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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

No StudioFilmClub until Thursday March 9th

There will be a three week break for StudioFilmClub. This is for Carnival and StudioFilmClub's participation in the 2006 Whitney Biennial, in New York.

When we return on March 9th we will celebrate our 3rd anniversary.

Many, many thanks for all the support over the last three years!

Peter and Che


Friday, February 10, 2006

Somebody wants us to win: Musings on Mad Hot Ballroom

An elementary school gymnasium. A group of children stand, rapt at attention, listening to their dance instructor. "Ballroom dancing," he says, "is a conversation between a lady and a gentleman."

An unremarkable statement, perhaps, even if it is being given to a group of 11 year olds. But then consider who these 11 year olds are: underprivileged children from depressed New York neighbourhoods, places where poverty, divorce, physical and sexual abuse, gang violence and drug dealing aren't social phenomena, but daily life. In this context, such a statement is anything but ordinary.

And Mad Hot Ballroom is anything but an ordinary documentary. It is a hope-stirring testament to the transformative power of dance in the lives of children, and a towering tribute to the passionate teachers who day in, day out perform miracles trying to make a difference in these children's lives.

Refusing to take a condescending line, Mad Hot Ballroom gets down to the child's eye view, showing these kids, of every ethnic and racial stripe, in candid interaction with each other. The almost offhand way in which they discuss the social problems they are a part of daily--drugs, violence, abuse--is unsettling.

If the film has one troubling aspect it is the whole competitive nature of the dancing. This admittedly gives narrative impetus, though the triumphalist feel to the end is cliche (so typically American--there must be a winner). But all of that is forgotten when you recall what one girl halfway through the film says about the competition, with real wonder and pleasure in her voice: "Somebody wants us to win." And these young ladies and gentlemen, to employ another cliche, are winners all.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

This week at the SFC: Mad Hot Ballroom

Thursday February 9th

This week the STUDIOFILMCLUB will screen the uplifting documentary MAD HOT BALLROOM, directed by New York film maker MARILYN AGRELO. The film has been praised for its honest and human depiction of 11 year old school children participating in a schools ballroom dancing competition.


Mad Hot Ballroom is about ballroom dancing in the same way that Spellbound is about spelling bees and Hoop Dreams is about basketball. That is to say, tangentially. Although ballroom dancing forms the backdrop against which this uplifting documentary is set, Maryilyn Agrelo and Amy Sewell's co-production is about much more. In particular, it's about the children we meet and the process of maturation they undergo. Children and ballroom dancing? You read that right. This is what happens in and around a school program that teaches New York City elementary schoolers how to swing, tango, and do the rumba.

Ten years ago, two New York City elementary schools introduced a pilot program that would make ten weeks of ballroom dancing a required course. By 2004, the year in which this film was recorded, more than 60 schools were enrolled in the program, whose teachers are provided by the American Ballroom Theater. At the end of the course, schools are given the opportunity to participate in a competition. Each school can provide five pairs (plus one alternate) to dance in five different styles: swing, the tango, the rumba, the merengue, and the foxtrot. Mad Hot Ballroom follows three schools on the long road from first class to final bow. They are: PS 150 from Tribeca, where many of the children come from homes split by divorce; PS 115 from Washington Heights, where 97% of the families are below the poverty line and drug dealers clog the streets at night; and PS 112 from Bensonhurst, a traditional Italian neighborhood that is now 50% Asian.

Most of the participants in the film are age 11, and, while that may be the perfect age at which children can learn complicated dances, it's also close to the onset of puberty. Girls and boys are uncertain about how to react to the opposite sex and the idea of touching one another, even for something as innocent as a dance move, is fraught with tension. Mad Hot Ballroom captures these first awkward moments, then shows us the growing confidence as partners become more accustomed to being with each other. When a teacher advises eye contact, the camera doesn't miss a moment of the inherent humor that ensues when some boys are unwilling to lock eyes with girls. Off the dance floor, boys chat about which girls they would like as "girlfriends" and girls remark which boys are cute.

Ultimately, Mad Hot Ballroom more about life than dancing. It's about how these children, many of whom lack self-confidence and are on the road toward delinquency, overcome challenges through this class. It's about teachers who devote themselves to their students with such passion that even talking about "their" boys and girls causes them to cry. And it's about the surprising racial harmony that exists in these situations, where skin color and ethnicity are rendered irrelevant. In diverse communities like Tribeca and Bensonhurst, it's not unusual for a black boy to be dancing with an Asian girl - nor are such pairings remarked upon.

The film, which was developed by Amy Sewell, then brought to the screen by Sewell and director Marilyn Agrelo, views things from a children's perspective. (Cinematographer Claudia Raschke held the camera at stomach-level to keep it level with the children's faces.) We see things through their eyes, and the point-of-view is often more straightforward and innocent than an adult might expect. Mad Hot Ballroom gives us a number of lively characters, such as outspoken Emma, tiny Tara, confident Jatnna, imposing Kelvin, and others. The adults are well represented, and include three dance teachers and their respective school liaisons.

