Last week, our Monday Morning Poll topic was on the upcoming 9/11 films -- United 93, which comes out this month, and Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, starring Nicolas Cage, which opens August 11. At the same time we asked that poll question (and we're certainly not the only film site asking ourselves and our readers if it's too soon for a film about 9/11) -- the Seattle Arab and Iranian Film Festival (SAIFF) was running here in Seattle. It's a small festival, without the furious deal-making and hot "scene" of Sundance or the red carpets and brouhaha surrounding Cannes, or even the mild fervor that will be generated in Seattle at the end of May with the opening of the Seattle International Film Festival.
Yet now, perhaps more than ever before, smaller film fests -- especially the culture-centric fests like SAIFF, the Seattle Jewish Film Festival, which ran here recently, and lots of other smaller fests around the country -- matter. They matter because it is at these smaller fests that hundreds of seeds of social conscience and cultural understanding are sown. Hopefully some of those seeds will get picked up and scattered around at the larger fests where they'll get more press and attention, but even for those that don't score large play on the festival circuit, much less the Holy Grail of indie film, distribution, small film festivals give their voices a chance to be heard.
Before the screening of James Longley's Iraq in Fragments at SAIFF, a young woman, sister of the festival's producer, told the crowd at the packed theater about her brother, who is of Arabic descent, being stopped recently at the Canadian border and detained for over seven hours without food, drink, or access to his cell phone. Why? Because he is of Arabic descent, and that combined with the fact that he was traveling with trunk full of Arabic movies apparently was enough to tag him as a potential terrorist. Her voice shook as she recounted her tale, and the question flitted across my mind: if the director of the recent Jewish Film Festival had been traveling across the border from Canada with a trunkload of Jewish films, would that have been considered suspect? Would he have been detained for seven hours for the possession of movies? Are there other ethnicities on the border guards' list for whom it is considered suspect to travel with a trunkload of films? How about a Christian with a trunk full of Passion of the Christ and Veggie Tales DVDs? Would that raise a red flag?
Terrorism as a topic has perhaps never been more relevant than it is now. Integral Naked has a couple of short video clips that feature Ken Wilber discussing terrorism (they're about a third of the way down the page, and yes, you have to be a subscriber to view them, but there's a coupon for a free month on the site). In the clips, Wilber talks about how the Integral Institute studied terrorism across cultural and ethnic boundaries (you might be surprised by his assertion that more acts of terror committed within the United States are committed by Christians than Muslims.) What they found in their analysis is that what most terrorists, from the 9/11 hijackers to Timothy McVeigh to abortion clinic bombers, have in common, is an ethno-centric view of religion (that is, the belief that their God is the only God, and that everyone who doesn't believe in their God is wrong) and a narcissistic stage of ego development. The reason we are seeing an increase in terror acts, Wilber opines, is because there are more people at those particular stages of spiritual and philosophical development than ever before, making the world a boiling stew of terror acts just waiting to happen.
Fantastic, thanks for depressing me, you're probably thinking, but what the hell does any of this have to do with film? Everything. Film is a powerful medium with which to communicate political and social ideas, and it is also a potent medium with which to tell stories that communicate across cultural boundaries. Film, quite simply, has the power to make the world a smaller place, and because it is a largely visual medium that packs a lot of information into 90-minute, easily-digestible bites that our overloaded, over-scheduled lives can make room for, it has the ability to reach more people, more quickly and succinctly, than, say, a lengthy book from another culture, which we might not be as willing to invest our time in. I've learned more about widows in India through two films recently, for instance, than I ever would have been inclined to learn about that topic through other media. Film matters.
Jeff Wells has an excellent piece up revisiting a panel from 2001 in which Oliver Stone and New Line Cinema chair Robert Shaye (along with some other folks) went head-to-head in a verbal smackdown over the fascinating issue of why Hollywood studios don't make films that matter. Shaye tried to put the blame on the "tyranny of talent" -- big-name stars and directors demanding way more than they should for their work -- and he may have had a bit of a point about the ridiculousness of Hollywood paychecks, but that's a topic for another column. What Stone wanted to know, though, is why he could make Born on the Fourth of July in 1989 for about $16 million, a film that in 2001 would have been perhaps a $100 million film and probably wouldn't have been made. What, Stone demanded, had changed between 1989 to 2001 that made it that much harder to get Hollywood to produce films that actually matter? Stone laid the blame on the big-six studios and the six men who control them; these six studios, said Stone, own most of the smaller film companies as well, and thus they largely control what you see and what you don't see in movie theaters.
The truth at the heart of the matter, really, is that Hollywood studios and their heads don't give a rat's behind about social justice or changing the world or films that matter; they care about making money, which means making films that will rake in millions at the box office. Look at the top-grossing films of the '90s: Titanic, Star Wars: Episode One - The Phantom Menace, Jurassic Park, Independence Day, The Lion King, Forrest Gump, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Men In Black, The Sixth Sense, and Armageddon. Not that there aren't a couple of entertaining films on that list, but you have to admit, it's a little light on redeeming social value. Not that that's anything new, really. If you look at the top ten box office returns of the '60s and '70s, decades of enormous social change, you'll find films like The Exorcist and Goldfinger alongside Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 101 Dalmations, Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music.
All of this makes little film festivals like SAIFF that much more important. It is at festivals like these, in cities all around the world, that people have the opportunity to see the kinds of films that might never even make it to their local arthouse theater, much less the big multiplex. In addition to screening Iraq in Fragments, a film that is all the more relevant for its focus on humanity and lack of political overtone, the SAIFF also screened Passion (which I'll be reviewing later this week), a film about Islamic honor killings that has been banned in Syria, and Private, about the takeover of a Palestinian family's home by Israeli soldiers, which was Italy's original nominee in the Foreign Film category to this year's Oscars (denied entry because its primary language was not Italian).
The Seattle Jewish Film Festival brought us awesome films like Live and Become, about an Ethiopian boy who survived the famine by becoming Jewish, and Protocols of Zion, an exploration of anti-Semitism in the wake of 9/11. The Tribeca Film Festival, one of the larger film festivals in terms of sheer number of films, is screening Jesus Camp, the newest feature by Oscar-nominated documentary filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (The Boys of Baraka). I haven't even seen this film yet, but having talked to Grady about this look into Evangelical Christian kids being placed squarely from infancy on the "our Christian God is the only God" path and indoctrinated with Christian fundamentalism through videos and music, it frankly scares the bejesus out of me already. These are the kinds of films we need to see more of, because fundamentalist Christian kids being raised to fervently believe their God is the only God on one side, and fundamentalist Muslim kids being raised to believe that their God is the only God on the other, can only lead to more and more conflicts as each side grows to believe they are justified in hurting and killing the other in the name of Righteousness and earning bonus points in the afterlife.
We need indie filmmakers pounding on doors and asking why, and showing us uplifting stories from the Brazilian ghetto like Favela Rising and tales from the Bible Belt like Jesus Camp, and stories from the war front like Coca: The Dove of Chechnya and Iraq in Fragments. We need films like Water and White Rainbow, which explore the plight of widows in India, and Passion, which looks unflinchingly at honor killings. We need films that show us the similarities between our cultures as much as our differences. As we view films like United 93 and World Trade Center, which take us back to that terrible day, we need more films that help us as Americans shed our relentless solipsism, and open our eyes to the other cultures and countries with which we share this small blue marble we call home. We need independent filmmakers to continue to have the courage to pique our collective social conscience, because cultural division and ethno-centric religions on all sides are bringing us closer to a real Armageddon every day, and Nicolas Cage and Ben Affleck sure as hell aren't going to save us from it.