Watching thirty feature films in 10 days without popcorn is grueling work. It was a challenge I took on with much excitement as a member of the Ecumenical Jury at the 2000 Montreal World Film Festival in Canada. The jury was charged with reviewing the 25 films in official competition and selecting one of high artistic merit that creatively explores ethical, social and spiritual values that make life human. Our jury included two Catholics and three Protestants from the U.S., Canada, France and India. Two of us were ordained ministers. I was the only female and African American. Montreal is the only North American film festival with an ecumenical jury. It was an interesting experience to share this work with a diverse group of people united by a common spiritual commitment.
The Montreal Festival is radically different from other North American film festivals in its international scope, emphasis on art films and community participation (over 400,000 theater tickets sold) attests to the quality of films shown. For ten straight days audiences packed into theaters from 9 a.m. to midnight to see nearly 400 films--features, shorts and documentaries. Many Canadians plan their vacations around the festival. Foreign nationals living in Quebec packed the theaters when films from their home countries were screened. Unfortunately, there were no African or African American films in official competition.
Our jury awarded the Ecumenical Award to "Ali Zaoua," for its authentic depiction of homeless boys in Casablanca. This French co-production by Nabil Ayouch brought real street boys to play themselves on screen revealing the appalling realities of Moroccan street life. Three boys begin a quest to give a proper burial to honor a friend killed by a street gang. They face rejection from adults and religious establishments. It was difficult making this film because the young actors regularly disappeared to attend to real life issues related to being homeless and impoverished. Unfortunately, like so many Arab films, no girls were depicted anywhere in the film.
"Ali Zaoua" effectively elevates mundaneness and personal history to a universal context and illustrates what it means to be human when poor. The director's compassion for the boys meant their humanity and dignity were never compromised. On the other hand, Hollywood loves to depict "street-wise" African American youth who curse and act so violent that it's hard to see their humanness much less identify with universal themes in their lives. A French film, "The Day the Ponies Came Back," tried to find common ground between a young Frenchman and an African American boy living in a New York ghetto. Daniel comes to America and begins a search for an American father he has never known. The father turns about to a slumlord. In a very moving scene, Daniel attacks his father in the street shouting repeatedly, "Why did you abandon us?" A large group of African Americans who live in the father's tenement watch in awe, identifying with Daniel's anger. But it was hard to identify with the African American males who curse unceasingly, steal and fight in broad daylight or the women who passively accept the presence of huge rats in the kitchen cabinet. Sitting in a Montreal theater filled with an international audience, I was ashamed and angry at this stereotyping of African Americans by foreign filmmakers knowing that some African American filmmakers paint black life with those same brushes to satisfy distributors.
Selecting a film for our ecumenical award was complicated by the good, the bad and the ugly which typifies the world we live in. If film is a reflection of how we live, the picture is depressing even in films conceived outside the boundaries of Hollywood. I felt assaulted as film after film catapulted me into a world of careless sex, porous sexuality, absentee or unloving fathers where the only faithful couples are gay. Consciously and unconsciously, the films depicted the spiritual emptiness and bankruptness of Western society often pointing a finger at the Christian church for its non involvement in today's social problems, theological confusion, history of violence. Interestingly, only the two films set in America offered the possibility of hope through the church.
Two French Canadian films, "Maelstrom" and "Hochelaga" addressed spiritual bankruptcy. In "Maelstrom," a rich young woman tries to blow off the impact of an abortion through mindless sex (the day after the abortion), drug abuse and manslaughter. "Hochelaga" goes deep into Montreal motorcycle gang life where evil spirituality is actively invoked. Motorcycle gang violence is a growing reality for Canada and the filmmaker wanted to make a clear statement to youth. The one American film in competition was a very sensitive look at the ambiguities of life and love in today's families. "You Can Count On Me," is a rarity in American films depicting spirituality and even a Christian minister in the saga of a brother and sister seeking understanding and redemption in their lives and relationships.
Several films from Iran cleverly concealed criticism of government repression and creative censorship. A Yugoslavian film entitled "Mechanism" came like a thunderbolt with revolting images of savage unprovoked violence against women, the innocent and uninvolved. The director told the audience that we might not like the film but it reflects life in the aftermath of war in that country.
One especially delightful film not in the official competition was a Polish film entitled, "The Big Animal". A traveling circus abandons a camel in a small village. The camel takes up residence with a middle aged couple who adopt and care for it as their pet. The affection is mutual. Because they refuse to allow the animal to be used for commercial exploitation, the village turns against them and uses its laws to outlaw the camel as the wrong kind of animal. We see the inability to love all of God's creation because of prejudice, greed and jealousy.
Sitting through two weeks of international films was an unparalleled opportunity to see the commonalities of humanness in other people. When artists are able to tell authentic stories unfettered by Hollywood formulas and chauvinism the cinema becomes a lively and refreshing source of understanding and connecting to others. Film as art rather than sensation reveals the universal themes of human life and spirituality, encourages respect for others and greater commitment to world peace. Through authentic film we see that ordinary people worldwide want the same simple things--a peaceful life with security. I gasped to see so many films that will never gain distribution in America because of domination of culture by commercialism that limits the range and source of stories. Film is an appropriate arena for church involvement through teaching media literacy and discussing values and plots from a biblical perspective. It is highly fertile ground.
Rev. Dr. Paula Whatley Matabane is an Associate professor of television and film at Howard University. She is also an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, currently on staff at Allen Chapel AME in Washington, DC where she coordinates the class leaders and Christian discipleship courses and teaches media literacy to children. Rev. Matabane is a documentary filmmaker and a marathon race (26.2 miles) runner. This article is used by permission.