Eugene Weekly : Movies : 5.14.09


Nice Digs
The gems of Eugene’s Archeology Film Fest 
by Jason Blair

The Antikythera Mechanism

With a slate of 17 films from 10 countries, the Archaeology Channel’s International Film and Video Festival is Eugene’s answer to the archaeology festivals of Europe. Now in its sixth year, the festival boasts six films awarded prizes at other events — although Rick Pettigrew, the festival’s founder, will remind you that the number would be even higher if it included the films he rejected. The festival includes a keynote address by renowned Egyptologist Zahi Hawass on Friday as well as numerous other workshops and activities. Here are some of the highlights.

Recovered from a shipwreck near Greece in 1900, the Antikythera mechanism is an astronomical calculator used to schedule the Olympics and other important festivals. So sophisticated and precise were the calendar’s gearings that similar devices wouldn’t reappear for a thousand years, which helps explain why it’s been called “more valuable than the Mona Lisa.” The star of the The Antikythera Mechanism (UK, 14 minutes) isn’t the mechanism, however, but rather the three-dimensional X-ray technology which finally revealed its overwhelming complexity. The production values of this sparse film are decidedly no-frills, but given the near-miraculous nature of the artifact, that’s almost beside the point. (6:20 pm Wednesday, May 20)

Uncle Sem and the Bosnian Dream (Italy, 94 minutes) is the archaeological version of Waiting for Guffman. That is to say, it’s a gentle comedy in which nobody appears to recognize the comedy. Nestled in among traditional histories, it’s a minor revelation. Uncle Sem involves a hunch passed off as a “discovery” — the hills around the village of Visoko appear symmetrical, therefore they must contain giant pyramids — upon which an entire tourist industry develops overnight. It’s not like Borat, in which a long running joke is perpetrated upon a people, but as in Borat, the ironic tension is exquisite. Semir Osmanagic´, amateur geologist and pyramid promoter, isn’t a scam artist but something more fragile, a dreamer who turns out to be all sand and no concrete. Sem’s persistence is stunning, as is the total lack of skepticism which greets his preposterous theory. In a place desperate for and deserving of good news, today’s Bosnia seems tailor-made for Sem, who spends more time talking about the pyramids’ existence than he does digging up proof. The folks at AFF have quite a find in the completely original, totally enjoyable Uncle Sem. “I was hoping to feel moved somehow,” says one visitor to the dig site. That won’t be a problem for the rest of us. (6:30 pm Tuesday, May 19)

Guédelon: The First Ten Years (Germany, 80 minutes) is the story of a castle in progress in Burgundy, France, which is as much a social experiment as a construction site. Using only medieval methods, a group of artisans has spent a decade assembling the structure stone by stone and beam by beam. The film recalls the misfits and eccentrics of Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World, without Herzog’s distinctive habit of nosing around his films. Guédelon manages to avoid Renaissance Faire clichés due in large part to the fact that the artisans are building a reality, rather than recreating one. The doc is remarkably tame, even timid in certain places, but given the scope of their project, Guédelon remains consistently interesting and educational. (6:30 pm Tuesday, May 19)

What rescues Breaking the Maya Code (U.S., 116 minutes) from academic overspecialization is the way it embraces the blue collar tradition of Mayan scholarship. Decoding the Mayan glyphs was in large part the effort of amateurs and outsiders of great ability and passion, including grocers, economists and sketch artists. The documentary is a good, comprehensive overview of the 200 year effort to translate the written records of the Mayan civilization. Island Home Country (Australia, 52 minutes) is an attempt to heal the wounds inflicted by white settlers on aboriginals in Tasmania. Its sincerity is its undoing. Narrated in a pained whisper by filmmaker Jeni Thornley, the film is intensely well-intentioned but laborious and roundabout to watch. Described by Thornley as a “poetic cine-essay,” instead it’s a bleak meditation on the history of her troubled homeland. Her psychoanalytical approach over-emphasizes the issue of repression; it isn’t an effective model for those unfamiliar with the events she describes. (Both films play at 6:30 pm Wednesday, May 20)  

The Archaeology Channel’s International Film and Video Festival takes place Tuesday, May 19, to Saturday, May 23. All screenings are at the Hult Center; other events at various locations. See for full schedule.