Founded in 2013, the Middleburg Film Festival just finished its fourth annual iteration, which ran from October 20-23. Located an hour to the southwest of our nation’s capital, the festival takes place over four days in a charmingly bucolic setting that highlights the natural beauty of Old Dominion (as Virginia is also known). However, since the cinematic offerings are so rich and varied, it is unlikely that the avid filmgoer would even want to take advantage of the local attractions. When quality movies such as those I saw this year beckon, the allure of the dark projection halls can prove too hard to resist. Unfortunately, I was only able to attend the festival for 1½ days, seeing just 5 films (out of 28) on site. Since I had previously watched 2 additional films in the program, that brings my total count up to a quarter of the program. What follows is my assessment of those 7 films, in order of preference.
1. Loving (Jeff Nichols, 2016) – tied with Sonita
A remarkably quiet film, given the socio-political – and, above all, emotional – turmoil at its center, Loving is writer/director Jeff Nichols’ fifth feature, following close on the heels of his Midnight Special, released earlier this year. It tells the true-life tale of Mildred and Richard Loving, the Virginia couple whose 1958 interracial marriage – illegal in their home state – and the battle over the law that banned it, eventually led to the Supreme Court’s repeal of all anti-miscegenation regulations across the country. Theirs was one of the many great landmark civil-rights cases of the 1960s, a story made even more poignant by how little they sought the spotlight. All the Lovings wanted was to love each (never was a couple more aptly named), raise their family, and live in peace and harmony. As embodied by Ruth Negga (Iona) and Joel Edgerton (The Great Gatsby) in a pair of exquisitely restrained performances, they are reluctant icons, indeed. Nichols foregrounds their ambivalence by mostly abstaining from big moments, allowing his pitch-perfect actors all the room they need to incarnate these true American heroes. This is drama at its best: a film about important issues that never forgets that the most important narrative of all is the relationship between human beings.
1. Sonita (Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami, 2015) – tied with Loving
This is one of the films I had seen prior to the festival, and yet it is one of my top 2. A documentary about a young Afghan woman, living in Iran, who pushes back against the conservative gender restrictions of her native culture, the movie follows the titular Sonita as she attempts to pursue her unorthodox dream of becoming a rapper. When we first meet her, she is all of 16 years old and in the midst of a struggle with her family over their desire to marry her off for “bride money,” so that her brother can then use those same funds to purchase a wife of his own. Having recently discovered both Iranian and American rap, she writes and records a track of her own, “Brides for Sale,” which brings her attention, positive and negative, both at home and abroad. What ensues is a battle over the future path that Sonita will take: one of her own choosing, or one imposed on her by others. Director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami (Going Up the Stairs) has created a moving and intimate portrait, often filming one-on-one with Sonita, in which we watch the evolution of a powerfully obstinate soul, determined to create her own destiny.
3. La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016)
Writer/Director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to his brilliant 2014 debut, Whiplash, mostly manages the impressive cinematic feat of telling a story about the very same issues at the center of the previous film, but in a wildly fresh and imaginative way. Chazelle clearly thinks a lot about the nature of art and passion, and the intersection of the two. Here, he gives us not only a new take on the subject, but adds a healthy dash of whimsy and joyful movie-musical madness to create a film that is also a paean to Hollywood (“La La Land” = Los Angeles) and to the art of cinema, in general. Emma Stone (Birdman) and Ryan Gosling (The Nice Guys) play Mia and Sebastian, an actress and jazz pianist, respectively, each trying to make it – on their own terms – in their chosen fields. The film is divided into 5 sections – Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter, once more – that form the different stages of their relationship as they meet not-so-cute, at first, and then fall in love. Delightfully funny and charming in many places, La La Land is at times reminiscent of the great MGM musicals of the Freed Unit (such as An American in Paris or The Band Wagon), though it is also not afraid to delve into much more complicated emotions, as well (call it a romantic “dramedy”). If the film has one flaw, it’s that neither Stone nor Gosling, as appealing as they may be, have quite the same musical talent (vocal or dance-wise) as the great MGM stars of yore, yet the songs and choreography have been written and staged with that in mind, so it’s easy to overlook that deficiency. Unless one is allergic to the playful caprice that is here Chazelle’s stock-in-trade, this is a film to savor, especially for those who love movies about movies.
