God Sleeps in Rwanda

Two young female filmmakers, Kimberlee Acquaro and director Stacy Sherman, have made a deeply stirring film entitled God Sleeps in Rwanda. It is narrated by Rosario Dawson (Sin City; Rent) and nominated for an Academy Award in the category of short documentary.

Only twenty-eight minutes long, God Sleeps tells the stories of five women survivors of the Rwandan genocide of 1994; four are interviewed and one tells about her friend who is dying of AIDS. In those 100 days a million people were killed in Rwanda.

Severa Mukakinani saw her seven children killed in front of her and then was gang raped by so many men that she lost count. Afterward she was cut by a machete and thrown in a river. She does not know how she survived, she says softly. A month later, she discovered she was pregnant and wanted to end it. The women with whom she is hiding counsel her not to. When the child is born, Severa wanted to hate her – until the baby smiled at her. She named her Akimana, “child of God”. Ten years later Severa says, “I never want her to think she belongs to those militia men. She belongs to me.”

Fifi Mukabgoga could not speak for herself. She was dying of AIDS/HIV, as are many Rwandan women and children even today. Filmmaker Acquaro told an Amnesty International audience recently that it is through AIDS/HIV that the genocide continues. “People continue to die because of the virus transmitted by all the systematic rapes used as a tool of war in the genocide; because of this for the first time in history rape has been determined to be a crime against humanity.”

The filmmakers took five years to make this film, with a team of four: Acquaro and Sherman, Nora Bagarinka, their translator who worked with the International Rescue Committee for the survivors of the genocide, and Craig Tanner, who edited the film. Ms. Acquaro explained that they shot the documentary with broadcast quality digital cameras, without a crew. In this way they could do the filming themselves and not frighten or intrude upon the women. To this day the culture of Rwanda looks down on a woman who was raped, so these experiences are not spoken of in public. 250,000 women were raped during the genocide.

God Sleeps in Rwanda is a powerful and gentle film that begins with the most traumatic stories and ends each one with the women speaking about recovery and rebuilding. The women’s voices reflect a beauty that radiates strength to live, not just survive the hardship of everyday life. Another woman, now a police investigator and law student who got AIDS from her husband, says quietly at the end of her story that, “I am not so wonderful,” but this is not true; she is. The faces of the women are illuminated by forgiveness and love for one another and the children: orphans, nieces and nephews, and the children of rape. These are women who fled the horror and came back to begin anew.

The necessity to contribute to the rebuilding of Rwanda is largely left to the women, who make up 70% of the adult population. Josephine Mujawamariya, for example, was elected to be a civil leader in her village with only an elementary education. She was in charge of a road building project carried out mostly by women, something that before the genocide would never have happened because the roles of men and women were so culturally defined.

Two of the women spoke of the comfort they receive from prayer, even though Catholic nuns and priests took part in the genocide. In 1994, two Benedictine nuns were convicted and sentenced in Belgium (where they had fled after the genocide) for directly contributing to the deaths of many people.
Rwanda still needs the world’s help. This week the Vatican announced it was donating almost half a million dollars to Rwanda because of a growing food shortage due to drought. And the need for money for antiretroviral drugs continues to this day in Rwanda and throughout Africa. Also, killings sporadically continue to prevent witnesses from testifying in war trials that continue.

A member of the audience at the screening asked Ms. Bagarinka (now a nursing student in the U.S.) how they could forgive their family and friends who helped with the killings. She said, “If your neighbor asks forgiveness, how do you say no? We forgive so this will not happen again.”

The title of the film comes from a Rwandan saying, “When God wanders the world, at the end of the day he comes to Rwanda to sleep because He considers this to be the most beautiful place on earth.” Thanks to many women like those featured in this documentary, and the filmmakers, God must certainly feel at home once again.

Freedomland

A white woman, Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore), works at a child care center in the projects of a New Jersey city where its large African American population lives. One night, she walks into the hospital with her hands bloodied and reports that her car has been stolen near the projects. Detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) gets the job and he senses something is not right. Brenda finally admits that she had gone back to work to get something and that her son was in the car.  The carjacking was bad enough; the kidnapping implicates the blacks who knew and liked her.

Is Brenda telling the truth? Enter Danny Martin (Ron Eldard), Brenda’s brother and a cop in the police department the next town over; he demands and then insists he will find the ones to blame. Enter Karen Collucci (Edie Falco) and her team of amateur sleuths who have had success tracking down missing children; Det. Council turns them down only to ask for their help later.

