At the first night of the Nashville Film Festival, after two sold-out shows of an obscure Canadian concert documentary, a local film programmer ruefully watched several hundred people file through the downstairs lobby at Regal Green Hills. His frustration was plain: "Where are these people the rest of the year?" Hours before the festival, we had sat at Green Hills watching another music-themed movie, Neil Young's Greendale, which had finally arrived in Nashville theaters. Three other people were in the room, one an usher.
As it turned out, that was three more than saw Green Hills' afternoon matinee of Osama, a shocking portrait of life in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. Both movies made the rounds on last year's festival circuit before going into commercial releasethe path every filmmaker hopes for when he enters a festival. The sad truth, though, is that even then most of these movies face a fate like Monday afternoon at Green Hills: booked three to five at a time in a 20-screen megaplex, for a week's run with scant promotionthe indie-distribution equivalent of a cockfight. It's not even a fair cockfight for independent theaters. For whatever reason, the Belcourt typically can't even get its movies the same wire-copy coverage The Tennessean gives Green Hills.
Thus if you get shut out of hot-ticket films at this week's Nashville Film Festival, it's worth considering the likes of Greendale and Osama among the pool of selectionsif they last the weekend. Of the two, the weaker (though still worth a look) is Greendale, directed by rocker Young under his nom de film Bernard Shakey. Blown up from spectral Super 8 footage, which dusts every image with TV-static snow, the home movie accompanies Young's 2003 concept album of the same name, following an environmentally conscious American family (the Greens, geddit?) through skirmishes with big industry, corrupt government agents and an intrusive media that literally hounds to death the family's Grandpa.
As a grand statement, Greendale is the kind of muddled sociopolitical tirade an inveterate pot-smoker might launch after a half-hour of Fox News. How Cousin Jed's bust for cop-killing and cocaine, engineered by a boogie-shoed trickster Devil (Eric Johnson), fits into the post-9/11 malaise is a question worth putting to the Aqua Teen Hunger Force. But when Young's scattershot howl of rage finds a specific targetthe suppression of anti-war dissent, say, or the sucking greed of power companiesthe music's bluesy, vital stomp stirs up revolutionary fervor. I'm not sure how Young's occasionally tedious songs would stand up without the ghostly visuals, or vice versa. But together they give this obsessive handmade epic a curious power.
Osama, on the other hand, delivers something more like blunt trauma. The first fully Afghan movie completed since the Taliban came to power in 1996, Siddiq Barmak's shattering drama sets the oppression of Afghan women in stark terms right from the opening scene, as fire hoses rip into the sky-blue burkas of peaceful demonstrators. Under Taliban rule, women cannot set foot in the street without a male custodian. Tough luck if the household's men have been killed at war: The options are stay inside and starve, or leave and die. Desperate to feed her family, a female physician cuts her 12-year-old girl's hair and passes her off as a sona ploy that means death if the child is discovered.
Directed in harrowing empathy with the terrified girlwho is played by Marina Golbahari, a haunting, wide-eyed young actress the filmmakers found on the streets of KabulBarmak's film packs the blood-boiling outrage of World War II propaganda films. Apart from the cheesy spook-show synths on the soundtrack, though, Osama doesn't exaggerate its horrors. As the girl gets inducted into Osama bin Laden's terrorist training camps for kids, where she's suddenly stigmatized as an effeminate boy, the movie's cold restraint makes her fear and confusion all the scarier. Merciless but not pitiless, Osama offers a sobering reminder of what we originally went overseas to fight, and how far we've strayed from our purpose. And that's partly what films at a festival should doopen a window onto worlds we rarely see, and help us reexamine what we see of our own.
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