The Austin Chronicle

Around the World in Eight Films

Cultural snapshots give viewers something to write home about

By Jessi Cape, March 8, 2013, Screens

Perhaps the greatest vehicle for traveling the world in search of culture is the medium that specializes in light and dark. By filming the nuances of communities great and small, directors give viewers a round-trip ticket to anywhere – highlighting everything from the brightest cities to the most shadowy villages. These particular films take us from fake accents in Scotland to Japanese driving escapades and political dancing at Mardi Gras, and, in each, the film's geographic turf is as central to the project as any of the leads. Hold on tight.

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The Great Hip Hop Hoax

Director Jeanie Finlay documents the journey of Silibil n' Brains, aka Scotsmen Billy Boyd and Gavin Bain, who were so intent on becoming international hip-hop superstars that they faked being American ... and landed a record deal in the process. With meticulously honed Californian accents and manufactured backstories, the two best friends are launched on a path to stratospheric success, only to buckle under the stress of their lies.

Getting Back to Abnormal

City council politics meet the racial divide of New Orleans – but it is more than just black and white. Directors Louis Alvarez, Andrew Kolker, Peter Odabashian, and Paul Stekler take on the huge task of documenting the political season in the cultural gumbo where desegregation and civil rights issues still remain as integral to the landscape as the sea level. Glitter and church, Saints and sinners, and a constant quest for improvement are all part of the NOLA story, but so are poverty and post-Katrina reconstruction woes. Real New Orleans citizens are a colorful bunch, and the film offers glimpses of the hilarious and triumphant personalities that reign in the Big Easy.

Dog Flesh (Carne de Perro)

Director Fernando Guzzoni gives viewers a front-row seat to one man's desperate attempt to exorcise emotional demons in this equally grotesque and enlightening narrative. Viewers will see the lasting effects of Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship in Chile through the lens of ex-military man Alejandro's suffering. An act of gut-wrenching violence transforms the man and illuminates the idea that despair knows no cultural bounds.

And Who Taught You to Drive?

A comedic conglomerate of mismatched cultures, this film documents the hilarity and frustration that ensue when three expatriates attempt to acquire driver's licenses on foreign soil. Director Andrea Thiele sheds light on global communities' idiosyncrasies through the simple act of road lessons in Tokyo, Bavaria, and Mumbai. In their respective crash courses in cultural quirks, American Jake experiences struggles with the basics in Japan, German Mirela holds her own on India's chaotic roads, and Korean Hye-Won is determined to assimilate on the Autobahn.

Sofia's Last Ambulance

This piece by director Ilian Metev is a super up-close-and-personal (indeed, you're in the face of the three leads for the duration) look at a day in the life of an EMS team in Sofia, Bulgaria. They make stops for patients, battle with their dispatcher (inefficient and haphazard at best, costing lives at worst), and generally show the more personal side of a career that many take for granted. The team shares some of the same universal gripes as the rest of us – troubled love lives, job frustrations, etc. – which makes their plight that much more relatable. But they are indeed some of the last of their kind, and you have to wonder how much longer they can take it.

The Network

Limited electricity, widespread illiteracy, and Sharia law? No problem. As post-Taliban restoration continues in Afghanistan, director Eva Orner follows the Moheni family as they build an empire of radio and TV programs aimed at swapping town-square executions for Sesame Street and daytime soap operas, highlighting positive changes in attitudes about police, community, and women's rights.

These Birds Walk

A docudrama that takes place in one of the largest and most violent cities in the world – Karachi, Pakistan – this film records the lives of the most vulnerable of any society: homeless children. Save for some kind souls along his way, Omar, a runaway boy, is alone and barefoot as he struggles with life's cruelties; he becomes a poster child for self-preservation. Armed with little more than his faith, he seeks to find his place in the world and pinpoint his home in this equally heartrending and inspirational quest for truth. At times breathless and afraid, at other times indignant, Omar exemplifies the power of the human spirit.


At 14, Laura Dekker wanted to take on the world, and she was willing to go to court to prove she could, but that's only the beginning: Dekker sought to become the youngest person to ever sail a complete lap around the world ... solo. Jillian Schlesinger's film combines Dekker's own at-sea footage with a documented account of the maturity she developed as she explored islands of paradise and confronted her fears – always keeping her eyes focused on the horizon.

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