On the list of Stuff White People Like, film festivals come in at number three, beaten only by religions that their parents don’t belong to and coffee. It’s certainly true that film festivals are proliferating, and the talent pool is dispersing. Even Robert Redford, the Sundance Kid, has suggested that there may be too many. Plus, with independent films reaching viewers through new online routes, the excitement of seeing out-of-the-way stuff at festivals, though not absent, has been diminished.
Our two film fests, Hardacre in Tipton (Aug. 2 and 3) and Landlocked in Iowa City (Aug. 16 through 18), rise to the challenges in different ways. Hardacre tries simply to be very good. In a gorgeous old movie theater, you get to see a taut selection of features, documentaries and shorts. Landlocked opts for the cup-runneth-over experience. At multiple venues (including the Englert Theatre) you get to sample as much of a dizzying array of movies as you choose.
Either way, Hardacre and Landlocked rekindle the magic of moviegoing. It’s true: Film fests are damn near as good as coffee. Here’s Little Village’s guide to some highlights.
The Elders, a beautiful documentary by Nathaniel Hansen, opens with a quotation from Simone de Beauvoir: “By the way in which a society behaves toward its old people it uncovers the naked, and often carefully hidden, truth about its real principles and aims.” Immediately I imagined that the movie was going to explore how our society stuffs the elderly away and expends astronomical sums to keep them alive rather than spend time with them. But The Elders has a warmer intent. It shows the truths hidden away in the wrinkled faces around us.
The structuring idea of The Elders, like most brilliant ideas, is simple: Interview interesting old people. There’s one major interview with Louise—an aristocratic, eloquent, vibrant Texan—laced throughout the movie; otherwise, the documentary is a string of thematically organized interviews with a diverse group of people in their ‘80s and ‘90s: among others, an engineer who designed the ejector seat used in spaceships, a Japanese-American who spent part of her youth in an internment camp, a fiddler who made a living putting in sewer systems, a cowboy poet who was told by his high school English teacher that he had no talent for poetry and a charming married couple who argue about sex. It’s a testament to the supple editing how you immediately love all the subjects, and how the interviews efficiently evoke the subjects of loss, love and the importance of storytelling both to the teller and the listener.
I have my doubts that old people are wiser than other age groups. In my experience, they’re subject to the same hang-ups and confusions as everybody else: Lust and rage dance attendance upon the old as well as the young. That said, old people generally have a greater sense of perspective, which gives them an ability to state certain human truths with power and simplicity, as when Louise proclaims, “Everybody not only has a story, everybody is a story,” or, when Mike, a Vietnam vet who transcended his shell shock in his wood shop, says, “If you have a soul, you have a sorrow.”
Mike also says that we’ve thrown away our elderly when we ought to be listening attentively to their stories. It’s the closest the documentary comes to indicting our society for its treatment of the old. The Elders listens attentively to their stories. I’m not terribly tearful at movies, but at some point in every interview I found myself in tears, the kind that well up when we’re close to the source.
Field Work: a Family Farm
If Walker Evans were working today, he would almost without doubt be photographing in Boone County, Iowa. The economic circumstances for small scale farmers here are constantly and insistently challenging, a fact not lost on John Helde in his short film Field Work: a Family Farm (Landlocked). Iowans traditionally have a hard time shuffling off the stereotype held by most other Americans: that it is strictly corn-belt, flyover country, and that it is the agrichemical-laden dustbowl and floodbowl that grows the raw materials which smarter parts of the country find necessary to produce scientifically miraculous sweeteners, emulsifiers and petroleum additives that guide us into the glittering future.
Helde’s film does nothing to correct any of those misconceptions about the Midwest and instead continues to wallow in the human suffering of the new farm crisis: the final death throes of the small-scale family farm—and in this case one that is run entirely on rented land. In this film we meet several generations of an Iowa family who sees traditional farming as both a tenuous way to make a living and an essential part of their family identity. Interviewed members of the older generation admit that they actually turned down the G.I. Bill’s opportunities for higher education because they couldn’t wait to get back to working the land. Sons in the family look to the future productivity of land that isn’t even theirs and hopefully suggest that “it’s our 401 (k).” Helde seems to recognize that this romance for farming may be misguided and uninformed in 2013, but he still traffics in the standard themes of farming’s nobility and heroism that Iowans have seen plenty of prior to this film.
My Sister’s Quinceanera
A largely different approach to addressing the issues that inevitably inform small-town life is Aaron Douglas Johnston’s My Sister’s Quinceanera (Landlocked), set in Muscatine and revolving around the Garcia family, played mostly by themselves, as they prepare for the traditional Latin-American coming of age ceremony for their oldest daughter, as she turns 15. The film is really less about the sister than it is about the family as a whole, centered mainly on the experience of the brother Silas, as he prepares to finish high school, decides what is next in his life and how he is going to ‘get out’ of his small town surroundings and whether he in fact truly wants to do so.
