- The Washington Times - Friday, June 19, 2009

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously declared, “There are no second acts in American lives.”

Try telling that to Marion Barry.

As Dana Flor says of the District’s former mayor, “He’s got a second, third and fourth act. The story is not over.”

The story to date is well-told in “The Nine Lives of Marion Barry,” a compelling documentary directed by Ms. Flor and Toby Oppenheimer that closes the Silverdocs film festival Saturday night. It follows the rise and fall, rise and fall and perhaps another rise of the 73-year-old phoenix, who went from Mississippi cotton picker to civil rights activist to mayor of the nation’s capital to convicted criminal — and, amazingly, back to mayor again.

Mr. Oppenheimer and Ms. Flor got involved in the project for quite different reasons — one because he thought outsiders knew just one thing about the former mayor, the other because she thought insiders often had that same view. Both grew up in the city that was shaped by Mr. Barry, who served as mayor from 1979 to 1991 and from 1995 to 1999.

“When you talk to people about Marion Barry outside D.C., it’s a totally different perspective,” says Mr. Oppenheimer, who has lived on the West Coast and in New York for the past 12 years. “All they know is a one-note punch line — he’s the mayor who smoked crack. It drove us to make a film to tell everything else, which no one outside D.C. knows about.”

Ms. Flor says even District residents think of him only as the mayor who was busted in office in a 1990 FBI sting and then spent six months in prison. “We’ve grown up with the lure and legend of Marion Barry,” she says. “I thought I knew about him, but I didn’t really.”

Outsiders are always asking why Washingtonians keep voting for Mr. Barry over and over again, Ms. Flor had noted. “I wanted to give some context to that question,” she says. “There’s a reason for it. Washingtonians are not stupid.”

The answer, she holds, is different for every election.

Mr. Barry, who is on the DC Council, just made headlines again by being the only member to vote against gay-marriage recognition, saying it could start a “civil war” with the black community. One thing remains constant — he’s one of those figures Washingtonians either love or hate.

“Marion Barry could not have existed in any other city than D.C.,” Ms. Flor says. Mr. Oppenheimer adds, “It’s the racially split nature of the city. He’s really used that, in a sense, to stay in power.”

He’s also a down-to-earth man in a city full of fake smiles. “People in the film say everyone’s got a Marion Barry in their family,” Mr. Oppenheimer says. “That makes people relate to him and humanizes him in a way.”

The documentary is one of “heartbreak,” Ms. Flor says, the story of a man who never fulfilled his promise.

“In his early years, Marion Barry was an inspirational leader,” Ms. Flor says. “He could have been Martin Luther King’s successor, as one person says in our film.”

He couldn’t get control of his personal demons, though. Even after losing the mayoralty and doing jail time, he tested positive for cocaine and marijuana in a test required for a sentencing hearing for his federal tax troubles.

Ms. Flor and Mr. Oppenheimer will attend Saturday’s screening, along with Mr. Barry; a discussion will follow the screening. Details are available at silverdocs.com.

Film without borders

It wouldn’t be a proper Oscar ceremony without at least one upset. At this year’s event, that honor went to “Departures,” the Japanese film that won the foreign-language-film award in a contest that was assumed to be between France’s “The Class” and Israel’s “Waltz With Bashir.”

Its humble director was as surprised as anyone else.

“I was indeed shocked,” Yojiro Takita says, speaking by telephone through an interpreter. “We were certainly aware two nominees were considered to be the favorite to win the award. But I’m incredibly encouraged by the fact the Academy was able to recognize the film.”

The 53-year-old director is particularly warmed by the accolade because it means his film will reach a wider international audience. “Departures” is about a very Japanese subject, the ritual of preparing the dead to depart this world, but its themes of letting go in both death and life are universal — just as the medium itself is.

“Needless to say, yes, I’m hoping that many people outside of Japan will see the film. I certainly have the faith we deal with a very universal theme, while tackling it with a very Japanese vehicle,” Mr. Takita says. “I’m looking forward to the responses from the audience and how I might incorporate them into my next project. You have to understand we in Japan were raised on foreign film. Cultures can be transcended through cinema. It crosses boundaries.”

The “encoffinment” ceremony portrayed in “Departures” is an exquisitely beautiful one, in which the deceased is cleaned and made up with care to look just the way loved ones remember. It seems so Japanese — this is a culture that cares deeply about ritual and ceremony, after all.

However, the rite actually is not widely known in Japan, according to the director. “Funerals in Japan now have been modernized, with modern facilities, where bodies are taken straight from the hospital to the morgue,” he explains.

The old-fashioned ritual seen in the film has become no more than a “niche” service, but perhaps that will change — the film did big business in Japan.

“I think rituals and ceremonies do have an important role in Japanese society, and I think it’s an important thing to protect,” Mr. Takita says. “Tradition gives people an identity. It gives beauty in our lives.”

“Departures” is a poignant story of a man who finds new life by learning this ritual of death. It might surprise viewers to learn that its director got his start making a very different kind of movie — Japanese soft-core erotica called “pink films.” Mr. Takita says it was actually a great way to get grounding in any genre.

“Yes, I did start with very-low-budget pink films, but I was surrounded by a group of people that were very passionate about filmmaking, and my experience being a crew member, assistant director, then director on those sets was very helpful in my career,” he says. “Today, I feel no matter what the genre or scale or project, I approach it with a very professional attitude.”

Mr. Takita refers repeatedly to the feedback he gets from audiences; his voice takes on a tone of excitement when he discusses bringing his film to viewers around the world. Most directors are exhausted toward the end of a press tour. Mr. Takita says he feels “invigorated by this process” and hopes to decide on a new project very soon.

“I really feel that by seeing everybody respond to the film, that gives me energy, and I want to take that energy and put it into my next film as soon as possible,” he says.

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