Pasa picks Reviews of films not to be missed
ALL EYES AND EARS
If your knowledge of the state of Chinese-American relations is limited, jumping into All Eyes and Ears might feel like one of those dreams where you have to take your final high school history exam but you haven’t been to class all semester. We follow Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah, during his stint as U.S. Ambassador to China, as he travels with his adopted Chinese daughter Gracie to the land of her birth. Gracie, who was abandoned in a fruit market when she was two months old, narrates parts of the film from a recording booth in passages that show the seams of this strangely paced, confusing yet illuminating documentary. Chinese communism’s ties to commerce and authoritarian capitalism are explored, as are the history of oppression of the Tibetan people and the human rights abuses against Chinese citizens who engage in dissent. The film focuses on the legal advocate Chen Guangcheng, who has fought for the rights of mothers not to be forced to abort their female babies. (In China each family is limited to having one child, and boys are prized.) The tone of the documentary is oddly humorous, and the intersecting parts seem to be building to some surprise twist, but other than mentioning that the effortlessly charming Huntsman entered the 2012 presidential race after leaving his ambassador post, no twist is revealed. Still, All Eyes
and Ears is well worth its viewing-time for those interested in learning more about the topic, even if its lasting message is that China and the United States are at profound ideological odds, and our trade relationship is probably unsustainable. — Jennifer Levin Documentary, 90 minutes, not rated, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 15; 11 a.m. Friday, Oct. 16; Violet Crown, 3 chiles
For many years Peter Anton lived in a crumbling home in East Chicago with no heat and electricity. There, he quietly amassed a large collection of his paintings and drawings, portraits the selftaught artist, now in his eighties, made of passers-by while out on the streets. Filmmakers Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickenden spent eight years documenting the life of the irritable, funny, and charismatic Anton, an elderly “outsider” artist who retreated to the basement of his home when he was younger to avoid an overbearing mother — although there are other reasons, too, which we eventually learn.
The foul-smelling interior is crammed with artwork, books, trash, and other detritus, much of it decayed. But there the film crew
comes across Anton’s elaborate, illustrated autobiographical notebooks that he titled “Almost There,” and which they then try to have published. When that venture fails, they embark on a plan to exhibit Anton’s paintings at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago, but the wills of filmmakers and artist are tested. When his property is condemned, Anton, while preparing for his first major exhibit, is forced to leave the home he’s inhabited since the 1940s.
A scandal threatens to derail the Intuit exhibit when the truth surrounding his arrest in 1980 emerges. Anton’s shame surrounding the incident, more than anything else, drives him to retreat from the world. He is a man burdened by the weight of his secrets. Anton is living a wretched existence, but he accepts the help offered him, albeit on his own terms. He wants the world to hear his story and longs for forgiveness. His redemption through his art (even if it isn’t all that good) is an inspiration. Almost There avoids the hagiography that often accompanies artist documentaries and is an honest and satisfying portrait. — Michael Abatemarco Documentary, 93 minutes, not rated, 10:50 a.m. Friday, Oct. 16, Violet Crown, 3 chiles
BABUSHKAS OF CHERNOBYL After the meltdown of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986, a radioactive dead zone was established and it became illegal for the people who used to live in the area to return to their homes. In defiance of this, about 1,200 people went back, on foot. Over the years the men have died off, and now just a few hundred people, mostly women, are left to farm land and eat fish and game that have been declared deadly by the Ukrainian government. Babushkas of Chernobyl, a documentary co-directed by Holly Morris and Anne Bogart about some of the women subsisting in the region, is sad yet uplifting. It is illegal to live in the Exclusion Zone but the Ukrainian government still sends in doctors, scientists, and aid workers to provide the women with medical care, pension funds, and other services. The women, as isolated as they are in the forest, have been friends since childhood. They continue to get together to drink, sing, and recall their youth. Though one woman lacks a thyroid due to radiation-induced cancer and another complains of body pain, they are active and basically happy — attitudes that seem to be keeping them alive. The film also follows “stalkers,” Ukrainian youth who want to recreate the environment of a video game set in the Exclusion Zone, as well as ongoing efforts to contain the radioactive dust that has been blowing around Chernobyl for almost 30 years. — Jennifer Levin Documentary, 72 minutes, not rated, 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 16; 6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17; 12:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18th; Center for Contemporary Arts, 3.5 chiles
BREAKING A MONSTER Unlocking the Truth is a speed-metal trio made up of early-teen African-American boys. With the help of some very supportive parents, the young Brooklynites played around New York City before finally uploading a clip of themselves at the Times Square subway station to YouTube. Their performances defy expectations — not only do they prefer rock to rap in 2015, but as gangly and innocent-looking kids, they appear as if they should be balancing equations in the math club rather than shredding guitar solos on the street. They might be seen as a novelty if they weren’t immensely talented, possessing a high proficiency and a knowledge of every rock-star pose in the heavy-metal tome. If you saw them on the street or on YouTube, you’d probably stop and watch.
One person who did stop and watch was Alan Sacks, a showbiz lifer — he helped created the 1970s sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter — who felt they could become stars and came on as their manager. This job proved to involve babysitting as much as career guiding — in one scene, he cuts one of the boys off from drinking Coca-Cola— but he secured the lads a lucrative recording contract with Sony Records.
And then came the hard part. Watching these kids on YouTube is one thing; getting people to buy albums is another. The musicians play festivals such as South by Southwest and Coachella, but it’s hard to avoid selling them as a novelty. The kids reject marketing that makes them into cartoons and take vocal lessons, but nothing fully takes.
