Posted by Susan Doll on April 22, 2013
I saw three of the best narrative feature films I have seen all year at the Sarasota Film Festival, and two of them are getting a theatrical release, which means other viewers will be able to catch them, too. Coincidentally, all of them are about family and community ties.
What movie lover doesn’t carry a soft spot for the western—a genre that Hollywood has all but abandoned. Dead Man’s Burden is a gripping indie western with a stripped-down, straightforward storyline that belies its complex character relationships. I was impressed with the film as soon as I realized it was shot on 35mm. Nothing is better suited for 35mm film than the western because of the narrative significance of the land, often depicted in lingering long shots. Robert Hauer’s crisp cinematography of the vast New Mexico landscape implies that land is important in this film, too, but it is family ties and divisions that make up the heart of this small-scale story. The main location was an actual house from the 1890s that had been built into the side of a hill, providing the perfect setting for a story in which the hard-scrabble pioneer lifestyle is central to character motivations.
Five years after the Civil War, Colorado deputy sheriff Wade McCurry tracks down what is left of his family. During his absence, his father had moved his Southern-based family out west, before his remaining brothers were killed fighting for the Confederacy. Wade discovers that his only remaining relative is little sister Martha, who has inherited the homestead in the godforsaken wilderness of New Mexico. Wade arrives just after the death of his father as Martha and her husband, Heck Kirkland, prepare to sell the farm and head to the bright lights and good times of San Francisco. A happy reunion turns sour and familial bonds unravel after Martha and Heck discover her beloved brother had fought for the North, and Wade suspects that his sweet little sister harbors a dark secret.
Director Jared Moshe combines traditional western conventions with a brutal indie-style realism, focusing on the relationships of the characters and what they represent as opposed to clichéd action scenes and gory gunplay. The western genre has always favored myth, not history, and the central theme of that myth is the encroachment of civilized forces on the rugged wilderness. It is inevitable that the former will win out over the latter, which has resulted in the romanticizing of cowboys, sheriffs, outlaws, and other characters who are at home in the wilderness. On the other side of the coin, women tend to represent civilized forces. They are generally passive figures whose moral center inspires the western hero to help the pioneers, ranchers, and farmers who are settling the Wild West. However, Moshe plays with conventions in Dead Man’s Burden by making Martha the character who instigates the action and provokes conflict. Though she indeed represents civilization, she hopes to escape to it rather than bring it to the wilderness. Newcomer Clare Bowen, who plays Scarlett O’Connor on Nashville, the television melodrama set in the country music industry, rocks the role of Martha. Though she is morally flawed, viewers admire her strength and sympathize with her desire to escape a life that was thrust on her by her family. David Call, who just recently guest-starred on the NBC musical series Smash, costars as Heck, who is not as dim as he looks.
Brother Wade, played by Barlow Jacobs, is the epitome of the classic western protagonist, but his desire to do the right thing conflicts with what is best for his family. During the war, he fought for the North, alienating himself from his father and siblings, and when he tries to prevent Martha from selling the homestead, he interferes with her desperate desire to escape the too-rugged frontier. He may have the moral high ground, but his inability to see the impact on Martha makes him seem rigid and unyielding. Dysfunctional family dynamics within the framework of the genre’s conventions is at once innovative and familiar. Dead Man’s Burden also emphasizes the ideological divisions among families and regions created by the Civil War–divisions that seem to echo in the red vs. blue state split today.
In the Q&A after the film, I asked Moshe what westerns he watched as inspiration before embarking on this project. I have learned that any director worth his/her salt draws from cinematic influences and inspirations, which will enrich the material in unforeseeable ways. Moshe answered that he was inspired by Unforgiven for its structure, Winchester ’73 for its family dynamics and theme of revenge, Once Upon a Time in the West for its mythical tone, and The Searchers for its use of landscape. I recognized an hommage to Ford’s most famous western in a scene in which Martha and Heck do not trust Wade enough to let him sleep inside their home. From inside the rough-hewn house, a shot frames Wade in the doorway. He is on the outside looking in, just like John Wayne’s character at the end of The Searchers.
Dead Man’s Burden opens in limited release on May 3; it will also be available on DVD in June and via Netflix between June and August.
