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The Short Life of José Antonio Gutierrez

The Mill Valley Film Festival is half over, but you still have an opportunity to catch several good movies. I'm waking from my slumber, somewhat tardy since the festival started Thursday, because there's one film in particular that I want to recommend, and there are still two chances to see it if you live in the Bay Area. Even if the tickets sell out, you can show up at the theater an hour or so before the movie and stand in the rush line. In most cases, your chances of getting in are pretty good.

But first some overall flavor. My favorite thing about the Mill Valley Film Festival is the small-town feeling you get from the employees, volunteers, and attendees. After the push and shove of larger festivals, the easier pace of a festival nestled in redwoods is a nice change of pace. And the programmers usually manage to program more than a handful of gems. The trick is to find them.

On the other hand, for such a small festival, MVFF always feels a little too propped up by middlebrow Hollywood fare. This year alone sees at least seven major studio films in the lineup, each one scheduled to receive a wide national release in just a few weeks: The Queen, Catch a Fire, A Good Year, Breaking and Entering, The Last King of Scotland, Babel, and Little Children.

Forest Whitaker of The Last King of Scotland and Juliette Binoche of Breaking and Entering appeared together last year in Abel Ferrara's Mary, although I'm not sure they actually shared any scenes.
Quick impressions: The Queen is thoroughly absorbing, and I'd never given the British royalty five minutes of thought before this film. (I'm often asked for my impression of the queen.) Babel is the first of Alejandro González Iñárritu's films in which the characters outweigh the structural ingenuity. (I'm often asked about the weight of structural ingenuity. Answer: heavy.) And Catch a Fire is a well-intentioned but somewhat simplistic examination of terrorism and activism and the circumstances that can lead to either. (Discuss?) Breaking and Entering and The Last King of Scotland both feature some great performances, which is probably faint praise relative to the films' ambitions; the first is a bland, silly, and inconsequential soap opera and the second is a tense spectacle whose grainy, caught-on-film appearance, energetic pace, and riveting performance by Forest Whitaker make it highly watchable, even when things get grizzly, but the movie as a whole is not particularly revealing. All five of these films are better than Ridley Scott's Russell Crowe vehicle A Good Year which is terrible for so many reasons I won't go into them here. I haven't yet seen Little Children, but I thought Todd Field's previous movie, In the Bedroom, was pretty good, so I'm looking forward to this one.


But really, I wouldn't waste a festival slot on any of the big movies if I were you. Here's what I'd see instead:

The Short Life of José Antonio Gutierrez

One of my favorite documentaries of the year is so timely that I'm saddened to learn that it still hasn't been widely distributed in the States since I saw it in January, even though it seems to fill a void in the public debate. Did you know that the first US soldier killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom was not an American citizen at all but an immigrant from Guatemala? Heidi Specogna's wonderful film tells the story of that soldier and how he found his way from the streets of Guatemala to a battlefield in the Middle East, and while it's a conventional documentary in many ways, the film's brilliance is in the way it artfully blends the particular and the general. Gutierrez is one of many people who've followed a similar but less celebrated arc, so telling his story sheds light on countless others that remain untold, and yet at no time does Specogna coerce the details of his life into symbolism. And notice what she does with the parts of his journey that weren't captured on video: she shows us other people who are in similar straits, people planning to slip across the southern border of the United States as the last best hope for helping their families. So: the general story fills out the particular story as much as the particular fills out the general.

This movie is not about the Iraq war. This movie is to some degree about immigration, and homelessness, and determination. But mostly this film is about a young man named José Antonio Gutierrez who was ambitious and loved, who was brought down before his potential was realized, and who lived his short life in the blind spot of a socioeconomic system that functions — if we can say that it functions — because of his sacrifice. No shallow tribute, Specogna's film explores a politically charged topic with honesty and respect for the life at the center. It's a great film, and if you're in the Bay Area you have a chance to see it. As of this writing, tickets are still available for both screenings. Even if they sell out, you can arrive early and wait in the rush line.

Update: 12 October 2006

If you don't want to take my word for it, here's David D'Arcy writing a Park City Dispatch for GreenCine back in January:

Another look at a life taken away from a young man is The Short Life of José Antonio Gutierrez, a documentary by the Swiss filmmaker Heidi Specogna. José Antonio Gutierrez was a Guatemalan immigrant and a marine who became the first American to die in the war in Iraq in March 2003. When his body came back, the motivational official story came out from the Bush administration that Gutierrez fought adversity to be an American, and that he died giving something to his country.

