Archive for June, 2015

CINE-LIST: Friday, JUNE 19 – Thursday, JUNE 25

Friday, June 19th, 2015

:: Friday, JUNE 12 – Thursday, JUNE 18 ::

 

CRUCIAL VIEWING

Frederick Wiseman’s NEAR DEATH (Documentary Revival)
Beguiled Cinema at Chicago Filmmakers (5243 N. Clark St.) – Sunday, 3pm
Legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman is famous for his thoroughness and objectivity even if he’s not quite as unimpeachable in these areas as some of his partisans claim; 2013’s AT BERKELEY, for instance, gave surprisingly short shrift to the title university’s professors while letting its administrators ramble on forever. 1989’s NEAR DEATH, however, has both of these qualities in spades and is a monumental achievement of the documentary form. The rare opportunity of seeing it projected on 16mm in its six-hour entirety should make for one of the most important local film events of the year (it has never, in fact, been projected on celluloid in Chicago at all). This screening, which will occur at Chicago Filmmakers, is an encore to the ambitious, recently-concluded Doc Films series “Frederick Wiseman: An Institution” programmed by Beguiled Cinema (aka the Chicago Reader’s Ben Sachs and Cine-File’s own Kat Sachs). NEAR DEATH takes as its subject the medical intensive care unit of Boston’s Beth Israel hospital but, unlike many of Wiseman’s most well-known films, does not focus on the organizational/bureaucratic aspects of the hospital as “institution” (Wiseman already made that film with 1970’s HOSPITAL). Instead, the narrow and immersive focus here is, as the title implies, on the human dynamics between terminally ill patients and their loved ones and the doctors and nurses who care for them. While the epic length might seem daunting to those unfamiliar with Wiseman’s work, the running time is not only justified but ends up feeling practically required by the subject matter, and the experience of watching the film is as easy as breathing (Errol Morris has even said that he thinks it is too short). Wiseman presents the ICU as a kind of self-enclosed world and structures the film around lengthy passages devoted primarily to three different intubated patients, all of whom are experiencing various degrees of internal-organ failure. These interior scenes are occasionally punctuated by shots of the mundane world outside—cars in traffic, a Citgo gas station sign—that only serve to heighten the hermetic, sealed-off quality of the ICU. Wiseman’s distanced, observational camera is aided by the Academy aspect ratio and grainy, black-and-white film stock, both of which reduce the amount of visual information available to the viewer—purifying the images and allowing one to focus on what’s most important: Wiseman’s profound exploration of ethical questions (chiefly, to what extent is it worth keeping someone alive who has no quality of life left?) as well as the emotions swirling around the circumstances of the dying patients, an approach that ends up feeling exhaustive. Seemingly every perspective on the sometimes-harrowing subject is covered and the middle third of the film is taken up by a particularly gripping series of scenes where two doctors have differing interpretations of whether an elderly female stroke victim who has difficulty communicating is telling them that she does or does not want to be resuscitated. The most emotional scenes, however, are saved for last, as the grieving wife of a man suffering from lung disease has a couple of long conversations with one Dr. Taylor, a man so compassionate and patient that he will singlehandedly increase your respect for the medical profession. (1989, 358 min, 16mm)  MGS

More info at www.beguiledcinema.com.

 

