Monday, January 23, 2006

Machuca-filmmaking at its most powerful

Maine is fortunate to have a handful of movie theaters that dare to book films that push the envelope on cinema and more often than not, make you think. Even better is when they show a movie that captures the power to transform and stretch your understanding—something that great filmmaking is intended to do.

The Railroad Square Cinema, in Waterville, is a theater that courageously provides a regular dose of cutting-edge and sometimes controversial movies, for movie-goers who want something more than the standard Hollywood pap and pabulum.

Since 1998, Waterville and the Railroad Square have been home to the Maine Independent Film Festival (MIFF). Each July, for 10 days, Maine is transformed into a backwoods Cannes, showing upwards of 90 to 100 movies over that span.

Again this winter, MIFF is teaming up with the Railroad Square Cinema and running MIFF in the Morning, with 10 A. M. movies every other Saturday and Sunday, from January, until mid-March. Thus far, my wife, Mary, and I, have trekked an hour north to Waterville and have viewed two very powerful movies. The first week, we saw Sir! No Sir! David Zeiger’s documentary chronicling the real frontline dissent of soldiers during the Vietnam war.

Sunday, we were back in Waterville, for a treat of a film, and a rarity for those of us who live outside of the major metropolitan centers of the country.

Machuca, released in 2004, is a coming-of-age film about two young Chilean boys, set against the political upheaval in the country during the days leading up to September 11, 1973, when a military junta toppled Salvador Allende’s democratically elected government (with the CIA firmly supporting the military operation that toppled his democratically-elected administration). The film offers the juxtaposition of the two disparate worlds occupied by these 11-year-old boys. Gonzalo is from a well-to-do family living in an upscale section of Santiago. Gonzalo attends a private, Catholic school, run by Father McEnroe, a man set on toppling the social caste system in his school. With a plan to allow local boys from poor families to attend, Gonzalo is brought face-to-face with Pedro Machuca, a young man who lives in the city’s shantytown. These poor students are the children of servants and laborers, many of whom provide services and cheap labor for the parents of the wealthier families of most students.

The film captures the very real class divisions existing in 1970s Chilean society, in a way that most Hollywood films rarely or ever attempt to recognize. Both boys, as they develop a friendship, are constantly brought up against the reality of the two different worlds that they inhabit. Despite their best intentions, the story unfolds and the underlying political upheaval brings their friendship to the breaking point. The film pulses with a heartbeat and vitality that draws you into the story and captures your heart, as well as your mind.

Seeing both this film, and reading Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, has heightened my own awareness of just how little I know about other cultures, such as Afghanistan, and the geopolitical details of events in Chile and other areas of the world, often orchestrated by the U.S. government and agencies such as the CIA. This lack of knowledge isn’t so much about a willful ignorance of facts and geography. I, like most other Americans, are victims of the U.S. education system. We all were fed a steady diet of lies and half truths since we began school at the age of five or six. Unfortunately, the lies don’t stop when you leave school.

One of the points that this movie drives home, and similarly, Hosseini’s book, is that our public school years are less about learning and knowledge and much more about indoctrination and patriotic window dressing. That’s why it’s so difficult to break through the fog of many Americans, who seem intent on waving the flag and irrationally championing U.S. superiority in the world. Their positions aren’t grounded in fact or reality, but rather, are wholly products of a fiction populated by jingoistic propaganda.

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