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AFI Film Festival 2004 — A Very Strong Engagement

The American Film Institute’s annual film festival in Los Angeles — held November 4 to 14th at the Hollywood ArcLight cinemas — again proved itself to be on par with the best festivals in North America with a strong program of over 90 films (and 42 short films) from 42 countries, including 24 world premieres and scores of U.S. premieres.

Quantity means nothing unless you have good films, and this year was no exception. From powerful and controversial films such as the Audience Award-winner Hotel Rwanda and The Other Side of AIDS, provocative films such as the documentary Gay Republicans, and crowd pleasers such as House of Flying Daggers and the Infernal Affairs trilogy.

A tribute this year went to Pedro Almodóvar, whose latest film Bad Education proves that he is still one of the world’s best and most vital directors.

The Jury Awards for Best International Feature went to Duck Season, a pokey comedy set in an apartment building in Mexico City. Best Documentary went to The Take, a powerful work about factory workers in Argentina, and a Special Mention award went to The Other Side of AIDS, a documentary that dares to suggest that the AIDS virus and HIV are not necessarily linked.

The documentaries this year were particularly noteworthy and covered a wide range of characters including a German singer named Nomi (The Nomi Song), a Black Panther named Pete (A Panther in Africa), a rocker named Strummer (Let’s Rock Again), and a former kidnap victim named Patty (Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst). Subjects also ran the gamut from pro bowlers (A League of Ordinary Gentlemen) to Voodoo (Voodoo, Mounted by the Gods) to advertising (Czech Dream) to dieties (The Big Question).

Feature films provided just as much variety, including films shown in the popular Latin American section, the fabulous ‘Made in Germany’ series, and the always exciting Asian film section.

Below are capsule reviews of a few films I managed to attend over the ten day festival.

Feature Films:

A woman and her two daughters in Israel, circa 1981, try to deal with their lives without a man in the house. The mother wants to move into a new settlement but she has resistance from her daughters and from the snooty Zionists who are unsure about the abilities of a single woman to be a reprehensive neighbor. The women — each in their own way — encounter a male-dominated world. Excellent script and direction by Joseph Cedar and all-around fine performances make this an accomplished film.

Ferpect Crime
This darkly funny and politically incorrect crime comedy by Alex de la Iglesia is about a department store manager who kills another manager and then is forced to cover it up with the help of a particularly odd and highly unattractive co-worker woman who blackmails him into marriage. This was one of the hits of the festival and is sure to have a following when it comes out later in the year.

Notre Musique
Jean Luc Godard takes a page from Dante in his latest meditative visual essay. Hell = war and old war movies; Purgatory = modern day Sarajevo with two Jewish women, a few poets, some Native Americans and Godard himself; Heaven = a Jewish woman after her death in a bucolic setting in Israel surrounded by happy families and soldiers. As always, Godard’s editing and use of sound is stellar. Even though some of his ideas are a bit atavistic at least he attempts to make us think, something which is all too rare in movies these days. He also provides plenty of ironic humor and intellectual one-liners.

Producing Adults
This Finnish/Swedish production by Aleksi Salmenpera is a very well-directed and -acted film about two women who work together in a fertility clinic and fall in love. One wants badly to become pregnant but her boyfriend gets a vasectomy. The other is gay and doesn’t particularly want to become pregnant — but does. In time — and due to their troubles — they begin a relationship with one another.

Head On
Forty-something bum meets twenty-something Turkish cutie in this award-winning German film by Fatih Akin. They marry out of necessity but in time — of course — fall in love. Shrill, earthy, gritty, and sometime ridiculous, the film succeeds in mixing the conventional and the realistic. But it is often difficult to forget that we are watching a movie. Not particularly original but often riveting.

This film by Juliet McKoen is about a young woman named Kath (played brilliantly by Shirley Henderson) who believes that her missing sister – who everyone accepts is dead – may still be alive in some alternative world out by the sea. Mysterious and chilling the film reminded me of Blow Up a bit in that it deals with images (in this case video images) and what we see and what we think we see based on our own state of mind.

Revolution of Pigs
This very energetic, entertaining and well shot film from Estonia by Jaak Kilmi is about a bunch of kids at a summer camp circa 1986 who take over and refuse to do what the communist leaders want. The film is sort of an anti-communist Meatballs.

Duck Season
Winner of the festival’s Best Feature award, this Mexican entry by Fernando Eimbcke is actually somewhat mediocre, even though it has good moments. Four characters (two teenage boys, a cute neighbor girl and a pizza delivery guy) in an apartment building (sort of) bare their souls to one another after the electricity goes out. Good editing and fine black-and-white photography make it pleasant to watch, but overall it is just too flat for long periods of time.

Far Side of the Moon
This Canadian film is about a down-on-his-luck loner who has dreams of bigger and better things: Namely, gaining respect for his doctoral thesis about why man embarked on a space program (Reason? Narcissism). Based on a monologue but here opened up quite nicely, the film is effective but the casting is almost too good: The main character’s downer attitude wears thin after a while.

A Very Long Engagement
The makers of foreign film blockbuster Amelie return with a World War I epic about death and love. Ambitious, beautifully shot, and completely different than the ad campaign promises (the love story element takes a back seat), it nonetheless offers well-staged scenes with lots of explosions and grit.