Luke Meyer’s documentary follows them around during this time, paying close attention to the boys’ relationship with Sacks as they slowly grow frustrated with one another. The band has thus far yielded a book and this movie — but no album. Rather than paint an upward trajectory, the arc of the film heads up before skidding sideways. That doesn’t always make for the most compelling cinema. Let’s hope these kids get a happy ending — but it will have to be in the sequel. — Robert Ker Documentary, 82 minutes, not rated, 6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17, Violet Crown
DOROTHEA LANGE: GRAB A HUNK OF LIGHTNING New Mexico-based filmmaker Dyanna Taylor’s documentary, a labor of love, originally aired last year as an episode of American
Masters for PBS. Taylor mines journals, letters, photographs, and rare archival footage to tell the story of the photographer behind
The Migrant Mother, a Depression-era image that’s become as iconic as any painting by Georgia O’Keeffe. Taylor, Lange’s granddaughter, narrates, revealing a portrait of Lange (1895-1965) as both private individual and professional photojournalist. A bout of polio in childhood left her with one foot permanently damaged, but she overcame her physical impairment to follow her passion for photography. Lange had two marriages: one to the painter Maynard Dixon and the second to the economist Paul Taylor, who figures prominently in the film. Her marriage to Taylor became a lasting endeavor that had an impact on both their careers.
As a photographer, Lange was motivated by compassion, covering westward migrations into California during the Dust Bowl. She photographed the nation’s working-class poor for the Farm Security Administration, and her images were among those intended to galvanize Congress to initiate relief programs for uprooted families. Lange’s work was wide in scope, and she put a human face on social injustices. She photographed interred Japanese-Americans during World War II, farm lands devastated by monumental dust storms on the Great Plains, and workers on strike, among other subjects. Lange achieved an intimacy with her photographs stemming from a work ethic that demanded she remain at a remove from her subjects, like a fly on the wall, a candid practice with lasting influence on photojournalism. Taylor brings poignancy to the narrative, particularly when Lange prepares for a major show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art during the last year of her life, an enterprise she wouldn’t live to see completed. — Michael Abatemarco Documentary, 90 minutes, not rated, 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 15, The Screen, 3 chiles
EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT
Colombian director Ciro Guerra’s film, a Cannes award-winner, is a mesmerizing adventure tale set in the Amazon rain forest. The film boasts outstanding black-and-white cinematography by David Gallego. The story follows two narratives, one set in the early 1900s and the other in the 1940s, and moves back and forth between them to follow the adventures of two men on parallel journeys, each searching for the rare yakruna, a flower with valuable healing properties.
Guerra and co-screenwriter Jacques Toulemonde Vidal based the screenplay on the early and mid-20th century journals of German explorer Theodor Koch-Grunberg (played by Jan Bijvoet) and American explorer Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis). The men are accompanied on their journeys by Karamakate, a shaman, played by Nilbio Torres as a young man and Antonio Bolivar when the character is older. Karamakate is nearly the last surviving member of his tribe. He is mistrustful of the white men and grieving over the loss of his own people and culture. The white men’s respective travels are an odyssey into Karamakate’s world, and he is the true protagonist of the story. Theodor, faced with a terminal illness, comes to depend upon the shaman’s knowledge of herbs in order to survive. In exchange, he agrees to help Karamakate find the remaining members of his tribe.
Through its nonlinear structure we see imperialism’s lasting effects on the rain forest and and how the rise of industry has led to loss of habitat and violence due to the rubber trade. Colonialism’s deleterious legacy is at the heart of the film, expressed most tellingly in a sequence set at a Spanish mission where native children, abandoned as a result of the rubber-plantation violence and abuses, are at the mercy of a cruel priest who whips them for speaking their own language.
Embrace of the Serpent calls attention to the tremendous loss of knowledge and culture in the Amazon but does so without pandering or being didactic. The film unfolds in dreamlike passages as it takes its sinuous route toward its conclusion. — Michael Abatemarco Drama, 125 minutes, not rated, in Spanish, German, Catalan, and Portuguese with subtitles, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17, Violet Crown; 3:15 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3.5 chiles.
FRAME BY FRAME
After years of oppression, photojournalists are flourishing in Afghanistan — but it is still a territory fraught with danger. This documentary by Alexandra Bombach and Mo Scarpelli is wonderfully told and photographed. The story of the fledgling free press is inspiring, but the journalists’ images and their subjects’ stories are more often sad than joyful.
Under the Taliban, which controlled Afghanistan beginning in 1996, taking a photograph was a crime. After the U.S. invaded in 2001, the Taliban lost Kabul and the journalistic revolution began. But now, with the foreign soldiers and media departed, Afghan journalists are on their own, operating in dangerous realms.
In one telling segment, Farzana Wahidy is filmed at a Herat hospital, talking to a doctor in authority. At first, he consents to her taking a few pictures in the burn ward. But when she asks about self-immolation victims — women who set fire to themselves to escape extremeley abusive relationships — he tells her to leave. One patient’s father-in-law talks every day with President Karzai, the doctor tells her. If Karzai finds out about this, “It means my life is in danger tonight.” Then he says there is a mullah in Herat who is also dangerous.
Wahidy tries to say she has to take some pictures to tell the news, and he simply says, “Go ahead. You can write news, but it should be about men.” She answers that that doesn’t make sense, because women are also part of society, at which point he says, “The cameras stop this very moment. That’s it.”
