Yoga Is: Film Review


A Film About the Transformational Power of Yoga, written and directed by Suzanne Bryant

Yoga Is is Suzanne Bryant’s paean to yoga, an homage to the practice that held her together while her mother was dying of breast cancer. In gratitude, the former journalist explores yoga’s mysterious power—to engender love, happiness, and transformation—through interviews with such yoga world celebrities as Sharon Gannon and David Life, Alan Finger, Baron Baptiste, Seane Corn, Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa, and Shiva Rea. She also travels to India (though we see her there mostly with American teachers). Skillfully produced, the film charts similar territory to Kate Churchill’s thornier 2008 film Enlighten Up! but with a much less critical eye. Still, this is a good documentary for newcomers unfamiliar with yoga’s higher purpose, showing without a doubt that yoga is more than a sweaty workout.


Yoga Woman: Film Review


“Women have made yoga an international phenomenon and a multi-billion dollar industry,” observes Yoga Woman, a documentary from sisters Kate and Saraswati Clere. While yoga benefits both genders, Western women now dominate the practice, and they’re bringing issues such as body image, fertility, and family/work balance to the forefront. The film attempts to spotlight women of every age, race, situation, and nationality (though it remains U.S.-centered), and includes moving footage of pioneer teachers Patricia Walden and Angela Farmer, Seane Corn’s crew of yoginis building a birthing center in Uganda, and Indra Devi, “First Lady of Yoga,” who pestered paterfamilias T. Krishnamacharya until he accepted her as his student. In the end, Yoga Woman is a testimony to yoga’s transcendent power to calm, heal, challenge, and transform both individuals and societies.


Documenta Brazil 2008: Rhythms of Brasilidade


A still from “Jogo de Cena” (Playing) 2007 by Eduardo Coutinho. Coutinho ‘interviews’ actress Fernanda Torres in a fake ‘audition.’

A still from “Jogo de Cena” (Playing) 2007 by Eduardo Coutinho. Coutinho ‘interviews’ actress Fernanda Torres in a fake ‘audition.’

What does it say when one of the filmmakers featured at a documentary film festival is 40 minutes late for his scheduled round-table event? True, it’s Friday night in New York, and it’s storming out. True, Brazilians have a more elastic sense of time, and the filmmaker had just arrived from Brazil. Maybe he had gone to some other event that had run late?

“I’d like to say I went to see a wonderful film from Estonia or Mongolia,” said a sheepish João Moreira Salles when at last he took his seat in the already-started panel. “But I did not. I went to see James Bond.”

So went the second day of Documenta Brazil, a documentary film festival hosted at the King Juan Carlos Center at New York University that featured 23 well-chosen films from 21 contemporary Brazilian filmmakers. Humor and a little bit of the absurd permeated the serious event–—which included several catered receptions, live music, and a keynote address by a prominent Brazilian critic and intellectual, José Miguel Wisnik (also an accomplished composer, pianist, and singer).

The crowd was a refreshing blend of students, academics, neighborhood residents, Brazilophiles, Brazilians and friends of the festival. Though people dressed in jeans, sweaters, and parkas, the vibe was elegantly engaged; this audience had a good appreciation of film and culture. For film buffs it was a thrill to mingle with admired filmmakers—João Moreira Salles and Sandra Kogut—who had accompanied their films to the six-day festival.

Having already seen Salles’ latest documentary Santiago in Boston last winter, and Carlos Diegues and Rafael Draguad’s AfroReggae: No Motive Explains War (AfroReggae: Nenhum Motivo Explica a Guerra) at MoMA’s Brazilian film festival in 2007, I was curious to see a broader range of Brazilian documentaries, and what—if anything—filmmakers were addressing outside of the well-documented, almost cliché subjects of Brazilian cinema—life in the slums, police corruption, and hard times in the rural northeast.

Friday’s discussion included Salles, Kogut, Lincoln Center Film Festival director Richard Peña, and two academics—Luz Horne from Princeton, and the moderator Edgardo Diekele.

Kogut emphasized, “Brazilian filmmakers know what’s expected from Brazil is violence and misery—they know people want to see the big issues, but this is changing.”

Salles added that the best Brazilian documentary filmmaking is increasingly not just about its subject, but also about the “grammar” of film, or what the film also says about filmmaking. Diekele held up three examples: Salles’ Santiago (2006), an elusive portrait of his family’s butler; Eduardo Coutinho’s Playing (Jogo de Cena), in which actresses and ordinary women separately recount the women’s tragic stories (2007); and Sandra Kogut’s 2002 documentary The Hungarian Passport (Um Passaporte Húngaro).

