ONE of the brighter signs at this year's Cannes International
Film Festival was a strong indication that family issues are being
actively explored by moviemakers around the world. This is a
particularly welcome development during the United Nations
International Year of the Family, given cinema's importance as an
influential medium with a global reach.
The interest in films about families holds true not only in the
major cinematic centers of North America and Western Europe, but
also in places not readily associated with commercial moviemaking.
One is India, which produced Shaji N. Karun's quiet "Swaham,"
about the difficulties of single parenthood. Another is Southeast
Asia, which provided the inspiration for Cambodian-born director
Rithy Panh's picturesque "People of the Ricefield," about a
family of nine living in delicate balance with the forces of nature
that sustain their existence.
Within the United States, both Hollywood studios and independent
producers are keeping families in mind. Examples seen at Cannes
ranged from "Picture Bride," a Hawaiian filmmaker's look at
mail-order marriage in the World War I era, to "Clean, Shaven,"
a New York director's corrosive study of a mentally disturbed man's
search for his estranged young daughter. There was also much praise
for the bittersweet "Eat Drink Man Woman," made in Taiwan by
Manhattan-based filmmaker Ang Lee, who also focused on parents and
children in "The Wedding Banquet," his previous film.
One of the most exciting trends represented at Cannes was a
continuing wave of sensitive movies about African-American
families. Cannes had no monopoly on these, of course: Spike Lee's
endearing "Crooklyn" bypassed the festival, opening directly in
US theaters. But few American pictures generated more interest at
the filmfest than the spunky "I Like It Like That" and the
provocative "Fresh," both by promising new directors and both
expected on local screens soon.
Film treatment of African-American families has gone through
many ups and downs over the past three decades. Family issues
received hardly a nod during the period of violent
"blaxploitation" pictures that captured large audiences in the
late 1960s and early '70s.
But a more recent wave of black-oriented filmmaking has evolved
a different set of priorities. Family matters take on increasing
importance in Mr. Lee's influential "Do the Right Thing" and
"Jungle Fever," and they're the center of interest in Charles
Burnett's insightful "To Sleep With Anger," a 1990 drama
featuring Danny Glover as a somewhat sinister acquaintance who
barges into a middle-class household that's troubled by
Lee's current "Crooklyn" also places family issues in the
spotlight, focusing on a little girl's adventures as she grows up
in a crowded New York home burdened with financial and emotional
problems. Written by Lee with his sister and brother, Joie and
Cinque Lee, the movie has been faulted by some reviewers for having
a shapeless and wandering structure.
More perceptive critics have praised it, however, for having the
boldness to seem meandering while actually reflecting the
unpredictable, improvisational quality that typifies coming-of-age
experiences in the real world. …