The tagline on RIDM’s website for The Great Fortune (Das Grosse Glück), from German filmmakers Kirsten Burger, Mikko Gaestel & Johannes Müller, begins: “Ultra-wealthy, roguish, cultivated, affected, annoying, trisomic: meet Mirco Kuball.” For those unfamiliar with the term “trisomic,” it’s a more technical name for those born with Down’s Syndrome, one of the most common types of birth defects. While those with Down’s Syndrome have a characteristic look, their symptoms have a great range, in terms of both physical and mental disabilities. Depending on economic and cultural circumstances, a person with Down’s Syndrome may or may not have the opportunity to prove how capable they can be. But it’s the rest of the adjectives in the description of Mirco that the filmmakers seem most interested in presenting us here.
It seems, from what little the filmmakers share with us of Kuball’s circumstances, that he comes from an obscenely wealthy family and was afforded the kind of opportunities that others, regardless of any developmental disabilities, generally don’t get. Since he doesn’t need to work for a living, he is able to explore his passions, including primarily performing small acting parts on stage and screen. Now orphaned, Kuball literally lives in a 19th century castle in Germany, a miniature version of the Bavarian Neuschwanstein Castle, and appears to be its sole resident. How active Mirco is in caring for his home and himself, beyond showing him driving a lawn mower around the property, we don’t know. Are there servants, beyond a chauffeur we meet, that care for him? Does he play a role in hiring them, or is there an unseen hand that the filmmakers have chosen not to reveal who takes care of his personal and financial affairs? None of these questions about how truly independent he is seem to be of interest to the filmmakers. Is he “ultra-wealthy” and “cultured?” Yes. He’s chauffeured about, shops in high-end clothing stores, eats in fancy restaurants, and wanders around his mansion. “Roguish,” “affected,” and “annoying?” Well, that’s all a matter of opinion. Of his capacity as an actor, we see only a very short clip of him in a television movie; otherwise, we mostly see him backstage at a theatre, putting on make-up—living the performer’s life. So we have no real sense of his talent. He does give off a roguish and affected air when he talks about his life, especially in regard to theatre. But it seems more that he was performing for us in these scenes, perhaps trying to live up to our expectations of the actor’s life.
What the filmmakers offer beyond those adjectives is insight into his loneliness. Mirco is gay and, as far as the filmmakers show us, has no real close friends. Being gay with Down’s Syndrome has only compounded his struggle to find a romantic companion. In the end, while I spent an hour in the film with Mirco, I felt I was merely observing him from a distance. Afterwards, I hit the internet to find out more about Mirco online. On his website, he seems very active in dispelling prejudices of those with Down’s Syndrome. This is another absence the filmmakers might have chosen to show us. Mirco’s own tagline on his website reads: “Despite Down’s Syndrome, I’m not down.” And yet, while The Great Fortune shows that Mirco does have his “down” days, despite his fortune and misfortune, he is just another human being trying to make his way in the world… in other words, no different than the rest of us.
In 2013, Italian-American filmmakers Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis made two short films, Belva Nera (Black Beast) and Il Solengo, which can be viewed as études for their new feature documentary, also titled Il Solengo, They are all intertwined and it’s nearly impossible to speak of the feature without discussing the shorts, though only the full-length doc was shown at RIDM. In all three films, the two filmmakers have returned to their genealogical roots in rural Italy, where they spend time with a group of older men spinning tales of two near-mythical and mystical characters that roam the woods of their village. All three films celebrate the oral storytelling tradition, but are also elegies to both a dying generation and the passing of rural life during the previous century. The films have their antecedents in documentaries like Errol Morris’ Vernon, Florida. But rather than simply allowing the camera to wander around the small town, Righi and Zoppis focus on one story that all the characters—and indeed they are all characters—contribute to telling. One can easily imagine spending a few days in this village, or any rural village or town from Timbuktu to Burk’s Falls, sitting in a café or bar, and suddenly having old-timers such as these spin tales to you.
In Belva Nera, the men tell us of a black panther that may or may not have invaded their community. Some of the men claim to have seen it, while others are adamant that their friends were merely seeing things. In both Il Solengo films, the same men speak of a hermit who lived in the woods who is known as Mario de Marcella—Mario, son of Marcella—because, as one of the men tells us, in their village, all men named Mario are crazy, so you need to add the second part to discern which Mario you are talking about. The stories surrounding this Mario are what interest the filmmakers, in the same way as the story of the panther does. Tales are told of Mario that are often second- or third-hand and contradict each other. How much is truth and how much is fiction is impossible to tell and the filmmakers leave us to either make up our own minds or perhaps simply to accept them all without judgment. Did his mother kill his father? Did one man actually see the blood of the murder in an old home years later, or did he just imagine seeing it? Did Marcella give birth to Mario in prison? When she died, was he sent home to live in the village? Who knows? But it is in hearing these tales that the film delivers.
