Virginia Film Festival 2015: Day 1

Virginia Film Festival 2015What impresses me most about the VFF is how well the people running it understand the community it serves.

 

 




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Here’s the first thing that is remarkable about the Virginia Film Festival: this is its 28th year of operation. Granted, that’s not quite in the same league as Venice (founded 1932) or Cannes (founded 1948), but on longevity alone VFF beats out some notable festivals like Fantasia (founded 1996) and comes in a dead heat with South by Southwest. Longevity aside, what impresses me most about the VFF is how well the people running it understand the community it serves, and how the programming each year reflects a good blend of “big films,” films of historical importance (one of my must-sees this year is a theatrical screening of The Maltese Falcon, hosted by Leonard Maltin), and films with Virginia connections, including both documentaries like Rappahannock and Monroe Hill and features like Coming Through the Rye and Christine at the Crossroads.

I love the fact that digital filmmaking and a growing audience for documentaries has led to a boom in documentary filmmaking. The downside of that growth, however, is that it has sometimes encouraged filmmakers who might have enough material for an excellent short film to make a feature instead. A case in point is Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream, directed by Michael Levine, which is way too long, way too repetitive, and way too uncritical. In fact, while watching it I often felt that I was watching a promo for the company, and/or a video keepsake for the families of those who appear on screen. It’s too bad, because the story of Streit’s, a kosher food company founded in 1925 and which continued to operate a matzo factory on the lower East Side of Manhattan long after its competitors had moved to cheaper and more convenient locations, could have been used to illuminate many historical and cultural issues, from the history of Jewish immigration and assimilation to the realities of competing in a changing marketplace. The fact that Streit’s is a business that seems to have served the descendants of its founder very well is downplayed in favor of statements about the religious importance of matzo (something I suspect anyone who will be watching this film already knows very well) and that, therefore, being in the matzo business counts as a mitzvah (blessing), and how many jobs the company provides for workers that might not be needed were the manufacturing process upgraded.

The changing face of the lower East Side, and the way that matzo is created and sold today, are repeatedly mentioned in this film but not explored in any depth, while instead we are treated to overly large helpings of unfiltered nostalgia and testimony about how the workers are really one big family (there’s ethnic but not gender diversity among the workers, a topic never broached by this film). There’s also some unintentional humor in watching this film today, since if you follow the news from New York City, it’s hard not to laugh at the heartfelt testimony from the owners about how they are determined to keep the factory in its original location. I’m going to refrain from making a Walter O’Malley reference, because in the end we all understand that business is business, and pretending otherwise is disingenuous.

For all the indie horror movies that are hitting the market these days, it’s rare to find one that really understands the creep factor—it’s easy to throw lots of fake body parts and blood up on the screen, but building psychological tension takes real filmmaking skill. They Look Like People, directed by Perry Blackshear, accomplishes the latter, with a low-budget flick that leaves you guessing to the last minute whether you’re watching a science fiction film in the mold of They Live or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or a psychological thriller like Black Swan. Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) is down on his luck and shows up on the doorstep of his old pal Christian (Evan Dumouchel), who’s worked through his own down-and-out phase with the dubious assistance of some self-help tapes and an obsession with physical fitness. Then Wyatt starts receiving mysterious messages (though his flip phone, no less) about how the earth is being taken over by beings who look like ordinary people but…well, you know how that one goes. Wyatt starts stockpiling weapons in Christian’s basement (which was creepy even before he got there—Christian notes that it would be appropriate for killing people or raping animals) and there’s few things scarier than a nutcase with a nail gun and a supply of sulphuric acid.

Of course, the other possibility is that Wyatt is the heroic warrior who will save mankind from the mysterious invaders, a possibility reinforced by the fact that we see some of the film through Wyatt’s eyes. Maybe the beautiful Mara (Margaret Ying Drake), Christian’s boss and the object of his affections, is one of them. Maybe Christian himself is not what he seems. The fact that both Wyatt and Christian have given over some of their volition to instructions provided by disembodied female voices is an irony not overlooked by this film, nor is the fact that Mara frequently seems to be the only normal person among them. It’s a credit to Blackshear’s filmmaking that he keeps you guessing as to what the real story is, and also that he came up with a denouement that I did not see coming, and that pays off all that came before. | Sarah Boslaugh

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