2012 SLIFF Preview | Sarah Boslaugh

sliff sm_copyYou can experience worlds far removed from your own, for just the price of an admission ticket and a few hours of your time.

 

 

sliff ballplayer

I’ve accumulated a fair collection of SLIFF volunteer t-shirts over the years, but my all-time favorite is from 2005. Not because of the color (a discreet Oxford gray) but for the slogan: “Once a year, the world comes to you.” That’s pretty much why I love films in general, and film festivals in particular: You can experience worlds far removed from your own, for just the price of an admission ticket and a few hours of your time. My personal interests run toward documentaries and animation (two staples of the festival circuit), so that’s the focus of this preview, but over 400 films will be screened during the festival (details available at http://cinemastlouis.org/sliff-2012) and there are plenty of features and shorts on the menu, as well.

One of the best of the documentaries is Ballplayer: Pelotero (11/10 Tivoli 3:30 p.m.), directed by Ross Finkel, Trevor Martin, and Jonathan Paley, which takes an even-handed look at the baseball player development system in the Dominican Republic. It’s a big business: This nation of 10.1 million people currently supplies one fifth of all players in Major League Baseball. Normally, prospects sign a contract with a team at age 16, and signing bonuses for the best players can run into the millions of dollars (by of comparison, the per capita income of the Dominican Republic is about $9,400). So players and their families have a huge incentive to game the system (e.g., through age fraud and steroid use), and Major League Baseball and the individual clubs have an incentive to pay the players as little as possible and to ensure that they’re not contracting with a 19-year-old claiming to be 16. With interests so diametrically opposed, conflict is inevitable, but Ballplayer: Pelotero capably presents multiple points of view and thus avoids becoming simply an advocacy film.

International law prohibits returning a refugee to a country where his or her life is in danger, but Israel disregards this principle when it comes to gay Palestinians. Those lucky enough to make it into Israel, a country notable for its tolerance of gays and lesbians, therefore have to pass not as straight, but as Israeli. The Invisible Men (Gvarim Bilti Nirim) (11/16 Washington Univ./Brown 8:30 p.m.) follows the story of three men in this circumstance—Louie, age 24, Faris, age 23, and Abdu, age 24. None can safely return home, but they can’t live openly in Israel, either, so their best long-term option is to seek asylum in a third country, even though that will mean leaving behind everything familiar to them. Director Yariv Mozer got extraordinary access to the lives of these men (and took some risks himself, as well, because aiding an “illegal” Palestinian is against the law in Israel), resulting in a fascinating film that won Outstanding Documentary Feature at the Frameline Film Festival in San Francisco.

SLIFF prep-school_250When André Robert Lee was awarded a full scholarship to attend the prestigious Germantown Friends School, he thought he had won a golden ticket out of the impoverished Philadelphia neighborhood where he lived with his mother and sister. In a way, he did—Lee’s talents blossomed in an environment where reading was valued over fighting—but there was a price to be paid, as well. Lee’s documentary The Prep School Negro (11/15 Tivoli 7:15 p.m.) explores the struggles that he, and other African-American students, faced as scholarship students attending classes with the offspring of some of Philadelphia’s richest and most powerful families. The film doesn’t go terribly deep, but is worth seeing because it raises an issue that is often left unconsidered in discussions of affirmative action.

Michael Verhoeven’s documentary The Second Execution of Romell Broom (11/17 Washington Univ./Brown noon) raises an interesting philosophical question, but the film itself fails to deliver on this initial premise. The question at issue is this: If a state tries to execute someone and fails, do they get to try again? Unfortunately, Verhoeven gets distracted by many side issues, such as whether the death penalty is ever justified, if the convicted man (Romell Broom) is really guilty as charged, and how, if at all, the suffering of the victim(s) should be considered when determining the sentence for a crime. The result is a scattered and frustrating documentary that frequently feels like a collage of juxtaposed statements from different speakers, some of whom really don’t really have much to add to the discussion.

The Wallenda family is famous for their dazzling high-wire performances, and equally for performing without a net. That combination has produced its share of tragedy over the years, including a disastrous 1962 accident that left two performers dead and another paralyzed. As a civilian, you might well wonder why they continue to risk their necks on a regular basis, and Paul M. Froehle’s documentary The Show Must Go On: An Intimate Portrait of the Flying Wallendas (11/14 Frontenac 7 p.m.) attempts to answer that question with a behind-the-scenes looks at the family today. If you’re a circus fan, this film is interesting enough, but it doesn’t get much beyond the surface of the issues it claims to be examining.