From this film we get the real story from those who knew Gutierrez.
Several people have told me that they think The Short Life of José Antonio Gutierrez is the best film of the festival [Sundance 2006]. It's surely one of the best. Heidi Specogna has reconstructed an inconspicuous life, the kind of life that used to be called "minor," without a single interview with Gutierrez, few records, and the recollections of those who knew him.

God Grew Tired of Us

This crowd-pleasing Sundance winner is also a story of boys coming to the US, but this time as invited guests who are given the gift of shelter, freedom, and opportunity. The so-called "lost boys of Sudan" traveled on foot to Ethiopia to save their necks from a government that ordered them to be killed, and this documentary follows a few of them who were then brought to the US by an aid organization. These guys had never used electricity before, and we get to watch their first impressions of a jet airliner, an American grocery store, an apartment and its exotic kitchen, but we also get to see what happens when the initial excitement fades into depression and feelings of isolation. It's always interesting to glimpse your own world through fresh eyes; when the lights came up at the end of the film, everyone in the theater where I saw it was sniffling, and the woman next to me said, "What a privilege it was to see that." I know what she means. I called my mother, who has taught English as a Second Language for many years and who has seen many such stories first hand, to tell her about the movie. For whatever reason, I don't often see films that I think would be a slam dunk for my mom, but this is one of them. The form is nothing to call home about, and it has the style and themes that appear regularly on PBS, but the story simply transcends — or lives within? — the familiar conventions.

Something Like Happiness

A beautifully understated film, true to its name, Something Like Happiness is linked in my mind to the gentle drama Since Otar Left, probably because they're both tales of extended families that are going through a period of change, each family looking for the elusive sense of satisfaction and each film steadfastly determined to avoid a false ending. It's a movie of nods and smiles and genuine warmth.

And A Few Potentials

In a Sundance overview for Paste earlier this year I mentioned that every festival ends with a list of regretfully missed films, and for me they were Old Joy and Wristcutters: A Love Story, two films that came recommended by friends and cab drivers, but too late. I've since caught up with Old Joy — which was well worth the wait, but more on that when it arrives in theaters in San Francisco in a couple of weeks — and now I hope to catch Wristcutters at MVFF. If I'd known that Tom Waits was in Wristcutters, I'd have tried harder to see it before now. Also, The Trials of Daryl Hunt has strong word-of-mouth. In fact, the documentaries at MVFF are particularly strong, a refrain that seems to describe many festivals over the last couple of years, which speaks highly of the current state of documentary filmmaking.

A few movies that I missed in Toronto but have high hopes for: Ten Canoes is an Australian film from the guy who directed The Tracker; The Journals of Knud Rasmussen is from the director of Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner — see Filmbrain's review; The Host is a popular Korean horror film, although there will be ample opportunities to see this later; and J. Robert Parks likes Chronicle of an Escape.

Not Quite Recommendations

And now some movies I wish I could recommend, really truly wanted to recommend, but can't without major reservations:

Summer Palace

Lou Ye's confounding epic begins just before a young woman moves to Beijing for college and plunges quickly into the whirlwind that is her freshman year. For a while, it's a virtuoso display reminiscent of Bertolucci's The Dreamers and Garrel's Regular Lovers, with the 1968 riots in Paris replaced with the 1989 march on Tiananmen Square. The college scenes have a mesmerizing sense of time and place thanks to a loose, disorienting editing rhythm — very different from the disorientation-by-slow-precision of Lou's previous film Purple Butterfly — and enhanced by intriguing sound design that lets the noises of the riot drape over the lovers in their dorm room, the aural equivalent of the brick thrown through the apartment window waking Bertolucci's navel-gazers. But the film goes seriously off the rails when it starts skittering through the never-ending post-college years. If you know what you'll be up against, there are some fascinating elements here, plus more sex than any previous film from mainland China, maybe more than all of them combined. Lou is a troublemaker, for sure, which I can certainly appreciate. Unfortunately, Summer Palace is an intermittently exciting but largely flaccid jumble.