Mad Hot Ballroom isn't just heartwarming and inspiring, it's a remarkable look at a group of children whose most noteworthy trait is that they are ordinary. In these students we can see the dilemmas and potential of every 11-year old across this country and around the world. By eschewing the verbosity of a narrator, Sewell and Agrelo distill this account to its essentials, and follow one of the prime rules of storytelling: show, don't tell. The clarity with which the film develops and follows its three-headed narrative, and the unforced ease with which it expresses its themes makes this a more compelling experience than the similarly structured Spellbound. And, even though the competition is ancillary to the personalities and their development, there's plenty of suspense and pathos in Mad Hot Ballroom's final 30 minutes. This is an amazing documentary achievement - easily as good, if not better, than any recent "feel good" fictional story that Hollywood has put on the screen.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Meanwhile, in Toronto

Calypso at Dirty Jim's, featuring the Mighty Sparrow and Calypso Rose, will be screened this evening at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. And less than a fortnight ago, Trinidad-born Richard Fung's new film Uncomfortable: The Art of Christopher Cozier also premiered up north, at the University of Toronto.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Peter Bradshaw on Grizzly Man

Was Timothy Treadwell an inspired radical operating outside the academic naturalist establishment - or a pain in the neck with personal issues? A little of both, of course. He was certainly a brilliant performer and director who, by crossing the taboo line (by as it were impaling himself on the taboo line's barbed wire) vividly demonstrated the alien-ness of nature, and therefore its strange and terrible beauty, more than anything I've ever seen by David Attenborough. It is a superb documentary, because Treadwell has not been coerced or set up; he was enough of an amateur to be relaxed and unselfconscious, yet enough of a professional to generate all this outstanding footage, and quite rightly Herzog declines to patronise or make fun of him.

-- Peter Bradshaw reviews Grizzly Man (screended at SFC 19/01/06) in today's UK Guardian Film & Music Weekly.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Films about films

Recently, I saw the film Ararat by Atom Egoyan, Canada's premier director and the maker of the film Exotica, which the StudioFilmClub screened some time ago.

Ararat deals with a controversial subject: the Armenian genocide in eastern Turkey in 1915, when between one and two million Armenians were exterminated. To this day many details of the genocide are disputed, and in Turkey one can be charged with a criminal offense for saying it ever happened, as the writer Orhan Pamuk recently found out.

How does one make a film about genocide? One can tackle the subject head on, as was the case with Schindler's List and Hotel Rwanda, films which were situated in the middle of the horror and the atrocities of the Jewish and Tutsi genocides, respectively. Ararat, however, takes a different tack: it is a film about the making of a film about genocide.

I won't go into the details of the film--it's a complex, multi-layered story, rewarding if ultimately a little frustrating--but suffice it to say, Ararat ends up being about more than just genocide; it probes the nature of truth, and of memory; it explores the relationship between art and life, between the imagination and reality.

Of course, Ararat isn't unique; there are other films about the making of films. Recently, there was A Cock And Bull Story, by Michael Winterbottom (whose In This World was shown at SFC), which is about a predictably disastrous attempt to film Laurence Sterne's novel, Tristam Shandy. Surely there are more examples, though I can't seem to think of any at the moment. Can anyone else?

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

"The edges of silence"

Poet Ron Silliman, blogging about 3 Iron (this week's SFC offering) back in December:

So often I've seen American movies in which tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on everything except – it would seem – paying for a writer. 3-Iron is exquisitely plotted & choreographed – even its use of the edges of silence is well-written, as with a scene in an interrogation room at a police station in which the taciturn nature of the hero leads to a beating. The film's use of cuts is such that – early on in particular – it's not clear whether or not the characters are speaking, just not in the scenes on camera, any more than it is whether or not their relationship is carnal or platonic

This week at the SFC: 3 Iron

Thursday February 2nd

The STUDIOFILMCLUB presents the much praised and unusal love-story '3 IRON' by Korean director KIM KI-DUK. This is the director's latest feature film. The SFC recently screened another film by Ki-Duk , the atmospheric Buddist tale 'Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...... and Spring."

'3 IRON'

KOREA/ 2005/ 90MINS

There's a real mind at work in the cinema of Kim Ki-Duk, the Korean filmmaker whose explorations of spirituality are among the most evocative films being made today. Last year he released "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring," about the relationship between an old monk and his acolyte, played out on a small floating monastery in the middle of a serene lake. Now he's back with "3-Iron," a film about a young man who breaks into empty houses and does the laundry, fixes things, waters the plants and helps himself to free food and television.

The premises of these two works couldn't be more different, yet an intelligence connects them. Figuring out that governing intellect, the themes and threads that connect one film to another, is the pleasure of getting to know a great director -- which Kim may well be.

"3-Iron" is a love story between two ethereally beautiful young people, neither of whom says a word to the other. Tae-suk (played by Jae Hee) is a gentle drifter who places advertising fliers on the doors of houses and apartments. When he returns and finds a flier still on the door knob, he knows he's found an empty house. It's not a fool-proof system for free lodging -- people return early, or, in the case of Sun-hwa (Lee Seung-yeon), the abused wife of a wealthy brute, they sometimes hide in their own houses.

Tae-suk is a quiet collector of small skills, lock picking, cooking, small appliance repair, and it is these skills, and the way in which they allow him to inhabit other people's spaces, that root him in the world. Though he's broken into her home, Sun-hwa observes the young man and is touched by his fastidiousness and care. After her husband returns, and continues to abuse her, she escapes with Tae-suk into his peripatetic life, and into the homes of strangers. When the couple enter a sad, shabby apartment in a poor district of town, they find the body of an old man, who has died with only a small dog to keep him company. So they clean up the mess, carefully wrap the body into a shroud, and bury it with ritual ceremony. That a young man, living on the margins of society, essentially an outlaw, knows these deeply traditional rites and practices them with such loving attention give depth to Kim's character and reveal one of his central preoccupations: how spiritual people must negotiate the tension between living in the world and living apart from it.

"3-Iron" is very scant on dialogue and plot, but it is rich in invention, particularly gesture. The two protagonists may say nothing to each other, but you sense them listening, intensely, to each other's inner life. They invent ways of interacting that are laden with meaning, and much of the pleasure of this film is watching their private language take form. As he did in "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring," Kim works with the barest of materials but returns the viewer's attention to the pure visual pleasure of filmmaking.