Chicago Curiosities: Resek + Palazzolo + McAdams (Documentary)
Chicago Filmmakers (5243 N. Clark St.) – Saturday, 8pm and repeated on Wednesday, 6:30pm, at Columbia College (
Hokin Hall, 623 S. Wabash Ave.)
On more than one occasion I’ve witnessed a person whip out their smartphone to sneak a picture of someone who’s rather unusual or eccentric, typically with little to no regard for what makes them so unique. Such occurrences are often more shocking than whomever they’re attempting to photograph, as the pursuit of the perfect shot comes to represent a society lacking empathy for what we don’t understand. Nonetheless, it’s important that these sights are captured for posterity, to live on as relics of the wonderful weirdness that surrounds us—but who among us can be entrusted with this responsibility? I won’t pretend to have the answer to that question; if anything, I’d say you can only know that an artist is worthy upon viewing their work. To that end, this program features several short films from Chicago artists whose sympathetic dispositions likely qualify them to capture such curiosities. Filmmaker Andy Resek does commercial film work across the country as part of Winter Beach Productions, which he co-founded with his wife, editor Ellen Castleberry. On the side, however, he makes documentary vignettes about various people and places in Chicago. This program features four of his short films (2011-14, 26 min total, Digital Projection) about topics ranging from juggalos attending a concert in Logan Square to acclaimed Chicago street artist Don’t Fret (depicted in FUNHOUSE and GOIN’ BROKE GOING FOR BROKE, respectively). The other films are just as disparate, including one about the Paramount Tall Club of Chicago and another about a Mexican ranch family that splits their time between here and their ranch in Rensselaer, Indiana. Some of the films were made as part of cooperative multi-media installation projects, further adding to the characterization of his subjects as art. Regardless of how one feels about who or what he’s portraying, there’s no doubt that Resek appreciates them as more than just mere subject matter. The same could be said of both Tom Palazzolo and Heather McAdams, a few of whose films are also included in the showcase and will be projected in their original 16mm formats. Palazzolo’s HE (1966, 8 min, 16mm; Restored Print) and THE TATTOOED LADY OF RIVERVIEW (1967, 14 min, 16mm; Restored Print) are decidedly vintage, providing a nice juxtaposition to Resek’s modern equivalents. McAdams’ THE LESTER FILM (2000, 15 min, 16mm) is a documentary portrait of artist and cross dresser Lester/Letuska, and as Cine-File editor Patrick Friel wrote on this very site several years ago, it “demonstrates McAdams’ understanding of and sensitivity for outsiders and people living on the margins (without losing an eye for the humorous and ridiculous).” (1966-2015, approx. 63 min total, Digital Projection and 16mm) KS

More info at www.chicagofilmmakers.org.

 

Orson Welles’ TOUCH OF EVIL (“Preview Version”) (American Revival)

Music Box Theatre – Saturday and Sunday, 11:30am

The film opens with a close-up of a time bomb. A doomed couple crosses the border from Mexico to California with ticking death in the trunk of their convertible. Another doomed couple moves with them, on foot. In a moment, all the world will explode. But this isn’t a film about explosions and death. It’s a film about violence, about the horrifying disconnect between words and deeds, about betrayal and lies. As the racist bully of a policeman, Hank Quinlan, Welles exudes grotesquery, sweating bullets of injustice and bigotry with every wheezing step. He blunders through the film, a monstrous presence prepared to do anything to enact his vision of law and order, willing to frame a man for murder just because he doesn’t like his attitude. All is transient, in flux, not merely taking place on the border but being about borderlines themselves. Where do we draw that line between interrogation and torture, between investigation and harassment, between evidence and supposition, between the friend and the foe? TOUCH OF EVIL is a film of cold fury, one that gives us a vision of existence as a permanent state of emergency, in which all that was previously thought solid has not just melted but burst into flames. The film begins with a bomb in a bravura long-take that falsely shows the world as whole, coherent, legible, only to destroy that world, to show it as always having been destroyed just moments before. But it ends with a sequence of crushing beauty: Quinlan, pursued through a wasteland of Mexican architectural filth by the mock-heroic Vargas (Charlton Heston), finally learns that in this space of nihilism, where things themselves can lie (a stick of dynamite, a photograph, a corpse) his own words are the only things he cannot escape. Objects are mere opportunities for deceit here, and space just a field of power, mastered by evil and oppressive, corrosive, of the genuine. Only words, perversely, can be trusted, and it’s through words, finally, that the monster will be slain, though it’s a meaningless victory: the man Quinlan framed has been tortured into confessing anyway. Marlene Dietrich’s famous line of elegy, ‘What does it matter what you say about people?’ is the loveliest and bleakest affirmation of the indefatigability of injustice ever put on celluloid. The preview version of TOUCH OF EVIL, discovered in 1973 in Universal’s vaults, is a messy affair: scenes run on a bit too long, are placed in illogical contexts, veer out of control in tone, even in quality. It is a film in the process of getting lost: neither the hyper-controlled precision of the 1998 Murch/Schmidlin re-edit nor the dirty, B-movie madness of the original release, but something importantly unshaped, rough and splintery. While the preview version cannot be the most satisfying of its incarnations, in seeing it this way it becomes clear that the movie TOUCH OF EVIL resembles most is Kubrick’s EYES WIDE SHUT, another misshapen, unfinished masterwork fascinated by the rotting core of America and the monstrous crimes those in power are willing to commit to keep the machinery of civilization churning along. Especially in this, its most broken form, TOUCH OF EVIL is a time bomb that mirrors the one in its opening shot, ready to detonate just after it gets under our skins. (1958, 108 min, 35mm)  KB

