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Prizes & Projections: AFI Awards 2002: documentaries

All the right steps

Simon Enticknap

A Wedding in Ramallah A Wedding in Ramallah
Four films are brought together for an awards ceremony and, inevitably, comparisons are made, similarities emerge, lines are drawn, like is compared with like but also with not alike.

A Wedding in Ramallah and East Timor—Birth of a Nation: Rosa’s Story are the ‘straight’ guys. They tell stories about ordinary people struggling with mundane realities—family, marriage, domestic life—in abnormal circumstances (the Palestinian Territories and East Timor). They like to look at life in the microcosm and see what it says about the bigger picture. There’s a subject who stays in front of the camera and a film-maker who follows them about. They’re revealing, touching, funny at times. They’re careful not to preach while still having something worthwhile to say.

The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinski and Rainbow Bird and Monster Man are the ‘arty’ ones, telling stories of unimaginable pain and personal suffering with great imagination and energy. They like symbols and motifs, re-enactments and dramatisations. Much of the telling is in the cutting and zooming, panning and fading. They are evocative, elliptical, edgy, looking for new ways to say something that can’t always be said easily.

A Wedding in Ramallah (90 minutes) is perhaps the funniest of the bunch but also has the most depressing air of hopelessness, its subjects seemingly trapped by circumstances, leading stifled lives with little possibility of genuine change. Director Sherine Salama has an eye for dry humour, a mildly sardonic appraisal of Life’s big-little ironies, such as the Palestinian bride who longs to be with her husband in America and, sure enough, winds up living in a suburban condo purgatory. Be Careful What You Wish For....! Not that the newlyweds have much of a say in the matter; the groom is only in the US to avoid being in an Israeli prison.

The film works by shifting the focus away from the familiar narratives of bombings and reprisals to show us something positive about Palestinian culture rather than simply viewing it as being ‘not us’. At the same time, it doesn’t try to airbrush the Palestinians into appearing ‘just like us’. It’s clever, cluey and revealing, thanks mainly to an astute decision to film the preamble to and aftermath of an arranged marriage. This is an event totally at odds with Western notions of romantic love but meaningful in its own context. (There are some wonderful scenes of the couple sitting silently together with nothing to say; you can almost hear Sherine Salama thinking out loud as she films, ‘Boy, this is terrific.’ And it is.) The link between ritual as a marker of identity and cultural/national autonomy is never articulated but seems obvious nevertheless.

Rainbow Bird and Monster Man (52 mins) is the grimmest tale of all, a soul-stretching story of child abuse and its consequences, as if somebody has taken all the macabre horror of a fairytale and said, no, really, this is what Life is like. It’s also the most affirmative viewing, a remarkable survival story. It starts with an anecdote about a man, Tony Lock, making music after a murder, in the police van, and then, later on, writing poetry in prison. And somehow that sets the tone, a sense of release suffusing the nightmare. The film’s strength is Tony Lock himself who, apart from a few re-enactments, narrates his own story with incredible clarity and insight. It’s an extraordinary act, not in the sense of a performance but of a deed accomplished, something created and offered to us. The film’s imagery, evoking different stages in Tony’s life, must do justice to his story and, for the most part, it does.

Rosa’s Story (55 mins) is another survivor episode, following the efforts of a young East Timorese mother to collect her children from various places of safe keeping. Rosa’s attempt to reunite her family for the first time is complemented with footage of Xanana Gusmao endeavouring to do likewise with the new nation, like Rosa travelling around the country to collect support and build a new life. It’s tentatively hopeful; the spirit is willing but the odds are not good for a single mother in a poor country.

Paul Cox’s The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinski (95 mins) gave me the best drift for some time, some dreamily dreamy daydreams and sub-conscious streaming. In fact I may even have been asleep for some of the time. It has some fine dancing too and the best performance of L’Apres-midi d’un Faune I’ve ever seen. It’s the only performance of L’Apres-midi d’un Faune I’ve ever seen, but I’m sure it’s very good.

In essence, the film is a visual accompaniment to readings from Nijinski’s diaries tracing his mental disintegration. It’s illustrated with trademark Cox motifs drawn from nature—fire, water, blood—and especially the play of light—shadows, silhouettes, reflections—to create a visual dance characterised by rapid movement, interspersed with a lingering stillness. Above it all there are Nijinski’s ramblings—fevered, obsessive, dogmatic, dismissive, expansive and always the voice—incessant, repetitious, loopily looping the loop, the Artist at odds with Society, childish and narcissistic, seemingly omnipotent but fearful of everything that opposes or diminishes his powers. I’m not sure if I learnt anything about Nijinski in the process but, as a performance, the film succeeds on its own merits.

So that’s it for this year—some madness, a marriage, children lost and found. Do we still have to pick a winner at this point? If so, I’m going for A Wedding in Ramallah simply because it hardly puts a foot wrong and, as Nijinski would no doubt agree, not a lot people can do that.

A Wedding in Ramallah, writer, producer, director, cinematographer Sherine Salama; East Timor—Birth of a Nation: Rosa’s Story, writer, director Luigi Acquisto, cinematographer Valeriu Campan, producers Luigi Acquisto, Stella Zammataro, Andrew Sully; Rainbow Bird and Monster Man, writer, director Dennis K Smith, cinematographer Kevin Anderson, producer John Lewis; The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinski, writer, director Paul Cox, cinematographers Paul Cox, Hans Sonneveld, producers Paul Cox, Aanya Whitehead.

RealTime issue #51 Oct-Nov 2002 pg. 30

© Simon Enticknap; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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