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Monday, February 11, 2008

PORTLAND INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL PART 1

Portland International Film Festival

Portland is a bohemian town that loves its art, music and festival's! It always seems that there is one going on all the time, but the Film Festival, now that is something that people actually take their vacations to be a part of.I have had a fantastic time seeing the excitement of all the movie goers, it's like we are all part of the same family! We buzz from coffee and chat with each other while we wait in line. People dart their heads back and forth, hoping to see an actor or director. And can I tell you... opinions??!! Oh my God it's like the sun rises and sets around this Festival.My only wish? I could see every film...


The White Silk Dress
Director: Luu Huyna

This beautiful film hails from Vietnam. The stunning features, grace and poise of its people fill the screen a melancholy longing that left me speechless. This film actually broke my heart.

The subject shows the painful path of a mother who desperately wants to provide for her daughter, actually, all her children... no matter what the cost. Something as simple as a "White Silk Dress" becomes paramount, something she would sell her soul for and in a sense... did.

Then, a marriage and all will be well right? That opens another can of worms... I'll stop here, as not to give the ending away. This is a must see and believe me, you will be moved!

The Portland Int. Film Festival website has this to say…

Winner of the Audience Award at the Pusan International Film Festival and this year's Vietnamese submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, The White Silk Dress is a sweeping drama that portrays how one poor and oppressed family manages to maintain its pride and dignity and overcome adversities. The setting is the picturesque town of Ha Dong in central Vietnam, immediately prior to the collapse of French colonial rule in the 1950s. Dau and Gu, who have slaved for a landlord all their lives, are finally able start a family. However, the unrelenting cycle of war and poverty results in numerous tragedies. Even after losing everything, they still maintain their faith in the Ao Dai, a symbol of the lofty and pure willpower of Vietnamese women.


Kings
Director: Tom Collins

This film comes from Ireland. It's lush green countryside adds a stunning contrast to the poor life these boys lead.

They leave Ireland to seek their fortunes in London, convinced they will return home men of the world! They will be rich and successful and the old neighborhood will love them!

Many years later, the story does not change, only the town... and the worst part for all, their "leader" doesn’t make it back alive. As they all sit in their hometown Pub during the wake and reminisce of their lives, it is a sad account. But at the same time, they remain hopeful in the company of friends.

The Portland Int. Film Festival website has this to say…
A universal tale of disenfranchisement and the search for identity, Kings tells the story of six ambitious young Irishmen who leave the west of Ireland in the early 1970s to seek their fortune. Thirty years later only one, Jacki Flavin, makes it home—but does so in a coffin. Jackie's five friends reunite at his wake, where they are forced to face up to the reality of their alienation as long-term emigrants who no longer have any real place to call home. This year's Irish submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscar and the first Irish-language film ever entered.

Di Agee

SMOGDANCE

SmogDance
by Rowan Harrison

Not being a big connoisseur of the short film format, I liken short films to a drawing that an artist uses in laying the foundation to a much greater composition. In some cases a drawing can be a complete rendered piece of art that achieves the spiritual creative journey and the artistic elements of its creator. A drawing for the most part is an artistic expression, of movement, gesture, composition, technique and lighting, all of these elements plus the humanistic desire to tell a story on film, were all represented, in the short film format at this years, SmogDance Film Festival at the Harvey Mudd College in Clairmont, CA.

While Park City, Utah has its star studded winter fest, SunDance, Clairmont has its………SmogDance? A few miles north of interstate 10, sitting below the snow covered San Gabriel Mountains, sits the charming community of Clairmont. Tree lined streets and quaint historic buildings make up for the college town feel that it represents. With seven colleges of higher learning, the city plays host to the 10th anniversary of Smog Dance. This three day festival held at the Harvey Mudd College, showcases the best in short films from local and international filmmakers. Thanks to all the wonderful staff and special thanks to festival director, Charlotte Cousins, for making this a splendid evening to up and coming filmmakers.

