I went all out on the first Sunday of the fest, here we go.
I started off in the morning with WILL, a fun child's adventure story centered around soccer. Will is 11 years old, living in a boarding school. His mother died a few years ago, and his dad left to find his fortune. But now his dad is back, ready to take Will back into his life, back home to Liverpool, and most importantly to the Champions League finals in Istanbul (where, hopefully, Liverpool will be playing.) And then as quickly as he appeared, his dad is gone again, this time forever. He just fell asleep and never woke up. Will is devastated, but when Liverpool actually makes the finals he decides to steal his tickets back from the nuns (who are deciding what to do with them) and make the journey himself. Of course, he faces obstacles, meets interesting people, and changes the lives of everyone he meets. It's all incredibly sappy, but that's exactly what a child's road trip adventure is about. So of course I ended up rooting for him even when it went over the top with the improbability of it all.
WILL plays again May 1, 6:00 at the Kabuki.
Next up was a film I saw solely because it fit nicely in my schedule. In fact, I had to duck out of the credits and Q&A for WILL to see it, but it was either that or have hours of gap in my schedule. So I saw THE ORATOR, the first feature film shot in the native Samoan language. And I was surprised and delighted with the story, performances, and beauty of Samoa. I only wish I knew more about the Samoan culture so I could understand it better. It would work perfectly at the end of a class on Samoan culture. In any case, the story centers around Saili, a little person who gets no respect in the village. He lives with his wife Vaaiga and her daughter Litia. Vaaiga was banished from her village, for conceiving Litia illegitimately. But they make their life and their humble family, despite the shabby treatment by everyone else. Saili is also a timid man, saying very little at least in the beginning of the movie. But to face his tormentors (like the people who keep planting yams on his parents' graves) he must become an Orator, a chiefly title that allows him to confront others in open and highly ritualized dialogue (this is part of where I could really use a class on Samoan culture.) This film deals with a lot of issues--respect for the dead, respect for the disabled, family, honor, forgiveness. But more than anything it's about the struggle to force your right to exist on an uncaring and often openly hostile world. Not to spoil too much, but it's nice to see someone win that fight for once.
Next up, Alex Gibney (ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM, Oscar-winning TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE, and GONZO: THE LIFE AND WORK OF DR. HUNTER S THOMPSON which closed SFIFF back in 2008) shows us his take on the culture of hockey fights with THE LAST GLADIATORS. Of course, coming from Gibney it's very well constructed and revealing. He interviews a lot of enforcers, but the movie is mainly about Chris "Knuckle" Nilan. And here I will reveal that I don't know a lot about hockey so pretty much all I know about him comes from this movie and the abbreviated (cut short by a fire alarm) Q&A afterwards. Gibney takes us back to Chris's childhood where he got into fights sticking up for his friends. How hockey was the one thing he cared about. How he was drafted almost at the end of draft. How in the minor leagues he got a reputation for taking on all comers, and how his heart, passion, and toughness carried him to the big leagues and made him a hero in Montreal. And it takes us to his troubles after he retired. Not to give too much away, but let's just say pain and addiction before getting his life at least tenuously back together (for what it's worth, he was at the Q&A and it was pretty moving seeing this tough guy admit to crying every time he watches the movie. I think that's pretty telling of where he is in his life now.) What I found most interesting in this movie is the first hand accounts and analysis of the enforcer role in hockey, told by the guys who lived that role. It ends up walking a fine line between glamorizing hockey fights and revealing the mindsets of the guys who glamorize it. I have no idea after watching this if Gibney is a fan of hockey, a fan of fighting in hockey, or just fascinated with the mindset of people who would do it. And I guess that's to his credit that the director steps out of the movie and lets his subject tell his story as only he can.
THE LAST GLADIATORS plays again April 24 at 6:00 and April 28 at 3:30, both as the Film Society Cinema in the New People Center.
Next up was my first shorts program of the festival so far, the eclectic group that together make up Made in USA.
BIZNESS: A music video for tUnE-yArDs (who accompany Buster Keaton shorts at the Castro tonight.) Children, painted faces, dancing, fun.
DEVIL'S GATE: A documentary about Devil's Gate in Pasadena. Named for the odd rock formations that kind of look like faces, modern day occultists believe it is a source of strong magick and that it's a portal to hell. This notion was created and popularized by Jack Parsons, an acolyte of Aleister Crowley, and founder of Jet Propulsion Laboratory (and, on a personal note, as a Caltech alum, I'm not the least bit surprised at the connection.)
