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Foreign Borne Identities: The 2007 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival

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By R. Emmet Sweeney

IFC News

[Photo: Left, Miroslaw Dembinski’s “A Lesson of Belarusian”; below, Shimon Dotan’s “Hot House”]

Conspicuously absent at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the subject of the Iraq War has slowly receded as the flashpoint topic of political filmmaking. Whether a matter of over-saturation or simply fatigue at the implacable pace of the ongoing tragedy in the Middle East, the war no longer dominates documentary film discourse. And such is the case with the 18th Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, being held at New York’s Walter Reade Theater from June 15th to the 28th. Of the 21 films and three shorts being screened, only one takes Iraq as its subject (James Longley’s short “Sari’s Mother”). While it’s not central to the program, the U.S. policies adopted because of the war (and 9/11) haunt the edges of a number of entries, including one of the opening night films, Lynn Hershman Leeson’s formally adventurous “Strange Culture.”

Documenting one of the most egregious breaches of civil liberties in post 9/11 America, Leeson tells the story of University at Buffalo art professor Steve Kurtz, suspected bio-terrorist. During one horrific night in 2004, Kurtz’s wife died unexpectedly from heart failure. When the medics arrived, they noticed (legal) bacteria cultures that Kurtz was to use for an art exhibit at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. They called the FBI, Kurtz was held, and he entered a legal nightmare he hasn’t fully escaped from. With the case still ongoing, Kurtz isn’t allowed to speak on certain issues, so Leeson hired Tilda Swinton and Thomas Jay Ryan for re-enactments of that material. Eventually the two actors break character, inserting their own commentary and joking with their real life models. There’s a looseness to this structure that allows Kurtz’s nerdy humor and
relentless optimism to shine through, making the film the story of an individual, not merely a trembling victim of incompetent government forces.

While President Bush’s domestic policies failed Kurtz, his broad foreign policy to democratize the Middle East offered a hope to many that has yet to be realized. Two elections fully backed by the U.S., in Afghanistan and Palestine, are investigated in “Enemies of Happiness” and “Hot House,” respectively. In the former, Danish filmmaker Eva Mulvad follows Afghani parliamentary candidate Malalai Joya in the run up to the 2005 vote, the first in 35 years. Joya is an extraordinary figure, a 28-year-old firebrand who had gained notoriety for being tossed out of the Grand Council of tribal elders for railing against corrupt warlords. In a country in which women’s rights is a new concept, Joya is hugely divisive, and has to employ a security team to escort her to nearby villages (outlying towns are too dangerous). She had already survived four attempts on her life by the time film picks up her story. As she urges rural women to vote, rescues a teen from marrying an 80-year old opium dealer, and shares tears with a 100-year old (female) veteran of the mujahedeen against the Russians, it seems like grassroots democracy has a chance to succeed. With the recent resurgence of the Taliban and the increasing weakness of the Karzai government, this hopeful sketch now looks like a mirage.

“Hot House” documents the 2006 Palestinian elections from a unique perspective — the inside of Israeli prisons. Fourteen Palestinian prisoners were elected to parliament, nine of which were members of Hamas. Director Shimon Dotan gained an incredible level of access to the inmates in the weeks before the election, eavesdropping on their discussions while outlining the martial discipline with which each subgroup runs their lives behind bars. Dotan’s basic premise is that the Israeli prison system politicizes extremists. The prisoners are given a free education from the Hebrew or Open Universities, and since two-thirds of the Palestinian population has been to jail, there’s a tightly knit network of support for any former or current inmate who runs for office. This is the network that helped thrust Hamas into a commanding majority in parliament, and forced the U.S. to withdraw all aid to the territory.

A country where free elections won’t occur anytime soon is Belarus, one of the most repressive governments in the world. “A Lesson of Belarusian” is a shot-on-the-fly account of the elections of March 2006, widely criticized by the U.S. and E.U. as unfair. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka changed the constitution so he could run for a third time — and used brutal strong-arm tactics to silence the opposition. The film follows the student movement centered around an outlawed school, the Lyceum. Banned for teaching the Belarusian language and its history (instead of the dominant Russian), the institution goes underground to agitate for the opposition leader Alyaksandr Milinkevich. A stunning indictment of Lukashenka’s regime, “A Lesson of Belarusian”‘s nervous cameras catch the pervasive fear and resentment of the populace, culminating in the massive demonstrations on Election Day and the ruthless beatings that followed. As with Joya, all the buoyant optimism of Election Day has come to naught. Lukashenka’s grip on power is as tight as ever, and the opposition is splintering. Just last month Milinkevich was voted out as leader, to be replaced by a rotating group of four that advocates engaging with the authoritarian government.

The most rigorous film in the series is “Manufactured Landscapes” (opening June 20th at Film Forum in NYC), directed by Jennifer Baichwal. It examines the effect China’s rapid industrialization is having on its landscape, seen through the eyes of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky. Graced by luminous photography of gutted ships, mountains of recyclable waste, and strip-mined valleys, it forces the viewer to confront the contradictions of globalization: these images of uncanny beauty, the result of great leaps in human intelligence, are also polluting the world that nurtures that same intelligence. The gargantuan scale of China’s modernization is embodied by the Three Gorges Dam, the largest ever planned, which has flooded numerous towns (one of which, Fengjie, is the subject of Jia Zhangke’s latest film, “Still Life”). With its energy needs outpacing its supply, China will do anything for help, including importing oil from the Sudan.

The closing night film, “The Devil Came on Horseback,” focuses on the genocide in Darfur as viewed by Brian Steidle, a Marine who took a job as cease-fire monitor with the African Union. Sadly, the film is in love with souped-up zoom-ins on maps and obviously staged scenes of Steidle popping off rounds. The basics of the conflict are covered adequately, with terrifying footage of a Janjaweed fighter reciting their slogan before an attack: “Kill the slaves.” Steidle became an impassioned advocate of U.S. intervention, and the film threatens to turn him into a hero, with far too much footage of him giving speeches and interviews stateside. When the Sudanese are finally allowed to speak for themselves, their eloquence erases any memory of the previous self-congratulation. For Steidle it’s the Iraq War that keeps the U.S. from stopping the slaughter. That’s a questionable proposition, but one indicative of the symbolic power the war still retains. It’s the open wound that bleeds through all current events.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….


IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.


IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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