- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2007

Mira Nair has made a diverse group of critically acclaimed films. But whether chronicling the lives of a displaced family of Indians from Uganda (1991’s “Mississippi Masala”) or adapting a classic English novel about a social climber (2004’s “Vanity Fair”), the director usually illuminates the troubles outsiders have in integrating into society.

It helps that, in many ways, she’s one herself.

Most directors spend their time in Hollywood among other directors. “That’s why the movies look like they look. They don’t have a worldview,” Miss Nair says on a recent stop in the District. This director splits her time between India (her birthplace), Uganda (the birthplace of her husband) and New York, where her husband teaches at Columbia.

“In ‘The Namesake’ I just wanted to transport people,” says Miss Nair, “so they can see the world without moving an inch.”

That film, in theaters today, is based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel about two generations of Indian immigrants. “The journey of the film from Calcutta to New York is almost exactly the journey I’ve lived,” the 49-year-old director says.

Miss Nair came to America to study at Harvard. Many of her most acclaimed films — like 2001’s “Monsoon Wedding” — explore Indian life. Her next few projects will take her back there.

She’s producing a remake of a Bollywood film. “What I love about Indian films is that unlike any other place in the world, where American films have completely dominated the market, Indian films are so strong and so popular that American films have to lobby for theaters,” she says. “I love that cultural power.”

The films of her homeland are “unabashed entertainment,” she continues. “Beautiful girls. Amazing music. They’re often shot in Europe, so there’s not even a cultural problem there. They’re very easy to understand, whether you’re a child or a German speaker. They’re about good and evil, and good will triumph.”

Her next directorial project is “Shantaram,” starring Johnny Depp, who had the rights to the book by Gregory David Roberts. It’s an autobiographical tale of an Australian heroin addict who escapes from prison, goes to Bombay, and is mistaken for a doctor.

Miss Nair began her career directing documentaries, and she’s making a return to the genre with a feature-length doc on the Beatles’ 1968 trip to India. This was a year of turmoil in the Western world, but the Beatles found the peace in their eight weeks in the country to write about four dozen songs, many of which are classics.

“Everything was happening, and they came to this little hamlet on the Ganges and had time to play and create these things that were amazing and will live eternally,” Miss Nair says. “So I thought this could be a very interesting film about inspiration.”

She hopes to persuade Paul McCartney to go back to India with her. “I think meditation must have helped,” she offers in explanation of the band’s creative spurt. “There was a definite clarity of consciousness which they must have achieved.”

Miss Nair should know. She’s had a yoga teacher on staff for her last six films, and the crew practices the Indian art every morning. “That’s what helps me create this emptiness in my mind so instinct will prevail.”

Miss Nair also has plenty to do in Uganda. Three years ago, she started the Maisha film lab to help East Africans and South Asians learn the craft of filmmaking. “It’s a boot camp for cinema,” she says. “When you see Africa on a screen, it’s always portrayed by a non-African. And I feel if we don’t tell our own stories, no one else will.”

Kelly Jane Torrance

Green screen

Film fans on a budget are in luck. The Environmental Film Festival runs from now until March 25. Many of the screenings at the festival, now in its 15th year, are free. With 115 films — including features, documentaries, animation, and archival films — from 27 countries presented at more than 40 venues across the city, it shouldn’t be hard to find something that strikes your fancy. You might even learn something.

Most screenings include discussion afterward, sometimes with some pretty eminent names. E.O. Wilson, for example, will be on hand March 23 to present excerpts from “The Secret Life of a Naturalist.” The film, still in progress, explores the life of the naturalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author. The event will be held at the National Geographic Society at 7:30 p.m., and tickets are required.

This year’s festival features a “Spotlight on Architecture & Art: The Built & Created Environment” with some intriguing offerings. The American premiere of “Building the Gherkin” is at the National Building Museum at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday. The hourlong documentary follows, over four and a half years, the construction of the controversial British headquarters of Swiss Re, which added what looks like a giant pickle to the London skyline in 2003.

The National Building Museum has a film on a building much closer to home on Tuesday at the same time. “A Place to Be” is the 1979 film about the construction of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, designed by I.M. Pei.

The National Portrait Gallery has a film about a legendary artist whose picture is on display there. The DC premiere of “John James Audubon: Drawn from Nature” is on March 25 at 1:30 p.m.

Meryl Streep narrates “Hurricane on the Bayou,” a 40-minute Imax film about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. See it at the National Museum of Natural History Monday at 7 p.m.

“Blood of the Yingzhou District,” about AIDS orphans in rural villages, was the winner of this year’s Oscar for documentary short. It screens Wednesday at noon at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

And youngsters won’t want to miss the family animation program at the National Geographic Society onMarch 24 at 11 a.m.

For a complete festival program, visit www.dcenvironmentalfilmfest.org.

— Kelly Jane Torrance

Horror genre unmasked

“Scream” turned the slasher film on its bloody ear.

Now, Bethesda native Scott Glosserman brings us a new horror spoof that proves that 1996 hit only clawed the surface.

The pseudo-documentary “Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon,” opening today, slices the genre to ribbons. It’s a micro-budgeted affair, and often the lack of polish shows. But “Mask” begins with a shrewd premise and gains traction as the body count mounts.

Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel) is set to kick off a killing spree just like his heroes before him — Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees. He invites a documentary crew to film the birth of a horror legend.

Young filmmaker Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals) learns how Leslie targeted his “Survivor Girl,” the virgin destined to outlive her pals. She also hears about Leslie’s “Ahab,” the wizened man out to stop him by any means. Think Donald Pleasance in the “Halloween” features.

The ambitious killer-in-training does cardio exercises to outrun his victims, booby traps an abandoned house where his victims will seek cover and gets advice from a retired slasher (Scott Wilson, “Junebug”) who found love with his own Survivor Girl.

Mr. Glosserman, who co-wrote the cagey script, even tosses in a few horror icons (“A Nightmare on Elm Street’s” Robert Englund and “Poltergeist’s” Zelda Rubinstein). Where other directors might have gone the wink-wink route, Mr. Glosserman wisely plays the comedy straight.

“Scream” may have had slicker scares, but “Behind the Mask” is smarter and savvier in deconstructing a genre badly in need of repair.

Christian Toto

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