Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 11

The second big weekend of SFIFF is over. I saw only three movies on Sunday. But one was a 5 hour, 16 minute masterpiece of Finnish cinema, so I think I get extra points for that. Yes, I give myself an extra 2 points for that (note: "points" are something I just invented on the spot and have no value--monetary or otherwise--whatsoever. In fact, I'll probably never speak of them again.)

That Finnish epic was EIGHT DEADLY SHOTS, originally shot in 1972 on 16 mm film and shown as a 4-part series on Finnish television. It was edited into a ~2 hour film, which allegedly isn't that good. This was actually the U.S. premiere of the full 5+ hour cut. It was inspired by an actual incident, although the opening of every episode takes great pains to emphasize it's fictional and not based on any specific case. In that incident, a farmer--drunk--killed 4 policemen with eight rifle shots (he made sure to get them all twice, I guess.) And the film opens with those shots. After a few minutes of the stark winter of the Finnish countryside, we hear those shots before we see a single person on screen. And that person is the farmer, Pasi (played by director Mikko Niskanen, who has said it was such a difficult role he couldn't ask anyone else to play it.) We see the funerals of the cops, and we see Pasi sitting, remorsefully, in jail. And then we go back one year, we see the last year of Pasi's life, leading up to that moment and leaving us--some five hours later--in a position where if we don't approve of his actions we at least sympathize with his plight.

Each episode is introduced with text about how alcohol was the root of all evil (I don't recall the exact text, or I would quote it.) And that's certainly a huge part of it. Pasi is a moonshiner who drinks a bit too much of his own product. As his wife notes, if it was just a little bit now and then, it would be okay. But he definitely drinks to excess far too often. But there's a lot more than that. When he has work, he's a hard, diligent worker. "When he has work" is the important part. And this is something that would have been lost without Peter von Bagh's introduction. Finland in the 70s--particularly rural Finland in the 70s--was the fastest declining region in all of Europe. People were leaving either for the cities or for Sweden. Those who stayed found it increasingly difficult to make a living on their small single-family farms or with the occasional part-time work offered by the employment office. So he supplements what little he gets from his farm by taking on odd jobs, clearing forests to sell firewood, but mostly through moonshining. The rest of the village is in a similar dire situation, particularly his neighbor and partner-in-moonshine Reiska. The pressure, the poverty, and yes the drink weighs on him--on more than one occasion his wife and children flee from his drunken rages into the cold Finnish night (something he had to do as a child when his own father came home drunk and angry.) Add to that a heart condition that incapacitates him from time to time.

But I don't want it to sound like everything is bad. He has periods where he's clean, he's working hard, and he gets along with his wife and children. It's that journey, the multiple cycles of hope and despair--with increasing pressure from the authorities--that has to be done over 5 hours (it could've been drawn over even more episodes, in my opinion.) I can't imagine taking that journey in only 2 hours. Maybe you could've told the story, but you couldn't have taken the emotional journey. Cutting this down would be the equivalent of saying you've visited Finland because you changed planes in the Helsinki airport once.

Then I finished the night with two very engaging and very different documentaries, starting with GOOGLE AND THE WORLD BRAIN. The world brain--a library of all human knowledge accessible to everyone--was a Utopian vision of H.G. Wells. But the idea of a library of all knowledge is much older--dating back to the Library of Alexandria in the 3rd century BCE. Now, with the power of the Internet, it's possible...but with complications. Google is not the only one trying to do this, but they are the biggest and most ambitious. And this isn't about search, it's about book scanning. After all, there's no bar to what gets put on the Internet (trust me on that), but what we put in books--at least, books with a real publisher instead of self-published--has at least a minimal standard. But who are the interested parties. Google, of course, who has sunk billions into the world's most ambitious book-scanning project. Libraries, many of which have partnered with Google, whose mission is to share as much information as possible. And copyright holders...ah, there's the rub. What to do with copyrighted works? Well, Google made deals with some publishers, for sure. But what about "orphaned books"--not in the public domain, still under copyright, but out of print? Sometimes you can't even find the author to ask for his permission. Well, long story short Google's initial strategy was to offer snippets. You could search on keywords and see a few lines of the book for each keyword found. Some people had a problem with that. First, if you searched for enough keywords you could piece together most if not all of a copyrighted book. Second, the mere act of copying a copyrighted work, even if you never show it to anyone, is a violation of copyright law...maybe...or maybe not. Look, I'm not a lawyer, and as far as I know this is still under litigation (it was at the time of the film, at least.) An initial settlement proposal gave  Google the rights to publish "orphaned" books and give the copyright holders a substantial cut. But this suddenly changed Google from a library to a bookstore, and the library partners objected. The movie provides several competing views (anywhere from 'Google has a secret nefarious plan to control the world's information' to 'copyright is obsolete in the modern age and Google is doing a good thing') but it still definitely has its opinion. Which is that Google is not malicious but has played fast-and-loose with the project and has crossed lines that companies with a more conservative legal department would not have crossed. And fighting the court battles has become huge. In fact, to hear some subjects talk about the potential cost per copyrighted work, this could be a bet-the-entire-company move. For what it's worth...I want a universal library. I want a World Brain. I don't have any particular stake in whether Google owns/manages/controls access to that World Brain or not. Maybe it's better that it be taken out of the hands of a for-profit company and be acknowledged as a public good. But if that's the case, who's going to fund it? Anyway, ideas and opinions aside this was a very engaging, well-made movie that certainly doesn't suffer from either a deficit of balance or a deficit of opinion.

And then a very different, almost experimental documentary LET THE FIRE BURN. The MOVE organization in Philadelphia in the 70s and 80s was a controversial and confrontational organization founded by John Africa (born Vincent Leaphart). They were about...black liberation, back-to-nature,...okay, maybe they had a more explainable philosophy but at least in this movie all you get is a frustrating and elusive 'follow the teachings of John Africa.' What are his teachings? The truth! What truth? The truth about the lie of the system! What is the system? ...it gets frustrating. Here's the important thing--on May 13, 1985, a raid on their row-house headquarters ended in an inferno that left 11 people dead and several houses (not just theirs, but neighboring houses) destroyed. There's more, of course. They were a public nuisance and a thorn in the sides of the local Philadelphia authorities (and their own neighbors) for years beforehand. The authorities wanted to evict them a long time ago. And blame...well, blame is a tricky thing. Or, in the words of William Richmond (Philadelphia Fire Commissioner at the time), "Blame is a broad brush." And this movie attempts to untangle the incident--and the history of Philadelphia's confrontations with MOVE, solely by using archival footage. New interviews with some key subjects were done for the movie, but discarded (perhaps they'll resurface as DVD extras?) in favor of using footage from the time. Most prominently, public hearings in the aftermath of the May 13, 1985 incident. And those hearings, news reports, and an interview with a little boy who grew up in MOVE are...chilling. MOVE seemed at best an unpleasant, angry place (maybe some members were loving internally, but externally obnoxious at best. At worst, it was an organization that engaged in child abuse and stockpiled weapons.) Still, that doesn't seem to justify what is at best excessive force and at worst murder-by-arson on the part of the police. A powerful movie that is a difficult and painful look at a difficult and painful incident in American history.

And with that, Sunday and the final weekend of SFIFF 2013 ended. We're on the final stretch now, leading up to the closing night on Thursday.

Total Running Time: 499 minutes
My Total Minutes: 327,282

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