June is the month when LA comes alive with festivals. Growing in prominence each year on the world film stage is the LA Film Fest, which announced its winners yesterday. Here’s a quick round-up of those taking home awards.
Narrative Award (for Best Narrative Feature): All Is Well (Portugal)
Honorable Mention: Thursday Till Sunday (Chile)
Documentary Award (for Best Documentary Feature): Drought (Mexico)
Best Performance in the Narrative Competition: Wendell Pierce, Emory Cohen, E.J. Bonilla and Aja Naomi King in Joshua Sanchez’s Four
Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature: Beasts of the Southern Wild (read our review)
Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature: Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and the Farm Midwives
Audience Award for Best International Feature: Searching For Sugar Man
Best Narrative Short Film: The Chair
Best Documentary Short Film: Kudzu Vine
Best Animated/Experimental Short Film: The Pub
Audience Award for Best Music Video: Piranhas Club (previously featured by the LA Music Video Festival and Turnstyle)
Audience Award for Best Short Film: Asad
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Continuing our coverage of the Los Angeles Film Festival.
This might just turn out to be the summer that “blockbusters” slipped away through a wormhole and the indies rose to fill the void. Moonrise Kingdom is already a hot ticket amongst those who actually like going to the movies, and now Sundance and Cannes darling Beasts of the Southern Wild is entering the fray, announcing the arrival of the next wave of American independent cinema.
Director Behn Zeitlin and his cohorts in the filmmaking collective Court 13 have built a kind of DIY fairytale world in the form of “The Bathtub”, a swampland refuge populated by a society of outcasts and iconoclasts. The Bathtub possesses a DIY aesthetic, as if everything there– from the people to the buildings– had washed up from somewhere else. Everyone here seems a little crazy, folks who put a high value on living life without fetters or much in the way of responsibilities to the outside world. Each other is another matter, but we’ll get to that.
The story is told through the eyes of Hushpuppy, a little girl who lives with her father in a pair of ramshackle trailers-on-stilts somewhere in the wilds of The Bathtub. Hushpuppy’s narration propels the almost stream of consciousness story forward, so that the film takes on the aspect of a bedtime story told by a child. There are ellipses in the story logic, and the characters are drawn with such bold emotional lines there is little question that we are seeing this world through Hushpuppy’s eyes.
The world, it seems, is coming to an end. Though it isn’t articulated bluntly it is clear that global warming has raised up a great storm which is bound to wash away The Bathtub. Many of the residents flee for the mainland, but not all. Not the dedicated amongst those who live in The Bathtub and certainly not Hushpuppy and her daddy. The storm comes and floods The Bathtub, leaving the survivors to cling to each other. All the while not knowing that something even worse might be coming: deadly aurochs which broke free from the ice shelf and are cutting a swath of destruction across the land.
You’re probably clocking to the fact that this is not a straightforward story. Zeitlin and crew are out to build a world and play in it, exploring their creation with the sensibility of musicians. Beasts of the Southern Wild plays out as the filmic counterpart of a concept album. This is, I suppose, how a film by The Decemberists might play out: broad strokes and bold variations on a theme, each scene a new variation on the theme.
If this is an album, then the lead vocals are provided by Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy. Gambling an entire feature film on the strength of child actors is a bold choice for any filmmaker. It paid off for Wes Anderson with Moonrise Kingdom, but Zeitlin hits the jackpot with Wallis. She’s 1.21 gigawatts of power wrapped in the body of a six year old. Even when up against her probably insane father Wink (Dwight Henry), young Wallis commands the screen. If Zeitlin and company are trying to invoke an unfettered spirit through this work they succeeded the second they found first time actor Wallis.
However, I was not left without reservations about the film after viewing it. I came relatively late to Beasts of the Southern Wild, having been unable to catch it in Park City this year. By the time I saw it I’d heard nothing but praise for the strength of the vision, and I wish to the powers that be that didn’t trigger my instinct for finding fault, but it does. Specifically I became concerned with how broadly and wildly the characters were depicted.
The characters within the film skirt the edges of southern archetypes, mixed with caricatures of the mentally ill. Both are sore subjects with me, and I couldn’t entirely pack away my discomfort because I wasn’t entirely sure where Zeitlin’s empathy lay. There’s a clear double entendre with the title “Beasts of the Southern Wild”– referring both to the march of the aurochs and the residents of The Bathtub, but is “Beast” a condemnation or a celebration? Or does it stem from a kind of root-seeking romanticism… and if it does, is that such a terrible thing in and of itself?
