Brethern and sisteren, let us sing the praises of the unsung for a moment. Not the actors, writers, directors and producers who appear in the pages of People magazine week after week, but the movie distributors who slog away getting movies from the canister onto the screen. And, let us refine this blessing somewhat, withholding our praise for those who filled the cineplexes with Joe Mud...er...Joe Dirt last weekend and, instead, bestowing it on those such as The Shooting Gallery, recent winner of a Special Award from the New York Film Critics Circle, for their "ingenious distribution pattern as well as their choice of films." They've brought us Croupier and You Can Count on Me and now a few others, two of which I had the privilege to screen this weekend.
The first and most stunning of these is the Iranian film The Day I Became a Woman, written by Iranian film veteran Mohsen Makhmalbaf and directed by his wife, first-time director Marziyeh Meshkini. The one-hour production is really three interwoven short films (according to the director, short films are not carefully scrutinized by Iranian sensors, and thus a filmmaker can exercise a little more freedom in production). In the first, a young girl, Havva (Farsi for Eve), turns 9 years old and is, according to religious law, that very day a woman, obliged to don the chador and cease to play with boys. Realizing that her freedom is about to be taken from her, she pleads with her mother and grandmother for dispensation -- since she was not born until noon, and it is eleven a.m., surely she can use that last hour of freedom to play with her friend, the boy Hassan. They relent, and her last hour is, indeed, spent playing in the most innocent fashion, with toy fish, searching for ice cream and so forth.
The second segment follows Ahoo, a young married woman competing in a women's bicycle race. She is pursued on horseback by her husband who wants her to stop immediately, and, when she does not comply, she is further pursued by a cleric, who threatens her with imminent divorce. Then her father's family, and finally her brothers, all on horseback, try to take her freedom, and her bicycle, away.
The final segment is Hoora's, an elderly woman who has just been given an inheritance, which she spends on all the worldly goods that she has been denied her whole life -- a bedroom set, a refrigerator, a washing machine, a stove and more. Waiting for a ship to haul her back home, she has young porters set up all of the goods on the beach, and she sits in the blazing sun amidst her Western splendors.
What holds these three funny, touching and sometimes surreal stories together is an artistic identity so strong that it is positively stunning. Filmed on the Iranian island of Tish, full of desert scrub and surrounded by astounding blue water, The Day I Became a Woman radiates an intense heat and light that dramatizes each of these women's stories. Director Meshkini uses a full palate of devices to capture the essence of her protagonists' stories: Havva, for example, carries a stick with her, an ordinary twig, with which to tell time like a sundial. We watch with her as the shadow slowly disappears and with it, her girlhood. The sound of bicycle gears and tires, the panting of high-speed bicycle riding (made visually striking by the entirely black covering of the female athletes), and the threatening noises of horses' hooves approaching from behind permeates Ahoo's tale and leaves you with an aural as well as visual memory. In Hoora's segment, it is the blue, blue sea that continues to haunt you after the other images have died away. In other words, Meshkini makes use of simple yet effective narrative sound and visual devices to create a stunning and unusual film.
I don't have such raves for director/writer Jamie Thraves' first feature film, The Low Down, also distributed by Shooting Gallery, but, like The Day I Became a Woman, it has a solid aesthetic that is interesting to follow. This is the story of Frank (the gorgeous Aidan Gillen), a 20-something prop designer who is ready to move out of his shared London apartment and into a flat of his own. In the process he meets Ruby, the real-estate agent (with whom he strikes up a not-too-successful relationship), hangs out with his friends a lot, and tries to figure out where he's going next.
There's a kind of early millennial boredom to Frank and his friends that can be a little stultifying at times, but nevertheless, Thraves has a distinctive visual and narrative style that is worth experiencing. With a little more maturity, Thraves (who is apparently better known for his music videos) will be someone to watch.
With any luck at all, at least one of these fine films, or some of the other Shooting Gallery lineup, will come to Colorado Springs in the next few months and we can bless this distributor, and the cinemas who show their films, with our movie dollars.
The Low Down opens at the UA Denver Pavilions as part of its Shooting Gallery Film Series on Friday, April 20, and will play there through May 3. For more information, call 303/454-9086.