Venice, Italy, September 10, 2006
By Uli Schmetzer

            Art must serve as a mirror of society.
            This old cliché was confirmed once again this month during the 63rd Venice Film Festival
when the coveted Golden Lion was won by a Chinese film carrying a political message about the
destructive social and environmental effects of building huge dams, in this case China’s
monstrous Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River.
           Jia Zhangke’s film Sanxia Haoren (Still Life) not only detailed the negative impact of the
Three Gorges project but confirmed the Venetian Festival has become the foremost
stage for innovative film-makers willing to speak out without fear of jeopardizing their personal safety
or their commercial interests by being excluded from distribution networks controlled by the American
          The images of modern society reflected in the Venetian mirror this month were no always
pleasant, sometimes difficult to understand and often struggling with the prominent theme of a
generation haunted by broken or unstable relationships, the plight of immigrants searching for a better
life and an overwhelming fear of a future filled with uncertainties and insecurities.
            While European directors appeared fascinated by the fragility of romances and marriages
American entries celebrated a come-back from self-imposed exile and patriotic silence with directors
ready to take a poke at Washington and recent U.S. history.
             Spike Lee led the charge. His analytical four-hour documentary about New Orleans
concluded with an indictment of the Bush administration and American racism. The epic received a
standing ovation at its premier here.
             Lee’s perhaps overly long ‘I accuse’ entitled ‘When the Leeves Broke – A
Requiem in Four Acts’ has already taken him to the documentary maker’s Hall of Fame. This
is a masterpiece of a filmed autopsy of a massacre, in this case the devastation of New Orleans by the
hurricane Katrina. The verdict can only be one, as expressed by experts and officials on screen: â
€˜Criminal negligence.’
          â€˜When the Leeves Broke’ leaves no debris unturned to gather evidence pointing to
official guilt in allowing a disaster-in-the-making to happen and then taking a baffling long time to react
– and badly. In fact Lee’s film argues it was not the hurricane that caused the damage but years
of official apathy and mismanagement. Officials admit they knew and warned high water would arrive
one day with calamitous consequences for New Orleans and the city’s mainly ‘poor black’
          The impact of the film was such that after the screening some critics labeled the city’s
watery ordeal ‘the holocaust of the African-American people.’
           A second American documentary ‘The U.S. verses John Lennon’ received another
standing ovation. Its directors, David Leaf and John Scheinfeld, presented an impressive assembly of
facts and comments from insiders, including Nixon’s inner circle and the FBI, making it clear
President Nixon’s administration was determined – as one Nixon aide put it so succinctly on
screen- to ‘neutralize’ John Lennon.
             The ex-Beatle’s songs had converted him into an icon among anti-Vietnam War
protesters. He was immensely popular in the U.S. and world-wide. His songs embarrassed the
administration which used the FBI to tail him and allegedly tapped his phone. Immigration ordered him
out of the country. Lennon stayed and eventually won his case.
           The sensitively assembled documentary uses previously unseen footage provided by Lennonâ
€™s widow Yoko Ono. ‘The U.S. verses John Lennon’ not only comes at a time when another
Lennon is badly needed to galvanize opposition to war-mongering in Washington but  the
documentary offers food for thought about the singer-songwriter’s death. Was it caused by the
lethal bullets of a mentally disturbed fan or was it a well-planned and well-disguised assassination a la
Lee Harvey Oswald (the man who allegedly shot John F. Kennedy)?
            Whatever the correct answer the documentary offered a sinister new meaning to President
Bush’ warning: “You’re either with us or against us.�
             The third component of the American soul-searching came from Emilio Estevez whose
nostalgic ‘what if’ film saw an America that could have been. But this America, solving its social
problems at home rather then solving those of others abroad, was short-circuited by the bullets that
killed Bobby Kennedy in 1968.
               Called simply ‘Bobby (Work in Progress)â€� the film dwells on how the assassination
affected people who had hoped and dreamed of another America under Bobby’s presidency. On
that fateful day at the Hotel Ambassador in Los Angeles Estevez sees America at the crossroad of its
destiny - and obviously walking away in the wrong direction.
                The final component of the American anti-establishment quartet was supposed to be Oliver
Stone’s feature film “The World Trade Center.� But the film, eagerly expected as a political
statement by Stone, was roundly booed at its premier by an audience that could not forgive Stone for
coming to Venice with yet another tale of American heroics at a time when America’s hero image is
well below freezing point on The Old Continent.
                Perhaps the most controversial film was Alfonso Cuaron’s chilling futuristic story â
€˜Children of Men’ playing in the year 2027. A plethora of activists run amok, armed to the teeth,
fighting for their different versions of a revolution against a system that appears equally mad. In this
world, seen through a metal gray doomsday atmosphere in an endless penumbra of pollution and gun
smoke, illegal immigrants are caged and probably exterminated and a barren humanity has not seen
the birth of a baby in a decade.
                 For those who believe the perpetuation of the human species is of paramount importance
to the survival of the planet the film will be a rare vindication. After all survival and salvation in this film
seems dependent on the birth of a dark-skinned baby and the endeavor of his mother and the male
protagonist (a disillusioned former activist) to ferry the just-born baby safely through the killings and
mayhem to some kind of oasis for the human species, an oasis aptly named Tomorrow.  The problem
with the film is this: It could all turn out to be just like that and, worse, there may be no ‘Tomorrow.â
            Gratefully most film makers today seem more concerned with the present and not our
apocalyptic future.
