SXSW Film Festival 2013 | Day 5

SXSW2013FilmLogoHoly Ghost People is a satisfying thriller with enough psychological complexity to make it interesting, and several fine acting performances to keep it real.



Genre films are proving to be the salvation of my SXSW experience this year, and today is no exception. Holy Ghost People, directed by Mitchell Altieri (half of the Butcher Brothers filmmaking team), is a satisfying thriller with enough psychological complexity to make it interesting, and several fine acting performances to keep it real. As an added bonus, the film includes clips from a well-known (and now public domain) documentary of the same name, shot in 1967 by Peter Adair, which records the practices of a Pentecostal church community in West Virginia.

Charlotte (Emma Greenwell) believes her sister has fallen prey to a religious cult, and hires Wayne (Brendan McCarthy), an ex-Marine and current alcoholic, to help get her back. The cult lives in an isolated mountain community (as in, “no one will hear you scream”) and Charlotte claims that she wants their assistance in getting her father (Wayne) weaned off the demon drink. Although everyone smiles a lot, there’s definitely something menacing about this congregation, especially Brother Billy (Joe Egender), who turns in an inspired performance as the baby-faced leader of the group. Their church services include copious amounts of snake-handling and occasional floggings, while daily life is organized on terms that would have been familiar in the 19th century.

Sister Sheila (Cameron Richardson), a woman with some serious scars on her face, warns them to leave, but Charlotte refuses to go until she finds her sister. As in any good thriller, bits of information are salted throughout the plot to bring Charlotte and Wayne closer and closer to their goal, while at the same time bringing them into ever greater danger. Voiceover narration by Charlotte adds a touch of poetry to the undertakings, while the cinematography by Amanda Treyz and music by Kevin Kerrigan are perfectly allied with the plot to heighten your viewing experience.

elena powterI also saw two documentaries, one quite distinctive, and one more ordinary, although not without merit. The distinctive film is Elena, by Petra Costa, a memory film about the director’s search to find her sister, and to understand herself. When Petra was seven, her big sister Elena, then age 19 and already a remarkable actress, left Brazil for New York to further her career. More than a decade later, Petra makes the same trip, in part to study acting, in part in the hope of locating Elena, who has not contacted the family for years. Elena delves into Petra’s memories of her sister, as well as of her own childhood, and combines her search for self with the search for her sister, sometimes blurring the boundary between the two. Elena is a poetic, impressionistic documentary (in fact, it’s one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen recently) combining new footage with home movies and other archival materials to take you inside Petra’s mind so you experience her memories and her search for her own identity firsthand.

What happens to gay men as they become senior citizens? The same things that happen to most people, of course, but with the difference that gay people usually do not have state-sanctioned spousal relationships and hence lack a built-in support system. P.J. Raval’s Before You Know It, a calm and straightforward documentary, looks at the lives of three gay men in their sunset years. Dennis, a widower who only began exploring his sexuality after his wife died, currently splits his time between a gay retirement community in Portland, Oregon, and a home in Florida. Ty, a gay rights advocate, lives in Harlem and works with SAGE. Robert operates a gay bar in Galveston, Texas, with the help of his nephew, and sees it as providing a community for gay men in the area. These are people who remember life well before Stonewall, and there’s a lot to be learned from their reflections on the changes in gay life over the years, as well as their perceptions of how they fit into the present-day gay community. | Sarah Boslaugh

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