Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, The Sun Behind the Clouds, 2009, color film, 79 minutes. Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama. Photo: Jaimie Gramston / White Crane Films.

THE NEW DOCUMENTARY The Sun Behind the Clouds (2009) crystallizes a question that increasingly besets the half-century-old Tibetan struggle for independence: Is a more militant brand of activism possible when the leader of your movement is also a universal symbol of peace? Officially adopted in the late 1980s, the Dalai Lama’s “middle way,” calling not for total independence but instead for cultural and political autonomy, has made no headway with Beijing, and seems more than ever like a dead end to many younger Tibetans.

In The Sun Behind the Clouds—a companion piece to their 2005 fiction feature Dreaming Lhasa, about a Tibetan-American documentarian working among Tibetan exiles in northern India—filmmaking couple Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin focus on the tumultuous events of 2008, a charged year for Tibet-China relations, with protests breaking out in Lhasa and a global spotlight trained on China, which had pledged to improve its human rights record in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. Using that spring’s large-scale march through India to Tibet as its backbone, the film recounts the uprising and crackdown within Tibet (with some surreptitiously shot footage) as well as the demonstrations from Free Tibet activists and counterdemonstrations from Chinese nationalists as the Olympic torch made its way around the world. The degree of access to the Dalai Lama, interviewed at length, might suggest an unquestioning hagiograpy, but the filmmakers are acutely aware—as is the Dalai Lama himself, it would seem—of his defining dilemma: the perhaps irreconcilable difficulty of being both a spiritual and a political leader.

At the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January, The Sun Behind the Clouds suddenly became a diplomatic flash point when the Chinese authorities withdrew the most critically acclaimed Chinese film of 2009, Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death, in response to the festival’s inclusion of Sonam and Sarin’s documentary. In a sly, nose-thumbing bit of metaprogramming, The Sun Behind the Clouds is playing as a late replacement at Film Forum for City of Life and Death, a chronicle of the atrocities carried out by Japanese troops at Nanjing in 1937, which was dropped from the program last month reportedly because of an unresolved deal between the producers and the American distributors.

City of Life and Death is the most high-profile of the films that have emerged around the seventieth anniversary of the massacre at Nanjing: The American documentary Nanking opened in 2007; the German-produced John Rabe, about the German businessman (a figure in City of Life and Death) who created a safety zone for civilians, is due in American theaters this spring. With his sober, harrowing, black-and-white war epic, Lu has given the Rape of Nanking, which the author Iris Chang termed “the forgotten Holocaust of World War II,” its own Schindler’s List (spiked with, in the clipped opening battle scenes, bits of Saving Private Ryan). Lu is a little less sentimental than Spielberg, and just about as accomplished a technician; while his movie induces some familiar unease around the representation of atrocity—the simplification of genocide and the fog of war to melodramatic plot points and stark moral conundrums—there is also a relative discretion and a haunting clarity to the filmmaking, especially in the largely wordless first act.

Lu, whose previous film was the Tibetan neo-Western Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, has stated that his goal is objectivity, which he sets out to accomplish mainly by making City of Life and Death an ensemble piece. The characters include a variety of heroic and not-so-heroic locals—a resistance fighter (Liu Ye), a teacher-turned-protector (Gao Yuanyuan), a traitor who redeems himself (Fan Wei)—as well as a Japanese soldier (Hideo Nakaizumi), who is both perpetrator and, gradually, horrified witness. This is a clear break from previous Chinese films about Nanjing, which have insisted on the monolithic evil of the Japanese, but it can also be taken as a reflection of the shifting relationship between China and its increasingly important trade partner Japan. (City of Life and Death went through a painstaking, and by all accounts minimally invasive, approval and censorship process.) While there’s room for argument over whether the film’s attempts at balance are bold and responsible or cynical and schematic, some Chinese apparently find Lu’s approach nothing short of treasonous: He has received death threats from those enraged by what they consider an unduly sympathetic portrayal of the Japanese aggressors.

