film

Moonlight

MoonlightImpressionistic, poetic cinema is rarely set in the gritty reality of life in America’s poverty-stricken neighborhoods. But the new film Moonlight, writer/director Barry Jenkins perfectly captures the loneliness of being in a very different kind of closet than the one we’re used to seeing gay characters step triumphantly out of. Here, the rosy optimism of suburbia’s relative affluence doesn’t exist —not even as a reference point. Here, we look at poverty (always intertwined with race in America), and homophobia within the lives of characters who are rough around the edges but not caricatures or stereotypes.

In Moonlight, we meet Chiron, a young black boy who is teased and bullied by other boys in his Miami ghetto circa mid-1980s amidst America’s War on Drugs and crack epidemic. School-aged Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert), nicknamed “Little” by the others, is quiet, intelligent, and sensitive—all things seen as weird, unnatural, and undesirable, even by his crack-addicted mother (Naomie Harris), who loves him fiercely, but cannot express it. He is taken in by the local drug dealer and his girlfriend  who give him a refuge when things get to rough. He also has one friend, Kevin, a boy who is also sensitive and intelligent, but not quiet or introverted, and certainly better equipped to fit in with the crowd, for better or worse. These are the people who care about Little.

In part two of this three-part film, we meet Little again, only now he is in high school and people call him by his real name Chiron (Ashton Sanders). Many of his problems remain, and his burgeoning homosexuality becomes more apparent, but the socio-economincs of his life and the fear and  weakness of those around him lead him into the system that so many young black men end up in. When he comes our on the other end, we are in part three and his new persona is “Black” (Trevante Rhodes), himself a drug dealer who even looks similar to the one who took him in in his youth. We are full circle.

Moonlight belongs to a new category of cinema that includes films such as Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Below Dreams (which I wrote about in my coverage of the 2014 Tribeca Film Festvail here). I don’t know what to call this yet, but it is a category that is defined by its otherness. The characters in these films are not archetypes representing some subsection of American society, nor are they simple victims of circumstance. The filmmaking style is loose, instinctual, and economical. The films take place outside of the usual settings for American movies, like New York, L.A., or some unnamed, generic suburb. These are places cameras don’t often go, where stories go untold. The filmmakers themselves are concerned with poverty as well as with glimpses of beauty that can occur, even in an impoverished life.

As someone with little obviously in common with Chiron (I am a straight, white woman living on Cape Cod), it is remarkable how strongly connected to him I felt, a marking of the director’s skills in building empathy. Moonlight takes this intense experience and shares it with us in a unique form with expressive acting, sound design, and cinematography, as well as an editing strategy that is directed by the emotions of the main character. I haven’t seen this before, and that in and of itself separates it from most of what comes out in theaters today. So many movies, however different their basic plots, are so similar in approach and formal language that I can barely remember them a week later. Not so with Moonlight, which is a beautiful, tragic film that stays with you. In fact, I look forward to seeing it again to relive that experience of cinematic discovery.

There is a deep sadness throughout all three parts, and the dominant feeling is one of loneliness and isolation, which speaks to the real-life invisibility of gay, black men. We have seen them here and there (notably in the character of Omar in the brilliant cable series The Wire some years back), but it is a largely ignored subset of both the African-American experience and that of the LGBTQ community.

I hope Moonlight will not be pigeonholed into the usual distribution patterns where films with black characters only show in areas with larger black populations and films with gay characters are only aimed at gay audiences. I hope to see it for my second viewing right here on Cape Cod… at a theater near you.

Provincetown Film Festival Comes to a Close

This year’s Provincetown International Film Festival gave us another great lineup of events and screenings, showing that 18 years in, they still know how to do a festival right. The concept of “filmmaking on the edge” has always been the major identifying factor in this festival, which, while it takes place in a mecca for LGBT residents and tourists, has never been  a narrowly defined festival.

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Ang Lee receiving the Filmmaker on the Edge Award at the Provincetown International Film Festival on Saturday, June 18, 2016. Photo: Rebecca M. Alvin

The concept of “the edge” is a fluid one, and it can mean many different things, a fact that was not lost on this year’s Filmmaker on the Edge awardee Ang Lee. The Chinese-American director of such brilliant films as Brokeback Mountain, The Ice Storm, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon said in his acceptance speech at an event in Provincetown Town Hall on Saturday evening, “I don’t know what the edge is and I don’t want to know. I like the mystery… I want to keep lying to you in the dark.”

Lee also spoke about the inspiration to become a filmmaker coming from the response he had to Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, a film he confesses he did not understand, but which for some reason stayed with him. “I saw the world differently.”

Asked by a young man in the audience what advice he’d give to aspiring filmmakers, Lee was frank in saying, “Don’t do it.” He explained it is such a difficult path to take that no one should go into it lightly. “I’m very fortunate to do what my heart tells me to do,” he said. “You have to really like it to do it, and if you do you don’t need my encouragement.”

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Cynthia Nixon, the Festival’s Excellence in Acting awardee speaking about her work this past Saturday at Provincetown Town Hall. Photo: Rebecca M. Alvin

The Festival also gave out an Excellence in Acting Award to Cynthia Nixon, who is perhaps best know for her role as Miranda in Sex in the City, but also has numerous award-winning credits in television, movies, and theater. In fact, she’s been performing professionally since she was 9 years old. Nixon, who is married to a woman, said she’d been working on the television movie Killing Reagan, which premieres this fall, and that this was her first time in Provincetown. “I’d just come from a month of playing Nancy Reagan… It’s nice to wake up from 1981 and see where we all are. It’s good to be here.”

