Thursday, March 6, 2014

Jason goes to Cinequest--Day 2

So opening night is all about the partying, but day 2 is when it gets serious, just about the movies. Ha! Who am I kidding? I got to the lounge a good 2 hours early so I could down a few Stellas before the first film. But to keep from falling asleep I had a Red Bull...with Tito's Handmade Vodka.

So the first film started with a bonus Picture The Possibilities (PTP) short SHOTGUN CYANIDE. A guy who seems perfectly fine is hiding something pretty dark. Luckily he has friends who care about him...maybe just in the nick of time.

And that was the lead in to MAPA. A clever little travel diary through India via Spain, and eventually through the twisted contours of the human heart. Director León Siminiani recently lost his job shooting a children's TV show. So he packs up, heads on a trip through India, and sets about to make his feature length, personal documentary. What starts as a travelogue of India, with pilgrims in the Ganges, etc. turns into an self-reflection on his own attitudes about post-colonialism. And eventually when his thoughts turn to his ex-girlfriend, that starts to dominate the movie. A little girl he saw in the Ganges reminds him of her. He goes back, gets old VHS tapes of her at the same age (in Disney World of all places) and obsesses over her. His obsession literally causes him to skid off the road (when we finally see León's face, he's in a neck brace after a car crash) and yet his obsession lingers. So his story becomes a quest to forget, to literally erase the map of his past. And he implores on the psychic energy of the audience to help him. It's a movie that could easily devolve into self-centered navel-gazing (my review certainly sounds like that) but a cleverness and mastery of the cinematography (even poorly executed shots have a reason) keeps it above that.

Then the next show started with another PTP short EL CAMINO. In Mexico City, one young man on a skateboard decides today is the day he stands up to bullies on behalf of a defenseless girl. Inspiring.

And then the feature THE DESERT FISH, from Iran. Ahmad is a little boy whose mother was lost at sea several years ago. His father used to be a famous sea captain, but now spends his days deep underground, digging wells far from the sea. This is ruining his health. Or at least, his health is failing, whether it's from the lack of sunlight or the years of unforgiving sorrow. So while Ahmad routinely helps everyone else in town (e.g., bringing bread to an old woman and fixing her radio) he finally realizes it's time to help his father. And to do that he has to make a journey all the way to the sea, find his uncle, find his lost mother, and find his father's forgiveness. The movie is slow and poetic the way Iranian films typically are (I sometimes wonder if Iranians watching American films think they're all hyper-frenetic, ADHD, spazz-fests) and the cinematography is just gorgeous. 

And then after a bit of VIP Soiree at Cafe Stritch, where I had a few appetizers and a couple more Stellas I was at the California Theater for LIFE IS LOVE. No PTP short in front of this one, since it actually grew out of what was once going to be a PTP short until everyone realized it had to be a feature film. So Cinequest co-founders Halfdan Hussey and Kathleen Powell produced and directed this amazing film that can somehow be heart-wrenching while still so full of hope. There's a phenomenon I encounter regularly in film festivals that I call Emotional Whiplash. That's pretty self-explanatory, and usually the result of scheduling an odd series of films (once I saw a documentary about suicide, followed by a romantic musical comedy, followed by another documentary about suicide, followed by a magical fairy tale musical comedy. That was weird.) But this might be the film that contains the most emotional whiplash entirely inside it. We're thrown in right in the beginning with young Cambodian women telling their stories. These are stories of being sold into slavery by their parents (desperate situations after the Khmer Rouge have forced a lot of families to decide to sell one child so another can live.) And that slavery is sexual slavery (even if they were told they would just be cleaning.) So at 10 years old or younger they are forced to take on "clients" if they want to eat. And so...overwhelming sadness. And just when the sadness is getting too overwhelming, we switch up and meet the clients. And the emotion turns to anger. But then...these aren't some disgustingly rich perverts. They are working class people (more than one Tuk Tuk driver) They talk about wanting a little romance and comfort from the girls. I couldn't get over my anger, but there's definitely more to they're story than is shown (and in one case, a client named Ted starts to explain but then decides he can't talk about his past.) And just when the movie needs a hero we finally get one--Somaly Mam. And...well, there's still a heck of a lot of sadness as she recounts some of the stories that even the girls wouldn't say. But needless to say she has also lived in slavery...and survived...and created a foundation to help other girls in the same situation. And over the course of her interviews, we learn her sympathy, her strength, her love, and her amazing hopefulness and positivity. So our journey was from sadness and despair to anger to understanding back to sadness to hopefulness and love. That's what emotional whiplash is like.

The one criticism I'll make is that it could use some subtitles. And I hate to say that, because I usually find it kind of demeaning when films use subtitles for heavily accented English. But I did struggle sometimes to make out exactly what they were saying. Then again, given the subject matter if I could understand every word maybe it would just be too much to take.

SHORTS 1, an international tour of people mostly being horrible to each other.
DOOR GOD: A Chinese girl eagerly awaits her mother's return. She has been away in the city for two years, leaving her husband and daughter behind.
FOR THE BIRDS: In Iran, adultery is punishable by death. This intentionally un-subtitled film explores the injustice and what happens if just one brave person stands up to it.
FREESTATE: A Zimbabwean white female TV producer and her black driver have a bit of adventure on the road when they have car trouble and stay with a family of cowboys eager for some company.
FALLET: A Norwegian couple goes mountain climbing and secrets are revealed in one of the tensest films I've ever seen.
RICOCHET: An Australian father, raising his daughter alone after his wife passed away in childbirth. When a stranger shows up years later claiming to be family, he refuses to let him speak, leading to a horrible confrontation.
INSOMNIACS: The most romantic film of the program. And that says everything you need to know about the program, once you know it features the threat of suicide.

Then the Maverick Meetup was at The Farmer's Union, and I went there just enough to say hi to some people and get a few pictures with Harry Knowles. And then I was just beat. I didn't even have a full drink (just a few sips of my girlfriend's margarita) and I had to catch the VTA Light Rail home.

Total Running Time: 354 minutes
My Total Minutes: 353,606

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