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Gonna Take a Cinematic Journey 

Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival offers 'round the world fare

It's time for a road trip, a journey of the mind.

Every year during the first weekend of November, the Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival brings a wide array of documentary films and filmmakers to Colorado Springs, treating the community to a first glimpse of some of the best new work by women filmmakers from the United States and abroad.

This year's films, chosen by a local screening committee from more than 400 submissions, take us to the rain forest of Surinam, the jungles of Borneo and the streets of Bombay. We travel to the stark desert of southern Utah, the former Russian republic of Georgia, then all the way back home to Denver. The scenery is vast; the scope of content is wide and the array is multi-faceted.

So fasten your seat belt. You're in for a long and fascinating ride.


First stop, Jerusalem

The most poignant, timely and politically significant film of this year's festival is Promises (106 minutes), a look at the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians through the eyes of seven children, all residents of Jerusalem. Filmmakers Justine Shapiro and B.Z. Goldberg spent almost four years filming the daily lives of Moishe, Mahmoud, Shlomo, Yarko, Daniel, Faraj and Sanabel, listening to their pointed views on the history and ongoing conflict in the region. Though the Israeli and Palestinian children live barely 20 minutes apart, the barriers separating them, including Israeli checkpoints, armed guards and ideological differences, are profound.

"We wanted to make a film that would touch people in the way that we were touched by the kids, rather than an educational film as such, just giving explanations," said Shapiro in a recent telephone interview. "What's not there in terms of product regarding the Middle East conflict is material that opens hearts."

In Promises, hearts are opened by the often brutal, sometimes funny, always provocative honesty of the children in the film. Moishe, who lives in the right-wing settlement of Beit El, hopes to be Israel's first religious Prime Minister. He has never met an Arab, but defiantly claims that when he becomes the leader of his country, he "will clear them all out of Jerusalem!" Equally defiant and unyielding is Mahmoud, a Palestinian who looks like an angelic choir boy, but whose fervent support of Hamas and Palestinian emancipation elicits such announcements as, "The more Jews we kill, the stronger the Arabs will be."

There's no escaping the conclusion that these children, as well as the more secular and moderate members of the group, repeat what they've learned from adults and learn hatred and fear from the violence they witness daily in the streets of Jerusalem.

"We didn't want to make a film that made the Middle East conflict even more confusing," said Shapiro. "A lot of people feel embarrassed not to understand the conflict better, but usually news reports start the day before with little background.

"To see the check points is unbelievable; it's more than just a bureaucratic problem. You don't really understand until you're in it. There are so many obstacles to [Israelis and Palestinians] meeting. The kids only know each other through what they see and hear on the news. The obstacles to them coming together are huge, in so many ways."

Shapiro, producer and host of the cable channel series Lonely Planet until just six months ago when she gave birth to her first child, hit upon the idea for the film while filming an episode of her travel show on the West Bank.

"We were shooting in Hebron on the West Bank," she explained. "I was very tentative about going there; it was right before Passover weekend. All my friends and relatives said, 'You're crazy. Why are you going there?' It was the first time that I had spent in the West Bank, my first time face to face with Palestinians.

"I met with young, 17-year-old men who were very educated, articulate and kind. It was striking to realize that they were not the terrorists that I had grown up believing most Palestinians to be. I met some young Palestinian girls on a beach. One of them was 13, her first time on the beach, and during the day we developed a tender friendship. I said to her, 'What's it like being in Israel for the first time?' She spat on the sand and said, 'This is not Israel, it's Palestine.' Tears filled her eyes. When I explained to her that I was a Jew, her face was washed with this sadness and confusion. She walked away and I realized I was the first Jew she had ever talked to.

"B.Z. [a former journalist who produced television news coverage of the 1987 Intifada] and I had been friends. He grew up around Jerusalem and spoke both Hebrew and Arabic. I suggested that we make this film. He had thought before about making a film with children. On our own dollar, we went there for five weeks, meeting with teachers and parents, then with their students, their kids and friends of friends. We found that there were a really bunch of interesting, articulate kids there with a lot to say. My husband, Carlos [Mexican filmmaker and co-director of Promises], cut a fundraising trailer, we raised some money for the film, then went back and filmed intensely in '97 and '98."

Promises is moving not only because of the unique concept and the timeliness of the subject matter for Western audiences, but because of the sensitivity of the filmmaking. As the children learn about one another through Polaroids and conversations with B.Z., we long for them to come together. And when a small group of them finally do, of their own initiative, the result is bittersweet.

