Reviews From Cinequest Film & Creativity Festival 2019

by on March 11, 2019

A house break-in with a personal connection inspired director Laura Somers to create the ensemble drama “Rich Kids.”  According to the director, while her parents were away from their Houston, Texas mansion, a group of poor neighborhood kids broke into the house and spent the day and evening having the time of their lives.  Somers’ drama came out of her imaginings of who these kids were and what happened during the break-in, based on the traces they left behind.

 

It’s a hot Labor Day, and very poor Latino teen Matias learns that the fenced-in mansion known in the barrio as Los Ricos is unoccupied.  Los Ricos is just one of the pricey houses in their otherwise poor neighborhood. These homes are owned by gentrifiers who lack an interest or desire to socially interact with their visibly poorer Latino neighbors aside from employing them as hired help.  Desiring a temporary escape from his current hardships, Matias decides to spend the day at Los Ricos living the life of a rich person. Girlfriend Vanessa, and their friends Steve, Carlos, Jasmin, and Isabel join in for a day of poolside antics and enjoying some normally unaffordable alcoholic drinks.  Yet the idyll away from the teens’ present economic and social difficulties can’t last forever.

 

Somers’ Latino and Afro-Latino teen ensemble start out seeming like stereotypes rather than fully fleshed characters.  There’s the poor but generally honest teen, the scholar, the angry put-upon kid, the bullying kid who’s also a small-time thief, the sexpot, and the shy girl.  But as the day and evening wear on, the teens start displaying unexpected and even intriguing sides to themselves. Sexpot Jasmin, for example, shows pride in her mother’s hardscrabble efforts to provide for her children.  Vanessa’s scholastic obsession conceals a darker personal reason for pursuing her studies.

 

            Aside from Carlos, who never quite rises above being a bullying sexist jerk, the teens’ motivations for spending Labor Day at Los Ricos range from hanging with friends to curiosity about living a materially different life they can barely imagine.  Matias in particular wants to see what it’s like living in a place where a proper bed and a working toilet are things taken for granted. Having been evicted with his family earlier in the day from the substandard motel room they occupied does wonders for pushing Matias into the “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” column.

 

            Yet even as Matias and Vanessa try on some of Los Ricos’ clothing or the teens help themselves to the mansion’s generous liquor cabinet, one emotion is missing from their behavior.  Contrary to what rich people such as Mitt Romney would have viewers believe, none of the teens ultimately envy or desire the privileged lives of Los Ricos or their neighbors. What they truly want becomes clear thanks to an unfortunate encounter with Los Ricos’ neighbor Darryl.  Somers fortunately doesn’t allow this incident to turn into a sentimental kumbaya moment.

 

But if the gentrifiers vs. barrio residents divide never really gets bridged or healed, by the time morning arrives quite a few members of this teen ensemble will know learn important things about themselves and their friends.  These characters’ emotional revelations, rather than an epatier les bourgeoisie impulse, make this cinematic house party one worth attending.

 

***

            Robert Budina’s delicate drama “A Shelter Among The Clouds” buries enigmatic moments in its quotidian realities.  It never answers whether its central character has been secretly touched by Allah. Yet that ambiguity and other not-quite-explained moments gives depth to its simple plot.

 

            In a mountainous village in the formerly Communist Albania, Besnik lives the life of a simple goatherd while taking care of his dying father Fadil.  The Muslim and Christian villagers co-exist peacefully. When the goatherd accidentally discovers Christian iconography on the mosque’s wall, the village’s harmony gets thrown into disarray.  At the same time, Fadil’s impending death brings siblings Alban and Fitore and their families back home. The siblings return to both pay their last respects and fight over ownership of the family home and (by implication) Besnik’s own future.  