Simulacra – writer/animator: Tatchapon Lertwirojkul

Lertwirjkul takes us on a 4 minute escapade into a 3 dimensional conceptual futuristic world, where all elements of the natural world are obsolete and non existent except one. A robot surveying the architectural landscape is interrupted by a floating flower petal; all readings indicate that it’s an organic flower, that are extinct. Curiosity and a mechanical bird, takes our friendly animated computerized robot to the known origin of a flower. Within the secured premises the natural flower grows, enchanted by its radiant beauty our happy robot friend preserves it, not fully aware if it’s ironic implications. Tatchapon allows the laws and concepts of perspective and animation to flourish, in his imaginary futuristic world.

Deleted Scenes – writer/director: Ryan Gielen

In a short where art imitates life and life imitates art, a writer/director and the leading male actor indulge themselves in rivalry as they lay down the voiceovers to the directors commentaries, to their film South Bronx. Josh Davis and Brian Adler, begin their work in a cordial fashion, egos compete, viewpoints clash and when an attractive female assistant caters to them, tension and animosity boils over. Amusing and intelligent, South Bronx gives us a twisted behind the scenes, insight into the making of those directors commentaries that accompany feature films on DVD.


The Room – writer/director: Aves Meza Valdes

A young woman sits, fetal position, shivering with fear and fright in the corner of a dark blood stained chamber. Like a chapter out of an Edgar Allen Poe story but very reminiscent of the blood splattering gore of Saw. The Room takes us on a macabre tale of terror as a young woman is held captive, with her dead boyfriend lying at her side. Periodically, the captors young sister brings her pills and food through a small sliding window, an oddly enough wants her homework check, using a crayon. Wonderfully photographed, with a sensitive touch to lighting and composition the tale gets even spookier when a gothic wolf man enters the picture.

The Late Mister Cubicle – writer/animator: Franz Keller

This animated 3 minute bit, takes us into the very familiar world of the office environment, the Mister Cubicle spends long hours in front of his PC. Overcome with fatigue, he slips into a dream state where the fast paced chase ensues. Accompanied with groovy electronic music, the Mister Cubicle embarks on one of the all too familiar dreams of mortal danger as he is being pursued by a knife wielding maniac. Fast paced animation, similar to the Power Puff Girls, but with a stronger color palette, The Late Mister Cubicle takes us into the pit traps of burning the midnight oil.

My Day At the Beach – writer/director: Andy Messersmith

Perhaps one of the least technical and artistic films in the bunch, yet its calm and subtle story line makes is one of the more potent shorts within the evenings program. A young couple is out on a days outing in a warm soothing tropical south pacific island. Messersmith carefully sets us up for the coup de grace by allowing us to follow the young couple in love, on there day at the beach. A disturbing quiet tone permeates as the couples settles on the sandy beach, engage in small talk while the waves flap on the shore and beachgoers mill about. Yet when a confession of unfaithfulness is made the quiet calm foundation is abruptly interrupted in a single act of rage. The contrast is elevated when everyone goes home after a pleasant day in the sun.

Pizza Guy – writer/director: Annie Symmons, Cindy Merrill

What happens when two bimbo’s order pizza and the pizza man ends up getting killed? Touching on the shenanigans of a Lucy and Ethel routine, two college roommates order out for pizza, as they get ready for an evening of movies, pizza and BJ’s. While they settle in Lizzy’s roommate begins to eat her pizza, when she notices blood on her slice. It turns out Lizzy killed the pizza guy with her car, “where’s the body?” “In front of the car.” In comedic fashion they drag and plop the body on the couch, “wow, he’s cute” which prompts them to change into more reveling nightclub attire. The zaniness is supported by a closet homosexual and two cops who knock at the door in response to a gun shot in the area. The female partner gets annoyed as her male counterpart openly flirts with the girls. Pizza Guy seems to rely heavily on sit-com situations and the use of props, that in many ways works well, is amusing and adds to the notion of……….pizza and girls just don’t mix.

Diary of a User – writer/director: Mcdaniel

Relying heavily on spoken word, poetry, photography and a brilliant Miles Davis track, Diary of a User, “is a story of many things but what it aint’t is joy” this 4 minute solemn confession of one persons battle with drugs is a fittingly portrait of the struggle within urban life. Wonderfully photographed, with definitive exercises in perspective, the film comes across as a truthful and honest testament to the always common denominator that drug users share, hope.

