SLIFF 2015 Preview | Sarah Boslaugh

SLIFF 2015_poster-wideMy thoughts first turn to a couple of big-name films that weren’t available for pre-screening, but which I’m very eager to see.

 

 

 

 

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As the opening night for this year’s Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival draws closer, my thoughts first turn to a couple of big-name films that weren’t available for pre-screening, but which I’m very eager to see. The first is Carol (11/8 Tivoli 4 p.m.), an adaptation of the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, directed by Todd Haynes and starring Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett. The title character (Mara) is a young woman finding her way in 1950s New York and enters into a relationship with an older woman (Blanchett). The novel is a classic of lesbian literature, and if the movie is anything like the book, it will be a guide to lesbian life in the city including everything but addresses and phone numbers. I’m also psyched to see I Saw the Light (11/6 Frontenac 6:30 p.m.), starring Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams and Elizabeth Olsen as his wife Audrey, even though the Guardian reviewers said the most memorable thing about the film is how unhappy everyone seems to be (well, at least that means it’s not a bog-standard triumphalist biopic). Finally, wild horses couldn’t keep me away from a film written by Alan Bennett and starring Maggie Smith, so that makes The Lady in the Van (Frontenac 11/15 4:15 p.m.) a must-see. It’s based on a true story about one “Miss Shepherd” (Smith), who parked her van in Bennett’s driveway in the 1970s and proceeded to stay for 15 years.

Among films that were made available to the press prior to their festival screening(s), Little England (11/6 Frontenac 9:15 p.m.; 11/9 Frontenac 12:00 p.m.) is an epic story of life and love in the 1930s and 1940s on the Greek island of Andros, known as “little England” because of the prosperity of its residents. Directed by Pantelis Voulgaris, the story centers on the women who remain on the island while the men are away at sea, and on the generational clash between a strong-willed mother (Anneza Papadopoulou), who thinks of marriage as an economic arrangement (“if you don’t love your husband, you won’t be disappointed when he inevitably starts looking elsewhere”) and her two daughters (Penelope Tsilika and Sofia Kokkali), who think they should be able to marry for love. It’s a slow-moving film that honors the domestic sphere about all and is enhanced by location shooting and the beautiful widescreen compositions of cinematographer Simos Sarketzis.

Panama Canal Stories (11/10 Frontenac 2:05 p.m.; 11/11 Frontenac 9:30 p.m.) is made up of five short films presenting fictional narratives examining different periods in the history of the Panama Canal and the Canal Zone, a region of Panama surrounding the Canal that was officially U.S. territory until 1999. The short films vary in quality, and several are marred by on-the-nose writing and the use of non-professional actors, but the first and last films, set in 1913 and 2013 respectively, are worth the price of admission by themselves. In the first, a romance between two West Indians working on the Canal’s construction is highjacked by the prejudices of their white supervisors, and the young lovers must flee into the jungle. In the fifth segment, an ancestor of that couple (played by the actress Lakisha May, who played the female member of the young couple in the first film), a jazz singer in New York, returns to Panama to reconnect with her roots.

The central character in Abigail Disney’s documentary The Armor of Light (11/8 Tivoli 12 p.m.), the Reverend Rob Schenck, asks a question that seems incredibly obvious to those of us outside fundamentalist religious circles—do people who say they believe in the right to life care about what happens to people after they are born? Schenck clearly does, and this brings his attention to bear on the number of people killed each year in America by guns. Disney’s particular accomplishment with this film is to take the viewer along on Schenck’s journey as he learns more about guns and gun culture, and also investigates the historical political affiliations of fundamentalist Christians (hint: they weren’t always Republicans). Not surprisingly, Schenck’s willingness to take a stance that is not 100% pro-gun brings him into conflict with many who consider themselves pro-life in the anti-abortion sense. His most telling discovery, however, may be the racial roots of the indifference of white fundamentalists to those killed by gun violence, since the latter are disproportionately African American.

Bounce: How the Ball Taught the World to Play (11/8 Tivoli 2:30 p.m.) never lives up to the promise of its title/subtitle pairing, which suggests a Mark Kurlansky-like dissertation on how some quotidian object or substance can explain the history of the world (it’s based on the book The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game by John Fox). Instead, what you get is a collage of sometimes fascinating video footage of animals playing with balls, children playing with balls, adults playing with balls (the latter typically the most familiar and least fascinating), and speculations by a series of talking heads on a wide range of subjects, from the role served by play in human evolution to the sociological meaning of the popularity of certain professional sports in certain countries.

There’s something fascinating about watching people create things, and Jerome de Gerlache’s documentary Heart of Glass (11/7 Wash U/Steinberg 4:00 p.m., free) fully capitalizes on the cinematic nature of the glass-blowing process. Gerlache’s subject is the career of Jeremy Maxwell Wintrebert, who became fascinated with molten glass at age 19 and has since become a master of free hand glass blowing. Gerlache also sketches in Wintrebert’s background: a true citizen of the world, he grew up in Africa, Europe, and America, was displaced at a young age due to the death of both parents, and by his own estimate still spends half of each year on the road. While the naval-gazing exposition by Wintrebert can become tedious, the sequences of him and other glass artists at work in the studio more than carry the day.

Out to Win (11/15 Tivoli 2:30 p.m.) is an upbeat documentary by Malcolm Ingram (his other films include Small Town Gay Bar and Continental) on the topic of gay men and lesbians in sports. Ingram keeps his film moving quickly, with lots of montages of sports action, and includes a nice blend of archival material and interviews with both the pioneers of the field (Dave Kopay, Martina Navratilova, Billy Bean) and the younger generation (Brittney Griner, Michael Sam, Charline Labonté). Although those who follow this subject may feel that they’ve heard a lot of it before, this film is a great introduction for those who haven’t been paying attention and is enjoyable to watch under any circumstances.

Today, the ubiquity of cell phone cameras has made us assume that if something has happened, we will probably be able to watch a recording of it. That wasn’t always so, and Here Come the Videofreex (11/8 Hi-Pointe Backlot 6:00 p.m.) offers a useful reminder of how the news world changed with the 1967 introduction of the Sony Portapak, a compact audio/video recording system that allowed recording of simultaneous sound and video for immediate playback. For better or worse, the Portapak made everyone a potential video journalist and filmmaker. The Videofreex was a group of young people who took early advantage of the Portapak technology, originally under assignment from CBS. Although CBS never used the footage they shot, the Videofreex continued to record video of aspects of American life often given short shrift by the mainstream media, and eventually founded a pirate television station to have an outlet for their footage. | Sarah Boslaugh

The 2015 Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival takes place Nov. 5-15 at numerous locations around St Louis. The Festival includes 97 narrative features, 86 documentary features, 264 shorts, and seven special events. Tickets for most films are $12, or $10 for Cinema St. Louis members and students with current ID, with different prices for several special events, and numerous free events. The festival schedule is available here, with information about tickets and the different venues available here.

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