 

To most of his relatives and the local villagers, Besnik appears to be mentally neurodivergent.  His lack of dialogue for the first five or so minutes of the film reinforces the idea that there’s nothing special about the goatherd.  The sight of the near middle-aged protagonist playing soccer with the far younger village boys also suggests something mentally different about him.  Even the local imam, supposedly one of the wiser men in the village, wonders what goes on inside Besnik’s head.

 

But the aforementioned unexplained moments will make the viewer wonder whether Besnik has a closer connection to his god than others suspect.  Did Allah protect the praying goatherd from being harassed by some of the village boys? How did Besnik know which particular crack in which mosque wall would uncover centuries-old Christian artwork?

 

Only the outsider art restorer Vilma sees Besnik’s unappreciated talents.  She recognizes the artistry displayed in his private wood carvings. The city woman supports Besnik’s willingness to share the mosque with the local Catholic population.  But though she displays an endearing playfulness and friendliness with the goatherd, Vilma’s relationship with Besnik thankfully never turns into sexual attraction. Instead, she appreciates his support for restoring the old iconography and making it accessible to the Catholics again.

 

Vilma’s attitude is certainly unique in Besnik’s village.  His openness is a rarity in a place where tradition has morphed from shortcuts for hacking daily life to over-protectiveness of the way things have supposedly always been.  Then again, most of the villagers are either old or children. Modern conveniences such as consumer electronics seem to be rarities or non-existent here.

 

Yet leaving the village is not an option for Besnik.  He’s clearly at home in the mountains, thanks to his familiarity with the ways of the area’s animal and plant life.  Curiosity about Alban’s or Fitore’s or even Vilma’s lives in the cities doesn’t burn inside him. In fact, the mental and emotional simplicity that Vilma admires in Besnik would be crushed by the complexities of urban life.

 

But Besnik’s simplicity of thought is better than the senile simple-mindedness of a Donald Trump.  The faithful goatherd displays a clear-eyed common sense freed of the blindness created by prejudice or selfishness.  By comparison, the objections Besnik encounters feel petty. “It hasn’t been done in centuries” comes across as a hollow rebuttal to Besnik’s proposal to let Catholics worship at the mosque.  Nor do differences in religious beliefs feel like a good reason for family members of different faiths to not share the same meal table. In a way, the film’s final images of Besnik metaphorically summarize his important role in the village.

  

Budina leaves it to the viewer to discern the meaning of the film’s title.  The titular shelter could refer to the quotidian life which provides a grounding for this goatherd with his head in the clouds.  It could metaphorically describe the mountain village being a concrete bastion of religious co-existence in a world which offers few examples of the idea in practice.   It could even allude to Besnik’s family home being a possible place for his relatives to set down roots in a world they seem to be drifting through. Whatever meaning the viewer chooses, Budina’s film is unambiguously a charming fable.

 

***

            The “Shorts Program 6–Docunation” may offer a generous program of 13 different short documentary films.  But a tighter selection process would have delivered a stronger program freed of cinematic dead weight.

 

            Current events make David Fried’s previously reviewed “Nazi VR” more than an interesting introductory look at the key role virtual reality technology played in the prosecution of a former Nazi death camp guard.  Audio clips of Donald Trump’s publicly unwelcome exculpation of the Charlottesville neo-Nazis and the alarming popularity of Germany’s far right AfD raise the disturbing unanswered question of whether VR will be eventually needed to prosecute present-day neo-Nazis.  

            The dead weight shorts begin with Paul Burke’s “Bones.” A New York City sculptor creates bones from old pieces of calcium carbonate.  However, the footage of the short’s subject at work is not matched by effective irony or even nominal insight into its subject’s art. Does the image of femininity embodied by “Swan Lake”’s titular bird get undermined or critiqued in Jean-Philippe Dorbin’s “Swan?”  Despite having its central figure being a drag ballerina from Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, the answer is a regretful “no.”

