CMU film fest puts face on globalization

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So why pay 75 cents a pound at Giant Eagle for Pennsylvania-grown carrots when the ones next to them, from Sri Lanka, are 25 cents? Does it matter to you if your American flag is made in China? If so, does it matter economically, patriotically or socially in terms of Chinese vs. American textile-workers' wages?

Bright ideas often look duller later - "globalization" chief among them. It was supposed to integrate regional economies into a planet-wide network of free trade, capital flow and technology, thereby spreading entrepreneurship, higher living standards, education, public health - in a word, "prosperity."

But some of the things it has spread weren't on the to-do list - things such as climate change, mega-shopping malls and pop-idol "reality TV." Those are among the subjects of the most fascinating entries in this year's bigger-and-better CMU International Film Festival, subtitled "Faces of Globalization," featuring 14 cutting-edge feature films and documentaries from 18 countries, with a host of related side events, through April 11.

Film Festival Schedule

Carnegie Mellon International Film Festival, "Faces of Globalization," opens today and runs through April 24 at various venues.

The first week's schedule:

TODAY

7:15 p.m.: "The Age of Stupid" (Great Britain, 2008), Melwood Screening Room, 477 Melwood Ave., Oakland. Cliff Davidson, CMU professor of civil and environmental engineering, will conduct a Q&A session. East End Co-Op's post-screening reception features dishes from countries represented in the film.

FRIDAY

7:15 p.m.: "The Wondrous World of Laundry" (Germany, 2009), Melwood Screening Room. What happens to the dirty linen from Berlin's 5-star hotels? It goes to Poland. On one side of the German-Polish border, Hyatt guests sleep on crisp, clean sheets. On the other side, 400 Poles labor day and night, for low wages, to wash, iron, fold and send the stuff back by next morning. Post-film discussion moderated by CMU professor Rouger Rouse, focusing on cultural politics, class relations and migration.

7:15 p.m.: "Pray the Devil Back to Hell" (Liberia, 2008), Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, 5941 Penn Ave., East Liberty. Before Americans were celebrating progress, in the race between a black man and a woman, a woman boldly pledges to steer her country toward reform.

SATURDAY

5:15 p.m.: "Afghan Star" (Great Britain/Afghanistan, 2009), Melwood Screening Room.

7:15 p.m.: "Weaving Girl" (China, 2009), Melwood Screening Room. Two textile workers smoke cigarettes during a brief break from the reality of reduced lunch breaks, docked pay and dangerous chemicals. One of them is dying of leukemia and longing to see her long-lost lover in Beijing. This relentlessly downbeat neo-realistic drama is full of the same long, strained, brooding silences all of us face in real life.

SUNDAY

5:30 p.m.: "Mid-August Lunch" (Italy, 2009), Regent Square Theater, 1035 S. Braddock Ave., Edgewood. Director Gianni Di Gregorio explained the impetus for this film: "I played the leading role because while I was explaining to the crew that we needed to find a middle-aged man, more or less an alcoholic, who had lived for years with his mother, I realized that all eyes were turned to me."

General admission tickets for each film are $7; $4 for students. General admission for today's opening-night reception and film screening are $15; $10 for students. Festival pass is $40; $20 for students. For schedule, film descriptions and reservations, visit www.cmu.edu/faces.

Is globalization the solution or the new problem? The movies - once again brilliantly selected by festival director Jolanta Lion - attach human faces to the issues of climate change, dislocation, industrial boom and war. The fest opens with a punch, starting tonight:

"The Age of Stupid" has a sci-fi frame set in 2055, with Earth's lone survivor (Oscar-nominated Pete Postlethwaite) trying to figure out why nothing was done to stop Earth's eco-destruction while there was a chance. He's The Archivist, taking us through the true stories of seven international characters: an Indian airline mogul, a Nigerian fisherwoman, a British eco-friendly family, a French alpine climber, a New Orleans Katrina survivor, and two displaced Iraqi kids. Ambitious? The film takes us from 13 million years ago to 45 years hence, when nobody's left except a guy in a tower in a balmy area that used to be the Arctic Ocean. Does human activity contribute to climate change? Duh. Although Rush Limbaugh and the deniers have made it just another battle in the culture wars, that no-brainer question should no longer be up for debate.

"Malls R Us," a mesmerizing Canadian entry, informs us that Cabela's Hunting and Fishing Outfitter, in an Edmonton mall, is second only to the Grand Canyon as North America's most-visited tourist attraction. America has a thing for built-in artificial environments, now exported to New Delhi and Osaka. This film's droll sections include "The Theory of Threshold Resistance" (how to get people to make that first crucial step into a mall) and something I'd call "Dawn of the Dead Malls" - nostalgia for late-great shopping centers (like Pittsburgh's own, once-grand East Hills). Ray Bradbury has a nice cameo in a segment called "The Aesthetics of Lostness." Bottom line: Be it capitalism, communism, fascism or socialism, one "-ism" conquers all: consumerism.

"Afghan Star" reminds us that, while American pop-idol wannabes risk their precious egos appearing on musical-survivor shows, Afghan counterparts risk their lives. British documentarian Havana Marking explores how tacky TV-as-usual here is downright revolutionary there. During Taliban rule, music was banned in Afghanistan. Not just rock or Western music. ALL music. Once the Taliban was ousted in 2002, a company called Tolo TV came up with "Afghan Star," that country's first televised talent competition. People voted for their favorites by cell phone. Of 2,000 auditioners, a grand total of three are women - two of whom end up as finalists. Setara dares to wear makeup, let her headscarf slip a bit, and take a modest dance step or two onstage. You think Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" caused an uproar? Most virulent opposition comes not from the old mullahs but from young Afghan men in jeans, who react with horror (as well as lust) to watching her on TV. The "American Idol" format, a break-through exercise in democracy? Ironic but true. No fewer than 11 million people, a third of Afghanistan's population, watched the final.

Otherwise, this batch of films is a denier's nightmare, an activist's dream - with a student short film competition, director appearances, panel discussions, live music, video conferencing and a special screening in conjunction with the UN World Environment Day. The multiple venues include the Regent Square Theater, CMU's McConomy Auditorium and others. See schedule for details.


Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris can be reached at parispg48@aol.com.


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