A live documentary performance? Sounds utopian

Throughout human history, people have fantasized about possibilities for the future. Space travel, peace, and a world of plenty are just a few examples. But as the 20th century progressed, the future became more threatening, as a wave of intractable problems loomed menacingly on the horizon.

A unique cinematic experience titled Utopia in Four Movements explores the battered state of the utopian impulse at the dawn of the 21st century. As part of its Ida Cordelia Beam Distinguished Visiting Professorship program, the University of Iowa Office of the Provost will present the live documentary performance at 8 p.m., Friday, Oct. 28, at the Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St. in downtown Iowa City. The show is free and open to the public, and doors open at 7:30 p.m.

Utopia in Four Movements
When: 8 p.m., Friday, Oct. 28
Where: The Englert Theatre, downtown Iowa City
Admission: free

For more information on the show, visit utopiainfourmovements.com.

In the show, Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Sam Green cues stunning still and moving images and vignettes while reciting in-person a poetic, entertaining, and poignant essay. Musician Dave Cerf uses his laptop to construct a live soundtrack of samples and loops, while the Brooklyn band the Quavers performs a lyrical score. Utopia premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival; the Huffington Post called it “utterly moving” and “the most compelling screening of the entire festival.”

Interweaving archival and original materials, the audience is introduced to Esperanto, the fascinating man-made language designed to end war and cultural conflict; to an American exile living in Cuba, whose undying optimism counterpoints that of her crumbling surroundings — a time capsule untouched by capitalism; to the economic boom in China, manifested in the surreal space of the world’s largest shopping mall; and finally to the humanitarian field of forensic anthropology, which reflects both the disappointments of the 20th century and humanity’s unending well of hope in its quest to give human remains in mass graves dignified burials.

Green says the “live-ness” of the show seems especially fitting because utopia is almost always about transcending the boundaries of our individual lives to connect with something larger. He views the collective experience of gathering for the show as a small utopian gesture.

“This kind of live event is also a response to the crisis facing cinema today,” Green says. “Most of my students rarely consider going to see a film in a theater. They can see a film more cheaply at home as a DVD or for free on YouTube … I love computers and the Internet, but seeing a movie in a theater with other people has an aura of immeasurable power and plenitude nothing can replace.”

Green is a San Francisco-based documentary filmmaker. His feature The Weather Underground was nominated for an Academy Award and broadcast nationally on PBS. His other award-winning documentaries include lot 63, grave c; The Rainbow Man/John 3:16; N-Judah 5:30; and Pie Fight ’69. Green has received grants from the Guggenheim, Rockefeller, and Creative Capital Foundations. He received his master’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and currently teaches at the University of San Francisco and the San Francisco Art Institute.

Cerf is a Bay Area filmmaker, musician, sound artist, and software designer. He composed music for Scott Kennedy’s film OT: Our Town and Green’s The Weather Underground, and performed live musical and sound accompaniment over the films of Jennifer Reeves, Pat O’Neill, and Melinda Stone, including her 2003 California Tour of abandoned drive-in movie theaters. Cerf tours in the United States and internationally with the band Threnody Ensemble and is currently a user interface designer at Apple Inc.

The Quavers are T. Griffin, Catherine McRae, and Dennis Cronin with other frequent collaborators. They coax a luminous sound out of decayed samplers, Walkmans, vibraphonette, footpedal loopers, tape echo violin, and homespun harmonies. They call their work “porch techno” and have released four CDs, which can be found on their website, www.shinylittlerecords.com.

The artists are visiting courtesy of the Ida Cordelia Beam Distinguished Visiting Professorships Program, established in 1978-79 based on a bequest from the late Ida Beam of Vinton, Iowa, who willed her family farm to the UI Foundation. Proceeds from the farm’s sale enabled the UI to establish a fund that brings top scholars in a variety of fields to campus for lectures and discussions.

The Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature is sponsoring the event, with help from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and the Departments of Theatre Arts, English, and Communication Studies, all part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

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