Takeaway #1: Festing is More Extreme Sport Than Passive Entertainment
Over the two weeks of the 42nd Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival, almost 200 short and feature films were offered to audiences in Minnesota. Seeing every single title is, of course, a fool's errand, and probably impossible given overlapping theater schedules; but, even if you wanted to, that amounts to about 14 movies a day, which would require some kind of time travel device to make an attempt at completionism.
To even see the majority of films at the fest, you'd have to cut out all other responsibilities in your life for two weeks straight, which some festival attendees apparently attempt. Wealthy retirees seemed to be the primary demographic at this year's MSPIFF, making their way from one theater to the next, as far as I could tell, one day after another. I overheard many of them loudly offering their opinions before the start of each show, and longed for my own far-off retirement that could be spent indulging a love for art and proffering my viewpoints no matter how half-baked.
For someone like me whose passion for film far exceeds my amount of leisure time, I had to organize my cinephilic exploits somewhat more carefully. Before the fest started, I planned on seeing over 40 films, meticulously constructing a schedule that would work around my 9-5 full-time job (or, in some cases, cutting short my workday a bit early). In the end, I only saw 20 movies. As often happens, life gets in the way: freelance projects, creative obligations, a cat who gets sick on one of the first days of the festival and suddenly requires medical attention. Even without these intrusions, though, I doubt I would have been able to see the full slate of movies I had initially intended. Seeing four or five movies a day, braving the crowds, spending way too much money at overpriced restaurants, and trying to pay your parking meter throughout the day is all a recipe for a mental breakdown.
Putting aside my snarky complaints for a moment, let me make it clear that the film festival is a wonderful thing; where else in the Twin Cities can you see movies from across the globe that you might not be able to find anywhere else in a theatrical setting? That said, I couldn't help but ask myself: who is the film festival for? Avid cinephiles who want to catch masterpieces they've never heard of? Extroverted scenesters who want to be part of it all? Aspiring filmmakers who want to network with like-minded artists? Documentary lovers who want to educate themselves? The answer supposedly is all of the above, but that can lead to a chaotic "throw in everything you can think of and hope people find what they're looking for" vibe. The art of cinema doesn't seem like it's foremost on the minds of most people who attend (or program?) many film festivals. So you read about the movies, try to do your research, and hope that the screenings you take a chance on are worth your time. It's an exercise in fervent hope and deluded dedication, which are two of the things I appreciate about movie lovers in the first place.
Best of the Fest: Trenque Lauquen
Now I'll contradict everything I just said by praising Laura Citarella's Trenque Lauquen: here's a four-hour Argentinian film that may have passed me by if I didn't see it at the fest, in a crowded theater full of other curious moviegoers who don't mind sitting in one place for about 240 minutes. If I were to watch the film at home, the temptation to pause the movie repeatedly or split it up into two viewing sessions might have been irresistible. But in the movie theater—still the ideal habitat for watching films, despite the people who have forgotten how to behave in public--Trenque Lauquen washes over you, an unstoppable force of nature.
Indeed, forces of nature are everywhere in Trenque Lauquen. The narrative is long and sprawling, eventually defying explanation. In the first part, a woman named Laura (Laura Paredes) goes missing. She's a botanist searching for a rare orchid; in her spare time, she also co-hosts a radio show in her titular hometown, focusing on bold, free-spirited women throughout history (we're first introduced to her as she tells the tale of Lady Godiva). After her disappearance, Laura's clueless boyfriend Rafa (Rafael Spregelburd) and her colleague Chicho (Ezequiel Pierri) set out to find her, but, echoing L'Avventura (1960), it's more than possible that Laura doesn't want to be found.
Flashbacks upon flashbacks ensue as we learn more about Laura and her relationships. She and Chicho had begun a heartfelt (but mostly chaste) affair as she researched the newest subject of her radio show: an Argentinian schoolteacher from the '60s named Carmen Zuna, who enjoyed her own passionate affair with an Italian lover. As Laura and Chicho discover a series of love letters hidden in old books from a local family's estate, the mysteries of love and lust and the transformative effects of desire take center stage.
