First up was THE FORGOTTEN WOMEN, a companion piece to Deepa Mehta's WATER. I saw WATER at the closing night of Cinequest 2006. Here's what I wrote about it then:
Directed by Deepa Mehta, this is the third chapter in her "elements" trilogy (the first two being "Fire" and "Earth", which I haven't seen but now want to see). The movie takes place in 1938 India (during the rise of Ghandi for those of you who are history semi-illiterate like me) in a house for widows. In some Hindu traditions, it is believed that husband and wife become one and if a husband dies, the wife is half-dead. She becomes unclean and must remain faithful to her dead husband for the rest of her life. Mix that with arranged marriage at a young age and you can end up with 8 year old widows being stuck in a widow house to beg and starve for their entire lives. And that's exactly what happens to young Chuyia at the start of the film. Although horribly traumatized, her naturally sweet and innocent nature brings some life to the widow house. This does not please the morbidly obese head widow of the house, who rules with a mixture of fear, shame, and pimping out the younger widows so the house will have money for food (so much for remaining faithful to your dead husband!). The twenty-something widow-prostitute Kalyani (the beautiful Lisa Ray) quickly befriends Chuyia (who's the only one not afraid to go to her room where she, as a prostitute, is even more unclean than a typical widow and must be kept away from the other good widows). Meanwhile, in the outside world Ghandi is doing his thing and bringing in new ideas, including ending the apalling treatment of widows. A young man who is a follower of Ghandi catches Kalyani's eye, and she his. And, of course, this can only lead to trouble. A powerful film which was so controversial the production was kicked out of India (where it's officially banned) and had to finish in Sri Lanka.Well, THE FORGOTTEN WOMEN is directed by Deepa's brother, the Dilip Mehta, who is an accomplished photographer. It's the documentary companion piece to WATER, and looks at the lives of abandoned Indian widows today. It shows their poverty, the homes they live in, some of the people who work hard to make better homes for them, and some of the people (all men) who still believe they should be abandoned. The subject is compelling, of course. And Dilip being a photographer of course it's very well filmed (I wouldn't say it looks good, because the point is it often looks painful, but the cinematography is top-notch). But I felt it lacked a certain direction. It was like Dilip threw all the images he could at the screen, but didn't have enough of narrative focus to keep it moving forward. Instead, it was a sprawling, rambling mess. The ramblings were very important, but it was almost like you could've walked in and out of the movie at any point and still gotten the same experience.
Next up was THE SPEED OF LIFE, a wonderful little mixed-format (video, 16mm, super-8) New York story. The story revolves around Sammer. His father's (supposedly) in Alaska working on the fishing boats, his big brother's in prison, and his brother's probation officer, Frank, is a big fat jerk with anger control issues. Sammer and his friends steal video cameras from tourists and play back the tapes in a room full of monitors. When Frank asks Sammer to spy on a weird old homeless man (in exchange for going easy on his brother), Sammer is confused, but agrees to do it anyway. And when that old man goes to the top floor of an office building and jumps out a window, things get really strange. This movie boasts a visual ingenuity that matches it's narrative invention, and kept me slightly confused (although all is explained in the end) intrigued, and entertained throughout. Excellent.