The other photojournalists the filmmakers follow are Wakil Kohsar, Massoud Hossaini, and Najibullah Musafer. Musafer is shown with a young woman student in a bright blue, bird-shaped pedal-boat floating by a carnival set in a desert sandscape. They’re taking pictures as Musafer talks about composition and beauty.
Kohsar is shown praying. “Taking a photo is not a simple job,” he says. “I cover culture, tradition, social problems, subjects that I feel deeply about in my heart, things that I’ve seen and felt.”
Photographs are so much a part of human life, but the Taliban would visit photo shops and tear up family photos and beat the photographers. The filmmakers alternate the presentation of such facts with gorgeous color photos of faces young and old, as well as war-maimed children. There are people captured in the distresses of war, in tears, and also beautiful, evocative photos of children, and addicts fixing over a little fire — all facets of life, the stuff of journalism.
We see Wahidy photographing women boxers training. “What I’m trying to do is focus deeper in the life of Afghan women, not just showing one side,” she says. “Photographing women is a very sensitive thing in Afghanistan. Most Afghans doesn’t like their wives to be photographed. ... It’s very important for me to be in Afghanistan now and to be photographing.” The journalist is so pretty, and she has such a great smile, but she is saddened explaining that she has no photographs from her childhood. They were all destroyed. So much happened in my life during the Taliban regime,” she says, holding back tears. “The first thing that was taken was my education.” She also was beaten, at thirteen, for not having her face covered.
Hossaini won a Pulitzer Prize for a photo he took after a bomb exploded at an annual religious event in 2011. As he recalls it, one phrase sounds like the journalist’s credo: When there is an explosion in the war zone, “Everyone’s running away and I’m running to that place.”
In another heart-wrenching spot, Wahidy is sitting with a woman who was married off at eleven, and from the first day was assaulted by her in-laws. She tells the journalist that her father-inlaw emptied a fuel container on her and lit her on fire. When she opened her eyes, she was in the hospital in Herat. The in-laws took her six-month-old daughter. As she explains that she has tried to find her and get her back, she is crying and so is Wahidy. At the end of the film, she says, “I want to use photography in a way to not be voiceless again.” — Paul Weideman Documentary, 85 minutes, not rated, English and Dari with subtitles, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 15, Jean Cocteau Cinema; 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17, Center for Contemporary Arts, 4 chiles
When fifteen-year-old Layla first arrives in London from Trinidad to live with her mother, she has outgrown her shabby, unfashionable clothing. One of the first things her mother says to her is that she can’t afford to buy her anything new, and soon after, she laughs at Layla for eating and tells her to clean up the dishes so she can go out. Layla (Jessica Sula) is prettier than her mother, prettier than the girls at school — who encourage her to shoplift new clothes — and prettier even than Beyoncé, whose face she uses as inspiration as she teaches herself to flirt in the mirror. It’s no surprise when she attracts the attention of more than one Brixton boy, but Layla is inexperienced, impressionable, and already damaged by too little love and too much neglect. Her new crowd is streetwise and jaded, quick to kick one another to the ground over perceived slights and sexual indiscretions.
The acting in Honeytrap feels effortless, similar to the raw energy of movies like Kids, and the setting is the same closed-off teenage world of gray rape, casual physical abuse, and petty and less-petty crime. The girls are desperate for the affections of boys whose highest priorities are smoking pot and playing video games. Layla is more devious than she’s willing to admit to herself, manipulating a boy who loves her to make a neighborhood rap star jealous, a decision with violent consequences she believes she is powerless to prevent. — Jennifer Levin Drama, 93 minutes, not rated, 3:45 p.m. Friday, Oct. 16, Violet Crown; 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17, Jean Cocteau Cinema, 3 chiles
HOW TO WIN AT CHECKERS (EVERY TIME) Josh Kim’s first feature is a coming-of-age drama set in a small town in Thailand, and observed through the eyes of eleven-yearold Oat (Ingkarat Damrongsakkul), an orphan being raised by his aunt (Vatanya Thamdee) and his adored older brother Ek (Thira Chutikul). Ek is the breadwinner, working as a bartender in a sex club owned by the local crime boss (Kowit Wattanakul), and facing the threat of conscription into the army at the upcoming annual draft lottery. Ek is in an open homosexual relationship with Jai (Arthur Navarat), a rich boy from the upscale side of town.
Though Oat and Ek do play checkers, and Oat buys a book that teaches him to beat his brother fair and square, the answer to the question implied in the title is plain: Cheat. Oat witnesses Jai’s family bribing his way out of the draft, and tries to do the same for his brother. But his naïve bumbling only makes things worse.
Kim deals in an appealingly straightforward fashion with Thai society’s easy acceptance of gay and transgender realities, while at the same time showing the sleazy side of that life when it is circumscribed by poverty and desperation. The story uses a framing device of the adult Oat (Toni Rakkaen), now a successful gangster who has learned how to win, waking from a recurring nightmare and looking down on the city from his luxury hotel room. It’s an unnecessary gimmick. The real strength of the picture is in the loving relationship between the two brothers, and especially Chutikul’s warm, moving performance as Ek. The film by Kim, who is Korean-American, has been chosen by Thailand as its submission to the 2016 Academy Awards. — Jonathan Richards Drama, 80 minutes, not rated, in Thai with subtitles, 1:45 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17, Violet Crown, 3 chiles
IN FOOTBALL WE TRUST
There are fewer 250,000 Samoans and Tongans living in the United States, yet they are 28 times more likely to play in the NFL than any other ethnic group. This “Polynesian pipeline”
to the NFL represents a glimmer of hope to young men and families in their underserved communities. It’s a little bit like basketball is to African-Americans or baseball to Latin Americans in similar communities: The odds of making it to the big time are great, but enough people have succeeded at it — most famous among Polynesian football players is former Pittsburgh Steeler Troy Polamalu — that it looks like a viable way out of a hopeless economic situation.
