Citizen Jane Film Festival: Day 3

maiko 75The documentary Maiko: Dancing Child truly makes the audience feel like they are there with the dancers, feeling the pain as well as the beauty of dance.

 

  

maiko 500

Hard to believe the Citizen Jane Film Festival is drawing to a close for another year, but that’s the truth of the matter. As usual, it’s been a welcome long weekend in the company of independent women and independent films, and a great corrective to the male-dominated Hollywood fare that occupies a disproportionate share of the American film landscape.

First, I need to catch up on a few films from yesterday. It’s Already Tomorrow is in the mold of classic romance films, but updated for modern sensibilities and set in Hong Kong, by first-time director Emily Ting. It starts with a meet cute between Josh (Bryan Greenberg), a Jewish-American who has been working in finance in Hong Kong for 10 years, and Ruby (Jamie Chung), a Chinese-American toy designer who’s visiting for the first time. Ting so concentrates on the relationship of these two, which is marked by snappy dialogue and less than absolute honesty, that the film often feels like a two-hander, but in a good way. It’s not exactly a heavyweight film, but offers an entertaining look at one aspect of the lives of these two characters. Ting also gets extra points for excellent location shooting, in particular the many night views of the neon-lit streets of Hong Kong.

The Midnight Swim, the first feature from director Sarah Adina Smith, is a mystery with suggestions of supernatural elements as well. Three half-sisters, June (Lindsay Burge), Annie (Jennifer Lafleur), and Isa (Aleksa Palladino) gather at the family’s vacation home following the death of their mother, apparently the victim of an accidental drowning in nearby (and aptly named) Spirit Lake. They have to decide whether to sell the home or find a use for it, and of course old tensions start to surface, as they likely would among any adult siblings who have grown apart but are then brought back together.

In addition, strange things start to happen—among them that dead birds show up on the doorstep and June’s camera seems to be recording events without anyone actually operating it. Add in a legend of the drowning of seven sisters in the lake (whether due to natural causes or because they were weighed down by heavy Victorian clothing) and a story told by a neighbor of being drawn, and then sucked, underwater by a strange light, and you have to wonder if there’s something more going on than be explained by science. There is some effective night photography in this film, but unfortunately its slow burn is so slow that it tries the patience, and the inclusion of some surreal moments (most notably a music video-like performance by the sisters to “Free To Be You and Me”) just makes you wonder what the director was thinking.

Four Way Stop is a thought-provoking drama from Webster U. graduate Efi Da Silva, focused on Allen (Paul E. Craig), a young African American man trying to live right but finding himself stymied at every turn. Hence the title—no matter where Allen turns, he’s greeted by a big stop sign. He dropped out of high school to take care of his mother (Marty K. Casey), who repays his efforts with insults and criticism, and his efforts to find a better job than the dead-end restaurant gig he currently has are stymied in part because he is completely unfamiliar with the conventions of job interviews. He’s trying to resist taking up the fast life of his friend Tay (Jason D. Little), but can’t help noticing that Tay always has a wad of cash, which helps pay for, among other things, the medicines Allen’s mother needs. This film is sometimes overly on the nose and engages in stereotyping, and the plot includes an O. Henry twist that feels false to the spirit of the rest of the film, but it’s saved by outstanding acting, location shooting in St. Louis, and the sincere efforts of the director to portray the difficulties faced by young black men even when they try to play by the rules.

The lead character in Ayanda, a young South African woman with artistic talents and an indomitable spirit, also faces a world full of obstacles, but Sara Blecher’s film is much more optimistic about the ability of her characters to direct their lives and seize joy in even the most difficult circumstances. Ayanda (the vibrant Fulu Moguvhani) runs a successful business designing and restoring furniture, then turns her talents toward the restoration and customization of automobiles in an effort to save the auto shop owned by her deceased father. At the same time, a photojournalist (Minenhle Nqaba Shazi) is composing a collective portrait of African life through photographs highlighting the variety of people living in Johannesburg. The two parts of the film exist uneasily together, and the “save the garage” plot borders on melodrama in terms of the number of complications thrown in the path of this determined young woman, but the director’s appreciation of the vibrancy of African culture, and excellent acting by the principal cast members, make Ayanda worth seeing.

The 2015 Citizen Jane Film Festival came to a close with the presentation of the documentary Maiko: Dancing Child, directed by Ase Svenheim Drivenes. Maiko, a Japanese ballerina whose name means “dancing child,” was almost forced to succeed as a dancer in order to repay the sacrifices her parents made to enable her career. Succeed she did, achieving the status of a prima ballerina with the Norwegian National Ballet. Now in her 30s, Maiko faces a different type of decision—she knows her dancing years are numbered, and she wants to take time out to have a child, then return to the high level of performance she has already achieved. Maiko is a visually interesting film, with lots of performance and backstage footage, and some home movies of a very young Maiko and her parents, and it truly makes the audience feel like they are there with the dancers, feeling the pain as well as the beauty of dance. In keeping with the theme of creative careers and pregnancy, the director is currently nine months pregnant and unable to travel, but made herself available for a talkback via Skype, which worked out perfectly for all concerned.

Since seeing films in different venues is one of the great pleasures of attending festivals, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that two of the films I saw today, Four Way Stop and Maiko, were screened in one of Columbia’s unique venues, the Blue Note. Located in a restored vaudeville theater, the Blue Note hosts a number of music performances as well as films, and for the films I saw the downstairs section was set up as half cabaret tables, half folding chairs, with a bar in the back, while the balcony offered traditional movie seating. It’s a great setup that allows those who want the traditional movie-going experience to have that, and those who want something different to have that also. | Sarah Boslaugh

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