By KENDRA SITTON | Uptown News
It has been nearly 20 years since the Museum of Photographic Arts opened a theater inside the museum’s halls. Since then, the theater has drawn San Diegans to its silver screen by showcasing films from around the world.
“MOPA’s film programs have been going strong since 2001 when we were able to put in our theater here at the museum,” said Kevin Linde, manager of adult and digital engagement at MOPA. “That’s when our film program began in earnest, but part of our mission is ‘dedicated to the preservation, collection, and exhibition’ of not only photographs, but also film and video. It’s always been baked into our mission, but getting the theater allowed us to do all those things in-house.”
When it transitioned to a partnership model with local film fests a decade ago rather than holding in-house screenings, MOPA became even more integral in bringing acclaimed international films to the heart of San Diego.
“By partnering with them, we were able to reach a broader audience,” Linde said. “We don’t work with every film festival in town but we’ll take a very thoughtful approach to who we want to partner with. We’re always looking at making those partnerships a lasting partnership.”
MOPA’s flagship partnership is with the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. The New York-based advocacy group comes to San Diego each winter to showcase documentaries and feature films that highlight rights abuses from across the globe and efforts to combat them. In addition, the annual San Diego Italian Film Festival screens many of its films at the museum.
“Film is this beautiful medium materially you can use to communicate an idea, to create a connection with something that might be happening half a world away. Film captivates us and draws us in,” Linde said.
Holding a screening at MOPA instead of a typical commercial movie theater does have some advantages.
When the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Theater was built in 2001 during a major renovation of the museum, these events were kept in mind. In front of the screen, there is a stage so filmmakers, directors, and actors can speak to the audience about a particular film. “There’s always an education component to it. We like to think that seeing a film at MOPA, you get much more than just the experience of watching the film. You get a much broader picture,” Linde explained.
Sometimes, the audience is allowed into the galleries at the museum ahead of the film, bringing more people through the museum’s doors.
The theater itself is also beautiful: the ceiling is covered in tiny LED lights that give the impression of starlight. It can seat nearly 230 people. “It also has state-of-the-art facilities, projection booth, sound system,” Linde said.
While Human Rights Watch and the Italian Film Fest are the museum’s biggest events of the year, its other partnerships include screening movies for International Rescue Mission, the GI Film Festival SD, the Coming of Age Film Festival, and San Diego Film Week. In November alone, MOPA partnered with the Arab Film Festival for a special screening of an animated feature vying for an Oscar and is hosting three films for the San Diego Asian Film Festival on Nov. 16.
Uptown News was at the screening of “The Tower” at MOPA and saw “Heavy Craving” at UCSD before it came to Balboa Park.
“The Tower” is an animated debut feature from Norwegian director Mats Grorud depicting a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon learning about her family history from three previous generations of refugees.
The film took eight years to complete and is based off the year Grorud spent living in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Before the film began, he explained that during his year there teaching animation to kids, he felt like he was constantly given gifts by friends he’d made. He sees the film as his gift back to them.
The majority of the film is in claymation, but it dabbles in other mediums: flashbacks are done in classic hand-drawn animation and a few times, real film is used. At one point, the main character — a young girl named Wardi — flips through family photos. Grorud explained those photos were actually taken by his mother in the 1980s when she visited the refugee camps each year to provide medical care. It was her stories from that time that inspired him to go to the camps himself when he had the opportunity.
Watching claymation requires patience — movements are slow and frames are less frequent than what audience members are used to. The excellent sound mixing made the experience enthralling and hard to look away from. In addition, the detailed settings for the clay dolls had impressive lighting. The shadows and rays of light communicated emotion and imparted a sense of verisimilitude.
While beautiful and containing a deep emotional core, the film’s primary purpose seems to be education. As Wardi goes up each level of her family’s tower, and to a new generation of her family, audiences from outside Palestine are walked through Nakba Day (which means “Day of the Catastrophe” — when Israeli forces kicked out two-thirds of Palestinians from their ancestral homes), the poverty in refugee camps, rebellions to take back Israel, and Lebanese militias attacking the camps.
Despite its accessibility to Western audiences, Palestinians in attendance praised Grorud’s depiction of the refugee camp. One man said he was amazed by the tiny details included that made the film so accurate. Some details would be obvious to people who only briefly visited — the gardens on upper stories of houses, the men who compete for the best hoard of pigeons on the roof — but others are more intricate and might be missed by a Western audience.
Attendees got emotional as they thanked the filmmaker for capturing the most minute details of what their childhood had been like growing up in the camps. The last question of the night came from a man who worried that, like Wardi, there were children who did not know the history of their people. Do they know, he asked, are they being taught? Grorud explained that the most fictional conceit of the plot was that a child around 9 or 10 years old would not know the story of the Day of the Catastrophe. Oral histories are a part of daily life in the camps according to Grorud, so each child, even ones younger than Wardi, would already know the story.