In the short Il Solengo, we actually get to see Mario, though he never speaks, and is filmed in an elusive way as he wanders about, recalling footage one might see in a Bigfoot exposé. However, in the feature, we only get a tease of the real Mario at the very end. With his face turned away from the camera in, perhaps, a hospital bed, he tells us in voiceover that no one will ever know the truth of his life story. According to the filmmakers, Mario died shortly after filming. Technically, the feature is far superior to the shorts. But rather than using the footage from the short of the real Mario, the filmmakers chose to have a metaphorical stand-in, which is somewhat confusing to viewers. In the feature, the man we see wandering the woods is not Mario, but another local named Bruno, who was actually introduced in Belva Nera. In that film, we learn Bruno is a drunk who also wanders the woods, hoping one day to catch sight of the fabled black panther. But in Il Solengo the feature, it is never made clear who Bruno is. He is filmed wandering the woods with no explanation. Righi and Zoppis explained to me that Bruno, who does work as a carpenter, is “living a life that is not that far apart from the one led by Mario and we tried to portray that… and that confusion is done purposefully.” I would disagree with them and say that confusing the audience in this way doesn’t serve their film. Perhaps Bruno deserves his own film if they want to explore the similarities between the two men. Other than that, it was an entertaining 70 minutes of storytelling.
Joining the series of documentaries on the AKS Company’s SKE48, HKT48, AKB48 groups, Raise Your Arms & Twist: Documentary of NMB48 takes us behind the scenes as the Osaka division of this J-Pop organization struggles to establish itself as a competitive equal to Tokyo’s #1, AKB48, and explores the lives and struggles of some of NMB48’s members. Now if you have no idea what I’ve written above, well… welcome to the strange world of Japanese idol bands.
Japanese idol bands have been around for several decades, but starting in the mid-2000s they’ve become less like musical groups and more like team sports. (In fact, one of the girls in the movie complains that when she tells people she’s with NMB48, since they are a relatively new and unknown group, people keep asking if she’s with the NBA.) These aren’t your typical Western girl groups manufactured by a record label. For instance NMB48 has around 60 girls in the group, all in their mid-to-late teens. The girls are first signed up as Draftees (trainees) and then advance, if they are successful, to one of several teams—Team N, Team M, or Team BII. The teams perform daily in theatres owned by the company. The ones who develop the strongest followings amongst fans, and are liked by the team’s producers, get to join the super group of 15 members; this is the group that performs in big concerts and makes recordings and music videos. Fans buy CDs and other merchandise and then vote for their favorite girls. (As one fan tells us, “This is like a modern version of sumo wrestling.”) In addition, every time you buy a CD, you get to wait in line at one of the team’s regular handshake events, for the opportunity to speak in person and hold hands with your favorite team member for a total of eight seconds. Then you can buy another CD and get back in line for an additional eight seconds with them. The top rated girls also get contracts to promote a multitude of products as spokespeople or models, which may also include becoming a character in company-developed video games, and appearing on various television programs, growing their fan base. The music has little to do with the phenomenon—it’s all about the marketing. Millions and millions of dollars go to the companies that produce these groups each year.
Like the other films about the AKS groups—I’ve only watched clips of the others, but they all seem to utilise a basic formula—we follow the group as they head towards the annual election where fans vote for their favorites, which not only determines the girls who are the most popular, but also whether they’ll advance up to the better teams. We get to spend up-close and personal time with some of the girls, meet a few of their fans, go behind the scenes of video shoots and, of course, see clips from their performances. While many of the girls’ personal stories are touching, (such as one would-be performer who can’t break through to get on any team) there are also girls who completely buy into the fantasy and will do whatever it takes to climb the ladder to success and are utterly shattered when they don’t get more fans. My personal favourite is the part-time philosophy student who quotes Nietzsche throughout and reads statements from her journal such as: “We are a fiction that is consumed by society. I am not my own self.” But the film never delves into the truly dark side of this phenomenon, which is only natural since everything we see is produced by the parent company, AKS. And there certainly is a dark side. The girls are forced to sign no-dating contracts in order to maintain their appearance as innocent young things, and are not allowed to marry while under contract. Last year, a deranged fan attacked members of AKB48 with a handsaw at one of the handshake events.
Director Atsushi Funahashi does bring something ironic to Raise Your Arms & Twist. He has said he had no real interest in the idol group scene before being approached to make the film, and he approached it almost like an ethnographic documentary on some remote primitive culture. His voiceover drops in throughout the film, with a quiet, unemotional tone, reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s style. Whether or not this subculture is new to you, his film is a well-made introduction to it and worth catching.