A Report by Gary M. Kramer.

This year’s slate included several strong entries about family – especially from Latin America, as well as a pair of offbeat portraits from Finland.

Breakdancing provides an element of escape for José Antonio Zúñiga Rodriguez – “Tono” for short – a wrongly imprisoned Mexican in Presento Cupable (Presumed Guilty, Hernández and Smith, 2008). And Tono describes how doing a back flip parallels his experiences about being on trial. “You kick, you twist, you hope you land on your feet,” he explains. The filmmakers, Roberto Hernández and Geoffrey Smith use this lyrical metaphor to show how the judicial system in Mexico – where anyone suspected of guilt has to prove their innocence – is broken. As Presumed Guilty explains, the police are rewarded for making the most arrests and they often exaggerate statements to keep criminals in jail. Tono describes how 20 men are housed in his cell, and that he must sleep on the floor, under a bunk, where cockroaches are rampant no matter how clean he keeps the space. According to the film’s statistics, 92% of the defendants never see a judge in their trial. When an attorney insists Tono was wrongly convicted, he takes the case and a retrial is set. This sequence is riveting – Tono’s lawyer deftly argues for justice. This unfolds not in a proper courtroom, but in the middle of a crowded office. The sole witness for the prosecution (who has been coached) is asked to describe Tono, and the prosecution is asked to explain why they are seeking a conviction of a man evidence shows is innocent. Moreover, as issues such as cameras in the courtroom are raised – filming Tono’s retrial may lead to his release – so too, are points about how 92% of convictions are made without physical evidence. There is no question that Tono is innocent, and his lack of self-pity – he explains, without regret, how he did ask God to put him in jail – makes him especially sympathetic. How Hernández and Smith play out his dramatic story in a slick, but not sensational manner is what makes Presumed Guilty so powerful.

Circo (Schock, 2010) is a captivating documentary about a Mexican family that has run a low-budget circus in the countryside for generations. Tino is the current ringmaster, and his observation, “Through good and bad, there is always the circus,” is the film’s mantra. The family undergoes various trials and tribulations over the 75 minute running time. Tino’s young children learn to be contortionists and aerialists, while his older son wants to train to be a lion tamer. Circo broaches the topic of child labor and how these kids participate in a gypsy-like life, and not a normal childhood with school and friends and a proper home. Moreover, Tino’s wife, Ivonne, is frustrated by the lack of compensation for the kids’ hard work. They “pitch and strike” day in and day out and “nothing changes,” she laments. Circo also addresses the financial concerns of the circus tradition surviving as crowds are sometimes sparse and family members come and go; much is made about seeking lives outside the ring. Obviously, Circo is not a documentary that makes viewers want to run away and join the circus–as one interviewee admits to doing – but instead, it offer a candid portrait of a way of life that is not at all romantic or fantastic; it’s hard, sometimes thankless work steeped in ritual. There are some nice moments featuring the various acts – though perhaps not enough of them – but the scenes that open and close Circo that featuring Tino and his son recording the call to come see the circus, illustrates how committed they are to their lives, and such impassioned scenes are the key to Circo’s success.

Another Latin American family is the subject of Familia (Herskovits and Wiström, 2010), the third film in a trilogy about an impoverished Peruvian clan. This astonishing doc has Nati, the 51 year-old matriarch, traveling to Spain to work as a domestic to help earn money for her family. Watching Nati suffer at her job, or stress about leaving her family is heartbreaking; a hug she shares with a co-worker is incredibly heartfelt and the filmmakers capture this moment in all its glory in a single long take that, like their entire film, is highly affecting. Nati’s husband, who is afflicted with polio, has difficulty making ends meet with his motorcycle cab, and her grown son is having trouble with his wife and young child. Meanwhile, the family’s adult daughter Judith is reluctant to get a job. Judith’s comments are conveyed in voice-overs that poignantly express – and detach – her feelings from the rest of her family. One such observation is her desire to be like her mother–but it is clear from the film why this is no longer appealing. Because Wiström has been documenting the family since the early 1970s, he and his co-director Herskovits establish an intimacy that invites viewers to feel every slight and struggle. Familia is a beautifully observed film that paints a sad, but compelling portrait of people living in poverty but with dignity.

