Experiences like the Manhattan Short Film Festival give us the tools to fight religious, ethnic and racial violence throughout the world.
Wow. On a hyperbolic scale stretching from “grass is green” to “pigs can fly like they always have,” that first statement must be the biggest stretch of all. How can one festival out of hundreds combat something so universal and pervasive as hate? You have my testimony, after attending the festival for the first time this weekend, that the lessons contained in its 10 finalist films are the perfect medicine for a world scarred by “Innocence of Muslims.”
Americans tend to forget there’s an international film scene outside our own — with a vision equally loud, striking and proud, and it can be found in towns as small and remote as Galesburg. The seeming failure of foreign film to dethrone the multi-billion dollar monoliths produced in Hollywood has led some critics to declare film dead or dying. The New Republic’s Dan Denby and David Thompson are just a few of the prophets proclaiming its demise, writing articles called “American Movies are Not Dead: They are Dying” and “Has Hollywood Murdered the Movies?” (And you accuse me of hyperbole.)
If you look at box office receipts and the corporate gears turning, spitting sequels, reboots and adaptations, these arguments sound tempting. At times they make convincing points: that surplus of CGI and brash editing has dulled audiences to narratives, characters and coherency of vision; that many films are founded upon empty spectacle — I will concede this much.
And yet films, no matter how expensive, no matter how small, have a great power. A 12-minute trailer for an anti-Islamic hate film, sloppily filmed and edited with most dialogue dubbed in post-production, has the strength to inspire protests and end lives. Its name carries as much weight as “The Avengers” or “Avatar.” If film is dead, it remains vital in its grave, controlling the course of world events from beyond.
Historic examples (“Triumph of the Will,” “Birth of a Nation”) show how film leaves a mark without big budgets, ADD cuts or superheroes. They taint certain periods of history and leave a bad taste for decades, sticking harder to memory than the classic humanist films (“Casablanca,” “Citizen Kane,” “Wizard of Oz”) touted by doomsday journalists as the long-lost pinnacle of cinematic achievement.
But just as film can be used to spread evil and numb the senses, it can also be employed for good. Here, the Manhattan Film Festival provides a portal into film’s idyllic future: it exposes visions of the medium from around the world, giving American film-goers a taste of work from Peru, France, Norway, Russia and Romania. It boggles the mind when you think, “There are even more countries, with more filmmakers — and many more voices calling to be heard.”
These voices — for all their different tones of humor and drama, slice-of-life and magical realism — cry together for their children’s safe passage. It’s no surprise this year’s selections, from Ireland’s modern Aesop “Cluck” through the Orwellian school-as-brainwash allegory “Two & Two,” are based either in wayward maturity or the influence of loud, admirable and at times frightening youth. In Russia’s “Where Does the Sea Flow,” a mother with a child conceived in rape considers drowning her, only to repent by imparting the daughter with an assurance of death at the end of a long, fruitful life.
Film is not dead, the Manhattan Short Film Festival tells us: it is at a crossroads where it must either rent itself under ideology or breed liberation. I did not hate any film shown at the festival, including the selfish American one, which, ironically, tried to be a critique of American selfishness. This was an experience that broadened my mind to the awareness of a larger world — a perception that is never complete, only growing. And as it grows, we cannot help but deny works like “Innocence of Muslims,” built with the same disregard for order and logic inherent in its message. If film can tear apart, it can also connect, and if film is dead then it must be revived for our kids’ sake — for our sake.
The Manhattan Short Film Festival has many peers: in Peoria, Chicago, Ann Arbor — everywhere, if you search just a moment. Film outside the multiplex, from around the world, is just within your grasp. So grab it. Discover the experience I found last Friday. Be empowered by film to pursue compassion through the new decade and century.