DOCTOR: Interspersed in the program were four very short videos from the Doctor series of Front Page films. Very funny.
FIN DE SIECLE: Collage, bees, Victorian styles, etc. Pretty cool.
INQUIRE WITHIN: Jay Rosenblatt composes a new found-footage piece, this one about false choices between "this...or this." Disturbing, but playful.
MEANING OF ROBOTS: Ummm...there's a hoarder who has made tons of tiny, anatomically correct (or as he calls them, "fuckable") robots, which he plans to use in an epic film of robotic erotica. This is completely true.
THE SHRINE/AN ARGUMENT: A music video of animated animals, killing each other. Poor dead bunny.
SOLIPSIST: Beautiful, even when I don't know what's going on. Two people sitting back to back get covered with moving vines. Sea creatures dance. Peoples faces and stomachs turn to sand that flies out their back. And it all explodes in glorious color. I guess I don't have to take any acid today.
STIHL: Chainsaws, and stuffed animals. With a little fetish scene in between.
WORKERS LEAVING THE GOOGLEPLEX: In the Google complex, there are white badges (regular employees), red badges (contractors), and the rarely seen yellow badges. The yellow badges all work in one building, allegedly scanning books for Google's book search program. They are information laborers, and are not given the same perks all other Google employees get (like gourmet food, shuttle rides for the commute, access to Google bikes, etc.) Andrew Wilson, who was a red badge at Google, gets into a lot of trouble by trying to film and interview them. Very interesting.
The Made in USA program plays again May 1 at 3:30 pm at the Film Society Cinema.
And finally, I ended the night with INFORMANT, a fascinating look at a complicated and interesting man, Brandon Darby. He was a hero of Katrina, co-founding Common Ground and helping a lot of people at a community level. Going back further, he was an anarchist and a social justice activist. And then...something changed. In 2008, he spied for the FBI on activists protesting at the Republican National Convention. Specifically, he informed on a group he infiltrated from his hometown in Austin, TX and got two of them arrested for building and planning to use Molotov cocktails. Since then, he has become a darling of the Tea Party, and a villain of the left. If anything, this movie is about how difficult it is to tease out who or what he really is. It's masterfully edited to allow him to pull you into his reality (where he is, of course, the hero) just long enough to start to believe and then something interrupts (e.g., an interview from an alternate viewpoint) that calls bullshit on him. Even the reenactment scenes are broken up by "behind the scenes" footage of him discussing with director Jamie Meltzer how to do the scene. There are, of course, very difficult and troubling details about his story. Did he convince these kids to build the Molotov cocktails (constituting entrapment?) Maybe, but that's a high legal hurdle to clear, which they failed in court. Did his presence in their group (and his previous reputation, including meetings with the Venezuelan government) make them more radical than they would've been otherwise? Probably. But still, making the cocktails was a crime, and I find it hard to sympathize with those who argue that smashing a few windows and doing some property damage isn't that big of a deal compared to what they're fighting against. Yes, perspective is welcome and smashing windows or burning a cop car is less egregious than some things the government does "legally," but I just wish that statements could be made with spirited, even disruptive talk and not violence. And that goes for all sides, of course. Oh, and spirited talk should stop short of death threats. Apparently Darby received threats that at least he took seriously enough that he cancelled his plans to appear at the festival. I don't blame him, and shame on those
For what it's worth, I came away believing that at least in his mind Darby was always sincere in his beliefs. I also think (and I should stress I don't know him personally nor am I a psychologist in any way) that his views are constantly evolving and that in order to be the hero of his own story he feels he needs something dangerous to be fighting against. I also think (near the end of the movie) he touches on some important points about just trying to help out your neighbors and how direct assistance (a la Common Ground) is way more effective than government action. Perhaps if he figures out some day that you don't need a monster to fight in order to make a positive difference, he could bridge political ideologies for positive community improvement projects. But...he's probably already burned to many bridges for that.
INFORMANT plays again April 23 (tonight) at 6:30 at the Pacific Film Archives (it would be interesting to see a Berkeley audience's reaction) and on April 27 at 9:00 at the Kabuki.
Total Running Time: 466 minutes
My Total Minutes: 278,920