In Football We Trust is a documentary in the style of the iconic 1994 film Hoop Dreams. It follows several Polynesian teenagers in Salt Lake City as they attempt to achieve their goals of making the NFL. Harvey Langi, Fihi Kaufusi, and brothers Leva and Vita Bloomfield are the four players who finish up their high school careers while fielding scholarship offers, coping with injuries, fighting temptation from local gang life, and facing the possibility of taking part in a religious mission. They’re all winsome kids — the Bloomfield brothers have beaming smiles, good natures, and a teenage awkwardness that betrays their age.
Unfortunately, their stories are all compressed into a fairly brief running time. The football narratives quickly feel too much like subplots, crowding out the boys’ more interesting social and family lives. The Polynesian communities in Salt Lake City — brought there by Mormon missionaries going back more than 150 years — represent an intriguing world that few people know about, and the film is most fascinating when it explores this. The fact that we spend so much time watching people run around on a football field that could be anywhere is a shame. The production values are very strong, but the movie doesn’t stand out in a crowded field of sports documentaries. One hates to say this about someone else’s life story, but at least in film form, this is all ground that we’ve covered before. — Robert Ker Documentary , 87 minutes, not rated, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 15; 2 p.m. Friday, Oct. 16; Violet Crown, 2.5 chiles
The fascinating feature directorial debut by Jayro Bustamante is both colorful and visceral, the scenes bathed in the saturated hues of fabrics and landscape. It opens with seventeen-year-old Maria (María Mercedes Coroy), looking glum, having her hair fixed by her mother, Juana (María Telón). They go to a black place close to the active volcano that looms over their home and offer prayers. But first they drag a sow into a boar’s pen. “They don’t want to do it,” Maria says. Her mother’s response is to give the animals rum. We see Maria watching, and hear the sounds of pig sex.
Maria faces an arranged marriage to Ignacio (Justo Lorenzo), foreman of the coffee plantation on which her father works. But she is more interested in Pepe (Marvin Coroy), one of the coffeebean harvesters.
Selected as the Guatemalan entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards, Ixcanul (Volcano) is an intimate portrait of a people, Kaqchikel-speaking Mayans in Guatemala. Bustamante focuses on the mother and daughter — on their relationship and on the activities of women in the culture. Here they are, beating hay, carrying loads of firewood on their heads, slaughtering a pig, and praying on lava near the steaming volcano: “Thank you, earth, wind, water, volcano. Bless my daughter with a good marriage.”
Ignacio assures her parents that Maria will have everything she needs. Juana tells his parents, “Don’t worry, she’s a good cook. She planted the last coffee trees. Best harvest ever. Very good coffee.” Maria looks the opposite of happy.
As they pick coffee beans, Maria talks to Pepe, asking about the United States, where he wants to go. He says people in the U.S. have cars and big houses and the electricity works all the time. “What does the air smell like there?” she asks. “I don’t know.” “Here, the air smells of coffee. And of the volcano.” Later, when she asks her mother what’s behind the volcano, Juana says, “Cold weather.”
One night, outside a bar, Maria offers herself to Pepe, and they make love on the spot. Later he tells her how he will go to the other side of the volcano and walk to the U.S., adding, “Well, there is Mexico in between.”
“Are you taking me with you?” Maria asks.
Although Pepe assured her, during their lovemaking, that, “The first time, nothing happens,” the girl is now pregnant. Juana soon knows and tells her that when Ignacio finds out, her father will have to find work at another plantation and they will have to find another dwelling. They pay a visit to a “spiritual guide” who makes offerings to a dummy with a big cigar in its mouth.
Juana bathes Maria and tells her to massage her belly every day to bring the baby’s head in the right position. When the girl says she feels like the volcano, Juana tells her, “You have the light of life inside you. That makes you magical. You must lay your hands on the sick hens. You can heal them.”
An attempt by Maria to use that power to repel dangerous snakes in the fields sets off a dramatic sequence of events, including a funeral. — Paul Weideman Drama, 93 minutes, not rated, Kaqchikel with subtitles, 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 15, the Lensic, 3.5 chiles
This gritty, gritty dive into the miseries, joys, and dangers of life in a Native American homeless community is convincingly honest — shot in a documentary style — and not for the faint-hearted: There’s quite a bit of violence and lots of swearing. Seminole/Muscogee filmmaker Sterlin Harjo wrote and directed the 2015 film, named for its protagonist. It begins with snippets about his childhood community, now long abandoned, in Oklahoma. Everyone left when people started getting sick. The young Mekko had told his grandma that the water was bad and when the illness reached epidemic level just weeks later, she said he was an akkerrv, a seer.
We meet Mekko (played by Rod Rondeaux) as he is leaving prison. It’s the end of a 19-year sentence for killing his cousin during a drunken fight. “I thought about them every day,” we hear in his internal dialogue. “I thought about my cousin John. I thought about grandma. I thought about the words she spoke to us.”
The parolee gets himself three hot dogs with everything, and exults in flavors absent for so long. In an alley, he finds a black hat with a feather. It fits. He visits an Indian woman, his cousin, and tells her he’s a better man now, he just wants a chance. She answers, “We’re not family anymore, and none of my family wants anything to do with you.” That’s two ups and one down since his release. He walks the streets of Tulsa as we hear spooky, empty music. It’s night and someone seems to be following him. He turns several times, shouting, “What do you want?”