More info at www.musicboxtheatre.com.

 

 

ALSO RECOMMENDED

Alfred Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS (American Revival)

Music Box Theatre – Saturday, 2pm

Slavoj Žižek wrote, “In order to unravel Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS, one should first imagine the film without the birds, simply depicting the proverbial middle-class family in the midst of an Oedipal crisis—the attacks of the birds can only be accounted for as an outlet of the tension underlying this Oedipal constellation, i.e., they clearly materialize the destructive outburst of the maternal superego, one mother’s jealousy toward the young woman who tries to snatch her son from her.” That Hitchcock conceived of (and plotted) THE BIRDS as a comedy shows his gleeful perversity. It also goes a long way towards explaining the film’s enduring fascination. Most disaster movies simply revolve around the spectacle of things blowing up; if they make any room at all for humor or interpersonal relationships it’s usually of the throwaway or half-hearted variety. It’s just window dressing for explosions. But in his own crafty way, Hitchcock shows us that comedy, not tragedy, can be the best way to reveal the layers of a character while, crucially, misdirecting the audience’s attention. Using a meticulously scored soundtrack of bird effects in lieu of traditional music cues, paired with George Tomasini’s brilliant picture editing, heightens the feeling of disquiet. It all culminates in the stunning final shot: the superego has saturated the entire landscape. Introduced by Field Museum ornithologist Josh Engel. (1963, 119 min, 35mm) RC

More info at www.musicboxtheatre.com.


Mel Stuart’s WATTSTAX (Documentary Revival)

Logan Center for the Arts (915 E. 60th St., Univ. of Chicago) – Saturday, 5:30pm (Free Admission)

Nominally an archival documentary of the Wattstax Music Festival in 1972, the best sequences have nothing to do with the musicians on stage. Yes, there’s Isaac Hayes, bedecked in a vest of golden chains, singing a languid version of “Theme from Shaft” to a filled Los Angeles Coliseum. And there’s a fire-eyed Rufus Thomas performing “Do the Funky Chicken” before conducting the crowd back to their seats. But these performances act as a platform for a thematic distillation of black identity during the Black Power movement, seven years after the Watts Riots. Between freewheeling concert footage, Stuart (FOUR DAYS IN NOVEMBER, WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY), or more likely his black cameramen, ventured into Watts to interview its residents about their thoughts on love, the blues, language, style, and life in the neighborhood after the riots. The interviews feel as if they hit each touchstone of stereotypical black culture: a man’s afro is preened in a barbershop while another discusses the power of Christ. One particularly gripping and frantically shot sequence features churchgoers brought to tears and delirious convulsions by The Emotions’ rendition of “Peace Be Still.” At the concert, Stuart’s use of the zoom lens isolates women’s curves and intricate Black Power handshakes from across the Coliseum, as if studying a new breed with a new language. All this might be unseemly were it not for WATTSTAX’s purposed assertion that “Black is Beautiful.” It is a refrain heard in Jesse Jackson’s recitation of “I Am – Somebody” and rounded by Richard Pryor’s withering, humorous critiques of the stereotypes portrayed. Followed by a brief discussion about how music can affect social change. (1973, 103 min, Unconfirmed Format) BW


