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Art House films

Opening this week on the local specialty film circuit: 'The Desert of Forbidden Art' ¼¼¼

Tchavdar Georgiev and Amanda Pope co-direct a documentary celebrating an intrepid and unsung Soviet-era curator. Discouraged from a career as a painter by his mentor, Igor Savitsky was inspired by an archaeological stint at the site of the ancient Khorezm civilization. After moving there, he began collecting folk art and artifacts of Central Asia in 1957. "The Desert of Forbidden Art" relates his achievements against the backdrop of Stalinist policy regarding official culture and regional minorities.

In 1966, Savitsky was appointed curator of a new museum in Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan (now an autonomous republic of Uzbekistan). Instead of collecting the approved propaganda art created under the banner of Socialist Realism, he sought out suppressed avant-garde and Uzbek School painters. At his death in 1984, he had amassed some 44,000 works and made more than a score of 1,700-mile forays to Moscow to locate heirs of disapproved artists.

Interviews with the offspring of Savitsky and such painters as Alexander Volkov supply personal testimony. British actor Ben Kingsley voices text from Savitsky's writings and scripted passages based on second-hand sources. American actors Ed Asner and Sally Field lend their voices to other figures in this colorful episode. If any issues merit more screen time, it's the relative merit of the artworks compared with those of their contemporaries, and the specifics of what once incited censors.

Stephen Kinzer, former New York Times bureau chief in Central Asia, attracted outside notice when he reported on the art museum in 1997. He sounds overly enthusiastic in his interview segments. The museum's current director, Marinika Babanazarova, updates the collection's prospects with its new international profile. An expanding sphere of influence by Islamic fundamentalists in the region could jeopardize the art, warns this enlightening film.

No MPAA rating. Running time: 80 minutes. In English, Russian, Uzbek and Karakalpak, with English subtitles. Screening at 3 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. Monday at the Gene Siskel Film Center. 'War Don Don' ¼¼½

Atrocities committed during internal strife in Sierra Leone between 1991 and 2002 may be hard for outsiders to fathom. Rebels raped and amputated non-combatants and forced boys into uniforms to bear arms. Should the prosecution of perpetrators be any easier to follow-

First-time director Rebecca Richman Cohen documents part of the trial of Issa Sesay, a Revolutionary United Front commander indicted in 2003 on 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Her "War Don Don" (which translates as "War Is Over" from the Krio language), however, drifts from building a case against Sesay to glancing at regional political history, sympathizing with victims and survivors, faulting the news media and relating debates among international aid and policy officials.

Cohen has access, if not focus. She was a legal intern on a defense team at the Special Court of Sierra Leone. Before that, she was an intern on Michael Moore's documentary "Bowling for Columbine" and once taught an art school seminar on "Human Rights, Mass Atrocity, and Documentary Film."

The political thrillers "Blood Diamond" (2006) and "Lord of War" (2004) brought attention to the crisis in Sierra Leone. Other documentaries succeeded at portraying international tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. The issues are intractable, but tracing the judicial process is not. "War Don Don" is a useful start.

No MPAA rating. Running time: 85 minutes. In English, French and Krio, with English subtitles. Opening today at Facets Cinematheque. 'FrICTION' ¼¼½

Fifteen-year-old August (August Thompson) causes discord at a summer music camp. His counselors are a young couple with a new daughter: Jeremy (Jeremy Mathison) clashes with this aspiring songwriter, while his wife, Amy (Amy Mathison), lets the moody August make love to her on an overnight field trip.

Cullen Hoback co-writes, directs, shoots and edits "FrICTION," an indie drama with an awkwardly formatted title that indicates the friction of fiction with life. Hoback continues the acting-out theme of his earlier documentary, the acclaimed "Monster Camp" (2007).

Hoback also plays a filmmaker teaching film to Jeremy, Amy, August and the other campers. In character, Hoback is thus directing and shooting a fictional film. Then there are behind-the-scenes rehearsals and arguments, plus interviews two years later when Jeremy, Amy and August look back at the production.

Onscreen titles keep track, with mixed luck, of the tangled strands of acting and non-acting in this simulated documentary. Characters admit they're unsure if they're supposed to be in character or not. Hoback and co-writer Jerome Schwartz call the worthy, if overwrought, result a "fourth-wall film," a term that might be useful if you're into counting walls.

No MPAA rating. Running time: 89 minutes. Screening at 8:15 p.m. Thursday at the Gene Siskel Film Center with Cullen Hoback in attendance.

Bill Stamets is a Chicago-based free-lance writer and critic.