Monday, February 28, 2011

SFIAAFF 2011: EMIR (2010)—REVIEW (Francis "Oggs" Cruz)

Now that Michael Hawley has provided his helpful overview of the lineup for the 2011 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF), let's hone in on specific films. Last year's edition of SFIAAFF shone a spotlight on the national cinema of the Philippines with a retrospective sampling of the work of Lino Brocka. Not only was this a welcome embrace of the Filipino community into SFIAAFF's Asian American demographic, but afforded opportunity for The Evening Class to collaborate with three of the Philippines' leading young critics: Francis "Oggs" Cruz, Richard Bolisay, and Dodo Dayao. It made for one of my most informed years with SFIAAFF. Following through this year, Francis "Oggs" Cruz has graciously agreed to let me replicate three of his reviews of Philippine films programmed at SFIAAFF 2011. These reviews were previously published at his site Lessons From the School of Inattention and then cross-published at our team site Twitch.

First up, Chito S. Roño's Emir (2010), whose
Variety review—"jaw-dropping in both good ways and bad"—has been recommendation enough for Michael Hawley to scramble for a seat. Myself, I watched Emir on screener and appreciated it for taking me away from my "garlic-scented life" and the dreary monotony of "plaguing rats hiding their tails in the cornfield." Interesting more for its regional inflection of what it self-envisions as a sing-a-long musical than the actual musical numbers themselves (though the "jetsetter nanny" sequence was an amusing guilty pleasure), I appreciated Oggs' review because of its insider's unflinching perspective on what Emir actually means within the context of Philippine film production. His perspective helped me articulate my basic discomfort with the dramatic structure of Emir, despite its seductive escapism into song and dance. Though I have reservations about the political incorrection of the film, Emir's production values are undeniably attractive and will, no doubt, project beautifully on the Castro Theater's large screen.

* * *

"To invest funds and other assets in such activities or undertakings that shall directly and indirectly promote development of the film industry, including the production of films and other terms and conditions as it may deem wise and desirable."—Section 3 (9), Republic Act 9167 entitled "An Act Creating the Film Development Council of the Philippines, Defining its Powers and Functions, Appropriating Funds Therefor, and Other Purposes"

Chito Roño's Emir, a seventy-million peso endeavor by the Film Development Council of the Philippines, with generous funding from the President's social funds and other government sponsorships or partnerships, looks exactly the part. Set in the most picturesque locations in the Philippines, from the grandiose Banaue Rice Terraces to the rustic Paoay Church, and Morocco, the film is mostly lovely to look at, exactly like moving musical postcards from various touristy destinations. The film also sounds expensive, with the several musical numbers utilizing full orchestrations to sweeping and rousing effect. It seems that every peso of the film's unusually hefty budget was appropriately spent.

The question remains. Is Emir, a movie that tackles the experiences of Filipino overseas contract workers, deserving of such governmental support? Considering that the mandate of the Council is for the development of the film industry and not the promotion of overseas labor or local and international tourism, is the decision to concentrate such a budget on one expensive production a wise one, when it would be undoubtedly more helpful for the development of the film industry if such immense budget was spread to many filmmakers who have films that are just waiting for a fraction of the seventy million pesos to get made? The reasons and rationales for Emir's existence [are] of course in the arena of discretion; discretion that it is of the greatest import to celebrate the accomplishments of overseas contract workers through a film, an expensive musicale that is half-set in a foreign country. Decisions arising from discretion are sadly a very difficult thing to controvert, and suspicious minds can only entertain—well—suspicions. The film has been made, and the issue of whether or not this decision—based on the discretion of a government whose past discretions or indiscretions have always been questioned but have never been answered—is proper [or] better discussed in other venues.

Partly based on the true story of a crown prince of an Arab nation who can fluently speak both Tagalog and Ilokano, Emir tells the story of Amelia (Frencheska Farr), the daughter of poor farmers who travels to Yememeni, the fictional oil-rich Arab nation that is on the verge of being invaded by its neighbors, to be able to reverse the fortune of her family. She is employed in the household of a sheik and is assigned to be the nanny of the sheik's only son. True to her job, she rears the child not only to be appreciative of Filipino culture but to treat that culture as his very own, often interrupting his expected English or Arabic with bursts of fluently-spoken Filipino phrases. While not tending to her ward, she either swoons for a half-Arabic half-Filipino man (Sid Lucero) or entangles herself with the issues of her co-workers.

