Wednesday, June 06, 2012

SIFF 2012: Year of Grace & The Invisible War

The Seattle International Film Festival kicked off on May 17th, with Lynn Shelton's Your Sister's Sister, but I didn't begin attending screenings this year until Memorial Day weekend, so I'm off to a slow start this year. This year, the opening weekend happened to correspond to the University District Street Fair, where I was helping out at the Grand Illusion Cinema all weekend. Normally, I would have attempted to squeeze in a movie or two around attempting to entice unsuspecting Seattlites to wander in to check out the cinema with the promise of Looney Tunes on 35mm and perhaps a tee-shirt or membership, but this year, I was hanging around all day because I'm in the midst of training to become a projectionist. Yes, indeed, I'm working on adding and yet another obsolete skill to my resume.

Another difference is that this year I'm volunteering at SIFF. I spent several days last week managing lines, directing movie-goers, handing out ballots, counting ticket stubs, and tallying ballots in exchange for a few movie vouchers. And it is surprisingly fun work, although this also cuts into the time one could actually be watching movies (which is why I haven't done it previously). So far, I've seen 5 movies at the festival and I've enjoyed them all.


Year of Grace (2012, Spain)
Dir. Ventura Pons

It is always tempting to discount a film for being a comic, trifle and be overly hard on the movies that are entertaining. I was ready to scoff at Year of Grace, a coming of age story of a student in a scholarship program that provides room and board in a shared flat with an elderly woman, for being overly simplistic and very predictable. But director Ventura Pons won me over during the Q&A that followed. He aimed to make a hopeful film at an economically challenging time when so many of Spain's youth have so few options for education or careers and like here in America, many of the older generations place too much blame on the young for their situation instead of on the economy. The goal wasn't to make a realistic film, but one that gives an uplifting message of hope and in that way, Year of Grace is a success.

The protagonist Sergi (Alex Maruny) leaves small town life with aspirations to become a famous artist. He takes advantage of a program in Barcelona that provides a room in the home of a retiree. The only problem is that he has been placed with Gracia (Rosa Maria Sarda). Gracia doesn't so much want a young companion as someone to do her housekeeping, run errands and act as a worthy opponent at cards. In addition to rigid expectations and lots of rules, Gracia is a short-tempered, stubborn old lady. This wasn't exactly the situation that Sergi had imagined, but he is determined to make it work and frequently seeks refuge in a neighborhood bar, where he discovers that Gracia hasn't exactly charmed her neighbors. I don't believe it is a spoiler to say that in the end, Sergi and Gracia learn that they need each other and both find success and fulfillment. My disappointment with Year of Grace is simply that is isn't more ambitious, but delivered a heartwarming tale that doesn't venture to do anymore than entertain. One can do much worse at a film festival and this is exactly the kind of movie that makes for a good, unoffensive, family-friendly recommendation. Translation, not the kind of movie that excites me personally, but I could imagine my mother adoring it.


The Invisible War (2012)
Dir. Kirby Dick

In 2007, salon.com published an article titled, the private war of women soldiers, reporting that the threat to woman soldiers stationed in Iraq was not that due to battle, but rape and assault from fellow soldiers. Upon reading this, Kirby Dick looked for documentaries made on the topic of rape in the military only to find none. So, he investigated these claims and as a result uncovered some truly shocking stories about the dangers that women face in the US military; dangers that often happen long before soldiers are sent into battle, but in boot camp, basic training, or stationed at bases on US soil. The Invisible War is the product of hours of interviews with female veterans detailing their personal experiences as victims of rape and assault and the long-term impact of the event on their lives. Like so many of Kirby Dick's prior work, the film depends upon accounts of very private and hugely traumatic experiences so he needed to gain the trust of the participants, most of which used their names and some have been appearing at screenings. I am amazed at the courage of these women to tell their stories publicly in the hope that maybe, they can induce change in our military, which currently is more invested in protecting the rapists in their ranks, than in providing justice for victims.

The power of the Invisible War is as a document of the misogyny that exists within the military that perpetuates a culture where rape is much more commonplace than in larger, civilian culture. The Invisible War even uses the government's own statistics to estimate the breadth of the problem, stating that approximately 500,000 soldiers have been raped by their colleagues. It seems that this issue is even bigger than depicted once taking into consideration the culture of the military as portrayed by the victims. In the military, men and women in uniform regard those in their ranks not at mere colleagues, but more akin to family which provides the level of trust needed in combat, but also results in situations where perpetrators are protected and victims regarded with suspicion. In addition, victims suffer tremendous guilt and shame over reporting incidences of sexual violence perpetrated by men who they previously trusted and often, still report to. Probably the most startling revelation was that victims suffer from PTSD of a severity that is typically only seen in survivors of incest. The film does an amazing job of using the personal stories of soldiers to detail the working conditions that create an environment where these assaults are allowed to happen and how the military ranks serve to protect the perpetrators from any kind of punishment.

As a film, the Invisible War lacks the innovation of some of Kirby Dick's award winning documentaries. Instead, it is a more conventional documentary that looks to be drafted form the same blue-print used on his previous film, Outrage. But this can be forgiven, since the purpose of the Invisible War is to report on the atrocities that are happening in the military and I'm sure using a more standard documentary format greatly reduced production time and likely makes the film more accessible to general audiences. The Invisible War has an agenda, to inform the public on just how widespread rape of female soldiers is and to detail how the current system for dealing with crime perpetrated by soldiers is broken, especially since this problem is rarely taken seriously by the military that sees the rape and abuse of women within their ranks are an expected occupational hazard, not a crime deserving of punishment.

The Invisible War is already reaching those in positions that can begin to bring change in the reporting process, but this is only the beginning. Hopefully, this film can find audiences in theaters, festivals, classrooms, and the pentagon and will result in making the military a better environment for women, because no one should dismiss sexual violence toward those that serve in our armed forces as just a part of the job. Go to the official website for the movie to learn more about the film and the issue of rape in the military.

For a taste, see the linked video. Trigger warning for really anyone with compassion.