Mekko has a more positive encounter in a diner, where he relishes coffee and pie (one chocolate, one apple) and meets a waitress named Tafv (Sarah Podemski) who shows him kindness. Outside, he encounters a bad-mouthed homeless guy in a wheelchair. He buys him something to eat. The next morning, sirens cry through the street; the man has been murdered.
“Grandma says the sickness was brought by a witch,” he is thinking. “It’s because the people had stopped the ceremonies.”
Finding himself in a group of homeless “street chiefs” laughing and telling stories, he meets one he knows, Thomas “Bunnie” Smallhill (Wotko Long). They visit a bar, play some pool, then go into a movie-theater lobby, where Bunnie talks the employee out of some popcorn.
Life on the street is rough, but this is a community and people all try to help each other. But then there’s Bill (Zahn McClarnon), who we find in the homeless camp doing drugs and talking about witches. He says he has a warrior heart, and he expresses a particularly dark hostility to anyone who looks at him. Mekko and Bunnie confront him and later that night they’re attacked as they sleep.
That situation gets worse on several fronts before an eventual homecoming — and memories of grandma cooking and of her lessons about being good. — Paul Weideman Drama, 87 minutes, not rated, 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 16; 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17; Jean Cocteau Cinema, 3.5 chiles
Jessica Cox was born in 1983 without arms. In Right Footed ,a documentary about her life and activism directed by Nick Spark, the details of why she was born disabled are never discussed, nor are the body mechanics of how she learned to eat, write, drive, play piano, fold laundry, and do a multitude of other tasks with her feet. The focus instead is on Cox’s achievements, her marriage, her career as a motivational speaker, and her activism and advocacy. She has a black belt in tae kwon do and she is a licensed pilot. She travels all over the world on behalf of Handicap International and lobbies politicians about the humanity of disabled people, who in some countries are denied schooling and even birth certificates. While watching Cox fly an airplane solo for the first time is impressive, her interactions with children who share her disability are the true heart of the movie. She helps a little girl learn to swim, eats a meal with a shy boy in Ethiopia, and welcomes three adolescent girls from a summer camp she worked at to her wedding so they can imagine one day dating and finding love. Cox has a ready smile and the positive attitude so often lauded by able-bodied people who are inspired by the hardships of others, but just behind that is a steely resolve that you can’t help but feel is intrinsic to her character, regardless of her disability. — Jennifer Levin Documentary, 80 minutes, not rated,1 p.m. Friday, Oct. 16; 3:45 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18; Center for Contemporary Arts, 3 chiles
ROMEO IS BLEEDING
Donté Clark used to dream big. “I wanted to be the biggest drug dealer in the neighborhood,” he says, flashing a dazzling smile. Now his dreams are bigger, and his focus is on saving lives, not destroying them. When Molly Raynor, a white high school teacher so young that Clark remembers thinking she was a fellow student, recognized his talents for writing and performing, she coaxed him into her organization called RAW Talent, where he works with ghetto kids to tap their abilities and channel their frustrations into performance creativity. Clark, now in his midtwenties, and his students live in Richmond, California, where the ghetto neighborhoods of North and Central Richmond have been at war for as long as anyone can remember, like the Montagues and the Capulets. Clark became fascinated with the local parallels to Shakespeare’s tragedy of star-crossed lovers, and has worked with his kids to adapt Romeo and Juliet to reflect the war-zone circumstances of their lives. Boys who were alive at the beginning of this documentary are dead by the end, and though friends and family are devastated, no one is surprised. As they work toward the opening night of their production, the play is not the thing, the process is, and it harnesses the fierce talent and intelligence of the African-American kids who pursue a dream of something better. Director Jason Zeldes (an editor on the Oscar-winning 20 Feet From Stardom) brilliantly shapes the material, showing us the other America in which ghetto kids live and die with small hope of a way out, and the hunger with which some seize the opportunity to find an opening. As one young man says, “Some things you just can’t change. You can try, though.” Romeo Is Bleeding is a powerful cry of conscience, and a call to action. — Jonathan Richards Documentary, 93 minutes, not rated, 4 p.m. Friday, Oct. 16, Jean Cocteau Cinema; 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17, The Screen, 3.5 chiles
THE SEVENTH FIRE
Hope doesn’t show its face much in director Jack Pettibone Riccobono’s nonfiction film The Seventh Fire, which takes an uncompromising look at how a culture of gang violence, drugs, and gambling have laid waste to an Indian reservation in Minnesota. The title comes from an American Indian legend about seven prophets warning of things to come: first a rejection of culture and community and then the promise of the younger folks setting things right by leading the clan back to traditional ways.
The director chose two criminals for his protagonists. Rob Brown is the fortyish would-be writer who is heading to jail for the fifth time and trying to reflect on how his actions have hurt those around him. One of his protégés is the teenage Kevin, who is going to prison for the first time on a drug-related charge. These two and their friends are the type of people who set the dinner table with cocaine, heroin, and meth and down them with a six-pack of beer. Both men have impregnated their girlfriends before they head off to the Big House, and though they convey affable qualities on camera, it may be a challenge to empathize with their situation. They speak of their criminal deeds with a casual aloofness that suggests they do not understand the impact their actions have on others.
