Docu plays like an extended behind-the-scenes featurette of the eponymous art project.

The outsized street-art work of mysterious French shutterbug JR is given a bigscreen once-over in “Women Are Heroes.” Docu plays like an extended behind-the-scenes featurette of the eponymous art project by the photog-turned-helmer, who covered buildings, trains and bridges in far-flung locales with gigantic black-and-white portraits of poor but dignified distaff locals. Digital still and moving images and a score co-written by Massive Attack are often impressive, but there’s no real narrative thrust beyond a generally empowering message. Theatrical possibilities beyond Gaul look paper-thin, though galleries and alternative art spaces should take note.

Strong women in a favela in Rio, a shantytown in Kibera, Kenya, and in Cambodia and India talk about their lives and the effect of seeing their supersized faces plastered onto familiar surroundings. Short soundbites offer glimpses of their often harrowing lives, though their participation in JR’s project also emphasizes these often invisible women’s dignity and wisdom — something finally brought into view thanks to the artist’s project, which literally made them visible to their immediate surroundings.

The film is marbled with sped-up views of the cities JR visited, but they are so numerous that these breathtaking sequences quickly turn into pretty pictures for their own sake, with none of the insight offered by the short interview fragments. The feature also could have used a bit more context about this ambitious project at the outset, with the scope and idea behind “Women are Heroes” coming into focus only in the later reels.

In keeping with his reputation as an invisible “artivist,” a la “Exit Through the Gift Shop’s” Banksy, JR allows his hands to be seen manipulating his photo camera, while his face remains hidden — except in one short shot in which he is showered with colored powders in India during the festival of Holi.

Images of the gigantic portraits in situ are often arresting, with the posters and their surroundings shot and framed in equally striking compositions (besides handling helming duties, JR is credited as one of the cinematographers). Overall effect is clearly intended to celebrate the heroic women of the title, but pic can’t quite overcome a sense of tubthumping JR’s accomplishments and work as well, something a director not directly involved in the project might have avoided.

Shot on several video formats, footage quality varies from stunning to just adequate, with occasional image noise. Electronic score is a huge plus.

Women Are Heroes

France

Production

A Studio 37, Rezo Films release of a 27.11 Production presentation and production, in association with ARTE France Cinema, Dum Dum Films, Social Animals, Studio 37. (International sales: Elle Driver, Paris.) Produced by Juliette Favreul Renaud, Agathe Sofer. Directed by JR. Written by JR, Emile Abinal.

Crew

Camera (B&W/color, DV/HD-to-HD), Patrick Ghiringhelli, JR, Dan Low, Anthony Dickinson; editor, Herve Schneid; music, Massive Attack, Patrice Bart Willians, Jean-Gabriel Becker, Outlines; sound (Dolby Digital), Philippe Welsh. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Critics' Week -- Special Screening), May 18, 2010. Running time: 88 MIN.

With

Rosiette Marinho, Maria Odintina, Peng Panh, Chanta Duh, Jecinta Achieng, Georgia Clara Marinho, Aline Mendes, Shaha Jahan, Ratana Loeung, JR.
(Portuguese, English, French, Khmer, Thai dialogue)

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