Cloud Rock, father of filmmaker Kaleo La Belle, proves himself to be irresponsible in the first few minutes of Beyond This Place (La Belle, 2010). After leaving on a road trip – he is accompanying his son on a 500-mile bike ride through the Pacific Northwest – Cloud realizes he forgot to lock his studio door. As Beyond this Place explains, it was 30 years ago that Cloud Rock vanished, leaving Kaleo no childhood memories of him. The filmmaker carefully, sensitively investigates the reasoning of this phantom father figure – a man who spent the past 40 years on psychedelics and cycling. Kaleo addresses issues of what it means to be a father, and issues of freedom and responsibility, which Cloud Rock explains in his own way, “Clouds in the sky have no roots–and neither do I.” His comment certainly justifies why he has his son in his heart and his mind, but they don’t share a more immediate connection. Or why his other son, Starbuck, is destitute and alone. Beyond this Place makes viewers want to take Cloud Rock to task for abandoning his family, but La Belle – in an effort to understand and possibly forgive his father – films his dad subjectively, shrewdly allowing him to answer questions about why he stayed away and letting the audience discover the reasons along with the filmmaker. Cloud Rock’s lack of curiosity about his son mirrors his lack of empathy for Kaleo, and Beyond this Place is at its most emotional when the two men bond in a hug. Kaleo’s declaration of filling this hole in his life – and his father’s life – is a big deal to him, and while audiences may question why Kaleo would celebrate his father who was so absent for so long, Beyond this Place stands as a testament for uniting these strangers. Even the apt title suggests that the emotions in the film are greater than the father and son who share them, and to find enlightenment, one much move “beyond” their current place.

Cool water on hot coals is the central motif of Miesten Vuoro (Steam of Life, Berghäll and Hotakainen, 2010). The dozens of tough Finnish men who recount stories from their lives in saunas are letting off steam. As one naked man says, “Boys don’t cry” in Finland, making these tragic confessions about death and family all the more emotionally rendering for its subjects. While this observational documentary is suitable quiet, poignant and meditative, it’s very step-and-repeat. Men get naked, get sweaty, pour out their stories, and pour water on hot coals. Artful landscape shots are inserted between episodes to illustrate the sense of isolation. The steam room as crucible is a good, strong metaphor, and the film gives viewers opportunities to examine the naked bodies of these men – old and young, fat and thin, hairy and smooth – to get a sense of what it is like to live in another man’s skin/world. But as this leisurely paced documentary – which features nice incidental music, incidentally – shows saunas in phone booths, trailers, and even a tractor – less is eventually more. When one subject, Pertti, describes his experiences in jail, and his new life as a family man, it’s touching. By the time the twelfth or twentieth man talks about the death of a child, or parent, or his mistakes/regrets in live Steam of Life is more dry than illuminating.

Another Finnish film, Kansakunnan olohuone, (The Living Room of the Nation, Kärkäinen, 2001) also features portraits of ordinary people. The film documents the lives of a handful of individuals, including Tero, a father-to-be, who wonders in the opening scene, “Why is life so damn hard?” The characters are seen in static shots in their homes eking out ordinary, sometimes desperate lives. One man irons and shines his shoes. A couple has a fight. Another man does exercises. There is a dryly funny scene of Tero’s frying pan catching fire and the kitchen filling with smoke. It’s all very artfully composed and presented in a deadpan fashion that is either ironic or not. The Living Room of the Nation depicts critical and non-critical moments in these lives, and interest in one story may not extend to another. The film is as personal as it is idiosyncratic, and this is its blessing and its curse. Many of the stories involve the characters moving in to new living rooms/homes/spaces, and this accounts for the film’s “action.” But it is the film’s insights – about failure, about responsibility, about family – are what make these stories universal, and so absorbing. That said, some folks may just be bored.

Gary M. Kramer is a freelance film critic and the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews.

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