film

Quest Shines at Nashville Film Festival 2017

Nashville’s annual film festival is one of the best reasons to live here, and 2017 does not disappoint. So far, the most powerful film I’ve caught is Quest.

The documentary follows a working class black family in North Philadelphia through ten years of their lives. Shot in the style of cinema vérité, director Jonathan Olshefski captures the big events and the small, endearing moments that come between, completing a moving portrait of an American family.

Quest

The Rainey family has a music studio based in their home, where parents Christopher “Quest” Rainey and his wife Christine’a record local hip hop artists and invite neighborhood boys to freestyle on Fridays in an effort to provide a creative outlet. Their daughter PJ grows up before our eyes from a sweet, bouncy child to a young adult who has undergone a traumatic injury. All of the Raineys are admirable, but PJ unwittingly emerges as the heroine of the story.

I love Guy Lodge’s Variety review:

Inhabiting the loving, creative, occasionally conflicted household of Christopher and Christine’a Rainey with close-quarters warmth that never crosses the line from intimate to invasive, Olshefski’s film doesn’t set out with a thesis to prove. Rather, it finds its resonance as it goes along, stumbling into crisis as spontaneously as its human subjects do, and finally emerging as an essential reflection of social transitions — for better and worse — in Barack Obama’s America.

What’s so great about Quest is that Olshefski collaborated closely with the Raineys over the ten year period, and much of the soundtrack is composed by Quest himself. Olshefski, who is a white photographer, didn’t set out to make a documentary about a North Philly family; Quest’s brother invited him to the house, and then Quest invited him back to photograph the local artists working in the studio. They formed a relationship; Olshefski began a photo essay, and for a year and half, he blended into the furniture and photographed them. Because of this, it doesn’t seem to take on the “white gaze” that so often accompanies documentaries about people of color. There’s a sense of great empathy that doesn’t patronize. While the Raineys experience tragedy that brings North Philly’s street violence into focus, their pain is not put on display. Rather, it centers the family’s experiences as a close portrait of an American family.

Two Hits, One Miss at NaFF

Ongoing Nashville Film Festival 2015 Coverage

There are some films that confirm everything you believe. You leave the theater with a self-righteous smirk. “See, I’ve been right along!” And then there are films that confirm your beliefs right up to a point, and then challenge them. You leave the theater with a nagging sense of doubt you’re almost ashamed to confess. Welcome to Leith is one of these films, and it’s showing one last time Saturday at 11:00 a.m.

Directed by Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker, it follows the drama of Leith, North Dakota, a tiny town of only 24 inhabitants that gained national attention when notorious white supremacist Craig Cobb moved there to create an enclave of neo-nazis like himself. Very few answered his call to Leith, but the National Socialist Movement took up his cause and bought land, along with some notorious racist anti-Semites. Cobb’s mission was clear (he flew 14 flags of Aryan Nations in his front yard), and he quickly became an agitator. It culminated in Cobb and a NSW member patrolling the neighborhood with rifles and engaging in verbal altercations with neighbors, leading to their arrest. 

Here’s the thing: Welcome to Leith makes me fear for humanity in the pit of my stomach; that grave, bottomless fear that applauds my decision never to have children. But there are a few moments in the film that challenge me. What do we do with people like this? Put them in one place far away from everyone else so they can affirm their hatred in the privacy of their own community? As one woman in Cobb’s clan says, “You can’t just kick someone out of town because you don’t like them.” It’s a tough ethical question: At what point do your rights infringe upon my rights, and then whose rights are prioritized? It’s tempting to think of Cobb as an old man out of his mind with hatred who should be put in a corner and ignored, but he contacted noted white supremacists from prison, including ones accused of murder, and he has directly influenced others who have committed hate crimes after speaking with him.

The documentary unfolds the drama from many perspectives. Seeing how the people of Leith responded to Cobb is worthy your time.

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/85668727″>Welcome to Leith – Teaser</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/noweather”>NO WEATHER</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Alice Klieg has won the lottery and she’s off her meds in Welcome to Me, a hilarious study of borderline personality disorder that’s also got heart. Alice (Kristen Wiig) proves that with a lot of money, you can do just about anything. Buoyed by Oprah-infused self-help, she manifests (or happens upon) a television network that is about to go under and offers them 15 million bucks to start her own talk show called Welcome to Me. On it, she bakes meatloaf cake, neuters dogs, and enacts childhood traumas, gaining an indie audience that is quite taken with her performance. The network crew thinks otherwise, and their reactions to Alice’s directives are truly funny and sympathetic. Throughout, the laughs are unpredictable and earned, and Wiig’s comedic timing is impossibly good.

Though the premise is delightfully far fetched, Alice’s character is not. Any person who has been close to someone with borderline personality disorder knows how hard it is to draw the line between illness and plain narcissism. Alice is fascinating and quirky, but she’s also relentlessly self-centered. Her unraveling is so heartbreaking because even while we know she’s acting out of illness, we blame her for it. She’s a terrible friend and patient and employee, but she’s also a singular performer, and we root for her on this journey. It’s not easy for an actor to pull this off: Bradley Cooper almost did it for me in Silver Linings Playbook, but Wiig acting in Eliot Laurence’s screenplay brought out all the messy contradictions. Shira Piven directs.

Welcome to Me played in a sold out double screening at NaFF. It opens in select theaters May 1 and expands May 8.

