Sunday, April 22, 2018

Festival Dispatch | RiverRun International Film Festival 2018

Now in its 20th year, the RiverRun International Film Festival has been bringing quality foreign and independent films to the area for two full decades. I’ve been covering the festival for 10 of those years, and I can say without a doubt that they continue to outdo themselves, offering perhaps one of the most thrilling and diverse line-ups of films in their history. RiverRun offers something for everyone, but you can’t do much better than the five films featured here – representing some of my favorite highlights of this year’s festival.

“Angels Wear White” (Vivian Qu, China)

A giant statue of Marilyn Monroe from The Seven Year Itch becomes a potent symbol of sexism and female objectification in Vivian Qu’s searing drama, Angels Wear White, her flowing skirt and exposed underwear suggesting the vulnerability felt by both its young female protagonists. The film centers around Mia (Qi Wen), a teenager working illegally at a hotel, and Wen (Meijun Zhou), a 12-year-old girl who is raped in one of the hotel rooms along with her best friend, by a powerful local commissioner.

Angels Wear White is a remarkably assured sophomore effort by Qu, who imbues her film with a sense of metaphorical weight without hammering on an obvious point. Anchored by two soulful performances by the young leads, the film attains a sense of quiet grace, buoyed by the dignity the young women are expected to show at all times, even in the darkest of circumstances. Qu bravely peels back the curtain of patriarchal abuses, robbing young women of their agency and dignity at every turn, and turns it into a poetic elegy for lost childhood and societal justice.

“The Desert Bride” (Cecilia Atán, Valeria Pivato, Argentina)

A woman who has just lost her longtime job as an in-home maid travels across the country to a new job faraway in Cecilia Atán and Valeria Pivato’s lovely Argentinian gem, The Desert Bride. Along the way, she accidentally leaves her purse in the trailer of a traveling salesman and sets out to track him down. The Desert Bride is a small, unassuming marvel, a beautifully understated work of disarming power. Atán and Pivato’s style isn’t flashy, but their lovely framing captures a sense of yearning and rekindled fire. Teresa never expected to take this journey, nor did she want it, but it becomes the detour that she needed. Here in the barren, windswept Argentinian desert, Teresa finds something she didn’t realize she was missing, something that goes much deeper than her lost bag. That’s the magic of The Desert Bride, the pocketbook is ultimately beside the point, it’s a Macguffin for a journey of the soul that is at once deeply moving and powerfully told.

"Dragonfly Eyes" (Xu Bing, China)

An intriguing experiment completely falls apart in Xu Bing's Dragonfly Eyes, a film completely comprised of security footage taken from around public surveillance cameras from all over China. In the opening titles of the film, Bing claims that he has always wanted to fashion a story from surveillance footage, but the story here is tenuous at best, focusing on a woman who moves out of a Buddhist monastery and into a world of unexpected intrigue.

Xu had the opportunity here to make a fascinating treatise on the modern human existence under a constant state of surveillance, but in reality Dragonfly Eyes is more of a half-baked idea than a film, one that never really congeals around a central theme. Its avant-garde elements add little to a film that is desperately in search of a story or an idea that it never finds. You have to give Xu credit for ambition, but there's just not really anything here, and his early use of a woman's drowning is in poor taste. The film jumps from location to location, loosely held together by grating electronic voiceover narration, completely missing an opportunity to use its CCTV conceit to say anything of interest about its own chosen found footage aesthetic. It's a missed opportunity on almost all levels, a gimmick that really should be an avant-garde piece of existentialism that instead never gets off the ground.

"Garden Party" (Florian Babikian, Vincent Bayoux, Victor Caire, Théophile Dufresne, Gabriel Grapperon, Lucas Navarro, France)

I'm not sure I've ever seen an animated film as photorealistic as this. Whie it has no less than six credited directors, Florian Babikian, Vincent Bayoux, Victor Caire, Théophile Dufresne, Gabriel Grapperon, and Lucas Navarro, Garden Party doesn't really tell a story so much as showcase their incredible animation skills. Set in a house overrun with frogs and toads, the film follows their misadventures - looking for love, pigging out on leftovers - in their newfound home.