Political maneuvering has created an unfair association between City of Life and Death (which for now still has no US distributor) and The Sun Behind the Clouds, but there are some links worth pondering here: one film in which China is portrayed as a victimizer and another in which it is portrayed as a victim, both in their own way fuel for the ever-burning fire of Chinese nationalism.

Dennis Lim

The Sun Behind the Clouds plays March 31–April 13 at Film Forum in New York. The filmmakers will be present at several of the screenings. For more details, click here.

Anne Bass, Dancing Across Borders, 2009, color film, 88 minutes. Production stills. Left: Sokvannara “Sy” Sar at the International Ballet Competition in Varna. Right: Sokvannara “Sy” Sar performing at the International Ballet Competition in Varna. Photo: Stoyan Lefedzhiev

IN 2000, American dance patron and philanthropist Anne Bass spotted a Cambodian teenager perform in a classical Khmer dance recital in Angkor. Impressed by his grace and charisma, Bass spirited the kid—Sokvannara “Sy” Sar, then sixteen years old—to Manhattan to study at the School of American Ballet. Thus begins Dancing Across Borders (2009), Bass’s documentary about Sar’s arduous progress and uneasy assimilation into the role nominated for him: a ballet prodigy, modeled after Rudolf Nureyev’s unconventional rise. (Nureyev, too, began his ballet training in his late teens.)

Undeterred by frustrations during Sar's first SAB audition (he is judged too old, too untutored, and too monolingual), Bass engages Olga Kostritzky, the founder of the school’s boys’ division, for Sar’s private instruction. Three months later, he enrolls in the school and, after another six years, is promoted to the corps of the Pacific Northwest Ballet. In the interim, he struggles with his technique, with alienation and estrangement, and with an ambivalence toward his place in ballet—an ambivalence that is certainly his alone. He also turns out splendid performances, many of which feature in Dancing Across Borders—alongside interviews with such ballet notables as Jock Soto and Peter Boal, and sessions documenting his dazzling apprenticeship under Kostritzky, initially intended as video reports to Sar’s parents. These videos record the maturation of an astonishing gift as well as the theft of a youth’s sense of belonging. Midfilm, we follow Sar back to Cambodia, where he performs solos from Le Corsaire and “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux” before a bewildered audience that includes his parents, to whom his talent is both unmistakable and incomprehensible. At such moments, Sar seems to embody the absolute subjection required by genius—even when the genius is actuated by someone else’s conviction. Yet if Dancing Across Borders is Bass’s dream, it remains Sar’s extraordinary movement, grace, and leap of faith.

Joanna Fiduccia

Dancing Across Borders plays through April 1 at the Quad Cinema in New York. For more details, click here. For details on future screenings, see the film’s website here.

Abbas Kiarostami, Close-Up, 1990, still from a color film in 35 mm, 100 minutes.

“A TRUE ARTIST is someone who is close to the people,” says Hossein Sabzian, whose trial for impersonating the filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf is the subject of Abbas Kiarostami’s documentary-cum–neorealist drama Close-Up (1990). This common enough sentiment resonates in Close-Up as a bold thesis for a cinema that is not merely populist but thoroughly and originally democratic.

Newly divorced and, like a quarter of Iranians in 1990, chronically unemployed, Sabzian lives only for cinema. He adopts the identity of his hero, Makhmalbaf, out of a need for self-worth. His victims—the middle-class Ahankhah family, whose overeducated and underemployed sons Sabzian promises will star in his next vérité film—likewise take comfort in imagining their banal sufferings as the stuff of Art. Close-Up realizes their shared dreams, albeit differently than they had envisioned: After Sabzian was released from prison, Kiarostami had the two parties reenact their ill-fated charade for his camera. These beautifully-shot reenactments are so seamlessly mixed with documentary footage that, on first viewing, it can be impossible to tell what is staged and what is not, especially once it becomes apparent that the “documentary” sections themselves are not without elements of creative distortion.

