2016 SLIFF Preview | Sarah Boslaugh | 11.03.16-11.13.16

Still bringing the world to St. Louis, this year’s festival includes 419 films, including 111 narrative features and 73 documentary features.

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It’s hard to believe, but this November marks the 25th anniversary of what is now known as the Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival. Still bringing the world to St. Louis, this year’s festival includes 419 films, including 111 narrative features and 73 documentary features, as well as numerous special events and appearances by over 140 filmmakers and other guests, including Charles Burnett, Jerry Lewis, Gordon Quinn, Kim Tucci, Karen Allen, Kimberley Steward, Brian Hohlfield, and Marlon West. As always, the lineup includes something for just about everyone, so here’s a rundown of the films I was able to preview.

Finnish director Klaus Härö’s The Fencer (11/4 7:15 p.m. Plaza Frontenac 6; 11/6 6:30 p.m. Plaza Frontenac 6) is a well-executed sports drama set in a context that may be unfamiliar to most Americans: Estonia in the 1950s. The necessary backstory is that Estonia was occupied by Germany during World War II, and Estonian men were forced to serve in the German Army; after the war, Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union, who considered Estonian men who had done such service to be “Enemies of the People” (the lack of volition enjoyed by the men in question not being of interest to the authorities). The central character, Endel (Märt Avandi; the character is based on a real person) is a wanted man for just that reason and is keeping a low profile while teaching in the small town of Haapsalu. He starts a fencing club at the school, which is fine until his students hear about a tournament in Leningrad and want to take part in it; the problem is that taking them there will probably blow Endel’s cover, so he has to weigh their dreams against the risk to himself. The Fencer is beautifully shot and successfully combines the expected beats of a sports film with an accurate portrayal of the risks faced by people who found themselves out of favor with the Soviet authorities.

“I was born twice—three times, actually. A boy the first time, and a few years later, I was born again as a girl. The third time, I was born.” Thus begins Arianna (11/4 Hi-Pointe Backlot 5:00 p.m.; 11/8 Hi-Pointe Backlot 7:00 p.m.), a remarkably assured first feature directed by Carlo Lavagne. Unraveling the mystery behind those words drives the plot in this beautiful, slow-paced film about a young person (Arianna, played by first-timer Ondina Quatri) who isn’t quite like everyone else. For one thing, she’s 19 years old but hasn’t experienced the changes that come at puberty; after years of accepting parental explanations about her body, Arianna sets out to discover why she is so different from the other kids her age. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to guess where this one is going, but Arianna’s journey is sensitively handled and Helene Louvart’s cinematography (the film was largely shot near Lake Bolsena, Italy) is stunningly beautiful.

Attilla Szasz’s Demimonde (11/4 7:00 pm Hi-Pointe-Backlot; 11/9 9:00 pm Hi-Pointe Backlot) is a historical drama about the 1914 murder of Elza Magnas (Patricia Kovács), who worked her way up from the bordello to become a well-known courtesan in Budapest. Based on a true story, it focuses on the relationships among Magnas, the man who supports her, her rather moralistic housekeeper (who used to be in the same link of work as Magnas), and a beautiful young maid. Demimonde is beautifully shot, with great attention to period detail, and includes some explicit sex scenes (so this may not be one to bring the kids to).

Lewis Carpenter used his athletic ability to escape poverty, playing football in college and then professionally (he played on NFL championship teams in 1953, 1961, and 1962). Requiem for a Running Back (11/5 7:30 p.m. Saint Louis University/Center for Global Citizenship, free), directed by his daughter Rebecca Carpenter, celebrates his career and life while also tracing her attempts to understand his erratic and sometimes alarming behavior. She finds her answer when his brain is included in a study of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disorder characterized by symptoms such as depression, memory loss, aggression, and poor impulse control. (With director Carpenter, former linebacker David Meggyesy, and Jarred Fayson of the Journey After Foundation.)

James Arthur Ray was a superstar among motivational speakers, preaching the Law of Attraction while encouraging followers to take part in extreme behaviors like fire walking and extended fasting. It all came apart in 2009, when three people died and 18 were hospitalized following a “sweat lodge” ceremony conducted by Ray (not to be confused with the sweat lodge ceremonies that are part of the cultural heritage of some Native American tribes); he was convicted on three counts of negligent homicide and served two years in prison. Jenny Carchman’s documentary Enlighten Us (11/5 3:00 p.m. .ZACK) begins with Ray’s release from prison, filling in the backstory while also following his attempts to restart his career. It’s an instructive film not only for the details of Ray’s story but also for the techniques he employs in common with many others who have made their fortunes in the so-called self-help industry.