Lost Utopia – writer/animator: Mizue

A visually pleasing motif of amoebas, cells, jellyfishes and millipedes, Lost Utopia creates a kaleidoscope of animated motion and fluidity. Its design elements flow in a sea of turquoise, blues and reds while moving around to another instrumental jazz number. While the message of the film, this reviewer didn’t get, if there was one, was partially lost because the visuals were so stimulating, it was easy to get lost in this organic 5 minute animated universe.

Vanished Acres – writer/director Adam Bolt

2nd to the longest short of the evening is the half hour story of a farmer living his meager existence on an isolated farm. Our story begins with a series of family photos, common household items, still lifes bathed in a dark light, that represent the pivotal characters and their dark family secrets. For Jerod Gerot, his solitary life is disturbingly interrupted when he stumbles upon letters written by his now, deceased wife. A flood of emotions, rain down on Gerot, as he learns that his wife had an extra marital affair, he turns to his only companion a scarecrow for answers. Unveiling that Gerot spent many years neglecting his wife and was unable to give the love that she needed, she turned her emotions and longing onto his scarecrow. Vanished Acres, having one of the more developed characters, within the set of shorts, takes us through shades of melancholy, sadness, and heartache as an elderly man has to deal with his indifferent past.

Strangely Inappropriate Guy – writer/director Paul Bartholomew

Now in the shortest, short of the evening clocking in at a humorously 2 minutes is, the goof ball shenanigans of a Strangely Inappropriate Guy. This is a fun take on coworkers, emotional response to some very bizarre yet entertaining behavior from a fellow office worker. A quirky dance at the copying machine, genitals on the desk, and an absurd robotic sexual number are just some of the off beat and seemingly spontaneous office humor of a Strangely Inappropriate Guy. Now if we could only have more characters like this in our daily office world that would make things rather interesting.

Radio – writer/director Jeffrey L. Gangwisch

Before the advent of the modern television, in a bygone era, the radio was the main source of media to connect us to the events that shaped our society, outside the living rooms of millions of Americans before the 1930’s. In a seemingly improvised setting, we are taken into the studio of a live radio program and all of its players on the microphone. Shot appropriately in black and white, Radio adds to the nostalgia of radio programming, as we see the unfolding and escalating drama, in a story of love and betrayal. In between segments of commercially endorsed products are added to the mix, taking and reminding us of an era where, the elements of society came between two dials.

20Q – writer/director Benjamin Keith

In an age where documentary films are progressively entering the mainstream and the mockumentary are increasingly poking fun at such serious film endeavors. 20Q tinkers with the all popular game of twenty questions, by creating a fictitious tournament in a small middle of American town. In this imaginary amusing world, our host of the game show takes us on the logistics of organizing the contest, which is heralded as a star studded event. Of course no contest is complete without its contestants, and a small yet zany group they are. First we begin with Lolita Dorchuck whose family origins can be traced all the way to Rasputin, an African American hair stylist with the fake weaves, and then there is the prodigal bratty child star, all are given their share of what the contest means to them, in candid interviews. 20Q is an amusing frolic, with a wide range of goofy characters; it in many ways reminds me of segments of The Office coupled with a little Borat, all in all a good time.

Rowan Harrison

THE NEW YORK JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL

New York Jewish Film Festival
By: Marleah Martin

New York Jewish Film Festival Opening Night

Looking back on the film festivals I’ve attended, I’ve realized they’ve really run the gamut. On one end of the spectrum, there’s been the big, glossy ones (which do not always translate to being organized, and quite often can be impersonal). And on the other, there’s the smaller, more intimate festivals where there’s perhaps less glamour and hype but quality programming nonetheless (which to me, is what it’s really all about), not to mention the opportunity to speak one-on-one with people associated with the festival- a perk I’ve learned is invaluable.
And so, as I was on my to the Walter Reade Theater to attend the opening night of the New York Jewish Film Festival, I was curious as to how it would compare.

I was aware that the NYJFF, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum, was well-known and highly respected. But beyond this, I knew little about it and could only project what the atmosphere might be like. I doubted that despite it being a larger event that it would be a flashy to-do (I was heading to a theater in Lincoln Center- a cultural institution that without question has a considerably dignified air); I imagined a more subdued feel. However, given the NYJFF’s established reputation, it was going to draw a sizable audience and with all the hustle and bustle that could go hand-in-hand with that, I questioned whether I’d actually be able to pin anybody down as one usually can in the mellow environment often found at smaller festivals.