This film is shot in a shambling, highly personal style that does a tremendous job of capturing the unstructured lives of teenagers in a small Midwestern town: from playgrounds after dark to city parks, bowling alleys, new cars, living rooms, restaurants and unlocked houses—occupied and otherwise. Johnston at once shows us why the new generations of young adults may not wish to continue their small-town existences, yet why it is in many ways so appealing to do so.
The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne
Every day since I was born, naked yet majestic in my own baby way, I have asked myself this question: What if Ocean’s Eleven really happened? Except instead of 11 mostly-white old dudes the master thief was one sexy black lady? Fortunately, I am no longer tormented by this burning curiosity for I have seen a documentary called The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne (Hardacre) which chronicles the notorious jewel-heisting adventures of one such a thief. This engaging documentary is structured around the criminal trial of 81-year-old Doris Payne, who stole $2 million worth of diamonds over about 60 years. These 60 years happened to include such decades as the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, a.k.a. the years where people were just starting to realize that blacks and women were people, a fact which makes Doris Payne even more glamorous than does her full-length mink coat with matching mink hat and (I’m assuming) matching mink thong.
Payne commands the screen with sly confidence, her startling candor and affability allowing her to work her sleight of hand right under the noses of the intended victims of her charisma. She’s America’s most lovable moral degenerate. The cast of her documentary includes a menagerie of “experts” offering a variety of interpretations of Doris Payne as a national figure: A lawman condemns her, a professor contextualizes her within an African-American trickster trope, a screen-writer attempts to get into Payne’s head, family members and friends stoutly defend her. Doris Payne is a lady with many figurative faces, yet only one literal face that happened to be captured on that Macy’s security tape. Allegedly.
Some documentaries are all sizzle and no steak. Much more commonly documentaries are all stupid boring raw steak with nary a speck of sizzlin’ fun. The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne, however, strikes a tasty medium-rare balance of tender, chewy substance and that tangy smack of personality kids crave. It deftly and even wryly examines the most compelling facets of Doris Paynes’ life … and crimes. The film presents the stories of her scandalous past as sensationally as they deserve to be, but also skeptically explores the twinkling burglar’s charms, lies and motivations. In this extremely entertaining documentary, viewers young and old will be delighted by: courtroom drama, grannies swearing, jet-setting, world-class swindling, daring escapes, tasteful re-enactments, betrayal and lying. Fans of adroit storytelling and filmic structure (those rabid throngs) will leave satisfied.
William and the Windmill
William Kamkwamba is extraordinary.
As a 14-year old in Malawi, William’s family can no longer afford to send him to school. But ever resourceful, William picks up a library book and teaches himself how to build an electricity-generating windmill from bottle caps, sticks and spare parts, rescuing his family from famine and poverty.
William and the Windmill (Hardacre) picks up in earnest five years later, when William speaks at a 2007 TED talk in neighboring Tanzania, stealing the show and turning the world on to his story. Tom Reilly, a TED organizer, offers to mentor William, which sets in motion a life-altering sequence of events.
He is quickly transported from the dirt paths of his village, where his mother goes about her daily routine with bare feet to the skyscrapers of Manhattan and a new life with Tom, who has a different pair of eyeglasses for every outfit.
William is an instant celebrity, writing and touring his autobiography, appearing on Good Morning America and coming face to face with his own windmill in a Chicago museum.
William Kamkwamba is ordinary.
William’s worldwide book tour becomes a conflict with his acceptance at a high-level prep school in South Africa, where William arrives underprepared for the demanding coursework. The emotional and physical drain of his celebrity is matched by the difficulty of his math lessons and navigating an entirely different social scene.
Director Ben Nabors’ acknowledges William’s mind-boggling success without becoming precious, guiding William and the Windmill as an earnest and moving portrayal of the complexities of modern celebrity. Putting aside the easy western narrative of unlikely hero, Nabors focuses on the complications of new-found fame and a world suddenly without boundaries.
This approach is best illustrated by a sequence late in the film where William and his mentor Tom discuss Hollywood story rights and arrive for William’s first day of college at Dartmouth. What would likely be triumphant moments in a Hollywood story, become mundane and sobering exercises in contract negotiation and dorm room furniture shuffling.
Where the doc begins with William creating an engineering marvel from next to nothing, it ends with William himself as the project—his hometown, an Ivy league school and dozens of well-meaning Westerners invested in constructing his future.
Ultimately, William and the Windmill offers more questions than answers, but that may be all the more satisfying for a festival audience ready to be challenged.
Short movies, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. First, even if you’re bad, you’re over soon. Second, you’re usually not bad—in fact, you’re often pretty good. Third, you take risks. Fourth, you surprise me, because I’m never sure of the formula you’re following, or if you’re following a formula at all.
Nostos – War, as General Sherman is alleged to have told us, may be all hell, but—on the upside—if used properly it really does help your cinematography. The Italian short film, Nostos (Landlocked), from Alessandro d’Ambrosi and Santa de Santis, is not to be confused with the Jonathan Chekroune film of the same name, though its title—referring to the Homeric hero’s return home after an epic journey and combat—will necessarily invoke some of the same themes.
