After 30+ films in 8 days, I’m glad to say the Nashville Film Festival is officially over. But, boy, was it fun while it lasted! I had a great time, and I rated more films 5 out 5 than any year prior.
Here’s what I saw on days 6 through 8.
IN THE FOG is WW2-era film about a railroad worker accused of being a Nazi collaborator in a German-occupied Russian village. I enjoyed the film, despite a pacing that would make even Tarkovsky fidget. The video transfer was a bit rough, lacking contrast with some overscanning. I can’t help wondering if a film print would have raised my appreciation. 4 out of 5.
AFTER TILLER is a documentary about the 4 remaining doctors in the U.S. who will administer third-trimester abortions. The film was named after Dr. George Tiller, the abortion doctor who was assassinated in Kansas in 2009. I keep hearing people say that this documentary is even-handed, telling all sides of the story. I would respectfully disagree. The doctors and their staff get far more screen time than the anti-abortion protesters, and that’s a GOOD thing. Because the side of the doctors happens to be right. This is a powerful documentary that convincingly argues the anti-abortion activists are not the only ones to blame for intimidating doctors and driving away abortion clinics. Also responsible are the lawmakers and community leaders who foster a climate where it’s ok to be a bigot, ok to hide harassment behind “beliefs.” One of my favorites of the fest. 5 out of 5.
THE HISTORY OF FUTURE FOLK was a big hit at last year’s Fantastic Fest. Because of all the hype, I was a little disappointed in the “quirky” musical comedy about two space aliens who fall in love with music and therefore delay their plans to take over Earth. Any originality in the setup is lost to the trope-filled, by-the-numbers plot structure. And, I hate to say it, but the songs were generic and unmemorable (to me at least). 3 out of 5.
IT FELT LIKE LOVE is the debut feature film of American director Eliza Hittman. Wow. I was really blown away by this story about a 14-year-old girl’s search for intimacy and what she’s willing to do to get it. This is a brave film that doesn’t turn away from the harsher aspect of coming-of-age. The visual style is original and poetic; one of Hittman’s most interesting techniques is cutting to a new scene in close-up and then eventually pulling back to reveal the context of the background movement. (This happens once on a carnival ride and again on a merry-go-round.) There is a refreshingly feminist take on female coming-of-age stories that makes no attempts to moralize the characters’ actions, and I suspect that’s the heart of why many males in the audience left huffing and puffing. (I overheard one guy say, “Well, I’ll never get that hour and forty five minutes back!”) Perhaps they’re too used to the typical Hollywood coming-of-age stories that conveniently excise all the harsh bits (see: MUD and THE KINGS OF SUMMER). I gave this 5 out of 5, and it’s easily one of my favorites of the fest. Because of her original voice and distinctive style, I predict Eliza Hittman will develop a reputation as an American Auteur. She’s a true artist. Keep an eye out for her next project.
Lead actress Gina Piersanti won BEST ACTRESS at the fest. IT FELT LIKE LOVE was eligible for the New Directors award but was beat out by NAIROBI HALF LIFE. I loved both, but I found IT FELT LIKE LOVE to be the superior film.
New Directors award winner NAIROBI HALF LIFE tells the story of an aspiring actor who moves from his village to the big city of Nairobi. On the day he arrives, he’s robbed, arrested, and jailed. He eventually leads a double life as the brains behind a local gang and an actor in rehearsal for an upcoming play. I loved this movie. 5 out of 5.
SIGHTSEERS is a dark comedy from the United Kingdom about a couple going off on their first caravan holiday. I knew next to nothing about this film going in, and that lack of knowledge really enhanced my experience. So I’ll do the same for you and keep mum. Writer and lead Alice Lowe — who has appeared in bit parts on such British comedies as Black Books, The IT Crowd, The Might Boosh, Little Britain, and Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place – is destined to be a star. 4 out of 5.
I really admire the Nashville Film Festival for booking challenging works like AFTER TILLER, IT FELT LIKE LOVE, POST TENEBRAS LUX, and the three films next on my schedule: THE PARADISE TRILOGY. Clearly, the Nashville curators aren’t afraid of pissing some people off. A Tuscaloosa reviewer detested the PARADISE TRILOGY, I suspect in part due to the films’ criticism of religion, racism, Western cultural imperialism, sexism, rape-culture, pedophilia, and fat-phobia. Moreso, I’m guessing he was bothered that the films criticize modern Austrian society at large (a criticism easily transferable to modern U.S. society), not just isolated offenders. I think the trigger for any religious person might be the scenes in PARADISE: FAITH where the protagonist kisses, gropes, spits on, and flails a wall-hung crucifix. Since I’m not religious, it was no more provocative then her doing the same to any other inanimate object.
