Years ago, it might have seemed unlikely that recent editions of SBIFF have shined the light on that once exotic and little heard or seen of terrain of Central Asia, the expanse of relatively and actually primitive nations colloquially known as the “stans.” But, party thanks, perversely, to the spotlight brought on by Bush and Borat, the ongoing American presence in Afghanistan and Sasha Baron Cohen’s snide backhanded compliment, among other factors, we have not only seen films from that part of the world, but they have been among the best of the fests.
Last year’s Kelin, from Kazakhstan, was a fascinating ritual cinematic wonder, a look at an ancient time and nomadic life there. The more modern-day but also timelessly ritualistic Kazakh film Tulpan, from two years ago, was another memorable experience about the nomadic herder’s life, evocative in style, atmospheric feel and fable-like story.
This year’s entry from neighboring Kyrgyzstan, director Aktan Arym Kubat’s luminously fine and sweet The Light Thief, is surely one of the top ten picks of the 2011 SBIFF (although the jury’s still out, halfway through the program). It’s a sad and tender story, set in a poor village where the kindly “Mr. Light” hijacks electricity for those unable to pay. His quiet wisdom, compassion, and electricity know-how makes him a likely link to ways old and new, and a force against the greedy developer eager to “pillage” the village. But aside from the particulars of the premise and the narrative, The Light Thief takes time to savor the beauty of the landscape and of the people in this remote corner of the world, with a light, deft and almost folkloric way.
Another “’stan” story this year is something entirely different, but also heartwarming in its timely way. Skateistan: Four Wheels and a Board in Kabul is a wonderful, well-made, and well-paced documentary by German filmmaker Kai Sehr that addresses the tragic invisibility of actual daily life in Afghanistan, and the humanitarian efforts of folks like the Australians who created the country’s first skateboard park. Designated as a force of good and healthy activity for impoverished Afghan kids, “Skateistan” was supported by the Olympic Committee and other organizations and governmental agencies, and we follow the path from idea to opening day. (Read an interview with the filmmaker here.)
Testimony from pro skateboarders who traveled to skate and teach Afghan kids, and other parties involved in making the good fight happen, is mixed in with imagery of a country with American tanks rolling through the streets and old bombed-out buildings attesting to the ravages of a war still unfinished. Tear alert: It’s one of several films running this year liable to activate the ducts, but the tears may also be of hope and the natural anguish we feel for children thrust into nasty circumstances they had nothing to do with. In this case, 50 percent of the country’s population is under 15, making the link to 9/11 evermore hazy and tenuous.
In the sexual high jinx department, two of the spicier numbers in the line-up this year come from Eastern European quarters. For one, Women in Temptation qualifies in a category many of us have yet to experience, the Czech romcom, with lust in the wings. If a bit long for its own good, the film takes us on an agreeable trip through the tangled up generations, psychological foibles and, yes, sexual antics of its characters.
Meanwhile, another set of familial and sexual knots also keep us gazing and guessing in the fine little Croatian film Just Between Us. From the first scene, with a dying patriarch’s genital fixated sketchbook in a hospital, the focus is on issues of the head, heart and loins, set in the beautiful environs of post-warring Zagreb. Structured as a series of segments on different characters in a loop of lies and liaisons, director Rajko Grlic’s film is naughty fun, and with a surprising feelgood aura amidst the carnal rambunctiousness.
Moving north in the body, this festival’s most heat-trippy film may well be the hyper-inventive and categorically hard-to-describe Canadian film You Are Here. Writer-director Daniel Cockburn (read an interview with him here) adopts a tone and a manner of easy-going experimentalism, to ends which are somehow simultaneously contemplative and intellectually madcap. A series of vignettes, the film full of conundrums, visual puns, and self-commenting ruses, hypnotic and seemingly non-linear but actually organized with a looping internal logic. At the center of the film’s aim, supposedly, is the endless pursuit of a sense of self and “here”-ness. Plus, generous doses of self-effacing humor help the brainy business go down easily and even coaxes out a laugh or three.
At one point, a woman in a cab tells another woman — after being caught in the “same place at the same time — “about a dictionary for masochists: it has all the words in it, but just not in any particular order.” That’s life. And in the case of this beguiling strange film, that’s show business, Art House division.