Kogut called all three films more subtle stories for Brazil—dot-dot-dots rather than exclamation points. Kogut’s film charts her own quest to receive her Hungarian passport despite overwhelming bureaucratic and cultural obstacles. A Brazilian Jew of Hungarian origins, Kogut is also charting Jewish immigration and Brazil’s early anti-Semitism.

Festival co-director Micaela Kramer, a PhD student in Comparative Literature at NYU, says she got the idea for the festival after being impressed by the work of three prominent filmmakers, João Moreira Salles, Eduardo Coutinho, and Paulo Sacramento. But it took her a year and a half to secure funding, and find a location and a co-director, fellow student Fernando Pérez (“the most Brazilian Chilean I know!” says Kramer).

The project gained momentum after the pair received their first grant, and after the King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center showed an interest in hosting the festival.

While most of Documenta Brazil’s films were made before 2000, the oldest—Eduardo Coutinho’s Santa Marta: Two Weeks on the Hill (Santa Marta: Duas Semanas No Morro) from 1987—gave a nod to Coutinho as the father of Brazilian documentary filmmaking. It also contextualized other works in the festival, having been one of the first to document “the open secret” of impoverished life and police harassment in Rio de Janeiro’s Santa Marta slum.

The festival directors thoughtfully paired Coutinho’s film with News from a Personal War (Noticias de Uma Guerra Particular) (1999) by Salles and co-director Katia Lund. This film returns to the same favela 12 years later by which time the drug war, violence, and police brutality had escalated to an absurd point. The Rio chief of police is on film saying the “war” is no longer about the good guys winning—there are no good guys anymore, and no one is going to win.

In spite of this continued emphasis on the horrors of the drug trade, police corruption, and favela life, I was happy that the festival also included documentaries on other subjects such as immigration (to, from, and within Brazil), romance (as older women looked back on their lives in a macho society), teenage pregnancy, folk artists, and Orson Welles’s visit to Rio in 1942. Brazilian music and musicians were well represented with no fewer than five documentaries.

In fact, Documenta Brazil seemed designed to elevate the form of documentary filmmaking from the status of supporting actor in the Brazilian film world to leading man.

“Documentary filmmakers are often asked when they will make their first feature film,” said João Moreira Salles (whose brother, Walter Salles, is a successful feature film maker) with a chuckle. “But no one would ever approach a director such as Ingmar Bergman and say, ‘Okay with the fiction, but when are you going to make your first documentary?’”

“A festival like Documenta Brazil aims at destabilizing such a hierarchy,” agrees co-director Micaela Kramer. “We are showing that documentary films are as interesting as fiction films.”

Richard Peña, Lincoln Center Film Festival director, adds, “This is a new generation of filmmakers. They don’t claim to speak for a nation, but to speak for themselves.”


Celluloid Dreams: Sao Paulo


The Rise of a Little Film School in Brazil

AT 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning, students wait anxiously to be buzzed in through the heavy, wrought-iron gates at 142 Rua Dr. Gabriel dos Santos. Beyond lies a large, colonial house with a broad, wrap-around veranda. As students march upstairs to the old-fashioned classrooms, the wide-plank steps creak noisily underfoot. By 3p.m., schooled in the basics of documentary film making, they’re back on the street—shooting their first video on a digital video camera.

Brooklyn NYC Author Joelle Hann Brazil

While this scene might sound typical, these students are not from New York University’s illustrious film school, nor the well-funded School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. They won’t be driving off to Sundance anytime soon. (If they go, they’ll be taking a 10-hour international flight.)

Rather, these students are enrolled at Academia Internacional de Cinema (AIC), a small, independent film school that’s located in the residential Higienópolis neighborhood of São Paulo, Brazil.

Chasing a dream, AIC’s founders Steven Richter (an American), and Flavia Rocha (a Brazilian), co-founded the Academia in 2004 with their friend Ram Devineni (American). Richter, who had worked as the Production Director for Trafika Films in the U.S., briefly considered opening the school in Brooklyn. But when Rocha met some generous Brazilian bureaucrats at a Manhattan cocktail party, the couple decided to base the school in Brazil.

“Our goal was to launch an independent film school that developed independent filmmakers. It was to empower individuals to go out and have a vision and the know-how in all the areas in the art and craft of filmmaking,” says Richter, 36, who is AIC’s director and majority owner with Rocha, 34. (The couple are married.)

