NaFF Update: The Keepers and Runoff

Ongoing Nashville Film Festival Coverage


So far, Runoff is my top pick of the festival. When a family business is being squeezed by a Monsanto-like agri-company, we are left considering our own priorities. Newbie Kimberly Levin makes her narrative debut as both writer and director of this moody drama. Set in rural Kentucky, the natural beauty of country farms is shot through with tension: the buzzing of bees, the low flying crop duster plane (shot beautifully with a single camera), and the movement of insects is an innocuous backdrop for the plot that is drawn taut with drama. Honestly, it’s almost too much: the family business is broke, the bank is foreclosing on the house, the eldest son gets into a college they can’t afford, and the husband gets some disturbing test results from the doctor. Looking back, I think, “Really? Were ALL of those elements necessary?” My fiancé gave it 3 stars; he thought it was ham fisted and the plot quite contrived (and Kentucky-born, he hated the Southern accents). But I got lost in lead actress Joanne Kelly’s flawless performance and was mesmerized by the family’s plight.

Kelly, born and raised in a fishing village in Newfoundland, was made for the role. As Levin said in a Q & A after the screening, Kelly wasn’t shy about shoving her hand into a cow’s udder for a scene, and squaring her body to heft a 50 pound sack of grain was second nature to her. I wonder if there was something else about her upbringing that made her survival instinct so believable. Her character, Betty, has to decide whom she will protect and what she will prioritize as she attempts to save her family from going under. She strikes up a shady deal with local farmer to get cash on DL that could prevent the foreclosure of their house and get her husband medical treatment. It’s obvious from the jump that it’s a bad idea, and no one knows it better than her.

Levin amps up the tension to thriller level with a climax that is almost over the top. Although what you expect to happen doesn’t happen exactly, it felt a tinge forced in my overall riveting experience. Her husband (Neal Huff) and sons (Alex Shaffer and Kivlighan de Montebello) are well cast beside her and give convincing performances, but they dim in Kelly’s background. When she finally decides to go through with the deal, she’s a changed person. In the last scene, she drives back from the deed with an envelope of money on her dashboard. She tucks it into her breast. Her eyes are full of the terror that she has become, and the expansive Kentucky sky looms over her in judgement.

Runoff is a beautiful achievement about a way of American life that is disappearing. I grew up in Connecticut suburbs, not on a farm, but I could relate to a mother with her back against a wall. Its early summer release is upcoming, and let’s hope it screens at the Belcourt. I’d see it again.

The Keepers 

For every kid who’s dreamed of being a zoo keeper, The Keepers has you covered. This documentary by two Memphis filmmakers, Joann Self Selvidge and Sara Kaye Larson, takes the audience through the good, bad, ugly, and bittersweet times in the lives of Memphis Zoo keepers. The eldest of the keepers remarked that as children, zoo keepers have two best friends: animals and books. Keepers are an introverted lot, and their interests vary. The bird keeper, for example, sings gospel songs to the penguins. She needed six years of higher education to get her job, but that didn’t stop one park visitor from remarking to her kids, “See this lady? That’s how you’ll end up if you don’t finish school.” Yeah, zoo keepers get no respect, and the pay is pitiful, especially considering how much they had to learn to get behind zoo gates to begin with.

But the respect they do get is incredible. One keeper reached casually through a cage to scratch a lion’s neck (“I have to keep my nails long to really get in there.”) Another tossed chunks of watermelon into the enormous mouth of hippo. A third found herself covered in baby Komodo dragons that just wanted to say hi. But the giraffe keepers really got the spotlight because of a male who has been living in seclusion in a barn for four years. Young Koffe was banished from the small herd by his alpha father, and though the zoo staff tried many times, they couldn’t get him into a truck to move him to a safer zoo. The keepers watched him languish month after month, and when a law banned transporting adult giraffes, they had to make some decisions. Koffe is allowed in his own pen near the other giraffes, and watching him finally run free will bring a tear to your eye. When the animals suffer, the keepers suffer. When the animals thrive, the keepers thrive.

The filmmakers recorded take after take of intimate moments between human and beast. When one enthusiastic reptile keepers says she has the best job in the whole world, you actually believe her. The Keepers is filled with adorable animal shots of course (one baby red panda feeding from a bottle is particularly disarming), but the real focus is on the people themselves. Here’s where I was just a little let down. The human energy was a bit flat and the keepers ultimately pretty unmemorable. But it might be that my understanding of work documentaries has been warped by The Office and Parks and Rec. I kept waiting for someone to reveal something brazen or too intimate. I wanted the documentarians to get closer to the keepers and get under their skin. A couple days later, I realize that’s not what they were after. Their film is instead true to life with its moments of candor and all its banalities. Overall, I skipped out of the theater.

Next up: Welcome to Leith and Alléluia

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).