S.F. Indiefest — “Superstonic Sound: The Rebel Dread,” “Toumast: Guitars and Kalashnikovs,” “The Trashmaster”

by Peter Wong on February 8, 2011

Don Letts is the seminal Renaissance man of the 1970s English punk scene. He’s been a DJ, a film and music video director, and even a band member. But as Letts himself shows, his trailblazing career path is also tied to a rich socio-cultural tradition. Raphael Erichsen’s short documentary “Superstonic Sound: The Rebel Dread” provides a nice introduction to the man and his world.

The thematic baseline of the film follows Letts’ son Jet. This dubstep producer is trying to produce his first public dance party, a step-in. Seeing the younger Letts experiment with various beats and preparing for the show allows the film to show he’s carrying on the family tradition of working with music.

The film’s more interesting jazzy thread follows Letts as he reminisces about life in the Jamaican immigrant community, visits now-vanished Brixton landmarks, and philosophizes about music. One fun moment comes when Letts grumbles about today’s “sonically castrating” tunes.

Letts’ eye infuses Erichsen’s film through extensive historical film clips made by the veteran music video director. But a brief montage of moments provides the film’s only visual reference to some of the over 300 music videos Letts directed for such acts as The Clash and The Pretenders. One suspects money-hungry record companies wanted more money for a 2-minute Joe Strummer clip than Erichsen had budgeted for his film.

While “Superstonic Sound” may be light on name-dropping punk luminaries’ names, that’s compensated for by Letts’ affable anecdotes about the 1970s punk rock scene. The viewer learns why Letts introduced reggae to the punk scene and why it resonated with that audience. But the standout anecdote concerns a famous picture of Letts walking by himself towards a hundred tough-looking police constables. That confrontational image, used as an album cover by The Clash, left some vital information out.

What gives Erichsen’s film more weight than the average gossipy music documentary is that he doesn’t separate punk or reggae from its socio-political roots. When Letts talks about England’s “stop and search” laws which seemed to target blacks or the popularity of the KBW (Keep Britain White) acronym, the viewer can see why punk and reggae felt like reasonable responses to an oppressive majority white culture.

The film avoids the hagiography trap by acknowledging the semi-thorny relationship between Letts pere et fils. The father admits to some serious screwups in his relationship with his son. The son in turn feels intimidated by following his father’s path, especially given the challenge of finding one’s individual path of rebellion when his father’s already rebelled.

By film’s end, the viewer sees that Letts has not let his decades of experience ossify his tastes. He admits to learning from his son and appreciates hip hop as black punk rock. May we all learn from Letts’ willingness to explore the cultural now.

Dominique Margot’s documentary “Toumast: Guitars and Kalashnikovs” certainly has its political heart in the right place. It’s a portrait of the multinational Tuareg armed rebellion against such countries as Mali and Niger. The viewpoint subject is Moussa Ag Keina, a former soldier who traded his Kalashnikov for an electric guitar. Through the music of Toumast (Identity), the band Moussa leads, a propulsive sound of rebellion is delivered around the world.

The roots of the Tuareg rebellion lie in two simple problems. The nomadic life these tribesmen prefer unfortunately covers an area which trashes the concept of national boundaries. More importantly, the lands the Tuaregs wander through are also sites for some of the world’s richest uranium deposits. In a scenario reminiscent of both the American Indian’s history and James Cameron’s “Avatar,” these desert tribesmen are fighting various governments’ efforts to drive them off the land so it can be raided for its mineral wealth.

The film works best at briefing the viewer on both the history of the Tuareg conflict and its serious present day manifestation. Grim images of a Tuareg village decimated by government forces include slaughtered herd animals and bullet punctured water containers.

Toumast expresses the soul of this struggle via incredibly angry political music. Incendiary guitars and traditional ululating vocals express the desire for a place safe from governments willing to sell it off to foreign bidders. Margot regrettably does not translate Toumast’s song lyrics.

But the documentary ultimately falls flat. Margot’s kitchen sink treatment adds material that doesn’t integrate well with the film. The Tilwat sequences are an example of this problem. More damningly, Margot keeps matters at the good nomads/bad industry level without considering any real world answers to the Tuaregs’ plight. The film sparks mild curiosity but nothing more.

Mathieu Weschler’s “The Trashmaster” is the first feature length machinima. Using animation generated from the video game “Grand Theft Auto IV,” the director creates a new yet familiar story.

Niko Belic is the titular Trashmaster, a garbageman who moonlights as a vigilante hunting down New York City’s scum. When exotic dancers at a strip club are murdered, Belic suspects a serial killer is on the loose. Events unfurl as one familiar with Hollywood actioners may suspect.

For those who wonder if machinima can be a way of subverting the meaning of video game images, “The Trashmaster” will not answer that question. (Calling the setting New York City while all the signs refer to Liberty City doesn’t count.) The extended semi-exciting shootouts and car chase are disappointingly played straight.

For those who seek brain activity-free entertainment, “The Trashmaster” delivers the garbage.

(“Superstonic Sound: The Rebel Dread” plays on February 12, 2011 at 7 PM and February 16, 2011 at 9:15 PM. “Toumast: Guitars & Kalashnikovs” plays on February 12, 2011 at 2:30 PM and February 16, 2011 at 7 PM. “The Trashmaster” plays on February 11, 2011 at 11:30 PM, February 13, 2011 at 4:45 PM, and February 17, 2011 at 7 PM. All screenings take place at the Roxie Theatre (3117 16th Street, SF). For more information on the films, go to www.sfindie.com.)

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