Friday, April 1, 2011

35th Cleveland International Film Festival: Take One

Bibliotheque Pascal
Szaboics Hadju, Dir.
Hungary, Germany 2010
111 minutes

Having nearly walked out of this film by a young male Hungarian director (b.1972) three times, in the end, I was glad that I stayed at this first film I have had time to sit and write up thanks to a reprieve at the Hospitality Suite next to the Ritz. The cinematography was beautiful, for one thing. Originally I picked the film off the program of the 35th Cleveland International Film Festival program due to the description that emphasized the interplay of fantasy and reality in the life of a young mother “called into question by child protection services after leaving her young daughter with a fortune-telling aunt” (44). Since I have been working on reclaiming the image of “the fortune-teller” in Western culture, both in film and in life, this drew me in.

We did not even get to meet the fortune teller until about a third of the way through the film. She was portrayed sympathetically and realistically—talking about the mortgage and the competition of the Gypsy who only told the customers good things who had moved into the neighborhood and cut into her business. After showing her reading cards for her niece, she merely looked at a palm or two and made dire predictions rather than using her powers to be transformative, feeding into the image of the palm reader that most have. And although she confesses on a grave that she does not believe in tarot or coffee grounds, she does read cards with which her clients expect her to be predictive. In fact, she makes a prediction that turns out to be false and is expected to raise a large sum of money to pay off a client. Hence the plot.

She takes tickets to have the crowd watch her grandniece dream; apparently, this brought on the action of Child Protective Serives. During the dream, the child sees her grandfather lead a brass marching band to liberate her mother from a house of prostitution in far off Liverpool, where her mother was about to be gassed to death and then raped to lines of Shakespeare’s Othello, after playing lines of George Bernard Shaw’s Joan of Arc. There she had been raped by a john for wearing men’s clothing.

All the other prostitutes, also victims of the sex slavery system from Eastern Europe, play other characters in literature; after the marching band comes through from the power of the daughter’s active dream, they all stand bewildered on the street looking rather vulnerable in their variety of fantasy costumes.

The scene flashes back to the office of the social worker at Child Welfare who makes it clear to the sad but colorful Mona that if she really wants her daughter back, they cannot possibly put this rendition of the mother’s truth into the report—nor that the father jumped out of her from the sand at the beach. Nor that he ran out to the bathhouse the next morning. Nor that he convinced the soldiers after him for beating a gay guy to death to put all their guns down, ran, and then got shot. Nor that it was her own father who asked her to accompany him to Germany for his surgery and then sold her into sexual slavery, only to be shot himself and have the money he had paid for her be taken back.

After watching nearly the whole movie of the fantasy plot, the natural audience reaction is to feel quite disturbed and perturbed that the young mother is forced to create a mundane story of meeting a guy in the street in the city, being given a false name and place that he worked, that she couldn’t find him the next day that she chose to go into prostitution for the money and hated it….until we realize the longer she talks that this is indeed the truth, and the fantasy of the rest of the story had been made up.

The child welfare worker signs the papers with the toned down story after modifying a few items such as the man she met forced her to go into prostitution and that the young mother herself returned having decided to mend her ways. Ominously saying he is not quite sure what he will put in the report for the benefit of the child, after the mother leaves to the satisfaction of the typing secretary, the social worker indeed gives the recommendation to return the child to the biological mother.

In the last scene, we see the mother serving four scoops of pure air to the daughter from an empty bowl of soup, and pouring invisible milk from an empty pitcher, all the while saying how good the meal is. Playfully, the daughter demonstrates actively agreeing. We are brought to wonder if indeed the social worker’s hesitation to give the child back to the mother had not been correct after all. Then the camera pans out to show that the two of them are playing on sets of kitchens and bedrooms in a fancy goods department store. Recognition clicks. Goods are displayed for consumers in an economy where the cash to purchase them is not there.

The film does challenge gender through speculative means, surrealism, and magical realism. However, my urge to walk out was to avoid watch a rape, and I took no pleasure in the glorification of women’s victimization and female objectification. I also did not enjoy a pattern in my mind forming as I was remembering that the audience award at this festival a couple of years ago had also been about prostitution, and that the Jewish Film Festival in Cleveland has similarly had a film a couple of years ago about the Eastern European sex traffic trade, also focusing on a woman who had chosen to leave the country to go into prostitution to send her money to her daughter.

But where are the images of strong women fighting in Israel against the Occupation, or the ways women have been organizing in Eastern Europe, and all the ways women have been against this and other issues? I wondered this to myself, as I saw the man who had purchased Mona from a sexual slave parade introduce her to the habit of shooting up and encouraging her to contact him if she ever wanted to try it again. I had to force myself to remember that there were other films at the festival that I had not seen, or had not seen yet—such as the film about the women’s art movement of the 1960s and 70s (!Women Art Revolution 122) and the film about the woman who translated five Dostoevsky novels into German because she believes literacy can be spiritually uplifting (The Woman with the 5 Elephants 122).

So I stayed and watched the blood spurt from the man as his sexual slave bit his tongue. In the fantasy she almost got away, and it was the power of her daughter’s dream of liberation, even though she must have felt abandoned, that saved her.

35th Cleveland International Film Festival BE PART OF THE STORY; Tower City Cinemas March 24-April 3 2011. Cleveland, OH. Program Book.

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