Tommy Wiseau’s THE ROOM (Cult Revival)

Music Box Theatre – Friday, Midnight

A woman announces, “Well, the results came back – I definitely have breast cancer,” and that’s the last we ever hear of it. A group of men don tuxedos for no apparent reason and then toss around a football. A drug dealer threatens to kill someone and then disappears for the rest of the movie. Upon awaking, a man picks up a rose from his night table, smells it, and throws it on top of his sleeping girlfriend. A recurring rooftop “exterior” is obviously a studio set, with a backdrop of the San Francisco skyline digitally composited behind the action. Accidental surrealism can be even more potent than the conscious kind, and THE ROOM is some kind of zenith of its type, the equal to anything Ed Wood committed to celluloid. Although what’s on screen looks like it cost about $14.99, the actual budget was upwards of $6 million, in part because actor/producer/writer/director Wiseau shot simultaneously in 35mm and HD (supposedly he didn’t understand the differences between the two formats). Now the film has become a worthy successor to THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, with enthusiastic fans performing a series of rituals at each screening. Ross Morin, assistant professor of film studies at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, calls it “one of the most important films of the past decade. Through the complete excess in every area of production, THE ROOM reveals to us just how empty, preposterous and silly the films and television programs we’ve watched over the past couple of decades have been.” (2003, 99 min, 35mm) RC

More info at www.musicboxtheatre.com.

 

 

MORE SCREENEINGS AND EVENTS

Michael Snow’s 1967 experimental film WAVELENGTH (45 min, 16mm) screens at the Art Institute of Chicago (Price Auditorium) on Thursday at 6pm. Free with museum admission. www.artic.edu/event/film-charles-ray

 

The Nightingale and Constellation (3111 N. Western Ave.) screen Anlo Sepulveda and Paul Collins’ 2014 documentary YAKONA (85 min, Digital Projection – Unconfirmed Format) on Monday at 7pm in the monthly Run of Life Experimental Documentary series. A discussion will be moderated by Anthony Cefali, Policy and Planning Specialist for Friends of the Chicago River.

The Nightingale (1084 N. Milwaukee Ave.) presents former Chicagoan Will Goss’ new feature HUNTING (2015, 67 min, Video Projection – Unconfirmed Format) on Saturday at 7pm, with Goss in person. Preceded by a musical set by Goss, Ed Crouse, and Chris Sullivan; and on Sunday at 7pm it’s the next installment of the multi-part series Follow Focus: Daviel Shy and THE LADIES ALMANACK -
Summer Screening: Dailies from Paris.

The Chicago Jewish Film Festival runs from June 20-28 at various Chicago and suburban locations. Complete schedule and more info at www.chicagojewishfilm.org.

Black Cinema House presents an outdoor/temporary installation screening of Marco G. Ferrari’s new video work SURFACES, which will be projected as a continuous loop on the Saint Laurence School building (1392 E. 72nd – corner of E. 72nd and S. Dorchester, one block east of Black Cinema House) on Sunday from 9-11pm.  Preceded by an Open House at Black Cinema House (7200 S. Kimbark Ave.) from 8-9pm.  Free. www.blackcinemahouse.org.

Comfort Film at Comfort Station Logan Square (2579 N. Milwaukee Ave.) screens Robert Smithson’s 1970 film SPIRAL JETTY (32 min, Digital Projection – Unconfirmed Format) on Friday at 8pm; and LiMe Nites, a program of short films selected and presented by the Little Mexico Film Festival and Promofest, on Wednesday at 8pm. Free admission.

Gallery 400 (400 S. Peoria, UIC) hosts Sistah Sinema Chicago’s screening of Blair Doroshwalther’s 2014 documentary OUT IN THE NIGHT (75 min, Video Projection – Unconfirmed Format) on Saturday at 2pm.