This first part of the film is transfixing, but the second goes in a wildly different direction, offering a pleasurable sense of whiplash. With even deeper flashbacks and embedded stories taking place (Trenque Lauquen is, perhaps first and foremost, an ode to storytelling), Laura meets a scientist in the town, Elisa (Elisa Carricajo), investigating the sudden appearance of a boy-animal-plant creature on the banks of Trenque Lauquen's central lake. As Laura grows closer to Elisa and her female companion, she realizes that the two of them are keeping the much-discussed-but-never-seen "monster" in a locked room, for reasons the viewer can only guess at.
To reveal more of Trenque Lauquen's story would be an injustice. There are no clear linkages between the first part of the film and the second, and moviegoers who crave closure and coherence will likely be disappointed. But the mysteries and ambiguities that arise out of the film's narrative cracks are more unshakeable than any neat-and-tidy conclusion would be. Parallels emerge between Laura and Carmen Zuna, who both reconnect with the natural world as bids for independence. The tensions of human relationships—between lovers, parents and children, and even to ourselves—become feverish and surreal. Director and co-writer Laura Citarella (who wrote the script with her star, Laura Paredes) concocts a dreamlike tone, unhurried but never less than ravishing, allowing conversations and images to play out at length. At times, this reminded me of Raúl Ruiz's Mysteries of Lisbon (2010), another epic with stories embedded within stories, Russian doll-style. But ultimately, Trenque Lauquen is its own magical beast, beautiful and unable to be tamed by narrative logic.
Takeaway #2: The Careful Construction of Truth
Vast generalization alert: I don't like most documentaries. You would think that nearly everyone would realize by now that documentaries don't convey an objective truth, that they're carefully mediated to present the makers' specific viewpoints and editorial opinions. The earliest actualités by the Lumière brothers were revealed to be staged orchestrations, so the underlying untrustworthiness of "documentaries" has been clear for about 130 years now. Even so, you'll constantly hear documentarians talk about "exposing the truth" of a certain issue, and documentary viewers praise a film for shedding light on a subject as if it's a peer-reviewed research paper. Movies can make us all gullible, which is welcome in a fiction film but hypocritical in a documentary.
My favorite documentaries are the ones that lay bare their own biased construction (like Werner Herzog and Kirsten Johnson often do), or that aren't really documentaries but "essay films." See You Friday, Robinson fits into the latter category. Iranian filmmaker Mitra Farahani, after one of her other projects fell through, decided to set up French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard and Iranian author Ebrahim Golestan in an email correspondence. (Farahani produced several of Godard's later works, so the connection is less unexpected than you might think.) Throughout See You Friday, Robinson (a title which refers to Robinson Crusoe, one of seemingly dozens of literary allusions in the film), Golestan and Godard share writings, pieces of music, cinematic excerpts, images of photographs and paintings, all manner of artworks to talk about any topic that comes to mind: aging, death, the twentieth century, war, art, friendship, love. It's a pretentious and rambling work, which in this case should be considered the greatest compliment: it's a pleasure to bask in a film so unabashedly philosophical. Best of all, Farahani injects a playful visual style into the proceedings, allowing herself to shape the rapport between these two domineering men. (Witness, for example, a scene in which footage of Godard lumbering up his stairs in Switzerland is projected onto the wall in Golestan's mansion as he himself struggles up the stairs.) No one would strictly call See You Friday, Robinson a documentary, but its fertile ideas feel more truthful than most movies that present themselves as edification.
