John Gianvito, war and the human spirit

THESSALONIKI – Times, like the present, of global unrest are a good opportunity for countries and their citizens to take a break from their daily concerns and consider the repercussions of one nation’s actions against another. This process of a nation’s self-evaluation is often served by its artists. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, it was filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now), Stanley Kubrick (Full Metal Jacket) and Oliver Stone (Born on the Fourth of July), to name a few, who helped the people of the USA and the world to understand the extent of war’s atrocities, but, 10 years after the Gulf War, very little has been said or seen in the world of arts on that dark part of modern history. Here, at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, competing for a Gold or Silver Alexander in the International Competition, is the film, The Mad Songs of Fernanda Houssein. Its American director, John Gianvito, dedicated seven years of his life and a large part of his savings to create this documentary film that serves as testimony to the fact that the bitter errors of Vietnam not only went unlearned, but were repeated in the Gulf. According to Gianvito, they are being repeated in Afghanistan. Everyone knew what was happening and there is a lot of shame, but it’s like it never happened because it came and went so quickly. People knew there was something wrong but they never wanted to look at it, says the director, a former professor of cinema at the University of Massachusetts who was refused tenure because of the film. Currently, the 45-year-old artist is the associate curator of Harvard University’s film archive. Set between the barren deserts and lush Rio Grande River of New Mexico, The Mad Songs of Fernanda Houssein presents three parallel stories: A Mexican woman, Fernanda (played by Thia Gonzales), who is married to an Arab and looking for her murdered children; a high-school boy battling the establishments of school and family to express his views against the Gulf War; and a Gulf War veteran trying to come to terms with the atrocities he committed in the line of duty and struggling to reintegrate himself in a society that shows pride in his shame. The film, though three hours long, does not lag as the director has blended documentary images with fiction, different musical and photographic styles and an array of landscapes, using a diversity of aesthetic imagery to highlight the brutality of war’s myriad effects on society in the short and long term. One of the themes of the film, explains Gianvito in an interview with Kathimerini’s English Edition, is that war has reverberations that infiltrate all sectors of society; not always in evident ways like people who lost their lives. I had a particular interest in individuals who are far removed from the high levels of power and yet try to change their lives and the world around them but without any organized mechanisms. The film is suffused with symbolism from the start. The bodies of Fernanda’s son and daughter, victims of racism because of their Arabic name, float down the Rio Grande reminding viewers of the young woman in a painting by Paul Delaroche titled The Young Martyr which is in the Louvre. In one of the closing scenes, the people of Santa Fe are holding an annual celebration in which a large puppet, Zozobra, symbolizing uncertainty and gloom, is burned as frantic, drunk crowds violently chant, Burn, burn, burn. And in the final scene, the veteran blinds himself by staring at the sun rather than having to live with his memories. I wanted to show what war does to the human spirit, says Gianvito. It can lead you to a place where you can no longer appreciate the things you valued most in life. Fate Gianvito spent several months in New Mexico coming to grips with the local culture. The reason he chose the area, beyond the suitability of its landscape and the fact that it has an extensive military tradition- it drafted the largest number of soldiers per capita to fight in the the Gulf- is that, as a strong believer of Taoist philosophy, Gianvito often felt that he was meant to make this film at that particular location. The landscape spoke to me somehow and I am very good at not questioning my intuition. While making the film, the director had several strange experiences that border on the mystic: His script called for the psychic who finds Fernanda in the streets and conveys to her that her children are dead to live in a dark house full of fluttering birds and mask-covered walls. In the area, he found a psychic living in a house fitting that exact description. In another scene, where the children’s bodies are pulled from the river and the villagers stand on opposite banks holding candles, Gianvito required a small clearing to film a critical, specific shot. A year-and-a-half later, he discovered the perfect spot on the bank of a small stretch of the river on an Indian reservation where a year previously the body of a young, murdered girl washed ashore. Lessons But, beyond the symbolic importance of the film, The Mad Songs of Fernanda Houssein is, without taking the moral highroad, a fascinating study into the mechanics of war. It analyzes the propaganda machine, showing the way in which the media veils actual events, advertises new children’s toys promoting the use of weapons, even documenting a professor’s battle to include materials against the war on his curriculum. It looks at the returning soldiers, whose jobs have been filled while they were absent, who cannot create relationships with those around them because they are haunted by their experiences, and who are suffering diseases they can’t explain. Gianvito interviewed approximately 50 Gulf War veterans and the words spoken by the veterans in his film are theirs, and some of the images shown of dead civilians are real. Among those he interviewed, most were suffering from post-traumatic stress, skin conditions, depression and often, alcoholism or drug abuse. I think that we will see a lot of that coming out of Afghanistan in the future, he adds. Most powerfully, The Mad Songs of Fernanda Houssein looks at how a society is divided into those for and those against a war and how easy it is to ignore the atrocities that are going on around us on a daily basis. People are fundamentally distressed about what they hear in the news, but in lieu of other alternatives they don’t know where to turn and I think my film is another place where people can find a different point of view and follow their own intuition that they weren’t crazy, that things were really happening which weren’t widely reported, says Gianvito.

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