Admittedly, there is something engrossing about telling the stories of these so-called modern heroes, those Filipino men and women who risk parting with their families and endangering their lives to earn enough for their families back home and whose only connection with the motherland is through these Filipino-made microphone-like contraptions that showcase Philippine vistas while displaying the lyrics to all-time favorite karaoke tunes, through song. However,
Emir, even with its string of original songs, cannot muster enough sincerity to even approximate a fraction of the overseas experience. The film seems satisfied in approximating its influences, from its opening number, where hyperactive nurses, construction workers and dancers back-flip and gyrate to the incoherent rhythm of a song about the promises of overseas employment, which feels like a ghastly mix of Disney and Demy, to the lone near-lifeless Bollywood number where non-Filipino employees of the sheik suddenly enter the picture and dance to a pseudo-Arabic ditty, in token acknowledgment of their existence.

Save for
O, Maliwanag na Buwan (O, Shining Moon), a high-powered duet that resembles the raw emotionality and the unabashed lyricism of Aegis' greatest hits, and is sung sublimely by heartbroken Amelia and Tersing (Kalila Aguilos), who at that given point in the film were both left by their men, all of the songs of this musicale are fleeting and unremarkable.

Had its uninspiring musicality been its only problem, Emir could still have been a mildly entertaining diversion. However, the film propagates a dangerous fantasy of a reality that gnaws on the very core of what essentially is a national pride. In Hindi Ko Pinangarap (I Never Ambitioned)—the musical number where Ester (powerfully played by veteran singer-actress Dulce), who recently resigned from her job as governess of the house, proceeds to convince Amelia to take the job—she pronounces that the job she reluctantly gave up is the pinnacle of their existences, irresponsibly reinforcing a culture of highly-paid servitude as opposed to self-fulfillment. This is basically the problem with Emir. While it is unwise to blind ourselves to the reality that the Philippines is surviving because it is exporting labor to richer nations, Emir never regards this resignation to this new form of colonization (a near-accurate term especially because this system of economy that relies solely on the fact that other nations are in need of Filipinos' services and have the capacity to pay for Filipinos' services result in the Philippines' being subservient to other countries' superior wealth), as a serious problem, which it is.

As it is, Emir treats all these, from the very real problems of these immigrant workers to the bigger picture of the country being taken hostage by employer nations, as popcorn entertainment, equivalent to a weekend noon-time variety show and nothing more. The fact that the government, in all its benevolent discretion, decided to go this way in its efforts to improve film production in the country, makes the pain—although forcibly disguised in fancy colors and upbeat tunes—even more resounding.

Cross-published on Twitch.

SFIAAFF 2011—Michael Hawley Previews the Line-up

Rather than wait until its 30th birthday, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) has chosen 29 as the ripe age for a makeover. At a recent press conference announcing 2011's line-up, the fest introduced a new logo, website, tagline ("Stories to light") and most importantly, a new Festival and Exhibitions Director. Masashi Niwano, a 29-year-old Bay Area native, worked his way up the SFIAAFF ranks as volunteer, intern, theater operations manager and even filmmaker. He's come home after a four-year stint running the Austin Asian American Film Festival and now replaces esteemed Chi-hui Yang in helming the largest Asian fest in North America.

SFIAAFF has also replaced its traditional magazine-format program guide with a classy, but somewhat unwieldy and eye-straining 6" x 9" catalog. Flipping through it at the press conference, I noticed an absence of recognizable international auteurs—indeed, only two of the roughly dozen films I'd hoped for were in the program. Among the M.I.A. are new works by Lee Chang-dong, Tsui Hark, Takashi Miike, Kôji Wakamatsu, Anh Hung Tran, Amir Muhammad, Kim Longinotto and most strangely, SFIAAFF habitué Hong Sang-soo, who released two new films last year. Of course, SFIAAF is more than just a greatest hits collection from the previous year's fest circuit. A closer examination would reveal many programs worthy of anticipation.

My two wish-list fulfillments are Jia Zheng-ke's I Wish I Knew and Zeina Durra's The Imperialists Are Still Alive! Considered China's most important filmmaker by some, this new work from Jia (
Still Life and last year's SFIAAFF entry, 24 City) is a portrait of Shanghai, shot by his extraordinary, longtime cinematographer Yu Likwai. Imperialists is director Durra's narrative feature debut and is set amongst NYC's post-9/11 "émigré intelligentsia." The main character is a bourgeois but politically provocative artist who falls for a Mexican PhD student on the same night she learns that a friend has possibly been abducted under the C.I.A.'s "extraordinary rendition" program. The part is played by one of my favorite French actresses, Élodie Bouchez (André Téchiné's Wild Reeds and Roman Coppola's CQ.) It remains to be seen how the film fits the context of an Asian American film festival, given that the director—as well as Bouchez's character—is of Bosnian-Jordanian-Palestinian descent. Also worth noting is that Imperialists was shot in 16mm and will be screened at the festival in that format. (Speaking of screening formats, you'll need to purchase the catalog to learn what's what—the free mini-guide and website make no mention of them).

