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Hamptons Life

Oct 13, 2009 2:43 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Fixing the world with a film

Oct 13, 2009 2:43 PM

When the United Nations was formed after the devastation of World War II, the international agency quickly developed plans to help ease the disparity in quality of life in rich and poor nations.

Such a struggle is not for the faint of heart, and though the pace of globalization has rapidly changed the world, the grave inequities that continued into the year 2000 prompted the U.N. to set eight goals to cut world poverty in half by 2015.

Nearly two-thirds of the way to that deadline, filmmaker Mira Nair is hoping to prompt a renewed interest in meeting those goals with an ambitious film project, “8,” which had its U.S. premiere at the Hamptons International Film Festival last weekend and will have a broad theatrical release on October 24. Ms. Nair is best known for her films “Salaam Bombay!,” “Mississippi Masala” and “The Namesake.”

The film is a collaboration between eight renowned filmmakers, each of whom was given free rein to interpret one of the U.N.’s so-called Millennium Development Goals in individual short films strung together for Ms. Nair’s project.

The weak showings by many of the individual contributors seemed to contribute to a malaise on Friday among audience members, who could be heard grumbling at segments that quickly devolved into laundry lists of ailments, from AIDS and malaria to diarrhea and malnutrition.

The film is at its best in the soaring arch of narrative of Jane Campion’s segment on the environment, “The Water Diary,” which tells the story of a community’s reaction to a drought on the Australian plains: A shopkeeper dreams that a talented young viola player in her village will bring rain by playing a concert on top of the tallest water tower and children spend their days unwashed, parched, mourning their dead horses and reading patterns in the clouds in the hope of finally feeling raindrops on their faces.

The stunning cinematography of Ms. Campion’s segment is matched by a story line that could easily capture viewers’ attention for an entire feature film, and the audience seemed to be holding its collective breath in the final moments before the screen went suddenly blank, as the sky became pregnant with the full clouds that typically precede a heavy rain.

The film is at its most successful in such narrative pieces, like Jan Kounen’s “The Story of Panshin Beka.” This sepia-tone film shot in a series of riverside villages in the Peruvian Amazon tells the story of a young man looking for help for his wife, who is fighting for her life during childbirth. The film is set to the haunting sound of a young girl’s musical narrative of the ordeal.

Gael Garcia Bernal’s short treatise on universal education, which shows a single father in Iceland learning from his son’s class project about Nepal, is also a stand-out, as is “Tiya’s Dream,” shot in Ethiopia by Abderrahmane Sissako, a beautiful, vivid portrait of a young girl who misses too much school because she has to support her uncle by sewing. When she does go to school, she causes a stir by saying she doesn’t believe in the Millennium Development Goals because people don’t like to share.

Ms. Nair’s own segment, called “How Can It Be,” was supposed to address the issue of gender equality, but the story of a Muslim woman in New York who leaves her husband and son for a married man was so jarring to the United Nations Development Programme, which had initially sponsored the film, that the U.N. pulled its support for the project, and a caveat was introduced at the beginning of the film warning audiences that the views expressed in the film were not those of the United Nations.

The audience in East Hampton was also disturbed by Ms. Nair’s segment, and the only question asked during a Q&A with the director after the film was why, given a chance to preach on gender equality, she would choose to have a woman cause such hardship to her family.

Ms. Nair said that the segment was based on a friend’s story.

“I was moved by the strength of her folly,” she said. “I wanted people to see this woman in a hijab, this deeply religious person, who wanted to follow her heart. She had a right to follow her heart. I wanted to speak about the complexity of her decision.”

It remains to be seen whether Ms. Nair’s risky segment will turn off wider audiences to the good works the filmmaker is trying to promote.

Friday’s screening was a benefit for the Maisha Foundation, a non-profit film lab that Ms. Nair and her husband, Mahmood Mamdani, started in his hometown of Kampala, Uganda. The couple had initially planned to name their first child Maisha, which means “life” in Swahili, but changed plans when they had a son instead of a daughter. Ms. Nair said at the screening that the Maisha Foundation has become another child to her.

“It was born out of the mantra, ‘if we don’t tell our stories, no one will,’” she said. The film lab runs for six weeks in the summer, with students given access to state-of-the-art equipment and trained by mentors who are among the top cinematographers, sound engineers, screenwriters and other film professionals in the world.

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