Nashville Film Festival

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.

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Love & Friendship, Tickled at NaFF both made me cry laughing

You haven’t heard from me since winter when I curled up into my snail shell and went to sleep. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about making my arts coverage more intentional and re-focusing on arts activism in Nashville. Lots of great stuff coming soon.

It’s spring time now and I have awakened and stretched my little snail body to the sky just in time for Nashville Film Festival. Check out the Scene’s coverage here; I contributed to the New Directors award category. My favorites were To Keep the Light, The Fits, Banana, and The Elk. It’s a great category with some top notch women in director and lead actress roles.

I’ll have some suggestions for you in a bit, but here’s very quick a run-down of Day 1.

Whether you’re a fangirl of Jane Austen or not, Love & Friendship is a must-see this year. The place: England. The time: 1790s. The woman: Lady Susan, played pitch-perfect by Kate Beckinsale, who, following the death of her husband, arrives “destitute” at her brother-in-law’s countryside home. Susan is beautiful, sharp, and cunning, employing exhausting (and dazzling) linguistic acrobatics to get her way. She defends her sense of superiority to her confidant Alicia (Chloe Sevigny) so earnestly that it’s easy to see why nearly everyone falls for her. An incorrigible flirt and irredeemable gossip, Lady Susan never falters. She is mired in a society where without a husband of some standing, she and her daughter must be dependent on relatives and friends. Hating her is easy. Admiring her much more fulfilling. love and friendship

Directed by Whit Stillman (Metropolitan), Love & Friendship boasts a vibrant supporting cast. Xavier Samuel plays Reginald DeCourcy, the attractive young man Susan seeks to engage. Samuel is perfect in the role of a gullible, love-struck heir, and Emma Greenwell plays his sister, who leads the family in opposing the courtship. Among the best, however, are Justin Edwards, playing a clueless Charles Vernon, who has some hilarious one-liners; Morfydd Clark, playing Susan’s daughter, the meek Frederica who is most tortured by her mother’s manipulations; and Tom Bennett, playing Sir James Marin, whose antics brought down the house.

Innuendo and euphemism also come to feel like characters because they show up so frequently and with such success. The script, written by Stillman and based on Jane Austen’s epistolary novel Lady Susan, is jam packed with unpredictable turns of phrase, usually delivered by Beckinsale, who is – as I mentioned – sheer perfection. I skipped out of the theater to Table 3 – where I sucked down a bowl of creamy risotto – and then headed back to the cinema.

New Zealand journalist David Farrier goes down a bizarre rabbit hole in Tickled, a new documentary that was praised at Sundance. It starts when Farrier discovers a Facebook page for Endurance Tickling Reality Competitions. Initial research heeds several videos of high school age, white, athletic boys straddling each other – sometimes 4 on 1 – and tickling.

His curiosity piqued, he writes the page owner, Jane O’Brien Media, requesting an interview. What follows alters his life and sends him and  co-director Dylan Reeve on a mission into this strange subculture that they can hardly believe exists. tickled

The premise itself is so funny –  whenever Farrier said the word “tickling” I died laughing – that I couldn’t put the extent of what they uncovered into perspective until the ride home. What first appears to be a harmless kink folds out like a pop-up book about exploitation, manipulation, and forgery that’s up there with cult documentaries. Farrier is so pleasant that when Jane O’Brien Media sends three lawyers to threaten him in New Zealand, he greets them with a cheerful, rainbow welcome sign at the airport. Jane O’Brien’s people are a strange mix of pleasant and accusatory, as if they aren’t on the same page, and as soon as they leave for L.A., Farrier and Reeve follow them.

As the story unfolds, the directors interview young men who agreed to be in tickling videos but whose privacy was violated when Jane O’Brien Media broke contract and made their videos public. When one man successfully petitioned YouTube to take his down, Jane O’Brien unleashed a Scientology-level-crazy doxing that has followed him for years. Unable to find “Jane,” the filmmakers look into other ticklers and find themselves tracing a history of videos dating back to dial-up. Farrier and Reeve masterfully balance teeth-gritting suspense with the utter silliness of the topic in a way that allows the film to have multiple impacts. First, there are dozens of hilarious moments found in looks and gestures throughout the documentary. Farrier’s unobtrusive narration provides structure and amplifies the sleuth-like feel. It’s also a nail-bitter; as the directors zero in on “Jane,” we live the suspense with them. Finally, it’s guerrilla-style investigative journalism at its best, as Farrier and Reeve take their small crew back and forth between New Zealand and New York, chipping away at the truth.

Tickled plays again on Friday at 12:30 p.m., is playing at many festivals in the next couple of months and will be released in the U.S. on June 24.

Love & Friendship opens May 13.

Today, I’m seeing Little Men and Sing Street. Much to my dismay, the regular world does not stop during NaFF, but I plan on seeing as many films as humanly possible. I’ll report back!

 

 

 

 

 

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!

NaFF Update: The Keepers and Runoff

Ongoing Nashville Film Festival Coverage

Runoff

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).