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Wednesday, 31 October 2007

The War on Democracy

When the United States talks about ‘bringing democracy to the world’, other countries have good reason to shiver with fear – especially if they happen to possess significant oil reserves. In this chilling documentary, journalist John Pilger investigates the sinister political activities of the US in South American countries like Bolivia, Venezuela and Chile. Here history tells of democratically elected governments toppled in favour of US-friendly dictatorships. It’s shocking to learn that Pinochet’s torture squads where even trained in the USA.

A lot of the material here is familiar, but Pilger puts it together in a cohesive and convincing fashion, and his interviews with swaggering ex-CIA operatives are frightening and funny at the same time. “World, get used to it!” drawls one old boy.

The film’s mood is hopeful, however, with a strong focus on recent People Power victories in Latin America, like Bolivia’s reclamation of its water resources. Topping-and-tailing the film is a somewhat adulatory interview with Venezuala’s beaming working class president, Hugo Chavez. Perhaps this was misjudged, but it’s highly entertaining and inspiring. Pilger’s evangelical style may irritate some, but his message is a timely and important one.

Rochelle Siemienowicz

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 4 Days

The winner of this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 4 Days is a grimly thrilling film about two young Romanian women trying to obtain an abortion. The film is set in 1987, in the dying days of Ceausescu’s Communist regime, when abortions are strictly forbidden, with severe jail sentences hanging over anyone who defies the State’s official ‘population increase’ policy.

But Gabita (Laura Vasilu) is a poor, single college student. She seems almost stupid with animal fright. She can’t think straight. She just needs to get rid of this growing ‘problem’. Luckily her room-mate Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) has a calm head on her shoulders – and a true loyal heart of gold.

The film begins slowly, as the two women shave their legs, argue about money, and perform complex negotiations to buy soap and cigarettes from black marketeers. If it’s this hard to get soap how hard is it going to be to book a hotel room in which to perform an illegal medical procedure? And what price will the abortionist himself (a chilling Vlad Ivanov) extract from these pretty young innocents? To complicate matters, Otilia’s boyfriend wants her to come to dinner tonight, to meet his parents for the first time. Buses must be caught in the dark, surly hotel porters evaded, and a fetus disposed of before midnight. It’s no wonder Otilia can barely force down her desert; she’s wondering if her friend is bleeding to death on the other side of the city. And when her boyfriend tries to score a quickie in the bedroom, well, it’s bad timing to say the least.

Written and directed by Cristian Mungiu (Occident), and lensed by Oleg Mutu (The Death of Mr Lazarescu), the film is a triumph of sober simplicity. Long single shots are utilised, with a colour palette that’s Soviet grey, reflecting the crumbling concrete of an oppressive State. Naturalistic acting, with the kind of short-hand dialogue that real people use, enhances the empathy we feel for these two scared girls as they inhabit their nightmare. And when it’s all over, you feel that you’ve lived it, been there, been afraid. So whatever your beliefs or feelings about abortion – or about Communism, for that matter – the success of the film lies in its ability to make us feel deeply for the plight of these women and their limited, life-threatening, essentially female choices.

Rochelle Siemienowicz

(This review first appeared in edition #290 of The Big Issue Australia, 22 October 2007)

The Brave One

When radio host Erica Bain (Jodie Foster) and her boyfriend take an evening stroll through New York’s Central Park only to end up mugged, bashed and - in the boyfriend’s case – killed, you could be forgiven for not knowing what’s next. When Erica is so scarred by the experience the only way she can feel safe is to buy a gun, things start to become a little clearer. And when she shoots a crazed gunman in a convenience store, there’s no doubt about it: you’re watching a good old-fashioned vigilante movie.

Director Neil Jordan ticks all the boxes in this gender-reversed Death Wish clone: crime rules the streets, rape-crazed gangs prowl the subways, and only one woman with a gun dares to put things right. The vigilante genre has lost some of its social relevance in these law-abiding times, but its taking-out-the-trash cliches still pack a punch and they’re well-handled here. Foster is the one who makes this straight-to-DVD material live, with a powerfully heartfelt performance that is often simply too good for the cheesy script she’s working with. And how does she get to be such a good shot?

Anthony Morris