At the Gene Siskel Film Center this week: Max Ophüls’ 1940 French film FROM MAYERLING TO SARAJEVO (97 min, 35mm; New Print) screens on Friday at 6pm, Saturday at 3pm, and Thursday at 6:15pm; Frédéric Tcheng’s 2014 documentary DIOR AND I (90 min, DCP Digital), Olivier Assayas’ 2014 film CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA (124 min, DCP Digital), and Michael Winterbottom’s 2014 film THE FACE OF AN ANGEL (100 min, DCP Digital) all play for a week; Axelle Ropert’s 2013 French film MISS AND THE DOCTORS (102 min, DCP Digital) is on Saturday at 3pm and Monday at 6pm; Rebecca Zlotowski’s 2013 French/Austrian film GRAND CENTRAL (94 min, DCP Digital) is on Saturday at 5pm and Wednesday at 6pm; and Jirí Mádl’s 2014 Czech film TO SEE THE SEA (91 min, DCP Digital) is on Sunday at 5:15pm and Tuesday at 8pm, with Mádl in person at the Tuesday show.

At Doc Films (University of Chicago) this week: Claude Miller’s 2007 film A SECRET (105 min, 35mm) is on Wednesday at 7pm; and Roy Boulting’s 1943 WWII documentary DESERT VICTORY (62 min, 16mm) is on Thursday at 7pm.

Also at the Music Box Theatre this week: Crystal Moselle’s 2015 documentary THE WOLFPACK (80 min) opens; Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon’s 2014 film THE FAREWELL PARTY (95 min) and Andrew Bujalski’s 2015 film RESULTS (105 min) are both held over; Albert Maysles’ 2014 documentary IRIS (83 min) screens on Friday (3:30pm), Saturday (11:30am), and Sunday (11:30am and 3:30pm) only; Liz Garbus’ 2015 documentary WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? (101 min) is on Tuesday at 7:30pm, with a post-screening discussion with Bobbi Wilsyn, jazz-blues vocalist and voice studies coordinator and instructor (Columbia College Chicago); Benjamin Statler’s 2015 documentary SOAKED IN BLEACH (89 min) is on Wednesday at 7:45pm; Guillermo Amoedo’s 2014 film THE STRANGER (93 min) is on Friday and Saturday at Midnight; and Jim Sharman’s 1975 film THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (100 min, 35mm) is on Saturday at Midnight. Unconfirmed Formats except where noted.

Facets Cinémathèque plays Laura Nix and The Yes Men’s 2014 documentary THE YES MEN ARE REVOLTING (90 min, Unconfirmed Format) for a week’s run.

The Chicago Cultural Center hosts the Cinema/Chicago screening of Dong-Hoon Cho’s 2012 South Korean film THE THIEVES (135 min, Video Projection – Unconfirmed Format) on Wednesday at 6:30pm. Free admission.

 

 

ONGOING FILM/VIDEO INSTALLATIONS

The exhibition Frances Stark: Intimism is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through August 30. The show is a comprehensive survey of Stark’s video and digital production.

The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago presents an exhibition of nine video works by artist Keren Cytter. On view through October 4.

The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago presents German artist Clemens von Wedemeyer’s HD video installation Muster (Rushes) (2012). On view through July 26.

 

 

UPDATES/CLOSURES

Chicago Public Library screenings: Due to the frequency of late-additions (past our deadlines) and to their frequent inability (due to licensing restrictions) of publicly listing the titles of films they are screening, we will no longer be listing specific CPL screenings. Check their website for any films that may be showing.

The Patio Theater and the Portage Theater calendars have been confusing and constantly shifting—adding and removing events with little notice—and reportedly have been unexpectedly closed for scheduled events. We will no longer attempt to list any screenings there.

The Northwest Chicago Film Society will be resuming screenings in July.

 

CINE-LIST: June 19 – June 25, 2015

MANAGING EDITOR / Patrick Friel

CONTRIBUTORS / Kian Bergstrom, Rob Christopher, Kathleen Sachs, Michael G. Smith, Brian Welesko, Darnell Witt

Interview: Brent E. Huffman on SAVING MES AYNAK

Monday, June 1st, 2015

Interview: Brent E. Huffman on SAVING MES AYNAK

by Kathleen Sachs

 

Tomorrow night (Tuesday, June 2) as part of their popular Docs at the Box series, the Music Box Theatre will present the Chicago premiere of SAVING MES AYNAK. The screening takes place at 7:30pm and includes a panel discussion with the filmmaker and other distinguished guests.