The film tells us little about why the house is abandoned, although it drops a few clues along the way (bullet holes in the glass, a phone off the hook, a surprise in the pool) that suggest a mob hit. But what makes it so wonderful is its stunning animation. It builds to an unexpected end, but the buildup is wonderfully disarming. It is a showcase of jaw-dropping animation that shows great promise for everyone involved. A 2018 Oscar nominee for Best Animated Short.

"Godard Mon Amour" (Michel Hazanavicius, France)

One of the most radical filmmakers of the 20th century gets a strangely conventional and inept biopic in the form of Michel Hazanavicius' Godard Mon Amour (formerly titled REDOUTABLE), a film that seems to both revere and loathe the legendary Nouvelle Vague pioneer without actually understanding him.

Hazanavicius has seemingly made an entire career out of emulating the styles of others, from OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (easily his best film), to the Oscar-winning The Artist, Hazanavicius often falls into the trap of recreating outmoded styles without grounding them in their proper artistic context. In OSS 117 it didn't matter so much because the film was an outright lampoon. Yet The Artist, and perhaps even more egregiously in Godard Mon Amour, the filmmaker is simply playing the mimic. The black title cards with bold primary color writing, the non-diagetic sound, the droll, descriptive voice-overs, Hazavavicius deploys them liberally, but they serve no real purpose in the greater narrative. Godard stands naked pontificating on the  pointlessness of nudity in film. Garrel turns to the camera to sneer about actors saying any word you put in their mouths. Hazanavicius is using Godard's Brechtian techniques without any of the fire or zeal that made them work in the first place. Godard consistently used such dramatic irony, but never in quite such painfully obvious ways. 

"The Guardians" (Ben Crosbie and Tessa Moran, USA)

Ben Crosbie and Tessa Moran's lovely documentary chronicles the migration of monarch butterflies and the Mexican farmers who protect their habitat. The flight of the butterflies serve as a backdrop to examine the lives of villagers tasked with curbing the devastating effects of deforestation on the monarchs' habitat. The butterfly life cycle takes them from Canada to Mexico, while the local farmers spend their time planting new trees for them to come back to and protecting their forests from poachers.

It's all beautifully filmed, but there's really not much here. At barely over an hour, the film is brief and filled with gorgeous nature shots, but surprisingly little conflict or information, even when one of the farmers is arrested for having a gun to protect his land from poachers. This is perhaps a very strong 30 minute documentary short, or a longer film that doesn't dive deep enough into its subject and its people. Still, it's a compulsively watchable film, albeit slight, film that's easy on the eyes that works as a celebratory nature doc showcasing some of the unseen wonders of the natural world.

"Heaven Without People" (Lucien Bourjeily, Lebanon)

Lucien Bourjeily's ferocious family drama takes place over the course of one Easter dinner for a family of Lebanese Christians. After $12,000 goes missing from the family matriarch's purse, the family's seemingly idyllic facade comes crashing down, as old wounds are re-opened and the layer of hypocrisy and resentment is peeled away.

Heaven Without People is a slow burn, keeping its focus tight, the camera never leaving the confines of the small apartment in which it takes place. It almost recalls Louis Malle's My Dinner With Andre, as the family members discuss politics and religion over lunch, exploring their identity as Christians in a majority-Muslim nation. The political differences begin to show, but the true depth of the family's hatred for each other doesn't begin to be revealed until accusations over the stole money begin to fly. Bourjeily expertly builds up the tension before releasing it in a truly explosive familial implosion that makes the drama of August: Osage County almost look like a polite disagreement. It feels as though we're somehow intruding, witnessing something we should not bear witness to, as the film peeks below the facade of a seemingly happy family and examines the house of cards barely holding it up. Then Bourjeily politely asks us to leave the family in peace, with the haunting implications of the film still hanging heavily in the air. This is potent, sharply observant stuff that pulls no punches in its depiction of a family at war with itself on multiple fronts - generationally and politically.

