SLIFF 2009 Preview | Sarah Boslaugh

sliff_sm.jpgNegotiating the St. Louis International Film Festival requires making hard choices or cloning yourself like Michael Keaton in Multiplicity.

 

So many films, so little time. Negotiating the St. Louis International Film Festival requires making hard choices or cloning yourself like Michael Keaton in Multiplicity. My preview list for features includes several films about the Middle East (I think of them as "films from the point of view of people with more than average likelihood to be pulled over by the TSA"), along with a selection of features which caught my eye; my documentary choices were all made using the "this looks interesting" principle.

Features

amreeka.jpgAmreeka (11/15 Hi-Pointe 1 p.m.) deserves all the honors it’s enjoyed so far this year, including the FIPRESCI Critics Prize at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes. Writer-director Cherien Darbis based the film on her own experiences and it shows. This story of a Palestinian family trying to make a go of it in a small Illinois town remains firmly on a human level without ignoring the political events and racial stereotyping which are the backdrop to the character’s lives. A pair of accomplished actresses, Nisreen Faour and Hiam Abbas, lead a wonderful cast, and Darbis perfectly captures the feel of Midwestern small-town America.

Some kinds of foreigners are scary while others are enticingly exotic. Not fair but what are you going to do? If you’re the teenage Mustafa (Poyan Karimi), central character in the delightful Swedish comedy Ciao Bella (11/15 Frontenac 7:15 p.m., 11/17 Frontenac 4 p.m.), you swap your Iranian ancestry for Italian. Not seriously, of course, just as a game to play long enough to get a girlfriend. When the charade works and the relationship gets serious, that creates a new problem: when and how to tell her (Chanelle Lindelle) the truth. The film has a good time with sex roles as well as national stereotypes, but it’s also far more honest about teenage sexuality than most American films.

Laila’s Birthday (11/13 Frontenac 3 p.m., 11/15 Frontenac 5 p.m.) is a comedy of the abdurdist variety—a good approach for a story about a judge (Mohamed Bakri) in Ramallah who works as a taxi driver because the government has no money to pay his salary. The action takes place over a single day during which director Mashid Masharawi provides a cross-sectional examination of Palestinian life under the occupation. Notably, there are no Israeli characters in the film, although they’re a constant but unspoken presence. This is a story about Palestinians coping with circumstances which would be at home in a play by Eugène Ionesco.

dunya.jpgDunya & Desie (11/13 Frontenac 4:30 p.m., 11/14 Frontenac 5 p.m.) is a girl-power flick based on a popular Dutch television series about two best friends in multiracial Amsterdam. Dunya (Maryam Hassouni) is the daughter of conservative Moroccan émigrés, while Desi (Eva van de Wijdeven) is a liberated Dutch teenager who lives in the moment. When Dunya’s parents take her to Morocco for an arranged marriage, Desie follows both to support her friend and because she wants to find her own father, a tumbleweed who decamped before her birth. Oh, and Desi’s pregnant by a jerk who has no interest in the responsibilities of fatherhood, and her own mother just told her she was an accident. You can guess that it all works out, but the issues these girls have to deal with—a lot more than the mystery location of an indie band performance or who’s in and who’s out in the lunchroom popularity stakes—show a respect for the characters which is refreshing.

Those Three (11/16 Frontenac 7 p.m., 11/21 Frontenac 3 p.m.), the debut feature of Iranian director Naghi Nemati, is a character study of three conscripts (Yousef Yazdani, Daruish Ghazbani and Emsail Mohavahedian) who desert on their last day of training in the snowy wastelands of northern Iran. They’re completely unequipped to deal with the rigors of this terrain, and their experience becomes more and more surreal as the white landscape becomes the land of nowhere for three men adrift in the world.

Leaving the TSA behind brings us to one of the best films of the year, An Education (11/12 Tivoli 7 p.m.), directed by Lone Scherfig. It’s a brilliant feminist film based on journalist Lynn Barber’s memoir about an affair she had at age 16 with a shady character more than twice her age. Carey Mulligan is to die for as Jenny (the young Barber), while Peter Saarsgard captures both the charm and sleaze of her suitor whom Barber credits with giving her something not on the curriculum of her uptight prep school: knowledge of life, which precludes taking anyone or anything strictly at face value.

It’s 1936 and Germany needs more heroes to impress the world at the upcoming Berlin Olympics. Hitler offers a gold medal to the first team to ascend the North Face of the Eiger (several have already died in the attempt) and alpinists from all over Europe to try their luck. That’s the context for North Face (11/13 Frontenac 6:45, 11/14 Frontenac 7 p.m.), which focuses on two young climbers from Bavaria (Benno Fürmann and Florian Lukas) and a hometown girl (Johanna Wokalek) sent to cover the story. The climbing footage is stunning and gives you a real feel for what mountaineering was like before Gore-Tex and kernmantel ropes.

