FILMS

Masked men and disco kings

Documentaries cover rebels, writers and DJs

Brian D. Jhonson,B.D.J. September 21 1998
FILMS

Masked men and disco kings

Documentaries cover rebels, writers and DJs

Brian D. Jhonson,B.D.J. September 21 1998

Masked men and disco kings

One film tracks down a guerrilla leader in the Mexican jungle. Another looks up a literary legend in the Moroccan desert. A third follows celebrity disc jockeys in dance clubs around the world. A Place Called Chiapas, Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles and Hang the DJ are three adventurous Canadian documentaries premièring at this week’s Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 10 to 19). And though radically different in subject and style, each attempts a kind of seductive anthropology, exploring unknown terrain with an inquisitive eye and a partisan devotion.

FILMS

Documentaries cover rebels, writers and DJs

A Place Called Chiapas (airing Sept. 22 at 8 p.m. on CBC) is Vancouver film-maker Nettie Wild’s third foray to the front lines of revolution. After A Rustling of Leaves (1990), which took her into the bush with Philippine guerrillas, and Blockade (1993), which documented the fight for native land rights in British Columbia, her new film goes behind the scenes of the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico. Wild, 46, says it was her hardest, most hazardous shoot so far. Mexican crew members received death threats from paramilitary vigilantes. And a key character in her story, the Zapatista military leader known only as Subcommandante Marcos, proved maddeningly elusive.

Wild shows up in Chiapas with her camera in 1996, in the middle of a nervous ceasefire. It has been three years since the indigenous Zapatista uprising took over five towns and 500 ranches, prompting the government to encircle the area with 30,000 troops. And in this “country of borders within borders,” narrates Wild, there is “a hidden war.” Much of the film focuses on a group of refugees afraid to go home—

Brian D. Jhonson

some of the 2,000 peasants who have been driven from their villages by a paramilitary group supporting the government and the landowners. And when Wild’s own crew was threatened, she told Maclean’s, “that’s when we realized we were making a film about fear.”

It unfolds as the story of a stalemate, which poses a problem— much of the drama seems to be waiting in the wings, off-camera. But, as Wild points out, “you can’t be sitting in a village where people’s lives are on the line, looking at your watch and saying ‘Could the revolution please hop to it, I’ve got a production schedule.’ ” Marcos remains an enigma. Unlike most of his followers, he is not a Mayan peasant from Chiapas. He is a pipe-smoking intellectual who tells stories and spouts poetry, a masked figure on horseback who appears unannounced out of the jungle. Zapatista as Zorro. Striking poses for a French fashion magazine, and commanding his own Web site, he is the media-sawy leader of what The New York Times called “the world’s first postmodern revolution.” But after Wild throws him a tough question at a news conference, Marcos gives her the cold shoulder. When he finally does show up for an interview, materializing like a shadow in the night on Mexico’s Day of the Dead, he keeps a coy distance. “How long have you been in Chiapas?” he asks Wild. “Eight months,” she says. Replies Marcos: “I’ve been here 12 years and I’m barely starting to understand.”

In Let it Come Down, Toronto director Jennifer Baichwal has much more success in unmasking novelist Paul Bowles, who is also

Scene from Let It Come Down; A Place Called Chiapas (top left): exploring unknown terrain with an inquisitive eye and partisan devotion

a figure of some subterfuge—although in his case the issue of security is purely emotional. Bowles, an American novelist who has lived in Tangiers for the past 50 years, is best known for The Sheltering Sky (1949). But he may be more famous for his life than for his work. While in his 20s, he hung out with Gertrude Stein, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. Later, in Morocco, he befriended Beat writers Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. And with his wife, writer Jane Bowles, he was at the hub of a decadent salon society, a colonial oasis of sex, drugs and poetic licence in preindependence Morocco.

Baichwal, who became infatuated with Bowles’s prose as a teenager, travelled to Tangiers to meet him at the age of 20. They became friends, and she lived in Morocco for ayear. Now, she is 34, and Bowles is 87, a sphinx with sparkling eyes and a ravaged face who sits in his robe smoking kif (cannabis) and reveals himself with cautious candor. For the first time, he confirms the open secret that he is gay, while questioning the worth of confessing it “I would assume,” he says, “that anyone in the world would be ashamed of being a homosexual.”

