Monday, December 10, 2007


I was called upon for “jury duty” last week. This position entailed hours upon hours of time spent examining the subjects, long and sometimes heated deliberations and a verdict capable of changing someone’s life.
This year’s case featured handicapped Norwegians, a lost girl in Afghanistan, a poor Russian family, an unusual interpretation of Moby Dick, a lost horse in Mexico, internet romance in Canada, a wandering man on the streets of Paris and even Arab-Israeli relations.
These ostensibly mutually exclusive themes were all part of the 13th edition of the Rencontres Internationales de Cinéma à Paris, an eight-day event devoted to global independent cinema organized by the city’s film center and archive the Forum des Images. I was on the jury for the Press Award, a prize given to the best first or second film in competition.
This year’s contestants included: Bard Breien's "The Art of Negative Thinking" (Norway), Hana Makhmalbaf's "Le Cahier" (Iran-France), Philippe Ramos' "Capitaine Achab" (France-Sweden), Laura Amelia Guzman and Israel Cardenas' "Cochochi" (Mexico), Antoine Cattin and Pavel Kostomarov's "La Mere" (Switzerland-France-Russia), Aurelia Georges' "L'Homme qui Marche" (France), Denis Cote's "Nos Vies Privees" (Canada) and Eran Kolirin's "La Visite de la Fanfare" (Israel-France).
All of the directors were in Paris to present their films, with the exception of Denis Cote who was stuck in Canada due to inclimate weather.
We saw Bard Breien’s self-described “feel-bad comedy,” “The Art of Negative Thinking,” first. The Norwegian dramedy about handicapped people who join a “positive thinking” focus group is both depressing and uplifting at the same time. The dark humor had the audience both laughing and crying – often both at the same time. “I wanted to show that human misery can be funny,” director Breien told us. He added: “We really don’t need to smile that much.”
Next, we traveled across the globe to Afghanistan, backdrop to 18 year old Iranian director Hana Makhmalbaf’s second feature film “Le Cahier.” The film, featuring non-professional actors from the small village in Afghanistan where the action was shot, follows a young girl who becomes entangled in children’s war games as she searches desperately for a notebook in order to go to school. The drama, which has already made its way along the film festival circuit from Toronto to Rome to San Sebastian, was a moving postcard from Afghanistan through the eyes of the next generation. Not to mention an impressive coup for such a young director. “I went into cinema because I saw the love my father had for cinema,” Makhmalbaf said of her movie-making father, head of the prolific Makhmalbaf Film House.
Next up was Swiss-French-Russian co-production “La Mere,” a close-up on the life of a poor Russian farming family. While the innocence of the children – these “Russian dolls” forced to grow up in poverty yet who always find a way to laugh – is moving, the story itself was somewhat underdeveloped and, oftentimes, quite boring. The next few titles were equally disappointing - Philippe Ramos' "Capitaine Achab" was an interesting idea – namely, a look at the background of Captain Achab from “Moby Dick” told through the eyes of five different characters – but failed to deliver an interesting film. Aurelia Georges' "L'Homme qui Marche" captured the loneliness of a Parisian expat with beautiful shots of the streets of Paris’ Saint-Germain-des-Pres district, but left a hole where the plot should have been. The synopsis: an emaciated man walks along the streets of Paris (yes, that’s it.) Denis Cote's "Nos Vies Privees" was a disturbing portrait of a Bulgarian couple vacationing in Canada after meeting on the internet. Laura Amelia Guzman and Israel Cardenas' "Cochochi" followed young Mexican boys looking for a lost horse (again, yes, that’s it.)

Eran Kolirin’s “The Band’s Visit,” however, was definitely the best “witness” in this case for me. The Israeli comedy despite itself is the story of a brass band featuring members of the Egyptian police force who find themselves lost in Israel on their way to play at the inaugural ceremony of an Arab cultural center in that city. “I started with just an image of a man in an Arabic uniform, very serious and very closed-in, but underneath you can feel a heart beating,” director Kolirin explained of his film, fresh off a nomination for an Independent Spirit Award. The mélange of humor and fable is a light, enjoyable romp through Arab-Israeli relations that explores more profound themes beneath the surface.
“People think that because it’s a big screen, you need to fill it with big things. But movies are a way to make small things big,” Kolirin said.

From big films to small films, this week’s Rencontres Cinematographiques took all of us on the Press Jury on a long voyage through different cultures. We met on the last day of the fest to discuss the films in detail and determine which candidate most deserved such an honor, not to mention help with the film’s distribution in France. We finally chose “The Art of Negative Thinking” for its audacious premise, its biting script and incredible performances by its cast. The “feel bad” comedy finds the humor in even the most dire of circumstances. We presented the award at the closing ceremonies as the fest wrapped Tuesday evening. “The Band’s Visit” won both the Public Prize and a prize given by French film students. Case closed.

Restaurant of the Week: Livingstone

“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” For those of you looking to explore Thai cuisine, definitely pay a visit to my not-so-recent-but-still-kicking discovery, Livingstone. I’d eaten there many times last year, but had almost forgotten about it until last week. After waiting at a nearby restaurant (to remain nameless to protect the innocent) for almost an hour, a friend and I decided to venture into unchartered territory (namely, the right bank) in search of food. Friday night. Paris. Circa 11 pm. Thus, “sorry, we’re full” was the response we got from pretty much every place we stopped in. And then I remembered – “Eureka!” I screamed (no, just kidding, nobody has used that expression since the 1700s I believe) – a small Thai place right on the rue St. Honoré. The décor is très chic and very Dr. Livingstonesque, with animal print lining the walls. The silverware and tables are modern, as is the light yet delicious Thai cuisine. Their pad Thai is delicious – the sauce not too creamy, and topped with fried tofu and shrimp. Start with the chicken satay with peanut sauce, the steamed shrimp dumplings or the shrimp and mushroom spring rolls, continue on with the shrimp and scallops in a coconut milk broth or the fish cooked in banana leaves, then finish with fresh mango or sweet rice with mango. The highlight of the evening may have been the automatic electric, light-up saltshaker (yes, you read correctly) – it’s so fun to use, I guarantee sodium-filled fun all night. And ask for the sesame nougat to accompany your coffee or dessert. Not to mention that, in a city where Thai food is typically ridiculously expensive or ridiculously disgusting, the prices are reasonable for the high quality of the cuisine and experience. Definitely an expedition worth embarking on.

Quote of the Day (or, again, why I adore Gertrude Stein) :
“I do want to get rich, but I never want to do what there is to do to get rich”
Gertrude Stein quote

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