Monday, April 8, 2013

The Films of John Gianvito

In The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein a teenager Raphael (Dustin Scott) discovers the personal toll for standing up for his convictions. Set in New Mexico during the Persian Gulf War, the high school student is angry about his country's militarism. Encouraged by a teacher, he distributes leaflets about unreported war crimes. He attends peaceful gatherings, protests at a park, gets into fights with his parents, runs away from his home, and becomes a homeless vagrant.

By following the premise that the US is responsible for crimes against humanity and that this needs to be protested, Raphael’s idealism and his descent embodies the difficulty of social protest. There is an irreconcilable gap between his personal beliefs and a desired social conformity. Raphael’s journey leads him to another protester, an older woman, who teaches him about the symbolic value of smaller scale social movements and tells him, "I realize that it hasn't stopped anybody from carrying on that war but I feel that there is something that you say to the universe that says this isn't the way it should be and there can't be more wars that never solve anything."

The two other main characters of Mad Songs are a Mexican-American woman Fernanda Hussein whose two young children are tragically abducted and killed based on their Muslim last name, and a returning soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder who is having difficulty returning to his normal life. These people, along with the film's many peripheral characters, are what makes this social mosaic so complex as everyone in some way, whether psychologically or socially, internalizes the negative effects that arise when America continuously stays at war.

Howard Zinn describes the methodology of A People’s History of United States as,
“...[being] skeptical of governments and their attempts, through politics and culture to ensnare ordinary people in a giant web of nationhood pretending to a common interest. I will try not to overlook the cruelties that victims inflict on one another, as they are jammed together in the boxcars of the system. I don’t want to romanticize them. But I do remember (in rough paraphrase) a statement I once read: “The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don’t listen to it, you will never know what justice is.””
Zinn's monumental study of American history focuses on the perspective of the working class and the poor. He emphasizes the large divide between the needs of the people and the policies of the electoral government. It is a history that progresses through protest movements and social clashes where change, however small or large, is possible. The belief and actions of people are important, and Zinn's research unearths many underwritten cases of courageous protests. There is a moral quality to Zinn’s writing as he is speaking for a larger demographic about problems with the country that go unnoticed in the mainstream press.

There are similarities between Zinn and Gianvito (who dedicated Profit motive and the whispering wind to People’s History). There is a utopian drive common to both thinkers, who both hope for the possibility of a better world while being aware of the difficulty of attainting it. For the two of them the ideal site is one of protest against the status quo and its forms of oppression through social movements that incorporate creativity (e.g. the excitement of protests at the end of Profit Motive). Gianvito incorporates a variety of social documents in his films in a way that is similar to Zinn’s use of quotations from books, polls, legal documents, and newspaper articles. Whether it be archival or television footage, the Naseer Shemma music sequence in Mad Songs or the animation in Profit Motive.

What makes Gianvito's cinema so important is its effectiveness. When Gianvito's films are screened in an auditorium they have the remarkable ability to transform the theater - a space that is often associated with escapism and entertainment - into a site of social protest. When his two most recent documentaries played in Toronto, whether it was Vapor Trail (Clark) at Jackman Hall or Far From Afghanistan at the AMC, there is a striking juxtaposition between the film's content and the traditional viewing experiences associated with those dispositif.

These recent screenings instigated interventions for the subjects of the documentaries. When Vapor Trail played at Images, Gianvito and Myrla Baldonado (with one leg in a cast) from the Alliance for U.S. Bases Clean-up, Philippines (ABC) was there to discuss the social realities of her country. When Far from Afghanistan played at Wavelengths, Gianvito and Minda Martin (one of the other collaborative filmmakers) talked about friends and family who were affected by the war, and their views on the current state of political affairs.

Gianvito’s films, with their focus on contentious issues within the American landscape, operate as political gestures. This is similar to Barbara Hammer’s Resisting Paradise which was filmed as part of a residency project in Cassis: after hearing about the outbreak of war in Kosovo, the film's content shifts away from the purely aesthetic towards the political. It becomes a documentary about the history of the French Resistance in Cassis during WWII, featuring interviews with some of its key figures, and an interrogation of the complicit politics of the French painter Matisse. It is this shift from the formal to the political that makes these kinds of filmmakers so vital. There are sometimes more important things than the beauty of a shot or particular camera movement. It is this tradition of political filmmaking that is currently lacking in American independent cinema. Gianvito's cinema is a beacon, speaking out against the injustices of the world in a courageous and humble manner.
Gianvito's recent contribution to the Sight & Sound ten greatest films poll contextualizes the political film tradition that he works in. The list included: 1. The Age of the Earth (Clauber Rocha), 2. La Commune (Paris, 1871) (Peter Watkins), 3. Earth (Alexander Dovhenko), 4. Evolution of a Filipino Family (Lav Diaz), 5. The House is Black (Forough Farrokhzad), 6. Kuhle Wampe (Slatan Dudow), 7. Reason, Debate and a Story (Ritwik Ghatak), 8. Shiranui Sea (Noriaki Tsuchimoto), 9. Story of Kindness (Tran V.T.), 10. West Indies (Med Hondo).

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