JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Palm Springs International Film Festival: Short Docs (Directors: Tim Sternberg, Cynthia Wade, James Longley, Alice Elliott) - January 4, 2008
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Palm Springs International Film Festival: Short Docs

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Reviewed at the 2008 Palm Springs International Film Festival
PSIFF Documentary Short Films

Documentary group offers hope, courage, understanding and love

Having overcome the opening morning jitters of a new-to-the-festival venue (the chandelier bedecked Palm Canyon Theater) the Friday morning audience was treated to a quartet of films that engaged the eye, filled the ear and, most importantly, provided much food for thought and reflection. In their own way, fictional features can also stir ideas and provoke debate, but not in the same gut-wrenching directness that personal stories, lovingly told can deliver. Where then is the Oscar for best performance by a “real” person playing themselves?


Long-ago images brought to life

Salim Baba
Tim Sternberg
India 2007, 14 minutes
Four stars

The streets of Kolkata serve as both backdrop and stage for Sternberg’s brief look at the handed-down tradition of preserving India’s early film heritage and showing those storied frames to anyone able to crouch underneath the sunlight-blocking drape and peer at long-ago images featuring “song, fights and drama.” Fifty-five-year-old Salim Muhammad earns his meager keep by splicing together spoiled reels and rejects from the local cinemas, as did his father before him. Salim’s proud achievement is the introduction of sound (“I added sound and became happy.”) to the discarded cinematic history that has come their way over many decades. There are over 50 such films under his care, but, unlike film archives in most countries that are kept in climate-controlled enclosures and passed around with white gloves, these aged flicks are just left in their cans until Salim deems it “time” to be shown in his cinema-on-a-cart roaming projection booth. The weary entrepreneur also knows his public and shamelessly cuts, pastes and edits scenes from all manner of productions to create fast-paced conglomerations that are sensitive to his public’s tastes. (Rather like many film composers who reassemble themes, orchestrations and structure from the world’s finest composers and pass the “improved” result along to an adoring public, many of whom may be oblivious to the source of the magnificent score. Here, David Darling’s music eschews that method and comes up with a track that fits the action like his own glove.) The wee chronicle closes with Salim’s pride in his four young sons who he assumes will carry on his family’s noble work into the next generation. The truly marvellous irony in his last words “this gives me peace” is a savvy touch from Sternberg’s respectful examination of old vs. now.


Laurel and Stacie

Freeheld
Cynthia Wade
U.S. 2007, 38 minutes
Five stars

The heroic battle of Detective Lieutenant Laurel Hester with not only terminal lung cancer but the Ocean County (New Jersey) Board of Freeholders (there’s more irony in that name than Republicans in Texas) so that her pension benefits from decades of stellar service will be transferred to her domestic partner Stacie is a compelling tears-in-your-eyes, anger-in-your-heart exposé of narrow-minded males in positions of power. Hiding behind the petticoats of a union collective agreement and the over-arching goal of spending taxpayers’ money wisely, the dark suits, blinders-on officials are captured staring down their own constituents, colleagues and hounding news media despite the fact that a half-dozen other counties have exercised their legislative option to allow the transfer of pension benefits in cases where warranted. Canadians will keep waiting for Rick Mercer to come on camera and assure everyone it’s all an April fool. Well, there are some fools. The unabashedly open sharing of her passing from this planet by the so-in-love couple should become required viewing for anyone who wishes to know the meaning of courage and care. No better illustration of this beautiful devotion than when Stacie asks Laurel to clip her own locks down to the scalp once the cancer has pretty much sent the ace-shot detective’s to the floor. Pathetically, it took a personal call from the state governor to resolve the issue just in time—thank goodness they could blame their reversal on doing a political favour for one much higher up, making everyone’s re-election prospects brighten. In one sense, Cynthia Wade just had to shout “roll ‘em” and let the learned men convict themselves, but on the other hand, her back-story of the ill-fated couple was shot, edited and presented in a manner that no man could ever achieve.


Sari's mother battles for her son

Sari's Mother
James Longley
U.S., Iraq 2006, 21 minutes
Four stars

A quiet morning, sun coming up. The cows are milked, the sheep herded out to the fields, the homemade irrigation system is attended and the crops grow high—then a pair of deadly helicopters shatter the idyllic scene just as HIV/AIDS has devastatingly entered 10-year-old Sari’s doomed life. He screams at the needles, aches to go to school, settles fights with his siblings and endures the Minister of Health’s faint responses to his mother’s desperate appeals for medical help against this “international disease.” But Longley’s captured far more than that tragedy, when the loving mother admits “There’s no place for him,” then, tellingly, “Who is the enemy?” But the coup du gare comes after the American troops say hi to the innocent kids and they’re soon back playing “blow up the foreigners” with, for the time being, mortars and tanks of clay.


Diana and Kathy

Body & Soul: Diana & Kathy
Alice Elliott
U.S. 2007, 40 minutes
Four and one-half stars

The old adage “Misery loves company” takes on a totally new meaning in Alice Elliott’s five-year-in-the-making portrait of Kathy (Cerebral Palsy) and Diana (Down’s Syndrome). The largely disenfranchised (family and society) women have lived together and supported each other for thirty-seven years. Their rapport, respect and occasional rants at one another combine to lift the hearts of all who come to know their story of bucking the institutional system (“There, there, dears, we’ll just lock you away—out of sight, out of mind). Sadly, those cowards that need to see this testimony to the ignorance of the majority most will either be too busy, or remember a pressing engagement once we’re shown that this pair of rebels with a cause will stop at nothing to make their point and—worse—receive awards and praise for doing so (but that, took decades). The struggle of living independently should not be underestimated and, most certainly, others in similar positions—at the very least—require dependable funding (Diana’s cheque book technique of spending more than she has, has been taken up by governments and not a few corporations everywhere) and weekly breaks through planned respite care. Because when all is said and done, the fight is to give people living with disabilities the choice of how to manage their lives. God help them all if those decisions are left to the wisdom of, say, the Ocean County Board of Freeholders. JWR

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