NOT: Picture Me: A Model’s Diary

MIFF #4:  I am going to disclaim responsibility for choosing to see Picture Me: A Model’s Diary at 9:15pm on a school night.

So RM and I were flicking through the MIFF program and he surprised me by saying that he wanted to see ‘a visual diary of Sara [Ziff]’s experiences within the sometimes glamourous, often controversial, world of an international fashion model.’ He said that he’d read some good reviews about the documentary, that it was a no-holds-barred insight into the exploitation and dark side of modelling and was particularly effective because some of the people who were filmed did not realise that they were going to be part of a documentary.

It was pleasant enough to watch pretty girls wearing pretty clothes for 90 minutes, kind of like seeing Vogue come to life. But the supposed ‘insights’ included:

  • when you’re a model you get paid a lot of money to be pretty and on time, and after a while you can get used to the money;
  • a model who jumped into a hot tub with a completely naked photographer and was surprised when he made a move;
  • feeling annoyed because you often have to pay for your friends on holidays in St Barts because you earn 80-100k every time you work;
  • you are often treated like a prop, your hair gets pulled, your skin gets burnt;
  • backstage of a catwalk show is chaos and you have to get undressed in front of everyone, often within sight of the backstage photographers;
  • working as a tall, thin coathanger means you get a warped sense of the ideal body shape;
  • modelling and jetsetting around the world can be really tiring and the lack of sleep can play havoc to your skin and your emotions;
  • after a couple of years of walking up and down in a straight line and posing for cameras, modelling can start to feel kind of empty and pointless and it’s a challenge to work out what you want to do next; and
  • there are lots of too-young, too-skinny girls in the industry.

Yawn. I feel sorry for any young girl who is placed in a situation where they are likely to be exploited or even sexually assaulted, but Picture Me taught me nothing new about the modelling industry and it was boring.

I did like the opening credits though. They were pretty creative.

Picture Me Trailer

Picture Me | MySpace Video

NOT: Four Lions

fourlionsposterMIFF #3: Today’s we have a guest review of the MIFF film and upcoming general release, Four Lions, from Yalin, who saw it in the UK several months ago.

Friends J+B were at the MIFF screening last night and thought that it was very funny and effective – a HOT. I have a preview pass to the film in August, so I’ll be interested to see whether my views agree with Yalin or J+B. Thanks Yalin!

Let me preface this review by saying that I do not lack a sense of humour but I don’t believe one can boil down the intricacies of home-grown terrorism into a comedy.

The truth is that Morris’ presentation of his characters in Four Lions does not constitute a dark comedy; it is just a bad film. It completely omits the psychological, social and religious background that would be necessary to develop the mindset of a terrorist. I urge anyone, who is inclined to find out, to read Shiv Malik’s article on the issue over at Prospect Magazine, which is well researched and written.

Morris, on the other hand, implies that the making of a terrorist is to be laughed at, which doesn’t make the situation any more tolerable or funny for that matter. It is just dangerous. As much as I love escapism, this is one film that is so disconnected from its characters and their community that it doesn’t just escape the issue but rather misrepresent it.

Morris’ TV background glares throughout the film and its handling of the central issue. It picks up with the assumption that the four main characters have decided to be jihadists and never bothers to explain why. This assumption and treatment may work well for TV productions, but it just doesn’t fly high on the big screen. Two-dimensional characters cannot exhibit the urgency required to sustain a feature-length film, especially one that deals with a tough topic like terrorism. Morris’ characters start and end the same. They do not learn or grow; they do not change for better or worse. They have no real incentive to have become who they are or continue down their path, nor do they exhibit any identity confusion or have any issues in their life that would push them to pursue jihad. All we know is that they are all rather stupid, except for Omar, played by Riz Ahmed.

Omar is the ‘brains’ of the group. He’s the one who edits their ridiculous videos, the abundance of which says more about their narcissism than their dedication to the ideals they are fighting for. The others are less rounded, if you can call Omar a well-rounded character that is, where their main character trait is their naiveté. They come off as simpletons frankly, and the viewer gets to find out nothing more about them. We have no idea about their families, what they do to earn a living, how they have come to be friends with Omar, etc.

The worst script flaw though is related to the 5th recruit, a young Pakistani guy whose first appearance in the film ignites a sense of thoughtful commentary. It is the only moment in the film where Morris says something, but then true to form, he later degrades this one single moment of potential revelation by having him become one of the jihadists.

Despite its focus on unintelligent humour, Four Lions attempts to pull some dramatic strings towards the end and show a hip attitude towards violence a la Tarantino, but what might be construed as a cool approach is actually just annoying. The film really feels like a Western attitude towards the complexity of a suicide bomber. If something’s too hard to figure out or understand, people tend to joke around it in an attempt to diminish its importance and their lack of understanding.