The projects erupt because the people are implicated in the kidnapping without evidence. The police departments of the two towns are in conflict because they are both searching for criminals in the projects and both claiming jurisdiction.

Det. Council gets Brenda alone and tries to use religion on her to convince her to tell the truth. But it is Collucci who gets her to the broken-down and abandoned old children’s home, Freedomland, and to a confession. Sort of.

Freedomland, directed by Joe Roth (Christmas with the Kranks), and written by Richard Price (based on his 1999 novel of the same title), suffers from a huge identity crisis mixed with cinematic schizophrenia. At no time does this film know what it is or what it’s trying to say. Oh, it talks a lot, but the point is elusive. Both Moore and Jackson deliver soliloquies; hers are ravings, and his are sermons.

I liked the Samuel L. Jackson character, and I think if the story had belonged to him instead of splitting off into those of the mother and child, the group of mothers searching for lost kids, the policeman brother who came and went – just went, and the artificial race problems, we would have seen a man who had a great heart, too sensitive for the darkness of human nature that engulfed him. Instead, we got these odd religious homilies, as if someone had ghosted the script to make it somehow Christian.

The key actors’ performances did not mesh well; taken separately, Council, Collucci, and even Martin were strong. Together, they were … odd. And whatever happened to Danny Martin, Brenda’s hot-headed and judgmental brother? He just … evaporates. The only story-line that makes any sense is that of Det. Council, and then only barely.

“Freedomland” was obviously a metaphor for some unknown point of the story. I am sorry the threads of the narrative didn’t come together enough to make it a mystery thriller, a study of human weakness and greatness. In the last analysis, Freedomland is an attempt that falls short of its great potential.

Tsotsi

This deserving film is the story of a young gang leader in contemporary Soweto, South Africa. Based on a 1983 novel by screenwriter and director Athol Fugard, it is told anew to a post-apartheid country and world in a gritty and captivating style by South African filmmaker Gavin Hood.

Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) and his posse are ruthless thieves and killers: Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe), an amoral killer with no impulse control, Aap, (Kenneth Nkosi) Tostsi’s friend since their homeless childhood, and Boston (Mothusi Magano) an alcoholic who once studied to be a teacher. They take the train into Johannesburg and kill and rob a man on the way. That night Boston’s conscience bothers him; he gets drunk and accuses Tsotsi of lacking decency. He taunts Tsotsi for his name that only means “thug” and therefore a nobody. Tsotsi beats Boston with cold brutality.

Tsotsi goes alone into an upscale district one night and waits outside a gate for the owner to come home. He steals the woman’s car, Pumla (Nambitha Mpumlwana) is her name, and when she tries to stop him, he shoots her. Tsotsi can barely drive and crashes the car when he hears a baby cry. There, in the backseat is a beautiful three-month old child.

Tsotsi takes the baby back to the township and tries to care for him. When he cannot, he forces a lovely young widow, Miriam (Terry Pheto), with a baby of her own, to feed the child. Tsotsi threatens to kill her if she tells anyone. But it is too late. Pumla has wakened from her coma to give a description to the police – and Tsotsi has begun a journey to a difficult redemption.

In Tsotsi the camera is always looking for the young man’s face. At first cold, it morphs through a whole range of emotions beginning when he looks at the baby’s face. He remembers his mother’s slow dying of AIDS when he was a child, his father’s cruelty, and living homeless in unused cement sewage pipes stacked like an absurd apartment building. Boston’s rant about decency stays with him as he goes to search for money. He is about to kill again but stops in time; his thoughts pass across his face. We want him to say “thank you” to the Madonna-like Miriam and “I’m sorry” to Boston. His features show his ambivalence; he is not yet ready. Eventually, his face begins to soften as he admits his humanity to himself and accepts the kindness of a woman who sees through his hard shell to his soul. Tsotsi’s face tells the entire story.

His inability to drive is a strong metaphor for his life that is without guidance (or educational opportunities), and out of control so he keeps crashing. 

Tsotsi is a very difficult film to watch because of the graphic violence. But Tsotsi is not about just one man; he and his gang are a microcosm of the larger society that still hasn’t caught up with the reality of what it says it is: a democracy that cares for its people. The larger, age-old, ingrained and institutionalized violence erupts through the marginalized, the poor, and the afflicted in hidden places even policemen cannot find.
 