Celluloid Dreams Author Joelle Hann.jpg

Richter, who had taught film to underprivileged students in the Bronx and was also an educator and course developer for the Seattle Film Institute, designed AIC to meet the needs of students who wanted to learn all aspects of filmmaking by actually making films. In Brazil, where major film schools typically require years of coursework before filmmaking begins, the Academia’s hands-on approach was a welcome change. (It was the first and is still the only independent film school in Brazil to offer a full-time program.) As of 2007, the school—which increases its programming by 15-20% every year—had 80 full-time film students and 300 part-timers taking workshops and intensives.

“Most programs available in Brazil are geared towards people who can afford it,” says Devineni, 35, who handles international relations for the school, fostering important connections with industry insiders in the U.S. Devineni also recently established Bollywood Brazil, bringing Bollywood films and productions to Brazil and vice versa. “We wanted to make it more open and democratic—anyone can apply—and if they’re diligent they can do well.”

The Academia is not unlike other Brazilian film schools in that it’s mostly comprised of middle and upper-class students in their mid-twenties. But while most film schools accept only 10-12 people, AIC accepts anyone—even if they don’t have an extensive portfolio. The school also makes a concerted effort to be inclusive, offering bolsas (scholarships) to low-income students, some of whom come from favelas in São Paulo and Rio (known for their poverty and drug and gang activity).

The Academia originally opened in the southern city of Curitiba, where the city government found the school subsidized housing in a former industrial neighborhood. But soon discovering the limitations of this relationship, Richter and Rocha relocated the school to its current spot in São Paulo.

“The school is now 100% private money,” says Richter, “That gives us freedom but makes things difficult, too.” The school relies exclusively on student tuition and grants to help them bring in international faculty such as Argentinean director Lucrecia Martel (“The Holy Girl”), Polish cinematographer Grzegorz Kedzierski, American Allison Anders (“Gas, Food, Lodging” screenwriter), and Steven Hopkins (director, “Trembling before G-d”). Most of the Brazilian faculty continue to work in film.

Brazilian writer Marcelo Carneiro da Cunha, 50, whose 15th book will be published this May, teaches scriptwriting at AIC. He says the Academia is important in the landscape of Brazilian film, “because it has a very practical view of filmmaking. It is not academic, and this helps improve the quality of the students’ films enormously.”

Former student Érico Rassi, 35, adds that because students work all crew positions (lights, sound, directing, etc.) on one another’s films, they quickly become very skillful. They also make connections that last well beyond school. “It is a college of art so you get to know a lot of people who have the same lines of thought as you. You make connections—your friends become your colleagues.” Rassis’ 10-minute film, “Um Pra Um” (One to One, 2006) made during his one semester at the Academia, has been shown in festivals throughout Brazil and won first prize at Rio’s International Short Film Festival in 2007.

Despite its emphasis on the practical side of filmmaking, the Academia sees itself as an art school that teaches filmmaking rather than a technical school that teaches craft. Students have created over 1,000 short films to date, with full-time students directing 14 films in both film and video, and acting as crew on at least 15 others in their graduating year alone. The majority of students are just beginning to enter festivals, win prizes, and get distribution for their projects.

Aside from Rassi, who continues to work full-time in advertising (as many Brazilian filmmakers must to support themselves), graduate Cristiano Burlan’s work is getting recognition: his first feature film, “Corações Desertos” (Deserted Hearts, 2006) was selected for the New Directors competition in the 30th International Film Festival of São Paulo, South America’s biggest film festival. His documentary “Construção” (Construction, 2006) was accepted to Tudo Verdade (It’s All True) an important documentary festival held (simultaneously) in São Paulo and Rio, as well as other festivals in Brazil and Cuba. He now teaches at AIC.

To help bring in new students and diversify their offerings, the Academia added a one-year creative writing program in February 2007. The program, Criação Literária, has a broader curriculum than the ones available at other schools in São Paulo, the seat of some of Brazil’s most powerful literary publishers. Already it has 30 full-time students.

“There are only small workshops in São Paulo,” says Rocha, who directs the writing program and has an MFA in poetry from Columbia University. Her bilingual book of poems “The Blue House Around Noon/A Casa Azul ao Meio-Dia,” from Travessa dos Editores, was published in 2005. “This is a different kind of commitment, much more extensive.”Rocha, also a working journalist and the former director of communications and publicity at the school, invites writers she admires to run the poetry, fiction, and non-fiction workshops. “There are some talented students in the course and we hope that it will have an effect on the São Paulo writing community.”

The film students have all the necessary equipment and facilities at their disposal, including two sound studios and a screening room, ten Macintosh computers with Final Cut Pro 6, and about ten cameras in various formats, including 16mm. Lighting and sound gear, plus post-sound mixing and editing equipment are also available, as is a library with more than 500 films on DVD. Quality used equipment can be very hard to find in Brazil’s relatively small film industry, and extremely expensive to purchase outright.

