Saturday, November 30, 2013

Troublemaking Geniuses

On my last day I watched three movies about troublemaking geniuses.  Sepideh, an aspiring Iranian seventeen year old astronomer, is held back in her wishes to attend the university and study physics; World Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali is not allowed to use the name, given him by the Nation of Islam, and prevented from boxing when he refuses the draft to fight in Viet Nam;  and Ai Weiwei is held without charges for 3 months on the suspicion of, variously, subverting the state, pornography and, finally, tax evasion.

* * *

Sepideh: Reaching for the Stars - Nov 29

Sepideh's fails in her attempts to win a free scholarship by making the case that the Tomb of Cyrus was an ancient observatory.  She makes observations about the position of the sun on the equinox 2500 years ago, among other things, but its clear the men taking her application have no idea what she is talking about.  Her father dead, her mother incapable of irrigating their land, her uncle has taken over as patriarch of the family and he disapproves of her spending all night stargazing in the astronomy club.  Even the club's mentor, who recognizes that Sepideh's talent, wants to keep her in the community to inspire other youth to do astronomy, so really no one supports her dream to go the university.  Things turn around for Sepideh only after she writes Anousheh Ansari, the first Iranian woman in space, and receives a phone call from her in return.  Then an educated man in the astronomy club proposes to marry her and tells her he will support her dream to study physics, even if it requires her to go abroad.  In the final scene of the movie she is meeting with Ansari in New York.

I can't help but wonder about the influence the documentary filmmaker Berit Madsen also had on Sepideh's life.  The Danish social anthropologist had somehow learned that Iranian youth were trying to build an astronomical observatory in a drought stricken region of Iran, and she seems to have chosen Sepideh as the central character for her ethnography because she highlights the conflict between traditional and contemporary gender roles in Iran.  More women than men finish secondary education, same as in the US, but graduation from universities is less common.  In an early scene the mother reminds her she should learn to cook, and Sepideh retorts that cooking won't get her anywhere.  Her uncle also threatens to kill her if "something happens" on her nightly astronomy adventures with a mix of women and men.  

To be fair to both her uncle and her mother, Sepideh's challenge to norms would not have helped her much, if she weren't smart, driven and very lucky--so they were simply trying to let her down easy, given that they could not afford to pay her way through the university.  We see a grim image of her future in her Astronomy Club mentor, who is refused at every appeal for the funds to finish the observatory and who lives alone with his complaining and very ill mother.  Its not clear that there would be any way for an intelligent young Iranian woman to succeed in the sciences,  unless she were offered assistance by the wealthy Ansari --and perhaps, more indirectly, by the Danish filmmaker.

What makes this film work its magic is the juxtaposition of the barren daytime landscape and the rich sky above at night, sparkling with stars.  The poster depicts Sepideh carrying her huge 14" telescope up the hill under these stars, and that pretty much sums up the story.  That she overcomes the restrictions put upon her by tradition and poverty gives hope for women in Iran, and stands out as pretty much the only "feel good" documentary I watched in this entire festival.

Trials of Muhammad Ali

Not just another Ali movie, Trials focuses on the turbulent period of the late 60s, when the heavyweight joined Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam and, at once, refused the draft.  His financial and legal backers in Louisville don't renew his contract when he is forbidden to box, and Ali has to support his family through paid speaking engagements on college campuses.  His audiences have a mixture of sympathy for his conscientious objection and antipathy towards his position against Martin Luther King's civil rights message.  Instead of dreaming that white children and black children would some day play together, the Nation of Islam called white people "devils" and argued for a kind of jim-crow separatism, this time enforced by the crow.

In the Q&A afterwards we learned that both the director Bill Siegel and the producer Gordon Quinn were themselves conscientious objectors and heard Ali speak with conviction against the war in that period. That the world heavyweight boxing champion of the world stood against violence was an irony not lost on anyone, but this made him immune to the accusation of cowardice and, because he had so much financially to lose by objecting, Ali weirdly made an ideal spokesman for the anti-war movement.   Ali argued that he had more in common with the oppressed Vietnamese, and that although he might fight a war for Allah he was unwilling to fight for White America.  Surprisingly, there was legal precedent for his case, because the Jehovah's Witnesses, unlike the Quakers, had won their case for conscientious objection on similar grounds--not pretending to be pacifists, but only willing to go to war for their own specifically religious causes.   The Viet Nam war was so divisive by the early 70s,  that as his case worked its way up the courts of appeal all the way to the Supreme Court, the U.S. Justice System only wanted to keep him out of the war, without setting a bad legal precedent.  In the end his case was resolved on a technicality, because the original courts had denied Ali's sincerity as an objector (suggesting that he was lying, which is different than claiming he was simply not qualified to object) and this somehow preempted judgement against him.  

I don't know if the film makers did this deliberately, but this documentary follows the genre conventions of the boxing irish priest story.  Tough kid from a tough neighborhood learns to fight not just with his fists for fame, but with his spirit for God.  With the most recognizable name and face on the planet, Ali may have started out trying to overcome the racism of his day, even reflecting it back for a time in the last 60s, but his persecution more closely resembles that of a prophetic leader.  In fact, the Nation of Islam's prophet Elijah Mohammad was sent to jail for refusing the draft--and he died there--whereas Allah seems to intercede with a miracle at each point to keep Mohammad Ali moving forward in his cause.  