Tsotsi, however, is not about blame; it is one man’s journey to decency, responsibility, restitution, redemption, and freedom. His story, his “thank you” and “I’m sorry” model the attitudes that can save us all. These words do not free an invisible government from its responsibility; instead they show that the innocence of a child can bring out the authentic humanity of a man who has been sinned against as much as he has sinned. If change is possible for one, it is for all.

Tsotsi is in theaters now.

Joyeux Noel

                            The Incarnation and War

        For the second year in a row, a Christmas-themed film will be released nine months early, or three months late, depending on how you look at it. In 2005 it was the charming family film Millions and on March 3 the French Academy Award – nominated film Joyeux Noël will open in New York and Los Angeles and then in select cities nation-wide.

                                   The Great War
        Europe in 1914 was simmering for war and there are many theories about its causes. Most historians trace the origins of The Great War, or World War I, to Prince Otto von Bismark (b. 1815 – dd. 1898), the Prime Minister of Prussia (1862-1890) and then Chancellor of the German Empire that he created. In his desire to unify independent Germanic states and principalities into one nation he orchestrated intricate alliances between them as well as with the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman (Turkey) Empires. Nationalism was on the rise as other European states got rid of monarchies in view of establishing government by the people. Add to this precarious situation the dependence on the unreliable telegraph and slow-traveling ambassadors for communication between governments. The cauldron was soon to boil over.

        On June 28, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo when he tried to assert his authority over unruly provinces. This event triggered the war. As Barbara Tuchman narrates in her 1962 Pulitzer Prize-winning military history The Guns of August, Germany then mobilized seven armies in the first few days of August. Their aim was to sweep through Europe and occupy its heart: Paris.

       The first of the allies to unite to thwart Germany were the British Empire, France, and Russia. The Allies and Germans waged war through series of opposing trenches along the Western Front that stretched from the British Channel to the Swiss border, through Belgium and Luxembourg, and parts of industrialized France; in between them lay no-man’s land.

                The First Christmas of the Great War

        Joyeux Noël begins in Scotland. A young man, Jonathan (Steven Robertson), dashes into a church sacristy where his younger brother William (Robin Laing) is repairing statues with Reverend Palmer (Gary Lewis). Jonathan tells his brother that war has been declared and that he has enlisted and signed up William, too. Jonathan is ecstatic because now something exciting will happen in their dull lives.

       Later, in France, the reluctant Lieutenant Audebert (Guilleaume Canet) receives orders from a general (Bernard Le Coq) who travels in disguise behind enemy lines. Audebert’s young wife is expecting a baby and he has not heard from her in months. Audebert’s orderly, Ponchel (Dany Boon), carries an alarm clock that goes off every morning at 10 am to remind him of home.

       In December, on an unnamed battlefield, a division of Scots are soon entrenched next to their French allies. Across the “no man’s land” are German troops, led by Lt. Horstmeyer (Daniel Bruhl) who is Jewish. As Christmas Eve draws near, the men retreat to their trenches after a bloody battle. Jonathan has been mortally wounded and William is distressed beyond all telling.

         One of the German soldiers, a man named Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Furmann), is also a renowned tenor. He is ordered to headquarters to sing for Kaiser Wilhelm’s son. There Sprink meets his inamorata, a soprano named Anna Sorensen (Diane Jruger.) The next day they go to the front together to sing for the troops in the trenches that have incongruously decorated by dozens of Christmas trees sent by the German high command.

          As Sprink intones “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night) the Scots and French become silent; theythink the Germans are playing a trick. Reverend Palmer, who has accompanied his villagers to war, picks up the bagpipes to accompany Sprink. Other bagpipers join in and the men in the trenches begin to sing. Sprink then climbs out of the trench with a Christmas tree in hand. One by one the other soldiers climb out of the trenches and stand in non-man’s-land looking at one another. Someone breaks out a bottle of cheer and some chocolate; the three commanding officers decide to call a truce for Christmas Eve.
    

      The truce leads to the burial of the dead, a prayer service, and a soccer match.

                           Truth or fact?
      Joyeux Noel is a compressed, fictionalized version of events that took place along the Western Front as well as in Turkey at Christmas, 1914, Easter, 1915 and to a lesser extent at Christmas that year. The French director Christian Carion wrote the script inspired by a chapter in a book entitled Battles of Flanders and Artois 1914 – 1918 by Yves Buffetaut. With Buffetaut’s assistance, Carion researched the original accounts for himself in archived letters, journals, and newspapers because the truth seemed stranger than fiction. “The events inspired characters that truly existed, as well as fictitious people I had to invent,” states Carion. “Sometimes the harsh reality was too much, too absurd. This was the case with the story of the cat who roamed from one trench to another and in the film ended up being imprisoned. In reality, the tom cat was accused of spying and was arrested by the French army and then shot according to regulations.” Carion filmed the execution, but it did not make the final cut. The story of the Christmas trees is also true; it is documented that Kaiser Wilhelm insisted that even at the front, “…in times of war, values should be maintained!”
        