This year's SFIAAFF runs from March 10 to 20 and I've got a big, red circle drawn around Sunday, March 13. I plan on parking myself at the Castro Theater from noon till midnight that day for what promises to be one helluva quadruple-bill. The marathon kicks off with what was originally a distributor-imposed "surprise" screening. Said distributor has changed its mind, however, and now I'm free to tell you that the surprise is Lee Jeong-beom's violent revenge thriller The Man From Nowhere, one of South Korea's biggest 2010 box office hits. Actor Bin Won stars as a taciturn pawnshop owner who's forced to revive his skills as a former government assassin in order to rescue the daughter of his junkie upstairs neighbor from child organ harvesters. Whew! Reviews say the film's occasional hoary genre clichés are outweighed by kick-ass set pieces and a riveting performance by Won, in a role that's polar opposite to the developmentally disabled son he portrayed in Bong Joon-ho's

The Castro mood shifts radically at 3:00 with Chito S. Roño's Emir, a campy, 22-song Filipino musical about an OFW (overseas Filipina worker) who becomes nanny to a young Middle Eastern prince. In his review for
Variety, Jay Weissberg calls Emir "jaw-dropping in both good ways and bad," which is recommendation enough for me. The Castro's evening programming begins at 6:30 with SFIAAFF's 2011 Centerpiece Film, Le Thanh Son's Clash. This martial arts epic was last year's top box-office smash in Viet Nam and stars that country's very own "Brangelina," couple Johnny Tri Nguyen and Ngo Thanh Van. The trailer is a blast and friends who attended the press screening say it's sexy as all get out. Plus, Nguyen and Van are expected to appear live on-stage at the Castro. How do you top that? Perhaps with Raavanan, the latest spectacle from celebrated Indian director Mani Ratnam (Dil Se, A Peck on the Cheek), which screens at 9:30. This contempo retelling of a tale from the Ramayana stars mono-monikered hunk Vikram as a criminal who conducts a revenge kidnapping of a police chief's wife (Aishwarya Rai). By the way, all four films at SFIAAFF's day-at-the-Castro will be screened in 35mm.

Each year the festival presents a "ripe for rediscovery" movie from Out of the Vaults—traditionally at the Castro Theater. Unfortunately, this year's selection unspools at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive at the exact same time as the Castro's Centerpiece Film. I'm probably not the only person who's distressed over having to choose. This year's revival will be 1936's Charlie Chan at the Olympics, said to be "one of the best and most interesting of the 16 films in which Warner Oland played the title character." The event will include a conversation between Stephen Gong, executive director of the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) and author Yunte Huang, who's just written the book,
Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History.

Several of the films mentioned thus far hail from the festival's new Cinema Asia sidebar, which is basically their old International Showcase with some foreign documentaries mixed in. Of the 15 selections on offer, I'm especially looking forward to Dooman River, the latest narrative feature about North Koreans in China from director Zhang Lu. His masterful
Grain in Ear and its follow-up, Desert Dream, were shown at the festival in 2006 and 2008 respectively. I've also read good things about Jeon Kyu-Hwan's Dance Town, which follows an exiled North Korean table tennis champ as she adapts to life in South Korea. Those who follow the Golden Horse Awards—arguably Asia's most prestigious film accolade—will have the opportunity to catch two big winners from last year. Chang Tso-Chi's When Love Comes won Best Feature Film, Audience Choice Award, Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction, while Chung Mong-Hong's The Fourth Portrait took home prizes for Best Director and Outstanding Taiwanese Film. SFIAAFF's Asian scope extends all the way to Iran, and I've heard nothing but raves for Homayoun Asadian's Gold and Copper from friends who've seen it at other festivals. Praised for how it "illuminates the pressures and pitfalls of traditional roles in Iranian society," the film tells the story of a young mullah-in-training who must assume household and parental duties when his breadwinner wife falls ill to multiple sclerosis. A few other Cinema Asia possibilities include Bi, Don't Be Afraid!, which was Viet Nam's Oscar® submission, and Passion, a documentary about the legacy of filmmaking in Mongolia.