But there’s no denying the picture packs a punch in its depiction of people who have run down their last dead-end street. “One out of 10 every 10 years will make it out of here,” a sympathetic elder says referring to the reservation, which is framed in the film as a prison or war zone. The movie is less a documentary than an up-close look at a dying community that hasn’t the wherewithal to stop the destruction. Native American filmmaker and Santa Fean Chris Eyre served with actress Natalie Portman as executive producers on the film. — Robert Nott Documentary/drama, 78 minutes, not rated, 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 16, the Lensic, 3 chiles
SHE’S THE BEST THING IN IT
Mary Louise Wilson has been a professional Broadway actress for more than half a century. In 2007 she finally won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical (Grey Gardens). In this warmhearted documentary by director Ron Nyswaner (Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Philadelphia), we see Wilson’s Tony acceptance speech: “Do I deserve this? You bet!”
Recognition, though, came at a cost. The phone stopped ringing. Producers, Wilson says, figured her asking price had gone up. So the seventy-eight-year-old character actress headed south to her native New Orleans to try her hand at teaching acting at Tulane.
Much of this film focuses on that class, where the neophyte teacher draws on her distant experience in the legendary Sanford Meisner’s classes at New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre to help her connect with her young students. It’s slow going; for a while they seem baffled, and so does she. But eventually she breaks through, and the kids clearly seem to adore her. Some of them even learn something.
When we’re not in class, or visiting with Wilson and her older sister in New Orleans, the film inserts interviews with a stable of A-list talent, actresses like Frances McDormand, Estelle Parsons, and Tyne Daly, who discuss their approach to the craft. Wilson also talks us through an assortment of film clips that illustrate her points about acting. Most illuminating is a section on Meryl Streep, who Wilson hails as “the best actress living, period.”
The film doesn’t reveal a lot about the private Mary Louise Wilson. When the filmmaker asks about her short-lived marriage, she gives a bit, but then clams up: “I don’t want to say any more about that.” She’s an actress who believes in disappearing into her roles and keeping her own personality out of the spotlight. It’s comforting to check the record and find that Wilson has continued to find work on and off Broadway (most recently in On the Twentieth
Century) since her return from Tulane. — Jonathan Richards Documentary, 79 minutes, not rated, 1:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 15, Center for Contemporary Arts; 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18, Violet Crown, 3 chiles
Filmmaker Christopher Michael Roybal, a devotee of flamenco, profiled Albuquerque’s Yjastros troupe in 2010’s The Spanish Room. Five years later, after fire destroyed the studio and the group’s guitarist suffered a stroke, he offers another in-depth look. The heart of the film is its interviews with the dancers and film clips of stunning performances, including at El Farol.
In 1999, Joaquín Encinias founded Yjastros: The American Flamenco Repertory Company, a unit of the National Institute of Flamenco that was established seven years earlier by his mother, Eva Encinias-Sandoval.
A text panel informs us that Yjastros is the company in residence at the University of New Mexico’s department of theater and dance. Other panels say each Yjastros member dedicates over 500 hours per year rehearsing, and most also work at Tierra Adentro: The New Mexico School of Academics, Art and Artesania. “Yjastros are dancers, performers, but they’re also lifelong educators, sharing what it means to grow,” Encinias says.
His twin sister, Marisol Encinias, is principal dancer. “You never stop learning, and you never stop challenging your assumptions in learning an art,” she says in an interview, adding that flamenco “constantly challenges you to look deeper and to be more free and loose in how you see things, but to be focused and have discipline as you’re doing it.”
One of the younger dancers in Yjastros is Nevarez Encinias, Joaquín’s son. “One thing that’s so interesting about the makeup of the company,” he says, “is that the people who are here are because of matured life choices and a sort of sustained invitation of this really gnarly thing into their lives.”
The film hits a sad note when it recalls the October 2013 concert in Texas at which guitarist Ricardo Anglada suffered a paralyzing stroke. He was told he would never recover, including the ability to play the guitar, but when his family and friends heard that assessment, they raised the money needed to get him back to New Mexico. He walked out of an Albuquerque hospital after one month and set about working to regain his abilities. He performed with the company 13 months after the stroke.
In January 2015, the institute opened its new Conservatory of Flamenco Arts building at 1620 Central Ave., on the corner of Pine Street. In the final segment of the film, Anglada plays, beautifully. — Paul Weideman Documentary, 76 minutes, not rated, 3 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 15, Jean Cocteau Cinema, 3.5 chiles
SIR DOUG AND THE GENUINE TEXAS COSMIC GROOVE
“This is Doug Sahm and this is KOKE FM, the only place you’ll hear cosmic cowboys, West-Coast-freaky cowboys, and of course our own Austin cowboys, of which there are more all the time!” This groovy salutation comes halfway through the documentary
Sir Doug and the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove, illustrating the cosmology of musician friends and collaborators that Sahm cultivated in the heady 1970s Austin scene. Along with luminaries like Willie Nelson and Sahm’s bandmates Augie Meyers and Freddie Fender, Sahm changed the sound and style of Texas music, starting out with pop hits like “She’s About a Mover” in the ‘60s with the Sir Douglas Quintet, then achieving major success in the ‘90s with his Tex-Mex supergroup the Texas Tornados. The story of Sahm’s life and influence is told in this rollicking film, which boasts an impressive number of interviews from Sahm’s family members, cohorts, and admirers like Dr. John and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top.