Additionally, Brazil’s major arts funding is closely tied to heavily bureaucratic government programs at the federal, state, and city levels that allow corporations to sponsor artists instead of paying taxes. This can lead to problems—lack of sponsorship because of a film’s subject matter and implicit favoritism when corporations want to continue funding an experienced artist instead of supporting new artists. When funding is granted but slow to get past administrative hurdles, it can delay the completion of a project—even for established filmmakers. It took Phillipe Barcinski, the award-winning film and TV director, five years to make his latest film, “Não Por Acaso” (Not by Chance, 2007).

With the exception of big-name filmmakers such as Fernando Meirelles (“The Constant Gardener,” “City of God”) and Walter Salles (“Motorcycle Diaries,” “Central Station”), Brazil produces few films that make it beyond the country’s own borders—or that even gain a respectable audience within them. “National production was seen as seen as third class. What everyone was watching and reading was American—better quality,” says Juliana Faria, Senior Analyst for research and acquisition at GloboSat, a pay-TV section of Globo Network.

However, citing the freedoms that digital technology affords, AIC co-founder Devineni says that he, Rocha, and Richter took inspiration from the ethos of 70’s filmmaking in the U.S., “Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese figured out how to raise money and get their films made; they worked on every aspect of them, that’s how it was.” They hope that AIC graduates will not only approach filmmaking—and secure funding—in the same DIY spirit but also gain wide audiences both in Brazil and abroad.

Acclaimed documentarian João Moreira Salles, winner of the Cinema Brazil Grand Prize for his 2003 film “Nelson Freire” (and brother of Walter Salles), says he feels optimistic not only about the new crop of film technicians graduating from Brazilian film institutes, but also about the type of artistic films new graduates might make. Especially, it seems, those who have graduated from independent-minded schools like the Academia. “I am very hopeful that something really good will come from it. Something formally different that says something new.”


Tokyo Cowboy


Canada Post hired me in January, and at first I worked at a station in my own neighbourhood, meaning I left my house at 6:48 a.m. to arrive at 6:52 a.m. Life seemed fair; I could have been posted in the suburbs. It lasted only two weeks, but back in those days, feeling optimistic, I went to see Tokyo Cowboy, Kathy Garneau's first feature film, in which one of the characters is a postie in full regalia—blue jacket, grey pants and navy blue satchel, embodying all that I had yet to become: fully uniformed, excellent at sorting his mail and familiar with all the houses and occupants on his walk. I realized that posties symbolize Canada to me almost as much as those relentless Mounties do. Maybe it's the corporate logo you see everywhere, or maybe their reputation for friendliness, or their omnipresence (ever counted how many post office trucks you see in a day?), or perhaps the distances they travel and the weather (not to mention the dogs) they negotiate to deliver the mail. Even if it raises stamp prices too often and delays important mail, Canada Post (it suddenly seemed to me) was one of the mother-structures of the Canadian Identity, invisible and essential. "Hey, that's me," I whispered as the postie on screen walked into a bar, in uniform, and ordered a beer. In the film, a Japanese boy obsessed with cowboys flies to rural B.C. to meet his childhood cowgirl/penpal. She's grown up and got a fine arts degree from Vancouver, moved back to her home town, and moved in with her girlfriend, but has yet to come out to her community. Her mother tries to get the low-down, or at least get her daughter together with the nice Japanese boy. Meanwhile, the Japanese boy appoints the postie as his cowboy sensei. The climactic scene, at the Hallowe'en dance, underlines the racial, sexual and relational tensions in the community. The postie, dressed as a First Nations chief, meets a First Nations youth who demands that he de-mask and defeather, while the Japanese boy masquerades as a geisha girl and winds up outside behind a pickup truck, kissing the cowgirl's girlfriend, and the cowgirl, enraged and armed, manages to shoot the Japanese boy in the arm. Not shouting about being Canadian, but not concealing it either, not making an overly pointed display of discriminations, but portraying them as they normally occur, this film got my heart and my interest. Caroline Adderson, a friend of Garneau's and winner of the 1994 Governor General's award for fiction, wrote the screenplay and, believe it or not, the next day at work—refreshed by this good flick—as I sorted mail into the lock-boxes of an east Vancouver housing complex, I noticed that the Book of the Month envelope was going to none other than Caroline Adderson. "Hey, do you know who this is?" I asked my postie-trainer. "Nah," he said, not caring much more after I enlightened him. I folded and wrestled the envelope into its box and scraped the skin off my knuckles in the process.