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Telluride Fest: Docs On Rumsfeld, Iranian Exiles, French Radio

One of Telluride Film Festival‘s many idiosyncracies is that the festival does not announce its program in advance. The festival has begun once the program is out.

Here are a few suggestions about movies that have been much-awaited.

In my view the most-awaited film at the festival, is The Unknown Known by Errol Morris, his portrait of Donald Rumsfeld, the man who brought you the war in Iraq and some great neologisms, like the title of the film.  Rumsfeld did not cooperate for Andrew Cockburn’s book about him. He did with Morris.

Morris could have called his film The Fog of War, if he himself hadn’t taken that one for his interview doc about Robert McNamara. He could also have called it Stuff Happens, but that evocation of Rumsfeld’s reaction to the looting of the Iraqi National Museum was taken by David Hare, who wrote a stage play about the Defense Secretary – a formner Cheney crony from the Ford administration who eventually got the boot from George W. Bush.

I have not seen The Unknown Known, but I expect it to be more probing than the recent doc about Dick Cheney, who seems to be propelling his daughter’s rise into electoral politics – never mind that a Republican “friend” like Mike Enzi stands in the way in Wyoming.

My guess is that we should expect something closer to to The Fog of War, a talk with Morris where the subject, McNamara, gets the chance to tell his own story. One-sided? Let’s remember that Rumsfeld hasn’t had the floor since leaving government. Plenty of critics will make sure that there are many other voices in this debate. Just wait – the close-up will become an ensemble scene.

A film that I have seen isFifi Howls from Happiness by Mitra Farahani, the documentary about Bahman Mohasses, the Iranian painter (1931-2010) who spent years in exile under the Shah and under the mullahs who lead the Islamic government.

This is an intimate documentary, albeit one where the intimacy began by simply tracking the artist down before his death. Farahani, herself a transplant to the Bay Area, finds Mohasses in Rome, where the artist lives with stacks of his work and avoids most contact with the outside world. His paintings conjure up a blend of Dubuffet, Bonnard, Bacon and Modigliani. Shake well and serve.

Mohasses, a political critic and unapologetically gay, has a razor wit that swirls out between huge puffs of smoke, and like most weapons, it causes damage far beyond where he aims it. Farahani’s no-budget style could not be more different than Morris’s refined non-fiction approach, but both Fifi and The Unknown Known are encounters with memorable personalities.

Morris is sure to get a distribution deal with his Rumsfeld portrait. Fifi will travel globally to festivals,  but don’t miss this visit with an Iranian exile.  Here’s what I wrote about the film in Screen when it premiered in Berlin. Another doc at Telluride that I can recommend is La Maison de la Radio by the veteran director Nicolas Philibert, a visit to the headquarters of French radio (ORTF) in a modernist building along the Seine in the 16th arrondissement of Paris. I saw the film at the Berlinale, and this gentle visit to speakers of French as they worked with words and sound warmed up the chill of a Berlin February.

There is a genuine feeling to the eclectic cast of this doc that feels remarkably fresh, compared to the unctuous insincerity of National Public Radio. La Maison de la Radio has a US distributor. French radio also has an internet site. The film could do more for French-American relations than hundreds of political speeches. It may also give pause to the legions of US universities and high schools that are dropping courses in French language from their curricula.

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