We all applaud when a film or television show holds a mirror to a past era and criticizes its faults (i.e. MAD MEN), but we’re outraged when artists hold a mirror to our own time (as in the PARADISE TRILOGY, IT FELT LIKE LOVE, or THESE BIRDS WALK). Hold a mirror to now and suddenly the directors are “just trying to be provocative,” “too sensitive,” “over-estimating the problem,” or “just hate [men, white people, Christians, etc].” Pardon my cynicism, but Hollywood has a well-documented history of supporting social change only when it doesn’t affect the bottom line. So it’s not surprising that a film like MUD attempts a realistic portrayal of the South but while sanitizing the racism and sexism still prevalent. That’s the rule, and films such as the PARADISE TRILOGY are the rare and refreshing exception.
Each film follows a member of the same family during vacation time. In PARADISE: LOVE, 50-year old Teresa travels to Kenya as a sex-tourist. In PARADISE: FAITH, Teresa’s sister Annamaria proselytizes door to door, leaves plastic Virgin Mary statues in her wake, and prays for strength as her disabled Muslim husband demands his “God-given husbandly rights.” In PARADISE: HOPE, Annamaria drops off Teresa’s 13-year-old daughter Melanie at a weight loss camp, where the teen is preyed upon by the camp doctor. I loved all three films, but I found the first to be the most biting. I gave them 5, 4 and 4 out of 5 respectively.
This was an exceptional year for documentaries at NaFF. A RIVER CHANGES COURSE is the directorial debut of Inside Job’s cinematographer Kalyanee Mam about a Cambodian family struggling to survive in a time when forests are being cleared at an alarming rate, farming is being mechanized, and fishing stocks are dying out due to fishing concessions and illegal fishing. This is an exceptional documentary with remarkable characters, rare access, and beautiful cinematography. 5 out of 5.
Another exceptional documentary, and perhaps my favorite doc at NaFF, is THESE BIRDS WALK, the story of runaway child Omar in Karachi, Pakistan. Directors Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq used portable and versatile Canon 5D cameras to create a level of freedom never before possible. The small Canon 5D, which is used primarily as a still camera, diffused many situations when the directors could claim to be just taking stills photographs. The small footprint also allowed them to literally run with the kids, resulting in one of the most striking images I’ve ever seen in a film: the moment when Omar dodges police officers and legions of people up the steps to a mosque. I mean it. Michael Tully from Hammer To Nail called the film, “A STRIKING WORK OF POETIC REALISM,” and I couldn’t agree more. 5 out of 5.
PIETA is the new film by South Korea’s Kim Ki Duk. I enjoyed the story about a mafia debt collector’s budding relationship with his long lost mother, but it’s not anywhere near the level of Kim Ki Duk’s masterpiece SPRING SUMMER FALL WINTER AND SPRING. 3 out of 5.
THE KINGS OF SUMMER is a coming-of-age (yes, another one) comedy about three teen boys who build a house in the woods to escape their parents’ rule. It’s a high-profile picture starring recognizable names like Alison Brie, Nick Offerman, and Megan Mullally. The audience at NaFF seemed to love it, and it’s been drawing lots of positive reviews. I just couldn’t get behind it. I found the jokes stale and the plot formulaic. (Because cis white male coming-of-age stories are something we clearly need more of.) The comic-relief-creepy-outcast trope comes courtesy of a character named Biaggio, and he feels like a caricature of a caricature. It’s another example of Hollywood exploiting mental illness for zingers and cheap laughs. (In this case, I suspect the writers were going for Asperger syndrome.) 2 out of 5.
RHINO SEASON is the new film from TURTLES CAN FLY director Bahman Ghobadi, his first shot outside Iran. (He was exiled from Iran in 2009.) The film tells the story of a famous Iranian poet’s release from 30 years in prison and his search for his wife and children. I really enjoyed the film, different in style from anything Ghobadi’s ever done, but I wouldn’t put it in the company of TURTLES CAN FLY or A TIME FOR DRUNKEN HORSES. Ghobadi said in an interview that he’s finding a new lease on life in his new residency in Turkey and that he can finally make movies without looking over his shoulder. Here’s hoping to a long run of unrestricted creativity from one of the world’s finest directors. 3.5 out of 5.