching as a new generation of impoverished young people grow to take their parents' place. But in Antoine Cattin and Pavel Kostomarov's intimate documentary, Liubov's fortitude in keeping her family together and relatively functional rises to become the defining theme. Is this Liubov's true nature, despite the odds, or is this strength achieved through selective editing and the presence of the camera? Regardless, by the time Liubov confesses that she won't live another year, we're too committed to her iconic steadfastness to believe her. In Russian, with subtitles. 8 p.m., Wed., March 4. McConomy Auditorium
MOMMA'S MAN. Azazel Jacobs' sly dramedy tracks a typical scenario in a less-than-typical environment. Thirtysomething Mikey (Matt Boren), while visiting his parents in New York, suffers a quiet freak-out and refuses to return to California, where his wife and infant await. Instead, he retreats to his adolescent lair, literally a cubbyhole carved out of the accumulated junk of his parents' living quarters. Jacobs cast his own dad and mom -- avant-garde filmmaker Ken and painter Flo; used their old-school loft as a fantastical warren of a set; and merged his own unique childhood with that of Mikey, who for all the implied freedom of his upbringing still struggles to move past the nostalgia for his youth and embrace adulthood. Director Jacobs is scheduled to appear. 7:30 p.m. Fri., March 6. SouthSide Works
MARCELA. Helena Trestikova has assembled a filmed account of one Czech woman's life, beginning in 1980, when a hopeful Marcela marries in Prague. (The project was part of a TV series documenting young Czechs.) The marriage quickly dissolves, and Marcela embarks on what will define her adult life -- single parenthood, struggling for menial jobs, and fighting loneliness and despair. It's reality condensed, and even the most ordinary of lives is marked with dramatic turns. There's an intimacy born of the two women's shared undertaking that develops -- Marcela grows more candid and more resigned -- and this access is remarkable when the mid-1990s deal Marcela a series of devastating blows. In Czech, with subtitles. 3 p.m. Sun., March 8. SouthSide Works