Genre hop to Alleluia, a film by Fabrice du Welz about all the worst sides of love: obsession, jealousy, and murderous rage. Lola Dueñas stars as Gloria, recently divorced a young mother who is a whole lot of crazy. Gloria agrees to a lunch date with Michel (Laurent Lucas) that gets sexy real fast. The very next thing she does is leave him with her child for a couple hours. Immediately after that, she’s loaning him a large sum of money.

When Gloria learns that Michel is a gigolo out for conquest and theft, she pledges her love to him, drops her daughter off at a friend’s house, and they leave town. She claims she’ll help him be the best gigolo he can be. Of course, she loses it pretty fast and proves to Michel that when it comes to manipulative, she has him beat by a long shot. We follow the pair through one botched scenario to the next and watch their romance grow more depraved as the bodies stack up.

I am no prude, but some of the sex scenes had me squirming in my seat. But that’s not why I wouldn’t recommend Alleluia. It is fatiguing; extreme for the sake of extremity. Nothing is learned about these human beings that matters because nothing is really at stake. There is no subtlety in this film, nothing that wounds you. It reminded me a lot of Sightseers, but without the black humor that made those characters real to me; Gloria and Michel are instead caricatures, intent on being as predictable as possible. Props to Lola Dueñas for making the best of a mediocre role. She managed to change her appearance completely to match Gloria’s mood, which was the best part.

Saturday wraps up the festival! Check out the added shows to get your last screenings in!

Sweet Micky for President: Pop Star Rises to Presidency

  1. My first NaFF pick of the season was Sweet Micky for President, Ben Patterson and Pras Michel’s documentary on the Haitian presidential election in 2011 and pop star candidate Michel Martelly who won by a landslide. It’s a gripping story of a struggling democracy and a people that just won’t quit. Patterson and Pras attended.

    Although Haiti was the first Caribbean independent state, the only nation formed as the result of a slave riot, and the second independent nation in the Americas (second only to the United States), it has only democratically elected leaders three times. Since it’s 1804 independence, it’s pretty much been marred by political unrest. The film is framed from Pras’ point of view; ten months after the earthquake, he went to Haiti and saw very little progress.

    Pras looked around and saw only more corruption. He wanted more for the Haitian people, someone they could believe in and who would be vested in their interests alone. It’s in this context that the most unlikely candidate gained the confidence of the people, pop star Sweet Micky, who had spent a career singing about political corruption and sometimes pulling down his pants. Pras approached Martelly with this crazy idea. Soon after, he approached Patterson to tell the story.

    The result is a beautifully shot film with a tight narrative. Martelly seems the most unlikely candidate: he has no political experience, presents no plans on his platform, and knows no campaign strategy. But he wins the confidence of the country’s youth. He’s handsome, likable, and passionate. Martelly’s candidacy is quickly challenged by Pras’ former band member Wyclef Jean, who campaigns in Haiti despite the fact that he is not a resident (because of this, his candidacy is eventually denied.) Although Wyclef in the end endorses and campaigns with Martelly, he doesn’t come across well the film. He appears just short of megalomaniacal, riding only on his celebrity. Where Pras and Martelly are crusaders for democracy, Jean’s motivation is murky. But politics can bring out the worst in people, and while I’m overall a bigger fan of Pras, I wondered how the story could be told differently from Wyclef’s perspective.

    The narrative moves fast with many intimate moments among Pras and Martelly and Wyclef and, of course, a killer soundtrack that had 90s kids bopping in their seats. It also shows the Haitian people in many contexts: yes, in the wake of the earthquake, yes during violent military coups, but also singing and dancing and living and working together across the culturally rich and varied land. As Pras said after the show, of the over 10 million Haitians, 65% are under 25 years old. Through what must have been endless footage shot on his Canon C100, Patterson culls many moments showing Haitian youths to be passionately involved in their political future.

    Here’s the thing: the film is tightly controlled to present Martelly as a golden child of Haiti. People are crazed with love for him, and watching them rally their support after the general election votes were counted was inspiring. Voting always makes me choked up, and watching young men and women whose lives have been ravaged by political corruption and natural disaster cast their ballots for someone they believed in was in fact riveting. Martelly inspired hope. He showed us that the people of Haiti and the youth in particular have not given up. They will inherit the earth.

    Martelly won, beating out Mirlande Manigat, who has 25 years in Haitian politics. The film suggested that Manigat would have continued covering up the previous party’s corruption, thus implying that she would continue it. I would not be surprised if that’s true. But Martelly himself was accused of corruption in 2011. He is now essentially running the country without a Parliament — no checks and balances — and surrounded by advisers and friends accused of various heinous crimes. Pras himself admitted after the screening that Martelly could have done better. To see Pras back peddling on the man he so fervently believed in proved his chops for me — he doesn’t conform his opinions to a vision he had before — but I wished that the film also rose to the occasion to fess up. Because the documentary ends with Martelly’s election, it copped out. I think that the people who elected Martelly deserve better. He’s has been a disappointment. It’s hard to get real poll numbers on public approval, but Martelly’s into the last leg of his term, and many still call for his resignation.

    My thoughts as I headed home were with the Haitian democracy, because even though Martelly lived up to all of his opponents’ pronouncements, he was put in office by people who finally felt like they had a voice.

    Sweet Micky for President is showing again Sunday at 3:45. 

    Up next: The Keepers, Margarita with a Straw, Runoff

    Read three reviews I wrote in Nashville Scene’s guide to NaFF. Naz & Maalik (see it!), For the Plasma (skip it!), and Yosemite (go! and I promise there’s only a little James Franco).