By Juan Barquin
By Amy Nicholson
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Travis Cohen
By Juan Barquin
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Amy Nicholson
By Juan Barquin
Can it really be true, as the schedule states, that Rhonda Mitrani's documentary, Cuba Mia (about Jewish Cuban exiles returning to the island), is anchoring the long program of shorts, rather than running with what seems the most logical companion, Ruth Behar's Adio Kerida -- a documentary, in part, about Jewish Cuban exiles returning to the island? Apparently so. Pity, because the two tell such complementary tales: Mitrani follows a group of well-off Ashkenazi Jews (whose ancestors, in this case, had almost all immigrated to Cuba from Russia) now living in Miami as they revisit their homes, schools, and other familiar sites from their childhood. Behar, whose antecedents immigrated to Cuba from Greece, concentrates on the wandering of Cuban Sephardic Jews as she returns to her own childhood home to search out as many as she can of the estimated 1000 Jews who remain on the island. Then she takes off to Miami, New York City, and her own home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to see where the diaspora has taken root. Separating these two documents of the Jewban diaspora is particularly vexing because Cuba Mia is far the superior film. Local director Mitrani's smart script, evocative use of archival footage, lyrical editing, and innovative cinematography make her film compelling over and above the subject matter -- there's no need to throw this gem in with a bunch of shorts. Adio Kerida, on the other hand -- made by an anthropologist at the University of Michigan rather than a professional filmmaker -- holds much more sociological than cinematic interest. The cinematography is pedestrian; loose editing buries in vague meanderings compelling moments, such as when one man on the mainland displays the vintage toy soldiers he bought to replace those he left on the island as a boy. Shown together these two films would present a rich picture of a unique population. Rent asunder, Cuba Mia will be lost among less ambitious works while Adio Kerida can hardly hold its own as the main attraction. -- Celeste Fraser Delgado
One of the more curious developments in recent cinema has been the Dogme 95 movement, a back-to-the-basics reaction of mostly European directors against the slicked, overproduced Hollywood fare. In 1995 four Danish directors, including Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves) and Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration) issued a ten-point treatise, calling for films that use only hand-held cameras and natural lighting, no theme music, and no effects or other limitations to achieve "truth" from the characters and settings. It's an absurd idea, of course, since all fiction is artifice. But the strictures force filmmakers to focus more on character and performance, not on "look," and the thesis has caught on. There are more than two dozen "certified" Dogme 95 features by now, from filmmakers in Europe, the United States, South America, and Asia.
One such film is Mona J. Hoel's Cabin Fever (Dogme 95 production # 19), which adheres to the radical rules to tell a very traditional story. In Norway the extended Hansen family packs up to spend a bitterly cold Christmas week at a remote rented cabin. Matriarch Astrid has misgivings about hubby Gunnar's excessive drinking, while their son Eivind seethes in silent resentment against his father. Daughter Liv secretly mourns her miscarriage of two weeks past, while sister Kari is brokenhearted when her lover leaves her. Liv's Polish husband, Stanislaw, is pleased to welcome his visiting parents to the cabin, but the oldsters privately grouse about the primitive living conditions. The large gathering readies several dinners while the furnace threatens to give out. The close quarters and holiday anxieties come to a head when Gunnar's despondence over Christmas memories past leads him to get so drunk, he upends the forced bonhomie and several bitter quarrels erupt.
This sort of narrative has been worked and reworked and worked again by many writers in many cultures. The dark, brooding elements recall the Scandinavians Ibsen and Strindberg. But the sudden bursts of bleak humor echo Chekov, whose plays are riddled with similar failed, sad but funny celebrations. When Gunnar's drunken insults finally drive Eivind to attack his father, the sudden fury is just as suddenly interrupted by the sweet candlelit caroling of neighbors who gathering outside the cabin door.
The film is filled with ironic, effective twists of this kind, but for the uninitiated it takes some getting used to, as the Dogme 95 rules force a cinematic style that feels more like a documentary than a "movie." The early scenes are edited like a jerky home movie, and the slapdash camerawork tends to work against the story. There are so many characters and so little attempt is made to establish them that it is very difficult to sort out who's who and what's what. But as the film progresses, the relationships and conflicts come into clearer focus. There isn't much narrative drive to the story line, but the complexity of relations makes it intriguing nevertheless. The chief strengths here are the well-drawn characters and a goofy balance of grim comedy and poignancy. Cabin Fever will not be to everyone's taste, but it's certainly a refreshing change of pace from standard Hollywood product disguised as indie films. -- Ronald Mangravite
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