In preparation for writing this review, which has been gnawing away at me for a while now, I watched Zeitlin’s short “Glory at Sea”, which establishes the same visual style as used in Beasts, and treads on some of the same thematic territory. Watching that film, which I encourage everyone to do, made it clear to me that Zeitlin and Court 13 see themselves in the residents of The Bathtub. If anything these characters are their ideal archetypes, representing fierce independence and an ability to make something beautiful from what polite society discards. A spirit that lets them transcend their background as Wesleyan college students and become something more.
Romanticism at its best.
Beasts of the Southern Wild played as part of the Los Angeles Film Festival and will open in select theaters Wedenesday, June 27th.
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Director Till Schauder and his producing partner and wife Sara Nodjoumi lucked out when they were looking to make a film about American basketball players who risked big fines to play in Iran. On the verge of scrapping the project they found Kevin Sheppard, a talented point guard with charisma to burn and a veteran journeyman player who hails from the U.S. Virgin Islands.
In The Iran Job, Schauder follows Sheppard to Iran where he finds a first year team of scrub players and a society on the edge of a revolt that will become known as the Green Movement. In this, Schauder is lucky twice over: for a documentary about journeymen basketball players in Iran needs a strong central character, which Sheppard most certainly is, and the timing of his first season in the Iranian Super League creates a dramatic backdrop for the film.
What’s great about this film is that it allows us a view into two worlds most Americans don’t have a clue about– the life of international basketball players and Iran– through a framework we all get: the sports movie. There is the resolute drama as Sheppard slips into his natural role as team captain, despite the language barrier, and gets the young team from Shiraz into playoff shape. Off the court we watch as Kevin develops a friendship with three young Iranian women, in a society where fraternization between men and women isn’t just frowned upon: in some circumstances it’s downright illegal.
This human scale view of life inside Iran, even when seen from the perspective of an outsider, is something we just don’t get that often here in the West. Schauder paints a clear picture of a society caught in an identity crisis brought on by a love of tradition and a thirst for modernity. All this anchored on the life of Sheppard, so used to living out of a suitcase that he seems he might never settle down.
So: sports film, fish out of water story, and a travelogue. There’s also a love story. Either Kevin’s girlfriend back home or the young lady in Shiraz who has a clear crush on him are going to be disappointed by picture’s end. Schauder juggles the elements of the story deftly, even as late in the narrative the Green Movement begins to become a real force in Iranian society.
The film makes for a great introduction to the complex political scenario at work in the Gulf nation, one that never crosses the line into the didactic formula that makes many “issue” documentaries feel like educational film strips.
The Iran Job had its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival this past weekend, and has had an additional screening added on Sunday, June 24 at 3:30 PM at the LA Live theater complex.
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Sometimes while attending a film festival, one has to reset the expectations meter. A filmmaker friend once cyncially said to me that festival movies are not films but “tries”. I don’t totally hold with that assesment, but it was a line that came back to me as I watched David Fenster’s Pincus, a new American independant film that made it’s debut at the LA Film Festival.
I’ll hold off on breaking out the knives for a second and fall back into my college tradition of talking about what works before getting hypercritical but spoiler alert if you just want a consumer reccomnedation: this is the kind of movie worth seeing only if you are into tracking emerging talent. Fenster has some good instincts that need honing, but Pincus isn’t something I’d tell my casual film friends to go see.
Pincus is a portrait of a lost soul coping with mortality in the form of his father’s full blown Parkison’s disease. Pincus Finster (David Nordstrom) is the son of a building contractor who is barely keeping the family business together with the help of his side-kick, a homeless, who-knows-how-many-substance addicted German named Dietmar (the late non-actor, Dietmar Franosch, playing himself apparently). Pincus lets Dietmar sleep on the job sites, while Pincus lives at home trying to take care of his father Paul (Paul Fenster, the filmmaker’s actual father).
Early on in the film Pincus catches sight of Anna (Christi Idavoy) an attractive yoga instructor, and this seems to kick start his exploration of alternative thearapies for his dad, which may or may not be just a thinly veiled attempt to sleep with Anna. Emphasis on the “just”, becasue it’s pretty clear that’s a big part of it.
The actors are game and the film’s setting of suburban Miami and bits and pieces of the Everglades provide interesting fodder to look at. Pincus never suffers from moment to moment pacing, and the elder Fenster is a compelling on screen presence beyond the circumstances of his disease. The film’s best moments are culled from a discarded documentary the filmmaker began about his father’s condition.
What the film lacks is a willingness to look at it’s subject matter dead on. Perhaps Fenster, by trying to salvage material he was gathering for the documentary, found it too difficult. Who knows if I would have even had the stomach to turn a camera on in his shoe, let alone gather some of the meditative material he does from the conversations he had with his dad, which he recuts to place Nordstrom into the scene.