Eight documentary and eight narrative features will compete in this year's Competition Awards. I've never been clear about the criteria for these awards, but it seems that the filmmaker must be North America-based, while the subject matter or setting can be anywhere in the world. In addition to the previously mentioned
The Imperialists are Still Alive!, I'm most looking forward to Eyad Zahra's The Taqwacores, based on the provocative 2003 novel about an imaginary Muslim-American punk scene. Two directors familiar to SFIAAFF audiences return with new projects in competition. From Ian Gamazon (Cavite) comes Living in Seduced Circumstances, a tale of vengeance and torture that "traverses an imaginary border toward the darkened realm of fairy tale." And director Stephane Gauger (Owl and the Sparrow) returns to the streets of Saigon for a look at underground Vietnamese hip-hop youth culture (Saigon Electric). The only narrative feature of significant LGBT interest in the festival is Hossein Keshavarz's Dog Sweat, a clandestinely filmed, multi-character weaving about young people in Iran that includes a gay couple facing the threat of an arranged marriage. Bertha Bay-sa Pan's romantic comedy Almost Perfect is notable for the appearance of Edison Chen—his first film, I believe, since 2008's XXX-photo scandal made him an industry pariah. Rounding out this year’s narrative competition are Jy-ah Min's M/F Remix, which "repurposes" Godard's Masculine/Feminine for a new generation, and Chuck Mitsui's One Kine Day, a skater dude's day-in-the-life saga that's steeped in Oahu working class youth culture.

Shifting over to the Documentary Competition, I've got an eye on Lynn True and Nelson Walker's critically acclaimed Summer Pasture, a strictly observational doc about a married yak-herding couple being confronted with modernity. News junkies might remember a 2004 item about a Hmong immigrant who killed six white hunters in a Wisconsin forest. Mark Tang and Lu Lippold's Open Season investigates that tragic story. The resurging interest in the life and career of actress Anna May Wong gets furthered with Yunah Hong's Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words. The only LGBT doc in the festival, Kathy Huang's Tales of the Waria, looks into the world of four Indonesian transgenders. Other competition documentaries explore such topics as India's booming trade in "procreative tourism,"
i.e., Indian women being paid to act as birth surrogates for Western couples (Made in India), a traditional Hawaiian song competition for students (One Voice) and the deportation of U.S. Cambodian refugees with criminal records to a motherland they no longer know (Resident Aliens).

After Masashi Niwano was named Exec Director of the fest, one of his first missions was to curate a horror series for this year. The result is a fun-sounding trio of terror tales called "After Death: Horror Cinema from Southeast Asia." His picks include Thai blockbuster Nang Nak, which was first shown at the festival in 2000; Histeria, from Malaysian indie director James Lee (
The Beautiful Washing Machine) which features that country's first on-screen lesbian kiss, and Affliction from the Philippines.

What else? The SFIAAFF 2011 opening night film is Andy de Emmony's West is West, a sequel to the popular 1999 British comedy
East is East. This new adventure follows the multi-ethnic Khan family from Manchester to rural Pakistan, with returning cast members Om Puri, Linda Bassett and Jimi Mistry. (The film was also the sold-out opening nighter at our recent Mostly British Film Festival). After the screening at the Castro, SFIAAFF opening night continues with a party at the SF Asian Art Museum. Closing night's feature is Surrogate Valentine by Dave Boyle (White on Rice), a rock-mockumentary starring local indie singer/songwriter Goh Nakamura. This year also shines a spotlight on director Gurinder Chadha, who will sort of be on hand to introduce her new macabre comedy It's a Wonderful Afterlife—via Skype. Chadha's spotlight also includes revival screenings of her 2002 mega-hit, Bend It Like Beckham. And finally, this year's festival delivers a whopping nine programs of shorts.

In his opening remarks at the press conference, CAAM's Stephen Gong declared 2011's SFIAAFF "the most ambitious festival in our 29-year history." Nowhere is that more evident than in the New Directions section, which includes seven panel discussions (Directions in Dialogue), a night of cutting edge contemporary music at the 111 Minna Street club (Directions in Sound) and the festival's largest event, the all day/all night Festival Forum on Saturday, March 12. This year's forum features live music, spoken word, dance troupes and a Bollywood Under the Stars outdoor screening. Also, as part of Directions in Digital Media, be sure to check out Pixels, Politics and Play, CAAM's first ever independent games exhibition which will happen March 11 to 13 at SUPERFROG Gallery (located in the New People building on Post Street). As someone who couldn't care less about electronic games, whether it's
Grand Theft Auto or iPhone Scrabble, I look forward to playing The Cat and the Coup. In this game designed by Peter Brinson and Kurosh ValaNejad, the player becomes the cat of Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh, Iran's first democratically elected Prime Minister who was deposed in a C.I.A.-engineered 1953 coup.

