SLIFF 2007 Preview | Renick

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sliff20072.gifFilm buffs have a lot to choose from at this year's St. Louis International Film Festival, with some celluloid heavy hitters among the offerings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I tend to be drawn to topical stuff, so with that in mind, here are some of my recommendations:

America the Beautiful

It's no secret that Americans are obsessed with looks, but this documentary by Darryl Roberts is a hard-hitting reminder of why that's not such model behavior for our citizenry. Utilizing images from advertising, film and television, and an in-depth profile of child model Gerrenamericathebeautiful.gif Taylor (a 12-year-old girl thrust into the world of super-modeling without the maturity to understand the consequences), Roberts explores the self-esteem issues that women endure as a result of the high premium on physical perfection, and the profit-driven industries that perpetuate the problem with little concern for the psychological toll that results for so many. There are interviews with students, models, males who freely admit they prefer "hot" women, advertisers and many others. Roberts lets the messages emerge without being too heavy-handed; the result is an absorbing, provocative documentary.

Tivoli theatre, Mon., Nov. 12, 7:15 p.m. Roberts will attend the screening.

Low and Behold

There have been a number of documentaries about the mess created in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but it was an interesting idea to create a fictional story about an insurance claims adjustor who gets in over his head trying to do his job in the storm-ravaged neighborhoods of New Orleans. Turner Stully (Barlow Jacobs) plays the youthful adjustor who works in tandem with his far more experienced-and cynical-uncle (Robert Longstreet). The latter just sees it all as a matter of money-you go in, you assess the damage to the home, and you get out as quickly as possible. Turner, however, isn't prepared for the flack he gets from despondent homeowners (and the atmosphere created leads you to expect violence), nor does he know how to handle a gregarious local named Nixon (Eddie Rouse) who imposes on Turner for a ride so he can search for his lost dog, and then keeps pushing for more and more "favors" until you feel the same degree of agitation as Turner. An occasional "reality show" vibe sometimes proves distracting, and Longstreet is obnoxious, but the authentic footage of ruined homes and empty streets, and a powerful revelation at the end, make an undeniable impression. It certainly makes you think anew about the wide gap between disaster victims and the institutions that nearly always fall short at helping them.

Tivoli theatre, Fri., Nov. 9, 9:30 p.m. Director Zack Godshall will attend.

Meeting Resistance

Photojournalists Molly Bingham and Steve Connors somehow gained access to eight different resistance fighters during a period of ten months after the Iraq War began. They set about creating this hard-hitting documentary about the other side in this protracted, violent battle (the film won the "Golden" Award at the 2007 Al-Jazeera International Documentary Film Festival). Labeled with such designations as "The Warrior," "The Teacher," "The Imam," etc., the Iraqi fighters are shown talking about why they felt compelled to resist the "occupiers," and why they're willing to die for the cause. Their identities are preserved by never clearly showing their faces-this technique admittedly gets irksome at times, although it's perfectly understandable. Also, the subtitles are often difficult to read. But what the resisters have to say is powerful and sometimes revelatory, underscoring the fact, like anyone still doesn't know, that the White House spin on what the war is all about is far from the whole truth. In fact, you can't help identifying with what these men have to say, i.e., the question is posed, what would Americans do if an occupying army suddenly rode in and started acting as aggressively as our troops do in Iraq? It's not comfortable viewing, but it's worth catching for those who want an alternative perspective on the horrendous conflict in Iraq.

Tivoli theatre, Tues., Nov. 13, 7:00 p.m. Bingham and Connors will attend.

memorythief.jpgThe Memory Thief

Director Gil Kofman has so many ideas vying for attention in this film, that you strain to keep up with them all. The Memory Thief starts out as seemingly a slice-of-life drama about a toll booth operator, then it takes an unexpected turn when its protagonist, Lukas (Mark Webber), meets a holocaust survivor and becomes fascinated with videotaped testimonials by Jewish victims of the genocide. Lukas finds himself identifying with the survivors' suffering but he goes a little too far, to say the least, and some will think the film does, too. But Webber does a believable job portraying the increasingly unhinged young man, a wounded soul that you'll feel many different emotions towards throughout this film. The other interesting cast member is Rachel Miner as Mira, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor whom Lukas befriends at a hospital where's he's visiting his comatose mother...or is he? Miner is a fine young actress who's currently earning attention as Evan Handler's naughty secretary on the hit Showtime drama Californication. There are questionable plot developments in The Memory Thief, and I'm not sure the points it wants to make fully come through amidst the twists and turns. But it's a fascinating piece of work that should generate plenty of discussion.

Tivoli theatre, Sat., Nov. 10, 2:30 p.m. Director Kofman will attend.

The Paper

This interesting but overlong documentary tries to examine the state of American journalism by looking closely at the student journalists who run Penn State's The Daily Collegian. Director Aaron Matthews draws from countless hours of footage of the editors and writers discussing difficult interviewees, circulation problems, journalistic ethics and much more. You truly feel like you're a fly on the wall with some of these discussions, and these college students are obviously thoroughly committed to what they're doing, often putting in full-time hours on the paper above and beyond their classes. There's a certain amount of repetitiveness after a while and the film could have been about 20 minutes shorter, but the subject is a valuable one in this age when the media and its role are under such close scrutiny.

Webster University, Thurs., Nov. 15, 7:30 p.m. Panel discussion following the film with former Post-Dispatch editor Richard Weiss and St. Louis Univ. professor Avis Meyer.

Taxi to the Dark Side

Here is one of the most stunningly effective documentaries made to date about the fallout from the Iraq war. Written and directed by Alex Gibney, who made the acclaimed Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, Dark Side looks closely at the torture and mistreatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib, Bagram Air Force Base and Guantanamo Bay and includes sobering insights from both military personnel and Bush administration insiders such as law professor John Yoo and Alberto Mora, former general counsel of the Navy. Mora was among the few who opposed the administration's attempts to circumvent the Geneva convention with vague new protocols for extracting information from prisoners. The initial focal point of the film is the case of Afghan taxi driver Dilawar, a man who was suspected of transporting terrorists despite a lack of evidence. Five days after being taken to Bagram, he died from repeated beatings, and there is potent material presented revealing that, despite the cause of death listed on his death certificate, denial and evasiveness were all that came forth from the military. The infamous Abu Ghraib scandal gets a thorough investigation, including the roles of Carolyn Wood, Donald Rumsfeld and various lower-echelon officers who participated (some of whom appear on camera). There are numerous revelations, and the film unfolds with startling power. You'll learn a lot, you'll be outraged, and hopefully you'll emerge from the movie ready to write your congressmen and vote your conscience in future elections. Skillfully edited and comprehensive in its sweep, Taxi to the Dark Side is an unforgettable and disturbing film that has already been honored with the jury prize for Best Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Washington University's Steinberg Auditorium, Sat., Nov. 17, 8:15 p.m. Alex Gibney will appear. | Kevin Renick

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