The film is ever gorgeous: sun bleached landscapes, mustachioed soldiers, straw-wrapped Chiantis, picnics in shaded countryside with giant blocks of cheese. All the Italian stereotypes are here in this hypnotic and ghostly story about a soldier‘s return home after the armistice shocks him out of the brutal and war-torn world he had come to know. This film is mainly about a character re-becoming himself after duty has demanded that he become someone else. It is at times gauzy and overly sentimental, but in fairness, American audiences do not have the searing and epic experience of a world war on our own soil as a reference point for much of our contemporary existence; we might do well to pardon Italian independent film makers some indulgences here.
Fans of Terrance Malick will recognize much of the material in Nostos, since it is similar in feeling to Malick’s Thin Red Line. Whereas Malick’s film is part war movie and part nature film, this one is part war movie, part landscape painting. As the film’s producers will be pleased to show you in the opening credits, Nostos has already won a bunch of film fest awards and laurels for its look as well as its story. If nothing else, Nostos offers us a lovely 25-minute tour through the Italian countryside circa 1946. It also, at some basic level, asks us to consider what duty and patriotism truly are and if they are compatible with what we believe our country should be.
Gun – (Hardacre), written and directed by University of Iowa graduate Spencer Gillis, is a good example of how surprising and suspenseful 15 minutes can be. A middle-aged couple wake in the night to the sound of an intruder. The husband eventually musters enough courage to open the bedroom door and yell (falsely), “I have a gun.” Though he scares off the burglar, he is vaguely traumatized and does indeed buy a gun.
The movie, which had its prestigious premiere at Sundance, follows his interactions with the gun and gently illumines the desperate psychology of wielding the power of death. Gillis, who’s helped shoot movies like Blue Valentine and Shame, does a lovely, subtle job of evoking humiliation and terror with well-placed details and dream-like lighting. Even though you feel the pull of tragic possibilities on the protagonist, you don’t quite know how Gun is going to end, and you’re both surprised and eerily confirmed by how it does.
Jonah – Kyrill Modylavskiy’s Jonah (Landlocked) tells the story of isolated alienation within some of the seedier parts of modern Moscow. A drug dealer is faced with a series of violent deaths over which he comes to realize he has both complete and zero control. As the title suggests, this short film frames a process of rebirth or at least attempted rebirths, on a day by day basis, in an increasingly violent world. Modylavskiy is concerned with the ability of individuals to control circumstances and the influence of sublimated morality within even seemingly self-interested, nihilistic people.
World Fair – (Hardacre), directed by Amanda Murray, is a good example of not overstaying a welcome. I’m not sure that I’d love a full-length documentary about the 1939 World Fair, but a 20-minute version turns out to be quite lovable. “It was overwhelmingly beautiful,” we hear at the beginning, as overwhelmingly beautiful footage of the fair’s fireworks and fountains flickers on the screen—footage taken by one of the movie’s interviewees with his 16mm movie camera and recently purchased 400 feet of color film. Swim-capped divers domino-dive into giant pools. Sharply dressed men and women in rakish hats go on parachute rides. Depression-era boys gleefully crash their bumper cars. These vibrant images, combined with the musings of those who attended the ’39 Fair as children and young adults, evoke a spirit of technological optimism and adventure that overwhelmed the gloom of the historical moment. Watching World Fair is a little like looking through a dusty box of slides with an old-fashioned stereoscope. You not only see a slightly different world but a slightly different way of seeing the world.
Porcelain – (Landlocked) The Animation Workshop, a student-run center for animated features in Denmark, creates interesting short pieces (many of which are available on their website) including Porcelain, a film about faith, ritual, community leadership and fishing. On a remote island, somewhere in Scandinavia, Povl is a captain of an oar-driven fishing boat which encounters a terrible storm at sea that kills all of the crew except the captain himself. Povl washes ashore to a village of people who go to no lengths to disguise their feelings that it would have been better if the captain had gone down with his ship. To save his reputation, the captain maintains that his life was saved by a porcelain statue, collected by his (seemingly) late wife; the statue’s benefactions he offers to share with the other fishermen in the village, with somewhat contradictory results.
The animation here is quite lush and the movement, though austere and very slow, is quite beautiful. The setting and existing dialogue are appropriately spare and reduced to simplest forms: a few cottages, some boats, the assorted charms wielded by this small village against the ever-present backdrop of the indifferent sea. Porcelain is partly about human weakness, both in the face of nature and in the face of other humans, partly about the stereotypically rugged culture of the Scandinavian islanders, partly about faith and partly about community—a lot to consider in six minutes.
—Scott Samuelson and Warren Sprouse
Kit Bryant lives in Iowa City with her valid alibi and several innocuous non-lethal pastimes. Outside the workplace, she enjoys sarcasm, light spanking and fleeting moments of hope and levity. Her blog is popslashcorn.wordpress.com
Scott Samuelson teaches philosophy at Kirkwood Community College and blogs about music with his son at billyanddad.wordpress.com.
Warren Sprouse teaches in Cedar Rapids. He is unsure why Ingmar was not considered more seriously as a name for the royal baby.