A Perfect Fake

A Perfect Fake (Canada, 2004, Director: Marc De Guerre, 57 minutes): Ovid’s myth of Pygmalion forms the basis for this exploration of how technology is helping us design more and more convincing representations of human beings. Whether it’s CG movies, games, pornography, or latex “love dolls”, people (mostly men) are looking for other people (mostly women) that they can completely control. This is especially widespread in Japanese culture, where digital “characters” have become like pets or companions for many people, and not just children. One commentator states that since modern life is so unpredictable and communication so difficult, people are looking for companions who don’t change, who give them comfort. De Guerre enlists a number of academics to muse on the relationship between our desires and the implications of having a non-human representation to help us fulfill them.

We meet a few Japanese men who have taken things to an extreme, with one man showing off his collection of over forty love dolls in an apartment he rents especially for them. A few people found some of this stuff disturbing and a number of them walked out, but I think these extreme cases are only heralding the way our society may be headed. As dolls and computer software become more sophisticated, how many people will leave behind any attempt at human interaction whatsoever? It’s a bit creepy to consider, and the film conveyed that feeling very effectively.

8/10(8/10)

Lifelike

Lifelike (Canada, 2005, Director: Tally Abecassis, 52 minutes): This may very well be the first film ever made about taxidermists. Lifelike takes a whimsical look at the people who make their living stuffing and mounting dead things. It turns out that these are people who take their jobs seriously, but not themselves. Dave can laugh at how he decided to become a taxidermist one day while shopping with his fiancèe at Home Depot. We follow him along with a few other taxidermists as they prepare for the annual Canadian championships in Orillia, giving the film a sort of “Best in Show” feeling.

We also get to meet a few of the customers, including Janie, who is having her beloved Jack Russell terrier freeze-dried, and Benoit, a former big-game hunter with an entire house full of trophies, including a giraffe, a tiger and a lion.

While it’s vaguely interesting to muse on the reasons people want trophies like these, it was more interesting to me to see how taxidermy involves elements of both craftsmanship and artistry, and the film is most compelling when letting us watch these guys work. While the tone is by no means serious, it also doesn’t condescend, and I think the filmmaker hits just the right balance between amusement and respect.

9/10(9/10)

Gymnast

Gymnast (USA, 2005, Director: Edet Belzberg, 96 minutes): Filmed over a period of at least four years, this film follows three elite gymnasts as they try to qualify for the 2000 US women’s Olympic team. There is two-time national champion Kristin, serious and shy, bubbly and beautiful Alyssa, who tends to lose her concentration at important moments, and tiny underdog Morgan, who at 15 is three years younger than the other girls but twice as driven.

Competitive sports is a deeply complicated arena for young people, and the film expresses some of the ambiguities very clearly. All three young women make very clear that they are in gymnastics to pursue their own dreams and that they’re not under pressure from parents or coaches to do anything that they don’t want for themselves. But we also see coaches who are so caught up in the competition that they ignore clear signs of injury. By the time the Olympics have come and gone, none of the three seem happy, although they all made the team. Each girl came out of the experience damaged, either physically (poor Kristin undergoes the first of many surgeries for a stress fracture before the documentarian’s camera) or emotionally (Alyssa seems bitter about the whole experience, while Morgan can’t seem to string a sentence together without choking up.)

It’s hard to watch people’s dreams die, but before we start pointing the finger at “the horrible sports industry”, we have to remember that these girls chose to put themselves into competition. All of them were not only talented, but driven enough to reach the highest levels of their sport. Were they not athletic, they’d have had their hopes dashed in other endeavours, I think.

The process of realizing that our dreams are not always attainable is a painful milestone on the way to adulthood, and though it is hard to watch it unfold in front of a camera, I came away with a real respect and affection for these young people. One odd thing about the film (and this may have been deliberate on the part of the director) is that we don’t see any other aspects of the gymnasts’ lives. We see a very small part of their family lives, but nothing about school, nothing about their friendships. It’s as if they only really exist in the gym. While that may seem to be true, it’s not really true, and so I think the director uses it to heighten the tension. Later in the film we finally get to see the girls dressed in street clothes, and it’s a dramatic change.

I’m sure more than a few people will see this film as an indictment of youth sports, but I think that’s too simplistic. Athletic competition is just one more area where eager and idealistic children are forged into slightly cynical adults. That’s not a bad thing, but it can be difficult to watch. I found myself cringing watching the network footage of the competition, since I knew the injuries that each gymnast was so carefully trying to hide from the judges.

8/10(8/10)

Say Amen

Say Amen (Israel, 2005, Director: David Dery, 65 minutes): Director David Dery is the youngest son in a large Moroccan-Jewish family. For this Orthodox clan, family and children are the first priority, and for gay David, this poses a serious problem. He has only shared his secret with his two sisters, and the rest of the family are losing patience with his singleness.

Filming over a period of several years at a series of family gatherings, David slowly begins to realize that he needs to come out to his family members. For someone who has always hidden behind the camera, this is difficult, and this film doesn’t always succeed for that reason. We have an awkward gay Orthox Jewish man’s own coming-out home movies, and it doesn’t necessarily make the most coherent film. But we certainly get a glimpse of a large and complicated web of familial relationships and the incredible machine-like pressure on David to conform. That he summons the courage to actually confront this unruly brood is pretty amazing. And family being family, things are never as bad (nor as good) as they sometimes first appear.

7/10(7/10)

Keep Not Silent (Ortho-Dykes)

Keep Not Silent (Ortho-Dykes) (Israel, 2004, Director: Ilil Alexander, 52 minutes): This film takes us into very strange territory, following the lives of ultra-orthodox Jewish women who happen to also be lesbians. Most of these women are not able to live openly, so the filmmaker had to film very discreetly, blurring faces or filming behind curtains, so even the visual language of the film spoke of the way these women had to hide. But it was not all gloomy stuff. One woman, Ruth, the mother of six children, has an arrangement with her husband that she can visit her lover each night and even spend the night twice a week. Their rabbi told them that as long as they can keep the family and marriage together, Ruth’s lesbian “affair” was not a sin.

Not so for poor Yudith, who seeks to live openly. Her rabbi tells her that her behaviour is wrong, flat out. Still, she wants to have a religious ceremony to celebrate her commitment to Tal, her lover. Her brother and sister are supportive and the ceremony is attended by many friends, but Yudith still cries because her mother and rabbi father would not come.

A sensitive look into the lives of women under enormous pressure to keep very silent about their sexuality. Many are devoted mothers of large families, and will not risk exposure for fear of the social consequences their children and husbands will face. The spiritual tensions involved in remaining religious in these circumstances are also hinted at, though are not as fully explored as I would have liked.

More information on the film here.

8/10(8/10)