On May 6, I published my pre-fest picks for the 2019 Maryland Film Festival, which ran May 8-12. Sadly, I came down with a nasty virus just as the festival was starting, so my ability and willingness to leave the house and watch films plummeted just as the event was launching. I nevertheless managed to see a small number of exceptional films, both shorts and features, thanks to screening links sent to me and the few excursions I was still able to make outside the home. What follows are brief capsule reviews of the films I watched (and recommend).
SHORTS (in alphabetical order):
A fascinating archival documentary comprised of footage and interviews culled mostly from the 1980s, Deborah Harry Does Not Like Interviews is both tribute to its titular subject and condemnation of the sexualized (and, therefore, sexist) nature of the media coverage to which she was subjected in her heyday. The lead singer of Blondie, Harry laid the groundwork for such other great pop stars like Madonna and Lady Gaga, both of whom borrowed liberally from her style and presentation. Director Meghan Fredrich assembles the material in a purposefully jarring manner, cutting rapidly within and between scenes, with no apparently attempt to digitally remaster the period video (in fact, seeming to emphasize the degradation of time). The net result is a visually and aurally engaging, yet fractured, narrative, the stylized aesthetic a perfect match for what the experience of Debbie Harry must have been like. I’ve been listening to Blondie nonstop since I saw it.
Baltimore-based cinematographer and director Richard Chisolm (whom, I must confess, is a neighbor and acquaintance of mine), has crafted a fascinating portrait of area sculptor David Hess, whose traveling exhibit of gun facsimiles, created from found materials (garden and kitchen equipment among them), provokes thoughtful conversation wherever it goes. From college campuses to art galleries to an actual gun show, Hess journeys with his beautifully designed objects, always present to engage the viewers. Chisolm captures the various encounters in all their intellectual and emotional vibrance. These United States of ours may not be all that united, at present, but this short documentary proves that we can at least still have civil conversations on potentially divisive issues without descending into violence. Which, since that is the entire point of Hess’ work, makes of this film a wonderful testament to the power of art to educate and inspire.
When Kat Hurley was five years old, she witnessed the murder of her mother at the hands of her father, a crime to which the man refused to confess until much later, even initially casting aspersions on his daughter’s memory. When interviewed at the time, young Katie (as she was then called) uttered the heartbreaking phrase “I think I’ll make it” when asked how she thought her future might look. 36 years later, she has, indeed, made it (in terms of moving forward into adulthood), but still bears the emotional scars of that early trauma. Director Dara Bratt (The Singing Abortionist) follows her subject in the present day, the camera embedded throughout intimate moments of both joy and despair and the audience treated to surprising twists in Kat’s personal life. It’s a raw, moving profile of a woman whose extraordinary, ordinary existence is a demonstration of the will to survive and live according to one’s own rules.
FEATURES (in alphabetical order):
American Factory (Steven Bognar/Julia Reichert, 2019)
A documentary remarkable for its seemingly unfettered access to its subjects, American Factory follows the misadventures of Chinese company Fuyao as it purchases an abandoned General Motors plant in Ohio, just outside Dayton. The inevitable culture clash that follows flows not just from language and behavioral differences but from the stark chasm between Chinese and American business practices. In China, workers are expected to work as much as their bosses demand, irrespective of personal desires, whereas in the United States the laws of the land dictate strict guidelines concerning work hours and workplace safety. Before long, the United Auto Workers union steps in, attempting to organize the American employees, many of whom are just grateful to have a job again. Trouble brews, eventually spilling over into aggressive confrontation. And all the while, the camera is there, on both sides of the issue. It’s a highly impressive film and a sharp examination of what may be the looming crisis of the 21stcentury as China rises to replace an America in decline.
Anbessa (Mo Scarpelli, 2019): U.S. premiere!
Director Mo Scarpelli (Frame by Frame), in her moving observational documentary Anbessa, delivers an intimate look at the life of a boy living next to a condominium complex near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Asalif and his mother cannot afford a place in the new development, instead installed in a mud shack on the nearby grounds, once farming land. Asalif – who imagines himself a lion (the movie’s title, in Amharic, means just that) – roams the hillside with friends, but mostly scavenges through the condo tenants’ trash, recycling objects for use in his own place. At times, he hangs with the men in the area bar, both annoyance and sidekick, his eyes wide with wonder at the tales they tell, happy to be included. When he makes a new acquaintance among the wealthier neighbors, his longing for a better life becomes even more palpable. He’s a resourceful young man, however, so perhaps there is more to his future than this. For now, we have this gentle portrait, where hope and despair intermingle in a cinematic mix.
