With the U.S. film industry’s stranglehold on the world market, “the least we can do is give a little back,” says Susan Weeks Coulter, chairwoman of Global Film Initiative. Modeled on the Rotterdam Film Festival’s long-running Hubert Bals Fund, GFI’s mission is to foster film production in developing countries and help distribute those movies in our own backyard. “[The Initiative] is a response to the number of apparent misconceptions and misunderstandings we have about other cultures,” adds Coulter. “We need to be better informed.”
Announced last January by film fest programmer Noah Cowan, who currently sits on the nonprofit’s board of directors, the organization has already awarded 12 grants of up to $40,000 each to filmmakers from such countries as Angola, China, Mozambique, and Vietnam. The outfit’s first distribution effort, a national touring series called “Global Lens: New Cinema From the Developing World,” begins this week in New York. Two films, Claudio Assis’s Mango Yellow (see review, page 64) and Rashid Masharawi’s Ticket to Jerusalem (reviewed next week), receive week-long runs at MOMA Gramercy, while each film in the rest of the slate—an international mix of socially conscious dramas and political slapstick comedies—will screen twice.
The highlights, Tajik filmmaker Djamshed Usmonov’s Angel on the Right, which played at New Directors/New Films 2003, and Shadow Kill, from Indian veteran Adoor Gopalakrishnan, subject of a BAM retro in May, both balance their stories of, respectively, a gangster’s comeuppance and an executioner’s angst, with sharp ironies and an assured subtlety that many of the remaining films lack. Still, Manijeh Hekmat’s banned-in-Iran Women’s Prison is a conventional but surprisingly trenchant ladies-in-chains drama, chronicling the power struggles between a tyrannical warden and her charges.
Full of wacky social commentary, Renato Falcão’s silent Chaplin-esque comedy Margarette’s Feast pokes fun at Brazilian police, Juan Carlos Cremata Malberti’s Nothing is a stylized send-up of Cuba’s bureaucracies, and Jilani Saadi’s Khorma focuses on a Tunisian village idiot who learns that power corrupts. There’s nothing funny about Joel Lamangan’s Wretched Lives, a heavy-handed melodrama about a young woman and her mentally handicapped sister raped and abused in the politically unstable Philippines of 2001. In Yamina Bachir-Chouikh’s Rachida, an Algerian schoolteacher survives a gunshot to the stomach, only to flee Algiers to a neighboring town besieged by the same random violence. At film’s end, she scrawls “Today’s Lesson” on the chalkboard, and then turns around to stare at the camera in a moment of Brechtian intensity.
The selections’ didacticism may result from the Initiative’s mandate for educational outreach. Four films—Women’s Prison, Margarette’s Feast, Angel on the Right, and Ticket to Jerusalem—will screen to a minimum of 500 high school students at each city’s cultural institution. To help American teens prepare for such off-off-Hollywood fare, each movie is accompanied by a curriculum developed by New York-area teachers, which includes pre-screening activities centered around culture, geography, and religion.
High school students are already offering Global Film Initiative their most discerning evaluations, according to Coulter. During a pilot screening of Ticket to Jerusalem, she says, one teen offered his criticism, ” ‘I think this movie is one-sided.’ Then another student leaped up and responded, ‘Don’t you think CNN is one-sided?’ “