Kevin Langson



REVIEW American regional differences and disparities between rural and urban culture have nothing on their Turkish counterparts. Abdullah Oguz’s Bliss (a title that initially seems cruelly ironic) begins in a village in eastern Turkey where Islamic law still dictates that women be killed for breaches of sexual purity, even when they are victims of rape. Young Meryem (Ozgu Namal) shudders in isolation in a shed, receiving food and deprecation from her stepmother. All that is apparent in the beginning is that there has been some sort of transgression which dictates that a young male relative escort her out of the village to be sacrificed in order to restore the honor of the family. That duty falls on Cemal (Murat Han), her seemingly impassive distant cousin who has just returned from military service. What is initially perceived as a simple task by Cemal becomes complicated as he quietly develops affection for Meryem despite his outward hostility. The culture clash becomes evident when they arrive in Istanbul, and Cemal’s task is received with disdain by a family member who declares that Istanbul is no place for his backwoods customs. A military bud is more diplomatic and provides the awkward duo a remote hiding place related to his fishery business, an act of kindness that can hopefully spare Cemal from the rage of the village elder who ordered the honor killing. As the taciturn two — Meryem tremulous and Cemal brooding — befriend a progressive professor (Talat Bulut), on the run from a stiflingly bourgeois existence, who takes them aboard his sailboat, the tone shifts. At once bliss, however improbable, seems possible. Though Meryem and the professor are more readily sympathetic characters, it is Cemal who is the most intriguing and who represents the power of the film — the quiet, conflicted, and gradual revelations that constitute the necessary pains of progress, both psychological and societal.

BLISS opens Fri/4 at the Roxie.

Pressure Cooker


REVIEW "Some of you will not remain. Whatever you heard, it is five times worse," announces the ruthless but deeply well-intentioned culinary arts teacher Mrs. Stephenson. It’s the first day of the class she teaches at a high school in an underprivileged area of Philadelphia. Pressure Cooker focuses on three seniors who are hardworking chefs-in-training, all chasing the generous scholarships that success in a final competition would award them. Two of them are desperate for an economic leg up and physical escape: Fatoumata is an African immigrant who is disciplined and grateful for the opportunities the U.S. has offered her so far, but in order to realize her career goals she must escape the overbearing hand of her father. Erica, an amiable cheerleader who cares for her blind sister and laughs good-naturedly at her friends’ undeveloped palates — they can only appreciate Fritos and Cheetos — also cannot escape stifling familial expectations without assistance. The third, Tyree, is a football star when not sharpening his cooking skills. The high-stakes drama in the kitchen-cum-classroom is entertaining enough — particularly Mrs. Stephenson’s hilarious shouting and encouragement masked as jeering — but it is the homelife struggle of the subjects that makes this story worthwhile.

PRESSURE COOKER opens Fri/21 in Bay Area theaters.

Graphic Sexual Horror


REVIEW The prurient pleasure piece Graphic Sexual Horror cannot be accused of failing to live up to its title. In fact, it’s safe to say that discussion or protestations (and anyone who’s not catatonic is bound to have something to say) that follow this solid porn-ocumentary will be related to the rather contentious content. This fair-minded glimpse into the pain-glorious performances and behind-the-scenes procedures of the now defunct hardest of the hardcore bondage Web sites is simultaneously titilutf8g and reflective, admiring and critical. founder Brent Scott, in explaining the academic ostracism at Carnegie Mellon that led to his new career as a high priest of porn, says this: "If they don’t let me teach their kids, I’ll corrupt them," which seems an apt encapsulation of his renegade artistic arrogance. This account is assuredly enriched by his candidness and self-criticism. He praises, sometimes adores, his female models and expresses sincere regret when his neglect leads to a malfunctioning water tank that could have inflicted injury. At the same time, however, he is chauvinistically demanding and insensitive to his model’s vulnerabilities. Essentially, he represents the ambivalence of extreme bondage — the murky convergence of liberated consensual sex and exploitation.