Cross-published on film-415 and Twitch.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

SFIAAFF 2011: BAY RONG (CLASH, 2009)—A Critical Overview

As early as July 2009, Twitch teammate Todd Brown was already anticipating the release of Bay Rong (Clash, 2009), the follow-up to the popular Vietnamese martial arts film The Rebel (2007), produced and written by its male lead Johnny Tri Nguyen, with Thanh Van "Veronica" Ngo as his love interest. As Todd cited, the news that Nguyen and Ngo had become a couple after playing romantic leads in The Rebel probably helped the film's exposure, and it went on to become one of the biggest hits in Vietnamese cinema history.

Nguyen had already gained notoriety as one of only two men in the world who could claim to have fought both Jet Li and Tony Jaa, plus he was the primary stunt man for the first two
Spider-Man films, but his departure from the U.S. to Vietnam to make The Rebel (and its follow-up Clash) exemplifies a new model of American-Vietnamese co-productions (along with Stephane Gauger's Saigon Electric). Reuniting with The Rebel's assistant director Le Thanh Son—Clash marks Son's directorial debut—Nguyen and Ngo play a mystery man who helps a hit woman finish her last job, one ass-kicking at a time. Released in Vietnam around Christmas, Clash was kicking some serious box office butt by January 2010 when Todd posted the trailer.

Clash then had its U.S. premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival where Jason Bailey at Fourth Row Center described it as "a clever mash-up of John Woo-style gunplay and whiz-bang martial arts, whipped up at top speed with the help of rapid-fire editing and a pounding, pseudo-techno soundtrack." Bailey further described the gunfights as having "a kinetic intensity, while the martial arts scenes that they bleed into, supplemented with knives and swords, are acrobatic and full of scrappy tension." Also at Tribeca, Cinematical's Scott Weinberg praised that Clash treats its audience "to (at least) a half-dozen hyper-kinetic action scenes that—get this—lack CGI, wire-work, or fancy FX of any kind. Better yet, the director actually takes the effort to frame and time some of the more elaborate ass-kicking combos, and the result is some old-school smack-down martial arts lunacy that's quite simply a whole lot of broad, basic fun."

Josh Hurtado continued the coverage at
Twitch when Clash was programmed in the Asian Film Festival of Dallas (AFFD) in late July 2010. His review objected to the obvious references to Reservoir Dogs and how the film's melodramatic elements weakened the action, but he concluded that "overall, Clash is a great time." Clash was then picked up for DVD distribution by Indomina.

Situated as the Centerpiece film at the upcoming 29th edition of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF),
Clash co-stars Nguyen and Ngo will be in attendance and—along with Stephane Gauger (Saigon Electric, 2010)—will participate in a panel discussion "The New Matrix: Casting the Entertainment Mold of the Future." I'm looking forward to seeing Clash's attractive duo in the flesh. Along with its throwback to chopsocky aesthetics, I found Clash irresistibly sexy. Nguyen is a lean machine and Ngo is an angry beauty and when they tango, whoooo-boy! Likewise, when they square off against their French adversaries (who are taken by surprise in their skivvies), I thought for sure the film was going to burn up on the spot.

Cross-published on Twitch.

FOR THE LOVE OF FILM (NOIR) BLOGATHON: METROPOLIS (1927)—Onstage Interview With Eddie Muller, Paula Félix-Didier and Fernando Martín Peña

Marilyn Ferdinand (Ferdy on Films) and Farran Smith Nehme (The Self-Styled Siren) are at it again with their second annual film preservation blogathon, drumming up funds this year to benefit San Francisco's Film Noir Foundation (FNF) and Paramount Pictures's restoration of Cy Endfield's The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me, 1950). Donations can be forwarded here. Due to a calendar conflict, this was the first year in many that I was not able to attend FNF's annual Noir City Film Festival; but, in years past I've been so enamored with the festival that I've created an index for my coverage over the years. That's the first item I offer to the For the Love of Film (Noir) Blogathon.

Next, I revisit Eddie Muller's on-stage interview with Argentine curators Paula Félix-Didier and Fernando Martín Peña, responsible for the restored version of Metropolis (1927) that had its North American premiere at last year's first-ever TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood and then its Bay Area premiere at last July's San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

* * *

Eddie Muller is the consummate showman. Aware that his San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) audience was restlessly grumbling because Metropolis (1927) was 40 minutes late getting started, he quipped, "When you've waited 83 years, what's another 40 minutes?"

"I don't need to tell you," Muller continued, "but what you are going to see tonight is almost unquestionably the most imaginative, innovative and ambitious silent film ever made and—at the time—the most ambitious, innovative, imaginative movie period that had been made up to that time."