            Stephen Frears’ irreverent ‘The Queen’ is a prime example how a tragedy can be
milked for political purposes. The movie, voted the most popular by audiences, takes a harsh look at
the way the British royal household reacted to the death of Princess Diana. It suffices to say Her
Majesty preferred to view the carcass of a 14-point stag to the corpse of the Princess. On the other
hand a more politically astute P.M. Tony Blair gains valuable political mileage by dubbing Diana ‘the
Peoples Princess’ while fanning the mass hysteria that follows her death through a more then
willing mass media.
           Helen Mirren won the Festival’s best actress award for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II.
          Yet what seems to stir directors most these days (or perhaps what appears to them most
commercially viable since the majority of their prospective customers can identify themselves with the
theme) is the fragility of relationships between couples and the loneliness and desperation of those
whose relationships failed or never took off.                 
                In this category Italy’s Gianluca Maria Tavarelli’s produced a melodramatic
masterpiece: “Don’t Make Any Dates Tonight,� a film that follows the psychological
problems of a number of couples starting with the noise from marathon love-making next door which
drives one couple to comparisons that cause them to split up.
                 This theme resurfaces again in an equally fine French film, Alain Resnais’ “Private
Fears in Public Places’ which won the Silver Lion award as the second best film at the Festival.
Resnais tells the tragic and comic tales of loneliness, a loneliness that mutates into sexual perversions
for both men and women. These in turn create fears of being discovered which in turn mutate into
timidity and excessive expectations from prospective partners.
                 Like in most movies with this motif it is no longer the women who suffer most after a
separation but the far more vulnerable male who becomes inconsolable, deranged and lonely. Instead
the female partner, economically independent, sexually liberated and emotionally more resilient, tends
to adjust more successfully to dramatic changes in life.
               |There is both a negative and socially critical element in European films this year. One of the
best is the French film ‘Le Pressentiment (The Premonition)’ by Jean-Pierre Darroussin, a
portrayal of a world consumed by egotism and materialism in which even a rich man’s generosity is
immediately suspected of ulterior motives. This subtle drama plays among the petit bourgeoisie of
Paris, among people who take innocence for guile and good manners for pretension. Only the
knowledge of imminent death can offer an explanation for a rich man’s ‘strange generosity.â
              And then there are the potboilers.
               Feng Xiaogang’s Yeyan (The Banquet) is an imperial saga where crimson blood gushes
in rivers and betrayal happens every few minutes during the 131-minute long epic. The saving graces
of the film are the ballet-like battles of sword-fighting warriors wearing masks - as well as some
spectacular photography. If nothing else this cinematic extravaganza leaves one message: Hiring film
extras in China must still be very cheap.
           More riveting is the Dutch World War II thriller Zwarthoek (Notebook), a Who Done It about the
shadowy figure in the Dutch resistance who betrayed to the Gestapo rich Jews escaping from the
Nazis. The film is a subtle warning not all heroes are kosher, not all villains deserve death.
             Douglas McGrath’s brilliant drama “Infamousâ€� strikes a blow against capital
punishment with the argument even the worst killer, just as the terrorist, is a human being, conditioned
by his past or his upbringing. The film tells the story of how author Truman Capote gathered the
material for his best-seller ‘In Cold Blood.’ Actor Toby Jones puts in a memorable performance
as the witty, skittish, egocentric and openly gay Capote. Bravo!
           â€˜The Soldier’s Star’ by Christophe de Ponfilly, the story of a Soviet soldier sent to
war in Afghanistan and captured by Afghan rebels, strikes out against the idiocy of war which creates
more wars and more violence, as the world has witnessed over the last years. The film is partially a
statement against the United States which financed the anti-Soviet Afghan war. The war created the
fanatical Taliban who turned out to be a greater scourge to the U.S. then the Soviets. It was the
Taliban that sheltered and fostered Usama bin Laden and his Al-Qaida network.
          Italy’s Emanuel Crialese tackles the plight of Italians migrating to the U.S. at the turn of the
century and his ‘Golden Gate’ wins a ‘consolation Silver Lion. His stark portrayal of the
draconian entry tests for immigrants in New York 100 years ago includes intelligence tests,
embarrassing health checks  and strip searches (because, as one immigration official explained,
stupidity is hereditary and we don’t want our people to be infected) is not far off the mark of todayâ
€™s ‘anti-terrorist’ procedures for new arrivals to the U.S.
         For cinema buffs it is clear now most of the celluloid industry exhibiting at the Venice Film
Festival moves further and further from the one portrayed by tinsel-town Hollywood.
            Take the Hollywood entry “The Devil Wears Prada.â€� A good theme of how young
people in America must kowtow to bosses to keep their jobs is spoiled by a completely unlikely ending,
but one that fits into Hollywood’s straightjacket for commercial success.
          Sadly the films of this ‘other’ cinema industry shown in Venice rarely reach the viewing
public because their producers cannot break into the distribution stranglehold of the American studios
and American interests - one reason why the majority of the public still sees the world today through
tinted made-in-USA spectacles. (ends)