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World of Wonders

Susan Coulter, chair of the recently formed Global Film Initiative foundation, sounds a little less than fully engaged on the phone, as is often the case with film promoters as they trudge a well-worn media-relations path. She’s been busy getting the word out about GFI, along with selecting the first six filmmakers to receive completion grants from the foundation, which is focused on local production in countries, like Angola and Vietnam, whose cinema is still in its infancy. Meanwhile, Global Lens, a program of the first 10 films acquired by GFI, plays this week at REDCAT as part of a national tour intended, she says, “to promote cross-cultural understanding through the medium of cinema.” Right on message.

Then Coulter gets to the part about the foundation’s outreach to high school students, and slips for a moment from dry mission statement into a reverie on sitting in the Brattle Theater, the art-house cinema of her Cambridge, Massachusetts, youth, succumbing to Lotte Lenya as Pirate Jenny in G.W. Pabst’s film of The Threepenny Opera. She begins to talk about helping today’s generation of young moviegoers fall in love with world cinema the way she and many a fellow boomer did, amid the velveteen must of the local Rialto or Avalon. Indeed, GFI has insisted on student screenings as part of its contract with the venues for Global Lens. Thus hundreds of L.A. high schoolers will see four of the program’s films (Angel on the Right, from Tajikistan; Ticket to Jerusalem, from Palestine; Margarette’s Feast, from Brazil; and Women’s Prison, from Iran) not by squinting at a classroom TV monitor, but mesmerized by flickering light in the darkened basement of the Disney Arts Center.

Of the films selected for the school programs, Margarette’s Feast, moving as it does to the propulsive rhythms of Brazilian folk music, may be the most accessible for young audiences — and the most difficult. There’s no dialogue. Moreover, writer-director Renato Falcão’s tale of Everyman Pedro (Hique Gomez) — who plans a fabulous feast for his wife, Margarette, but must jump all the hurdles of modern life to bring it about — references silent classics from Méliès to Murnau to Chaplin to Jacques Tati. Fortunately, enjoyment of his film — in scenes like the one in which Pedro leads his family in a breakfast-table samba played on plates and cups — doesn’t depend on picking up on such allusions.

Meanwhile, both Women’s Prison, set in the claustrophobic squalor of an Iranian cell block where “difficult” women have been swept under the rug, and Ticket to Jerusalem, a neorealist tale of a Palestinian projectionist trying to arrange a screening of a Heckle & Jeckle cartoon for some kids in Jerusalem, seem almost calculated to realize GFI’s goal of emphasizing commonality and the human scale of politics. Angel on the Right, director Djamshed Usmonov’s movie about an unrepentant hood dragged home from Moscow to tend to his dying mother amid the fierce provincialism of his native village, mines much the same vein — and delivers some of the best performances of the series.

The six remaining films likewise offer glimpses into seldom-seen worlds. Tunisia’s Jilani Saadi debuts with an assured dark comedy, Khorma, which follows the rise and fall of a village idiot. After gleefully tracing the progress of a stream of piss along a wall in the opening scene, the childlike Khorma (a charismatic Med Graya) discovers a hidden reserve of gravitas as he takes over from his aging mentor as town crier, only to surprise — and upset — the village elders with the magnitude of his schemes and ambition. In Shadow Kill, veteran southern Indian director Adoor Gopalakrishnan creates a fierce morality play, addressing questions of guilt and punishment through the eyes of an aging hangman called up for one last execution.

At a time when U.S. cultural awareness seems to have ebbed to its lowest point in decades (“Iraqis dislike sexual humiliation: Who knew?”), the religious and moral complexities of the films in round one of Global Lens show us a world in which Muslims struggle alongside Jews, Christians and Hindus to make sense of their lives, their beliefs and their destinies. By searching out, funding and exhibiting such films, Susan Coulter and the Global Film Initiative hope to entertain and inform — and influence — a new generation as it sits in the dark, eyes wide open.

Global Lens screens at REDCAT, Tuesday, May 25, through Wednesday, June 2. Call (213) 237-2800 or visit www.redcat.org.

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