2013 SLIFF Preview | Sarah Boslaugh

SLIFF-2 75There’s a lot of variety on offer, and while you may not care for all of it, there’s bound to be plenty that you will like.


A phrase I heard at the annual Sligo fiddle contest some years back applies equally well to the Saint Louis International Film Festival: “we aim to please all tastes.” There’s a lot of variety on offer, and while you may not care for all of it, there’s bound to be plenty that you will like. A festival is also a good time to try something outside your usual watching habits—at worst, you lose a few dollars and a few hours of your time, while at the best you may find something fantastic.

If your taste runs to European arthouse, you’ll love Michael Kohlhaas (11/20 Frontenac 6:30 p.m.; 11/21 Frontenac 9:15 p.m.), an epic tale of injustice and revenge, with stunning cinematography by Adrien Debackere and Jeanne Lapoirie and a star-studded cast including Mads Mikkelsen and Bruno Ganz. Based on a novella by Heinrich von Kleist, which is in turn based on the true story of a 16th century German merchant turned bandit. Also distinctly European, but in more of a television-movie style, is The Jewish Cardinal (11/21 Frontenac 9:15 p.m.; 11/22 Frontenac 2 p.m.), based on the true story of Jean-Marie Lustiger. It’s a straightforward presentation of an historical fact sure to provoke discussion: Lustiger, the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants to France, converted to Catholicism and became Archbishop of Paris.

Cairo 678 (11/16 Frontenac 9:30 p.m.) belongs squarely in the “modern problems” school of feature films, depicting a reality well known by half of the population, and often ignored by the other half — persistent sexual harassment suffered by women. Director Mohamed Diab intertwines the stories of three Cairo women who are affected by predatory behavior: Fayza, a low-level government employee whose bus commute is a daily source of humiliation; upper-class Nelly, whose family wants her to drop her lawsuit against a man who assaulted her on the street; and middle-class Seba, who fuels anger about her own assault into teaching women how to reformulate the situation: “only the scumbag who harasses you has reason for shame.”

Kenji Uchida’s Key of Life (11/16 Frontenac 9 p.m.; 11/17 Frontenac 6 p.m.) is a delightful, and very Japanese comedy, which opens with the declaration by tightly-wound career woman Kanae (Ryoko Hirosue) that she’s getting married. She has the wedding day in her appointment calendar already, but hasn’t yet found the right guy — and to remedy that situation, goes on a husband hunt with all the discipline she normally applies to her work. At about the same time, an unsuccessful actor and a gangster switch identities (voluntary in one case, involuntary in the other), and soon that storyline impinges on the first.

The current fad for digital black-and-white works well in Jan Olle Gerster’s Oh Boy (11/15 Frontenac 6:30 p.m.; 11/17 Frontenac 8:45 p.m.), which scooped up most of the major prizes at the recent German film awards. Gerster follows Gen-Y slacker Niko (Tom Schilling) around the streets of Berlin, listlessly drifting through life until a series of events force him to shed his non-participant status. A jazzy score and a tongue-in-cheek attitude (poor Niko keeps trying to buy a regular cup of coffee, only to be overwhelmed by the choice and cost of what is available) give the film a Woody Allen feel. On the flip side, Jan Troell’s The Last Sentence (11/19 Frontenac 6:30 p.m.; 11/20 Frontenac 1:30 p.m.) seems like it was designed in color, with the decision to go with black-and-white decision coming later in the process. The career of crusading Swedish journalist Torgny Segerstedt is a fascinating subject for a biopic, but Troell’s film is so chilly that the whole effort feels like an intellectual exercise.

If you’re OK with watching a filmed play, Del Shores’ Southern Baptist Sissies (11/18 Tivoli 7:30 p.m.) has a lot to offer: the play itself is funny and heartbreaking (it’s a memory play about growing up gay in a Southern fundamentalist community), the music is great, and the cast includes Leslie Jordan and Dale Dickey. A more conventional film, Srdjan Dragojevic’s The Parade (11/17 Frontenac 9:15 p.m.) is set among a community of activists in Belgrade planning a gay pride parade. Because the last parade 10 years ago was met with violence, they buy themselves a little insurance in the form of an alliance with a crime boss (Nikola Kojo), who wants theatre director and parade organizer Mirko (Goran Jevtic) to create an elaborate wedding for his fiancé. As Mart Crowley reminded us years ago, “It takes a fairy to make something pretty,” and if you’re OK with that and even more obvious levels of stereotyping, you may find The Parade hilarious. If not, probably not.

Two less successful features go retro in style as well as subject matter. Terry Green’s No God, No Master (11/19 Frontenac 9:30 p.m.; 11/20 Frontenac 7:15 p.m.) is set in a sepia-toned 1920s America consisting of a few super-rich — John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, and the like — and a whole lot of mustachioed immigrant laborers whose troubles are detailed in anvilicious dialogue. Even David Strathairn can’t raise this film’s level above that of an average movie of the week. The Fantastic World of Juan Orol (11/18 Frontenac 4:15 p.m.; 11/22 Frontenac 6 p.m.) is based on a great idea — an exploration of the career Mexican B-movie actor and director Juan Orol (think of him as a Mexican Ed Wood) through period-style recreations of scenes from his life and films—but too often misses out on the fun and feels more like an academic exercise than an entertaining film.