What I did sense soon after my arrival was that although there was high attendance, this was a well-oiled machine, and I had no problem checking in or touching base with my press contact. Additionally, it was managed by an incredibly helpful group of people; everyone I spoke to was very accommodating in directing me to whomever I needed to speak to. This continued at the post-screening reception, where the audience enjoyed complimentary hors d'œuvres and wine, and I had the occasion to speak to a few of the big players- among them Rachel Chanoff, an Independent Curator on the selection committee and Aviva Weintraub, Festival Director. Their time, enthusiasm, and well-thought out answers to my questions were appreciated, as it was clear they had a good deal of responsibility that night.

Press contacts Anne Scher and Alex Wittenberg were quite impressive in their swift delivery of screeners of films I was interested in reviewing but would not be able to see at the theater.
As far as the festival ambience- yes, it was perhaps more high-brow and low-key than others I’ve attended. Still, this doesn’t equate with stuffiness and elitism; there was no attitude, no snobbery. What was present at this festival was a sort of refinement and a sense of pride, certainly in some measure due to it attracting a more mature audience who were there for a celebration of the Jewish experience as reflected in the cinema- not a glitzy, MTV-style affair- and who knew they could count on the NYJFF, now in its 17th year, to deliver. Given that, it goes without saying that the festival would have been a bit out-of-step in its tone were it to enlist the “hey how’s everyone doing tonight? I can’t HEAR yooooouuuu!!!” routine (followed by schwag being flung haphazardly into the crowd), and was more suited towards modest introductions and its classy after-party.

The feature film screened was A Hebrew Lesson, by David Ofek, Elinor Kowarsky and Ron Rotem. Following the screening was a brief Q&A with Elinor Kowarsky, a sweet, soft-spoken woman who was commended for her work on the film.

A Hebrew Lesson- David Ofek:

Following newly arrived immigrants to Israel in an intensive language class, A Hebrew Lesson is a touching film about a multicultural group of students learning to adapt to a new culture. Beyond learning Hebrew, they learn about the Jewish state as well- and these lessons, coupled with those they learn from daily life, facilitate the process of them shaping their opinions on how they feel about and approach living in Israel.

The opening scenes immediately promise, at the very least, a charming central character. We’re introduced to Yoela, a dynamo of an instructor with a big heart. Her early interactions with the students are high-spirited and often amusing, as she gains their confidence through lively banter and a genuine interest in their lives. However, it isn’t long before the focus widens to include a select few of the students in the class. Their stories are compelling, as they slowly come into their own and open up about their back stories, their reasons for coming to Israel and their personal takes on being immigrants in a land poles apart from their own.

All are confronted with some sort of difficulty- Sasha is there in an attempt to gain custody of his daughter. Dong Dong is affected by the poor conditions for Chinese workers she documents for her film. Annabel moved there for love and feels uncomfortably dependent on her fiancée. Marisol is unexpectedly pregnant by an unsupportive boyfriend. Even Chin, who possesses a calm, cheerful exterior, and seemingly has hit the jackpot in the game of life by marrying a wealthy former employer who adores her, struggles with the sorrow of not having her daughter with her in Israel.

Though 123 minutes long, for the most part the film avoids lags by keeping scenes brief, quickly cutting back and forth from the students’ life experiences to the focal point- the classroom- and the two worlds become interwoven, each continuously impacting the other. Sometimes it’s uplifting- Chin’s repartee with her husband who doesn’t seem to fully understand the language himself is one of the more comical scenes, and the compassion classmates express towards other allows one to love these captivating people even more. Other moments are straight up tear-jerkers; sometimes the baggage proves to be too much to check at the door, spilling over into the classroom and making the learning process of a language that’s already challenging to master all the more frustrating.

To be sure, A Hebrew Lesson is a classic cinematic example of the cliche “when bad things happen to good people”. By capitalizing on this detail (there was a hand in bringing that many engrossing stories into one room - the class was carefully assembled based on interviews with prospective students and teachers), the film brings on the tragic, tugging on the heartstrings and gaining personal investment in its subjects. But what the filmmakers could probably not have predicted (and where they probably got lucky) is the amount of resilience this group exhibits when faced with overwhelming adversity. And that perseverance to overcome obstacles is by far the strongest quality of A Hebrew Lesson’s strongest point- its characters.


