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Two movies open this week in our local art house theaters that manage to salvage powerful human dramas from some of the most potentially depressing materials: child abuse and the displacement of the poor during natural disasters.
When we read or hear stories about child abuse, there’s often a focus on the offenders (the outrage, the trial, the 24 hour cable news coverage) followed by guilty reminders of the victims (the pain and suffering, the psychological damage, the years of recovery). The recent Sandusky trial is a good example of this – Sandusky, Sandusky, Sandusky, Victim #x, Sandusky, Sandusky, Victim #y, Sandusky, Paterno, Sandusky, and how much will Penn State have to pay?
The missing part of the puzzle is the focus of “Polisse,” a strong film that was chosen recently to close this year’s Sacramento French Film Festival – and it was like ending a party with a gut punch. “Polisse” follows the members of a police unit tasked with tackling child abuse, in all forms. These are regular people who live lives of their own, some of which are good and some of which aren’t, who go to work every day and deal with the worst perversions and neglect – which isn’t the kind of thing you can joke about later.
One of the central characters in the story is a photographer who is chronicling the unit’s work and she becomes us, a proxy audience, as we watch her watch them – the things they criticize her for are the things they would criticize us for if we watched and asked questions directly. There are, of course, children and their abusers in the film – but they aren’t the subject matter here – they’re the subject matter’s work. And sometimes the folks who are slowest to recover aren’t the victims.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild”
There’s an inherent conflict in seeing depictions of extreme poverty – on the one hand we see people who have a tiny fraction of the things we commonly take for granted and have come to think of as necessities, but on the other hand they also often appear to be living free of many of the obligations that seem to go with them. And throughout most of human history, societies have thrived without refrigerators and smart phones, and monthly payments.
However the level of poverty exhibited in “Beast of the Southern Wild” is extreme enough to remind us that shanty towns aren’t limited to the developing world. Set in a rural bayou community c. Hurricane Katrina, the “Bathtub” is home to corrugated iron and found object architecture, built on stilts to avoid the ever-present threat of flooding. It’s also the kind of remote location that makes the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, often at the center of lamentations about neglect, casual disregard, and failure to respond, look like an attention whore by comparison.
The center of our attention is six year old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis - who could set a new record for young award winners), who barely lives with her distant provider of a father – distant enough that they live in separate structures on the land he values more than the creature comforts found elsewhere. He’s also dying, and we come to see that much of his insistence that Hushpuppy fend for herself is essentially a training program for her future. She’s learning to live a post-apocalyptic existence in a pre-apocalyptic world – until the apocalypse actually comes in the form of the hurricane.
She’s also learned about pre-historic creatures that dominated their world and she has visions of them as she watches the struggles around her, where forces of nature collide to define existences. But in the midst of all of these downbeat events, there’s an upbeat undercurrent of human persistence and tenacity that can somehow overcome the meanest of circumstances. And a reminder that sometimes the strongest force of nature can be the heart and will of a six year old who hasn’t been taught by society to limit herself or to count the material things she doesn’t have.
"Polisse" opens today at the Crest Theatre and "Beasts of the Southern Wild" opens at the Tower Theatre.