The interview material, meanwhile, is interwoven with evocative glimpses of Morocco—from rippling dunes to honeycombed dye vats in the market—as actor Tom McCamus reads passages from the novels. With words and images swimming into other like desert sands, Baichwal conjures up the writing with an alchemy that recalls the way director Donald Brittain recombined Mexico and Malcolm Lowry in his classic 1976 documentary Volcano.

But the highlight is Bowles’s 1995 reunion with Ginsberg and

Burroughs in a Manhattan hotel room—the last time they were together. It is a delicious encounter, a summit of three doddering bohemians swapping memories. ‘They were very funny,” recalls Baichwal. “They basically sat around and complained about life. They gossiped about their friends, and talked about prescription drugs with avid interest.”

Hang the DJ lionizes a younger generation of Beats, the selfstyled “turntablists” who rule the dance floor. The film is directed by two unassuming novices from Montreal, Marco and Mauro La Villa—26-year-old identical twins with shaved heads who cooked up the idea in their uncle’s pizza joint on St-Laurent Boulevard six years ago. At the time, they had no interest in dance music or documentaries. But to pay their way through film studies at Concordia University, they worked after hours in the pizza place and met the neighborhood club crowd. “The DJs were our preferred customers,” says Mauro. ‘We heard a lot about the gossip and conflicts of the DJ world.”

Scavenging a $900,000 budget from private investors—and with no public funding—they shot in nightclubs from Cannes to Tokyo. What emerges is an entertaining portrait of 10 DJs. They include: Manhattan’s Junior Vasquez, who has worked on records for Madonna and David Bowie; Latin whirlwind Roger Sanchez, who spins vinyl in four countries; and San Francisco hip-hop wizard Richard (Q-Bert) Quitevis. “These guys are the new musical artists and they’re here to stay,” says Mauro. We found they weren’t being given respect.”

Now, the La Villa brothers have won some respect for themselves. Breaking out of the documentary ghetto, Hang the DJ opens in theatres across Canada this week. Next, the brothers plan to make movies, the fictional kind. Martin Scorsese, watch your back. □

Car chases, lots of aces

Sometimes at the movies, it is fun to really be left in the dark, to watch a game being played by experts even when you have no grasp of the rules. Ronin and Rounders are two entertaining escapades about games of bluff. One involves espionage, the other poker. But both are about ritual codes of male conduct, stories of professionals who live and die by their wits as they play for ridiculously high stakes. And considering that both films are flights of Hollywood fancy— taking wild licence with character and plot—it is amazing how fastidious they can be in filling their worlds with authentic detail, whether a car chase or a card game.

Ronin Sooner or later it was bound to happen. Just over a year after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, here is the first movie to feature a chase scene in the Paris tunnel where she was killed. It is just one in a series of breathtaking car chases involving luxury sedans—Mercedes, BMW, Peugeot—hurtling through Paris. With drivers racing through traffic the wrong way down one-way streets, veteran director John Frankenheimer [The Manchurian Candidate) works some variations into familiar

stunts, although it is still a mystery how high-speed chases in major cities never run into gridlock.

In this case, the action serves as a spectacular distraction, the icing on a densely layered intrigue that never fully makes sense—not that there is anything wrong with that. Robert De Niro stars as a mystery man in a covert team of international operatives hired by an anonymous client to retrieve a well-guarded suitcase full of... we never find out. The whole thing unfolds like a gritty version of an old-fashioned caper movie, with a cast of heavies that includes Jean Reno and Jonathan Pryce. De Niro, meanwhile, portrays a former agent now flying solo—a masterless samu-

rai, or ronin. Whatever. As a mean-streets spy who comes in from the cold, he generates considerable heat. And so does the movie.

Rounders This is quieter fare, a character piece built around poker. After Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon plays another boy genius, a professional poker player named Mike who gambles his way through law school. After a huge loss, he swears off his habit, but when his old partner —a cheat played with greasy finesse by Edward Norton— gets out of jail, Mike is drawn back into the game.

Director John Dahl deals an imperfect hand. Damon has the Tom Cruise problem: he is a magnetic presence, but seems too clean-cut for the role. As the girlfriend who tries to reform him, newcomer Gretchen Mol drops in and out of the plot, getting lost in the shuffle. And playing a Russian card shark with a ludicrous accent, John Malkovich raises the comic ante past the point of credibility. But the underground poker world—its arcane jargon and etiquette— is fascinating. And the actual card-playing, even for those who cannot follow it, creates a narcotic suspense. Rounders, like Ronin, gives a good kick—a momentary escape into a demimonde that feels like the real thing.

B.D.J.