On the other end of the spectrum is A Compassionate Spy, the newest film from documentarian Steve James. James has made a number of celebrated films, including Hoop Dreams (1994) and Life Itself (2014). While carefully constructed like almost any film, those movies seem realistically messy in dealing with complicated personas and social mechanisms. A Compassionate Spy, though, simplifies the truth surrounding its subject—former Manhattan Project physicist Ted Hall, who gave nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union after regretting his contributions to atomic warfare—with an eagerness that's pandering at best and cowardly at worst. Utilizing poorly shot talking-heads interviews and unconvincing dramatic reenactments, the film presents the story of Ted Hall and his wife, Joan, as primarily a love story and secondarily an act of courageous activism from a pacifist pushed into the machinery of war. But neither approach is very honest: Joan alludes to her own dissatisfaction as a housewife (which the film quickly brushes over and then even contradicts), and you wonder how much of a brave activist Ted really was since he knew from the beginning that the Manhattan Project would be devoted to a new and catastrophic superweapon. (Not to mention the fact that Ted's brother Edward helped developed intercontinental ballistic missiles; apparently submitting to the military-industrial complex runs in the family.) A Compassionate Spy has the audacity to end with an onscreen title devoted to the brave activists who fight for peace, implying that Ted Hall did so with a sleek sense of narrative fabrication that's nauseating in the context.
In between the highlight of See You Friday, Robinson and the lowlight of A Compassionate Spy were a number of documentaries that carried an undeniably powerful impact despite their sometimes questionable tactics. Nisha Pahuja's To Kill a Tiger follows an Indian man who fights for justice after his 13-year-old daughter is gang-raped—truly an act of courage in a country where a woman is raped every 20 minutes and the conviction rate is less than 30%. The subject is sobering and the cumulative impact shattering, though Pahuja very clearly presents her rhetorical points through selective editing, and the film becomes a tale of one man achieving a heroic task (the title is even taken from an anecdote suggesting as much) instead of a collective social and political effort. In the Ukrainian documentary 20 Days in Mariupol, Associated Press videographer Mstyslav Chernov utters harsh, poetic voiceovers as his homeland is decimated by Russia, and while his interjections are certainly understandable as he laments the damage inflicted upon his country, they detract from what otherwise is a devastating, clear-eyed look at the carnage of war and imperialism. Finally, the Polish documentary Pianoforte follows a group of international pianists at a prestigious Chopin festival in Warsaw. At a brisk 90 minutes, the film hastily tells a rousing story of plucky, determined artists; it's so eager to paint its characters in broad strokes and satisfy the audience that anything resembling complex personalities is apparently left on the cutting-room floor.
Probably the best true documentary of the fest was Kokomo City, D. Smith's ravishing, in-your-face look at Black transgender sex workers in New York and the Atlanta area. With eye-popping black-and-white visuals, a wall-to-wall soundtrack filled with great music, and candid interviews with members of the Black community who shatter preexisting stereotypes, Kokomo City favors kinetics over restraint and is all the better for it. At the same time, Smith's intention to emphasize the onscreen figures' confidence, independence, sexiness, and sense of triumph does downplay the very real threats that these women face in their line of work—a fact made brutally clear with the murder of one of the film's subjects, Koko Da Doll, only a few days after the film premiered at the festival. Her death is a tragic epilogue to an exhilarating documentary, and a reminder that Kokomo City—like any documentary—can't be expected to tell the whole truth and nothing but.
Takeaway #3: Let Your Eyes See the World
My cinematic proclivities had me gravitating toward global narrative films, and MSPIFF offered plenty of enriching experiences in that regard. While festivals often seem to most proudly promote local productions, with artist Q&As and write-ups in area publications highlighting the stellar (?) films being made in your own neighborhood, I always savor movies that connect you with people living across the world, in Tunisia or Angola or Malaysia or Mongolia.