I met the director of The Forgotten Kingdom, Andrew Mudge, while I was in the theater to catch another film at the Sarasota Film Festival. He asked if he could sit in the empty seat next to me, and when he saw that I was about to take notes, he assumed I was a judge. I explained that I was going to cover the festival for TCM, and he asked me if I would come see his film. As fate would have it, I had an opening in my schedule the day that The Forgotten Kingdom was scheduled to be screened, so I promised I would see it. The movie that Mr. Mudge and I watched that evening will remain nameless because it was the worst film I have ever seen at a festival, but I am glad I chose to see it because if I had not run into Andrew Mudge, I might have missed the wonderful Forgotten Kingdom, which won the Audience Award for the Best Narrative Feature.
Set in Lesotho, a tiny country in Africa that is completely landlocked by South Africa, the film follows the journey of Atang Zenzo, a street-smart punk who lives in Johannesburg, called Jo-burg by residents. Atang returns to Lesotho to bury his father, who had moved to Jo-burg with his son in order to find work. Over the years, Atang forgot his roots as he and his father drifted apart. He roams the streets with his buddies, listening to rap and drinking the nights away. Once back in his home village, he can’t escape the traditions and memories of his youth, especially after reconnecting with a childhood sweetheart. When she inexplicably disappears, he journeys across Lesotho with an enterprising boy who is as affable and kindhearted as Atang is self-absorbed and reserved.
As expected in a film in which the main character takes a journey, he also undergoes a spiritual change, resulting in personal growth and maturation—like most incarnations of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. What I liked about The Forgotten Kingdom is that the film itself undergoes a change in terms of tone and mood. The realism of gritty, grimy Johannesburg gives way to an enchanted Africa as Atang treks across the vast countryside. He and his young friend experience three adventures involving an old woman, a young boy, and an initiation school (in which adolescents prepare for circumcision). The structure of three adventures, combined with the beautiful cinematography of the African landscape, evoke the aura of a fable. Mudge noted in the Q&A after the screening that he was inspired by Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout.
Mudge was asked what attracted him to a story set in Africa. He recounted how he visited his brother in the Peace Corps in Africa and was struck by Lesotho’s sense of place, especially its mystical qualities. After ten years of grinding it out as a scriptwriter of romantic comedies in Hollywood, and two visits to Lesotho, he decided to make a film that had meaning for him. Though set in Africa, the story of finding strength and identification in one’s roots is universal. The poignancy of the central idea should resonate with anyone who has ever returned home after too long a time.
The Forgotten Kingdom has just started appearing on the festival circuit, so here’s hoping that it screens in a city near you. In the meantime, Mudge plans to take a portable projection system and The Forgotten Kingdom to Africa to show it in the villages where he shot on location.
The Scandinavian drama The Hunt stars Danish actor Mads Mikkelson in an award-winning role as an average guy in a small town who loves his community and knows his neighbors. His idyllic existence is destroyed when he is falsely accused of child abuse by a neglected little girl who makes a misleading statement in anger and confusion. The adults jump to conclusions out of guilt and fear and badger the girl with leading questions until she confirms their suspicions because she doesn’t know any better.
Mikkelson currently costars as Hannibal Lecter in the NBC series Hannibal, which has made him a recognizable actor in America. Hopefully, his new stardom will inspire American viewers to seek out The Hunt, which is listed on Netflix but not yet available. Tight and taut, The Hunt relies on the simple close-up to reveal what characters are really thinking, instead of over-simplified dialogue to spell it out. Hollywood dramas dealing with controversial topics too often underestimate viewers and use dialogue to over-explain motivation and inner thought, reducing serious films to the level of movies of the week. But, director Thomas Vinterberg allows his actors to do their jobs. Mikkelson holds in the anguish and pain of his character until the lines on his face look like they will rip open. When he finally does let loose, the scene is wrought with his torment and suffering. He won the Best Actor Award for his efforts at the 2012 Cannes International Film Festival.
As this season’s Hollywood blockbusters muscle their way onto the cineplex screens, it is nice to have alternative viewing experiences. I guarantee you that the worst moments from Dead Man’s Burden, The Forbidden Kingdom, and The Hunt will be more interesting than the best that Hollywood’s noisy, derivative, and predictable summer blockbusters will have to offer.
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