Grorud was surprisingly candid in the Q&A: he explained what he would change about this film and that his next project will be about climate change since it is up to a Palestinian director to make the next film focusing on the plight of refugees.
One of his regrets is giving the majority of the animated flashbacks to men in Wardi’s family. He said women are the backbone keeping the family together. In some ways, the film also shows why men would have more time to share their experiences with a child.. The men in the household are free to be depressed and go mad because the women are both the economic providers and household managers of the family. Meanwhile, the women take more jobs to ensure Wardi can stay in school and feed her pigeon-raising uncle who refuses to leave the roof. Reminiscing is a privilege.
In another place, he explained a line of dialogue that had been unclear. Wardi’s aunt talks about killing on both sides but what she is referring to is violence between Lebanese militias and Palestinian refugees. It could be misconstrued to mean there is an equal amount of violence between Israelis and Palestinians though, to which Grorud clarified no Palestinian would accept as true or accurate.
One audience member said Grorud deserved a Nobel Prize. Grorud laughed and said the only major award competition the film has been entered in is for the Academy Awards, where he is seeking a nomination in a race against more than 30 other foreign films.
“Heavy Craving” will have its second showing of the Asian Film Festival at MOPA on Saturday, Nov. 16. The Taiwanese film is a comedy about a fat lunch lady facing pressure to change her body so she can better fit in with society and finally pursue her dream of being a chef. The debut film was deeply personal for director Pei-Ju Hsieh, who grew up chubby and shamed by her family.
It took the 2019 Taipei Film Festival by storm and won the Audience Choice Award. It has since been making rounds at other film festivals.
As noted by a presenter before the film showed at UCSD on Nov. 9, Taiwanese comedies rarely make it to an international audience. That renown is generally reserved for Taiwan’s acclaimed LGBTQ films like “Blue Gate Crossing,” “Girlfriend Boyfriend” and “The Wedding Banquet”— made by the filmmaker behind “Brokeback Mountain.” Further cementing its place as a leader of queer filmmaking, Taiwan hosts the annual Taiwan International Queer Film Festival and streaming service GagaOOLala exists exclusively for LGBT-related films.
“Heavy Craving” made it to this international stage by transgressing genre: although it revels in the highly local humor of Taiwan, it also has elements of coming-of-age movies, family dramas, and rom-coms. It even follows the plot of many sports films — if you count all the scenes at the gym with a screaming coach and one of the final scenes that depicts an epic beatdown between Ying-Juan and her better (read: skinny) self.
While much of the humor did not translate, there were still light moments. However, most of the raw film was spent empathizing with aspiring chef Ying-Juan as she faces the struggles of living in a society not built for her body and how she eventually gives in to those pressures. The audience bears witness to the tiny embarrassments of taking up space on public transit to greater injustices like society’s general disbelief regarding violence against fat bodies. When a man attempts to rape Ying-Juan, the attacker’s wife accuses her of lying because her husband would never desire such an ugly woman.
Ying-Juan is buoyed by two friends she makes throughout the course of the film: a local delivery man and a cross-dressing student. The driver reveals he was once heavier, but lost weight after facing the same discrimination she faced. It is his words, “It is easier to change yourself than for the world to change,” that eventually convince Ying-Juan to try to lose weight — with disastrous results as she learns the consequences of changing herself to fit someone else’s ideals.
Meanwhile, the disapproval of the cross-dressing student’s mother mirrors Ying-Juan’s relationship with her own. The cook, delivery driver, and student all showcase the pain of not fitting into society and the personal cost of trying to conform.
Ying-Juan is a more complex character than is often allowed physically large characters. Her nuanced portrayal by newcomer Tsai Jia-yin pushes against the constant assumptions by other characters in the film that she is worthless if she remains the way she is.
“Heavy Craving” deals with forms of discrimination that are often ignored and rarely make it into film. Its detailed documentation of the slights and violence against a woman inhabiting a body deemed ugly by society lets an audience immerse themselves in an experience that may not be their own. While it is pitched as a comedy, moviegoers may cringe as often as they laugh. Still, the empathy and care extended to each character make it well worth seeing.
“Heavy Craving” will be shown at MOPA at 12:30 p.m. on Nov. 16. Two other films that are part of the Asian Film Festival will be shown at MOPA later in the day. “Geographies of Kinship.” at 2:30 p.m., is a documentary depicting the industry that peaked in the 1980s of selling Korean babies to American families looking to adopt. At 4:30 p.m., the classic lesbian drama “Saving Face” will be shown 15 years after it first debuted and became an unlikely success.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.