Directed by filmmaker and Northwestern professor Brent E. Huffman and produced in part by the estimable Kartemquin Films, it’s about a 5,000-year-old archaeological site in Afghanistan that’s at risk of being destroyed for its valuable copper deposits. Huffman focuses on the archaeologists whose livelihood and lives are threatened by Taliban forces, while also examining the effects of aggressive economic development on the beleaguered country.

Huffman has also created a Saving Mes Aynak crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo and is hosting global #SaveMesAynak Day on July 1. VIP tickets to Tuesday’s screening and VHX streaming access for the July 1 event are available as donation incentives.

We spoke with Huffman about his film and the future of Mes Aynak.

Cine-File: How did you get involved with this project and what made you decide to cover this particular site and its dire situation?
Huffman: I actually made a bunch of films in China before about ethnic minority groups and became interested in China’s economic push in other countries, usually for resources. I made a film about China and Africa, I’m making a film about China and Pakistan right now, so initially that’s what was interesting to me, especially because this Chinese government-owned company would basically be the biggest foreign investment in Afghanistan’s history and they were proposing to work in Taliban country. There was a New York Times story back in 2010 that had suggested that the U.S. military was helping to support and protect this Chinese company and get them set up, and it just really piqued my interest. It was only later that I found out that in addition to this bizarre situation, the Chinese company would have to destroy a massive 5,000-year-old city in order to mine for copper, which seemed outrageous and incredible. I had done documentary work in Afghanistan before. I had covered the first presidential elections and I’d worked in Kabul, so I had some connections. I basically went to Kabul and found a way–with the help of a local translator–to get to Mes Aynak, in a rented taxi, and see the site for myself. And then I really fell in love with the site and the Afghan archaeologists risking their lives to try to save this ancient city. They’re getting heat from the Taliban and they go months at a time without being paid. It’s just a really harrowing story and situation.

CF: You said that you eventually found out about the site, but what were the circumstances around which you came into contact with the archaeologists? After figuring out the broad idea, what made you focus on these groups?
Huffman: The film tries to tell the overall story, but it does focus on the Afghan archaeologists doing this work. I would have loved to tell more of the Chinese story, but access was impossible. No one would give me permission; even the interview with the head of the Chinese mining company was really difficult. In a lot of ways, it’s a film that shouldn’t exist. But when I first came to the site, on day one, I met Qadir Temori, who becomes the main character in the film. I was just inspired by his passion and the risks he was willing to take to save his country’s heritage. The destruction of Mes Aynak would almost be as if this heritage, these parts of history, never existed at all. Like just erasing the history of Afghanistan off the face of the earth. And in many ways, the film focuses on one site, but I hope that the film suggests something bigger, that this is the wrong direction for the country to go in, basically sacrificing history for a quick buck. I think the money from this deal will be lost in corruption. I don’t think Afghanistan will ever see any benefit. They’ll lose the resources, they’ll lose the copper, then they’ll lose their history, which is irreplaceable. My big fear is that this process will just replicate. There’s supposedly $3 trillion worth of resources all over Afghanistan, and where there used to be priceless world heritage and Buddhist statues and ancient Buddhist cities, there’ll be toxic craters where no one can ever live again. I think it’s a fight that the whole country should rally behind and support.

