by Peter Wong on May 15, 2013

A real-life fatal shooting inspired Mikko Niskanen’s Finnish cinema classic “Eight Deadly Shots.” Its daunting five-and-a-quarter hours’ length made this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival (hereafter SFIFF) the ideal place to screen it.

The titular shots are fired by desperate impoverished family farmer Pasi (Niskanen). He’s slowly being crushed by a trifecta of continual high unemployment, terrible crop prices, and mounting indebtedness to both the government and private creditors. Illegal moonshining provides some financial relief. But Pasi’s family history of alcoholism threatens to destroy what little he has.

Niskanen’s film will frustrate those who prefer their crime fiction to come only in shades of black and white. Pasi is right to question a social system that relentlessly demands debt payments despite his lacking the means to satisfy such demands. However, the violent aggressiveness which drunkenness brings out in Pasi makes him far from an innocent victim.

The director’s opening disclaimer on viewers’ different truths regarding the fatal incident referenced in the title propels viewers to look beyond this small farmer’s guilt. To this end, Niskanen immerses the viewer in the challenges facing farmers like Pasi, ranging from equipment breakdowns to working in treacherous terrain. There is nothing melodramatically heroic in this visual immersion, just a matter of fact introduction to the rural life Pasi’s family lives by.

Understanding that life means understanding that Pasi comes from a region where one’s triumphs come from eking survival from an at-times inhospitable environment. Problems such as declining farm prices and unemployment frustrate somebody like Pasi, who wants to solve these challenges yet is aware he’s powerless to do anything. Ironically, any personal empowerment gained from illegal distilling gets undercut by the self-destructive results of his actions.

The very appropriate final extended shot that ends the film will hopefully inspire the viewer to consider far different outcomes than that seen onscreen.


The familiar quest documentary turns into a lively surprise in Oskar Alegria’s “The Search for Emak Bakia.” But it’s no surprise given that the search path involves such touchstones as famed surrealist Man Ray, a wind-blown plastic glove, and a 92-year-old princess.

“Emak Bakia” is Basque for “Leave me alone.” It’s also the name of a classic Ray short film as well as the house where Ray filmed his masterwork. Alegria’s attempt to use conventional investigative methods to track down the house leads to dead ends. When the director resorts to letting chance dictate his search, his circuitous path leads him to sleeping women, accidental mistranslation, and elephant stamps.

Unfamiliarity with Ray’s “Emak Bakia” will not hamper viewer enjoyment of Alegria’s film. His intertitles provide the necessary background information. Excerpts from the Ray film give viewers an idea of the earlier film’s flavor.

An opening shot of the sea floating in midair above a wide blue sky alerts viewers that Alegria will turn their expectations upside down. The goal may obviously be what’s stated in the title, “The Search for Emak Bakia.” Yet the randomness of the pathway of Alegria’s quest keeps viewers guessing which moments in the documentary are interesting whimsical moments and which are actual milestones on the search’s road. One may expect a visit to a Man Ray museum exhibit. But does one expect an interview with a crime novelist whose work involves dreams?

Thanks to certain legal limitations, Alegria’s film will not be graced with wide commercial release. But for viewers lucky enough to learn of a screening, they should make time to watch this life-filled film.


Lian Lunson’s “Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You–A Concert for Kate McGarrigle” may not create new fans for the late folk music legend’s works. But one cannot dispute the love and grief displayed by the concert’s performers.

With her sister Anna, Canadian Kate McGarrigle sang and wrote songs which blended their singing talents with folk music stylings to create harmoniously emotional effects. Clear-cell sarcoma took McGarrigle’s life in January 2010 at a relatively young 63. In May 2011, Rufus and Martha Wainwright hosted a concert in honor of their late mother at New York City’s Town Hall Theatre. That concert, the subject of Lunson’s film, features performances of McGarrigle songs both famous (e.g. “Heart Like A Wheel”) and obscure (e.g. “I Am A Diamond”). Accompanying the McGarrigle children in this performance are such friends and admirers as Emmylou Harris, Jimmy Fallon, and Michael Ondaatje.

“Sing Me The Songs” is primarily strong when it simultaneously conveys the depth of the surviving family members’ pain and the personal healing achieved through performing McGarrigle’s songs. Rufus Wainwright is frequently shown shedding tears during his performances. One senses that if he were to stop to wipe his tears, he would be unable to continue singing. These moments are topped by the entire ensemble’s performance of the last song Kate McGarrigle sang two weeks before her death. The group performance feels like a renewal of a final connection to the late singer, the song’s grim lyrics notwithstanding.

The concert’s song selection acts as a type of musical biography of the dead songwriter’s life and personality. “The Swimming Song” turns swimming strokes into reckless fun. A 60th birthday-inspired song conveys a desire to wring as much living as possible out of an awareness of a curtailed lifespan.

Performances by Harris, Fallon, Norah Jones, and Justin Vivian Bond offer strong testament to McGarrigle’s personality and influence. Yet for those viewers who don’t recognize these performers’ faces, Lunson’s general avoidance of providing identification undercuts the power of such moments.

The old home movies of Kate McGarrigle and the anecdotes about her slow decline provide the film’s real emotional weight. They pinpoint the shades of the performers’ mourning in a way the songs by themselves could not. Rufus Wainwright’s recollection of how the final goodbyes were said to the dying influential songwriter particularly delivers the film’s best emotional moment.

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