"The terrorist attacks of September 11 magnify our misinterpretation, misunderstanding and confusion about the Arab world, Islam and the stereotypes of Muslims," said Shapiro. "One of the things I heard again and again when the latest Intifada started, was, 'It's just terrible, Oslo's down the drain, seven years down the drain.' What I really hear is ignorance about what actually happened during those so-called Oslo years. No one we met during those years, '95 to '98 when we were filming most intensely there, felt that there was peace. House demolitions continued, settlements were increasingly built, the economic situation for Palestinians declined during those years, lots of money coming in to Palestinians was diverted to [Yasser] Arafat.

"In the same vein, I hear people saying, 'How could anybody hate the United States?' There can be no justification for what [the terrorists] did, but to say there is no context for what they did is missing our opportunity to learn about the rest of the world and our role in the world."

Promises succeeds at avoiding the pitfall of sentimentality often associated with films featuring children, offering candid points of view and a level of honesty rarely seen in real life or on film.

"A lot of people asked us why we were focusing on such young kids," said Shapiro. (The children in the film were ages 8 to 10 when the filming began.) "Why not teenagers? Why not adults? We didn't choose children because they're sentimentally valuable, because they're cute. We chose them because they're very candid, they're not terribly self-conscious yet, and they haven't yet learned to censor themselves."

Promises has garnered awards from film festivals in Rotterdam, Munich, Jerusalem and San Francisco thus far, and will almost certainly be nominated for an Academy Award. It will debut on public television on Dec. 13, the fourth day of Hanukkah, as part of the POV series.


To the wilds

Disenchanted Forest (52 minutes), by writer/producer/director Sarita Siegel, documents the orangutan re-introduction project of Dr. Willie Smit and his colleague Dr. Anne Russon in the jungle of Borneo, reminding us that if things don't change, this species, so very like humans, may be extinct in a decade.

Smit and his animal patrol team have taken back some 800 orangutans that were stolen from the forest and sold in pet markets in large cities like Jakarta, Indonesia. Once returned, the animals are put through a rehabilitation program to reintroduce them to skills they've lost in the upheaval of leaving their habitat and their mothers.

Says Russon, "When we take orangutans from their habitats, we are destroying their culture." Like humans, orangutans learn all their behaviors and survival skills from family members, peers and elders in the community. Their culture is complex, and as the film demonstrates, they have powerful minds. Humans share 97 percent of their DNA with orangutans, the scientists point out, and watching the exquisitely filmed portraits of the animals, that fact becomes readily apparent. Baby orangutans resemble nothing more than a human baby, helpless and awkwardly proportioned but filled with curiosity and hope.

Painting a frightening picture of the future of the species, the filmmakers explain that in 20 years, 80 percent of orangutan habitat has been destroyed. As commercial logging and clear cutting for agriculture ravage forests and encroach on national parks and reserves, climate problems accompanied by fires and floods have exacerbated the problem.

We watch conservation efforts at Tanjung Puting National Park where some orangutans returned to the wild have adapted human habits -- they do laundry, wash dishes, brush their teeth, steal. In Dr. Smit's program they learn forest skills lost during years of captivity. Babies, separated by poachers who killed their mothers, are held by women and young girls to relieve their stress. Sadly, for every one ape that arrives, five have been killed. We're told by the caregivers that the babies cry in their sleep and often wake up screaming.

Bleak as it sounds, the film offers hope as we see some of the orangutans re-acclimate and claim their place in the wild. Exquisite filming marks the film, often raising the question of where the camera must have been placed to capture such remarkable and immediate footage shot high in the jungle canopy.

More exquisite footage shot in the rain forest of Surinam marks The Shaman's Apprentice (53 minutes), the latest in a series of films concerned with environmental issues from the team of filmmakers Miranda Smith and Abigail Wright, previous guests of the Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival. Narrator Susan Sarandon soothingly guides the viewer to this rare green place of botanical wealth, legend and lore. The film tells the story about the work of ethnobotanist Dr. Mark Plotkin, student of famed Harvard professor Richard Evans Schultes, who encouraged his protegee to go and see the people of the Amazon in their true aboriginal culture before they disappeared. In just 100 years, Sarandon tells us, 80 percent of ancient rain forests have disappeared along with their indigenous peoples, adding, "How many have died while I was speaking?"

