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In an appealingly small movie theater, a guest of my producer and friend, Michael Gunther of Triboro Pictures, I revisited the place my mother and I used to go every afternoon the year before she died. It was the 5th Annual Gotham Screen International Film Festival, ten days of screenings of independent films and events in downtown New York. Michael was the Festival director of its unusually artful and fascinating array of films.
One of highlights of the festival included the world premiere of a Singaporean film called Sandcastle. The movie theater was the Quad, a cinema house tucked into a West Village cross street next to an Italian restaurant and tiny off-Broadway theater, and it was still like one of the 1970's movie theaters one doesn't see much anymore in Manhattan. No enormous signs were up for the latest action movie or blockbuster. Instead there were posters of classic independent and foreign films pinned on its tiny lobby’s wall. Even the Quad's concession stand was a bit of an anomaly, serving regular coffee (with no labels like “Starbucks” or “Cosi,”) one ounce containers of real half and half, as well as normal helpings of popcorn with eight ounces of Pepsi or Coke (no super-sized popcorn or soda drinks were to be found).
The four theaters within the Quad were all small, too, and as intimate as the side-street cafes and earthy cellar restaurants on the block. Since the row seats aren’t progressively elevated in slants on the floor, my mother and I always sat near the front. This way no larger person could obstruct our view of the screen.
Sandcastle was a complex, meditative tale of ethnicity, generational tensions, age and youth. The film was a personal work that connected, through visuals, subtle dialogue and acting, a young man's associations between memory and repression. En, the film’s main character, discovers through diary bits, letters, and innuendos spoken from his grandparents, the story of his deceased father's involvement in Singapore's suppressed student movements of 1956. Coming of age, En's sexual urgencies clash with the values and obligations his family imposes on him. As he sorts out his personal desire from his familial ties and its binds, his lost father haunts his tracks. The film shows us the edge of a Sea. Of how En feels a repeated sense that he can see a better world for everyone in a magical sandcastle he builds on the beach and he waits for when the tide will not destroy it, keeping the sandcastle in his imagination, a Utopia inside his head. We learn that his father was a revolutionary who was imprisoned after a failed national revolution, doomed, like a Greek mythic hero, to remain at the edge of the sea, building his dreams for freedom in the sand as a secret sandcastle, too. Like his son’s, his model is a Utopia he can only fantasize about. We learn he could not succeed in building a real one for his nation and family. The films ends with En finally enlisting as a national soldier, and living with his mother and his extended family, caught, too, in a paralysis by the edge of the Sea like his father. Imprisoned in a different way, he, too, can only imagine his Utopia, in the sand, failing to live out in his own version of “revolution” which would have been expressed as an inner personal but cultural one. A revolution against tradition and family ties which would have freed him to separate from his family and seek his own life.
The power of the story, its modest and unusually nuanced realism, made all the scenes oddly familiar to me, though they were in a far away land and culture I had never seen.
Everything that night of The Gotham Screen Film Festival, including the film, brought back the memory of my mother; her presence was everywhere. It is often said that viewing a film can be like entering a dream-state. The associations and imagery become a connection to one’s own subconscious. The power of film can induce a feeling of familiarity with the places, people, and events the film portrays, as if one has fallen into a gripping alter-reality that triggers another dream-like experience of one’s own past and present, paralleling events and feelings in the film.
Sandcastle and its exploration of generational connections had brought my mother back, and I felt her so intensely beside me as the film played, not just as a memory. The film brought her to me through a kind dream-state, through its subconscious associations and connections to our own story. I heard the intimacy of my mother and me chatting during the film, eating Hershey kisses and red licorice we brought with us in brown paper bags, and the dinners we got go from a neighborhood Chinese restaurant. My mother had savored those spare ribs and the sweet sauces that always came with those dinners. Usually there weren't enough people in the theater to object to her lip-smacking and loud chewing noises – we went to matinees where there were few lines to wait in, too, so that my mother, nearing ninety years old, didn't have to stand around and wait in line. Her legs were no longer the fierce muscular carriers of her intimidating and often imposing personality. A short woman, she still walked with a burly gravitas and self-import which revealed the younger girl she once was. My mother, in her early years, was a member of Palestine's Jewish underground in the 1930's, and she once had carried a rifle, hiding bullets in her panties and bra. Sitting with me inside the movie theater brought her to the same story. During the war, she told me, she and her father stole out of the house together, telling her mother they were going to the local tea house for sweets. What they did instead, as Jerusalem blazed with revolt and arrests, was go to the movies. She never tired of telling me about the theater on a narrow leafy side-street off Emek Refraim. It was named in honor of a great Israel poet, Bialik, a distant relative, and showed American films. She and her father had sat eating sweets and freshly baked rolls, watching the “magical” American films starring, maybe, Marlene Dietrich or Myrna Loy, which transformed her world. And transported her to far away lands. Opened in April 1928, it was built and operated by a German architect and was located in the German Colony district of Jerusalem. It served the British army until 1935.
The German owner handed it over to Jewish operators in late 1935, because of a ban by the Nazis on Germans operating Jewish businesses. As we sat at the Quad watching the special movies it premiered today, her face expressed the bittersweet remembrances of her and her father together in the famous theater, which later was shut down by the Nazis because it was owned by Jews. There was more hope, more of a sense of freedom that my mother found for herself and me in the Utopia she imagined long ago, sitting with her father in that tiny cinema house in Jerusalem.
As the lights went back on and the film ended, I felt as I had just woken up from being with her. I had, after all, woken up in a way – finding myself inside her “sandcastle,” something she had built for me long ago – a warm haven of imagination, safe from the harm of wars. Free and able to feel and comprehend through waves of time and generation, our lasting bond, and its universal affinities.
Causes Leora Skolkin-Smith Supports
Israel/Palestine issues women issues Mental Health system