Filmfest D.C. 2010

Filmfest D.C. 2010

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 15, 2010

Filmfest D.C., now in its 24th year, has never had a thematic or formal organizing principle, preferring a more eclectic -- some might say random -- approach to programming. But this year's program reveals connective tissue that is no less real for being seemingly accidental. Starting with Thursday's opening night film, the sunnily revisionist Russian musical "Hipsters," the festival's 10-day program features a notable number of movies devoted to popular culture and the ways it intersects with social change.

Whether by way of the provocative but superficial documentary essay "Videocracy," which suggests but never fleshes out the sinister, crypto-fascist implications of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's control of the Italian media, or "Holding On to Jah," a similarly shallow but disarmingly good-natured tribute to reggae's role in Rastafarian history, the takeaway is that we segregate pop culture from politics and history at our peril.

(The festival closes April 25 with a screening of Fatih Akin's comedy "Soul Kitchen.")

In many ways "Hipsters" is something of an outlier within post-Soviet film culture. While such former Eastern bloc countries as Romania and Germany have produced some of the most sober, formally sophisticated films in recent years -- from such directors as Cristian Mungiu ("4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days"), Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck ("The Lives of Others") and Uli Edel ("The Baader Meinhof Complex"), to name just a few -- Russia has kept a lower profile.

"Hipsters" may point to reasons why. The high-gloss, poppy nostalgia trip stars Anton Shagin as a young man named Mels, who, while living in Moscow during the 1950s, joins a group of cultural subversives called the stilyaga, devotees of boogie-woogie music, circle skirts, pompadour hairstyles and all things Western.

Shot like an MGM classic, "Hipsters" is at its best when it whimsically captures the ingenious lengths to which even the most harmless dissidents went to in order to pursue their passions, including making ad hoc jazz recordings on used X-rays. But with its monotonously pastiche-heavy soundtrack and almost aggressively cheerful disposition, "Hipsters," which was written and directed by Valeriy Todorovskiy, only nods obliquely at the grimmest realities of Stalinist repression.

It's a similar quandary faced by "Made in Hungária," which uncannily echoes many of the same rebellious and redemptive themes conveyed in "Hipsters," by way of a teenager who returns to Budapest in the 1960s after living in the United States, bringing his love for Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis with him.

Like Todorovskiy, "Made in Hungária" director Gergely Fonyó prefers the blandishments of romance to probing the harsher extremes of communist state power (the authorities are portrayed more often as bumbling and ineffectual, rather than viscerally menacing). As the film's protagonist, Miki (Tamás Szabó Kimmel), says, "I just want to make music and fall in love." Both "Hipsters" and "Made in Hungária" have been hits in their native countries, suggesting that when it comes to creating a usable past, retrospective optimism may be a more profitable path than sober confrontation.

A bootleg musical culture infused with much higher stakes makes for the vibrant backdrop of "No One Knows About Persian Cats," Bahman Ghobadi's neorealist tour of Tehran's underground music scene (the film opens in Washington on Friday). Blending fiction and documentary, Ghobadi casts two real-life musicians -- Negar Shaghaghi and Ashkan Koshanejad -- in a fictionalized story in which they try to get documents so they can play a concert in London. The two bring viewers along on a picaresque journey through Tehran's teeming street life, basement clubs and improvised recording studios, where a vital community of jazz, rock, blues and rap artists defy the Islamic government's strictures against music. Filmed largely on the fly, "No One Knows About Persian Cats" pulses with the rhythms of a city on the verge of collapsing from the weight of its own contradictions.

Surely the brave musical insurgents of "No One Knows About Persian Cats" would take inspiration from "Soundtrack for a Revolution," a stirring account of how folk music helped nourish and propel the activists of America's civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Using present-day interviews with such civil rights leaders as John Lewis, Julian Bond and Andrew Young, archival footage of the era's boycotts, sit-ins, marches and acts of racist terrorism with which they were often met, filmmakers Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman ("Nanking") have created a moving primer on nonviolent resistance. (After its Filmfest D.C. date, "Soundtrack for a Revolution" will have a one-week engagement at the American Film Institute's Silver Theatre starting April 30.) Although music is the film's nominal subject, it's just as powerful an argument for the importance of media to a movement that relied on shocking images to mobilize a nation.

The filmmakers' decision to film contemporary musicians singing the most identifiable civil rights anthems meets with uneven success: Joss Stone leans into "Eyes on the Prize" with distracting self-consciousness, whereas Wyclef Jean's searing rendition of Phil Ochs's "Here's to the State of Mississippi" is a small revelation. But if including them, along with the Roots and John Legend, attracts younger viewers, it's worth it. "Soundtrack for a Revolution" has something to teach those who came of political age with Will.I.Am and "Yes We Can," about just how far hipsters can go when they leave the poses behind and get to work with discipline, strategic insight and moral seriousness.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company