The best of these (aside from Argentina's Trenque Lauquen) was Ashkal, a moody and extremely intense thriller from Tunisia. (Indeed, for international screenings, the title is accompanied by the qualifier A Tunisian Investigation.) Opening titles inform us that the film is set in and around a luxury housing complex that was halted halfway through construction, and which was supposed to be for dignitaries of the country's former despotic regime until the revolution of 2011. It's in this setting that a young female detective (Fatma Oussaifi) and her older male partner (Mohamed Houcine Grayaa) investigate a series of deaths in which people are burned alive—apparently acts of self-immolation, though autopsies report no signs of struggle and witnesses say they've seen a mysterious figure "giving them fire." (This imagery also conjures the story of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, who lit himself on fire in an act of protest in late 2010.) Ashkal simmers with dread and intensity, building to an ambiguous climax that, in its commingling of horror aesthetics and grand social metaphor, reminded me of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001). Is the "man on fire" in Ashkal a ghost of one of the country's former tyrants, or perhaps a symbol for the forces of extremism and corruption that still rage in the country? Presumably the resonances will be even greater for Tunisian audiences, but Ashkal's haunting imagery will prove unshakeable for audiences anywhere on the globe.
Other international highlights offered complex, moving perspectives into worlds that are usually presented in limiting ways in mainstream media. American news stories typically only focus on Puerto Rico in the wake of hurricanes, but Glorimar Marrero Sánchez's La Pecera (The Fishbowl) shows a community still struggling with the deleterious health effects of the U.S. military's testing on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. The film can be visually dour and humorless, but it's salvaged by a beautiful, melancholy ending that stays with you longer after the movie is over. From Angola comes the animated film Nayola by José Miguel Ribeiro, telling the story of three generations of women throughout the country's decades of bloodshed, from its War for Independence in the 1960s-'70s through its civil war in the 1990s. The lush, vibrant images are striking and the film's usage of magical realism is compelling, but it offers next to no insight on the conflicts that have plagued Angola for years, making the film more expressionistic than political (for better or worse).
One of the pleasant surprises of the festival was Riceboy Sleeps, by the Canadian-Korean filmmaker Anthony Shim. The movie follows a mother and her son who emigrate from South Korea to Canada after their husband/father commits suicide (a story based in part on Shim's own childhood). Presented through a beautifully roaming 16mm aesthetic (which is confined to a squarish 4:3 aspect ratio at first, until it opens up into glorious widescreen), Shim compassionately relates the experience of immigrants trying to assimilate to strange new worlds while still embracing the heritage of their homeland.
Several foreign movies deployed thriller and/or supernatural tropes to dissect national identity and ideology. The Spanish/French coproduction The Beasts by Rodrigo Sorogoyen portrays a feud in Galicia between a wealthy French couple who buy up a plot of farmland and their impoverished neighbors next door. Class disparity, xenophobia, and the new economic battleground of climate change (sparked by the Frenchman's refusal to sign an agreement that would bring profitable wind turbines to the area) all combust, resulting in a conflict worthy of the Hatfields and McCoys. At two and a half hours, The Beasts can be a little too drawn-out in its pacing, but there's no denying the movie's skill at building to an almost unbearable crescendo of suspense. Meanwhile, the Malaysian/Indonesian film Stone Turtle by Woo Ming Jin presents a story of patriarchy and vengeance through mythical, sometimes horrific imagery. Set on a nearly abandoned Malaysian island, it follows a woman, Zahara (Asmara Abigail), who survives by stealing eggs from an endangered species of turtle; her community's tenuous existence is threatened by the arrival of a male intruder (Bront Palarae), who connects to Zahara's traumatic past in unexpected ways. With an achronological structure that skitters backwards and forwards in time, along with a cryptic story that represents patriarchy, bureaucracy, and religious extremism through monstrous metaphors, Stone Turtle is a captivating watch, though after it's over it's hard not to feel that there's less to the film than meets the eye.
