Films reviewed: Return to El Salvador, Teenager Hamlet

Posted in Canada, Movies, Uncategorized, US, violence, War by on October 16, 2010

There are lots of good movies playing right now, dramas, horrors, comedies, thrillers, but I’m going to talk about a couple of movies you might not know about, because they’re not advertising on TVand they’re playing at smaller theatres.

Return to El Salvador
Dir: Jaime Moffet

The US has a very sorry record in the Central American states. If you’ve been reading the news recently, the US government has issued an unreserved apology for intentionally infecting Guatemalans with syphilis, 50 years ago, in order to test the efficacy of penicillin on that STD. A lot of people also know about the ventures of the notorious United Fruit company, who had the US marines repeatedly invade cou countries like Honduras to protect their Chiquita banana crop. The Canal zone in Panama was put under direct US rule, for strategic purposes.

In Panama, the US had installed the corrupt government of Noriega, and then, when they no longer liked him, proceeded to kidnap him and put him on trial on US soil. The Contras were another blemish on the US record: they were rebel soldiers paid by the US in the 80’s to try to overthrow the legally elected government in Nicaragua. And then there was El Salvador – the corrupt military government there hired death squads to assassinate everyone against the government in a long-term civil war. Priests, nuns and union organizers were some of the victims. For many of the people there, there were three options: die, flee, or join the rebels.

In a new documentary called Return to El Salvador, filmmaker Jamie Moffet looks at where that country is now.

Although the civil war there ended almost 20 years ago, the death squads continued their executions, and there was a steady stream of people fleeing that country. But in 2009, the FMLN (The Farabundo Martà National Liberation Front) the party that represented the guerillas in the 12 year civil war, was elected, in the form President Mauricio Funes, a TV journalist and public figure. This documentary on this turning point, and the effect it has had on El Salvadorans, is shot during a trip by progressive Christian American activists who make a return visit to the country, and the people in El Salvador they had supported during the struggle of the civil war and afterwards

The movie also deals with other issues I knew little about: protests against the notorious School of Americas, that turned out people like Pinochet’s team, Noriega, and Galtieri, and even the founders of some Latin American drug cartels; the fact there’s a CAFTA deal with the US and central Americas – and what it does to the farmers there; and the horrific killings both during their civil war, and, long afterwards.

It’s narrated by Martin Sheen, and is mainly talking heads – people recalling past events and telling it to the movie viewers, illustrated by photos from the period they‘re talking about. In my view, that’s not the most compelling type of documentary – I like there to be some footage or video from the era they’re talking about. In this doc, you hear about a lot of things, but don’t get to see them.

Still, the issue is very compelling and rarely dealt with in documentary films, the stories the people tell are quite moving – often horrifying, and things I never knew about before. Apparently the death squads did things playing with the dead bodies, cutting off limbs of the students they killed – just awful. It seems especially apropos right now. It even has a Canadian twist in it — Canadians love being smugly indignant when it comes to US misadventures in Central America. But right before the movie was shot, a Salvadoran activist was murdered (or “was disappeared”), and there seems to be some connection to the protest he was leading against yet another dodgy Canadian mining conglomerate, this one called “Pacific Rim”.

So if you want to learn more about the politics and history of this central American country — specifically from the point of view of the former rebels there and their supporters – then this movie, Return to El Salvador, is a good place to start.

Teenager Hamlet
Dir: Margaux Williamson

The Toronto-based group Trampoline Hall (started by her friend Sheila Heti) is a series of lectures by interesting people who are amateurs, NOT experts in the field they’talk about. In what seems to be a vindication of the Trampoline Hall ethos, this movie uses a group of non-actors in a casual setting to explore what is art, drama, poetry, music and thought.

They answer questions about their lives in a natural setting to on-screen interviewers armed with mikes and earphones, and a techie handling the light (and an unseen cameraman) in staged interviews. Everything is shown, wires and all, to let you see that this is no artifice. Except — it is.

And what is she’s doing? She’s putting on a play – Hamlet! – by casting a whole bunch of Ophelias and whole bunch of Hamlets — gender neutral casting – that they find at a single’s party on that big, ugly party boat, Captain John’s, in Tornoto’s harbour.

So all the actors get together in a non-reality-show type atmosphere to discuss: What is acting – what is real, what is false?

The interviews are mixed with cut-out animation of ghosts (is that hamlet’s dad?) still paintings – Williamson is an artist who says she wants to break out of the two-dimensional art world into something more dynamic, like film — and oddly appropriate off-the-wall video clips, like one of Phil Donahue Interviewing Ayn Rand about public personas vs people’s actual selves. (She reveals she likes the cheesy TV show Charley’s Angels because of its artifice and what she calls its “romance”.)

So, here’s a chance to see Hamlet without the shakespeare, without the stage, without the costumes, and without the actors. Instead it’s a discussion of individual memories and feelings of love, betrayal, and father/son relationships; of art and artifice vs naturalism; Of acting, vs “Ackting” (with a “K”); of memory, ambition, and regret.

Shakespeare superimposed on locations in bathrooms, vacant lots and out near a lake – (there has to be somewhere for all the male and female Ophelia to drown herself) reflects the movie’s discussion of the meaning of superficiality – literally the drawing of designs on a surface – like tattoos that is part of any performance or art.

Margaux Williamson makes use of frequent collaborators Sheila Heti, Mischa Glouberman and Sholem Krishtalka to conduct the interviews and talk to or near the cameras.

“Teenager Hamlet” is at the Royal Cinema on College St. on Friday, October 15th at 7pm and on Sunday, October 17th at noon.

~ Oct 6, 2010.

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