I would say the theme of day five of the Milwaukee Film Festival was about justice, but that’s not quite the right word. It’s more about silence, and specifically about the efforts of those who are normally deprived of any voice or say in their lives to be heard, whether they are artists who want to share their work with the world, kids trying to escape the suffocating bleakness of their desolate small town, or black people who are tired of the country they reside in having little regard for their lives. As such, each of the three films I saw represents a cry from very different worlds.
When I feel like booing a movie less than five minutes in, it’s generally a sign that the rest of it will not be an enjoyable experience. But Manifesto surprisingly grew on me as it went on. Part of that is the magnificent Cate Blanchett, who’s clearly having a blast gleefully disappearing into the many roles she plays in Manifesto, whether it’s a punk rocker, a homeless man, a grade school teacher, housewife, grieving widow, or a couple of news reporters.
Sure, the various artistic manifestos and how they’re presented may be a somewhat annoying example of how these can not only represent the worst kind of arrogance and encapsulate how self-righteous and frequently well-off artists are themselves ignorant of those who are not in control of their own suffering. So many of these statements (which are presented in a series of what are essentially high-end, breathtakingly visual skits), and the manner in which writer-director Julian Rosefeldt presents them, is representative of the fact that they can now only be made from such a coldly privileged place. Everything changes when you have the power to change or stop the dire circumstances you may be in. Not to mention that the kind of underground style it so boldly represents often results in an environment that can be just as stifling as the one it’s reacting against.
But even though Manifesto flows from this common hypocrisy, it is not hypocritical in the way it unfolds, which is surprisingly humorous. It’s also deeply creative, and somehow perfectly attuned to the message it’s sending. Such an idea and such a concept should not be possible to show on film, but Rosefeldt is certainly a master of his craft, who is both clear-sighted enough to address at least some of the contradictions inherent in what he’s doing, and make it clear that he is not trying to cater to audience comforts. It knows that most viewers won’t be able to fully grasp his meaning, and his call to action will mostly appeal to those who seek to preside over a revolution from a place of comfort. This film is for the trendy freedom fighter who will rejoin his class once the fight for freedom is no longer in vogue. Some will love it, some will hate it, while others will just be baffled. However, all should respect Manifesto for so successfully channeling Rosefeldt’s vision, and doing so in a way that feels like a genuinely different, fascinating discussion of the artist through the ages.
Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992
Even if you weren’t born or don’t remember the riots that erupted in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict, where an all-white jury acquitted the officers who were caught on video beating King, who was both unarmed and black, it’s still an ugly, grim reminder to Americans of one of our darkest times, featuring some of the worst violence we are capable of inflicting on each other.
But by the time we get to the riots near the end of John Ridley’s documentary Let It Fall, which spends much of its 144 minute runtime not on the the event itself, but how much and how long the city had been building to it, audiences will marvel at not only what happened, but why it took so long. Much of what has become our new normal had its beginning in this time period. Gang violence was increasing. Crack cocaine had begun to devastate communities. Police destroyed people’s homes with little regard for those who lived in them. And black people were being gunned down by civilians and police with few consequences for the shooters, some of whom were caught on tape even in the pre-cell phone era. One of the most horrific examples is a surveillance video of a Korean store owner shooting a teenage girl in the back of the head, all because she mistakenly thought the student was stealing orange juice.
People of all ages and races who were in the middle of the riots or the incidents that preceded it speak of how they coped with their losses. A juror in the King trial related how his decision to hide his own blackness and pass for white influenced his vote. When the violence did erupt, police were ill-equipped to handle it. While some people described how they felt incapable of compassion for any other race that day, others risked their lives to help strangers. Ridley mostly refuses to condemn, and he definitely doesn’t provide easy answers, choosing instead to let people tell their own versions of the truth.
It’s a rather exhausting experience, and not just because of the subject matter. Ridley’s decision to make this a movie rather than giving this story the American Crime treatment means a few things get left out once things finally start winding down, namely about just how the violence was stopped and peace restored after the military came to town. These flaws aside, Let It Fall retains all of Ridley’s best trademarks, serving as a deeply compassionate warning of the rage and violence that results from when division and misunderstanding are allowed to become entrenched, both in our institutions and in ourselves.
Birdboy is a movie whose relatively short 76 minute runtime in no way detracts from its intensity. It’s also a reminder that animation can convey tragedy and darkness in an extremely adult way just like any other genre. So don’t be fooled by Birdboy’s stylistic choices or its abundance of animal and downright cute characters. This is not a movie that is suitable for children.
All the film’s animal residents live on an island that’s been devastated by an ecological disaster. Some subsist on garbage and refuse of the more well-off and try to make a life as best as they can, while others are fortunate enough to be able to cling to a semblance of modern society with all its comforts. But it’s not enough for three teenage friends, who all decide to run away to the distant big city, where they’ve heard it’s possible to actually have a life. One of them wants her boyfriend, the silent Birdboy, to flee with her, but he feels compelled to continue his father’s work and care for the last magical remnants of nature on the island that still exists in secret. The police force shot Birdboy’s father out of the sky because they believed he was dealing drugs. Now they believe Birdboy is doing the same, and he must constantly evade them or suffer his father’s fate.
It’s a bleak vision of a poisoned environment, with everyone in it trying to cope in various ways, most of them less than savory. The gloom surrounding them is conveyed in a darkly beautiful, extremely creative fashion, but by the end, it feels relentlessly bleak. There are points of beauty that have the potential for more hope, but Birdboy chooses not to focus on it in a way that seems like it’s punishing us for our sins. Perhaps it is, and who’s to say we don’t deserve it? More seriously, Birdboy does not tie up all the loose ends, with some of the trio not getting their own epilogues, leaving us with questions that are not only maddening, but easily answered. Do at least some of them get off the island? We don’t know, but we can only hope in spite of the movie not giving us much of a reason to. If one of them doesn’t, it will be because she is the one who may continue keeping the island’s only remaining sources of light alive in the hope that one day we will somehow learn from our mistakes.