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Charlotte Amalie
Wednesday, May 29, 2024


Dec. 28, 2001 – The last three Thursdays of January will bring an exceptional cinematic experience to St. Thomas – a series of internationally themed, produced and acclaimed films.
For the Birch Forum, which is presenting the series, it's a venture into new artistic territory.
Founded in 1995 and funded by Patti Cadby Birch in honor of her late husband, St. Thomas attorney Everett Birch, the forum has brought classical singers, lecturers and – for the last three years – the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra to St. Thomas to perform at the Reichhold Center for the Arts.
The mission of the forum is "to bring enriching and enlightening – but not necessarily commercially viable – productions and speakers to St. Thomas," a release states. "The mini-film festival marks a branching out for the Birch Forum from artistic performances and lectures to the world of films."
Opening the series at the Market Square East Cinema on Jan. 17 will be "The Day I Became a Woman," an Iranian film consisting of three contemporary vignettes about a 9-year-old girl, a wife and an old woman.
Second in the series, to be shown on Jan. 24, is "Lumumba," a biography of Patrice Lumumba, elected in 1960 as the first prime minister of the Congo after it gained independence from Belgium — a charismatic leader who would be assassinated just a few months after taking office.
Concluding the mini-festival on Jan. 31 will be "Life & Debt," an unconventional documentary examining the impact on Jamaican working-class people and government officials of policies instituted a quarter-century ago in the name of making the country economically self-sufficient in the global marketplace.
According to Thomas Brunt III, a member of the Birch Forum board, the impetus for the film series came from board colleague Tynnetta McIntosh. "We are always looking for opportunities to present different points of view in different mediums," Brunt said, "and we are always looking to do something in the community that won't otherwise be done."
A couple of months ago, McIntosh – who is off island and could not be reached for comment for this article – brought up the idea of presenting the three films. "It so happens that all of the films are of topical interest," Brunt said. "This will be a great opportunity to provide a forum for examining ideas the community may not have been exposed to in the general media."
In February 2000, the Reichhold Center presented the first Virgin Islands International Film and Video Festival, eight nights of feature films, documentaries and shorts. Among the offerings were full-length works by recognized filmmakers from the Virgin Islands, who were on hand to discuss their work. Among them was St. Thomian producer Lilibet Foster, whose film "Singing in Strings" was announced shortly afterward as an Academy Award nominee for best Feature Documentary.
Although it was intended that the Reichhold festival should become an annual event, that did not happen. The Reichhold, which had inaugurated weekly "Cinema Sundays" film showings in the fall of 1999, also discontinued that project after a year. Meantime, two weekend children's film and video festivals have been held on St. Thomas and St. John, presented by the V.I. Film Society, but there has been only commercial cinema fare aimed at an adult audience, other than the occasional one-shot fund-raiser such as the made-in-Vietnam "Three Seasons."
All three Birch Forum showings will begin at 8 p.m. at Market Square East Cinema.
Tickets are $10 for individual films and $24 for all three. Packages and separate tickets can be ordered by telephone using a charge card, for pickup in advance at the Reichhold Center box office or the night of the showings at Market Square East. To make such purchases, call the Reichhold box office at 693-1559. The individual $10 tickets also can be purchased in advance at the University of the Virgin Islands St. Thomas campus bookstore, Parrot Fish Music, Modern Music stores, Wireless World, Interiors, Krystal & Gifts Galore and Red Hook Ace, all on St. Thomas; and at Connections on St. John. On a space-available basis, tickets will be sold at the cinema complex the nights of the showings.
All three of the films to be shown in January have won international awards and collected kudos from critics. Here is a look at each:
The Day I Became a Woman
Directed by Marziyeh Meshkini, this 78-minute Iranian film was made last year as the director's senior project in film school – and therein lies a story. The school from which Meshkini has since graduated was founded by her husband, award-winning Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf ("A Moment of Innocence," "Gabbeh"), mainly because their daughter wanted to drop out of the school to study filmmaking. The duly licensed film school operated for four years with a total of nine students – four family members and five friends – then basically went out of business.
The first segment focuses on a girl who is told on the morning of her ninth birthday that she now must wear the chador (veil) in public and can no longer have boys as friends. Knowing that the actual hour of her birth is yet to arrive, she negotiates with her grandmother to go out and play with her pals until the last minute, taking a stick with her to serve as a sundial to mark the time she must return.
The second focuses on a woman within a group engaged in a bicycle road race, all of them traditionally attired. As the protagonist pulls ahead of the field, her husband pursues her on horseback, other male family members in tow, demanding that she drop out of the race and, when she refuses, declaring that he is divorcing her. "No film chase has ever been more heart-wrenching," one reviewer wrote.
