Thursday, April 1, 2010

2010 Tiburon International Film Festival

I was able to see four programs at the recently concluded Tiburon International Film Festival. The festival ran March 18 to 26 The four features I saw were:

Welcome to North Korea!; documentary; Czech & Korean with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
The Most Secret Place on Earth – The CIA’s Covert War in Laos; documentary; (2008)
Frog; Japanese with subtitles; (2009)
The Red Baron starring Joseph Fiennes, Lena Headey, Matthias Schweighöfer & Til Schweiger; (2008) - Official Website

I saw two short films.

The Last Bogatyr; Russian with subtitles; 17 minutes; (2009)
Voice on the Line; 7 minutes; (2010)

The Last Bogatyr preceded Welcome to North Korea! and Voice on the Line preceded The Most Secret Place on Earth – The CIA’s Covert War in Laos.


The first film I watched, Welcome to North Korea!, was the most satisfying. It followed a group of Czech tourists as they go on a sightseeing tour of North Korea. Why would anyone want to sightsee in North Korea? In this case, the Czechs have recent experience in living under totalitarian regimes so there is a certain simpatico with the North Koreans. For me, it was interesting to note how the older members of the tour group recognized the propaganda and subtle intimidation techniques while the younger people were harshly criticial of what they saw. For such a repressive regime (and I truly believe it is), it is interesting that they allowed the tourists into the country much less that they allowed them film they travels around the country. Shepherded around the country by a pair of diffident tour guides, the group observes how the wide roads are devoid of vehicles except their own tour bus or how the authorities have blocked off one side of the street to locals (the opposite that they are invited to explore). The tour groups eats quite well for a country in the grips of famine. One of the younger tourists decries as obscene the banquets his tour group enjoys while the local populace starves to death.

Overall, the film was a fascinating glimpse into a country that definitely seem self-conflicted. Based on his (controlled) observations, one of the older Czechs declares that North Korea is a few years away from loosening its restrictions and opening its border to more foreigners. The tourists and the film audience only saw what the North Korean government allowed us to see but even what they allowed was surprising in its glimpses of unvarnished peculiarities which hinted at repression and suffering.


The Most Secret Place on Earth – The CIA’s Covert War in Laos was a documentary about CIA operations in Laos during the Vietnam War (think Air America). Linking covert CIA operations with drug smuggling and massive bombing sorties as the CIA tried to disrupt the portion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail that ran through Laos. I did not find the documentary too informative although the interviews with some of the participants provided colorful stories and background information.


Frog was a Japanese film about a father & son. The father sells o-konomiyaki (an omelette/pancake like edible) from a pushcart on the street. The son works at a car repair garage. Beyond that, I'm not sure what was going on. The plot was rather elliptical and I dozed off at a crucial moment. The old man used to be a gangster but it's not revealed why he got out of the racket. He continually warns his son, "like father, like son." The son loses his job for always being late to work. His last job task is to return a car to the owner. He finds an expensive cigarette lighter in the car. Intially he pockets it but at the last minute he returns it to the owner...who happens to be a gangster or Yakuza boss. The old man takes a liking to the younger man based on his honesty in returning the lighter.

After that, things get a little fuzzy. The father gets beaten to death by some young punks he literally bumps into. They beat him to death and take all his money which includes his son's severance pay. Why was the father carrying that much money around? I don't know. The father's death affects the son deeply and he starts gravitating towards the gangsters ("like father, like son"). I think carries out a hit and is expected to help the #2 gangster eliminate the boss but he backs out at the last minute. By that time, I had dozed off and lost track of the plot.

The film was low-budget (and it showed) and the plot meandered all over so I was disappointed in the film.


The final film I saw was The Red Baron. I knew I was in for a rough time when most of the Germans in the film spoke English with a British accent. The main complaint I have about the film is that it didn't really provide insight into the man (Manfred von RRichthofen) who created this persona of the Red Baron. He came from a wealthy family and he viewed aerial dogfights as some kind of noble endeavor akin to hunting crossed with fencing. It was him (his plane was an extension of his own body) against some opponent who deserved respect and honor. So much respect and honor that, in the film, the Red Baron and three squadrom-mates pay their respect to a fallen British pilot by buzzing his funeral and dropping a funeral wreath from the cockpit.

As the film progresses, the Baron's exploits become legendary and the Kaiser wants to use him for propaganda purposes. The Baron is also wounded in combat so he is in the tender care of a beautiful nurse who resents his cavalier attitude towards the horrors of war. Between what he sees at the hospital and the trips to visit the front-line troops, the Baron sees the hellish conditions the troops live and frequently die under. He refuses to be a propaganda puppet and the Kaiser orders him back into the skies on increasingly more dangerous missions until he is shot down and killed.

My synopsis is about as deep as the film delved into the psyche of the Baron. Having seen the corpses of pilots he shot down, he still seems unconcerned with matters of life and death as he takes souvenirs from each confirmed kills. He continues to dress in a foppish manner (were those buffalo skin overcoats?) while death is all around. What of the nurse? She was fictitious but one moment she is disgusted by his attitude and the next she is sleeping with him. What drove this man to be the greatest fighter pilot in history? I still can't tell you. What clicked inside him such that he could no longer ignore the tribulations of the ground troops? I don't know? How did he reconcile his action of killing in the sky with his broader loathing of war in general? No idea.

Matthias Schweighöfer played the Red Baron, Joseph Fiennes played a rival English pilot who survives an dogfight with the Baron and has an extended conversation with him after their planes crash land, Lena Headey plays the beautiful nurse & Til Schweiger (Inglorious Basterds) plays the Baron's fellow squadron pilot, best friend and sounding board.


The crowds were very sparse at the festival. There were about 30 people at The Red Baron which was the most attended film of the four. Welcome to North Korea! and Frog had less than 10 attendees each. I noticed that parking was fairly easy in downtown Tiburon and there were several vacancies on the Tiburon Ark Row.

The Most Secret Place on Earth – The CIA’s Covert War in Laos screened in the dining hall of the Corinthian Yacht Club. The other films screened at the Tiburon Playhouse.

One of the films I wanted to see but didn't fit my schedule was Mrs. Menendez. The titular subject of the documentary is Tammi Menendez, wife of convicted murderer Erik Menendez. Erik & his brother Lyle are serving life sentences for the infamous double murder of their parents. Mrs. Menendez provides an insight into the day-to-day life of Tammi and her relationship to a convicted murderer.

Anyway, the reason I mention it is that as I was flipping channels on Monday evening (8 days after it screened in Tiburon), I watched some of the documentary on A&E.

It is similar to last year when I saw The Brothers Warner very soon on PBS after watching it at the Tiburon International Film Festival.

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