Clips of artistically presented live feed performances featuring such intrigues as blue-purple strangulated breasts and hot pepper being applied to genitalia, are intercut with interviews to give a sense of the models’ experiences. For bondage enthusiasts and the morbidly curious, there are visuals to gawk or gasp at throughout, but the tone becomes more conflicted as the film addresses the dilemmas of Insex models, as illustrated by the young woman who whimpers incredulously as her face is slapped. Face-slapping was her one hard limit (defined as activity forbidden by a model), but she struggles to play along because of the shame and lost fortunes a refusal begets.

GRAPHIC SEXUAL HORROR Thurs/16–Fri/17, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Is that your final answer?


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In Slumdog Millionaire, the contrast between wealth and impoverishment is sustained but never entertained in direct terms. Danny Boyle’s fairy-tale foray into Mumbai’s underbelly juxtaposes the frenetic desperation of the slums with the cool affluence of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire set, and compares its affable protagonist, Jamal, with the sleek and callous men who run the show. The popular game itself can be seen as a mockery of working-class aspirations, since it dangles huge sums of cash above the heads of participants. The tension of the film stems from the fact that the truly disenfranchised are believed — by the upper class — to be incapable of success. Jamal elicits incredulousness, then suspicion, then scorn as he continues jumping the trivia obstacles placed before him.

The flashbacks that illustrate Jamal’s explanation of how he came to know each question’s answer require a considerable amount of suspended disbelief. Boyle uses a fantastical story of underdog triumph that relies heavily on cross-cultural intrigue and romantic clichés to indict classist condescension and to promote a more fair-minded definition of intelligence and dignity. The game’s host becomes a despicable character for his attempts to preclude Jamal’s success despite his own origins in the slums of Mumbai. There is a glint of grotesquerie in the ways copious amounts of money and power are shown to corrupt and enervate one’s empathy. This devolution also applies to Jamal’s brother, who morphs into an unctuous beast of violence and indulgence once he becomes a gangster’s soldier. These character types and arcs are not new by any stretch of the imagination, but it is quite rewarding, amidst all the pleasure of rich visuals and suspense, to witness the victory of a dignified, perspicacious member of the underclass.


1. The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin, Germany, 2007)

2. Milk (Gus Van Sant, USA)

3. Megalopolis (Francesco Conversano and Nene Grignaffini, Italy)

4. The Visitor (Thomas McCarthy, USA)

5. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen, Spain/USA)

6. Standard Operating Procedure (Errol Morris, USA)

7. Savage Grace (Tom Kalin, Spain/USA/France, 2007)

8. Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, UK/India)

9. Still Life (Jia Zhangke, China/Hong Kong, 2006)

10. Meadowlark (Taylor Greeson, USA)

Year in Film: Beauty lies


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Unsettling subjects such as fatality by bestiality and landscapes ravaged by industry might conjure coarse, sensationalist images — straightforward visions of debauchery and exploitation. But if you are Robinson Devor or Jennifer Baichwal, they conjure bittersweet visual poetry: Devor’s Zoo and Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes are two stunning documentaries released this year that cleverly wield visual beauty to convey an apparent distortion in the human relationship with animals and with the environment, respectively.

Just as there are horror films and melodramas that use intensity and abrasiveness as crutches to make transitory impressions on their audiences, there are well-intentioned social-issue documentaries that amplify atrocity in order to shock viewers into caring. Zoo and Manufactured Landscapes are refreshing and poignant for countering this impulse. They are from the school of subtlety — not subtlety of content, but of form.

Zoo‘s opening shot seems to encapsulate its spirit of patient, elegant reveal. A prick of blue light amid blackness slowly expands and comes into focus as the blue-washed tunnel of a mine where the film’s first narrator — Coyote, a paramedic — worked before he made his way to Washington. It is a scene that contains a discomfort vague enough to be missed, as if we are gradually homing in on a world that will prove unpleasant. The mine’s elongated confinement also portends the halls of the grand stable where mischief occurs later in the film. Concomitantly, the music begins as a delicate support and escalates into a complex, slightly unnerving amalgamation of sounds, including those of a computer modem. The use of a computer’s noises of labor is meaningful because it prerelates to one zoophile’s explanation of how important the Internet was to the solidification of the group that is the film’s focus.

