Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Sundance 2009: Pop Cultures

[Film Fest] For years, I've repeated the mantra that, on the whole, the documentaries at Sundance are more satisfying than the dramatic films. But I'm beginning to re-evaluate why I espouse that point of view. Maybe the movies themselves really are that much better. Or maybe I just love the experience of walking out of a theater not merely entertained, but having learned something.

I've learned a lot about the world by watching Sundance documentaries, and if there’s one constant, it’s that you can learn the most about another country through two primary sources: its spirituality, and its popular culture. And when the two overlap, it can be particularly fascinating.

The World Documentary Competition Films Afghan Star and Nollywood Babylon took on subjects that I couldn’t resist simply from the film guide summaries. The former, from British director Havana Marking, follows four of the top 10 finalists on Afghanistan’s newly created, post-Taliban version of American Idol. At the outset, a viewer might fear that it’s going to be nearly as painful as early season episodes of the American American Idol, full of shrill failed auditioners. But the film gradually segues into what makes the phenomenon—and it is just as huge there as it is here—distinctive in Afghanistan. Will the viewer-voting for the Tajik, Hazara and Pashtun finalists echo the country’s historical schisms? Will a woman who dares to perform—and dance!—on television risk her life in a country that’s more secularized, but still deeply Islamic? I couldn’t honestly tell you whether any of the finalists are actually talented—Middle Eastern singing is still far too alien to me—but I definitely learned something wonderfully bizarre: In a country where overt sexuality is taboo, for some reason eyebrows are a subject of physical admiration in love songs.

Nollywood Babylon also finds an unexpected crossover between the secular and the spiritual as Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal look at the burgeoning local film industry of Nigeria. The film's primary subject is Lancelot Imasuen, a director making his 157th down-and-dirty feature in the capital city of Lagos, and its fairly evident that great artistry is less important in this world than telling African stories to African people. But more compelling is the nature of most of those stories: Largely financed by the impoverished country’s evangelical mega-churches, the plots consist primarily of morality plays and fairly blatant attacks on the animist/pagan traditions of the country. Do the filmmakers derive cheap entertainment simply from showing the ultra-low-budget trailers and special effects? Sure. But as a way to learn something about a country’s faith, economy and art, it sure goes down easy. (Scott Renshaw)

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