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Claus Mueller


Claus Mueller is a Film Festival Ambassador to filmfestivals.com

He is based in New York where he covers the festival scene.


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Austin: From SXSW 2021: two outstanding features

With the objective of “helping creative people achieve their goals” the South by Southwest Conference and Festival (SXSW) was established in 1987 in Austin, Texas with an emphasis on the merger of  interactive productions, the film ,and music industries. Like other festivals, SXSW embraced digital platforms for its conferences, music showcases  exhibitions, networking opportunities and film screenings in 2021. SXSW Online 2021 took place from March 16-20, though conference sessions, some  films, and music showcases are still available on their online platform until April 18, with some films available in the  SXSW screening library until March 31. 75 feature films were selected including 57 world, 3 international, and 4 North-American premieres, with 53 films from first-time  filmmakers. There were 84 short films offering music videos, episodic pilots, and numerous other premieres.

Among the superb films selected were two outstanding productions, the US film SWAN SONG by Todd Stephen and the Brazilian EXECUTIVE ORDER directed by Lazaro Ramos. Swan Song featured a superb character performance by Udo Kier, a German actor, now living in the US. He has excelled in his film, television, and voice work.  Udo Kier has performed in close to 250 roles ranging from horror in his earlier career, portraying Dracula, playing Adolf Hitler several times, and performing in several serious dramatic productions. Kier has worked in film and television since 1968 with the 2021 SWAN SONG being one of crowning achievements of his life. He was acknowledged in 2015 with the Berlinale Special Teddy Award for artistic life achievement, though deserves greater recognition. He played essential supporting roles in BACURAU, THE PAINTED BIRD, DOGVILLE, SUSPIRIA and MELANCHOLIA and has performed under Andy Warhol, Rainer W. Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, and Lars von Trier who hired Udo Kier for most of his films. As with other directors, von Trier was drawn to Kier because of his ingenious  and succinct character presentations no matter the film’s theme or the profile of the individual Kier played.

The role of Pat Pitsenbarger in SWAN SONG fits ideally Kier’s enormous acting background. Pat is a former beautician advanced in age, living infirm and ailing, seemingly a captive in a hospice like senior home, bossed around by domineering attendants. He spends his life bored stiff, folding all the time  paper napkins and sneaking away for some other impaired inmates’ smokes. He escapes the hospice because a former client, Rita, had died and requested in her last will that he be paid well for fixing her hair for the open casket in which she will be shown. He reluctantly agrees and returns to Sandusky, a small town in Ohio where her funeral is held and where Pat resided for decades. For many years Pat had a beauty salon in Sandusky, became part of the community, build his home, and had an excitingly gay life. For Pat, swan song is a journey into the past in which old ghosts come alive. The journey includes his companion who passed away a long time ago, the few traces of a house he built there, and the fractured painful relationship he had with Rita because both stuck to rigid rules disallowing close social relationships between a common hairdresser, no matter how skilled, and a rich, attractive, upscale woman. His former clients who still live recall him and provide the flamboyant cloth he selects for Rita’s last make up alongside the needed tools. Pat is broke, and the banker refuses to provide any advance. His old hang out, a restaurant with a ball room is closing. Pat performed there for  gay clients and friends when living in Sandusky and he is essential  running a farewell party dancing, singing, and clowning as he used to do decades ago while working in the town  as a beautician.  Because of Kier’s performance and overwhelming sense of identity in the present and past. SWAN SONG is a  terrific film and character study.

The Brazilian 2020 feature EXECUTIVE ORDER by its writer and  first time director Lazaro Ramos showcases the dystopian reality of a future  Brazil in Rio de Janeiro caused by the government response to unresolved race conflicts. Brazil did not abolish slavery until 1888 and the country has a long history of racial oppression by mainly white ruling elites. The latest demographic surveys show that about 48% of the population is white whereas the mixed color mulatto and black groups account for 51% with the remaining consisting of Asian and the rapidly disappearing indigenous peoples. Pre-pandemic data also indicates that social disparities and income gaps have grown, a trend reinforced by the current pandemic in Brazil and the rise of its rapidly spreading super variant P.1. Against this background the scenario suggested by Ramos resonates, particularly so given the pervasive conflicts we observe in the United States and the continuing socio-economic and political disenfranchisement of large segments of the Afro-American and Latino minority groups.

In EXECUTIVE ORDER, an articulate civil rights attorney, Antonio, wins a lawsuit for damages caused by slavery. Compensation is awarded to be paid by the government to the descendants of the slaves now called high melanin people. Rather than paying the amount, because according to the leading conservative white group it would cause bankruptcy, the decision is not honored. Instead, an executive order is issued by the government to encourage the so-called “high melanin citizens” to return with one-way tickets to their ancient African homes. Despite advertising campaigns, the voluntary return does not work out and orders are issued to forcefully move all black and colored people to Africa, even  the slightly  colored ones. Individuals belonging to these groups are arrested and hunted down on streets, in their homes, and their places of  work for forced removal from Brazil. Martial law is enforced by the army and police. Antonio, his collaborators, his wife Capitu, a medical doctor, and a journalist friend, Andre, start to organize the opposition. They support the underground movement and eventually open resistance to the government. Resistance and riots prompted by armed police violence and mass arrests are spread. To protect themselves, minorities seek refuge in “Afro Bunkers” on the safer sides of town. The state and the revolting opposition are in a standoff with neither side prevailing. Some large demonstrations and the liberation of opposition leaders after their detention create some optimism when Executive Order concludes.

For Ramos, EXECUTIVE ORDER is “a film that talks about racial conditions mixing genres: comedy, thriller and drama”. Ramos acknowledges the influence of Spike Lee.  Ramos presents a superbly realistic world of diverse people and themes with the goal of building experiences and reaching emotional involvement. Most importantly, Ramos forces the audience to reflect on the issues the film focuses on.  He reaches this objective by employing  more than 70 actors in Executive Order and has established well-known actors in the principal roles: Alfred Enoch as Antonio, a veteran actor dedicated to heroism and idealism,  Tais Araujo as Capitu, one of the most popular black Brazilian and international actresses, and Seu Jorge as Andre, an internationally known singer with numerous awards. They have all been engaged in civil rights efforts before teaming up with Ramos. The feature had its premiere in Moscow and is likely to reach an international audience given its great acting, narrative, score, and depiction of racism and political oppression in our times.

 

New York: Claus Mueller

filmexchange@gmail.com

 

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