The eco-theme of the French children’s film Mia and the Migoo (11/18 Frontenac noon, 11/21 Frontenac 7:30 p.m.) is reminiscent of many Japanese anime: Mankind has been meddling too much with nature, in this case by constructing a mega-hotel on the shores of a tropical lake, and now there’s hell to pay. The art has a primitive, folk-like quality resembling pastel sketches which is quite different from the anime tradition, however, and the characters seem very French as well.

Heading over to Hong Kong, we have The Drummer (11/15 Frontenac 9:15 p.m., 11/16 Frontenac 4:30 p.m.), which is about half actioner and half spiritual coming-of-age flick. Troublemaker Sid (Jackie Chan’s son Jaycee) gets in over his head with mob boss Stephen Ma (Kenneth Tsang), who orders Sid’s father Kwan (Tony Leung Ka Fai) to bring him the kid’s hands on a platter. Instead, Kwan ships Sid off to Taiwan, where the spiritual part starts when he joins a group of Zen drummers. Best to not take the story too seriously, but the film is beautifully shot in Hong Kong and Taiwan and the drumming (featuring the Taiwan troupe U-Theatre) is worth the price of admission by itself.

A different sort of coming-of-age story is told in Mutum (11/18 Frontenac 3 p.m.), which has deservedly been raking in international fest honors. Based on the novel Campo Geral, it captures the leisurely pace of life in rural Brazil through the eyes of 10-year-old Thiago (Thiago Da Silva Mariz, in his first film) trying to make sense of the world of adults, including his parent’s failing marriage and his abusive father.

From Indonesia comes the beautiful and contemplative drama The Photograph (11/20 Frontenac 4:30 p.m.) about an unlikely alliance between two marginalized members of society. Sita (Shakti) tells her family the money she sends home comes from a factory job, but in reality she’s a bar hostess and prostitute struggling to get free from her brutal pimp (Lukman Sardi). She rents a room from the elderly Chinese-Indonesian photographer Johann (Lim Kay Tong), who has dark secrets of his own and is desperately searching for an apprentice he can train to take over the business.

Documentaries

Is the videocamera mightier than the rifle? That’s the theory behind Burma VJ (11/22 Frontenac 6 p.m.), assembled by director Anders Østergaard primarily from videotaped footage shot guerilla-style in Burma by ordinary people using small consumer cameras. Burma VJ brings home the brutality of the police response to the 2007 demonstrations and ensuing government crackdown. And we never would have seen those events were it not for the courage of anonymous Burmese citizens who risk life and liberty to videotape current events and transmit the footage to Norway where CNN and other major international networks often pick it up.

In Rough Aunties (11/22 Tivoli 3 p.m.), noted documentary director Kim Longinotto (Divorce, Iranian Style, Sisters in Law, Gaea Girls) turns her camera on a remarkable group of women in Durban, South Africa, who defend the rights of poor and disenfranchised children. Rough Aunties won the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema Documentary at Sundance but there’s nothing fancy about this film: It’s as blunt as a blood-splattered crime scene or the grief of a mother whose child drowned in an illegal mining pit. But it’s also inspiring to see these fierce, tender and hilarious women battle official corruption and incompetence, widespread poverty and an entrenched culture of misogyny.

pop-star-on-ice.jpgYou’ve probably never seen a sports movie like Pop Star on Ice (11/18 Tivoli 7 p.m.), but then again, it’s about figure skater Johnny Weir whose dedication to competitive skating may be outranked by his love of performing. Or make that his love of playing — with the press, with the camera, with anyone who happens to be in the room. The film includes plenty of skating footage—both competition and practice—to please fans of the sport while also offering a not-always-flattering view of Weir’s above-it-all attitude and inability to stop being his own worst enemy on the ice. Like a Weir performance, it will give people plenty to talk about.

The Rink (11/14 noon Hi-Pointe) offers a look at a different kind of skating: roller skating and its importance in the African-American community of greater St. Louis. Directed by Ron "G Whiz" Butts, this film looks back at the boom years of roller skating rinks such as the Palace, the Crystal and Skate King, with attention both to the hotshot competitors and the social aspects of skating. It includes rare archival footage along with contemporary interviews and modern footage, proving that the tradition lives on and skaters still like to strut their stuff.

branson.jpgWhen it comes to the entertainment business, Missouri will never elbow New York or California off the map. But we do have Branson, a town which annually receives about 1,000 visitors for every resident. Brent Meeske’s documentary Branson (11/14 Tivoli 1 p.m.) takes a look at the Branson scene from the point of view of the entertainers who work there. Performance clips are a feast for lovers of kitsch (you may feel at times that you wandered into a Christopher Guest mockumentary by accident), but Meeske respects his subjects while not glamorizing their lives at the bottom of the show biz food chain. Some are more self-aware than others (one performer describes his act as "corny, but nice corny"), but the real heart of the film is Jackson Cash, an entirely sincere Johnny Cash imitator who peddles his CDs at gas stations, sleeps in his car and battles his demons while waiting for that big break.

