Wrapup Reviews From 2016 CAAMFest
Cambodian director Rithy Panh returned to CAAMFest (Center for Asian-American Media Festival) with a film far different than his clay figurine and genocide documentary of a couple of years ago. His new documentary “France Is Our Mother Country” was a cinematic exercise in historical petard hoisting.
` Most of Panh’s film consisted of archival footage showing French colonizers bringing machinery, medicine, and other benefits of French civilization to Asians, Africans, and Arabs. The archival title cards claimed that French benevolence motivated the delivery of these works of civilization.
Panh pointedly begged to differ. The exchanges between colonizer and colonized caught on film were not the interactions of equals. French women throwing coins to a group of native children resembled farmers tossing feed to a group of waiting chickens. Footage of bare-breasted tribal women felt like a mix of prurience and French moral superiority. Title cards soberly declaring colonized peoples have no history and calling the French race the only creative race sounded more like the declarations of arrogant conquerors.
Self-respecting Bay Area leftists will treat watching Panh’s film as an interactive experience. Raising middle fingers or derisively laughing at naked examples of white privilege would be reasonable ways of watching the film.
Panh had good reason to create this exercise in imperialist damnation. The film’s title didn’t reference French colonizers pining for their homeland. It alluded to the mental colonization that resulted in Cambodians culturally severing their ties to the country of their birth because they believed in its inferiority to the country of their overlords.
“The Out(er) Limits,” CAAMFest’s program of LGBT-themed short films, offered the benefits of looking at queer identity through a far different perspective than an Eurocentric focus. Even though Adria Siu and Vivian Wang’s short “Do Not Think For A Moment” was unavailable for preview, some of the program’s other shorts offered worthwhile moments.
The program got bookended by three music videos. Against a bouncy song, Laura Hyunjhee Kim’s opener “Molten Tea” portrayed queer identity as a core personality’s extra-dimensional aspect via hallucinogenic backgrounds and video manipulation. Jeepneys’ “We Are Mangos” opted for weird yet boringly precious metaphorical imagery to portray lesbian desire as a sweet thing that thrives even in the harshest environments. Choz Belen’s closing video “Mansions on the Moon feat. Zee Avi: Heart of the Moment” went for an adequate if unmemorable mix of lesbian connection and fantasy adventure in an otherworldly forest.
Viet Le’s darkly disturbing “Eclipse (Ruby)” effectively matched Dai Lam Linh’s hypnotically dissonant music with images of tormented desire and pain. The sinuous beauty of male bodies in motion didn’t make desire more permanent than water trickling through a hand’s fingers.
Genevieve Erin O’Brien’s “For The Love Of Unicorns” made unicorns a metaphor for LGBT identity. Commercially created queerdom got metaphorically criticized via a circus allegedly presenting a real live unicorn. Queer San Francisco leftists will smile at the film’s memorable shout “No unicorns, no peace.”
“The Out(er) Limits”’ longest short, Joella Cabalu’s “It Runs In The Family,” was a personal documentary examining one Pilipino clan’s attitudes towards gays and lesbians. When Cabalu learned her artist brother was not the only gay or lesbian family member, the two siblings traveled to the East Bay and the Philippines to meet these other queer relatives. These relatives’ lives showed that certain aspects of Western queer life, such as coming out or homophobia, have different significance in Pilipino culture.
Esther Kim was the subject of the program’s strongest short, Celeste Chan’s “Absence: no fats, no femmes, no Asians.” Kim rejected LGBT social invisibility to search for or make a place where fat and feminine Asian lesbians were totally accepted. Her attitude made her a liberating role model for those who resented the queer community’s social straitjackets.
CAAMFest closed out its festival with a documentary portrait of a genuinely inspirational figure, one who defined herself outside her handicap.
Jessica Cox, the subject of Nick Spark’s documentary “Right-Footed,” was born without arms. However, thanks to her developing an incredible degree of dexterity in her feet, Cox was living a satisfying life. Her accomplishments included obtaining a black belt in Taekwondo and becoming a licensed airplane pilot. But Cox’s most important work might well be her inspiring handicapped children around the world to know their potential for leading full lives.
Cox’s optimistic message that a person has the power to find a different way of achieving a goal was more empowering than the familiar inspirational message of achievement through personal willpower. The latter message blamed a person’s failure on personal shortcomings. Cox, by contrast, imparted confidence in the listener’s ability to achieve the goal they wanted or to find something equally satisfying.
Seeing Cox use her feet to apply facial makeup or tie shoelaces definitely impressed viewers with her dexterity. But Spark repeatedly showed viewers that those tasks were just one aspect of his subject’s identity. The half-Pilipino Cox was very close to a mother who feared she’d be her daughter’s permanent custodian. Cox’s ingenious method of putting clothes on and taking them off by herself showed just one example of an inventive person looking for ways to be independent.
Spark’s film struck a welcome balance between admiration for Cox and capturing her limitations. Cox’s younger years were marked by continual displays of frustration and anger for understandable reasons. The disability rights advocate also fretted about the inadequacy of offering inspiration in very traumatic situations such as surviving a hurricane.
It was impossible to watch “Right-Footed” without lumps forming in the throat or tears forming in the eyes. The cause of those reactions may be seeing an emotionally walled-off child feel confident enough to do a practice dog paddle. It could be an armless child who wanted to become a pilot like Cox. Whatever the reason, Spark’s film will inspire you to find ways to bring more Jessica Coxes into the world.
(The previously reviewed “Drawing The Tiger” won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at CAAMFest.)Filed under: Arts & Entertainment