Plotkin first visits Kwamala village in 1986 where he follows the medicine man or shaman of the remote tribe through the forest, identifying medicinal plants that provide the basis of all Western pharmacology. The forest envelopes 3 billion years of evolution, he reminds us. "We destroy it at our own peril." When the forest is removed, all that's left is sand. Putting the process of extinction into perspective, Plotkin says that for every one recognized species that goes extinct, 100 more go unrecognized.

We follow Plotkin on a working expedition some 12 years later, when signs of Western intrusion are beginning to appear in the village -- baseball caps and Western clothing replace loincloths. Plotkin hikes through the forest with the native people in the forest, identifying plants, what soils they like, which animals distribute the seeds and learning how to prepare the plant substances for medical purposes. And though he catalogs plant species and their uses scientifically, he continually points out our ignorance of the cultural importance of the shaman. "We shouldn't be so quick to denigrate that which we don't understand," he says. "The rain forest is the greatest medical school on the planet, and the guidance of the shamans is critical." Indigenous peoples, says Plotkin, are disappearing faster than the rain forest itself and with them their knowledge.

"The shaman understands things we do not," he says. "People who roam the jungle as jaguars at night are as real to them as lawyers and mortgages are to us. The most endangered species in the Amazon is the shaman himself."

That is why Plotkin initiated the Shaman's Apprentice Program, an attempt at saving thousands of years of accumulated wisdom in a culture where the young have begun assimilating Western ways, turning a blind eye to ancient knowledge. The program pays shamans a fee to transmit their knowledge and provides a stipend for students to attend a rigorous course of study. Plotkin and the filmmakers gently remind us of our ethnocentricity, urging us to remember that every culture has something to teach us, and that instead of insisting that all peoples adapt to our ways, we should be asking in what ways they can help us.


Off the beaten path

One Man, Six Wives and Twenty-nine Children (50 minutes) by British director/producer Jane Treays offers a close inside look at the lifestyle of Utah polygamist Tom Green whose face became familiar on television news last year as he awaited prosecution for having multiple wives. Inspired by the teachings of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church, the practice of polygamy is illegal in Utah despite some 50,000 practicing polygamists in the state.

Greenhaven, Green's housing compound 200 miles south of Salt Lake City, is a gray and dusty trailer park plopped in a stark desert setting, populated by his burgeoning family. Green's first wife, Linda, 14 when they married, is now 28 years old and the mother of five of his 26 children. The film opens with a startling genealogy of the family, given by the wives, illustrated by such statements as, "Tom married my mother after me," and "He was married to my older sister." Cari and Hannah, sisters, married Green within two to three weeks of each other. Linda, Shirley, June, Lee Ann, Cari and Hannah and their collection of children aged 12 and under provide a fascinating look at this unusual lifestyle, rendering it as wholesome as mom and apple pie. Just as we get to know the family, Candace, a giggly 16-year-old, is brought to Greenhaven to be Tom's new wife and the women's new sister. Evenhanded and insistent in its absence of bias, the film fascinates consistently.

In Artists and Orphans: A True Drama (44 minutes), writer/producer/director Lianne Klapper McNally takes us to the former Russian republic of Georgia following the Soviet collapse, where extreme poverty has overtaken the culturally rich country. A generation of children, it seems, are left in orphanages when their parents become homeless, are imprisoned or die. Enter Sharon Gans, director of a New York-- based performing arts troupe who brings her company to Georgia for an international arts festival. After visiting orphanages with no light or heat, Gans and company become intrigued by the Dzegvi orphanage, housed in a bombed-out former mental hospital and founded and directed by two contemporary Georgian saints.

The Westerners ask the simple question, "What can I do?" and quickly spring to action, providing light, heat, nutritious food and warm clothing to the 100-plus children housed there in a matter of five days, utilizing only $12,000 in raised funds. The key to Dzegvi's success is the director's insistence on maintaining the children's dignity, a point driven home with skill and understatement by McNally.