The confusion of aesthetic forms doubles the confusion of social hierarchies, of law and morality, truth and deceit, and art and life. Yet the audience never feels stranded in a mire of postmodern uncertainty. Lighthearted and entertaining throughout, Close-Up is cinema as reconciliation—human reconciliation as well as the reconciliation of incongruous realities. The making of the film is an act of forgiveness: The reenactments bring together culprit and victims to negotiate their differences outside the epistemology of the courtroom. Class antagonists come together as artistic collaborators in an assertion of their equality as creative beings—homo aestheticus—that in turn provides the impetus for interrogating and critiquing social inequalities. When Makhmalbaf makes his inevitable appearance at the film’s conclusion, his figure threatening to impose order on the film’s messy social and aesthetic egalitarianism, a (supposed) equipment malfunction mutes the conversation between the great director and his doppleganger, leaving the audience to imagine what is said. With this sublime, culminating gesture, Close-Up hands it off to the audience to continue the elusive hunt for truth.

Patrick Harrison

Close-Up plays March 26–April 1 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.

Trust Issues


Laura Poitras, The Oath, 2010, still from a color film, 90 minutes.

THERE’S NO OPPORTUNITY for the viewer to position himself comfortably in The Oath. Like many of the best documentaries, Laura Poitras’s film places the audience in an ambiguous and untenable relationship with the movie’s subjects, particularly its central figure, Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguard and current Sanaa-based cab driver Abu Jandal. Drawing on a diverse array of footage, Poitras presents the sly and charismatic Jandal through direct interviews, television appearances with both the American and Arab press, footage the filmmaker shot of Jandal interacting with his son or meeting with young followers, material gleaned from a semihidden camera in his cab, and the words of his testimony before the FBI following 9/11.

Jandal emerges as both a captivating figure and a difficult one to come to grips with. A likable man, struggling to earn a living to take care of his young son while wracked with self-doubt, he’s given up his terrorist past, but his level of commitment to the jihadist cause remains uncertain. With minimal direct authorial interference and a seemingly passive role in interviewing her subject, Poitras lets Jandal shape his own image, and the fascination lies in the moments when that ever-cautious man lets on more than he perhaps intends. In a discussion with a young associate, he argues that 9/11 (which he had no involvement with and officially condemns) was a success, while on Arabic TV, he’s placed in a tight spot when asked whether his loyalty oath to bin Laden still holds.

A counterpoint to Jandal’s segments is the slightly less ambiguous narrative of his brother-in-law Salim Hamdan, a Guantánamo detainee: Upon winning a Supreme Court case granting his freedom, Hamdan was immediately arrested under a freshly created law. Seen only in grainy footage of his 2001 arrest, Hamdan’s story is told through his letters, his defense council’s passionate news-conference exhortations, and Jandal’s words. While it’s easy for the viewer to side with Hamdan, his level of involvement in Al Qaeda remains unclear, with his brother-in-law suggesting that he may have been more than the simple paid employee his lawyer claims he was. It’s this constant uncertainty as to the nature of truth—compounded by Poitras’s dense web of material and her strategic withholding of information—that gives the film its dizzying charge and serves as a welcome antidote to the damaging simplicity of the official us-versus-them narrative.

Andrew Schenker

Part of the annual New Directors/New Films festival, The Oath plays Friday, March 26 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Sunday, March 28 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For more details on the festival, which runs Wednesday, March 24–Sunday, April 4, click here.

Noah Baumbach, Greenberg, 2010, color film in 35 mm, 107 minutes. Production still. Photo: Wilson Webb. Roger Greenberg and Florence Marr (Ben Stiller and Greta Gerwig).

ROGER GREENBERG (Ben Stiller), like the hyperarticulate, acid-tongued narcissists who precede him in writer-director Noah Baumbach’s oeuvre—Bernard Berkman in The Squid and the Whale (2005), Margot in Margot at the Wedding (2007)—repels and attracts. Recovering from a crackup, the forty-one-year-old sometime carpenter, vowing to “do nothing” for a while, arrives in Los Angeles from New York to house-sit for his wealthy brother, Phillip, on vacation with his family in Vietnam. Frequently bedecked in a Steve Winwood T-shirt, the resolutely Gen-X Greenberg reminisces with his pal Ivan (Rhys Ifans), a former bandmate now struggling to keep his family together; writes angry letters to Starbucks, Hollywood Pet Taxi, and Mayor Bloomberg; and commences a dizzyingly passive-aggressive courtship with Florence (Greta Gerwig), Phillip’s twentysomething personal assistant.