In the cold start of the movie we see Ali being interviewed by live satellite from England on an American talk show.  He smiles when introduced but before he can even start the first guest of the host calls him a cowardly two-faced hypocrite, hiding from his patriotic obligations overseas.  Ali's face falls, eyes turned down, but he does not rise to anger.  It is the same face that Parkinson's Disease has left him with, not the characteristic boasting smile we associate with Ali the Boxer.  He wears this fallen face decades later, even when he receives the President's Medal of Honor and lights the Olympic torch, but we don't know what is going on inside.  Although the disease has taken away his control of his muscles, he still controls his mental faculties, and I can't help thinking he is thinking that we are all trying to make up for our own past bad behavior.  

Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case

Andreas Johnsen's biopic about Weiwei begins with his release from confinement.  For three months this chinese designer, voted the most important artist in the world, was kept in a tiny low-ceilinged cell, where two guards stood over him--not just outside the cell, but inside with him, one pacing diagonally between the head of the bed and the toilet.  He has this claustrophobic intimidation sculpted from memory in exquisite life-sized detail and the six pieces (Weiwei eats, Weiwei sleeps, etc.) are disassembled, so as to evade censorship in customs, and shipped to the Venice Biennale at the end of the documentary.  

No shrinking wallflower Weiwei speaks frankly about why he must resist the party officials' methods of intimidation, even at the risk of further psychological or physical torture.  The art which has provoked the State censors includes "pornography"--photos of nudes (their genitals and nipples covered by photos of Weiwei himself) and English swear words--"Fuck off!" which translates into Chinese as "Non-cooperative Communicator!"  At most this in America and Europe this would be mildly ironic, punk or deconstructionist and in the west we know Weiwei best for the birds' nest design of the Olympic Stadium in Beijing we all saw on television.  There were no formal charges during the three months he was interrogated, and it is his design company "Fake LTD" that was finally charged (with tax evasion).  

I don't even think that the failures of the Chinese political and legal system are the true focus of Andreas Johnsen, though this failure is taken for granted in the film.  What the film focuses on is the designer's playful means of resisting intimidation.  In one scene he surprises the party agents following him and follows them in his car as they flee the scene.  He also sets up webcams so that his every move can be watched by anyone online (not just the State).  Western visitors are not exempt from his playful trickery either.  An art collector, who wants to market as solid gold coins a series of zodiac heads Weiwei created, is told he should make them out of cheap plastic and sell them for the price of gold but give away the gold ones.  "To take apart the concept of gold," Weiwei says.  The collector can't tell if he is joking or serious and neither can we.  Although he is prevented from speaking freely to western media he offers a journalist to record him taking a shower instead, and Johnsen himself finally shoots this shower (from the waist up) in the final scene with credits.  

* * *

Everyone instinctively roots for a troublemaking genius.  She or he is the child we once were, pushing the envelope of rules our parents once wrapped around us.  Whether it is changing gender roles in Iran, the changing racial and religious politics of the 60s in America, or the changes the Communist Party fears in China, these films remind us how painful change is historically.  If, as Weiwei himself claims, the State would collapse in a month if they allowed free speech on the radio--its no wonder they are paranoid and uses repressive tactics.  Why else would it park 20 police cars in front of Weiwei's compound and then just leave when he comes out and yells at them. 

Judging by the rapid social changes since the 60s in America, one can also see why the Grand Ayatollah would fear these changes might come to Iran.  One might reasonably guess most women are not fighting for their right to become astrophysicists, but want the social freedom and consumer conveniences we take for granted in the West: the right to work and move freely, but also to have their hair styled and wear makeup, watch racy movies…Louis Vuitton handbags!  Our consumer culture has gone global and viral and it wins, whenever it goes head to head with the values of traditional society, at least among youth.  How to contain and control this change is one of the basic problems facing tyranny today.  

There is also a problem with all narratives promoting the freedom of special individuals.  Despite what our parents told us, most of us are not very special and exercise our hard-won freedom by playing video games, watching TV, and eating too much.  For the past week I have played no video games, watched TV, nor even ate much--but visiting the Van Gogh museum, photographing tall women on bicycles, and enjoying hand-crafted Indonesian soups are just the high-brow equivalents.  They may be aesthetically more interesting, but psychologically they are still diversions.

In my case, I am taking a break from the pressures of my work and family--but the very nature of vacation takes for granted that you will return to all the same habits, for good or for bad, when you return.  The whole point is to get back enough energy to continue, not to change anything.  This is why vacation is required at work.  It is a prescribed, scheduled freedom because, as industrial psychologists have proved, it improves our productivity.  But what we need is less financial productivity at work and more free productivity at play.

Whether we work for home improvement, future college or retirement savings, or just for more vacation--the money we earn for our day's labor can't possibly be worth what we give up in the process.  Its not our freedom per se, but life itself, the time to experience our children growing up, to continue learning and improving the skills we don't use to make money.  Every day we exchange a little more of our short life span for the less fragile and decidedly more fungible form of real estate.  But the genius of the genius is not to make this devil's bargain.  Although Ali and Weiwei have both profited immensely, and Sepideh may well outstrip the wealthiest landowners in her small town under Ansari's benefaction, these three don't struggle for the right to be more productive, financially, but just to be able to produce, freely.  They want to do and make and learn what they want.

The documentary film makers are also blessed with this freedom, even though they come to IDFA to pitch new films and hope to get distribution for the ones they have already made.  Only a damn fool would try to get rich by going into the business of making documentaries and to devote one's life to producing something with no promise of compensation is a rare and exceptional, maybe even exalted, privilege.  It doesn't even matter if the film fails--I am not saying all artists are geniuses! They give hope to the rest of us, even if they fail.  Like the speck of yeast that leavens the bread, the genius both creates and reveals the structure of the society in which they live-- simply by pushing up against it.  But if you follow the metaphor literally and realize what comes of the yeast colony in the end, the genius also seems to ends in some kind of holocaust.  

No comments:

Post a Comment