“Tip Of My Tongue” Premieres In S.F. And Reviews From the 20th United Nations Association Film Festival

by on October 31, 2017

Night Minister Lyle Beckman answers the Crisis Line, Photo@ James Hosking

On November 3, 2017, the San Francisco Cinematheque will present a screening of Lynne Sachs’ documentary “Tip of My Tongue” at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.  Sachs will appear in person for the San Francisco premiere of this gem from the 40th Mill Valley Film Festival.

For those who are curious about the film, what follows is a reprint of the review that ran during its Mill Valley appearance:

Lynne Sachs’ lively and always fascinating documentary “Tip Of My Tongue” breathes life and even laughter into collective remembrances of the last third or so of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century.

Sachs is turning 50.  As with other people reaching that milestone, it’s an occasion for looking back.  But rather than conducting an exercise in solo reminiscence, the filmmaker invites friends and acquaintances who are around the same age for a weekend of remembering moments from their lives over the past five decades.

Sachs’ record of her experiment avoids airless nostalgia to become a living breathing chronicle.  The film’s not concerned with calling up memories for a particular year.  The frequent sight of years being written on surfaces other than paper unchains the participants’ memories from the fetters of the concrete past.   Instead, the recalled stories possess both present-day parallels and a small resurrected detail from the past.   A childhood recollection of the Kennedy assassination seems like a foreshadowing of children’s lives ruined by the possibility of gun violence.  A biracial man’s memory reminds the viewer of just how relatively recently interracial relationships were still illegal.

There’s an air of playfulness to the whole project.  Excerpts from the filmmaker’s poetry over the years deflate the seriousness of momentous events such as the Moon Landing.   Expected period footage coexists with irreverent animation.  One memory play evokes the joy of sitting underneath a tree and chatting with friends on a summer day.

Sachs’ unconventional documentary style will disconcert more literal-minded viewers.  Sometimes one person’s story is cut off midway through on the soundtrack and replaced with a tale from a different person.  Nor does Sachs directly identify any of the participants, even herself.  Some repeated shots are metaphors for the process Sachs is chronicling.

But the filmmaker’s approach pays off.  Sachs’ film shows that living with and through a momentous event doesn’t have to diminish our own personal experiences.

***

Imam Ani Zonneveld embodies the theme of “Respect” that the United Nations Association Film Festival chose for its 20th edition.  She’s pursuing a progressive interpretation of Islam that allows for men and women to worship in the same room together.  Her faith and practice has not been shaken by open hostility from extremely conservative practitioners of Islam.  Zonneveld’s interpretation of the Qur’an as a source of progressive ideas makes one think of the Latin American Catholic priests who followed liberation theology.

“Al Imam,” a short by Omar Al Dakheel, gives viewers a glimpse of this remarkable religious barrier breaker.  Admittedly, the number of people at her services is small compared to those in more traditional Islamic mosques.  But the hostility level of the threats thrown at her indicates that her existence challenges more religiously-based sexist world views.

Given his calmly incendiary subject, Al Dakheel doesn’t do Zonneveld any favors by avoiding engaging with her ideas.  It’s nice that this rare female Imam is raising her daughter by herself and has a pet cat.  But those humanizing touches mean little without a broader public context to play off against.

***

By contrast, Eduardo Rufeisen’s “The Evil Within” spends its entire running time engaging with various psychological theories to explain why the Holocaust happened.  Switching back and forth among four academic psychologists, Rufeisen’s film discusses everything from Adorno’s theory of authoritarian personalities to a model for analyzing the factors which make a Holocaust-like event possible.

Despite a talking heads structure mixed with frequently disturbing period imagery, the cinematic results never feel like either a dry lecture or an arid panel discussion.  The film’s four interview subjects may not be in the same room together.  Yet Rufeisen uses cutting among expanded upon or disagreed with ideas to create the sense of a conversation aimed at gleaning some truths about the causes of the Holocaust and other historic genocides.  The Cambodian and Rwandan genocides do get mentioned and discussed.  Sadly, Turkey’s extermination of the Armenians is left off the table.

That shortcoming aside, the film does dispel some mistaken beliefs about the roots of the Nazi Holocaust.  For example, the Nazis leaders were not psychopaths.  Nor could the Nazis be held solely responsible for the scope of the Holocaust’s death toll.  Also getting questioned is the explanatory value of both Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments and the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Attentive viewers will learn intriguing bits of information, such as how the Jews’ assimilation into German society failed to defang anti-Semitic attitudes.   Rufeisen’s salon-like film will not appeal to everyone.  But for those wanting a place to wrestle with such issues as the fine line between understanding the genocidal mentality and apologizing for that mentality, “The Evil Within” offers such an intellectual venue.