Muller recalled that when he was a callow 15-year-old, he saw Metropolis for the very first time in a high school film literacy course. It was the film that opened his cinematic horizons and helped him appreciate silent film and film history; an experience he's confident he shares with a great many people because of the myth, the legend and the greatness of Metropolis. Admittedly, however, upon his first viewing of the film—despite being blown away by its visual spectacle—he didn't fully comprehend it, which he attributed to his callow youth without fully realizing that it wasn't just him. There were incomprehensible attributes to the film: characters appeared and disappeared without narrative reason, for example. It was only later on with subsequent viewings and study that he learned the reasons why. Metropolis was a film that had been severely edited after its initial release in 1927 and this long saga has been detailed in his essay for the SFSFF program (as well as in
Bret Wood's TCM essay).

Fritz Lang was hurt by this experience and frequently said he never wanted to watch Metropolis again; but, over the years, as every new version of the film appeared—and there have been a few within Muller's lifetime—they were touted as being the most complete version that would ever be seen. Every time he heard these boasts, Muller countered, it had the opposite effect than hoped. It made him feel that the original version of Metropolis—like von Stroheim's Greed—would never actually be found. "Folks," Muller grinned, "we found it!"

Muller then invited to the Castro stage the two individuals responsible for finding the complete Metropolis in a modest film vault in Buenos Aires: Argentine archivists
Paula Félix-Didier and Fernando Martín Peña.

First off, Muller wanted to clarify that—when this happened in 2008 and it was reported in the international media—the way it was reported was that the discovery was pretty much "a delightful accident, a fantastic fluke, a feel-good story for the global media." But, apparently, those reports in the media weren't entirely true. "The actual story is something very different, right?" he posed to Peña.

Yes, Peña confirmed, the discovery was no accident. He had been aware of the existence of the film for some time and had first been denied access to the print 20 years ago. In 1988, Peña was the teenage protégé of Argentine film critic Salvador Sammaritano who founded Argentina's most influential film society. Sammaritano had hired Peña to help him catalog the film collection of the late Manuel Peña-Rodriguez who, in turn, had been Sammaritano's mentor. On that list was Peña-Rodriguez's personal print of Metropolis, which recalled Sammaritano to a screening held in 1959 for a few members of his film society. Sammaritano told Peña that—at that screening—the shrinkage of the original nitrate print caused a gap between the film and the gate, leaving the image to flicker slightly out of focus. To fix the problem, Sammaritano went up to the projection booth and added pressure to the gate with his finger to steady the picture. Sammaritano told Peña that he held his finger in position for two hours and a half. Peña, of course, had studied film and seen the modern version of Metropolis, which didn't last nearly one hour and a half, so he doubted Sammaritano, "Are you sure? Two hours and a half?" Sammaritano responded that he would never forget those two hours and half; his finger was so numb.

Peña began studying the story of the film in Argentina [read his fascinating Undercurrent account here] and discovered that the version of Metropolis that played in Buenos Aires came directly from Ufa, not Paramount, and that it was bought by an independent Argentine distributor Alolfo Z. Wilson in February 1927—six months before the recut American version replaced all international prints. Peña-Rodriguez—who had begun collecting film in the '30s—bought Wilson's distributor print. When he eventually sold his films to the Argentinean state, they destroyed the dangerous nitrate original and made the 16mm copy. Confirming this research against the 16mm print in the archives was hindered, however, by bureaucratic indifference. When the Peña-Rodriguez print was donated and transferred to the Fondo Nacional de las Artes in 1971, Peña petitioned for access to the print but Sammaritano's anecdote was reduced to interesting hearsay and his request was denied. Peña's repeated requests were denied for the next 20 years as he kept track of the film's transfer among national, state and municipal agencies.

In April 2008, Peña's ex-wife Paula Félix-Didier was hired as the director of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, the current home of the Peña-Rodriguez collection. Félix-Didier was fully aware of Peña's ongoing struggle to achieve access to the film and so—when they sat down to share a cup of coffee at a Buenos Aires film festival shortly after her appointment—she suggested they work together. Naturally, high on Peña's list was the long-awaited opportunity to go into the vaults to check on the Metropolis print. ("Funny how it works out," Muller quipped.) In May 2008 Peña and Félix-Didier located the print—it took all of 10 minutes; the can was clearly labeled—so the media reports that this was an "accidental" find were totally misleading. The truth was that no one in power had cared enough to confirm the facts. As Félix-Didier relayed to Muller in an earlier interview for the Noir City Sentinel, "Those 10 minutes were the culmination of a whole lifetime spent studying film history." The 16mm print, which had been struck from the 35mm print, was in poor condition and it was difficult for them to determine much holding the film up to the light; but, it didn't take long to confirm that they had indeed found the complete film.

Muller asked how long it took after they had confirmed their discovery before the international film community believed that they had indeed discovered a full-length print of Metropolis? Peña said it took three to four months. Muller asked them to detail the process.

