By Yun-hua Chen.
The Scotland-based Take One Action Film Festival strikingly distinguishes itself from other film festivals in terms of its clear focus on “people and movies that are changing the world” and its strong emphasis on audience participation. Instead of film aesthetics, the festival foregrounds significant issues such as poverty and sustainability in certain areas of the world that Scottish audience rarely have direct experiences of. It aims to encourage the spectator to take practical action and transform film images to tangible impact on the world.
The festival opens with the sold-out UK premiere of Even the Rain (2010), the only fiction film among 11 films showcased here. The film dramatises Bolivia’s mass protests of spring 2000 against the government’s decision to privatise the national water company under the pressure of the IMF, which resulted in 300% raise of water fees. The real-life event is juxtaposed with the fictional part in which a Spanish film crew shoots a historical epics centred around Columbus’ arrival in the new world. The cultural and socioeconomic clashes between Columbus’ troop and the indigenous people more than 500 years ago in the film-within-the film and that between the film crew and local Bolivian residents, form a striking parallel. The diegetic film world, the film-within-the-film under the direction of the Spanish director Sebastian (convincingly played by Gael Garcia Bernal), and the documentary footage that one of Sebastian’s crew members shoots during the protests further blur the lines between temporalities, spatialities and virtualities. This film is especially relevant to our contemporary world because of its reminiscence of the current crisis in Greece and IMF’s involvement, which has been raised and addressed during the Q&A with its screenwriter Paul Laverty, also the festival patron. It was an excellent demonstration of the spirit of Take One Action, with insightful reflections on the filmmakers’ responsibility and delicate relationship with the local people in shooting locations.
A different kind of encounter between people from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds can be seen in When China Met Africa. This documentary follows Chinese entrepreneurs who have settled across Zambia in search of new opportunities, as well as a project manager working for a multinational Chinese company to upgrade Zambia’s longest road. It vividly portrays the unintentional misunderstanding and mutual mistrust originated from lack of intercultural tools and language skills. The camera intimately captures salaries being passed from the Chinese farm managers to the local workers through metal fence, and the misunderstandings resulted from cultural barriers. Whereas the Chinese project manager struggles to deal with the shortage of funds from the Zambian government, a farm manager fails to pay his workers in time. The financial side of the story is thus intertwined with political, socioeconomic and cultural dimensions; the documentary brilliantly foregrounds the global map of competition for resources and power relationships.
Leonard Helmrich’s Position Among the Stars (2010) takes us to Jakarda, the household of a Christian-Islamic Sjamsuddin family in Indonesia. With a humorous tone the film starts with a sequence in the rural Indonesia, when the grandma takes her son back to her native village to visit a relative who lives in a straw bale house. We see them trying to stop the train in the middle of the rail track but in vain, and then paying to be taken to the next train station by a motorbike-generated cart sliding on the track, first backwards in order to go forwards. Upon arrival in Jakarta, the grandmother faces the urban world overwhelmed by commercial products, material desire and media. The difficulty that the grandmother experiences in surviving in the small dwelling within alleys of Jakarta, a marginalised corner in the globalised world, is in line with her difficulty in understanding her granddaughter’s pursuit of digital products and changeable fashion. Despite of her desire to give the granddaughter college education to climb up the social ladder, the astronomical amount of tuition fees is unaffordable. It is a tender picture about the struggle between the modern and traditional, religion and materialism, youth and elderly, urban and rural, West and East, and wealth and poverty.
From the same continent we see Kyaw Kyaw Oo’s Nargis: When Time Stopped Breathing (2009). For the first couple of minutes in the opening static shot, the devastating cyclone Nargis reveals its destructive power on a tree captured by the camera behind a sealed window. The film is an impressive work on the aftermath of Nargis, which killed more than 140,000 people in Burma in May 2008 and left more two and half million Burmese homeless. The non-judgmental camera observes the fallen trees, houses and huts in shreds left behind by Nargis and the local residents’ efforts to search for any recyclable piece of metal or wood in the aftermath of devastation to reconstruct their houses from ground zero, as well as Burma’s ruling military’s failure to signal a warning in advance, their delayed and disproportionate response to the catastrophe, and refusal of international aid. It is a heartbreaking picture calmly looking at wandering orphans and desolate survivors.
Kim Longinotto’s Pink Saris (2010) is a warm-hearted documentary on the Gulabi Gang (Pink Gang) in India, organised by Sampat Pal Devi who goes around the streets of Uttar Pradesh to combat injustice and discrimination against women, and especially those belonging to the lowest social caste. Her followers range from a pregnant young girl out of wedlock who is on the brink of being murdered by her family, and a married woman who has been beaten and sexually harassed by her in-laws. With the unfolding of the film, we see that Sampat has gone through a similar story, having been married at a young age and abused by her in-laws. Her relationship with the current partner is also not devoid of pitfalls. The film reveals Sampat’s extraordinary courage and determination to fight back against the unjust system and take charge of her own life along with other beleaguered women’s life regardless of social pressure.
Frank Poulsen’s Blood in the Mobile poses the moral question of consumption. It starts from Poulsen’s personal questioning of the relationship between the minerals in his mobile phone manufactured from the biggest phone company in the world, and Congo’s ongoing civil war which caused five million deaths in the past 15 years. After failing to retrieve a satisfactory response from the phone company’s headquarters in Finland, Poulsen ventures into Congo himself to investigate in the heavily guarded and normally inaccessible Bisie mine area. Within the small tunnel space where child labourers sometimes spend a whole week without going out, we witness the cruel process they have to go through to obtain the essential materials in everyone’s daily life in the West. Whereas it demonstrates the power of cinema, which takes the spectator to travel to where we could not and would not want to be, it also provokes reflection on our consumption of documentary images in the West. What is our responsibility as a spectator when we consume the misery from our comfortable seats?
Take One Action film festival strategically closes with Anthony Baxter’s You’ve Been Trumped, a powerful picture which successfully engages with the local audience and incites a dynamic discussion. Because of lack of support from any governmental organisation such as Creative Scotland, Baxter mortgaged his house to fund the making of the film. It is a powerful picture of a contemporary David and Goliath story. Whereas the American billionaire Donald Trump’s golf course and hotel development project in an area of Special Scientific interest on Scotland’s Aberdeenshire coast was rejected by the local authority initially, Scottish Government later overturns the decision and approves it arguing for economic reasons. The documentary follows how life of the local residents who insist on remaining in their home in Aberdeenshire has been altered by such a turn; their view is blocked by heaps of mud, water supply cut off for weeks, Trump’s security guards and policemen constantly patrolling the neighbourhood. The film interweaves archival footage of children playing on the beach and farmers plowing in Aberdeenshire of the past, news footage of Trump giving interviews and inspecting the site, and Baxter’s observation on the site over a period of eight months, which reveals the dramatic change of the landscape. The demeanour of local residents contrasts with that of Trump at the same time that nature of the past measures against construction site of the present. You’ve Been Trumped exemplifies the kind of environmental, socioeconomic and political issues that Take One Action is particularly engaged with and the practical impact of film images that the film festival expects to have on the spectator in order to make a step towards change outside the realm of film art.
Yun-hua Chen recently obtained her PhD degree in film studies from the University of St Andrews.