To review a film “based on fact” is always a challenge because audiences want to know what was real and what was not. “Based on fact”, “real events”, or “Inspired by a true story” are signals that the filmmaker has taken artistic license to demonstrate the truth in two hours even if the facts have been changed or manipulated. The slightly implausible opera singers in the film (the lip-synching is a little off) are fictitious yet their purpose is to facilitate the telling of the story, to enable the audience to relate emotionally to the situation of soldiers and the people they left behind, to move the story towards its climax, and to leave us with a sense of the truth of what happened so long ago.

                   The Truth and Religion of War
      Joyeux Noel dramatizes for 21st century audiences the horror – and humanity – of World War I (August 1914 – November 1918) in much the same way as Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film Paths of Glory did fifty years ago and Peter Weir did with Gallipoli in 1981. These films (and others) let us experience what the filmmakers imagine that war to have been like through a few characters so that we can see, hear, and feel the greater truth about a war in which 18 million soldiers and civilians died.

In Paths of Glory Kirk Douglas played a fictitious Colonel Dax who along with his men refused to obey senseless orders – a decision for which they were made to suffer greatly. Gallipoli (Turkey) continues the tale of the stupidity of military leadership. The film uses two fictitious Australian characters (played by Mark Lee and a very young Mel Gibson) to tell about the allied campaign to capture Constantinople (February 1915 – January 1916.) It is estimated that over 44,000 allied soldiers were killed or died from disease and almost 100,000 were wounded in that ongoing battle, including 11,000 from Australia and New Zealand; 87,000 Ottoman soldiers were killed and 165,000 wounded. The campaign was always going to be impossible and it was a hopeless failure. (Neither of these outstanding films was nominated for an Academy Award.)
       

          Joyeux Noel does not focus on the generals; instead the role of religion in war is emphasized. When the British, French, and German commands discover the fraternization between enemies, there are consequences. The Germans are sent to the Russian front without leave; the French unit is disbanded and the men assigned to other battalions; Reverend Gordon’s bishop (Ian Richardson) shows up to send him back in shame to his parish in Scotland.
       

          The bishop preaches a sermon to the new recruits dehumanizing and demonizing the enemy so that the soldiers will have a reason to do their duty and kill them. Gordon removes his cross, unable to reconcile his beliefs with the bishop’s use of religion for the sake of war.
         

          James Hillman wrote in his 2004 book A Terrible Love of War (Penguin Press, New York, p. 182) that, “Theology of God and psychology of belief reinforce each other…. So when war clouds gather, religious belief electrifies the air.”

                The Meaning of the Incarnation
        Joyeux Noel deliberately sets out to massage our emotions, as all movies do in one way or another. Yet we know that the enemies did fraternize at Christmas and Easter during World War I. Although not a religious film per se, it is impossible for the thoughtful viewer not to make a connection between faith and life when watching Joyeux Noel. 
      

      While it is about Christmas, the solemn and heart-breaking context that evokes the movie’s Christmas joy is ultimately a story for mature teens and adults. Joyeux Noel is a “great round table” around which people of good will can gather to dialogue about things that matter, as Pope Benedict XVI wrote on January 24, 2006 in his Message for World Communications Day.
         

         The film’s theology is incarnational because it makes us look up from our tears to think about how we live our faith in the here and now, and to ask whether the coming of Jesus Christ into the world meant anything a hundred years ago – and what, if anything, it means today.

Oscar Hopes 2006

These are my hopes for the Academy Awards on Sunday:

Best Actor – Phillip Seymour Hoffman

Best Supporting Actor – Paul Giamatti

Best Actress – Reese Witherspoon: Walk the Line

Best Supporting Actress – Rachel Weisz: Constant Gardener

Best Animated Feature: Corpse Bride

Best Cinematography: The New World

Costume Design: Memoirs of a Geisha

Best Direction: Crash

Best Documentary Feature: March of the Penguins

Best Foreign Language Film: Between Tsotsi (seeing it tonight) and Joyeux Noel (excellent)

Best Original Score: Munich

Best Original Song: In the Deep: CRASH

Documentary Short: God Sleeps in Rwanda (will be on HBO soon)

Art Direction: Good Night and Good Luck

Make-Up: The Chronicles of Narnia

Film Editing: Walk the Line

Visual Effects: King Kong

Screenplay Adapted: Capote

Screenplay Original: Crash

Sound Mixing: Walk the Line

Short Film – Live Action:?