It is partially Zoo‘s structure that lends it an air of elegant subtlety. There is a linear story being told, from the online discovery to the convergence in Washington to the main event and its aftermath, but within that conventional structure is a fluid, relaxed traveling between narrators that has a less obvious logic. This befits the visual style, which is a poetic approximation of events rather than a recording of actuality. Bits of perspective from the various players cohere with a pacing and an order that feel carefully calculated to mimic the way in which uncertainty is slowly dispelled and truth, while withholding promises, comes into focus, fragment by irregular fragment.

Zoo glides between members of the zoophile group and a horse rescuer, a radio show host, and a politician, who all — in varying manners — offer commentary confronting the offensiveness of the men’s behavior. The film’s lightness is largely a result of its minimal contextualization and identification of location and character, as well as its refusal of a rigidly organized rise to climax. When the subjects of its investigation appear in the film at all, it is in an indirect manner. Actors fill in for the condemned men, liquidly guiding viewers through events, but faces are unimportant. Voices, which exude a certain ease even when confidence gives way to defensiveness or befuddlement, are the integral thread in the film’s subjectivity. Zoo features the voices of H and the Happy Horseman, two participants on the ranch, and does an exquisite job of extracting bits of anecdote and emotional response that give a full account with very little. There is a wise reticence here, like a conversation between lifelong friends who speak uninhibitedly but with the understanding that all need not be vocalized. The viewer, as if the film’s friend, can fill in gaps and mentally expand on the subjects’ pointed statements.

There are moments in Zoo when harshness or avidness peeks through the mostly even tones of the voices, such as when a local senator declares that animals — like children — cannot consent to sex with men, but this is diffused by quiescent visuals, the absence of a physical presence, and a refusal to linger on or delve further into these objections. Similarly, Manufactured Landscapes skirts a direct and impassioned address of the offense against humans and nature that it depicts and relies more on the awe of imagery and fastidiously selected and placed bits of commentary. Edward Burtynsky, the photographer whose work the film extends and considers, explains that he wants his daunting photographs of dramatically botched landscapes to be left to viewers’ interpretation. The role of the artist is to competently capture and present in a way that encourages discourse rather than to project a prefabricated message or force a critique.

In Manufactured Landscapes, Baichwal’s vision is consistent with Burtynsky’s. Her video footage of devastation such as that associated with the Three Gorges Dam and gargantuan mounds of e-waste, both in China, is accompanied by Burtynsky’s narration, which contains a rather discreet lament but foregrounds a more ambiguous combination of fact and feeling. A notable difference between her product and his is that hers includes the process of his, so in her film we are able to see that he choreographs the laborers in his photographs. Toward the beginning, he directs the innumerable yellow-clad Chinese workers on the premises of a huge factory, seemingly creating symmetry to convey the atmosphere of this immense and oppressive world. Also, Baichwal uses the clever device of pulling out of a site that Burtynsky photographs to reveal his picture hanging in an upscale gallery. In this way the viewer is delivered a powerful juxtaposition — a suggestion of the conflicted, perhaps ridiculous, consumption of these ironically beautiful photographs by the privileged people who can only relate to the images through their vague complicity in the dusty and oily oppressions of globalization.

It is mostly the visual style — the exquisiteness of the shots — that renders the reception of these films frustrating in a rewarding way; it is a frustration of sensibility and of fundamental sentiments about human nature. Burtynsky briefly comments on the symbolism of the gigantic ships under construction that he photographs in Bangladesh — ships that are built by teenagers who are up to their necks in oil, working in life-risking conditions, and that are used to deliver the oil he uses for his art and transportation. As in other scenes of the film, he and Baichwal enact a subtly sinister symbolism to nudge viewers toward absorbing the absurdity of development without empathy. One triumph of their work is that they slyly fuse concern for the environment (as in alien landscapes blistered with toxins) with concern for fellow humans (as in foreign factory workers who assemble our consumables). Another gorgeous and telling image is of an endless heap of computer parts of various shapes and sizes. It resembles an art installation of some sort, but as the camera slowly pulls out, a gasp forms in reaction to the heap’s vastness, and the viewer learns that the Chinese who rummage for valuable metal are exposing themselves to toxic metals that also make their way into their water.

