24th CINEQUEST FILM FESTIVAL—“IDA,” “THE ARRIETA METHOD,” AND “MY PRAIRIE HOME”

by Peter Wong on March 12, 2014

The titular “Ida” is the real name of the Polish novitiate nun at the center of Pawel Pawlikowski’s TIFF award-winning character study, set somewhere between the late 1950s and early 1960s. Who Ida is involves both a digging into her hidden Jewish past and her negotiating a path through a world undergoing cultural if not political change. Masterfully acted from start to finish, the film ends with an impressive metaphorical final shot that summarizes who the title character will be.

Jorge Gil Munarriz’s moving documentary “The Arrieta Method” provides a record of a strange yet wonderful truth from a decidedly unexpected corner of human experience.

To the untrained eye, sisters Lourdes and Mentxu Arrieta seem cut off from the rest of humanity. Neither woman can speak or even move their bodies very well. But after their mother teaches them to read, Lourdes and Mentxu develop a private language which allows them to communicate first with each other and eventually with the outside world. Now the sisters want to teach their language so others can use it. But does the sisters’ language have a place in an age where mechanical substitutes help people speak?

Communication, the sharing of feelings, experiences, and thoughts with another human being, is one of the basic joys of human existence. Frustration in communication ensues when the right word which can precisely encapsulate one’s thoughts and feelings seems just beyond one’s mental grasp. Lourdes’ life had been exponentially more frustrating because she lacked the means of communicating her thoughts. More annoyingly, it had been assumed outside the Arrieta family that Lourdes lacked the capacity to have thoughts of any significance.

Who could have conceived a world would open up thanks to a language developed from the movement of the sisters’ irises? Yet Munarriz shows that’s precisely what happens, as Lourdes’ fluency in this language allows her to reach others in a way her flesh generally forbids. Mentxu’s interpreter role also allows her to build a stronger emotional connection with her sister.

Ironically, the Arrieta patriarch can’t articulate his frustration or sadness at knowing he helped birth two physically handicapped daughters. It takes the sisters’ memories of how their father’s dancing allowed him to momentarily forget about his kids to hint at his emotional burden.

What makes the Arrieta sisters’ story truly inspiring is seeing their attempts to spread knowledge of their language. These teaching moments speak to the sisters’ self-confidence that their language offers something which will benefit others in the sisters’ situation. Having spent time in the Arrieta sisters’ world, the sisters’ failures to convince others to treat their private language as more than an intellectual curio feels like the proverbial slap on the face.

Yet these setbacks ultimately don’t matter. Munarriz shows that the sisters’ ability to reach a position where they can teach others something they invented is itself a personal miracle.

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The long inverted shot of the Canadian plains that opens Chelsea Mc Mullan’s documentary “My Prairie Home” provides the film’s first clues regarding its subject, transgender folk musician Rae Spoon. What casual observers might dismiss as a land of emptiness and close-mindedness offers to Spoon a place big enough for this wandering singer to find freedom if the properly generous attitude is taken.

Mc Mullan’s film is a biography that sings its subject’s truths in a tone alternately playful and offbeat. It follows the singer on their (the pronoun Spoon prefers to use for self-reference) criss-crossing the Canadian prairie lands via bus, unpacking luggage in anonymous hotel rooms, and playing in everything from music halls to a home studio. Along the way, the viewer is treated to several of Spoon’s low-key odd music videos, ranging from a sedate walk through old high school halls with “My First Love” to performing with dancers wearing deer heads and suits for “Hunters of Love.”

“My Prairie Home” shows how Spoon’s life and art is shaped by both the land they call home and their family background. The prairie attitude of forcing one to focus on the essentials of life gets translated into the spare yet hauntingly resonant songs Spoon produces. The nomadic existence Spoon lives as an aspiring working musician might be mistaken for an implied belief in the End Times obsession of their evangelical Christian parents. After all, if the End Times are coming, accumulating possessions feels counter-productive. Yet it’s more likely that sect’s beliefs in subservient roles for women and the paranoid schizophrenia of Spoon’s father did more to discredit the sect’s influence on Spoon’s life than a well-crafted argument.

Of the consequences of Spoon’s decision to transition to a different sex, Mc Mullan keeps the discussion vague or low-key. Gender binary bathrooms can bring up safety questions depending on whether the location is a roadside diner or a bus station. The singer references Brandon Teena’s tragic fate. Yet these realities don’t intimidate Spoon’s constant efforts at pursuing an authentic life.

Even with its angst-inducing subject matter, the film never drowns its viewers in sorrow. A visit to a Canadian town heavy with dinosaur fossils provides a bit of light-heartedness, as does the story of how Spoon met their first love.

“My Prairie Home” offers a generous sampling of the singer’s output. Toe-tapping in the audience is likely, though that pleasure is tempered by pleasant frustration that some of Spoon’s songs seem to end too abruptly for at least this audience member’s liking.

Slightly more serious problems come with a failed attempt to wring tension from a concert in the town Spoon’s father resides in, as well as a gratuitously symbolic final shot which undercuts the power of the film’s last song. Yet these faults are not enough to compromise this entertaining portrait of a unique talent.

(“The Arietta Method” screens on March 12, 2014 at 4:30 PM at the Camera 12 Cinemas (201 S. Second Street, San Jose). For further information on these films, go to www.cinequest.org .)

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