I have spent the greater part of the past month preparing for and then going to two very different film festivals. I’ve been to a number of festivals, as a filmmaker with films in them, as an audience, and more frequently, as press covering festivals like the Provincetown International Film Festival and the Woods Hole Film Festival. As odd as it seems, some people like film festivals for everything but the films themselves. They want to go to the parties and hob-knob with celebrities. They want to be the first to see this or that new film by the hottest new director. For me, it is the opposite; I generally avoid all the parties and I make my itinerary based on what looks like it might be somehow special. More and more festivals are becoming the only place to see truly unique films in theatrical exhibition. In some cases, the films I’ve seen have never become available online–not through streaming, on video, or in theaters–even though they were exceptional.
I go to festivals to find hidden gems: films that go their own way and pull us along on cinematic adventures.
This year I attended the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City (April 16-27) as well as the much smaller Independent Film Festival Boston (IFF Boston) in Somerville, Mass. (April 23-30). Although it was literally impossible for me to see everything at either festival, there were several films that I did see that deserve to be highlighted here. The idea is that when they do open, as I hope they will, (whether theatrically or via some other means of exhibition), you’ll know something about them and check them out.
TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL 2014
When you see a lot of movies, as I do, it is rare that a new film actually surprises you. I knew nothing abut anyone involved with the film Below Dreams and only saw it at Tribeca because the description was somewhat compelling and it fit neatly into my schedule. Writer/director Garrett Bradley gives us a portrait of New Orleans that centers on the struggles of twenty-somethings trying to move ahead with their lives, navigating around the obstacles of race and class, as well as the realities of having made poor choices. There is Leann, a single mother of four struggling to support her family while also pursuing dreams of becoming a model. There is Jamaine, a young ex-con trying to reintegrate himself into society and find legitimate work, a process which means making visible changes. And finally, there is Elliot, a young man who has come to New Orleans from New York City searching for a girl and perhaps something else. Each of the three characters feels real and in fact, Bradley found these actors by posting casting calls on Craigslist–not looking so much for trained actors but for people whose lives mirrored those of the characters she’d created. But while Below Dreams is more character study than action-based narrative, it is not only the characters that draw you in. Bradley’s approach to filmmaking blends an evocative soundtrack and poetic imagery with the hard edge of reality. The result is a moving portrait of youth that runs in stark contrast to the usual picture of this age group as vacuous and technology-obsessed. It’s also a film that deserves a big screen experience, so hopefully we will see it in theaters soon. Below Dreams is yet another bold new film that, along with Beasts of the Southern Wild by Benh Zeitlin, reveals a cinematic revolution happening in New Orleans.
An entirely different film experience came with Black Coal, Thin Ice, a new film noir from Chinese director Diao Yinan. The story is about a former detective who cannot get an unsolved case out of his mind. The case involves the dismembered bodies of various individuals being found all around northern China. While the detective is put on leave, he finds himself drawn to a beautiful, mysterious woman who works at the local laundry. There is an underlying black humor, a penchant for shocking violence, and of course the morbid details of the story itself, all adding up to a dark thriller. If the Coen Brothers (Fargo, No Country for Old Men) are coming to mind, you have a pretty good idea about this arthouse thriller. The film has already done extremely well in China, where arthouse films are a bit unusual. It won the Golden Bear for China at the Berlin Film Festival and Tribeca audiences loved it. But still, it is not set to open in the U.S. theatrically. Hopefully this will change.
This Swedish film is another dark one, and a challenging one, at that. When transgender Sebastian meets Andreas, an attractive young male punk, the chemistry is undeniable. The two get together and begin an affair that is complicated by each person’s insecurities and more significantly, by the sexuality and gender labels that have been placed on them. In one particularly revealing scene, just after the two have had sex, Andreas says the relationship cannot continue because, “I’m not gay.” Sebastian responds with a surprised, “Neither am I.” In that one exchange, we come to understand what most of us have trouble accepting–that both sexuality and gender are fluid concepts, with very few of us fitting into the highly specific norms of one gender over another. Likewise, it reveals the ability of human beings to fall in love with each other as people, only resisting that pull when it feels out of step with the sexuality they have chosen to identify with. There are a number of moments like this in Something Must Break, which was directed by Ester Martin Bergsmark, who is transgender. In Bergsmarks’ director statement, he says, “My films speak to the freak inside you and reaches out a hand.” The film is unsettling because it doesn’t give us a biological male who wants to become female, it gives us a person who is neither male nor female, but transgender. There is no compulsion to fit Sebastian (who also goes by “Ellie”) into the binary that defines us in so many ways. Something Must Break is not a feel-good movie, but it perks up the ongoing, accelerating dialogue about the transgender community and gets you to rethink your views, whatever they may be.