The documentary of the festival (among those that I screened) is Let the Fire Burn (11/23 Webster U/Moore 4 p.m.), which takes on a notorious episode in American race relations. Using only archival footage, director Jason Osder tells the story of the 1985 police bombing of MOVE headquarters in Philadelphia: before the smoke cleared, eleven people were dead and 61 homes destroyed. It’s a gripping narrative, and Osder providing context for the police actions (the MOVE members were heavily armed and confrontational) without directly condemning or excusing the behavior of anyone involved. Coming a close second is director/narrator/Khmer Rouge survivor Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture (11/24 Webster U./Moore 4 p.m.), which recreates the horrors of life in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge through tableaus made up of tiny hand-carved figures. Supplemented by archival film clips and newly-shot footage, it’s an excellent way to portray an almost unthinkable genocide (which some estimate amounted to 20-25% of the country’s population).

The tone of Ric Esther Beinstock’s Tales from the Organ Trade (11/16 Washington U./Brown 6 p.m., free) is set in the opening observation, voiced by David Cronenberg: “There is a shortage worldwide of organs, and a surplus of poor people.” Annually, thousands of organs are bought and sold on a black market involving people so desperate they will trade vital parts of their bodies for money, and equally desperate but more financially fortunate patients willing to do just about anything to obtain a transplant. This film is a prime example of distinctively Canadian style of documentary: straightforward yet creative, hard-hitting, and with that hard-to-articulate something extra that marks the boundary between workmanship and art.

Samantha Grant seems to have had access to nearly everyone involved in the Jayson Blair scandal while making A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power, and Jayson Blair at the New York Times (11/23 Frontenac 1:30 p.m.). In case you’ve forgotten, Blair was the young reporter who in 2003 hoodwinked the New York Times with over 70 plagiarized, fabricated, and otherwise not-quite right stories; one of the revelations of this film is that he’d been pulling similar stunts since, at least, high school. Blair freely admits his guilt (does he really have a choice?), but also offers up gallons of therapy-speak explanations, while outsiders like Seth Mnookin have more pointed observations about what they see as the shortcomings of the Times’ response to Blair.

Access is also the hallmark of Barbara Kopple’s documentary Running from Crazy (11/24 Frontenac 1 p.m.), which looks at the mixed legacy of being a Hemingway, mainly through the eyes of Mariel — yes, your grandfather was one of the great writers of the 20th century, but he’s equally well known for blowing his brains out. Kopple means to explore the implications of that heritage, including mental illness (Mariel counts seven suicides in her family, including her older sister Margeaux), but her discussion of Ernest’s legacy remains frustratingly superficial.

Three contrasting documentaries offer looks at small-town life in America, and how people in them respond to economic hardship. A.J. Schnack and David Wilson’s documentary We Always Lie to Strangers (11/14 Tivoli 7:30 p.m.; 11/17 Wildey 7 p.m.) includes the traditional music and small-town aspects of Branson, Mo., as well as the glitzy, clowning acts that draw 7.5 million paying customers annually. The two Bransons intersect in the performers profiled by Schnack and Wilson — including a gay couple — who are trying to make a go of it as the recession threatens the tourism that is Branson’s very lifeblood.

Doris Payne was born in 1930 in Slab Fork, a tiny West Virginia mining town, to a mother so attractive that her husband found it threatening, declaring that he was “going to beat the pretty out of her.” When she got a little older, Payne found a unique way to help: she stole a diamond whose sale provided enough money for her mother to get out of town. Stealing jewels became Payne’s life work, a story detailed with a light touch in Kirk Marcolina and Matthew’s Pond’s The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne (11/17 Frontenac 3:45 p.m.); it also provides a few tips if you’re planning to go into the business yourself.

Medora, Indiana, used to be a thriving small town with two factories providing employment to anyone who wanted it, and — perhaps even more important in the state of Indiana — a winning high school basketball team. Then the factories closed, population declined, and the blights of poverty — including drug use and dysfunctional families — set off a spiral of decline. Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart’s documentary Medora (11/24 Webster U./Moore 6 p.m.) examines the current state of Medora through the lens of the boys’ high school basketball team, whose losing streak (0-44 as the film begins) threatens to become just another expression of Medora’s despair.

Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution (11/23 Frontenac 4:00 p.m.) is a well-done niche documentary that will be catnip to fashion lovers, but slow going for those not already interested. It’s a straightforward documentary directed by Deborah Riley Draper, with well-chosen clips and interviews and a voice of God narration by Cameron Silver, about the legendary fashion show that marked a breakthrough for several American designers and African-American models. Viviane Roumani’s Out of Print (11/16 Webster U./Moore 4 p.m.) also seems aimed at a niche audience, and due to its brevity (55 min.) and straightforward manner is probably headed for the educational and/or television markets. Roumani looks at the history of books and reading, from the rise of the codex to the emergence of eReaders, and calls in a variety of experts to offer their opinions about how our experience of books and reading is changing.

As memories of the Vietnam War recede into memory, so does the heroism of Muhammad Ali, the world champion boxer whose most courageous act may have been defying the draft board. Bill Siegel’s documentary The Trials of Muhammad Ali (11/18 Tivoli 7 p.m.) traces Ali’s life story, with an emphasis on his status as a public figure, including his political involvement, and his embrace of the Nation of Islam, at when athletes were not expected to take public positions on anything beyond winning the next game. Siegel makes a noble effort to go beyond what’s commonly known about Ali, but this film still feels like a mid-level television documentary and something of an opportunity missed. | Sarah Boslaugh

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