Reviews of SFF films ‘Dancing on a Volcano’ and ‘Trash Dance

Two of the films I saw during the Sarasota Film Festival, ‘Dancing on a Volcano’ and ‘Trash Dance,’ each conveyed the importance of the arts in restoring our humanity.  Both films were personally recommended to me by Tom Hall, SFF Director of Programming; because I like to see documentaries with a theme of social justice.

Dancing on a Volcano’ tells the compelling story of Nadja Merino, a Jewish woman living in Austria who watched her privileged life slip away as the Nazi Party grew in prominence.  The title of the film refers to a foreboding night when Nadja attended a lavish party as the Nazis were invading her country and when she first realized that she and her family were “dancing on a volcano.”  Nadja’s father, a very successful businessman, was imprisoned three days later.  Each family member was given a task in the aftermath of their father’s capture, and Nadja was wisely chosen to try to get her father out of prison.  I have seen numerous films both fictional and documentary about the Holocaust, but this was a surprise — Nadja was successful.  She found some local Austrians who wanted to understand what the Nazis were doing.  One could picture a group of progressives fearful of the Nazi regime but, at this early stage, lacking any clear proof of their motives or agenda seeking out someone who could bear witness to unlawful imprisonment of an individual.

Nadja provided pivotal testimony, and in return she was given the name of someone who could help her father.  Nadja described arriving at Nazi headquarters and finding a huge line in front; and said she summoned her “chutzpah,” which is Yiddish for a special brand of courage, which prompted her to walk to the front of the line and demand to speak to her contact.  This was a truly suspenseful moment, and Nadja even admitted that her beauty may have helped her achieve her goal of springing her father from prison.  Nadja’s confidence and courage held her in good stead throughout the Holocaust, as this was only the first of many daring rescues that she was able to carry off.  Another was requesting the aid of the Chilean consul general who asked for a kiss in return for helping her family.  Nadja’s relationship with the consul general shaped the remainder of her story.

Nadja’s talent and her love of the arts was a driving force throughout her life.  She was a very successful illustrator for numerous publications including The New York Times.  In fact, gallery owner, Gary Merz, who represents her, decided to made this film after learning her inspiring life story.  Nadja’s beautiful artwork is featured throughout the film; and I met Merz and his art director after the film, because I’d love to buy a piece of the one-hundred-year-old Nadja’s artwork.  As you may recall from my earlier blogs, I love happy endings, so it was a pleasure to see a Holocaust film (*SPOILER ALERT!*) in which everyone involved is either alive or has died of natural causes.  I highly recommend getting a hold of this beautifully rendered film.  I have just learned it was #1 on the buzz chart for SFF — it’s the little movie that could!

I would also recommend ‘Trash Dance,’ although it did not meet my expectations.  Allison Orr, a choreographer, decided to create a dance piece that would examine the lives of trash collectors.

She spent eight months on the job with trash collectors in Austin, her hometown, and with quite a bit of cajoling and sweet-talking (a Southern accent truly works wonders), managed to convince a group of them to perform in her piece.  Allison learned to pick up dead animals and how to sweep up trash; but she also discovered the inner lives of her subjects.

It was lovely to see the men and women begin to trust her; and she, in turn, helped both the live audience, who turned out in droves, as well as the film viewers get to know the human dimension of those who handle their weekly garbage retrieval.  One young man wanted his daughter to be proud and another proclaimed that his grandmother was a trooper sitting out in the rain to watch the show.  Others just wanted people to know that garbage men and women have a sense of civic duty attached to carrying out the “dirty work.”  So, for that, the performance and the film documenting its production were a triumph.  However, I kept waiting for Allison to teach her participants dancing fundamentals so that they could perform with their bodies; but instead their trucks and cranes did most of the “dancing,” which had some artistic merit, but was disappointing.

There was a small amount of movement (and one particularly talented dancer who performed during the credits), but for the most part, the participants made their trucks “dance.”  I wanted to see Allison turn the mundane movements of trash collecting into an art form; but perhaps her participants didn’t want to go there in the end.  Either way, I’d like to follow Allison’s documentary style of choreography further — what’s next — a performance piece about police officers cuffing their subjects and reading them their Miranda rights or a work about bond traders buying low and selling high?

Kudos to SFF for continuing to find unusual films for us to see year after year.  I always find myself thinking about these films for years to come and wishing there were a few more hours in every day of SFF week.

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