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Yes, double Trailer Weekly attack today!

If you follow me on Twitter, you will have probably noticed that this week I was (re)tweeting a lot about UWC, which stands for United World Colleges, a movement (?) that celebrated 50 years this week. It’s kind of hard to sum up what UWC is and the mission statement “to deliver a challenging and transformational educational experience to a diverse cross section of students, inspiring them to create a more peaceful and sustainable future” sounds as posh and empty-worded as any, except that in reality it isn’t. Basically, the United World Colleges are a connected group of schools (currently twelve institutions spread over five continents) that believes that sticking some 200 kids aged 16-19 from as many different countries as possible (usually around 75) into a boarding school for two years can somehow make the world a better place. (Full scholarships provided by the way.)

While it’s a bit hard to measure the general impact of such an experiment on the world, it sure does make a difference in the lives of individuals who in turn may (or may not) make a difference in the lives of others elsewhere. Although I had already lived in three different countries on two continents before I went to UWC, been part of international communities and attended schools with multiple nationalities represented, none of these situations were as diverse or as, umm, extreme as at UWC. It’s vastly different to go home to your parents after classes than to be stuck with peers from the world over 24/7. There will inevitably be a lot of cultural clashes – ranging from real conflicts (Israel/Palestine, Ex-Yugoslavia, etc) to things as simple whether you shower in the morning or at night (or even whether you shower every day). We had an Americas-centred world map that a Dutch classmate cut into pieces and rearranged, students who regularly came to class in pyjamas, while others wore a hijab and plenty of disagreements on personal space and public displays of affection. I could go on forever, but in such an environment it’s impossible to take things for granted as anything and everything is likely to be questioned at some point. Most of all, however, I think it is impossible to walk away after UWC without that personal, face-to-face connection you made with several hundred people profoundly affecting you forever. Whether a bomb explodes or an earthquake shakes the ground just about anywhere, I worry about people I know, as I did when a senpai of mine was kidnapped in Yemen earlier this year (and fortunately released unharmed after a fortnight).

Since it has been 50 years since the first of these schools was founded – the United World College of the Atlantic in Llantwit Major, Wales – and 30 years since the one I attended myself – the Armand Hammer United World College of the American West (aka UWCUSA) in Montezuma, New Mexico, USA – opened, I wanted to do a special Trailer Weekly featuring films from my two years at UWC to celebrate. And also to keep spreading the word about the movement so that more people have the chance to attend one such school.

The first thing I should say is say is that UWC wasn’t really a time when I watched a lot of films. In fact, it may have been the time I watched the least amount of films ever because we were simply too busy doing a gazillion of other things, like toiling through a rigorous academic programme (the International Baccalaureate – if anyone else is an IB graduate, I’m sure you can commiserate!), tons of community service (probably twice as much as the IB officially requires) and participating in all kinds of cultural events. I don’t think I went to the cinema even once during that time, VHS tapes/DVDs were too much of a pain to get hold of (no money, location too remote) and the internet was still in its early days (we did use it, but it was probably all text and static images at that time).

If I’m honest, there is only one single film that has left a distinct imprint on me:

I think one of my Kiwi classmates must have brought the film from home. I only recall watching it in the common room and finding myself profoundly disturbed afterwards like I had never been before. Which I think was formative: I may have watched a range of films before, but even if there were ‘foreign’ films among them, they were much more mainstream. Watching Once Were Warriors was probably the first time I realised that films could be powerful, moving and perhaps even life-changing, and in retrospect probably propelled me towards what I watch nowadays.

Once Were Warriors was a major hit in its native country, indeed, it became the most successful movie at the New Zealand box office ever, taking 6.7 NZ$. It’s a drama about a dysfunctional family, descended from a Maori tribe and struggling in modern-day New Zealand. Alcoholism, drugs and domestic abuse feature prominently, the film offering a dark and depressing glimpse into the harrowing underbelly of society.

All the other films I watched were related to the classes I took – they were film adaptations of books we were reading. All except the first are based on plays, one is adapted from a novel. While the cinematic versions were fine, I would actually recommend watching most of these in the theatre first and foremost if you ever get the chance.