Félix-Didier explained that she contacted the copyright holders for Metropolis in Germany; Peña contacted Martin Koerber at the Murnau Foundation, who had administered the 2001 restoration. They received no response. They began to realize that, undoubtedly, these agencies had fielded numerous claims of discovered Metropolis footage, and receiving one more email from unknown archivists in Argentina didn't warrant immediate attention. "There's something about Germans and Argentina...." Muller offered by way of explanation.

Peña said it took Europeans to convince the other Europeans. It wasn't well understood that in the '30s and '40s Argentina was one of the first places to screen films from all over the world. They had many foreign expatriates who were collecting films from their home countries. This was somehow hard for Europeans to believe and they took an exclusive Eurocentric view that Argentines weren't aware of the many versions of Metropolis that existed. Peña was swift to assert that he was well aware of the many existing versions of Metropolis but that he was equally confident that he had located an original print.

Muller asked the on-stage duo to explain some of the economic, political, and ethical issues involved in making such a monumental discovery, especially as the print was located during their employment with a public archive. Félix-Didier admitted that negotiating with the Murnau Foundation was difficult on both sides. She didn't want their discovery to become a repatriation issue—as was recently done with American films in the New Zealand archives—primarily because what Peña uncovered in the vault is a uniquely Argentinean version of Metropolis. Not only did it have Spanish subtitles and intertitles, but those titles had been translated by Leopoldo Torres Ríos who went on to become a well-known filmmaker. He took liberties with his translations and created a free-version "tango" unique to Argentine culture. He also made minor changes to the film. Though these designs might not hold much interest to international scholars of the film with regard to the authenticity of the film, they hold specific interest to Argentine scholars. This remains the version of Metropolis that Argentine audiences watched in 1928 and Félix-Didier wanted to keep that cultural product intact.

She sent the 16mm print to the Murnau Foundation in Germany. They scanned it, made a new print, and a DVD. The Germans only believed her when she physically went to Berlin to the Deutsche Kinemathek and showed them the DVD. Though this was all difficult to achieve, the upside is that the Germans are now helping her preserve a lot of the nitrate films in the Museo del Cine's vaults, currently in progress.

There were other complications. Félix-Didier received several phone calls from collectors interested in buying their print. The importance of having such a film stored in a public archive is that Félix-Didier hardly needed to waste her breath in reminding interested collectors that the print was not hers to sell. Notwithstanding, one French "pirate" who owned a DVD distribution company, persisted in trying to secure same. At first he didn't even bother to contact her by phone, he sent an email without addressing her by name, and stated he was prepared to offer her a quarter of a million Euros to buy the print. He pleaded with her "not to give the film back to the Nazis"—("So much for forgive and forget," Muller joked)—and argued that he was aware that the Museo del Cine was poor and could use a quarter of a million Euros. Félix-Didier couldn't deny that—she could do a lot of things with so much money—but the point remained that the print was the property of a public archive and not hers to sell. Notwithstanding, he persisted and phoned her every day for two months and a half. Every day she refused his offer. He even phoned her 10 minutes before the premiere at the Berlinale, saying, "I know you are here. I am here too. Let's get together and have a cup of coffee. I want to talk to you because I know that the Murnau Foundation doesn't have the rights to Japan, China and India..." She hung up on him.

As amazing an experience as this has assuredly been for both of them—particularly for Peña after trying to secure access to the print for 20 years—Muller wanted to know what they were taking away from the experience, what the experience has meant for them, and what this discovery has meant to Argentina? Peña wasn't sure if he could speak for Argentina; but, he hoped that the people in power in government would understand the importance of film preservation and provide funding so that archivists and preservationists can do their necessary work. Since there is no national cinematheque in Argentina, these public archives are dependent upon outside financial assistance and it would be great if some of that came from the government. As for himself, Peña joked: "I know it's going to be all downhill from now on."

Félix-Didier added that they were lucky to have found a complete print of a film that is so well-known because it has drawn a lot of attention—not only to the Museo del Cine, who really needs the attention—but also to film preservation in general everywhere. There's no denying that's a good thing. "I always say that this is our job," Félix-Didier concluded, "This is what we do. We take care of films. We take care of all kinds of films. Sometimes they are famous films and sometimes they are films that are not so famous but equally important."

Peña appended that when a person in a country like Argentina decides to dedicate themselves to film history, they need generosity and encouragement. In his case, he found generosity and encouragement in one man, whose work he has seen and read "since I could read and see." Those grateful for the Buenos Aires "find" of the complete print of Metropolis owe it, Peña suggested, to the work of Kevin Brownlow.

