Best of the best at the Encounters film festival

Yolandi Groenewald on The Planet (directed by Michael Stenberg, Johan Söderberg & Linus Torell, Sweden/Norway/Denmark 2006)

A beautiful film showing the havoc that mankind has wreaked on the Earth. The film takes you through a range of facts and figures and features in-depth interviews with environmental experts and scientists, including The Guardian’s George Monbiot. The directors provide stirring images of the Earth as it is now and, using video art, show how it will change.

The film moves across the globe, from China to Nigeria, showing the struggles in developing countries and weighs this development against its effect on the environment. A strong point is its honest portrayal of the Chinese and Indian economies and the result of these “want more” cultures. Some of the most shocking images centre on Nigeria’s e-waste problem. The country has become a dumping ground for the West’s discarded televisions and computers. It leaves the viewer with a clear message: if we don’t act soon, we will destroy our planet, as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow.

Shaun de Waal on The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (directed by Sophia Fiennes, UK/Australia/Netherlands 2006)

The Slovenian “philosopher and psychoanalyst” Slavoj Zizek is famous for cornering a hitherto underexploited niche of the cultural-studies market, producing several books on a subject best described in one of his own titles: Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock).

Basically, Zizek uses popular culture, such as the movies, to explicate the often impossibly arcane psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan, the Frenchman who proposed a radical re-reading of the canonic Freudian exploration of the human psyche. Or perhaps it’s that Zizek uses Lacan to uncover the hidden human drives that appear in popular culture.

The Zizek who retails his ideas in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema takes a somewhat more accessible approach — he even manages to avoid mentioning Lacan. Instead, he glosses classic psychoanalytic ideas to comment on scenes from famous movies, Hitchcock of course being a favoured source. In person, the bearded, lisping philosopher comes across as an engaging and entertaining figure. His accent is heavy but his English is excellent (though he demonstrates in speech the same preposition-dysfunction common to his written works). Zizek’s analyses pour forth unstoppably in every context, whether he’s boating across Bodega Bay like Tippi Hedren in The Birds, or is inserted practically into the frame of the movie he’s talking about, or is shown watering his garden and explaining why he finds tulips so repulsive — children should be protected from them, he jokes. Even at a total of 150 minutes for its three parts, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema is a consistently absorbing performance of intellectual titillation.

Yunus Momoniat on Taxi to the Dark Side (directed by Alex Gibney, USA/Iraq/Afganistan 2006)

The notion that abuses at Abu Graib (Iraq), Bagram (Afghanistan) and Guantanamo Bay (Cuba) were exceptional is the lie exposed by this documentary, which details the travails and deaths of various prisoners at these three “interrogation centres”.

The primary object of these apparatuses, effectively laboratories of humiliation, was ultimately the deconstruction of the people incarcerated in them. If information was being sought, it was not of the type the prisoners could consciously provide.

Everyone knows that information yielded under such duress is constructed to appease the torturer. What the tormentors really aimed at was reaping knowledge of human limits to pain and sensory deprivation in a kind of Mengellian experiment in psychological, physiological and existential destruction.

These laboratories — where “Arab male sensitivities to gender” were explored by making the men wear lingerie and masturbate at the command of a butch Yankee dominatrix, confronted by vicious dogs — because Arabs don’t enjoy the same relation to canines as Westerners — were the scene of a bizarre sadism, informed by theories of multiculturalism, one that masquerades as social science in an age when science obliterates ethics. Arabs are peculiarly sensitive to sexual humiliation, says one informant in the movie, before he rightly wonders if anyone isn’t.

Kwanele Sosibo on Sweet Memories Garden Centre (Directed by Simon Klose, Sweden/South Africa 2006)

Sweet Memories Garden Centre, the nursery whose beginnings are captured in Swedish filmmaker Simon Klose’s documentary of the same name doesn’t exist anymore, at least as far as the eye can see.

Save for a few palm trees planted on the edge of the lawn outside, the rest of the premises in Embuzini crossing are just as parched as the rest of “Wild West”, the western-most part of Soweto that includes townships such as Zola, Naledi and Mndeni.

Pule and Twish Malungwane, whose attempts to turn away from a life of crime and run the nursery from home, form the film’s narrative arch. They insist that their business is seasonal, but concede that it could do with a serious capital injection.

Perhaps it was an ill-fated idea: running a nursery in a working-class township with rampant unemployment, where many only think of flowers during funerals and weddings. This is probably why much of the film, the flimmaker’s first, features just as many shots of chock-a-block house parties, spinning Beemers and around-the-fire type stories of botched robberies as those of visits to plant wholesesalers.

Stephanie Wolters on Every Good Marriage Begins with Tears (Directed by Simon Chambers, UK 2006)

This is a classic tale of the generation gap, tradition versus change and parents versus children. The main characters of the documentary are the London-based Bengali Begum sisters: Shahanara, the rebellious middle sister who spends five years in foster care after being kicked out of the house by her father for refusing to marry a man she has never met, Hushnara, whose on-again, off-again arranged wedding provides much of the plot, and Azirun, the pushy older sister whose sole aim seems to be to please her parents by marrying off her sisters.

This could have been yet another film about arranged marriages but director, producer and cameraman Simon Chambers not only makes us care about each of the sisters, he asks some interesting questions about the nature of arranged marriages and free will, and just who is happier in the end. The film also has some very funny scenes, such as when carefree Shahanara runs off to the arcade with her sister’s future fiancé instead of dutifully awaiting her husband at the airport, and her reaction when he later tells her that he has been praying for her to lose weight.

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