ND/NF 08: Three Films Reviewed

I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t make it to more of the New Director’s/New Films series which ended its 37th season on April 6th and all three of the films I saw were all worthy of distribution. They include Trouble The Water, a Katrina documentary co-directed by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal; XXY, Argentine director Lucía Puenzo’s narrative film about a couple’s struggle raising their hermaphrodite teenager; and Slingshot Hip Hop, a documentary about the Palestinian rap music scene in Israel, directed by newcomer Jackie Reem Salloum.
Trouble the Water
Directors: Tia Lessin, Carl Deal
Executive Producers: Danny Glover, Joslyn Barnes, Todd Olson, David Alcaro
Producers: Tia Lessin, Carl Deal
Cinematography: PJ Raval, Nadia Hallgren, Kimberly Roberts
Editor: T. Woody Richman (additional editing by Mary Lampson)
Music: Davidge/Del Naja, Black Kold Madina
U.S., 2007, 94 minutes
Trouble the Water is simply the best Katrina documentary I’ve seen to date. No disrespect to Spike Lee (When The Levees Broke) or the other noble works that have come out since the disaster (Axe in the Attic and Katrina Diary to name just two) but this movie hits every note just right. Lessin and Deal went down to New Orleans just five days after Katrina hit with no clear idea of what they were going to find. To their good fortune -and ours– they happened to meet Kimberly Roberts and her husband, Scott, a recently homeless couple at the Superdome. Prior to Katrina, the two had been living a very difficult existence in the impoverished Ninth Ward by selling drugs, something they touch upon in a one of the film’s more moving moments. The disaster, as tragic as it was, ended up affording them the opportunity to learn more about themselves than they would have otherwise; one lesson being that they were living miserable lives and were grateful to make a change.
Adding to that life-changing revelation is the fact that Kimberly, who had gotten hold of a video camera not long before the hurricane hit, ended up filming portions of her experience. Those clips, are both horrific and funny and much of it ended up incorporated into Trouble the Water. Hearing Kimberly’s remarks over her often manic camera work is another of the film’s amazing aspects. Her anxiety is palpable as the water rises inch by inch, engulfing their home. Though her regional dialect is at times hard to understand, the spiritual change she goes through over the ensuing days and weeks is very clear. As she and Scott confront the enormity of their situation, rather than lie down and give up, they rise above their circumstances.

They invite a few lucky strangers to ride with them in a truck they managed to acquire and as they drive out of New Orleans we are left with the image of those desperate folks who were not so fortunate. Lessin and Deal don’t try and paint a rosy rise-up-from-the-ashes type of picture either. Watching the documentary, we are once again faced with how FEMA and the rest of the U.S. government chose to turn its back on so many desperate Americans.
Kimberly Roberts’ personal way of fighting her depression was through writing rap songs, an effective means of emotional survival. The culminating moment of the film is when she spontaneously performs a recent rap. Looking straight into the camera, she explodes on screen, full of anger, love and fear. The moment builds into an astonishing and rare moment filmgoers live to see. The co-directors must have been euphoric when they looked at what they shot, knowing they had just earned the price of admission. At the screening I attended, the room erupted in cheers and applause afterwards; and why not after all? Her story symbolizes the best of the American spirit, that of optimism and altruism, values that are utterly missing from this nation’s leadership.
Director: Lucía Puenzo
Executive Producers: Fernando Sirianni
Producers: José Maria Morales, Luis Puenzo
Associate Producer: Fabienne Vonier
Cinematography: Natasha Braier
Editors: Hugo Primero, Alex Zito
Music: Andrés Goldstein, Daniel Tarrab
Argentina, 2007, 86 minutes
XXY is the often moving story of an Argentine family’s struggle in raising their intersexual teenager; the term hermaphrodite is no longer the appropriate argot. Alex (Inés Efron) has been raised as a girl for most her fifteen years but at the point where the story begins, she is moving away from that identity. Her refusal to take her myriad medications and her recent acting out is cause for much concern by her parents. The three live in a small town on the Uruguayan coast having fled from Buenos Aires years earlier. The father, Kraken, played by the wonderful Argentine star, Ricardo Darín, works saving tortoises from the nets of local fishermen and the film is filled with fine symbolic nuances like the fact that the only way to determine a tortoise’s sex is by removing its shell.
Both Kraken and his wife Suli (Valeria Bertuccelli) have worked very hard at keeping their daughter’s circumstances discrete, something easier to do in their remote home. However, with Alex’s budding sexuality becoming harder to suppress, so too is her secret. It is at this point where the story of XXY begins, when Kraken and Suli receive visitors into their home.
The father of that family, Ramiro (Germán Palacios) is a plastic surgeon and wants to operate on Alex completing her gender assignment. However, Ramiro still remains an unevenly conceived character and some of his behavior late into the picture doesn’t make much sense. Not only that, with Alex’s parents still being so unsure about how they feel, it is puzzling as to why they would invite the family into their home in the first place. Another problem is Ramiro’s relationship with his son, a sexually confused teenager. That character Álvaro (Martín Piroyansky) is another of the film’s wonderful roles and it is a joy watching him discovering his own sexual identity through his relationship with Alex. The relationships in this film, at times both simple and complex at once, are XXY‘s greatest strength. The movie has a poetic beauty to it, reminding me of other recent character-based films like The Diving Bell & The Butterfly and Away From Her. At film’s center is Alex and the choice she must come to terms with. Making difficult choices is an essential part of growing up; in Alex’s case doing nothing at all might be the hardest choice of all.
Slingshot Hip Hop
Director, Producer and Editor: Jackie Reem Salloum
Producer: Rumzi Araj
Producer, Editor, Visual Effects Supervisor: Waleed Zaiter
Original Music: DAM, PR, Abeer, Arapeyat & Mahmoud Shalabi
U.S., 2008, 80 minutes
Jimmy Carter kept coming to mind as I watched Slingshot Hip Hop, a first feature-length documentary by Palestinian-American Jackie Reem Salloum. His reputation has come under intense fire since his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid was published the Fall of 2006. His critics would do well to see Jonathan Demme’s documentary Jimmy Carter Man From Plains. It makes a sober case for the plight of those refugee Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank. In no small way, Slingshot Hip Hop, makes as effective a case but perhaps in a quieter more down to earth way. As has been shown in so many documentaries and narrative films over the past few years, music can be an extremely effective tool of protest and Slingshot Hip Hop follows the first Palestinian-Arab rap band, DAM, and the movement they spawned. Heavily influenced by American black hip hop culture, DAM started up as a group of young men just having their kicks. It didn’t take long for them to realize how powerful their existence was and that their message could be equally so. The nature of their lyrics necessarily changed and they started rapping about the struggle of the Palestinian, about selling drugs and the unfair treatment of women. They visited schools, talking to and inspiring legions of young kids. Their uplifting message attracted Palestinians of all ages to their shows, something rappers in the U.S. have lost site of. The arc of Slingshot Hip Hop regards a newer rap group, PR (Palestinian Rappers) whose members are virtual prisoners of Gaza, and their efforts to get their own music out. Watching these young people emerge as artistic personalities is an awesome experience to have caught on film. I was wondering what Jimmy Carter might have made of the documentary. I imagine he would have liked it very much indeed.

Photos top to bottom: Kimberly and Scott Roberts© Elsewhere Films; Arapeyat from Akka © Slingshot Hip Hop.

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