“Hurt people hurt people,” according to one of the pop-psych bromides uttered more than once in Greenberg—its banality later revealed to have resonance even for Stiller’s bilious, cranky know-it-all. Baumbach’s fifth feature, unlike Margot at the Wedding, does more than just marvel at the noxious cruelty of its protagonist; Greenberg, though self-absorbed and self-pitying, shows the faintest signs of kindness and compassion when he’s with Florence. Her task isn’t to redeem him but to make him realize when he’s behaving outrageously.

Stiller may have the title role—and gives one of the best performances of his career—but Gerwig, awkwardly radiant, serves as the movie’s emotional ballast. Best known for her roles in mumblecore films like Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) and Nights and Weekends (2008), Gerwig opens Greenberg driving down Sunset Boulevard as the Steve Miller Band’s “Jet Airliner” plays on the sound track—a moment of casual ebullience similar to the scene of Gary Lockwood tooling around LA in his MG in Jacques Demy’s Model Shop (1969), which, like Greenberg, is its director’s first film set in Los Angeles. While Greenberg offers the satisfaction of seeing Stiller’s stardom being tweaked, it provides the greater pleasure of witnessing Gerwig’s stardom on the rise.

Melissa Anderson

Greenberg opens March 19 in New York and Los Angeles.

Left: Andrei Tarkovsky, Solaris, 1972, still from a color film in 35 mm, 167 minutes. Right: Andrei Tarkovsky, Andrei Rublev, 1966, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 205 minutes.

WHEN INGMAR BERGMAN said of Andrei Tarkovsky that he had invented a cinematic idiom “true to the nature of film,” what did he mean? Of course, the “true” nature of cinematic language itself remains—quite rightly—the subject of sharp, perennial debate in film theory. At the very least, Tarkovsky’s body of work can be said—in just seven examples—to have informed those polemics with compelling purpose. The Anthology Film Archives’ “Tarkovsky X 3” program presents three films at the core of the director’s (already compact) oeuvre—a primer of sorts to his best-known feature-length films.

In both its religious subject matter and its thinly veiled paean to artistic freedom, Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, Andrei Rublev, tested the boundaries of Brezhnev-era aesthetic imperatives. Notorious problems plagued the film’s production; it went through several edits and various iterations before finally being screened in the Soviet Union in 1971 (a different version won a prize at Cannes two years earlier, as, in turn, would Solaris [1972]). Yet despite Tarkovsky’s embattled dodging of Soviet censors, he is perhaps not the consummate countercultural dissident that Western critics or historians might make of him (especially given the increasing shortage of “subversive” Soviet cinema since the fall of the iron curtain). As the art historian Matthew Jesse Jackson recently noted in his volume on Moscow Conceptualism, Tarkovsky enjoyed decided approval among the Soviet intelligentsia. Imbued with a mystical and somewhat wistful melancholy, Tarkovsky’s immersive long takes often match in style his films’ absorptive thematics. That absorption is not, to be sure, solely the domain of medieval archaisms, as in Andrei Rublev; one of the most notable scenes in Solaris—the more cerebral Soviet answer to American science fiction—is a highway drive, by turns hypnotic and anxious (with a nervous sound track to boot). The Mirror (1975) renounces a strict narrative for more paratactic, personal evocations, loosely stitched in a kind of cinematic stream of consciousness.

Tarkovsky’s subsequent collaboration with Tonino Guerra, as well as his marked influence on directors such as Sergei Paradjanov, naturally remain outside the parameters of this tight program. But the range of his subjects and narrative approach in even these three works betray the unflinching cinematographic sensibility—with equal attention to the autonomy of images and the rhythmic momentum of narrative—for which Tarkovsky remains a legend.

Ara H. Merjian

“Tarkovsky X 3” runs March 19–21 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. For more details, click here.