The declining status of eunuchs, castrated males who enter a netherworld of sexual identity in accordance with ancient Indian tradition and mythology is explored in Bombay Eunuch (72 minutes). Producer/director Alexandra Shiva gives a short history of the eunuch's traditional role in Indian society (court eunuchs rose to high positions of power), then cuts to life in contemporary Bombay among a clan of eunuchs led by Meena, mother and mentor of Amala, Baby Dancer, Shobana and others. Outcasts in contemporary society, they now make their living largely by prostitution, inviting disease and danger. "A film about gender," says the narrator, "became more a story of survival." Of the 1 million eunuchs in India, many undergo ritual total castration around age 18. Traditionally, they served a religious role singing and dancing at births and weddings, offering blessings on families. The blessing of a eunuch was thought to assure a new generation of sons, and many feared their curse. With the decline of their status in society, Meena and her minions struggle to find a place for themselves in contemporary Bombay.


Journeys of the spirit, mind and body

Three films chronicle the struggles of people with unique challenges in American society. I Remember Me (74 minutes) is producer/director Kim A. Snyder's tale of being stricken in 1994 with a mysterious illness finally diagnosed as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Physically ill and emotionally drained, Snyder did not accept the stigma surrounding CFS ("a yuppie disease," "psychosomatic," "doesn't really exist") and began investigating.

What she discovered were several documented clusters of the disease, including an outbreak in the Lake Tahoe area in 1984 and 1985 where some 300 people fell ill. A Centers for Disease Control investigation of the outbreak was termed "worthless" by a local doctor who followed many of the patients' cases. The National Institutes of Health claimed they did not have the resources to follow up, and ultimately that outbreak ended up with little more than an abundance of unanswered questions.

Snyder visits Lyndonville, N.Y. where a cluster of 27 kids with flu-like symptoms fell deathly ill and "never got better." In that case, some children were bedridden for seven years. She visits Stephen, a Connecticut boy stricken at 16, unable to feed himself or to even move for more than two years. Michelle Akers, "the best woman's soccer player in the world", tells Snyder the story of her illness and diagnosis. "I grieved over the death of Michelle Akers," she said. "I had to rewrite the script." Legendary film director Blake Edwards discusses his experience with the disease and the controversy surrounding it. And doctors weigh in on their conflicting research data. Some say the diagnosis is difficult because no laboratory abnormalities are found; others report an enormous and confusing number of laboratory abnormalities.

Perhaps most startling is Snyder's visit to Punta Gorda, Fla., where a 1956 outbreak affected a group of women, some who were sick for 15 years. Reunited, the women recall the outbreak, and the public denial of their illness dubbed "the thing" and "hysteria attack" in the media. One woman describes how her husband was advised by her doctor that she be placed in a mental institution.

In all these instances, and in another where a woman addresses her suicide note to doctors, the patients' symptoms and stories are near identical, as are their shared feelings of shame and confusion and the inadequate public response. In the United States, the film points out, CFS is diagnosed slightly more frequently than HIV in women, and is as prevalent as breast cancer and cervical cancer. Still, research is limited and the stigma remains. Snyder delivers the final blow by revealing that in 1999, a researcher at the CDC confessed to the agency's diversion of $13 million in funds dedicated to CFS to other diseases.

Filmmaker Patti Obrow White brings her film, If I Could (119 minutes), to the festival, telling the story of a Denver woman, Tracy, and her battle to save her troubled son James from being consumed by the legal system.

In 1979, White produced the television documentary "Wagon Train Trail" for CBS, the story of four so-called juvenile delinquents assigned to a character-building wagon train journey called VisionQuest. One of the participants was an angry and defiant Tracy, then 14 years old. Twenty years later she is the single mother of four children and her son James is following the familiar route of anger and defiance, in trouble and in placement since age 6. Tracy turns to VisionQuest and her mentor in recovery, father figure Bob Burton, to help with James. The film chronicles a year in their lives when James struggles to exorcise his demons and Tracy struggles to build a self-sufficient and honorable life for herself and her family.

If I Could bravely reveals, in explicit detail, the extended family's repeated patterns of abuse and documents many painful confrontations among family members. Neither Tracy's growth nor James' comes easy and the filmmaker hangs in through some harrowing circumstances.

Finally, Dwarfs: Not a Fairy Tale (53 minutes) is an uplifting look at the condition of achondroplasia, dwarfism, a genetic disorder that affects 1 in 40 births in America. Producer/director Lisa Abelow Hedley introduces us to Martha Holland, an inspirational middle-school teacher in Richmond, Va., who is barely three feet tall but has big dreams, including a dream of marriage. Through Martha's story and others, we learn that parents' support is key to the success of these small people whose courage dwarfs that of most people of "normal" stature.

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