Manta Ray (“Kraben rahu”) (Phuttiphong Aroonpheng, 2019)
Thai director Phuttiphong Aroonpheng, making his feature debut, packs a mysterious bromance inside an enigmatic wrapper, the entire package surrounded by the undulating wings of a manta ray (real or metaphorical? you decide …). When a lonely fisherman (who moonlights in some mercenary capacity for a local gang leader) comes across a severely wounded (by gunshot) man in the woods, he gathers him onto his motorcycle and brings him home to nurse. As that man gathers strength, the two begin a tender friendship, albeit one with only monologue, since the rescuee (named Thongchai by his rescuer) remains mute. When the fisherman disappears one day, Thongchai picks up his life for him, including reuniting with the estranged wife who returns once her extramarital dalliance falls apart. What will happen if the fisherman returns? Slow, but always gripping in its dramatic intensity, Manta Ray never quite resolves, in concrete terms, its central questions, but here the joy is in the accumulation of metaphysical clues for future deciphering.
Other Music (Puloma Basu/Rob Hatch-Miller, 2019)
For 21 years, Other Music, located at 15 E. 4thSt. in Manhattan, was an independently owned and operated music store that specialized in non-mainstream tunes. Its 2016 closing, perhaps inevitable in a world increasingly dominated by online sales, subscription services and YouTube, was traumatic for owners, staff and customers, alike. As someone who has personally contributed to the death of small brick-and-mortar retailers through my love of online shopping, I nevertheless feel the pain of folks who miss visiting local places filled with knowledgeable salespeople. In directors Puloma Basu and Rob Hatch-Miller’s bittersweet elegy of a documentary, we meet many of the characters who made of Other Music a New York institution, including co-founders Josh Madell and Chris Vanderloo, loyal customers Tunde Adibimpe, Benicio del Toro and Jason Schwartzman, and scores of others, including employees past and present. Imagine the record store in High Fidelity come to life, and you will have a sense of the place’s charm (and importance). Other Music is sorely missed, and this film makes clear how much is lost with its disappearance.
Queen of Lapa (Theodore Collatos/Carolina Monnerat, 2019): World premiere!
In the vibrant party-atmosphere neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, known as Lapa, there is a home to transgender prostitutes founded by Luana Muniz, herself transgender. She’s a sex worker, as well, but also an actress and activist for trans rights. Without her, many of her compatriots in arms would be without shelter, just one of the many reasons she is such an iconic figure in the city. Physically imposing and possessed of an ego to match, Luana rules over her domain, though she is by no means the only character in this fascinating documentary. Husband and wife directors Theodore Collatos and Carolina Monnerat follow, in close-up detail, multiple subjects, including Luana, as they experience the highs and lows of their profession, trading beauty secrets amongst each other while also issuing romantic warnings (“don’t fall in love” being the main one). Life is not easy for these women, but they hold their heads up and go about their business, thanks to the protection of their mighty queen.
Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project (Matt Wolf, 2019)
For over 30 years, beginning with the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, former librarian and media personality Marion Stokes recorded television news virtually 24 hours a day, resulting in an archive of 70,000 tapes. Since it turns out that the channels, themselves, did not always back up their own programming, Stokes’s VHS library is sui generis, now digitized and housed in San Francisco’s Internet Archive. Director Matt Wolf (Teenage) offers us a comprehensive history of Stokes’ life and hobby, interviewing ex-husband Melvin Metelits, son Michael, and many more, including the children of her second husband, John Stokes. She was a strong-willed, opinionated woman, and emerges from this portrait in all her intellectual (and ornery) glory. Along the way, we revisit the many news highlights she recorded, perhaps the most moving among them the 9/11/01 attacks. Hers was a life lived on its own terms, and Wolf’s film is a fitting tribute to her lasting contribution to the historical record.
South Mountain (Hilary Brougher, 2019)
One of my favorite low-budget sci-fi films of all time is Hilary Brougher’s 1997 The Sticky Fingers of Time, a model of independent-filmmaking resourcefulness married to a solid script. Since then, I have missed all of her subsequent work until now. South Mountain is quite a departure from that earlier movie, a small, intimate family drama set in upstate New York, focused on the dissolution of a marriage. Talia Balsam (Don’t Worry Baby) and Scott Cohen (Write When You Get Work) star as the unhappy pair, who share one biological child and one step-child (his from a previous marriage) together, neither of the kids particularly thrilled at the domestic developments. Beautifully photographed and effortlessly realized, filled with lovely, naturalistic performances, South Mountain building its drama slowly, but never fails to disappointment in its profound refusal to judge anyone for behaving badly. We should all be blessed to have such an understanding critic tell our own story.
And that’s it for this year. Here’s hoping that next year I remain healthy and see a lot more!