'The Barefoot Artist': Film Review

The Barefoot Artist Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Paladin

The Barefoot Artist Still - H 2014

This frustratingly unfocused film fails to do justice to its compelling subject

Glenn Holsten and Daniel Traub's documentary profiles the life and work of the latter's mother, artist and activist Lily Yeh

When a filmmaker is too close to his subject the results can sometimes be problematic. Such is the case with Glenn Holsten (OC87) and Daniel Traub's documentary about the latter's mother, Lily Yeh, a Philadelphia-based artist and activist who has devoted her life to helping create community-based art projects in some of the world's most troubled hot spots. While offering a sometimes illuminating portrait of this admirable figure who declares that "from the depths of darkness beauty transforms and transcends," The Barefoot Artist never quite finds its narrative footing, with the film smacking more of hagiography than objectivity.

The film includes scenes of Yeh working with natives of Rwanda, the Congo, India and Beijing, among other places, as well as Philadelphia, where she created the Village of Arts and Humanities. She also started the nonprofit organization Barefoot Artists to facilitate art projects in impoverished communities around the world.

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Her backstory, which the film goes into at length, is particularly compelling. The daughter of a general in Chiang Kai-shek's army, she enjoyed a privileged upbringing until the rise of the Communists forced him to flee to Taiwan. But he left behind a previous wife from an arranged marriage and three children, who never saw him again and later suffered greatly at the hands of Mao Tse-tung. Yeh's father, who eventually joined her in America, later suffered from Alzheimer's disease and was cared for by her and her young son. The film's final chapter depicts Yeh's return to China, where she tracks down her surviving relatives and enjoys a bittersweet reunion.  

It all makes for a rather messy package, with the filmmakers seemingly unable to decide where to place their focus. The fleeting glimpses of Yeh pursuing her life's work are dismaying short on background and contextual information, with little attention paid to the artworks themselves. Meanwhile, the more personal footage feels tacked-on, with the connection between her upbringing and her artistic efforts only tenuously drawn.

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Yeh is an engaging camera subject and is certainly worthy of attention. It's too bad, then, that The Barefoot Artist falls frustratingly short of its goals.

Production: Itinerant Pictures, Glennfilms
Directors: Glenn Holstein, Daniel Traub
Executive producer: Geralyn Dreyfous
Director of photography: Daniel Traub
Editor: Ann Tegnell
Composer: Michael Aharon

No rating, 83 min.