  • O Beijo da Mulher Aranha (The Kiss of the Spider Woman, Brazil/USA, 1985) – Directed by Héctor Babenco. Based on a novel (1990) by Argentine author Manuel Puig. It’s about two men in prison: Valentín is a leftist revolutionary, while Molina is a homosexual imprisoned for having sex with an underage boy. As they share time in the same cell, a friendship slowly develops although it eventually is revealed that Molina has been promised an early release if able to retrieve specific information from Valentín. His desire to betray his cellmate however is complicated by the fact that he falls in love with Valentín, a feeling that, after some time, the other man returns.
  • The Visit (France/Germany/Italy/USA, 1964) – Directed by Bernhard Wicki. Based on the tragicomic play Der Besuch der alten Dame (The Visit, 1956) by Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt. A superbly powerful story about the town of Gullen and its citizens that raises unsettling moral questions – questions that remain as relevant as ever. The plot: About to go bankrupt, the townspeople of Gullen believe that they are saved when Claire Zachanassian, a multi-millionairess who hails from the place, returns after many years of absence. While the wealthy, old woman agrees to gift them with an enormous amount of money, she has one condition: they must kill Alfred Ill, Gullen’s most popular inhabitant and future mayor – Claire’s former lover. This adaptation stars Ingrid Bergman as Claire and Anthony Quinn as Alfred Ill.
  • Hyènes (The Netherlands, 1992) – Directed by Djibril Diop Mambéty. Another adaptation of Dürrenmatt’s play, this time made by a Senegalese director and transposed to the African continent. (I can’t remember which film version we watched – I actually think it was this one, rather than the Bernhard Wicki one.)
  • Oleanna (USA, 1994) – Directed by David Mamet. Based on David Mamet’s own play of the same title – and what a play it is! It’s as simple as it gets, featuring only two characters, a male university professor and his female student, who shows up one day upset and worried that she may fail his class. The story takes place in a single, sparsely decorated room. There are only three scenes, each one taking place on a different day. It’s all very minimalistic and the set is the stripped down, leaving only the dialogue between two individuals. If anything ever illustrated the power of words – and how elusive the concept of truth is -, it’s this play (which, in fact, I mentioned way back when I reviewed Carnage).
  • Death and the Maiden (US/UK/France, 1994) – Directed by Roman Polanski. Based on a play, La muerte y la doncella (1990), by Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman. Yet another story that couldn’t get more intense: set in an unspecified Latin American country, military rule has finally been replaced by democracy. Paulina, a former political activist who was captured, raped and tortured during dictatorship times, lives in the isolated countryside, with only her husband by her side. One day her partner, Gerardo, helps out a stranger, Dr. Miranda, with a flat car tyre and eventually invites the man into the couple’s home. Although Paulina was blindfolded during the entire time when she was held captive, she immediately recognises the voice of the visitor: it is her captor and rapist. Deeply disturbed, she decides to take him captive and force a confession out of him, although the doctor professes innocence, claiming he has never seen her before. In between the two is Gerardo, who does not know whom to believe. Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley and Stuart Wilson star in this adaptation. Sidenote: At UWC, a couple of friends and I read this play together at midnight on the dark soccer field using flashlights – absolutely terrifying!

Bonus Bits:

  • Uprooted (Colombia, 2007, 44 min) – Directed by Juan Mejia Botero, who is not only a UWC grad but so happens to be the son of my wonderful biology teacher at UWC-USA. 🙂 This award-winning documentary about the struggle and resilience of Norris Mosquera, an Afro-Colombian woman, after death threats displace – uproot – her family is on my to-watch list.
  • חיותה וברל (Hayuta and Berl/Epilogue, Israel, 2012) – I already featured this one in Trailer Weekly #49, but giving it another shout-out here as a UWC classmate was involved in the making of this film (she works for the production company). Plot (quoting myself here from that Trailer Weekly): “An elderly couple, part of the founding generation of Israel, that in its old age is not only struggling with physical ailments but experiencing disillusionment in the society around them as the values of old are no longer cherished. The only way they see out of their hardship is to end their lives.” Hayuta and Berl is set to screen at the London International Film Festival. I have a ticket booked of course.
  • Mr. 아이돌 (Mr. Idol, South Korea, 2011) – Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know that I love Korean films, but that this – a story about a K-pop music executive that is trying to find a new lead singer for a previously-famous band called Mr. Children – definitely isn’t the kind of film I usually watch. But watch it I did (okay, I’ll admit, I skip-watched it). Why? Because my UWC classmate from the Philippines was an extra in it so of course I wanted to see his wonderful performance, even if it was only for a few seconds! Though I didn’t care for the film (no surprise there), those seconds warmed my nostalgic heart. 🙂 Sidenote: speaking of South Korea, it’s curiously enough one of the few countries that doesn’t have a national UWC committee. Although there are likely to be some Korean UWC graduates out there (they can still apply through the International Office), I don’t know any. Which means that we need to spread the word there, so that someone can set up a national committee and send students to UWC every year!

Final words: Happy, Happy Birthday UWC and UWC-USA!