It’s tough to succeed in America today without a high school diploma, yet over 1.2 million students drop out of high school each year. Andrew Cohn’s documentary Night School (11/5 1 p.m. Washington University/Brown, free) follows three adult learners in Indianapolis over the course of a year as they attempt to complete high school coursework (note: they are studying toward a traditional diploma, not a G.E.D.) while also attending to adult responsibilities. Greg, Melissa, and Shynika face a variety of barriers and obstacles (age, race, poverty, and a criminal record among them) as they work toward their goal, and Cohn gives full attention to both the personal and systemic aspects of their struggles. (With Washington University professor Garrett Albert Duncan and a Skype Q&A with director Andrew Cohn.)

Darius McCollum, who has been jailed 32 times for impersonating New York City transit system employees, is the subject of Adam Irving’s documentary Off the Rails (11/5 1:00 p.m. Hi-Pointe Backlot). Irving is McCollum’s camp, presenting him as a person with a disability who has been failed by society, and whose crimes were victimless because he never caused a crash (stealing public property, and interfering with the normal operations of an overcrowded public transit system, apparently don’t count). McCollum often seems to be bragging about his escapades, while also telling others how they could commit similar crimes, which is a lot more amusing if you’re not one of the millions of people who depend on the New York City transit system for their daily transportation. (Shown with the short The Leprechaun’s Wife—Alexandra Shiva, 2016, 21 min.)

Everyone knows about Jesse Owens, but there were 17 other African American athletes on the 1936 American Olympic team, including track and field gold medal winners Archie Williams (400 meters), John Woodruff (800 meters), Cornelius Johnson (high jump), and Ralph Metcalfe (4×100 relay). Olympic Pride, American Prejudice (11/6 2:45 p.m. Tivoli 1), directed by Deborah Riley Draper, celebrates the achievements of those athletes, who had to overcome entrenched racial prejudice at home before facing more of the same in Germany. Draper makes good use of interviews and archival materials, even if the voice-of-God narration and emphasis on detailing the political context sometimes make Olympic Pride feel like an educational film for high school students. (With director Draper and producer/St. Louis native Michael Draper.)

Like many women, Joan (Karen Allen) devoted most of her adult life by being a wife and mother, putting her own interests and desires on hold for years. Now that the kids are grown and out of the house, she decides it’s time to spend some time getting back in touch with herself, beginning with the choice to move, alone, to Cape Cod rather than follow her husband (Michael Christofer) to Wichita. To tell the truth, the husband is a bit of a jerk, and you can’t help but root for Joan when she decides not to settle for a half-life of comfortable routine. Alexander Janko’s Year by the Sea (11/12 8 p.m. Tivoli 1), based on Joan Anderson’s best-selling memoir of the same name, is conventional but heartfelt and features compelling performances from Allen, S. Epatha Merkerson as Joan’s publisher, Liz; and Celia Imrie as Joan Erikson, her best friend on Cape Cod. (With director/writer/composer Janko, producer Laura Goodenow, and Allen.)

Films and television programs often are preceded by notices as to their content, but Jacqueline Gares’ documentary Free Cece! (11/12 2:30 p.m. Hi-Pointe Backlot) is the first I’ve seen to carry this particular warning: “The following contains misgendering.” It’s totally appropriate because many of the injustices suffered by Chrishaun Reed “CeCe” McDonald, an African American transwoman, are due to the legal system’s refusal to accept the validity of her trans status. First, she was insulted and attacked by a group of men and women, then convicted of killing one of the men who attacked her (it didn’t help her case that the defense was not allowed to present information about the risks faced by transwomen), then incarcerated in a men’s prison. As Laverne Cox (“Sophia” on Orange is the New Black) points out, CeCe’s real crime was surviving—such attacks often end with the transwoman’s death. (Shown with the short film Bust—Harlow Figa, 2016, 7 min.). | Sarah Boslaugh

The 25th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival will take place from Nov. 3-13, 2016, in a variety of locations in the metro area. Single tickets for most events are $13, $10 for Cinema St. Louis members and students with current ID, with a variety of passes available, plus almost 60 free programs. Further information, including a searchable schedule, is available from the Cinema St. Louis website or by calling 314-289-4150.

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