Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Jason goes to Cinequest--Day 7

5 more movies, plus a Maverick Spirit Award. No time for filler

First up was a documentary about a pretty amazing guy, Rocaterrania. Renaldo Kuhler is truly an individual. In the opening moments of the film, he talks about the importance of a balance between fantasy and reality--reality is the meat and vegetables of the meal of life, while fantasy is the dessert. Growing up on a ranch, he was always alone and started playing with imaginary friends. He had a meticulous, overactive mind, and a talent for drawing. This lead him to pursue the realistic in his vocation as a scientific illustrator working in a museum. And he pursued fantasy in his imaginary--but absolutely realistic--world of Rocaterrania. Set in the rocky terrain (hence the name) tucked between the U.S. and Canada in upstate New York, Rocaterrania was settled by Eastern Europeans (one half of the land is known as New Serbia). It has a complete history, with monarchs and revolution. It has cosmopolitan cities (it's Schwarz opera house is currently undergoing renovations), and various ethnic groups (including a rather vibrant Hasidic Jewish community). Rocaterrania could only be created by a truly unique individual, and the near-tragedy is that it could have disappeared without anyone ever knowing about it. Renaldo Kuhler is a tough guy to get to know, and director Brett Ingram talked to him for over a decade to win his trust and put together this movie. He tends to live in a bubble, and probably would've been happy to pass on without anyone ever knowing about his little world. Now, thanks to the film, there will be a show of his illustrations and descriptions of Rocaterrania in his native Raleigh, NC. Personally, I'm envisioning books about it (the illustrated history of Rocaterrania, anyone?), narrative films about it, etc. The theme of Cinequest this year is "Transform", and here's perhaps the best example. Through the power of art, Renaldo Kuhler has transformed fantasy into a complete world.

Next up was the Danish movie, Dancers, which is only tangentially about dancing. Annika teaches children in a dance studio. She lives a pretty sheltered life there. Possibly the only problem is the electricity is flaky. Luckily, the electrician, Lasse, is kinda cute. The attraction is obvious, but Lasse seems very tentative. He admits he has been in prison, and is worried what she'd think. He says it was for fraud, and Annika's okay with his explanations. But soon mysterious phone calls suggest that he was in prison for something much worse. Without giving too much away, this is a movie about tentative love, honesty, secrets, and how bad decisions can haunt you forever. Good acting and an interesting moral quandary pulls along a movie where really very little actually happens.

Then I just had time to dash over to the other theater for the Israeli film, For My Father. Tarek is a suicide bomber, preparing for his mission in Tel Aviv. He's doing it for his father's honor. His explosive vest is strapped on, and if he doesn't go through with it there's a cell phone trigger so his handlers can "activate" him remotely. In fact, that trigger is wired through his belt buckle so that if he tries to take off the vest, it'll go off. There's really no turning back. So at 8 am on a Friday he gets himself in position in the middle of a crowded marketplace, pushes the button, and...nothing happens. The switch is defective. He hurries out of the market, finds an electrical repair shop, removes the switch, and asks the repairman if he can fix it (without telling him what it's for). He can't, but he can replace it, but he has no replacement in stock. Tomorrow is the Sabbath, so he won't get a replacement until Sunday morning. Tarek convinces his handlers (over the phone) to not activate him, give him until Sunday morning when the market will be crowded again. And so it looks like he's spending the weekend there in Tel Aviv. With nothing but time on his hands, he helps the electrical repairman fix his roof, and talks with the girl who owns the kiosk across the street. Keren is a bit of a punk with dyed-red hair, but she comes from an orthodox family. Her father refuses to talk to her (you can guess from the title there are a lot of daddy issues in this movie), but her "friends" from the community aren't afraid to come by and harass her, trying to get her to renounce her ways and return home. She and Tarek start a bit of a friendship, and when he defends her it becomes a bit more. It never gets sexual (obviously, he can't take of his jacket and reveal his suicide vest), but it is romantic. Over the course of a Sabbath (which just happens to be her birthday) all the reasons he has for his mission melt away. But he's still trapped. This movie handles a very difficult subject with a surprisingly light and deft sense of humor and romance. One of my favorites of the festival.

Then I actually had time to get some dinner--a burrito at La Victoria, and then it was over to the fabulous California Theater for The Least Among You. Based on a true story (although with names, places, and events changed), it's the story of Richard Kelly (Cedric Sanders, who incidentally is from Anchorage, AK--Alaska pride, represent!), a kid with a bright future. He graduated with straight A's, and although his mom wants him to join the seminary, he's already lined up a good paying job working at a computing company. All that changes when he's unjustly arrested during the Watts riots (oh yeah, this takes place in 1965), and as his plea bargain he has to spend his probation in the seminary (yeah, I bet his mom had something to do with striking that deal). No problem, he's a good student. Just keep good grades for a few semesters, then he can drop out and take that computer job. Thing is, he doesn't know he's the first black student in the history of this seminary. The president (William Devane, doing an excellent job as a wolf in sheep's clothing) personally selected him for the noble purpose of breaking down these barriers. He quickly finds it won't be easy, with racism ranging from thinly veiled to not-at-all veiled. His only friend seems to be the kindly janitor/gardener/handyman Samuel (Louis Gosset, Jr., playing a kindly mentor role that seems quite natural to him). The movie travels some pretty well-worn territory (the lowly janitor as a mentor, corrupt officials, racist classmates, gang troubles at home), but finds some neat surprises amongst the cliches as well (I really liked his Texan roommate who turns out to be the least racist of all his classmates). But mostly a lot of good acting and direction make the well worn paths still seem fresh and new.

After the movie, Louis Gossett, Jr. was on hand for a brief on-stage interview and was then given Cinequest's highest honor--the Maverick Spirit Award. During his interview, Gossett Jr. spoke eloquently and humorously about being a mentor and his Eracism Foundation. And finally, there was a Q&A with director/writer Mark Young, Louis Gossett, Jr., Cedric Sanders, and most interestingly the real-life man who Richard Kelly was based on (and I apologize I forgot his name).

Then I had just enough time to run back to the Camera 12 for Shorts Program 2: Document the World:

A Christmas in Tent City: A touching family story. Two successful brothers, Francisco and Roberto Jiménez, recall their difficult childhood as migrant workers.
Drag King: Rednecks tie boats behind their cars and go racing. Hilarious.
Forced into "Comfort", Fighting for Apology: The Korean "comfort women" who serviced the Japanese army in WWII were not volunteers. I thought everyone knew that. Apparently the Japanese still don't.
Naming Pluto: This was my favorite of the group. With all the controversy over Pluto being demoted to dwarf planet (or planette), it was fun to learn how an 11 year old girl in Oxford gave Pluto it's name. Now 89, she finally sees Pluto through a powerful telescope.
Pickin' and Trimmin': Laid back barberin' and music makin'. Some absolute amazing guitar and banjo skills.
Rare Chicken Rescue: Mark Tully saves rare breeds of chickens. It's the least he can do, since they saved him from depression.

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