57TH SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL—“SALVATION ARMY,” “FREEDOM SUMMER,” AND “TRAP STREET”

by on May 2, 2014

Underneath a visually austere surface, Abdellah Taia’s adaptation of his autobiographical novel “Salvation Army” yields a look at the hidden springs of gay Moroccan life.

Protagonist Abdellah begins the film as a teen living a far from paradisical life with his parents. His quiet dignified father sometimes angrily beats up his spouse. Abdellah’s superstitious mother is a traditionalist concerned about her son’s failure to behave like a man. Older brother Slimane is both an idol and an unattainable lust object. The aimless Abdellah breaks tedium with one afternoon stands with a variety of men.

Taia’s film is cruelly titled. While the opening shot of the slowly boiling pot metaphorically captures the boy’s unstated feelings, there is no army of rescuers to ultimately take Abdellah to a better life. The boy’s own close-mindedness, demonstrated by his refusal to learn French, also keeps him trapped in his situation. Any rescue achieved in Abdellah’s life comes through either the chance kindness of strangers or by his exploiting others, particularly the lover who helps an older Abdellah escape to Geneva later in the film.

“Salvation Army” the movie cannot take the viewer inside Abdellah’s mind. But it can and does heavily lean on visual metaphors and unstated implications to hint at his feelings. While nudity is never shown, seeing the boy remove his T-shirt, go to his knees in front of a man, and slowly sink out of the viewer’s sight makes clear what happens next.

Taia’s film demonstrates that just because homosexuality is not openly talked about in Morocco doesn’t mean it doesn’t occur. But that silence also means the Abdellahs of the world are unprotected targets for pebbles thrown as implied precursor to a stoning.

***

Stanley Nelson’s documentary “Freedom Summer” subjects a vital event in 20th century American political history to cinematic embalming.

Freedom Summer was the umbrella title for the summer 1964 projects the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (hereafter, SNCC) undertook to crack Mississippi’s notoriety as America’s bastion of Jim Crow political racism. These projects were: raising the number of registered black voters beyond its single digit percentage of the black population; using Freedom Schools to teach the civics lessons and black history information absent from the state’s schools; and, unseating the all-white Mississippi Democratic delegation to the national convention and replacing it with a representative integrated group.

Nelson’s film uses unidentified talking heads and tons of period footage to advance its tediously familiar chronological structure. Viewers somewhat familiar with the Freedom Summer effort will thus find the film a well-intentioned but boring slog

Only surprising footage and unexpected anecdotes provide some signs of liveliness. Footage of the high-sounding Citizen’s Councils reveal the groups at best were little better than Klansmen in business suits. A white female volunteer recounts an encounter with segregationists who decided to treat her to a “joke” lynching. The newspaper listing of blacks registering to vote is reminiscent of newspapers printing the names and addresses of men arrested in police raids on gay bars.

What ultimately sinks “Freedom Summer” into mediocrity is its pronounced determination to simplify a sometimes complicated political situation into pablum. Negative political consequences from LBJ’s ruthless effort to prevent the Mississippi Freedom delegation from being seated at the Democratic National Convention seem non-existent. How the white SNCC volunteers overcame ambient cultural conditioning to treat the black SNCC staff as authority figures goes unexplained. Most damningly, John Roberts’ US Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act undermined the work of Freedom Summer’s volunteers. Yet that fact doesn’t merit even a title card before the end credits.

“Freedom Summer” ultimately reconfirms the idea that history has little connection to the present day.

***

Six degrees may separate the average person from Kevin Bacon. But Vivian Qu’s contemporary drama “Trap Street” shows far fewer degrees separate an ordinary citizen from the pervasive Chinese surveillance state. What begins as a boy meets girl story (surveyor trainee Li Qiuming tries to develop a romance with attractively enigmatic Guan Lifen) leads to a quietly chilling encounter with an efficiently malicious security apparatus.

Qu skillfully uses misdirection to make that dramatic shift seamless. Viewers are distracted by Li’s uphill battle to convince Guan the two of them can become an item. Yet the young man’s obsession with the mysterious woman overshadows considering how deeply she reciprocates his feelings.

In the meantime, Qu sneakily introduces the bigger theme of surveillance fears in modern China. Li demonstrates his political naivete during an encounter with a politically well-connected client who still wants his hotel room scanned for hidden mikes or spy cameras. It’s one of the film’s ironies that despite his experience working in security alarm installation and inspection, the young man shows a spectacular unawareness regarding the assumptions behind China’s surveillance state. What he thinks is an innocent mooning after a pretty woman becomes a suspicious night-time visit worth a police investigation.

That sudden police follow up in the third act of Qu’s film is both ambiguous and executed with chilling efficiency. Clear answers about who Guan is or why Forest Lane doesn’t exist on any maps are unavailable to Li. It’s unclear whether the young man is being punished for displaying the wrong sort of curiosity or is genuinely falsely accused of a crime. What is clear is the depth and ruthlessness of the government towards those perceived as seriously stepping out of line. By the film’s end, Li’s feckless innocence has been replaced by something harder and colder.

(“Salvation Army” screens at 9:00 PM on May 2, 2014 and 6:30 PM on May 6, 2014. “Freedom Summer” screens at 12:15 PM on May 3, 2014 and 6:30 PM on May 7, 2014. “Trap Street” screens at 9:45 PM on May 4, 2014 and 6:45 PM on May 6, 2014. All screenings take place at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas (1881 Post, SF). For further information about the films and ticket ordering information, go to www.sffs.org.)

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