Raised in San Antonio and influenced by the Western swing sounds of Bob Wills, along with Tejano music and the blues, Sahm was a steel guitar child prodigy, making his radio debut at age five as Little Doug. In his early twenties, inspired by the success of the British Invasion, he formed the Sir Douglas Quintet. The group’s name was chosen in an effort to pass them off as English — never mind Sahm’s signature Texas drawl, or that two of the band members were clearly Hispanic. The group soon found its singles climbing the charts, and appeared on TV’s Hullabaloo in 1965, playing against a castle backdrop in full mop-topped, besuited regalia. (Host Trini Lopez blew their cover after the performance, however, proudly outing them as fellow Texans.) Soon, Bob Dylan was publicly counting himself as a Sir Doug fan, and after a drug bust and some time spent in northern California, the Doug Sahm sound evolved into a more psychedelic form of Texas-inflected rock, which depended on the interplay between Augie Meyers’ Vox organ and Sahm’s rousing wildman vocals.
The film celebrates the sacred pursuit of “the groove,” a term Sahm applied not just to infectious music, but also to good food and beautiful women. The typical Behind the Music-esque setbacks that Sahm encounters along the way are, according to one of his sons, just examples of people “messing with the groove.” Sahm died in Taos in 1999, and given his status as one of the beloved greats of Texas music, this fizzy documentary is an overdue tribute to his laid-back genius. All hail Sir Doug! — Molly Boyle Documentary, 83 minutes, not rated, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 16; 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17; 10:30 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 18; Violet Crown, 4 chiles
SONGS MY BROTHERS TAUGHT ME
“Anything that runs wild has got something bad in them,” says the character Johnny Winters at the start of Chloé Zhao’s emotional family drama. “You want to leave some of that in there.” Johnny (John Reddy) is talking about breaking horses, but he may as well be speaking of himself. He dreams of leaving his home on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and starting fresh in Los Angeles. The world he would be leaving behind is one of quiet desperation. His recently deceased father, who Johnny never knew, left behind 25 children by nine different women. The walls of the house he shares with his single mother and younger sister are cracked and peeling. Johnny takes to a life of petty crime, dealing in contraband alcoholic beverages, banned on the reservation due to rampant alcoholism. The backdrop for this existence is the serene, windswept prairie captured in quiet, poetic moments by cinematographer Joshua James Richards.
Johhny is trying to save up some money to head West and be with his girlfriend Aurelia (Taysha Fuller) while eluding local gangs and tribal police. When his thirteen-year-old sister Jashaun (JaShaun St. John) overhears the news by listening to Johnny and Aurelia in conversation, she begins a search to understand more about her absent father. The relationship of brother and sister is explored with tenderness, and the performances from St. John and Reddy are strong. As he draws closer to his goal, Johnny is torn between a desire to escape from his deep-rooted heritage or to remain.
Songs My Brothers Taught Me is a heartbreaking film whose cast is composed primarily of nonprofessionals. It made a splash at
Sundance this year, where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. It was also nominated for a Golden Camera at Cannes. The feature is part of SFIFF’s Native film program, which screens the top Native films from international festivals. — Michael Abatemarco Drama, 98 minutes, not rated, 4:15 p.m. Friday, Oct. 16, Violet Crown; 6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17, Center for Contemporary Arts; 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18, Violet Crown, 3 chiles
THE STATE OF MARRIAGE
This June, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution guarantees the right to same-sex marriage. In the weeks leading up to the decision, countless people across social media expressed their support for marriage equality through hopeful words and rainbow-themed avatars. Following a 2012 election in which three states voted in favor of same-sex marriage, the decision had a feeling of inevitability, and the public support almost taken for granted. It’s easy to imagine that younger people, particularly those in left-leaning communities, couldn’t even conceive of a world in which this wasn’t the commonly held public opinion.
And yet, as older people know, this most certainly was not the case. Jeffrey Kaufman’s documentary The State of Marriage walks the entire movement back to what could be considered its ground zero: the 1999 Vermont Supreme Court case of Baker v. Vermont, which made the Green Mountain State the first to legally recognize same-sex civil unions, as the grassroots movement helped sway the opinion of politicians and the public.
At the heart of this movement were lawyers Mary Bonauto, Susan Murray, and Beth Robinson — three women who proved to be intelligent, articulate, dedicated, and charismatic enough for the task. These traits also make them superb documentary subjects; they are captivating and highly likable as they recount their story to audiences.
The story itself is surprisingly gripping, considering we all know the eventual outcome. Kaufman leads us through the many twists and turns of the movement, and the highs and lows experienced by the eventual victors. He also introduces us to the couples involved in the lawsuit and, to a small extent, also gives the opposition some camera time. He paints a full enough portrait that the film feels weighty, like something that belongs in a time capsule.
That doesn’t mean it’s strictly a historical document. One of the things that makes the documentary so fascinating is how recently it all took place. It’s incredible to think that just over 15 years ago, in what is arguably the most liberal state in the country, samesex civil unions were practically an unthinkable dream and met with incredible opposition. It is astonishing to consider that the movement — and, more important, public opinion — has come so far in so little time.
Kaufman does not stop the film with the 1999 Vermont Supreme Court decision, however. That ruling motivated the political opposition to strike back in powerful numbers, and made what could have been a happy ending for the left into the beginning of a much longer battle. This is perhaps the film’s most crucial suggestion — that all of those people who gave themselves rainbow-themed avatars in 2015 need to get out and vote in 2016. The fight for human rights and equality is one that never ends, but
The State of Marriage is an inspiring look at one major victory and several heroines worth remembering. — Robert Ker Documentary, 82 minutes, not rated, 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 17, Violet Crown; 1:15 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18, Center for Contemporary Arts, 4 chiles
THERAPY FOR A VAMPIRE
What makes Austrian director/writer David Rühm’s horror comedy Therapy for a Vampire work is not the picture’s wry one-liners about the undead (“Life’s lost its bite,” a depressed vampire says at one point), but rather its emphasis on characters searching for an identity that they and others will embrace.
