Ebertfest 2011 - Saturday

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Short cuts. Four movies yesterday.

Sometime in the 1960s, a retired schoolteacher in Sweden decided to join a program set up to sponsor the education of children in Kenya. Hilde Back was herself originally German, a Holocaust survivor who was granted German residence in 1940. People in Sweden helped her, she explains in A Small Act (2010), and so she thought it was only right to help by sending up to $15 a month to pay for a Kenyan child's passage through secondary school. That child was Chris Mburu, and he went on to go to university and Harvard Law School, and now works on human rights and ending genocide for the UN. Somewhere around 1979, he and his sponsor lost track of each other. In 2003, grateful for the life her generosity had granted him and convinced that an ignorant populace is one that can be exploited and pushed to violence and conflict, he decided to set up a foundation to do what the Swedish sponsorship scheme had. He named it the Hilde Back Foundation. And then set about looking for his benefactor.

The film is a multi-layered story that begins with this search and their reunion and then moves on to follow the fortunes of three top primary school students from Mburu's home village and their struggles to compete for the few scholarships the foundation could afford to offer in its first year. (Then it was ten; since the success of the movie, there are 160 this year, 200 next.)

The filmmaker, Jennifer Arnold, noted that she began work on the documentary during the Bush administration, when it seemed particularly hopeless to her that a single person could have any impact or effect any meaningful change. When she came across this story, she realized it showed the opposite: that what starts as a small act can spread like waves in a pool to change the lives of many, many people.

Yes, it sounds like the kind of story Hollywood might produce as a feel-good tale. But a) it's actually true; and b) it was put together by two people in a garage who, with very little budget (a recurring theme at this year's festival), shot two weeks in Europe and three months in Kenya through the election and subsequent conflict.

The director, Oliver Schmidts, says that the terrible denial and fear of AIDS that has the community in Life, Above All afraid even to say its name was more characteristic of the Mbeki years in South Africa. The 13-year-old actress (now 14 and a half) who played the lead role, Keaobaka Makanyane, said that she and her friends were very well educated about HIV/AIDS. In the country where denial, ostracism, whispers, and echoes of Shirley Jackson's story "The Lottery" are common, the girl with the courage to speak truth is taking an enormous risk.

There were a lot of classical and poetry references I missed in Leaves of Grass, but this was the most fun of the movies we've seen since My Dog Tulip, and the writer/director/actor Tim Blake-Nelson was the most articulate and erudite of all the guests in describing the way the many references were like echoed colors in abstract art. Don't let that deter you: this is quite a romp whose end is only predictable because of the principle that no one who leaves the small American town they grew up in to reinvent themselves in a better (possibly more ordered) life and achieves great success by doing so, who is then forced to go back for a quick, unwanted visit - ever manages to leave. But the journey that gets this character there is full of many bizarre turns. Who knew that death by crossbow was a thing in Oklahoma?

"The way to a man's heart is through his stomach" is in fact much more true of women - partly because they do a lot more of the cooking. I blame the prawns for this romantic tragedy in grand Italian style. If 45365 is folk music, I Am Love is opera.


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This page contains a single entry by Wendy M. Grossman published on May 1, 2011 2:59 PM.

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