No matter how long you live (although I plan on living forever), you will never get to see all of the films that you truly want to see. Many of us will die without seeing at least three or four classic films that we think we'll always have time to catch up with. Even if you were a vampire who happens to be a film critic (I am copyrighting that idea with the Writers Guild right away, so don't even think of stealing it), you would never have the time. There's so much stuff out there that is decent, good, very good, even great that demands to be seen but never could that makes the movies one of the ultimate Bitch Goddess there is. What's especially worse is if your taste in films runs especially eclectic, going well beyond the fringe, and once you open that Pandora's Box that is world cinema you realize that you've got at least sample a bit of everything. You start with Europe, move your way over to Asia, into India, then the Middle East, South America, on and on and on and you won't stop 'til you drop. And the poison tip of the iceberg is when you discover a relatively unknown, unheralded, and unseen universe of cinema that exists in places you never thought of that you need to view at least once just to say you did. God forbid you were to actually like what you see and want more, because it could be the beginning of the end for you and your motion picture addiction. Such a poison tip is the new documentary VHS - KAHLOUCHA.
When I hit Philly a few weeks ago for the Philadelphia Film Festival, I met up with a friend who just left a screening of the film and was raving about it. Screened as part of Phillyfest's "Cinema of the Muslim World", it had a description that made it sound like it could be something amusing, but according to my friend it was something truly exceptional and he was determined to get a copy. (It was also screened at Sundance this year.) Well, all he had to do was get ask a friend who works for the festival, so it wasn't long in the waiting, and over the weekend we sampled the film and I'm pleased to say he was right. VHS - KAHLOUCHA is the story of Monchef Kaloucha, a simple house painter from Tunisia who also happens to be a local filmmaking legend. Working off of a simple Panasonic VHS camera and using whatever props and locations he can scrounge up, Kahloucha makes little mini-epics inspired by the films he knows and loves, with titles like I HAD NO MONEY AND NOW I'M LOADED and MISERY TO STOP THE BOOZE. VHS - KAHLOUCHA shows him in the process of shooting his latest film, TARZAN OF THE ARABS, which will be shot, edited and premiered (in a local cafe) in the space of a week, and we see this seemingly simple but determined and impassioned little man do everything he can to get his vision on the screen. When he needs blood, he doesn't just buy catsup or stage blood, he literally cuts himself so that the blood looks right; if he has to torch a house, he'll use his sister's place (with his mother's approval). There are injuries and accidents and enraged husbands to deal with, but the film must be made at all costs and just watching this guy go through all of this with a supreme amount of fortitude is equal parts jaw-dropping and inspiring.
Much of the appeal of VHS - KAHLOUCHA, and of Kahloucha himself, lies in one word: Tunisia. Not that I'm a big fan or supporter of it (I've never been there), but because this film shows us how important these films are to a very small part of the world. We're shown a group of Tunisian immigrants living in Italy who look forward to getting the latest Kahloucha flick because it reminds them of home, seeing people they know in the films on locations they recognize. They understand the themes and morals of the story because they themselves stem from that environment. This is certainly true of all international cinema, but VHS - KAHLOUCHA does a very good job of illustrating all this. These films are not necessarily made for you, but you may like them nonetheless. So what if the films are nothing more than knock-offs of Hollywood movies? These films are their Hollywood knock-offs and no one elses. The rise in digital and video cinema has given plenty of people the opportunity to make their dream movie and what do they do? Simply re-make their favorite movies and call it a "homage". You have no idea how many 874th-rate vampire/zombie/gangsta/stoner movies are out there that will never see the light of day (although they all have MySpace pages) and I would watch one of Kahloucha's films over theirs in a heartbeat. Why? Because I can tell that there is a passion behind it that those other films will never have. We see the rest of Kahloucha's life is not that ideal, but he makes these films because of the joy and happiness it brings him. He speaks of emulating his cinematic heroes like Clint Eastwood, Jean-Paul Belmondo, and Lee Van Cleef (whose films make him cry, he says) and it's endearing because this is his only means of self-expression. It means everything to him.
In an odd way, VHS - KAHLOUCHA reminds me of why I always seek out those strange and offbeat films from all over as opposed to watching those "classic" films that, while they may indeed be great and classic, don't always appeal to me. I want to see something unique, something truly different that I don't see everyday, even if it really is nothing more than the foreign version of something I've already seen, like a Bollywood vampire movie or an Indonesian action epic. In an odd way, it's all about re-discovering that joy of film from way back when that you can't get from just watching your favorites over again. Just watching VHS - KAHLOUCHA is a reminder of this and even if Kahloucha's films don't really live up to the idea of them that this film gives you, the only way you're going to know for sure is to sit down and watch one.