Best Picture: Crash

Short Film Animated: ?

 

 

Celebration of Gospel: BET’s 6th

If you are a fan of Gospel, or not, tune into BET’s 6th Celebration of Gospel on February 23rd (BET is a cable station).

Here is the web link: http://www.bet.com/Music/RingTones/BET+Stirs+Up+the+Soul+at+6th+Celebration+of+Gospel+in+Los+Angeles.htm?wbc_purpose=Basic

I was invited to be at the taping by one of the show’s producers, and it rocked!

Stevie Wonder sings three songs (one a duet), and the show is hosted by Steve Harvey.

Now let me tell you something about Steve Harvey: he’s really funny (He was Buzz to David Spade’s “Scuzz” in the 2005 film “Racing Stripes” and hosted “It’s Showtime at the Apollo” – a show I wish was on primetime instead of tucked away in the middle of the night for insomniacs). Of course, the taping audience got a lot of his “lip” in between that won’t make it to the final cut, but he stood up there for four hours and entertained us; a couple of times I was almost in tears but I don’t think those jokes made it… He really should do the Oscars.

The music is awesome, and the spirit so authentic and caring. I admit, I don’t follow Gospel very much, so this was an intro to pretty much a whole new world – and musicians and singers – for me. And I loved every minute (even if I missed some of the “inside” jokes or references).

The BET production and direction crew deserves an award. When Harvey misread (?) some of the cue cards or the promoter, and had to start over and over, the audience was cracking up and the crew… persevered!

Enjoy~

Curious George

Ted, (voice of Will Ferrell), is a curator at a museum in New York City and he really tries to get the students as excited about the museum as he is. The teacher, Maggie (voice of Drew Barrymore), is sweet on Ted but he doesn’t really get it. The museum is in financial trouble and the director’s son, BloomsburyJr. (voice of David Cross), wants to level it and make it a parking lot.

 

The director, an aging and kindly man who was once an adventurer, Mr. Bloomsbury (voice of Dick Van Dyke), really likes Ted and suggests that he go to Africa on a safari and bring back a fabled jungle idol that will attract paying patrons to the museum. And so Ted goes shopping for gear and really does become “The Man in the Yellow Hat” that we of a certain age remember so well from the original book by Margret and H.A. Rey published about 65 years ago (over 30 million copies have been printed in 17 languages and the book has never been out of print.)

 

                           

Ted and his safari drive and hike deep into the jungle and come back, unbeknownst to Ted, with a cute little monkey that is very curious and gets them both into mischief in the big city.

 

Curious George is a sweet film with vivid animation and a great sound track (original songs and music by Jack Johnson) that is bigger than the movie itself. The animated art is not complex; it’s as if the animators had only to fill out coloring pages with the brightest colors they could find.

 

I tried to find a copy of the original “Curious George” yellow hard cover book that I remember from 1st grade, but I could only find the new book at the book store: a colorful largish-format paperback based-on-the-movie. It wasn’t quite the same, but then, the movie wasn’t made for my demographic and today’s kids will have to make their own nostalgia.

 

Curious George is directed by first-timer Matthew O’Callaghan who has considerable experience with feature animated films. George was produced by Ron Howard of Imagine Entertainment. Ron Howard has to be one of the finest, busiest, and not-appreciated-enough filmmakers in the business. The vocal cast is excellent. Joan Plowright is Miss Plushbottom whose apartment George manages to “brighten” shall we say; Eugene Levy is the voice of Clovis“whacky inventor”.

 

The narrative is direct and uncomplicated; there are no double entendres. The target audience is the very young; I would say four and up (I watched the film next to a three year-old, and her attention span was spotty.) This is not a family movie – it’s for little kids with themes about learning, being curious about the world as a good thing, art, father-son relationships (though this is little more than a plot ploy here.)

 

There are an astounding number of writers credited with the script – eleven. It has to be a record.  Usually too many writers spoil the soup, but here their efforts yielded a story that parents of very young kids will be glad to take their children to see – just don’t expect The Incredibles.