Film Prologues

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The recent restoration of the Detroit Institute of Arts included the creation of more user-friendly labels for artworks. In that spirit, the Detroit Film Theatre has been giving its patrons more background on its rich selection of world cinema.

The recently completed Winter/Spring 2009 season of the DFT included several Sunday afternoon “Film Prologues” in which guest film teachers, critics, philosophers, and filmmakers shared their thoughts about that day’s film in half hour speeches that often included graphics on the DFT screen. Many of the guest speakers were from Wayne State University, building on the DFT/WSU relationship in the same way that the Michigan Theater has forged a partnership with its Ann Arbor neighbor the University of Michigan.

Speakers included Academy Award winning filmmaker Sue Marx, who introduced the 2008 Oscar-nominated short films on February 8; artist, filmmaker, and teacher Robert Anderson, who spoke before Tokyo! on April 26; and Dr. Kristen Moana Thompson, WSU Associate Professor of Film Studies and Director of the Film Program in the Department of English, who introduced Revanche on April 12.

I had the privilege to hear two film introductions by the DFT’s homegrown celebrity, DIA Film Curator Elliot Wilhelm. He spoke before Max Ophüls’s Lola Montès (1955) on the season’s opening weekend on January 18, and again on March 29 before François Truffaut’s debut film, the French New Wave classic The 400 Blows (1959). Truffaut was a great admirer of Lola Montès, but ironically, the New Wave film movement was a reaction to the era that included the greatest works of Ophüls. Elliot’s introductions helped us better understand the unique circumstances surrounding the last film by one great director and the first film, just a few years later, by another prominent director.

I also enjoyed the opening remarks on April 26 before the showing of the new Russian film 12 by Dr. Laura Kline, a Senior Lecturer at WSU. The always informative DFT program notes had already given me a strong background on this tale of a young Chechen boy on trial for murder in Moscow. Kline’s remarks helped make my viewing of 12 a more emotionally powerful experience. It gave me more insight into the recent conflicts between Russia and Chechnya, which has fought for independence from Russia. 12 was directed by Nikita Mikhalkov, who also directed Burnt By the Sun (1994), a powerful drama about the Stalin era that also played at the DFT.

Modern Russia

Kline set the stage for the film by giving the audience background information on recent Russian history. Before her speech, I didn’t know that the jury system was a relatively new part of Russian life. She said that after the Soviet Union was disbanded in 1991, the jury system wasn’t fully used in Russia until 2002. That helped make 12 an educational glimpse of modern Russia, and not just a remake of the famous 1957 American courtroom drama 12 Angry Men. It made me think about how the legal system is a measure of the integrity of a society, and how it defines the line between chaos and order.

Kline pointed out the uneasy historical relationship between Russia and Chechnya, which had been politically integrated into Russian but not culturally or geographically (it’s in the Caucusus mountain region). The film showed another side of the end of the Cold War, with the jury a symbol of Russia taking a closer look at itself and asking how much responsibility it had for the people of Chechnya. The movie made us see how careful people must be about generalizing about individuals of a certain demographic group from larger behavior patterns of people of the same demographic group, especially in the wake of Chechnya-related violence in Russia. “Who, if anyone, is leading the jury?” asked Kline. “Who is leading Russia through its anarchy, violence, and despair?”

Russian has struggled to move from totalitarianism to capitalism and democracy, and corruption is still a big part of Russian culture, Kline noted. The concerns of the movie intersected with many concerns of modern America, such as freedom and terrorism. Russians are no strangers to politically themed films, with the Soviet Union being the home of such famous dramas as The Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Alexander Nevsky (1938).

The best DFT films make you care about people and this film made you empathize with the jurors, the accused, the victims of the crime for which the accused was being tried, and soldiers on both sides of the Russia/Chechnya conflict. The film took you right into the middle of the fighting, and showed in graphic detail the tragedy, chaos, and destruction of war. The movie reminded me of the recent 2008 Oscar Best Picture winner, Slumdog Millionaire, with the struggles of an orphaned boy symbolizing the deterioration of parts of a society.

After the movie, I walked around the DIA, including a stroll up Ferry, near many beautifully restored old buildings. A gentle breeze caressed my skin, making the hot summer-like weather a pleasant experience as I pondered the sobering lessons of 12. I took in the beauty of the Cultural Center, after the DFT helped me get a wider view of the international world.

With our current economic problems, I was concerned that the DFT would not have a summer season, which it started hosting two years ago. But happily, the chair of the Friends of the Detroit Film Theatre, Margaret Thomas, announced to the DFT audience that a new season would start on Friday, June 5. Good news on a beautiful spring day.

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Copyright © 2009 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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