CF: Going back to the corruption you mention, the scenes that stuck out for me were the ones where they’re talking about how much funding the dig was supposed to receive and how it’s currently the most expensive dig in the world, yet the archaeologists didn’t have the right tools and technology. Were you meaning to suggest that there was some corruption involved with the original $20-30 million allocated for the dig? I’m sure many people who will see the film will be wondering where that money went.
Huffman: Basically the World Bank pledged millions of dollars and from what I saw, none of it reached the Afghan archaeologists. This happens in a lot of countries where corruption in a big problem. The money just seems to hit this wall and doesn’t actually benefit the people it’s supposed to reach. Unfortunately, I think this happens in Afghanistan all the time. So not only is it that the archaeologists aren’t being paid, they’re sleeping on the ground, they don’t have one computer, they don’t have one digital camera, they don’t have the necessary chemicals and tools that you need to properly dig and excavate. I initially did a Kickstarter where we raised money to finally buy them laptop computers and cameras. I just thought it was crazy that they were working without these essential tools. And right now we’ve actually launched a new IndieGoGo campaign to kind of do the same thing: raise awareness for the site and provide some more funding for the Afghan archaeologists. In terms of where did the money go, I think it went into the pockets of corrupt Afghan government employees, ministry workers and things like that, and never actually reached the Afghan archaeologists for whom it was intended.

CF: I thought what was excellent about your film was the comparison between the effects of the Taliban on the dig and also both the Chinese mining company and the general mindset of economy over everything else. Was that intentional?
Huffman: Yeah. The situation at Mes Aynak is very complex. I’m not anti-China, it’s not just that this evil Chinese company is destroying history. It’s really much more than that. It’s that this Chinese company is doing what the Afghan government is letting them do. With the Taliban members that I’ve talked to, there isn’t a sense that they want to destroy objects because they’re Buddhist. I never experienced that religious intolerance. It’s all about money. So you have basically all these different groups out for the same thing. The Taliban, the Chinese company, the Afghan government–all trying to secure access to this huge amount of money. In my experience, the Afghan archaeologists were the only ones trying to do something selfless and save this enormous archaeological site, and really do something for their own country.

CF: When you say that the Taliban was primarily interested in money, do you mean with bribes?
Huffman: Yeah, exactly. They know that there’s supposedly a $100 billion worth of copper at Mes Aynak. They want to bribe anyone they can and they do that through the threat of violence. “We’ll kidnap you, we’ll place landmines on the road.” All of that stuff was happening while I was there, but it was not happening because they hate the archaeologists or they’re anti-Buddhism or something. It was all really based on the bottom line.

CF: That’s ironic considering what we hear nowadays about the Taliban’s motivations. To hear that in this particular instance their motivations are not ideological but instead monetary, similar to the Chinese mining company and various industries around the world, was interesting. It’s a brave stance because in this day and age people are very black and white about good and bad, with terrorism being bad and economic development being good, while here you have a situation that shows both of these things as existing in a grey area.
Huffman: Yeah, it’s very complicated. There’s no kind of easy answer either. The film doesn’t try to say, “Here’s what I think we should do,” because I do think it’s really complicated and I didn’t want the film to have to have that burden of being the solution. But I think people in the film offer solutions. It is a difficult situation.

CF: Especially in a country that’s been so economically inhibited. There are opportunities, but at the same time those opportunities are destructive in so many more ways, and as you pointed out, frequently involve corruption. It seems like a no-win situation.
Huffman: That was tough, too. I didn’t want to make a hopeless film, but it’s hard not to feel at least frustrated by the process. There is good news. Afghanistan has a new president who I think is much more receptive to it. He’s a former anthropologist, he’s much more receptive to these kinds of things. I think there’s a process that’s underway now to rebuild the Bamiyan Buddhas that you see blown up in the documentary. In 2001, the Taliban blew up these incredible, towering Buddha statues from the sixth century. But right now UNESCO is making that a World Heritage site and turning it into a museum, and they might rebuild the statues. I’m not exactly sure what the plan is, but there is this idea to turn one of these amazing sites into a tourist destination. We’ll see if it’s successful. That would bring money into Afghanistan and I do have high hopes that the same thing could happen at Mes Aynak. Mining could happen in a different way, in a different area. They wouldn’t have to destroy the site and they could open it up for tourism. I don’t think it’s hopeless. I do think a horribly destructive open pit, a toxic open pit, is a much worse scenario. Destroying the area, destroying the mountain range, so no one can ever live up there again. That sounds like a doomsday scenario to me.