***

In less than six minutes, Griselda San Martin’s short “The Other Side” encapsulates the tragedy of forced separation of families through deportation.  Friendship Park abuts the one spot in the U.S.-Mexico border fence where people on each side of the fence can catch glimpses of each other.  One of the weekly visitors to this metal window is the 67-year-old mariachi singer Jose Marquez.  He comes to catch up with his daughter Susana.  Through words and glances and even a corrido, the father inadequately tries to communicate the intensity of his longing to hold his daughter again.

San Martin parcels out information slowly about Marquez’ situation.  Her creative decision pays off after the final bit of heart-breaking data is revealed.  The viewer understands that Marquez’ situation makes it likely that he’ll never be physically re-united with his daughter and his grandchildren again.  But the clichéd statement that ends the film lessens “The Other Side”’s power.

***

Despair might also be a reasonable reaction while watching Rupert Russell’s “Freedom For The Wolf.”  Seeing Hong Kong citizenry value economic materialism more than political freedom would cause Patrick Henry’s corpse to spin at atomic centrifuge speed.

But that moment is just one of many depressing moments in this international survey of hollow democracies.  In these countries, elections occur and leaders are chosen.  Yet the core values of democracy, the freedom to dissent and the protection of minorities in particular, are actively curbed and undermined by the state.

Russell’s film takes the viewer to Hong Kong, Tunisia, India, Japan, and the United States to see the various techniques for undermining democracy.  Religious nationalism and police abuse of the citizens are just two such methods.

The film achieves mixed results, with some segments having greater emotional impact than others.  The Tunisia segment will depress viewers who had been buoyed by the tentative optimism of “A Revolution In Four Seasons.”  The Japan section, dealing with police crackdowns on public dancing, feels inconsequential compared to the power of the earlier segments.

“Freedom For The Wolf”’s strongest segment concerns India and the seeming entrenchment of Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party BJP.  The country’s politicians may tout the country as the world’s largest democracy.  Yet seeing the comedians of “All India Trash Talk” get heavy public criticism for their boundary-pushing humor is a harbinger of the country’s rotten political values.  More chilling is the use of anti-Muslim hatred as a medium of violent political bonding.  India’s anti-Muslim riots have been mentioned in American news media.  But the Anti-Love Jihad campaign enshrines Hindu religious intolerance in a manner reminiscent of Wirathu’s anti-Rohingya efforts.  So stomach-churning is the India segment that the only reasonable viewer response to yet another Kellyanne Conway-like lie from  BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav about the country’s anti-democratic climate is the mental upraising of middle fingers.

The United States segment needed a bit more acerbity than Russell delivers.  The Citizens United decision blessing big money influence on politics gets touched on.  Police abuse as seen in Ferguson and Baltimore reminds viewers why America has become less democratic.   Yet appeals to racial and religious hatred get omitted.  A long-time observer of the American political scene would even point out that the political rot in U.S. democracy started with Newt Gingrich’s vile characterization of bipartisanship as date rape.  Rejecting the process of finding commonly agreed solutions metastatized into the GOP’s current “my way or the highway” policy.  Rather than an aberration, Donald Trump is the precise embodiment of that fatally diseased attitude.

“Freedom For The Wolf” will be a good introductory primer for those unfamiliar with the worldwide crisis facing democracy.  But any problems of depth are redeemed by Russell’s ultimate refusal to give up hope for this political system.

***

The James Hosking short “Even In Darkness” also finds hope and even empathy in the direst circumstances.  The embodiment of that hope is the film’s subject, San Francisco Night Minister Reverend Lyle Beckman.  Each night between 10 PM and 4 AM, he and his fellow ministers walk the streets of San Francisco’s Tenderloin District.  They provide everything from a sympathetic ear to simple human contact for addicts, the homeless, and other people in need.

Hosking presents seven of Reverend Beckman’s encounters.  Street maps orient the viewer to the location of the conversations, which usually take place on Tenderloin sidewalks.  The people the Reverend meets range from a self-styled prophet to a woman complaining about illegal immigrants taking charitable food donations and selling them.  Even if the viewer is not there in person when these conversations take place, they cannot help but feel the Reverend’s goodness and kindness radiating off the screen.

A humbling fact mentioned at the film’s end is that a typical year sees Reverend Beckman and his fellow ministers conducting 10,000 conversations.  These conversations will not result in a recipient suddenly getting a McMansion and a Rolls Royce.  But what those chats deliver are unstated reassurances that someone will be present to provide support in life’s darkest moments.

***

Over 150 years ago, America was treated as a land of opportunity, a Gold Mountain for the Chinese.  As Christiane Badgley’s entertaining and ultimately thoughtful documentary “Guangzhou Dream Factory” shows, China has now ironically become the land of opportunity for Africans.