4. Lion (Garth Davis, 2016)
Garth Davis’ debut feature is corny as hell, and a bit too emotionally clunky in its big moments for my taste, but also profoundly moving in many places, and features a powerful performance, from lead actor Dev Patel (Chappie), that makes most of its narrative issues seem inconsequential. Patel plays the adult Saroo, adopted from India 20 years earlier by an Australian family, who embarks on what at first appears a hopeless task to find his birth family. We meet Saroo long before Patel enters the film, as a five-year-old boy from a dirt-poor – though happy – family, enjoying adventures with his older brother, Guddu, in the state of Madhya Pradesh in central India. One night, when the boys are in town for scavenging work, young Saroo falls asleep on a train that starts moving with him on it, eventually arriving in Kalkota, in West Bengal, 1500 kilometers away. Hungry and alone, and an easy target for human traffickers, Saroo escapes the most extreme misfortunes before landing in an orphanage. There, the workers attempt to find his his family, but when they cannot, allow a childless Australian couple to adopt him. Played by Nicole Kidman (Stoker) and David Wenham (300), they are loving parents, and Saroo quickly adapts to life in his new home. It is only much later, in his twenties, when a chance encounter with Indian expats recalls long-suppressed memories of home that Saroo commences a new journey of self-discovery, in search of his origins. Based on a true story – and on the book about that story, A Long Way Home, co-authored by the real-life Saroo, himself – Lion is well worth watching in spite of its occasional narrative missteps.
5. The Eagle Huntress (Otto Bell, 2016)
Another first-time feature director, Otto Bell nevertheless comes to this project with a wealth of experience making short ethnographic documentaries for major brands – “intimate portraits of everyday people,” as he puts it in the press notes – earning a living by traveling the globe, camera in tow. That background shows in this, his debut full-length documentary. Beautifully photographed – with limited resources – on location in the Altai Mountains of eastern Kazakhstan, The Eagle Huntress tells the story of 13-year-old Aisholpan, a teenage girl whose obsession with becoming an “eagle hunter” like the men of her community leads her to break down a major gender barrier. It’s an inspirational tale, showing us how one person’s strong determination can have far-reaching consequences. And what is eagle hunting? It’s a long-standing tradition in that part of the world, where an eaglet is captured from its mother’s nest and trained to hunt with a human partner, remaining with that partner for 7 years, before being then set free. We see it all, from capture to training to competition (an annual event among hunters), to eventual on-camera first kill. Some of the footage is hard to watch, especially for non-hunting animal-loving folks like yours truly, who may flinch at scenes of the eaglet capture or the fox hunt that closes the movie. But as a work of ethnographic documentation, this is powerful stuff. Bell and his main cinematographer, Simon Niblett, deserve full kudos for their stunning images and in-depth presentation of life in Central Asia. Unfortunately, Bell is less sure-footed in his use of music, which all too often underscores with blustering chords what needs no accompaniment. The film – otherwise stunning – suffers because of it, and would be better served without any kind of soundtrack. Leaving that aside, it is definitely a film to see.
So those are 5 of the films I saw, all of which I liked or mostly liked. The final 2 – Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta and Ewan McGregor’s American Pastoral – fall in a category far below, and I cannot recommend either. Which is too bad, as I am quite often a fan of the former’s work and find the latter a very appealing actor (this is his directorial debut). Julieta at least has the Spanish director’s usual fine production design going for it, though it is in service of a maudlin story – about a mother’s search for a missing daughter, told through flashbacks of the events that led to the family rupture – that never rises above the level of one-note melodrama. American Pastoral – an adaptation of author Philip Roth’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name – never rises above any level, and barely warrants the effort to review it. Nominally a story about the rot at the core of the American Dream, McGregor’s film gets lost in the overwrought details of a dysfunctional family drama, forgetting to make us care in any way about its characters.
Images from the Festival by Christopher Llewellyn Reed
Overall, this is a great festival to attend, if you can, although staying overnight in the area can be pricey (I booked a room, 30 minutes away, in a hotel next to Dulles Airport). Both Damien Chazelle and Emma Stone attended the screening of La La Land, while former Attorney General Eric Holder came for the post-screening Q&A for Loving, as did Otto Bell, Aisholpan and her father, Nurgaiv, for The Eagle Huntress. Next year will mark the Middleburg Film Festival’s fifth anniversary, and I plan, once more, to attend. Hope to see you there!