CF: As a filmmaker, who or what has inspired you?
Huffman: That’s a great question. Honestly, I’m actually not that influenced by films that do activism. Though I do like films like THE COVE where it’s kind of hard not to be one-sided in that sort of situation. Like do we really want to hear from the person who thinks dolphin slaughter is a good idea? I think that about this film, too. I don’t think somebody could come on camera and say, “Destroying 5,000 years of history is the right thing to do for Afghanistan’s future.” I think that just sounds absurd. I think the film itself takes less of an activism stance than the actual movement that’s happening around the film. I do think it’s hard to see the other side, even though I do talk to the mining company and  the Ministry of Mines. I always think it’d be hard to show that side that thinks destruction of the site is the right thing to do. But back to your question, I’m a huge cinéma vérité fan, so the work of Fred Wiseman and the Maysle brothers probably influenced me more than anything else, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that SAVING MES AYNAK is like a vérité film. But I did want to make the story of Mes Aynak a character-based story as much as I could so that there was some emotional resonance between the site and the human beings. Finding Kadir, the archaeologist, and letting him be the thread was important so that it wasn’t just a narrated film with a lot of beautiful pictures. I wanted it to be a character-based story of someone who’s passionate, like I am, that believed in the site and that was fighting for it, who could tell the insider, personal story of why this is important.

CF: I was struck by the cinematic quality of what is a relatively straightforward documentation of these people in this situation. I notice in particular that you utilize color and scale very well. There was one scene where you zoom in and it seems like what you’re showing is actually very big, but then you pull back into a medium shot that shows it as actually being relatively small in comparison to the previous shot. I thought that incorporation of scale really exacerbated the awe of the situation. I don’t frequently see that in documentaries that have a clear standpoint on a certain subject. Was any of that intentional?
Huffman: This is a film made out of constant difficulty and access issues. There were things I would have loved to have done that just had to be done in other ways. I would have loved to have filmed from a helicopter flying over the site to really show how big it is and how grand it is, but a helicopter would have been shot down by the Taliban. I was making due with what I had. Just trying to be creative under immense limitations. I was constantly told, “You can’t do this.” I was at the site for only four hours at a time. As soon as the sun started to set, I had to get out of there. I think in terms of color, I used to be an impressionist painter, so some of that is carried over to the composition and the use of color.

CF: I read that you did everything involved with the actual filming. It’s interesting that you mention Wiseman, because he pretty much does everything himself as well. When I read in the press release that you had essentially been a one-man crew, I was reminded of him and his do-it-yourself mentality.
Huffman: Activism is certainly a part of the film, but I think there are institutional problems that you see in SAVING MES AYNAK that are things you’d see in a Wiseman film. Like here’s all the players and all the everyday headaches of trying to run something like this. It’s all extreme in Afghanistan where you may not come home, or you may come home in pieces. I would like to think the film has some of those subtle Wiseman touches, this examination of one location and things happening in this one area in this very complex way. Like Wiseman, I tried to include as many players as possible to tell the story. In an interview for Gawker, Wiseman talks about his films being time capsules, which I think is a great description. Worst case scenario, SAVING MES AYNAK is like that, a time capsule that’s trying to capture this story of people risking everything to save this ancient site. And it may be the only visual record of the site that will live on. We’re fighting so that’s not the case, but that was part of my thinking, that my film might be the only evidence of Mes Aynak that’s left. There’s a great quote, I can never remember who said it, but it’s basically “A country without documentaries is like a family without a photo album.” Without them, there’d be no way to remember the past.

CF: Going back to Mes Aynak, what’s happening as of this interview?
Huffman: We’ve launched this IndieGoGo campaign to raise awareness and hopefully give back some money to the Afghan archaeologists, and to send me to Kabul again to show the film to the new president. Mes Aynak could be destroyed at any time, and there’s a lot of pressure from the local government to make them start as soon as possible. Most of the foreign archaeologists have left, so there’s a skeleton crew working at the site. I’ve heard reports that looting is happening at night when the site isn’t being watched, so it desperately needs our help right now at this moment.

 

Visit the film’s website here.