Much of this film is right up my alley. An outsider travels to a small village in Peru that is strange and beautiful and steeped in ritual. The town is also a prison of sorts for some of its younger residents, especially a young woman named Madeinusa. Is that her given name? Or did she take it from a t-shirt tag on the spur of the moment when asked by the foreigner, a token from another world, a place where she could start over as someone else? I love the setup, but the film eventually drifts into wild histrionics, reveling in its exoticism and bluntly pounding themes that should be poignant. It leaves me cold, even though the images of the town's fair — the brief "holy time" when God is dead and sees no sins — linger for some time, especially the old man who sits stoic amid the revelry because he's in charge of the all-important timepiece at the center of town, the designated clockwatcher.

Black Gold

We're so removed from the sources of our food and beverages that any pictures exposing the chain are beneficial. Still, this documentary about coffee production in Ethiopia is great at raising the questions — why can't farmers who grow one of the world's most popular crops earn a living, even by Ethiopian standards? — but it's frustratingly weak at connecting the dots from the farm to the local Starbucks. The film holds the "fair trade" system up as a goal, but it not only fails to make the case, it doesn't even define the term.

12:08 East of Bucharest

Soon I will post my review of The Queen, and Errata will turn up in Google whenever someone searches for The Queen Mary. I will reap the obvious and substantial rewards that stem from a magical sidebar. This sort of thing takes planning. I won't normally alert you to these synergies because they will be numerous. Fifteen months of planning, after all.
A late addition to the schedule, and as of today I believe you may already have missed the one screening, but you haven't missed much. I'm intrigued by the idea. The people of a small town in Romania aren't quite sure if they had a revolution in 1989, meaning: did the people there demand the overthrow of Romania's Communist government or did they merely take to the streets in celebration after it had fallen? The answer hinges on who was where, and when. It's a lovely conceit, more about pride and intentions than politics. The scenes at the beginning and end of the film, which show the town waking up and going back to sleep, are still and pretty — in a film's opening minutes, I'm always ready for it to be great — but the flat characters spend the last half hour of this 89-minute farce in a parody of a local talk show that feels forced and repetitious, completely out of tune with the film's bookends.


My wife, who is always interested in films about painters, says that Orozco is a basic talking head documentary. She suggests waiting for it to appear at that refuge of TV-level nonfiction films, PBS's POV. (Just guessing.)

And don't forget your shorts. The Mill Valley Film Festival offers a different shorts program every day called 5@5 that will set you back a mere 5 bucks. I haven't seen any of them, but take a chance, won't you?

Posted by davis | Link
Reader Comments
October 17, 2006, 04:19 PM

How absolutely delightful to see you back and in prime form, Rob! I'm just catching up on coverage after being away from San Francisco for the last week. I was scheduled to catch "The Short Life of José Antonio Gutierrez" and--due to a family medical emergency--was unable to attend, but heard it was devastating, which your review seems to confirm. I'm pleased to see that it's screenign as part of the 10th International Latino Film Festival, though unfortunately a dvd projection at Galeria de la Raza.

I, too, much enjoyed "Something Like Happiness", which Acquarello recommended to me, and for which I'm most grateful. I have as yet to write it up. Never enough time.

Tom Waits, in my estimation, was the best aspect of "Wristcutters", which though interesting, left me dissatisfied for being contrived and ultimately forced.

I don't quite agree on "Madeinusa", though I've no doubt your reaction will be that of most. It ended up being one of my favorites for the festival, though I wish I'd had the opportunity to see it projected; I saw it on screener.

Glad to see Errata up and running again!

October 17, 2006, 07:19 PM

Hi Michael. Sorry you had to miss The Short Life..., but I'm glad to hear that it's going to pop up at the Latino fest. I wish I'd had this clunker of a site rolling a bit sooner so I could trumpet the movie more loudly.

I agree with you on Wristcutters. It was enjoyable, but it hasn't really crossed my mind since I left the theater. Waits is always fun, and something about it — the desert locale or the floating objects or the oddball characters — reminded me a little of Kusturica's Arizona Dream, but I haven't seen it in ages. I also get the feeling the director has spent some time with Stranger Than Paradise and Garden State — I could have done with more of the former and less of the latter. Oh well.

Honestly, at a festival like MVFF I'd rather take in the modest pleasures of Madeinusa than bother with the big movies that'll end up at the Loews or AMC or Century, so I don't think we're very far apart on that one. I was with it for a long time.

Thanks for dropping by.

November 2, 2006, 12:39 PM

Dissenting opinions on Madeinusa:

The Evening Class (Michael's)
Strictly Film School (Acquarello's)