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Reviewed: 'Earth' and 'Burying the Bones.'
History comes alive, in person and on film.

From Alexander Dovzhenko's "Earth."

If you didn’t know that the Russian film director Alexander Dovzhenko grew up in a farming village in the Ukraine, the first few minutes of Earth would give you a clue. In it, you feel for the wide and wind-rippled horizon of the land, and see the halos that surround the apples ripe on the tree. But it's particularly clear in the tender but forthright way he shoots the faces of people who work the land.

He clearly knows those people, and loves them. When his camera isn’t open to the curve of the landscape, he’s capturing their faces—close and searching—or shooting them low so their figures are set against the broad Russian sky. An apple orchard surrounds the characters in the first scene, a death scene, but one not without humor. “Are you dyin’, Simon?” someone asks the white-bearded man lying amid the apple trees. He is, he says. But first he feels like something to eat.

Earth, made in 1930 and one of the centerpiece screenings of the Milwaukee Film Festival, is also unmistakably a film of the Soviet era. It’s story concerns the efforts of a young farmer, Vasyl, to procure a tractor and collectivize the neighboring farms. When it arrives, we see the promise of Soviet industry at work, following the wheat in a beautiful sequence as it moves from field to mill to huge industrial mixer to bread loaf pans. But when Vasyl later turns up dead, his funeral march becomes a rallying cry for the community, and a rousing tribute to the collective (his family requests he be buried without a priest). But Dovzhenko reaches beyond the merely political. He reaches for the big picture with splashes of surrealism (Vasyl dances on the way to his death), and iconic symbols that try to capture the whole of experience in the simplicity of village life.

For this screening of Earth, the festival commissioned an original score from Altos, a group of 18 musicians “lead” by Daniel Spack. It’s a collective creation, and isn’t a typical “film score” by any means. Rather than modulate emotions in individual screen moments, Altos painted Earth with broad stretches of rhythmic vamps that morphed slightly and sometimes built into thundering crescendos before shifting gears and starting again with a new riff. The music was big and full—with some glorious vocals in the final moments. And sometimes the presence was just too big, as in moments like the first scene, when I thought a little more delicacy was needed. But Altos enhanced some moments of Earth beautifully, like the odd humor of Vasyl’s dance down the village path, and the resounding agitprop power of his funeral march. At its best, the music brought an added visceral oomph to a film that deserves to be a part of the big screen experience.

* * *

Di'Monte Henning and Malkia Stampley in In Tandem Theatre's "Burying the Bones" (photo by Mark Frohna)

The sweep of the South African landscape forms a backdrop to In Tandem Theatre’s production of Burying the Bones, and the issues at the heart of M.E.H. Lewis’s play are appropriately powerful. But this is definitely a small-screen experience—intimate and personal—which nonetheless addresses compelling and dark truths of history and human nature.

It’s a ghost story at heart. In bed one night, Mae (Malkia Stampley) is visited by her husband, James (Di’Monte Henning), who has been missing for two years. Since this is South Africa in the 1990s, he is one of many. Mae refuses to admit that he is dead, but his ghost is telling her to find the circumstances of his disappearance, and “bury his bones” so that his soul can rest. Mae finally shares her dreams with her sister Cassandra (Bria Cloyd), and her search eventually takes her to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created after apartheid to initiate sentences of restorative justice. Her appeal is juxtaposed with an appeal for amnesty by Gideon (Mark Corkins), a former security officer who is unapologetic about his part in the torture and murder of African National Congress “terrorists.”

Set Designer Steve Barnes and Director Chris Flieller use the intimate space of the 10th Street Theater in simple and creative ways to tell the story, which moves back and forth in time and between several locations. The history of apartheid is obviously powerful stuff, and in telling this specific story, playwright Lewis doesn’t pull any punches. And neither do Flieller and his actors, who capture the humor and humanity of the characters as well as the intensity of their darkest emotions. Over the years, apartheid has been the subject of great dramas—those of Athol Fugard, in particular—and it’s no small thing that Lewis has written a play that examines its disturbing history once again, and finds new ideas and emotions to explore.

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