In Zoo the visual style is more a product of finding a literal representation of the story being recounted and presenting it as a pleasing near-abstraction. Both Devor’s film and Baichwal’s feature a visual poeticism that threatens to detach viewers from the repugnance of reality; but because Zoo is such a cinematic construction, it is particularly susceptible to this numbing effect. So, when it shows a soft-focus, high-lit close-up of blackberries on their thorny vine or a snorting Arabian horse twice framed by square barn windows in the rich blue of evening, it is easy to forget for a moment that the narrators speak of a horse repetitively puncturing his eyes, or of the methods of forced submission.

Because Devor seems to have established a pact with his audience that he will only convey these acts through photo-book semblances of offensiveness, it is especially jolting and seemingly a betrayal when he actually reveals glimpses of bestial sex as the camera pivots around a half circle of flabbergasted witnesses to a video record. Zoo seems to be mocking the audience for wanting this salacious moment, and Devor withholds satiation. He also seems to be playing with the boundaries of effective reveal and withholding and their relationship to juxtaposition. Are these flashes of difficult-to-fathom sex more potent when surrounded by poetic suggestion? Are they a betrayal of the audience, and, if so, are they a meaningful betrayal?

Zoo shares contemplative aerials and slow, smooth pans with Manufactured Landscapes, and these seem integral to the films’ peculiar sort of poeticism. Their aerial views are not the informational establishing shots one would expect from straightforward documentaries, but almost ethereal windings through the air. Rural Washington and a pretzel-like Chinese highway system seem softly haunting, both suggestive of a subterranean depravity of sorts that the filmmakers are hinting toward. The calm control of the gliding camera is more apt to lull than unsettle, but this is counterbalanced by its uneasy turns and a voice-over that, in Zoo, ironically tells of the community’s innocence and, in Manufactured Landscapes, earnestly considers the film’s thematic ill.

Likewise, in Zoo, when the camera languidly pans across peacefully grazing horses in a pasture at night while a horse rescuer describes the profound relationship she has with these beasts, there is a cool, ironic innocence undercutting the otherwise soothing shot. In Manufactured Landscapes, Baichwal’s memorably interminable opening pan across a colossal Chinese factory serves a more direct purpose, but it also creates the same sort of ironic beauty that runs through Devor’s movie. The grace present in these shots may glaze over the horror they convey for some viewers at certain moments, but the manner in which this grace galvanizes a sense of horror that reverberates deeply and authentically after viewing is more interesting. *


1. Manufactured Landscapes (Jennifer Baichwal, Canada)

2. Sicko (Michael Moore, US)

3. The Witnesses (André Téchiné, France)

4. Zoo (Robinson Devor, US)

5. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (Sidney Lumet, US)

6. Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach, US)

7. I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-liang, Malaysia/China/Taiwan/France/Austria)

8. Protagonist (Jessica Yu, US)

9. Buddha’s Lost Children (Mark Verkerk, Netherlands)

10. The Other Side (Bill Brown, US)

Cinema critiques sinophilia


Just as the serious-minded traveler to a foreign land sacrifices certainty and ease of understanding to derive fresh insight, viewers of Ellen Zweig’s video works must jettison their expectation of narrative in order to embrace Zweig’s fragmentation — its disorientation and truthfulness. Her interwoven snippets of interview, performance, and language are decontextualized in a way that is apropos of her thematic consideration of how Westerners construct, imagine, and experience China and Chinese-ness from a distance. Her HEAP series is akin to being parachuted into profundity — your peripheral vision has to adapt hastily.

Language is essential to Zweig’s form and content. It is both an alienating force and a means of bonding. In (The Chinese Room) John Searle, after absorbing calligraphy and vacilutf8g between being "embarrassed" and "ecstatic" while in China, she concedes, "I cannot speak Chinese." The repeating, graphic Chinese text of (Unsolved) Robert van Gulik feigns a connection with the English that is being spoken, but actually tells its own story. On the other hand, language is shared amicably between the artist and Chinese strangers in (Flick Flight Flimsy) Ernest Fenollosa.