Every year, half a million Africans head to China’s trading port of Guangzhou.  They are buyers from such countries as Nigeria, Senegal, and Mali.  Their plan is to buy Chinese-made goods and to sell them back in their home countries for a profit.  Badgley’s film introduces viewers to those African visitors who decide to stay on in China to improve their economic lot.

“Guangzhou Dream Factory” doesn’t dispute that some truth exists about the “money growing on trees” claims about China.  Beginning with the Nigerian pioneers who re-sold Chinese made mobile phones in the 1990s, the Africans interviewed here do everything from run a restaurant specializing in a less heavily spiced cuisine to running a jewelry shop.  Kingsley, the most successful of the interviewees, came to Guangzhou from Cameroon.  Though he’s younger than 40, he owns a suit-making factory, a paper factory, and runs the King’s Goods service which allows other Africans to ship smaller lots of goods home for re-sale.

Yet the promises of China opportunities are overshadowed by far darker realities.  Agents promising job placement in China turn out to be prostitution scammers.  Many Africans staying in Guangzhou find the Chinese government is stingy at best about issuing official work visas.  They must get by through either under the table work or hoping the authorities don’t crack down on them for overstaying their tourist visas.

The Chinese government’s disinclination to open its immigration doors wider results in making life for Guangzhou’s Africans very tenuous.  Marrying a Chinese citizen doesn’t afford security.  Even Kingsley talks about how this immigration uncertainty has curbed any business expansion plans he had in China.  The most saddening anecdote, though, involves a kindergarten-age African child named Cherish who’s grown up thinking of herself as Chinese.

Badgeley’s ultimate criticism, though, is reserved for Africa.  Many of the home countries of her film’s interview subjects are resource rich and filled with people willing to work.  Yet thanks to mismanagement and government corruption (e.g. Kingsley speaks of the bribery it takes to open a factory at home), domestic industries which can bring economic independence to Africans are few and far between.

“Guangzhou Dream Factory” began with Badgeley’s search for a Ghanian-made kitchen knife.  The director ends her charming and saddening film lamenting Africa’s lost post-colonial economic opportunities.

***

Another filmmaker who also wanted more for post-colonial Africa is Ousmane Sembene.  The revered father of African cinema used his feature film dramas to criticize everything from French treatment of Africa to female genital mutilation.  Readers who’ve seen Sembene’s name on Pacific Film Archive programs but never bothered to check out this African filmmaker’s work will no longer have an excuse after seeing Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman’s lively and enthralling biography/personal reminiscence “Sembene!”

As the reader might expect, part of the film tells Sembene’s life story.  It shows how this Senegalese man went from Marseilles dockworker to acclaimed film director.  Part of that motivation was a creative “up yours” to French laws prohibiting Senegalese from owning or operating a movie camera.  But the other part of Sembene’s motivation delivers a still relevant rebuttal to those who doubt the importance of representation and telling one’s own stories.  The filmmaker felt that the knowledge base outsiders drew on to try telling Africans’ stories was corrupted by the stereotypes or misinformation the outsiders had absorbed.  Africans had potentially the personal knowledge and experience to tell stories that truly reflected everyday African existence.

Sembene’s philosophy as expressed in his work would earn him the admiration of such folks as Danny Glover and Spike Lee.  Co-director Gadjigo is an academic who became another admirer of Sembene’s films.  But as “Sembene!” shows, the co-director wound up becoming the Senegalese director’s executor of his estate.

How Gadjigo earned Sembene’s trust and friendship turns out to be an incredibly rocky story.  But the details underscore “Sembene!”’s willingness to paint a far from flattering portrait of its principal subject.  Buttressing that impression are son Alain Sembene’s accounts of the director’s emotional distance as a father.  Sembene also incurred a budding author’s years-long anger by making “Camp de Thiaroye.”

Yet the clips shown from works ranging from “Black Girl” to “Moolaade” demonstrate that the shortcomings of Sembene the man are greatly outweighed by the cinematic legacy of Sembene the artist.  An unapologetic willingness to shine his camera’s piercing eye on sociopolitical injustices others are happy to ignore marks this Senegalese director as one whose work should not be lost to time’s erasure.

Early images in the documentary show rusted and decayed film cans containing Sembene’s copies of his films.  Fortunately worries about the loss of the Senegalese director’s oeuvre to future generations are allayed by Gadjigo’s efforts to have those films restored.  Viewers tantalized by the excerpts from “Ceddo” and other Sembene films should reciprocate Gadjigo’s labors by making time to see these still relevant works of world cinema when they re-appear.

(“Tip Of My Tongue” screens at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Gallery And Forum Building (701 Mission Street, SF) at 7:30 PM on November 3, 2017.  Filmmaker Lynne Sachs and sound artist Stephen Vitiello will appear in person for the screening.  For advance tickets, go to www.ybca.org )

(“Even In Darkness” was made in conjunction with the Tenderloin Museum, which will eventually arrange future public screenings.)

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