Hank Williams First Nation
This is a good first film from Canada by Aaron James Sorenson about various characters in a Cree Nation community and their interactions with one another as one of their elders heads down with his grandson to find Hank Williams’ grave. The film is very sincere as it slowly moves along, but while the story and the performances are above average the whole film plays out in a rather lackluster way. Scenes that should be powerful feel uncomfortable and somewhat amateurish.

Two buddies with cute girl in tow head down to Mexico where a ‘routine’ drug deal goes bad in this film by Ariel Vromen. You’ve seen it before. Give it points for taking one step past TV drama by having the two guys die. Other than that, some major leaps in logic make this a weak film. Nice cinematography, though.

Forty-something ex-junkie gets a second lease on life when a 15 year-old girl shows up at his door in this stylish but ultimately dull (and predictable) Spanish film by Santi Amodeo. How long until he gets her clothes off? How long until he falls off the wagon? I give up. Show me to the exit.


Calling Hedy Lamarr
Certainly one of the most original documentaries I’ve seen, this one is structured around phone conversations and conference calls (some staged) to present for us who Hedy Lamarr was, what she represented to friends and family and the various aspects of her life on and off the screen. The film by Georg Misch also centers on Hedy’s son, who is trying to make a Hollywood film about her life. Of interest is the ‘Who Knew?’ factor: Hedy Lamarr received a patent for an invention she developed that deals with frequency communication that led to the development of such things as smart bombs and cell phones.

Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst
This very well made and disturbing documentary by Robert Stone is about the Symbionese Liberation Army’s (SLA) attempt to start a revolution in 1973 with the kidnapping of Petty Hearst. Using great archival footage and interviews with a couple of former SLA members, the film is gripping — and a bit creepy — from beginning to end.

The Take
This inspiring and harrowing documentary by Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein is about worker-run factories in Argentina that have sprung up all over since the economy collapsed in 2001. The documentary shows that true revolutions come not from ideology (like communism) but from necessity (workers need to feed their families).

The Art and Crimes of Ron English
Provocateur, artist, and all around cool guy Ron English goes after corporate America with fake (but smart) billboards that he posts in New York, Los Angeles, and various cities across America. This engaging and enjoyable documentary by Pedro Carvajal uses footage of English and his various exploits over a dozen years. The film also gives insight into English’s paintings, which have become highly collectible.

The Nomi Song
This interesting and ultimately heartbreaking documentary by Andrew Horn is about bizarre but talented New Wave performance artist/singer name Klaus Nomi who was well known in New York in the 1980s. He hit it really big for about a year due to his unique musical shows, and then promptly died. The film is full of interviews with Nomi’s fellow performers and has a lot of archival footage of Nomi’s performances.

A Panther on Africa
Pete O’Neil, a former Black Panther, left the United States for Africa when he was wrongfully accused of a crime. Unable to come back, he and his wife developed a community center and a bed and breakfast in Tanzania where they have remained for over 30 years. This documentary by Aaron Matthews follows Pete around, cinema verité style, on his daily routines. What makes the documentary great is Pete himself; a smart and articulate man who is caught between a world he still doesn’t completely understand and another world that he can never return to.

Seoul Train
This powerful documentary is about the human rights abuses that the people in North Korea suffer every day. Using some cinema verité footage, the film shows some of the attempts by people to escape North Korea via the ‘underground railroad.’ At issue is the difficulty the world community, the United Nations, and various human rights organizations and activists have in dealing with North Korea and to a lesser extent China — which is reluctant to give refugee status to the people who escape into it. Directed by Jim Butterworth, Lisa Sleeth, and Aaron Lubarsky, the film is a must see for anyone interested in the struggles of North Korea.

The Big Question
So what does God mean to you? Is there an afterlife? If you were born on the other side of the planet would you have a different faith? These are just a few questions that filmmakers Francesco Cabras and Alberto Molinari ask the cast and crew from the set of The Passion of the Chris
. The answers are surprising, thoughtful, enigmatic, and often entertaining. The subject could turn off some viewers but the fact that the people on the set of a movie about Christ were composed of Jews, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, and atheists makes it all the more fascinating. It’s also a very beautifully shot, scored, and artfully edited film. And, yes, Mel Gibson is one of the talking heads who tells us what he believes.

A League of Ordinary Gentlemen
This documentary by Christopher Browne follows six bowlers from city to city on the Pro Bowlers Tour in 2002. Very engaging, with a cast of interesting characters including bad boy Peter Webber, who likes to do the ‘crotch chop’ when he gets a strike, and Walter Ray Williams, who can bowl the most mild mannered perfect game imaginable. The film deals with the ups and downs of the bowlers’ season as well as the sport itself, which from all indications is making a comeback.

Czech Dream
This documentary is by two film school guys named Vit Klusak and Flip Remuda who set up an ad campaign for a super-super market that didn’t exist. The idea was to prove that you can lure people with advertising alone. The concept of the film is really clever — and sort of cruel — and it shows how easy it is to fool people. But the film ultimately feels thin and underdeveloped and isn’t as engaging as it could be, given the subject.

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