Zweig is a fascinating guide because she is a semi-insider; she navigates the much-mythologized land of her heritage with a privilege and a passion the non-Chinese necessarily lack, but she must arrive at knowledge through translation and inquiry. Language and privilege are cleverly wielded when, in A Surplus of Landscape, she interrogates fellow filmmaker Leslie Thornton about choosing to shoot a film about China, with no prior experience of the land, in a Japanese garden. Zweig’s videos juxtapose Western Sinophile "experts" with Chinese common folk and customs in a manner that continually questions cultural (mis)understanding.


Sun/9, 7:30 p.m., $6–$8

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, screening room, SF

(415) 978-2787

The works


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Some films glean artful pleasure from the pains of labor. One flourishing subgenre or strain of documentary tackles working conditions in countries across the world, highlighting the plight of the marginalized to make ends meet and maintain dignity in the face of unjust or extreme conditions. In a sense, Ghosts and Numbers and Luchando, two features at this year’s San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, belong to this group, but they are most interesting for the ways that they differ from it, in content and style. Both movies highlight the precariousness of labor and favor a less direct and centralized consideration of employment’s role in shaping an individual’s existence.

Ghosts and Numbers and Luchando are like distant cousins; they are blood-bound by an integral interest in the working class, but they reside in different lands and possess divergent personalities. In fact, the title of each film suggests something about its filmmaker’s approach to theme.

Alan Klima’s Ghosts and Numbers is a bit cryptic, with a penchant for interweaving ostensibly unrelated elements. One may wonder what the relationship is between ghosts and numbers, but the more relevant inquiry relates to that between labor and modernity. Convictions and a critique can be discerned amid Klima’s clever array of images and concerns, but no easy conclusions are reached.

Noelle Stout’s Luchando, on the other hand, is more up-front and focused in its presentation of the titular subject matter. Of course, the title’s meaning is obscure for non-Spanish speakers, and, even in Spanish, the term is slang instead of a standard word for people who get paid for having sex. But once the slang is understood (it is explained onscreen by one of the subjects), there is no uncertainty that Luchando is a clear and determined depiction of the lives of Cuban hustlers, without any overt class analysis.

These films share a relatively subtle sense of subversion. Klima’s Thailand-set documentary presents the quagmires of modernization and shows compassion for its victims at a time when the more popular sentiment is to rally patriotically around the Asian country’s entrance into the global community (and thus celebrate a preference for glistening urbania over a bucolic tradition). Klima observes lottery-ticket sellers as they discuss the vulnerable state of their occupation in the face of human-replacing technology and governmental limitations. Their earnest and desperate presence contrasts powerfully with other more reflective components and is part of an almost unsettling mixture of elements. Shots of unfinished Bangkok skyscrapers are matched with a voice-over concerning the Thai economy. Abstracted imagery is paired with stories of encounters with ghosts. Vérité-style footage is used for political protest and for a visit to a fortune-teller. At worst, these methods are a bit desultory, with some scenes in need of truncation. But aside from those moments, Ghosts and Numbers glimmers with a rare blend of mystery and humanity.

The humanity of Luchando is more intimate. Whereas Klima’s film uses cinepoetic musings to break up its direct human engagement, Stout’s presents pure portraiture — though it is difficult not to succumb to awe before Havana’s photogenic splendor. Stout surreptitiously captures the daily lives of four prostitutes, hesitantly heeding the warning of subjects when cops appear on the scene. These moments and bits of testimony give the sense that her subjects exist on the outskirts of safety, perpetually in a danger zone because of their gay identity or association. This is most poignant in the case of the transgender woman who is verbally assaulted as the film opens and later talks about being forced to dress as a man. Perhaps Luchando would be enhanced by a look outside the immediate scope of its subjects, in order to get a larger sense of the social conditions in which they are struggling. But there is also satisfaction to be found in its tightly focused account of lives that are both ordinary and foreign.

The sixth SF DocFest runs Sept. 28–Oct. 10 at the Roxie Film Center, 3117 16th St., SF. Information about tickets ($10) and a complete schedule can be obtained by calling (415) 820-3907 or visiting


Tues/2, 7 p.m.; Oct. 7, 2:45 p.m.; $10


Sat/29 and Oct. 5, 9:15 p.m.; Oct. 6, 7 p.m.; $10

For an interview with Luchando director Noelle Stout, go to Pixel Vision at