A gentler comedy/drama approach is wielded in Love Life (from Japan) and The Sales Girl (from Mongolia). In the former, Kōji Fukada tells the story of a family struggling with the death of their young son. As the wife, Taeko (Fumino Kimura), reconnects with her deaf, Korean ex-husband (Atom Sunada; interestingly, a similar subplot is featured in Ryusuke Hamaguchi's Drive My Car), the husband, Jirō (Kento Nagayama), reunites with his ex-girlfriend, whom he left to marry Taeko. It's a warm and empathetic movie, if perhaps a little too understated for its own good and filled with melodramatic contrivances. More successful is The Sales Girl, a low-key comedy about a shy college student in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia named Saruul (Bayartsetseg Bayangerel), who works in a sex shop and forms a friendship with the store's flinty owner (Enkhtuul Oidovjamts). Saruul soon begins to build her confidence and realizes that sexual pleasure is nothing to be ashamed of—a theme that's occasionally as trite as it sounds, though it's presented amiably by director Janchivdorj Sengedorj's wry sense of humor. Best of all is The Sales Girl's utopian vision of urban Ulaanbaatar, a wondrous big city where potential human connections abound.
Rounding out my encounters with global cinema were L'immensità, an Italian film by Emanuele Crialese about a young transgender boy in Rome encountering mockery and confusion from his family; and the anthology We Are Still Here, made by a group of indigenous Australian and New Zealand filmmakers "commemorating" the landing of Captain Cook in the region 250 years ago. Unfortunately, both films are more admirable for their intentions than for their execution.
And what about the American fiction films I saw during the festival? Coincidentally, they present two different spins on the Frankenstein legend. Laura Moss's Birth/Rebirth was my least favorite MSPIFF movie, a literally and figuratively ugly endeavor that contains less humanity and insight than a single paragraph of Mary Shelley's novel. When a nurse's six-year-old daughter dies from bacterial meningitis, she (Judy Reyes) and a pathologist in the same hospital (Marin Ireland) team up to experiment in reanimation, keeping the former's undead daughter alive. If the death of a young girl not once but twice weren't enough, the movie also features the bludgeoning of a pig, a wealth of bodily fluids and viscera, the fairly obvious theme that grieving is a difficult process, and a lazy aesthetic comprised of dark, muddy digital cinematography and the kind of droning soundtrack you'll hear in almost every low-budget horror movie.
Infinitely better is Bomani J. Story's The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster, which transplants the Frankenstein story to a housing project overrun by a drug dealer (Denzel Whitaker) and his gang. After her brother is killed in a drug-related incident, young scientist Vicaria (Laya DeLeon Hayes) perfects her experiments in reanimation and brings him back to life—her triumph, at least initially, over the death that pervades her community. The movie can't seem to decide whether Vicaria's experiments are noble or heinous, and it somewhat simplistically posits drugs as the cause of these characters' woes (not, say, housing inequality, poverty, a biased justice system, or other forms of institutional racism). But there's real visual ingenuity here (especially in the scene of Vicaria's brother's reawakening) and the movie offers an urgent perspective on a tale that's become entrenched in our collective unconscious.
Takeaway #4: Down with Film Fests! Long Live Film Fests!
Maybe it's in the nature of movie lovers to complain; the sheer number of "death of cinema" proclamations that have been voiced over the last ten years seem to indicate a certain pessimistic outlook. The decline in theatrical moviegoing, the rise of streaming platforms like Netflix, and the glut of sequels and franchises don't help mitigate that dire prognosis.
But my main takeaway from MSPIFF #42—more than the films I loved or hated, more than the crowds, more than my fervent desire that popcorn be outlawed from concessions stands—is that movies are alive and well at film festivals. Nowhere does the "death of cinema" seem more unlikely than at an event like MSPIFF, even if some people are more worried about rubbing elbows with filmmakers at afterparties than they are about seeing indispensable movies. It probably doesn't really matter why all these different groups of moviegoers flocked to northeast Minneapolis: I wish it was all about the quality of the films, but really it's all about the existence of the films, the fact that people will continue making and watching cinema no matter what hurdles they face. That's reassuring even if the greatness-to-mediocrity ratio is never quite as high as I'd like at festivals like this. But now that it's over, I plan on watching nothing but pre-1950s obscurities for the foreseeable future.
Leave a Reply.