Review: ‘Cine Manifest’

Nothing says "1970s" like "Marxist-Reichian film collective." This cultural flashback finds its interviewees both bemused and nostalgic over the sometimes suffocatingly high ideals that united them back when. Fest and cinematheque programmers should sign on in healthy numbers.

Nothing says “1970s” like “Marxist-Reichian film collective.” The cultural flashback that is “Cine Manifest” finds its interviewees both bemused and nostalgic over the sometimes suffocatingly high ideals that united them back when. A colorful footnote to U.S. indie cinema history, Judy Irola’s docu echoes the era’s process, process, process-oriented spirit by playfully questioning its own methods and choices. Fest and cinematheque programmers should sign on in healthy numbers.

Founded in 1972, San Francisco-based Cine Manifest saw itself as a political group making films rather than artists making political films — a distinction in tune with the ebbing, but still-lively, revolutionary tenor of place and time. Marxist ideology and Reichian therapy were major influences on an often tortuous decision-making process. “I think we beat up on each other too much,” says Rob Nilsson now. “We had the disease of the time, which was self-righteousness,” says Stephen Lighthill, whose frequent gigs as a cameraman for CBS provided a lion’s share of the group’s collectively pooled earnings. But there was also a touching eagerness within the movement to self-improve. When the initially all-male group of six decided they needed a woman to balance things out, Irola interviewed for the slot. She was rejected — then accepted after she’d written a chastising letter.

Before it fell apart, Cine Manifest made numerous shorts and two adventurous full-length films, both shot in 1975 but not exhibited until a few years later. The little-remembered “Over-Under, Sideways-Down” was a contemporary drama about an Oakland factory worker; when production seemed to be going awry, the group acrimoniously voted out Peter Gessner as the pic’s co-director.

Things went much better for co-helmers Rob Nilsson and John Hanson’s B&W rural period piece “Northern Lights,” which won numerous international awards and proved a seminal Amerindie feature.

While their memories are hazy and occasionally contradictory, something Irola has fun pointing up, all retain some of that era’s youthful energy, and are delightful company. Everyone went on to significant careers in broadcast and bigscreen media. Sole exception is, notably, Gessner — who became an activist private investigator.

Despite a few lingering hurt feelings, the tone is primarily good-humored, with memorable anecdotes including the tale of how Cine Manifest eventually had to throw out one disheveled “guest” who wouldn’t leave their h.q. — none other than legendary Hollywood director Nicholas Ray, at personal and professional tether’s end long before his 1979 death.

Pic’s only flaw is that the short runtime doesn’t allow for a deeper sense of the social/artistic climate that surrounded Cine Manifest, or how their experience influenced members’ later works.

Lively editorial package makes sly use of devices (split-screen effects, etc.) primarily associated with ’60s-’70s cinema.

Cine Manifest

Production

A Neska Euskaldunaren Pelikula production. Produced by Judy Irola, Nels Bangerter. Directed by Judy Irola.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Irola; editor, Nels Bangerter; music, David Schickele; sound designers, Midge Costin, Melanie McGraw. Reviewed at Mill Valley Film Festival Oct. 14, 2006. Running time: 75 MIN.

Cast

With: Gene Corr, Peter Gessner, John Hanson, Judy Irola, Stephen Lighthill, Rob Nilsson, Steve Wax.

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