Personal memoirs, preferably with a heaping helping of the lurid, have proven a reliable ticket to the top of the best-seller lists. Does it matter if a memoir turns out to be partly or entirely fictional? Norma Khoury doesn’t think so. She not only faked her runaway bestseller Forbidden Love, which purports to tell the story a Lebanese honor killing, but her own life story as well. Forbidden Lie$ (11/14 Webster 5:30 p.m.), by Australian director Anna Broinowski, offers a trip down the rabbit hole with Khoury and various other actors in the drama (journalists, family, the FBI) while raising questions about the eagerness of publishers to cash in on a good story and the public’s willingness to believe negative stereotypes about Moslem countries.

edie_thea.jpgIt was love at first sight for Edie and Thea; the night they met they danced so long Edie wore a hole in her stocking. But two women in 1950s America couldn’t get married so just made a life together despite family opposition and societal discrimination. Their story is lovingly told in Edie & Thea (11/15 Tivoli 1 p.m.), winner of Outstanding Documentary Feature Film at Outfest 2009 (the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Film Festival), which also sheds light on the thriving lesbian culture which existed in the years before Stonewall. The kicker: 42 years after meeting (hence "the very long engagement"), Edie and Thea get married in Canada.

Any homecoming can be fraught with difficulty but filmmaker Kimberly Reed, whose journey documented in Prodigal Sons (11/15 Tivoli 4 p.m.) has more than most to deal with. She’s returning to her childhood home in Montana to attend her 20th high school reunion, a situation complicated by the fact that she’s a transgendered individual who was once a football star named Paul. She also wants to reestablish a relationship with her adopted brother Marc, who due to mental illness and a head injury is prone to violent outbursts and still resents Kim for being more successful than him. There’s another surprise in store: Marc learns that Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth are his maternal grandparents, leading to an invitation to visit Welles’ girlfriend Oja Kodar in Croatia. It’s all captured verite-style by cinematographer John Keitel and edited into a film which leads inevitably to the conclusion that, with apologies to Tolstoy, all families, whether happy or unhappy, exist in their own particular way.

It’s said that you have spend 10,000 hours doing something to become really good at it, and artist Billy Pappas has certainly put in the time. For over eight years he worked full time on a single drawing based on a photograph of Marilyn Monroe. Now he seeks an audience with noted British artist David Hockney, who Pappas believes will say the magic words that will open up the art world for him. Waiting for Hockney (11/16 Tivoli 9:30 p.m.) chronicles this journey which is facilitated by several characters, including the artist’s indomitable mother and an architect who calls himself "Dr. Lifestyle." The eight-year drawing, which you don’t see until the second half of the film, is eerily three-dimensional, but will it work the magic Pappas wants it to?

The credits theme of For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism (11/14 Tivoli 11 am) is "Hard Times Come No More," which could not be more appropriate considering the state of American film criticism. Although this documentary is framed by gloomy statistics about the number of American film critics who find themselves recently jobless, it’s more interested in offering a brief history of the film criticism in the U.S. than in considering what effect the near-disappearance of criticism as a paying profession will mean for American culture. There’s some lip service paid to the younger generation of bloggers, but the film is much more a celebration of the great grey eminences who had the good grace to get their start when the field actually offered a living. It’s a must-see for film nerds and will be screened for free followed by a panel discussion by—you guessed it—film critics.

There’s two things you should know about The Brothers Warner (11/21 Webster 6 p.m.), a documentary by Cass Warner Sperling about her famous grandfather Harry Warner and three of his brothers. It appeared in the PBS American Masters Series and it won a Special Mention from the Feel Good Film Festival which specializes in "films with happy endings, that make audiences laugh, and that capture the beauty of our world" (direct quote from their website). But if you can tolerate the granddaughter’s adoring narration and penchant for putting herself on screen, there’s some nuggets of interest within about one of the more influential families in American film history, along with a procession of celebrity talking heads and an impressive selection of film clips. If you’ve never heard of Neal Gabler, you might learn a few things about the early film business, as well.

Cory Taylor’s The Power of the Powerless (11/14 Webster 8 p.m.) examines life in the former Czechoslovakia under Communist rule and the continuing influence of those years of repression and mistrust on current Czech society. It’s absolutely conventional—sonorous voiceover by Jeremy Irons, talking heads, archival footage, reenactments and mood-cueing soundtrack—and frequently seems more like educational television than a feature film, but provides a useful history lesson while raising the question of how young people should be taught about difficult periods in their country’s history.

9500 Liberty (11/15 Tivoli 1:30 p.m.) documents clashes over Latino immigration in prosperous Prince William County, Va., which came to a head in 2007 when city officials adopted a law requiring police to question anyone they had "probable cause" to believe might be an undocumented immigrant. The story is not new and the cast of characters is predictable (attractive filmmakers, bigoted Southerners, noble Mexicans), but there is an interesting hook: 9500 Liberty was published in segments on YouTube and as such broke into the top 20 most popular videos. Distribution is a huge hurdle for independent filmmakers, and directors Eric Byler and Annabel Park may have found a solution. | Sarah Boslaugh

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