Tracy Christian’s Street Journeys (11/17 Washington Univ./Brown 4:30 p.m.) is also of interest primarily for its subject matter—in this case, the inspiring story of an arts program for Kenyan street children founded by the actress Anne Wanjugu. Christian’s documentary stays determinedly on the surface, and the director seems almost reluctant to shape her material into anything other than a collection of episodes, but the kids are captivating and the adults sincere. The result: If you’re in the market for a feel-good documentary (even one that ends with a pitch for funds), Street Journeys will fill the bill.

Even if you’re not in the habit of viewing animated features, there are several films this year that might convert you. Among the films I screened, the best combination of art and story is achieved by Jean-François Laguionie in Le Tableau (11/10 Washington Univ./Brown 2 p.m.), set in a fairy-tale world populated by “people” who are actually painted figures. Status is determined by how complete one’s painting is: The “Allduns” live in a castle and have all the pretensions of those born on third base, the just-begun “Sketchies” are the equivalent of untouchables and live in a haunted forest, and the almost-complete “Halfies” are somewhere between the two in terms of the social hierarchy. The animation is amazing—it’s like walking into a living art gallery—and the story can be enjoyed on multiple levels, so that both kids and adults will find it intriguing.

sliff rabbis-cat_250The Rabbi’s Cat (11/17 Frontenac 6:15 p.m.; 11/18 Frontenac 1:30 p.m.), is an animated film based on several of Joann Sfar’s books featuring a cat that not only can talk, but can also match wits with his master, an Algerian rabbi. I’m a huge fan of Sfar’s work, and the good news is that the beauty of his art comes through in this film, as does his delight with philosophical discussion. The bad news is that the story is all over the place, as if Sfar and co-director Antoine Delesvaux had started to make a whole series of animated films, then selected random parts from each and stuck them together. Despite that criticism, this is one of my favorite films of the festival, in no small part because of its celebration of the multi-ethnic culture of North Africa in the 1920s.

Visual quality is also the strong point in Tales of the Night (Les contes de la nuit) (11/10 Hi-Pointe 2 p.m.; 11/11 Washington Univ./Brown 2 p.m.). In a frame story, three present-day characters challenge each other to come up with stories, Arabian Nights-style, and then each story comes to life before your eyes. The stories themselves are variants on fables and fairytales set in exotic locations, and the film feels more like a series of shorts than an integrated whole. The real draw in Tales of the Night is Michel Ocelot’s stunning, silhouette-based animation, which looks like the kind of work Lotte Reininger might have done had she worked in the age of CGI.

In contrast, Berserk Golden Age Arc I: Egg of the Supreme Ruler (11/13 Hi-Pointe 9:30 p.m.) is not particularly innovative, and will be of interest mainly to the otaku crowd. Based on a manga series by Kentaro Miura, the story is set in a fictional version of the European Middle Ages, with lots of violent action (as the time slot suggests, this one is not for kids). Unfortunately, the animation itself is of the jerky, unrealistic variety more typical of television programming than of feature films, and that may diminish the enjoyment of this film for people who are not already anime fans. If you can overlook the animation quality, however, this film has a lot to offer in terms of detailed art and complex psychological interaction among the three principal characters: Guts, a headstrong loner who never admits defeat, Griffith, the bishie (“beautiful boy”) commander of a mercenary army, and Casca, the only woman in Griffith’s army.

Josephine Baker’s talents carry the day in Siren of the Tropics (La sirène des tropiques) (11/16 Webster Univ./Moore 7 p.m.), a 1927 silent feature film that will be shown with live musical accompaniment by the Poor People of Paris. The story is an overheated melodrama alternating between France (and some art deco sets to die for) and “native” life in some tropical locale, but Baker’s star presence shines through it all, and not just when she’s doing the Charleston. Siren of the Tropics is part of a double bill; the other half is Philip Judith-Gozlin’s The Other Josephine (11/16 Webster Univ./Moore 8:30 p.m.), a documentary about Baker’s life.

As far as I’m concerned, the world is suffering from a terrible shortage of high-quality midnight movies, the kind that are knowledgeable of genre conventions, build tension through psychology, and never settle for the easy gross-out shot. The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh (11/9 Hi-Pointe midnight), directed by Rodrigo Gudiño, meets those requirements, and if you go for that sort of thing, it’s definitely worth checking out. The basic setup is that a middle-aged antiques collector (Aaron Poole) moves into his deceased mother’s home, which is full of artfully creepy stuff. Gradually, he comes to realize that she was involved in a cult, and you’ll have to find out the rest by watching the film. Vanessa Redgrave is the voice of Mom from beyond the grave, and the cinematography by Samy Inayeh pushes all the right buttons. | Sarah Boslaugh

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