I can remember many an afternoon watching the VHS copy of Alice Cooper’s theatrical concert Welcome to My Nightmare when I was a teenager. I’ve always been drawn to his bizarre, macabre sexuality and theatrical sense. But it is only through this documentary, directed by Sam Dunn, Reginald Harkema, and Scot McFadyen, that I realized how unique Alice Cooper was; he was more a performance artist than a rock singer. In fact, the films describes the origins of the band as having happened in a high school art class, where Cooper (then known as Vincent Furnier) bonded with another student over their shared love of Salvador Dali and Surrealism. One of the most fascinating moments in this very interesting portrait is when Alice Cooper recounts meeting Dali, which seems to have marked the pinnacle of the singer’s career. In fact, Dali created a holographic work, complete with “Alice Cooper’s brain,” swarming with ants. The time is right for a comprehensive look at Cooper’s unique career path. Coming out in the hippie era of the late 1960s with an outrageous, completely different approach to rock music, Cooper changed the way rock concerts were done in the 1970s and into the 80s and 90s. Super Duper Alice Cooper covers Cooper and his band’s entire careers in a marriage of off-camera interviews and fabulous archival imagery and footage. It is a a beautiful construction that utilizes the value of interviews without resorting to a visual strategy comprised mainly of talking heads. This is the perfect manner in which to explore such a rich visual subject who also happens to be a musician.
The military buddy movie is a long-standing subgenre, with Ivan Reitman’s Stripes as perhaps the finest example, and Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H* a close second. But where are the women in these movies? They are always secondary to the male anti-heroes. Israeli filmmaker Talya Lavie’s Zero Motivation takes this subgenre and knocks it on its head by focusing on Israeli female military personnel–more specifically, administrative personnel. It’s like Office Space meets Stripes, but set in Israel where women, as well as men, are required to serve in the military. There are three main characters and each has her section of the film devoted to her story. In the process of telling their stories, a picture emerges of the kinds of things young women all over the world contend with: sexual harassment and violence, discrimination and glass ceilings, virginity vs. promiscuity, relationships with men, and having your dreams go unfulfilled. Most of all it’s just a very funny film that is well directed and entertaining. Zero Motivation won the prize at Tribeca for Best Narrative Feature. If this one doesn’t hit theaters in the U.S., I know it will be on my list for films to bring here for the Cape Cod Festival of Arab & Middle Eastern Cinema (May/June 2015), so keep it in mind.
IFF BOSTON 2014
If Tribeca is all about big premieres, the gritty glamour of New York City, and launching films in the U.S. in the hopes of distribution here, IFF Boston is more a community event centered in Cambridge at the historic Somerville Theater in Davis Square and the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square, with additional screenings here and there in other parts of the Greater Boston region. This was my first time at the Festival, but if it is always like this, IFF Boston seems to have a flair for more culturally diverse programming. In fact, the two films I want to highlight here are notable for looking at cultural experiences about which many of us are oblivious.
If you think of poverty, voodoo, and a horrific earthquake whenever you hear the word “Haiti,” this documentary by Quebecois filmmaker Joseph Hillel will prove enlightening. At the post-screening Q&A, Hillel, who is part Haitian, said his motivation for making the film was not only to shed some light on what things have gone wrong in Haiti, but even more importantly, to expose the audience to the particular charms of this unique island nation. The film does a better job of showing us what’s happening in Haiti than anything I’ve seen post-earthquake. In fact, it also exposes a troubling practice where NGOs working on the island have allowed the numbers of casualties from the earthquake to be exaggerated in media reports without correcting them. In some cases, casualty counts have been inflated tenfold. The thinking goes something like this: “Why should we correct the figure if it is going to bring in more aid to this devastatingly poor country?” Hillel interviews anthropologists, NGO representatives (such as Sean Penn), a vodou priest and others in the community that give us context. But Ayiti Toma also shows us communities rebuilding, a less than terrifying vision of the vodou religion, and a country that gained its independence long ago but still struggles with the terms of their peace treaty with France. The country’s exports are controlled entirely by a tiny percentage of the population, leaving the rest in poverty. NGOs prioritize spending in a strange way. And the rest of the world cannot understand why Haiti is as it is. Like any good documentarian, Hillel does not go into his film with the answer already figured out; in fact, this film leaves us with more questions than answers at the end, which is just as it should be. The one message that does comes through loud and clear is that Haiti needs to solve Haiti’s problems and outside aid can only be in the form of support, not nation-building, and definitely not through Evangelical Christian proselytizing.
As I said at the beginning of this post, I go to festivals to find films I would not ordinarily be able see, films that take me on an adventure and show me something I have not seen. Ursula Liang’s 9-Man is structured like a conventional sports movie, but the sport and its culture are remarkably unique. Although it has its roots in China, the game 9-Man, which looks a lot like volleyball played on asphalt instead of a beach, flourished in the Chinese immigrant communities in urban areas of the U.S. and Canada beginning in the 1930s. In our supposedly postracial world, many in the film contend that there is still a need for this racially segregated game, (Teams must be comprised mainly of pure Chinese players and a smattering of bicultural Asian players, but no non-Asians can play at all). Although the idea is challenged, there is little concern about it. Even the non-Asian interviewees, who can’t play in the formal championship games but love the sport, appear to embrace 9-Man as a Chinese cultural institution that needs to stay pure. 9-Man fits into the documentary genre of competition films, structured around a major culminating event where the best 9-Man team will be recognized. Like other films in this genre, the filmmakers chose to follow a handful of participants to see where it would lead. The result is a fascinating look at Chinese-American life, particularly as it has been played out in the Chinatowns of North America. The IFF Boston screening was its world premiere and I have to say it was wonderful to watch the film with a packed house that included many Asian Americans who seemed familiar with the game–much better than seeing it in a press screening.