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VIFF picks: García Bernal in NO, Monsanto in Bitter Seeds

Gael García Bernal revives Chilean history in NO, one of today’s VIFF picks

Two dramas with substance look good today, as well as three documentaries.  If that’s not enough check out the Chinese “western” called Camel Caravan that's playing again today. I recommended it last time. See  below, under More New Movies .  

NO: I happened to be sitting beside a couple originally from Chile when this screened the first time last week.  I figured that out from the many times they were chuckling and they told me afterwards that, yes, they were Chilean, and were laughing with both recognition and nostalgia. They were still in Chile 24 years ago when this story took place and they said the film tells it absolutely authentically.

The event was the 1988 referendum on the rule of dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet. People were asked to vote “Yes” to let him serve another term or “No” to end his rule. The campaign centered on a daily half hour TV show that all stations had to carry. Each side got 15 minutes  to make their case. “Yes” was selling “a system where anyone can be rich. Careful. Not everyone -- anyone.”

Gael García Bernal plays an ad man recruited to shape the “No” campaign. He argues they can’t win with the usual lectures about the coup, smashed human rights and the “disappeared” and says their campaign should sell “happiness”. There are smart and subtle debates about people and politics and many clips from the actual TV shows. Some of those are very funny because the two sides got into an advertising duel. It’s a case study of TV and the political process.  Bernal is excellent as the fictional but creative advertising man.  (Also screens Thursday). 

LORE: This looks to be one of the more interesting films screening today.  It was made by an Australian (Cate Shortland) in Germany about the reaction and suffering of ordinary people there after World War 2.

Lore (short for Hanalore) is the teenage daughter of an SS Officer. She is left alone with four siblings and leads them across the defeated and war-torn country, trying to get to her grandmother’s house.  She has to make her way through rubble and avoid capture by American soldiers.  When a young boy attaches himself to her group she recognizes him as Jewish, someone she’s been taught to hate. The film has played well at other festivals.     

The three documentaries …

BITTER SEEDS: Ah, yes, Monsanto again. They got India opened up to their genetically modified seeds and now farmers are committing suicide. Local hucksters sell them these seeds with the promise of better yields and less damage from pests. They downplay the problems.  More fertilizer has to be applied and the cotton plants are safe from only a few designated pests. Farmers have to buy seeds every year and can be wiped out by drought or too much rain. Shame drives many to suicide.

The film tells its story through stories from the villages. It isn’t anti-Monsanto. Their products, it says, work in large industrialized agriculture but prove destabilizing on India’s small farms. This documentary gets right into the farm houses, village shops, offices and meetings to tell an angry story. And it tells much of of it through the slowly deepening troubles of one farmer who has to turn to the money lenders to buy pesticide. (Screens Monday and Tuesday).      

HEART OF SKY, HEART OF EARTH: For about the first two thirds this film lays out the cosmology of the Mayans. Some will find it slow; I think it’s leisurely and deliberate in outlining their close association to the natural world, their creation stories and the central role in their life of trees. It reminds me quite a bit of the Na'vi people in Avatar. Trees hold up the stars, the Mayan legends say.  When a tree falls, so does a star.


People lived close to nature. They had no cancer or diabetes. Then the Spaniards came, looking for gold, pushing them off the best land and trying to exterminate them.  Various speakers from Mexico and Guatemala tell us that history and then, suddenly the film gives us a modern equivalent to the Spanish invasion—a Canadian-owned gold mine that’s tearing up the land. Lines of truck drive into a giant open pit mine. Half a mountain has been carried away.  The contrast to what we’ve seen before is shattering. This is a strong documentary that also gets into the threats to the Mayans’ corn agriculture and their belief that a civilization is about to crumble. It’s worth a listen.  (Screens Monday and Wednesday)

IN SEARCH OF BLIND JOE DEATH: No you won’t find that guy. You will find John Fahey who long ago in a brief burst of comic humor, recorded under that name.  It was a nod to the old bluesmen.  He had mastered their guitar styles, added his own spin (even pioneering the idea of releasing his music through his own record company)  and later drifted into a variety of other musical genres, New Orleans funk, jazz, Brazilian, bluegrass, classical, even “gothic industrial”.  This documentary by James Cullingham, York University academic and formed CBC radio producer, is a treat for Fahey fans.  We get his early sunny days, his wide influence, attested to in this film by Pete Townshend and others, and later the discovery of psychological problems that made him scared of everybody.  He died 11 years ago but appears in clips from various times in his career, always displaying his dry wit.  (Screens Monday, Thursday and Friday)



More in New Movies

Disney wildlife times two, a blast at American politics and a traumatic teen drama

Also a couple of small but amiable comedies, one of them Canadian

More streaming ideas take you to Brazil, low-life China and two Jesse Eisenberg films

As well as a cleverly-plotted trip to Barcelona thanks to Netflix

Movie theatres are shut down, so what’s streaming?

Some modest recommendations and stay for the last one, an alarm about what has happened to the internet.
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