Feeling a need to write about film and the arts again, I decided to take a break from writing personal columns. In early May I attended the 10th annual PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature in New York City, where more than 100 writers from 30 nations gathered. PEN, the oldest literary and human rights organization, was founded in London in 1921, to promote the idea that literature is global and transcends frontiers; and to act as a powerful voice in defense of writers attacked, imprisoned, and sometimes killed for their views and their works.
The Festival in New York included writers ranging from the United Kingdom’s Martin Amis and Poland’s Adam Michnik, to Adonis, an acclaimed poet who spent a year in prison in his native Syria. This year’s festival was dedicated to writers willing to raise their voices in politically charged and precarious situations in order to inspire change. As a result, its opening night program (entitled On the Edge), held in Cooper Union’s historic Great Hall, before a packed audience of mostly young writers, activists and intellectuals, saw a number of authors offer angry seven-minute soliloquies on a variety of social and political issues.
Salman Rushdie, a past PEN American Center president, eloquently denounced the "bullying intolerance" of artistic freedom that exists in a political democracy like India. He warned that the new Hindu nationalist Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, was a "highly divisive figure" and a "hard-liner’s hard-liner."
Rushdie declared that democracy is much more than majority rule. Consequently: "If freedom of expression is under attack, if religious freedom is threatened, then such a society cannot be said to be a true democracy."
Though other writers spoke passionately and often incisively on subjects as diverse as anti-Zionism and the dangers of nuclear destruction, it was Rushdie’s affirmation of artistic freedom and individual rights that left the strongest imprint. For in a world where countries like China, Burma (Myanmar) and Iran still engage in exiling or imprisoning artists, Rushdie’s talk reinforced what makes PEN such an invaluable organization by protecting the inviolability of the artist and the word.
At the end of May, I was up in the Berkshires attending the ninth annual Berkshire International Film Festival that has come of age artistically in the last few years. This year BIFF offered 75 films -- American independents, shorts, international works -- over four days, many of them first-rate. I know from years of attending film festivals that I can’t see more than two a day or I suffer from sensory overload, and the films start to blur in my mind. So this year I chose to see only four films -- three international features, and one American documentary.
The three narrative films were very different in subject and style from one another. Roman Polanski’s "Venus in Fur," which he both directed and adapted along with playwright David Ives, is a two-character chamber piece that is performance centered, literate, often witty and sometimes tedious. It centers on the shifts in power between an arrogant, stressed director and an ostensibly crude, sexy, uneducated actress, who turns out to be much more than that.
The other two features were less stylized and less literary films. Erik Poppe’s Norwegian "A Thousand Times Good Night" focuses on a famous photojournalist (Juliet Binoche) who risks death on her perilous assignments. She is also a loving mother and wife forced to make a choice between home and her moral passion/addiction for being a photojournalist in Third World trouble spots. The film doesn’t delve too deep psychologically, but contains a number of powerful, revelatory scenes.
The third film, the Slovenian "Class Enemy," deals with the conflict between a cold, intellectual high school German teacher and a core of students who rebel both against him and the institution after a fellow student commits suicide. At times over the top, but with a keen intelligence and camera eye, the film never simplifies the ambiguities involved in this intense situation. And there is something terrifying about students spiraling out of control and turning for a time into a barbaric horde.
The film that resonated with me most was Stanley Nelson’s stirring documentary, "Freedom Summer," about the 10-week period in the summer of 1964 when mostly white and some black students together with some wary black Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizers worked to register black voters in hate-filled, segregationist Mississippi. Using archival footage and photos, combined with penetrating contemporary interviews, the film captures one of the most incandescent moments in the civil rights struggle.
The conflict was truly one between the forces of light: the idealistic and innocent civil rights volunteers and the knowing, tough-minded SNCC activists (all singing "We Shall Overcome") against the forces of darkness: the respectable-looking, but utterly racist and repressive White Citizens Council and the violent, murderous Ku Klux Klan. Volunteers were killed, prospective voters coerced and terrorized, but a tortuous victory was won a year later when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, abolishing literacy tests designed to disenfranchise black voters. Of course, some Republican states today have again tried to find ways to restrict voting, but that summer was a turning point in the history of American civil rights.
I also want to recommend a book, "The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan" (Knopf). Kazan was a self-aware, intense, vivid letter writer ("I’m restive and have a big appetite") and film and stage director -- a major figure in 20th century American culture. He may have been an egomaniacal, divided character, but all Kazan’s personal and moral flaws are of less concern when one thinks of films like "On the Waterfront." It’s the art that ultimately matters most.
Leonard Quart can be reached at email@example.com