The Pilgrim (1916, Frank Borzage)

A little western two-reeler with a good piano and violin score, starring Borzage as the humble, good-natured title character. Shadowplay: “I can think of few westerns where a good bit of the plot is devoted to healing a bad guy, who then departs the story without being bad again.” D. Sallitt: “The Pilgrim focuses on expressions, on using cinema to stop time and ponder the feelings that people can only half communicate.”

Jerks, Don’t Say Fuck (2001, Zhao Liang)

A punk-industrial music video with thrashy editing, military images and other weirdness. Video glitches, super-fast motion and repetition.

Bored Youth (2000, Zhao Liang)

Shirtless dude in blurry night vision breaks a lot of windows, just a ton of windows. the sound starts to go out of sync and echo. Editing slows way down, showing off the glorious digital video artifacts in low light. This goes on for seven minutes. Then: repeated shots of a squid catching a fish, the sound of machine-gun fire, and a demolition crew the next morning.

Four Women (1975, Julie Dash)

Music video for a Nina Simone song. Backlit dancer wrapped in a sheet for the intro, then different dances and clothes during the four parts of the piano-and-vocal section, all danced by Linda Young.

Bauca (2009, Albert Serra)

Fullscreen washes of color, edited to a symphonic piece. Cutting follows the music, but rarely right on the rhythm. Song ends suddenly and picture goes white.

Dignity (2008, Abderrahmane Sissako)

Interviewer asks different people to define dignity, and each does so silently.

Sissako: “I think it’s very difficult to deal with such sweeping concepts as justice and dignity in the allotted two or three minutes, so I looked for an idea that actually asked the question ‘What is dignity’ rather than answering it.”

My Heart Swims In Blood (2011, John Gianvito)

A veteran does not sleep well. Voiceover tells us horrible facts about the current wars while the camera shows everyday scenes and watchful owls. This is his section from the omnibus Far From Afghanistan, which I hope comes out soon. I think Andre (My Dinner With Andre) Gregory played the old man in bed.

Walker (2012, Tsai Ming-liang)

Monk carrying his lunch walks through the busy city in extreme slow-motion. Just wonderful.

1. A deep-voiced white kid Rafael is the only peacenik in his New Mexico high school, spurred on by a hippie teacher. His parents will hear nothing of it (“There was a time for national debate. It’s over”) so he leaves home.

2. Fernanda’s kids are abducted and killed on the first day of school by local racists. The cops are unhelpful jerks, and the kids aren’t found for a month. Fernanda herself is held for two months under suspicion of murder, disappears when released, goes wandering, is found by a woman with a house full of finches.

3. Ex-Marine Carlos returns from war, finds his job gone, is full of uncontrollable lusty rage.

So, a indie film over two hours long, shot on 16mm, full of 1990’s politics but released soon after September 2001. This was destined to be ignored, but accidentally destined to be extremely relevant to the decade that followed.

Freeze frames, long refreshingly unscripted-feeling dialogue scenes, and of course some scenes of trees and the whispering wind. Plus extended concert segments by Naseer Shemma, an Iraqi musician who performs his celebrated composition dedicated to civilians killed when American planes bombed a shelter.

Michael Sicinski in Cinema Scope:

Mad Songs is a political film that encompasses multiple stories, but does so following a film historical road less travelled – beginning with DW Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat and leading most recently to Fast Food Nation. The stories never intersect; instead they examine the problems of a time and place (the suburban US during the first Gulf War) almost geologically, by taking samples from discrete layers of American life.

Part of what makes Mad Songs so poignant, and at the same time incredibly strange, is the hope and earnestness with which it concludes. No film I’m aware of has given so much space to peace activists, sitting in meetings and testifying about the transformative power of nonviolent resistance. To a generation of critics and cinephiles reared on post-noir cynicism, Gianvito’s treatises surely sounded like transmissions from another planet.

Gianvito:

When I first began to conceive the project that became The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein, around 1993 I believe, it grew purely out of seething rage over the events of the 1991 Gulf War, the mainstream suppression of those events, and concern over the continuing support of lethal sanctions and military “containment” of Iraq. By the time I saw the film to completion the entire situation had only grown graver and more infuriating.