Four Lions really feels like it was written by four British friends at a pub, who have no idea about the Pakistani community, the confusion that 2nd generation immigrants face when growing up and how terrorist organizations feed off of this. It is ignorance at its best, and as Thomas Gray says, ignorance is bliss, but it has no part in good film-making.

NOT: The Red Chapel

MIFF #2: I had high hopes for the Danish documentary The Red Chapel. Described as ‘a subversive comedy tour through North Korea’ and winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, I was expecting lots of laughs and a rare glimpse into an insular society built on the personality cult of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung.

Briefly, The Red Chapel follows two Danish comics, one of them a handicapped and both born in Korea, as they visit North Korea ostensibly to perform a comedy act in the name of cultural exchange. In fact, the director, Mads Brügger, is using them as a pretext to film the inner workings of a brutal, totalitarian dictatorship.

Over the course of two weeks, they are followed everywhere by their translator, party line-toeing Mrs Pak, are accidentally forced to participate in a rally and have their comedy act turned into a celebration of North Korea and Kim Jong-il.

The film wasn’t so bad that I would have walked out, but it left me with a rather distasteful feeling.  I’ve been pondering how to describe the many ways in which the film didn’t work for me and I think the summary is that it felt exploitative and was neither funny nor insightful. For example:

  • The film made fun of the propaganda spouted by Mrs Pak and the way in which she followed orders. This is a woman who has been brainwashed all her life by the regime and is there to protect the Danes from potentially embarrassing or inappropriate behaviour which may offend citizens. Yet she is ridiculed for her English, for tearing up at a Kim Jong-il monument and for saluting at a rally. And for simply being in the film and exposing her country to embarrassment, Brügger has possibly threatened her safety.
  • The Danes’ deliberately amateur and unfunny comedy act is turned into a set piece for North Korean propaganda by the North Korean director. Is it not so unlikely that polite hosts, North Korean or otherwise, and not wishing to embarrass themselves or their guests, would try to turn a bad show into something palatable and amusing for the audience? No matter how gauche the end product may seem to us
  • We are taken on the Danes’ sightseeing trip, where they tour monolithic concrete monuments, military bases and are presented with displays of amassed children singing, dancing and clapping. How is this new or insightful? Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of North Korea would know that of course this is the kind of thing you’re going to be made to see by the regime.

Throughout the film I had the same feeling as when I watched Borat, when Sacha Baron Cohen tricked himself an invitation to a southern dinner party. There he proceeded to offend his hosts and the guests, all apparently in the name of exposing their hypocrisy and intolerance, but in fact just exploitng the politeness, patience and goodwill they felt they had to extend towards this uncouth guest.

As Jacob, the handicapped comedian, says at one stage to Brugger ‘do you have no moral scruples?’. That pretty much sums out my feeling as I left the cinema.

Here’s a list of what else I’m seeing at MIFF this year.

HOT: Teenage Paparazzo

MIFF #1: OK, I confess that I booked Teenage Paparazzo because Adrian Grenier aka Vinnie Chase from Entourage, was the director of the documentary and presenting the film at the festival.

Regardless of my groupie-dom, Teenage Paparazzo is an enjoyable film reflecting on the nature of celebrity, society’s insatiable appetite for gossip, why we care about people we don’t actually know…and what constitutes ‘good’ parenting.

Austin Visschedyk is 13 years old, lives in West Hollywood…and earns a living braving the paparazzi crush with grown men as he photographs celebrities. One day he shoots Adrian Grenier, who realises that this blond-haired kid isn’t just doing it for kicks – he’s a serious paparazzo.

So Adrian asks Austin whether he can do a documentary following Austin into the world of professional celebrity stalking. It’s quite unnerving watching this blond-haired kid talk like an adult, swagger like an adult and his determination and focus as he sprints across the city at all hours of the night staking out nightclubs and private residences. It’s also interesting to see Austin receive a taste of his own medicine as he becomes more famous and as a camera crew follow his movements.

Along the way Grenier explores a world obsessed with celebrities and fame – and at one stage he jumps to the other side, going undercover as a paparazzo for a day just to see why and how they do it. The documentary interviews celebrities, journalists, paparazzo, and most interestingly for me, Austin’s parents. Because the film doesn’t just talk about what it’s like to be a celebrity, or what it’s like to shoot celebrities – there’s a very interesting power balance between Austin and his mother, who believes that Austin should be allowed to be provided with the freedom to work as a paparazzo at 2am despite still being a teenager.

You’re not going to come away from Teenage Paparazzo with amazing insights, but it’s an entertaining film coming from someone who’s part of the celebrity game about the celebrity game.

Here’s a list of what else I’m seeing at MIFF this year.