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Seattle Film Fest 2011: “Black Venus,” Reviewed

Seattle Film Fest 2011: “Black Venus,” Reviewed (photo)

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Words like “punishing” and “challenging” have been following around Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Black Venus” ever since it premiered at the Venice and New York Film Festivals last year, adjectives that could be considered misleading when the film’s greatest flaw is it’s too simple. The true story of Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman, an African woman exploited for her shapely figure by freak shows in Europe and coveted by perverts and scientists alike in 1815 for an unusually elongated labia, it offers the chance for Kechiche to apply the largely observational, unemotional style that he employed for the 2008 modern masterpiece “The Secret of the Grain” in a historical context.

Whereas “The Secret of the Grain” was full of rich characters we would come to know throughout its course, “Black Venus” features just two varieties: black and white, not only in the color of their skin, but in their behavior as the film is populated only by the Europeans who seek to exploit Saartjie (Yahima Torres), the exotic foreign export whose gradual acceptance of being exploited makes her an inconvenient martyr. For the audience, she is also a mostly unsympathetic one as she downs alcohol nearly nonstop to dull her senses and wears a blank expression, save for the occasional tear that rolls down her cheek.

“I’m not a harlot,” she says plainly to Hendrick Caezar (Andre Jacobs), the man who takes her from Cape Town and convinces her she would make money by dancing and showing a little skin. But by the time we see the act in London, Saaterje is growling from a wooden cage to the delight of audiences who excitedly rush the stage when Caezar encourages them to feel her considerable derriere. A woman of limited intellect, even she knows this is the beginning of a slippery slope and in subsequent performances, mopes around the stage like a sad elephant, which feels only natural when she’s treated literally like a caged animal.

05272011_BlackVenus2.jpgAs “Black Venus” progresses, Saartjie seems resigned to such conditions, drifting off the stage to perform in front of common folk to the kinky private parties of the French bourgeoisie and eventually into the laboratories of Paris Royal Academy of Medicine where she’s poked, prodded and sketched, with her last bits of dignity being stripped away alongside the few skimpy bits of clothing she’s been able to cling onto. It’s Kechiche’s great strength that he doesn’t insist on the audience’s empathy, allowing the accumulation of small compromises, if they can even be called that in Saartjie’s dire situation, to pile up towards a tragic conclusion that doesn’t feel forced or manipulative. However, as a dramatic narrative, “Black Venus” never entirely adds up, existing like its main protagonist as an object of intrigue resigned not to speak up for itself.

Yet it is also not a film to be written off, either because its bleak nature or its refusal to engage in the traditional comforts often employed to let the audience for such films as these breathe. There are people who come to Saartjie’s aid — an all-white contingency from the African Institution of England bring her first manager Caezar in front of the courts and she’s shown some kindness by the assistant (Elina Löwensohn) of her second (Olivier Gourmet) – but their limited attempts at help only illuminate the horrors of the society around her at which she can only stare in frustration. A stoic Torres, who is making her feature debut, says few words throughout “Black Venus”‘s two-and-a-half-hour running time, but remains enough of an enigma to keep the film compelling, even when its only direction is a downward spiral.

For Kechiche, “Black Venus” may be a better example of running in place, a film that though immaculately designed from its muted color palette to its grand sets doesn’t feel as though it’s doing much of anything but recounting a painful history that for most would be best left in the past. One could argue its cycle of degradation gets old quickly — charges that the exploitation of Saartjie (and the actress playing her) extend beyond the story to the filmmakers have been leveled by some — but that would ignore the cycle of far more interest to Kechiche of not letting history repeat itself. That he succeeds even partially makes it worthwhile viewing.

“Black Venus” currently does not have distribution in the U.S. It will play at the Seattle Film Festival once more on May 29th.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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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…

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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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 IFC.com and the IFC app.

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