When Thomas Wolfe asserted that you canít go home again, that was before the age of video. These days home is just a rewind away, as can be seen in some of the best offerings the Boston Film and Video Foundation has come up with for this yearís New England Film & Video Festival. They are self-reflective works from intrepid local filmmakers who have returned to their roots, video and film equipment and rag-tag crews in tow, and tried to make sense of who they are and where they come from. Modest in means but universal in scope, these works are, for the most part, endearing, enlightening explorations of origins and destinies.
A case in point is the Best of Festival winner, Lucia Smallís My Father, the Genius (2001; April 6 at 8 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts). Smallís father, Glen, a visionary architect, could make a strong case for the distinction of the title, but as his first wife ó Luciaís mother ó points out, he didnít have much genius at personal relationships. Glen dumped Lucia, her mom, and her two sisters when Lucia was just a kid, and she didnít hear much from him until years later, when he asked her to write his biography.
Instead of a book, though, she agreed to make this film, a kind of real-life The Royal Tenenbaums in which dad comes off as insufferable but nonetheless charming and sympathetic, an uncompromising idealist whose failure to "play the game" exiled him to the margins. One of many ironies revealed in Smallís blithe, brilliant, and intimate but detached documentary is that her fatherís insistence on putting people first in his architecture resulted in his excluding them from his life.
A more convoluted investigation inspires Irene Lusztigís Best Documentary winner, Reconstruction (2001; April 6 at 5:30 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts). It opens with footage of a 1961 Romanian film, also called Reconstruction, that re-creates the circumstances of a bank robbery that rocked Bucharest in 1959. Whatís more, the filmmakers recruited the actual culprits to play themselves in the reconstruction. Among them was Lustzigís grandmother Monica. Lustzigís film reconstructs through research, interviews, and speculation the circumstances behind Monicaís rash act and its consequences. Far more than a curiosity or family anecdote, the story touches on issues of ideology, racism, freedom, and love ó not to mention the nature of filmmaking itself.
In his memoiristic É minha cara/Thatís My Face (2001; April 2 at 8 p.m. at the Brattle Theatre), Thomas Allen Harris searches for the origins of the spirits that have been haunting his imagination and preventing him from accepting his identity as an "African-American." The scion of a family blessed with talent and opportunity, he nonetheless rejects Harvard Medical School for a trip to Brazilís Salvador da Bahia, where he confronts his African origins in the form of pagan deities. A brisk, evocative stew of images, music, and meditation, the film cuts its murk with sudden clarity and humor.
While Harris ponders his origins, Wen-jie Qin looks toward ultimate destinations in her Best Student Video, To the Land of Bliss (2001; April 5 at 6 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts). The title land is the paradise promised by Amita Buddha, the avatar worshipped on the sacred mountain Emei in the southwest China of Qinís childhood. When the head monk at the monastery dies, Qin returns to the mountain, recording the rites of burial and the sometimes irreverent behavior of the monks, nuns, and other worshippers. Kids poking in the dead manís cremated ashes for recognizable body parts provide a black-comic touch, as does a child who keeps asking where the monk has gone and then is not satisfied by the standard answers.
Among the possible destinations for the deceased outlined in Bliss are the Three Evil Realms, and they are all probably operated by the four or five media-monopolizing megacorporations discussed in Sut Jhallyís Money for Nothing (2001; April 6 at 3:30 at the Museum of Fine Arts), the winner of the Rosa Luxemburg Award for Social Conscience. A hard-headed if one-sided look at the reduction of the once vital pop-music industry to a self-propagating marketing tool for corporate tyranny, Jhallyís film demonstrates why maverick artists like Glen Small will never catch a break, and why ventures like this film festival are crucial if weíre to defy the powers that would strangle our culture.