Muller wrapped up by admitting that—though he knew the SFSFF screening of Metropolis was going to be a special event—he didn't know how special it was going to be until he learned that Fernando Peña had not yet seen the restored print and that he would be seeing it for the first time with the SFSFF audience. Muller was being modest. I feel it important to point out that Fernando Peña's opportunity to finally see the restored version of the film he has championed his entire adult life is directly attributable to Eddie Muller and the Film Noir Foundation, who paid for his airfare to attend SFSFF. Most festivals can only afford to fly one person in for such an event and Paula Félix-Didier, as the director of the Museo del Cine, is the obvious choice; but, realizing that Fernando Peña and his cinephilic passion was being swept aside in the rush of events, Muller wanted to fully credit him for his remarkable achievement. Kudos, Eddie!

07/26/10 UPDATE: At Parallax View, Sean Axmaker has compiled a useful aggregate of all coverage of the Metropolis restoration to date, including his conversation with Fernando Peña at SFSFF regarding the digital projection. As Carl Martin indicated earlier on his Film on Film Foundation blog, though a 35mm print of this recent restoration exists and was shown at the Hong Kong Film Archive in April, 2010, the digital print is seemingly screening everywhere else. Sean asked Peña how his experience of the SFSFF screening matched up to his hopes and expectations. "His response surprised me," Sean reported, "though it shouldn't have: he was disappointed that it was shown in projected digital edition, which he said flattens the image. Personally, I've always disliked the cold, harsh light of digital projection of black and white films, so unnatural compared to the warm light of film projection bulbs (or even better, the burn of old-fashioned carbon arcs, all but gone from projection houses). But Fernando brought another, even more distinctive difference to my attention when he reminded me that the screen image created by light passing through film gives you distinctive texture from light and shadow and gradations between them. It creates sense of space on the screen that video projection of black and white film does not and that texture was missing from the SFSFF screening."

Cross-published on


Bay Area cinephiles have learned to speak up about their love for silent cinema. Not only did MovieMaker magazine recently include the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) as one of the 20 "coolest" film festivals of 2010—and not only did San Franciscans just experience Chaplin's comic antics, Marcel L'Herbier's L'Argent (1928) and King Vidor's La Boheme (1926) at SFSFF's Winter Event—but now the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA) proudly partner with UC Berkeley's Department of Film and Media to host an international conference on silent cinema, Cinema Across Media: The 1920s, to be held from February 24 to 26.

As indicated at the BAM/PFA website: "At its core, the conference will examine cinema's institutional consolidation in the twenties, when practitioners were enlisted from many other fields such as architecture, design, painting, music, and vaudeville, resulting in a transformation of established media. Avant-garde cinemas borrowed extensively from a variety of artistic practices, while the 'cinematic' became the new standard for other Modernist aesthetics and popular culture. PFA welcomes film scholars Anne Nesbet, Gertrud Koch, and Paolo Cherchi Usai as well as the talented Judith Rosenberg on piano for these special presentations of films from the height of the silent era."

The full two-and-a-half-day schedule can be found at the conference's official website, which notes: "Today's multimedia environment brings cinema of the 1920s into new focus as the site of rich intermedial traffic, especially if the term 'media' encompasses not only recording technologies and mass media, such as photography, phonography, radio, and illustrated press, but also the physical materials used for aesthetic expression, such as paint, print, plaster, stone, voice, and bodies.

Cinema Across Media: The 1920s is a two-and-a-half-day conference that will include five plenary speeches, two plenary roundtables, eight concurrent panels, and a weeklong series of silent film screenings with live musical accompaniment at the Pacific Film Archive. The purpose of the conference is to gather scholars, archivists, and students from a variety of fields in order to assess international cinema from the 1920s as a dynamic center for adjacent media practices. The conference will feature an international group of scholars from a variety of disciplines, including music, architecture, literature, art history, theater, dance, and performance studies, as well as film archivists, curators, and researchers from archives, museums, and institutes worldwide."

I'm particularly excited to hear Thomas Elsaesser's closing speech on "Cinema Across Media: Expanding the Avant-Garde beyond the Political Divide" and the ensuing plenary roundtable where Elsaesser will be joined by Tom Gunning, Gertrud Koch, Paolo Cherchi Usai, and Anthony Vidler. I'm also looking forward to presentations by Luciana Corrêa de Araújo on movie prologues in Rio de Janeiro (1926-27); Laura Isabel Serna on ethnography, costumbrismo, and Mexican feature film production; and David Wood on performance in 1920s Mexican cinema.

With the exception of film screenings, which are subject to PFA's regular admission rates, all conference events (plenary speeches, roundtables, and panels) are free and open to the public. However, advance registration for the conference is strongly recommended.

Cross-published on Twitch.