It is Vienna, 1932. Lucy (Cornelia Ivancan) is the sad-faced waitress looking to fulfill her artist boyfriend Viktor’s fantasies — like wearing a dress, dyeing her hair blond and maybe smiling once in a while. She inadvertently finds a chance to define herself when she meets the mysterious Count Közsnöm, played by Tobias Moretti. The blood-drinking count is downright suicidal, fed up with his needy vampire wife (Jeanette Hain) and in serious need of psychological help. Enter Sigmund Freud (Karl Fischer), who agrees to take on the count as a patient for a hefty price. Meanwhile the count’s wife, seeking self-reflection, hires Viktor (Dominic Oley) to paint her portrait, as she has never seen what she looks like (vampires do not cast images in mirrors, remember). Therapy for
a Vampire leads its four main characters through a labyrinth of bloodlust and love as they each seek to find themselves in very different ways. As the two vampire characters tire of their lifestyle, Lucy is smitten with the idea of living forever and flying, which leads to the expected complications and some fun special effects. It’s an often sharp and amusing tale, but it never quite shifts into full throttle to take off on all cylinders — or wings, in this case. — Robert Nott Horror/comedy, 87 minutes, not rated, 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17, Center for Contemporary Arts, 2.5 chiles
THEY LOOK LIKE PEOPLE
There is a moment in They Look Like People when the protagonist Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) says he doesn’t think he’s schizophrenic. But the film he’s in is not so sure. He hears voices, suffers nightmares in which loved ones shape-shift into frightening creatures, and gets mysterious phone calls in the middle of the night imploring him to be vigilant because “they” are everywhere. Writer/director Perry Blackshear infuses his first feature-length film with ambiguity, contrasting the intimate human relationships of Wyatt’s friends with the severity of his delusions. Wyatt believes evil beings are possessing the souls of people in a plot to take over the world.
Despite its thriller-like overtones, They Look Like People is a subtle, observant, character-driven psychological drama with convincing performances from its lead cast. Blackshear has an ear for genuine dialogue. The intensity builds slowly, as most attention is focused on Wyatt and Christian (Evan Dumouchel), a lifelong friend who takes him in. It’s the normalcy of their exchanges that throws Wyatt’s dilemma into sharp relief. He lives with a burden he knows is irrational. He suspects that Christian’s love interest Mara (Margaret Ying Drake) is his enemy, that New York is the setting for an imminent battle between good and evil, and that he is one of few individuals blessed with special knowledge. Wyatt sneaks into the basement while Christian is at work to outfit it as bunker, stockpiling axes and modified power tools to use as weapons during the coming fray. He’s motivated by a desire to save his friend, but his actions could have murderous consequences. They
Look Like People is about loyalty, trust, friendship, and the lengths people will go to to save a loved one, even if they don’t know they need saving. — Michael Abatemarco Thriller, 80 minutes, not rated, 9:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 16, Jean Cocteau Cinema; 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18, Violet Crown, 3 chiles
WELCOME TO LEITH
If you’re looking for a good horror movie this year, then you could do a lot worse than Welcome to Leith, a documentary about a minuscule town in North Dakota that gets severely disrupted when infamous white supremacist Craig Cobb begins to buy up property. At first, the locals think nothing of it — they don’t even know who he is, and some of them are so sheltered from the outside world that they don’t even know what the “white power” movement is.
They figure it out quickly enough, however, when he begins inviting likeminded people to take up residence, with the intent of legally voting themselves into office and making the town their own little Aryan Utopia. As they bring their scheme closer to fruition, they grow more and more threatening, eventually strolling the streets with loaded weapons, looking to goad the locals into all-out conflict.
Directors Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker frame it as a thriller — taking a back seat to the action, opting against narration, and keeping talking-head opining to a minimum. They slowly increase the volume on a moody score, helping to escalate the sense of dread as tensions rise between the two factions. The town itself is a small patch of homes and trees in the middle of a vast landscape of empty beauty — not unlike many small towns in New Mexico — and in the movie, Leith seems to be perpetually in autumn or winter, with skeletal trees and sunken-in buildings adding to the creepiness. Cobb stalks this landscape almost like the shark in Jaws; he’s always a threat and whenever he appears, chaos seems to reign.
The town is populated by fewer than 30 people, so the film gives you a fairly good sense of everyone there — a generally likable mix of lifers and folks who wandered in, partly to be near the jobs created by the oil industry and partly to escape something in their past. It’s very interesting to watch them band together to force out a threat that they never asked for. One of the weapons that both sides use is information; through cameras and the internet, they dig up each other’s pasts and record each other’s daily actions. Cobb understands the power of information — understandable, as he’s publicly known as a terrible person — which makes it more incredible that he allowed Nichols’ and Walker’s cameras into his life. — Robert Ker Documentary, 85 minutes, not rated, 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3.5 chiles
All Eyes and Ears
Babushkas of Chernobyl
Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning
Breaking a Monster
Embrace of the Serpent
How to Win at Checkers (Every Time)
Frame by Frame
She’s the Best Thing in It
Romeo Is Bleeding
Sir Doug and the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove
Songs My Brothers Taught Me
Welcome to Leith
They Look Like People