“The Judge” (Erika Cohn, USA)

Erika Cohn’s documentary, The Judge, introduces us to Kholoud Al-Faqih, who became the first ever female judge of an Islamic Shari’a court in Palestine. Shari’a law and women’s equality aren’t exactly two things western audiences would see as compatible, but Al-Faqih is looking to change that perception, bravely leading the charge for women’s rights in the Muslim world.

The Judge may take place in Palestine, but it’s an eye-opening portrait of rampant male privilege and the struggle for women simply to be heard. And Cohn does not let western audiences off the hook. Inequality between the sexes may be more obviously pronounced in the Arab world than in the west, but it is no more insidious. In a world of seemingly exaggerated, normalized sexism, Cohn finds a universal plight among women struggling against a system created by men for their own benefit.

“RBG” (Betsy West, Julie Cohen, USA)

Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s documentary, RBG, examines the life and career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who in recent years has gained a rock star level reputation for her soft-spoken yet withering dissents that have earned her the nickname, “The Notorious R.B.G.” RBG will doubtlessly by a crowd-pleaser for the justice’s legions of fans, but it will also be an illuminating piece of history for those who only know her as the “great dissenter” liberal hero she’s become in the last decade.

It’s a big-hearted and wide-ranging biography of a truly special woman, at last placing her in her proper historical context as a woman who helped break down barriers, quietly shaping the world we live in today with little fanfare. West and Cohen have crafted an inspiring and often gripping look at the history of modern women’s rights through the lens of a humble and reserved woman whose unlikely rise to the highest court in the land mirrors her own ongoing quest for a world that’s more equitable and more just than the one she came into.

“The Workshop” (Laurent Cantet, France)

The topic of white radicalization and the rise of the far right has unfortunately become a major issue in a post-Brexit, post-Trump world. Europe has been suffering the consequences of white unease in the face of increased diversity and changing demographics for longer than America has, as previously majority white nations struggle with how to deal with an influx of immigrants and shifting viewpoints on civil rights.

It is into that witch’s brew of simmering white resentment that Laurent Cantet (“The Class”) dives in his latest film, The Workshop, a work so frighteningly timely that it’s easy to become lost in the details of the drama, trying to fit each piece into a contemporary political context. And yet Cantet manages to deliver a story that is as universal as it is specific, offering a chilling and ultimately hopeful portrait of a world looking for a common connection in all the wrong places, when the community and belonging they so desperately seek has been right in front of them the whole time.

"YouthMin: A Mockumentary" (Jeff Ryan and Arielle Cimino, USA)

An overeager youth pastor takes his youth group to a weekend Christian camp in Jeff Ryan and Arielle Cimino's lovingly silly YouthMin, a mockumentary that will be readily identifiable for anyone who was raised in a protestant church. YouthMin pokes gentle fun at the tropes and cliches of youth ministry camps, as the group navigates through their teenage years under the supervision of a dudebro counselor who just wants to be their best friend. Yet his competitive spirit and and rivalry with the group's new female youth minister threatens to completely derail the weekend, as his young charges each struggle with real issues of identity and sexual awakening that he is woefully unprepared to handle.

YouthMin is satirical without being mocking, clearly made by people who have experienced this world firsthand, and it really nails the self-seriousness, the stereotypes, and the painful attempts to be hip that one encounters at a Christian youth camp.  Whether they're playing "Bible Jeopardy" or "Battle of the Worship Bands," the fearless youth leader, David, turns everything into a competition with a rival youth group, completely missing the reason they're all there in the first place. Its silliness is at times a bit over the top, but there is an earnestness behind its goofiness that is surprisingly endearing.

The RiverRun International Film Festival runs from April 19-29 in Winston-Salem. For a complete line-up of films or to purchase tickets, visit www.riverrunfilm.com.

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