Praying With Lior- Ilana Trachtman

“Somehow he turned the learning into a dance instead of a struggle”. That’s what one interviewee in Ilana Trachtman’s touching feature film had to say about its subject, Lior Liebling. Lior is a remarkable boy with resilient devotion to his faith, and who is often looked to by others in his community as a source of inspiration. He also has Down syndrome. Yet despite his limitations, more often than not he embraces the challenges he meets with resolve and enthusiasm.

In the weeks preceding Lior’s Bar Mitzvah, we become acquainted with this affable, animated kid as he goes through the process of preparing for one of the most important moments of his life. His relationships with his family, classmates and community are explored- especially his bond with the spirit of his mother, which is ever-present since her passing several years prior. In getting to know Lior’s family, we see a wide range of mixed emotions- there is pride, there is embarrassment. There is confidence in Lior, there is worry. Through these varying points of view, the film deftly shifts between lighthearted laugh-out-loud moments and snippets of daily life, to scenes that are decidedly more somber in tone. The rollercoaster ride illustrates the family’s highs and lows, and that there’s no oversimplifying Lior and the complex circumstances surrounding him.

But though the direction is on point, at the heart of it all is Lior himself- who holds our interest throughout with a modus operandi all his own. What’s especially intriguing is how he demonstrates certain attributes many of us often lack. One can’t help but take note of his self-confidence (with conviction he sincerely proclaims he is not nervous at all about his Bar Mitzvah), intense focus when davening (praying), expressiveness (his father Mordechai states “Lior has fewer veils between him and God”), and abundance of compassion. Lior even surprises us at times by his insight when in casual conversation he shows a palpable understanding of his relationship with the intangible- his mother, and God.

It’s no wonder that members of his community are often profoundly affected by Lior. Here is a boy who innately possesses a spiritual devotion and emotional freedom they continually strive for (the idea for the film itself came after Trachtman’s initial encounter with Lior when she witnessed his extraordinary commitment to prayer). Mordecai, though proud of his son, even expresses concern that some people may project too much on him. No doubt this is magnified by the fact that these qualities, recognized early on, have had a great deal attention drawn to them- so much perhaps that it causes people to have skewed perceptions of Lior and have overly high expectations.

And yet, here is a film that clearly highlights those very attributes that serve to boost Lior into that role model status- that may be above and beyond what those close to him deem appropriate. Even his flaws are presented in such a way that they make him seem that much more endearing, human and relatable. There’s no argument that putting Lior’s abilities front and center is what makes the film shine; he is rightfully portrayed as an inspiration. And yet it’s worth noting that given the film’s effective blend of humor and emotional weight, coupled with a main character you can’t help but love- if there’s any apprehension of Lior being subjected to borderline hero worship, the film might be too good at what it does. It’s a bit of a catch-22. Nonetheless, the film is a powerful and necessary reminder that the common assumption of the mentally challenged being incapable of making meaningful contributions to society is a wholly inaccurate one. Hopefully, the general public will recognize that while they may understandably aspire to his level of spiritual fulfillment, at the same time it’s important to keep a balanced perspective. As Mordecai puts it, Lior should not be viewed as a “conscious spiritual teacher”, but rather, “a lovable child” with beautiful qualities we can perhaps all learn from.

Following the screening was a Q&A with Ilana Trachtman, Mordechai Liebling and Lior’s stepmother Lynne Iser. It started as a fairly typical session with standard questions regarding distribution (it’s been picked up by First Run Features and opens at Cinema Village on 2/1), Trachtman’s inspiration for the film, and what her future plans are. One issue worthy of note was Trachtman’s struggle to get the film picked up- she was told on more than one occasion that no one would want to see a film about a child with a disability, which in my opinion couldn’t be further from the truth, particularly a film as affecting and inspirational as this one.
Going forward, things got heated in the room before long; when one well-meaning audience member intended to pay a compliment to the parents, but used the word “mongoloid”- a term considered outdated and offensive- to refer to those with Down syndrome, it caused a real stir. In fact, the terminology proved too much for one incensed woman to bear, who a moment later expressed her deep aversion in a fiery tirade. At this point, the room was basically a pressure cooker. Fortunately, Iser managed to smooth things over and calm the room down by in effect saying we all can learn something from this experience.