The third follows an elderly widow as she arrives in the city to spend her savings on a shopping spree – for kitchen appliances and other such luxuries that she has never before in her life possessed.
"The Day I Became a Woman" was hailed by The New York Times as "a stunner of a film" marking an "astonishing directorial debut" by Meshkini. It collected prizes last year for Best First Film at the Chicago International Film Festival and Best Director at the Thessaloniki Film Festival, and three awards at the Venice Film Festival.
Meshkini was Makhmalbaf's assistant in "The Silence" and "The Door" and their daughter Samira's assistant in "The Apple." For her own film, Makhmalbaf wrote the script and Samira served as assistant director. Her husband "gave me the outline of each tale; I wrote the dialogue, fleshed out the characters, and did the shooting script. Mohsen was shooting another project" at the same time.
Directed by Haitian-born filmmaker Raoul Peck, "Lumumba" stars Eriq Ebouaney as Lumumba and Alex Descas as his friend at first and later betrayer Joseph Mobutu. Made in 1999 in France, Belgium and Haiti, the 115-minute film won the Directors Fortnight Award at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival and the Best Feature prize at the Pan-African Film Festival in Los Angeles.
Writing in The New York Times, film critic Elvis Mitchell referred to "Lumumba" as "a great film and a great performance." He said Ebouaney's "contained fury" as Lumumba "ranks with the sinewy complication of Denzel Washington's workout as Malcolm X."
The film traces the brilliant and charismatic Patrice Emery Lumumba's rise to power in the Congo's process of gaining independence from Belgian colonialism – from postal clerk to prime minister in 1960, his brief months as government leader; and then his betrayal and brutal murder. The film brings home, one reviewer noted, that "As is so often used as a reason not to assassinate powerful and hated figures, his d
eath made him a martyr and led to further unrest."
"Lumumba" is a gripping political thriller, reviewers note. One web site offers this analysis: "Lumumba's vision of a united Africa gained him powerful enemies: the Belgian authorities, who wanted a much more paternal role in their former colony's affairs, and the CIA, who supported Lumumba's former friend Joseph Mobutu in order to protect U.S. business interests in Congo's vast resources and their upper hand in the Cold War power balance. The architects behind Lumumba's brutal death in 1961 … recently became known and are dramatized for the first time."
Life & Debt
A documentary filmed in Jamaica by producer-director Stephanie Black, "Life & Debt" is billed as an unapologetic look at the "new world order" from the point of view of Jamaican's working class people and government and policy officials "who see the reality of globalization from the ground up."
The film won the Critics Jury Prize at the 2001 Los Angeles Film Festival and has won critical acclaim, with Michael Thomas of the New York Observer calling it a "must-see film" and The New York Times describing it as "powerful."
Combining conventional documentary techniques with a stylized narrative framework, the film dissects the "mechanism of debt" that is destroying local agriculture and industry while substituting sweatshops and cheap imports as underpinnings of Jamaica's economy. With a voice-over narration written by Jamaica Kincaid, adapted from her book "A Small Place," the film looks at the complexity of international lending, structural adjustment policies and free trade in the context of the day-to-day realities of the people whose lives they impact – workers in Free Trade Zone factories, a chicken processing plant, a dairy business and the banana industry. The film weaves a tapestry of sequences focusing on the stories of individual Jamaicans whose strategies for survival and parameters of day-to-day existence are determined by U.S. and other external economic agendas.
There's a flashback via archival footage to Former Prime Minister Michael Manley in a post-independence speech condemning the International Monetary Fund and stating that "the Jamaican government will not accept anybody, anywhere in the world telling us what to do in our own country. Above all, we're not for sale." A year after being elected on a non-IMF platform in 1976, Manley signed Jamaica's first loan agreement with the IMF due to lack of viable alternatives – a pattern common throughout developing nations.
At present Jamaica owes over $4.5 billion to international lending agencies. Yet, the meaningful development that these loans were intended to produce has yet to manifest itself. The amount of foreign exchange that must be generated to meet interest payments and the structural adjustment policies which have been imposed with the loans have had a negative impact on the lives of the vast majority of the people. And now, with the North American Free Trade Act, dismal yet precious jobs are being lost to Mexico, Costa Rica and other nations.
"Life & Debt," according to one reviewer, "is a tribute to the ingenuity and strength of the people who defy the odds of survival, yet its primary aim is to inform young adult audiences in the U.S. of the impact these policies have on our neighbors abroad."

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