See me, therefore I am

In our over-mediated world, how we look at "framed" reality matters, because seeing can be believing. An image can almost magically clarify complexity - or reduce it to bloodless spectacle. That's when an election cycle may turn into just another season of "American Idol" or "Survivor: The Presidency."An international film festival offers a valuable chance to look at images from other worlds, often rawer, closer to flesh-and-blood experience than we demand of Hollywood or TV. The best films from abroad aren't flights from reality but mesmeric moving pictures - sometimes poetic, sometimes brutal - of what is. Twenty-three-year-old Audrey Estrougo's "Regarde-moi"/"Look at Me" (English title: "Ain't Scared") turns on how the tough kids crowded into a housing project outside Paris "frame" one another. During one day in the lives of blacks, whites, Jews, Arabs, junkies, drunks, dealers, et al., "Regarde-moi" follows a posse of young men who mill about their ghetto environment trying to carve out identity and existential significance. Then the film rotates, so that in its second half we see through the eyes of the sisters and girlfriends previously registered only as objects of male lust and honor. Somewhere along the way, we move from standing outside and looking in - as if watching Diversity Theater - and find we've been drawn deep under the skin of these multicultural Montagues and Capulets, suffering their life-shattering wounds as though they were our own. In these projects, where almost everything is known and seen and talked about, colorful patois and posturing are the only armor. The guys needle one another, ranking on signs of weakness, leaning in and out of camaraderie. Every richly idiosyncratic face masks yearnings to be somebody, to make a connection with another human being, to escape the cage of self and ghetto. Every soul's at the mercy of powerful cross-currents. The girls yearn for love, but must resist sex for fear of betrayal and abandonment. Their suitors idealize or objectify them, erasing who they really are. What looks at first like easy assimilation of color comes apart, with both black and white Romeos wasting their Juliets, confirming their solitary confinement in what's already a socioeconomic prison.Here, how one is seen can be destiny. Handsome Jo (Terry Nimajimbe), headed for a career in professional soccer, gazes at the blond white girl (Emilie de Preissac) he loves and literally "films" her in flowing gown and streaming hair, the movie star of his dreams. When Fatimata (Eye Haidara), coal-black Mousse's little sister, turns up in blond wig, her dark, full-lipped beauty garishly painted with cosmetics, her brother, his friends and her own gang of girlfriends viciously put her down. They - and at first, we - see only a sister selling her sexuality cheaply, advertising herself as a white. Terrible tragedy arises from that misreading, the failure of her family and friends to grasp the consuming passion her dress-up both expresses and disguises.Hard to believe Estrougo wrote and directed this smart, powerful film at such a tender age. She's got a sharp eye for the beauty and potential of her underclass, the way they move and joke and play in denial of tomorrows that will never change. In plot and style, "Regarde-moi" urges us to see carefully. Lives may depend on it.Regarde-moi/Ain't Scared: 4:30 pm, May 29, SIFF Cinema; 6:30 pm, May 31, Pacific Place[[In-content Ad]]