I had hoped to speak to Iser a little more afterwards- and did have the chance to inquire as to how Lior has responded to this film. She was friendly enough, and her response was that he loves to watch it, but there didn’t seem to be time to get into more detail. Yet I suppose if I had been the one to have just diffused a discordant situation, I might want to hightail it out of there too. Even so, having Lior’s parents present for the Q&A to speak more about their family and the film was much appreciated.

Jerusalem is Proud to Present- Nitzan Gilady

The story of formidable efforts to host a World Pride parade and celebration in Jerusalem, the film documents the battle between the LGBT community attempting to host the event and the staunch religious groups who express strong resistance.

If Gilady’s intent was to present an impartial documentary that voiced the opinions of both sides here, it seems he’s taken on a nearly impossible task. On one side, you’ve got Open House for Pride and Tolerance, the LGBT organization based in Jerusalem that coordinates World Pride. They aim for a low-key affair; flagrant displays of flesh by thong-clad vogueing go-go boys or lesbians parading topless through the Holy City are firmly eschewed in favor of a more modest approach. The intent is to simply have one day to demonstrate gay pride by peacefully marching through the streets of the nation’s capital.

On the other side are those opposed to the march- the focus of the film mainly being on the Jewish Orthodox community. Deep religious convictions cause outrage at the notion of a pride march, and Open House is the target of- to put it mildly- great hostility. But what’s shocking is to see the lengths that the opposition- a faith-based group- will go to. Ethics are often abandoned, the tactics going beyond mere civic attempts to block World Pride and moving into the just plain hateful. Intimidation, humiliation, mockery and outrageous claims abound. Worse, it’s sickening to see the actual enjoyment many take in the abuse of those attempting to push World Pride through. Sadly, this even occurs in settings that are unquestionably inappropriate, such as City Council. Violent threats and a loosely-organized procession called the Beast Parade- too distasteful to elaborate on here- further bear out who’s really acting like beasts here. By virtue of the Orthodox community’s combative behavior and arguments bordering on the absurd (“of course [homosexuality] can be fixed with medication and with psychological help” is one of many brazenly stated, astoundingly out-of-touch assertions), it is out of the question for anyone with a shred of logical reasoning and human compassion to not sympathize with the LGBT community’s endeavors.

To be sure, some brilliant editing assists in effectively pointing out the holes in the logic of those representing the Orthodox community. Yet regardless, though one outrageous claim after another is paraded across the screen, it’s coming straight from their own mouths- Gilady’s just catching it on camera. One bit coming from a woman at an anti-World Pride pow-wow is so ludicrous, the audience erupted in fits of laughter- “HIV virus is going to climb by 30%....they have 500 partners every couple of years…they just grab people. They’ll grab youth”. Yep. Dead serious (even her peers seemed a little uncertain as to how to address this off-the-wall theory). You have to laugh, or you’d cry; the film really couldn’t invent material that wacky if it tried.
With all the stumbling blocks (the war in Lebanon throws a monkey wrench into the plans as well), it would be enough for anyone to throw in the towel. The members of Open House do in fact have their doubts, fears, and moments when they’re ready to call it quits. It’s heartbreaking to see these people- a truly likable, eclectic bunch- endure cruel treatment again and again. However, when all is said and done they’re a group of incredibly strong people who, united, manage to somehow pull through.

Is it tough to watch them get there? Yes. Is there a perfect ending? Unfortunately, no. But this is a doc, not fiction- in a film capturing a slice of life, one can rarely expect a fairy-tale ending. Still there’s marked feelings of triumphs and hope that we share with those living it. And so though it may not be the most comfortable 82 minutes to sit through, it’s nonetheless worthwhile; the subject matter is of high importance, the characters engaging and admirable, the editing tight and well-paced. Watch it in the spirit of the heroes- one of optimism- to get past the discomfort and frustration from how they are treated in order to fully appreciate the positive aspects of their experience- and the fine film that captures it all.

Marleah Martin