While I applaud Fenster’s courage for starting this dialog, at issue is that the film doesn’t really take the questions it raises– about mortality, spirtuality, and living up to the family name– anywhere. They just hang there. Yup. They’re there. Sure are.
Nor does the film have a visual style of it’s own. This is pretty squarely in the current “indie” style of hand-held camerawork in availible light. From a design perspective the one place that stands out is John Clement Wood’s work with the music, but the dialog mix as presented at LA Live over the weekend seemed rather bassy, to the precipice of distortion.
This is intensly personal material for Fenster, and perhaps that is where the problem lay. Deep in the thick of loss, it can be difficult to gain perspective. Difficult to stare unflinchinly into the abyss. There is a moment in the film where we get a glimpse of the condition of the elder Fenster’s feet, which are in poor shape. That’s an understatement, they bear the legend of years of hard work and the betrayal of the flesh that can come at the end of life. They are at the edge of the frame, and I found myself wanting for the camera to look at them. Really look and force us to not look away. To put us in the perspective of Pincus, who is confronted with the need to maintain his father’s failing body.
Yet Pincus– both the film and the character– seem unwilling to face the grit of mortality head on. That’s the kind of courage we need from our indie filmmakers, a capacity that Fenster may yet possess, but does not find here.
Pincus, a film by David Fenster, screens as part of the Los Angeles Film Festival again on Thursday the 21st.
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2012 has become a year for earth-shaking documentaries. Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In stunned and angered me at Sundance this year and now The Invisible War– which also took it’s first bow in Park City– has done the same at this week’s Los Angeles Film Festival.
Filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering take an unflinching look at the epidemic of rape in the armed forces and the broken institutional culture that allows sexual predators free access to what one expert in the documentary calls a “target rich environment”. The film mixes the harrowing personal tales of several ex-military personnel, not all of whom are women, with the on camera testimony of former military prosecutors frustrated with the system. Also in the mix are current military officials who appear to exist solely on a continuum of dangerously clueless to willfully obtuse.
Two Defense Department flacks come off particularly poorly in the footage that Dick and Ziering share. Rear Admiral Anthony Kurta’s blink rate was so extreme it brought to mind the old adage that liars blink more than those who are telling the truth. Studies have brought that into question, and anyone who has sat under camera lights knows how they can play havoc with your usual expressiveness, but the officer just does not project real confidence in his defense of the Navy’s handling of the criminal investigations of rape cases in the way he carries himself. To his credit he does not come off nearly as badly as Dr. Kaye Whitley, the former point person for the Defense Department on sexual abuse who the filmmakers manage to paint as a clueless, out of touch bubblehead. Nor does it appear to be a hatchet job by Dick and Ziering. There are some questions you need to have an answer beyond “I don’t know” when the subject is rape.
The filmmakers lay out a compelling case that the military is coddling sex offenders. The motivation appears to be saving face of those in positions of authority and an almost pathological fear that female service members use allegations of rape as a political tool. The damning conclusion the film reaches is that this unwillingness to give the issue the full weight it deserves creates an environment where serial sexual predators are able to hide in plain sight, and in so doing erode the effectiveness of the armed forces. The implication is in place by the time the last reel unspools: many of these rapes are preventable if the military would only choose to weed out the predators in their midst.
Dick and Ziering would be unable to make their case without the courageous selflessness of the women and men who are willing to share their stories on screen. How anyone could bear witness to their testimony and assume that they were seeking personal advantage is beyond me. These are people willing to unveil deep pain and shame, many of whom endure suicidal thoughts. Nevertheless they are willing to expose themselves so that others might one day know justice. They posses the very values we profess to admire in our military “heroes” and yet our military institutions treat them like trash.
I spent a great deal of time watching The Invisible War with fists clenched. More than once the film elicited gasps and murmurs of shame from the audience. Like Jarecki’s The House I Live In this is one of those documentaries that should be mandatory viewing for every citizen. The sexual predators allowed to roam free in the military are a problem for more than our armed forces– they are a moral stain on our nation. It is, after all, our tax dollars that are keeping these monsters in human form fed, sheltered, and free to prey on honorable men and women who have chosen to serve their country. Moreover: it is to our towns and cities that they return when they finally do leave service. Unpunished and emboldened to strike again.
The film is an effective call to action: as a society we cannot afford to let rape stand as an “occupational hazard” of military service as the civilian courts have ruled. While it is beyond uncomfortable to look directly at, to ignore these crimes is to surrender our society to the kind of corruption from which it may never recover.
The Invisible War enters release this Friday, June 22nd in New York, LA, Washington D.C., San Francisco and Boston and is distributed by Cinedigm an Docurama Films.
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