Facing Forward: CMU International Film Festival Showcases Women Behind the Camera

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Rasa is a girl of 20 years, bearing the burden typical of someone twice her age.

She’s uneducated, homely, and supporting her disabled father as a low-pay, thankless job as a grunt worker in a vegetable processing plant. Each day, she takes something that was once living, once sprouting naturally from the earth, and shoves it into a pre-made box of artificial components.

Rasa is the focal character of the 2012 film Eat Sleep Die. Her face is one that we pass every day on our commute. It’s the face of the worker, the face of the ever-persistent, and the face that Carnegie Mellon University’s annual International Film Festival seeks to highlight year after year with a collection of humanistic works by a diverse group of international filmmakers.

This year’s theme is Faces of Work, inspired by late CMU professor and filmmaker Paul Goodman’s dedication to giving a voice to the struggle of the common worker.

The CMU International Film Festival is often a varied showcase of all aspects of cinema so rarely represented in the mainstream. Offerings from female directors and foreign filmmakers are classic staples of the festival’s roster, actively defying the pre-constructed confines of the commercial industry.

While festivals such in Toronto, Cannes, Park City, and New York tend to garner the most industry buzz, it’s smaller showcases like the CMU International Film Festival which ditch the slimy, business-driven aspect of the more commercial festivals and places the focus on the craft and how that craft illuminates us as a people.

The struggle of the worker is one that’s easily-relatable to everyone who, well, has a job. The films on display throughout Faces of Work are not new, they’re not flashy, and they’re not making headlines in the trade papers or on the festival circuit at large. They’re merely collected and presented together as a collective work that truly speaks to a common idea. The art is in the presentation of the collective, universal affect they have as a group bolstering a theme.

The focus for us as patrons then becomes not to pinpoint which films are most worthy of distribution or awards attention as we do at most film festivals, but rather to simply indulge in and absorb the art of the craft, and let these filmmakers converse with and engage us.

Eat Sleep Die, from director Gabriela Pichler, made the festival rounds two years ago at the 69th Venice International Film Festival before touring the international circuit. It made its debut on CMU’s campus this past week as part of the festival–a fitting decision to show it on school property instead of at one of the other off-campus Pittsburgh theaters the festival has temporarily taken over. The film speaks to the universality of struggle, and the ever-evolving idea of what it means to truly struggle, which is a potent reality so many college students grapple with, and one the Faces of Work theme so effectively speaks to.

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The film really impacted me because it’s very true to what I’m going through right now,” one of my friends–a recent college graduate currently working two jobs and figuring out the next steps on her path through life–said after the screening of Eat Sleep Die. It’s hard to imagine that she’s alone in that sentiment, watching Rasa struggle to scrape together a sense of self when she loses her job thanks to company budget cuts. Rasa’s superiors tell her that the cuts are necessary for the growth and survival of the company as a whole. It’s great to know that the value of survival is placed on the company at large versus the individual with a mouth to feed and breathing to do.

The film is radical in subtle ways. Where it could have been a simple examination of character in the face of an unfortunate situation, Pichler’s film instead becomes a universal tale of the disintegration of the collective dream. Pichler’s lens consistently catches Rasa at a crossroads between adulthood and childlike abandon. At once we see her blending in with the factory workers, cracking crude jokes, smoking, discussing union politics, and maintaining a household, and at other times we see her engaged in a bike race with a friend, climbing over dilapidated structures in an abandoned playground, or hugging stuffed animals after about with bad news. Rasa is still very much a child, and the society around her has made it possible only for her to be an adult by mere placement only. Her mind is still developing, and it’s being grown in a culture where her body is a number, a placeholder, a cog in the machine.

The idea of a better life for Rasa and her coworkers is simply getting by, not overextending their reach for things like fancy clothing or expensive sportscars that belong to their upper management.

For these people, the thought of something “better” is only teased by common occurrences which only relate back to the central idea of working in the first place. Rasa is asked by a social worker assigned to help her find employment to describe her best qualities. She immediately delves into her skills as a line worker, and the pride she has for how quickly she packages food. This is a classic case that’s becoming all too familiar for students and members of the workforce alike: the job shapes the human, when we should be fostering an environment where a person can easily recognize their strengths and funnel them into a career which benefits, hones, and compliments–not suplements–their life.

Eat Sleep Die shows us the shifting landscape of what it means to live. Its filled with characters whose only expectations out of life are to make enough money to get by to the next point of indifference. A dream of betterment has been replaced with the reality of stagnancy, and striving for middle-ground has replaced the drive for something better.

Pichler’s film is not one which plays strongly to only those in the society of her origin. Eat Sleep Die is a foreign film with global implications, where the value of the worker diminishes in the eyes of the corporate puppet master.

Pichler’s Eat Sleep Die  is only one of the many examples of women filmmakers’ work shown at the CMU International Film Festival. Heather Arnet’s documentary Madame Presidenta, a film about the American political landscape and the potential for a female president, will screen on Wednesday, April 2nd. Iranian director Parviz Shahbazi’s Trapped , screening on April 3, focuses on a strong female lead, while Lisa Fruchtman’s documentary Sweet Dreams (screening on the festival’s closing night, April 5) examines an African drumming troupe formed by women on both sides of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. Fruchtman, whose career includes directorial work as well as winning an Oscar for editing 1983’s The Right Stuff, will be holding a Q&A session after the screening.

For a full schedule of the Carnegie Mellon International Film Festival’s program, please click here.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

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