When asked how her work for gay marriage in New York and in support of public education connected with her acting work, Nixon was clear, saying “When you make art with a political agenda, it often sullies in in a way… I like to keep my politics and my art separate.”

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Agata Kulesza in The Innocents (2016), which won this year’s Audience Award for best narrative feature.

On Sunday, after the Closing Night film Strike a Pose, the festival film awards were announced. Of special note was the HBO Audience Award winner for Narrative Feature: The Innocents, a beautiful, heartbreaking film about nuns in a convent in Poland in 1945 who seek the help of a young French woman training to be a doctor with the French Red Cross when several of them find themselves in the late stages of pregnancy. Beautifully photographed and so well acted, it is no surprise this was chosen as the best narrative film of the festival.

In addition, the following awards were also given:

– HBO Audience Award / Best Documentary Feature (tie): The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, directed by Morgan Neville and Political Animals directed by Jonah Markowitz and Tracy Wares
– HBO Short Documentary Award: Territory, directed by Eleanor Mortimer
– The John Schlesinger Award, presented to a first time feature filmmaker (narrative): Blood Stripe, directed by Remy Auberjonois
– The John Schlesinger Award, presented to a first time feature filmmaker (documentary): Off the Rails, directed by Adam Irving
 – Here Media Award – Best Queer Short Film: One Last Night, directed by Kerem Blumberg
– Best Narrative Short Film: Thunder Road, directed by Jim Cummings
– Best Animated Short Film: Glove, directed by Alexa Haas and Bernardo Britto
– Best New England Short Film: Black Canaries, directed by Jesse Kreitzer
– Best Student Short Film: The Mink Catcher, directed by Samantha Buck
– Special Mention: ¡Mais Duro!, directed by Camila Saldarriaga
The Short Film Jury consisted of Ian Samuels (filmmaker, Myrna the Monster), Lisanne Skyler (filmmaker, Brillo Box (3¢ Off)) and Kim Yutani (Senior Programmer, Sundance Film Festival).

Southwest of Salem

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Anna Vasquez, one of the San Antonio Four featured in Deborah S.Esquinazi’s Southwest of Salem.

One of the films I saw at the Tribeca Film Festival last month was a documentary about the so-called “San Antonio Four”—four Latina lesbians who, in 1994, were accused and ultimately convicted of sexually abusing two young girls. After the Innocence Project of Texas took an interest in the case, many holes were found in it, and then, about ten years ago, one of the alleged victims came forward to recant her testimony, saying her father told her and her sister to make up the story. I had the amazing opportunity to sit down and talk with the filmmakers behind Southwest of Salem and the women it profiles, all now out of prison awaiting exoneration. The article appears in this week’s Provincetown Magazine, although there are currently no plans to show the film on Cape Cod. I hope that will change. Here on the Cape we have so many independent movie theaters, so I encourage you to call your local theater to request it.

Eating Bugs on the Bowery

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Courtesy of BUGS by Andreas Johnsen

Back in the day, if I ate a bug on the Bowery, it would not have been intentional. But last week at the Tribeca Film Festival, I was invited to intentionally taste grasshoppers, worms, and ant larvae at a small Mexican deli on 4th & Bowery in conjunction with the screening of a new documentary about the gastronomic possibilities of insects, BUGS.

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Crispy Grasshoppers. Photo: Rebecca M. Alvin

This concept of eating insects was not foreign or all that bizarre to me. My 12-year-old son has been telling me for over a year about the possibilities for ending world hunger that consuming insects allows. After all, insects are numerous, varied, and easy to find all around the world (with the possible exception of the extreme environments of Antarctica and the North Pole). But what Andreas Johnsen’s documentary makes clear is that while it is certainly an important facet of the food chain to pursue, there are myriad problems to consider in terms of how the advancement of bugs as a food source will fit into the global industrial food complex.

What makes this 80-minute Danish documentary so good is its refusal to simplify the situation and buy into the hype. We follow chefs and researchers from Nordic Food Lab, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to broadening people’s taste in food and exploring diversity in food sources around the world. They travel to Kenya, Rwanda, Australia, Japan, Mexico, and even Italy, in search of insects that are and have been traditional foods for the people there. In the process, we start to lose ourselves in the enthusiasm for these apparently complex flavored creatures as Chef Ben Reade tastes each one and describes them as only a chef or a foodie can. But as the film progresses, Reade is haunted by the idea that large corporations sit on the sidelines, potentially benefitting from the work of Nordic Food Lab and others like them, while those who do the actual work of raising, capturing, and eating insects that are integral to their traditional diets will see no benefit.

Ultimately, BUGS forces us to face the overall problem of overhyped “superfoods,” the gluttony of first-world nations, and the inequities that cause people to continue to go hungry because of their geography when the world actually has more than enough food to feed everyone plenty. It’s a fascinating, thought-provoking take on the true promise of insects as food.20160418_140256

…Oh, and the ant larvae taco was my favorite dish!