For Sex on a Human Scale, Try a Foreign Film

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

Rochester, MN -- For a few scandalous days back in 1967, the old Time Theater in downtown Rochester showed a movie whose heroine was a young woman dedicated to deeply exploring every aspect of her life -- political, social, and sexual.

It was called "I Am Curious Yellow," and my most vivid memory of the film -- which I wasn't actually allowed to see as I was 12-years-old at the time -- were the urgent whispers the adults in my life used to discuss it. And discuss it, and discuss it. In the mysterious way kids have of grasping essentials, I gathered
that the lead actress, Lena Nyman, had done some very adventurous and enviable things on her personal journey of exploration.

Those types of things were usually taboo, of course, but this movie had magically been accorded a respectable status as a piece of sophisticated vanguard culture, thanks to one crucial fact: It was made in Sweden. And it was understood that the Swedes were far more advanced in these matters than we were here. So we had things to learn.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that Rochester, in its own special Mayo-on-Zumbro fashion, has for long been much more international in its outlook than would perhaps seem likely, here at the edge of the prairie.

Umbrellas of France

Foreign films in particular have played a key role in offering area residents a window onto the world. The Fellows Film Society, which showed international films at Mayo Clinic's Mann Hall throughout the 1960s and 1970s, brought vivid images and new information about foreign cultures.

I saw those films myself as a teenager and younger, catching my first taste of France via the 1964 movie "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg;" a flavor of China through a documentary on acupuncture; and many others.

Today, when knowledge of foreign cultures is no longer a luxury but -- thanks to 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the war on terror - is acknowledged as a necessity for our long-term survival, the tradition of foreign films shown in Rochester continues in two main venues. One is the iFilm program of the Rochester Public Library, which presents foreign films on the second Wednesday of every month in the library's auditorium.

The other venue is the twice-a-year foreign film festival of the Rochester International Film Group, which began in 1996.

Alan Hoffman, a pediatric radiologist at Mayo Clinic, is the group's president. The spring and fall festivals each sell around 3,000 tickets to 800 unique visitors, or about 1 percent of Rochester's population, he says.

Practical Knowledge

"That gives us a lot of room for improvement," Hoffman says.

The value of the films lies not only in their spicy exoticism but something deeper, Hoffman says.

"They bring viewpoints from other places," he says. "You live through a movie. For a couple of hours you live in another city, in another country. You identify with the characters and their situations."

A movie about a peasant living in Iraq might thus influence one's opinions about America's military presence in Iraq. The ravishingly beautiful movie Kandahar, set in Afghanistan and shown at last year's festival, gave many southeast Minnesotans a vivid sense of the nature, the history, and the sufferings of Afghani people living under the Taliban.

Practical life knowledge that is important yet overlooked by an American media obsessed with youth and celebrity, is offered in a bountiful buffet in foreign films. A Mongolian Tale, the first film show when the international festival began in 1996, left a deep impression on Dr. Hoffman.


"The movie's main character was an old woman full of dignity," he said. "How often do you see that kind of portrayal of any older person in a Hollywood movie?"

At this year's festival, audiences especially enjoyed the Japanese film Lily Festival, which portrayed geriatric sex with tenderness and a gentle humor.

Ah, we are back to sex again. Now that the United States is awash in pornography, we don't need foreign films to tell us all the latest techniques. Or even to tell us that sex is OK.

Yet foreign films still play an important role. They typically delve into corners of life that are more human-scaled and real, and thus more useful in purely human terms, than average Hollywood fare.

After all, when it comes to the challenges like child-rearing, caring for aged parents, the struggle to live off the land, the search for God, and geriatric sex, we aren't going to learn what we need from Terminator 3.

Copyright @ 2003 The McGill Report