 

Thomas Beug’s titular “The Swimmer” claims the credit of being the first man to complete the Oceans Seven challenge, swimming the seven channels connected to the world’s oceans.  However, understanding or appreciating Stephen Redmond, the man who achieved this accomplishment generally escapes Beug’s cinematic grasp. A poem describing the sensation of swimming and some swimmer-cam footage don’t do enough to take the viewer inside the swimmer’s headspace.  Beug’s only insightful success comes in an extended final close-up capturing the West Cork swimmer’s look of indescribable bliss.

 

Horror and anger may be the only emotions generated by Panahbarkhoda Razee’s “The Spring They Didn’t See.”   But those reactions are enough for a short filled with images of corpses lying in an Arab village’s streets. Pictures of frequently discolored faces or faces contorted in agony haunt the viewer.  Learning that the cause of death was exposure to chemical weapons in the space of five minutes will spur viewers with a conscience to demand that such weapons never be used ever again. That demand will increase once the short identifies the attack’s unfortunately familiar mastermind.

The 80-year-old man who provides the voice-over for Jeneffa Soldatic’s “Super 80” has an accent which makes his words initially hard to understand.  But his feelings come through quite clearly, whether it’s joy at his long happy marriage or ruefulness at seeing his wife enter the hospital thanks to a serious illness.

 

Casey Beck’s talking heads short “Shades” stirs far more complicated emotions.  Why does the introduction of people of color emojis elicit different degrees of disappointment from actual people of color?  As the various interviewees explain, a simplistic understanding of racial depictions underlay these characters’ creation. Not conceiving of mixed race ancestry or employing a simplistic color palette undercut any claim of wokeness behind these emojis.  

 

But for a truly tangled look at racial and sexual issues, Gregory Scott Williams, Jr.’s “Project Chick” fits the bill.  Playwright Kim El was raised to believe that only bad people lived in Pittsburgh’s Addison Terrace housing projects. Feelings of finding a home in the projects clashed with such moments as El witnessing her mother about to be raped.  Add to this emotionally toxic brew El’s self-destructive attempts to keep a replacement father figure in her life and the result is someone seeking paths away from her emotionally damaged past. The filmmaker to his credit shows that handling such emotional burdens is never a simple or easy road.

 

            Found footage becomes a medium for denying the existence of long-standing family sexual trauma in Julie Buck’s disturbing “Double Exposed.”  The footage in question is roughly six miles’ worth of Super 8 home movie footage shot by Buck’s grandfather over thirty years. Decades-old footage of swimming parties and family vacations stop becoming sentimental kitsch once Buck reveals her grandfather’s dark sexual secret.  Footage showing an old family gathering double exposed over scenes of the 1960 Winter Olympics becomes a sinister metaphor for denial of sexual molestation.

 

Trauma from sexual harassment during military service is the subject of Melanie Brown’s autobiographical “Lion In A Box.”   Animation helps this powerful short capture how Brown’s boot camp life became a psychological hell once she refused to provide sexual favors to a drill instructor sergeant.  The sympathetic viewer will feel Brown did the right thing. But the psychological cost of avoiding being broken by continual performance of near-impossible tasks will make viewers wonder if they could muster Brown’s degree of courage.

 

            To meet somebody who directly fights back against societal sexual harassment, the viewer needs to turn to Laura Herrero Garvin’s rousing “Shout At Me!”  Central subject Melissa is a Mexican college student who deals with both cat-calling men outside her dorm and an over-concerned mother. But as a wrestler and a power lifter, the film’s subject doesn’t shrink from those who would make her feel less.  Her unapologetic defiance even in defeat shows she’s far more emotionally stronger than expected.

 

            Matthew Miller delivers an entertaining light-hearted valentine to a legendary French fashion designer in the fun “I Am Thinking Of Pierre Cardin.”  Animating old stock footage and images of Cardin’s famous fashions, the visually zippy short serves as both a mini-biography of the designer as well as a visual sampler of what Cardin thought would be forward-thinking fashion.  From this viewer’s perspective, though, the decades have not been kind to the innovations Cardin championed.

 

Equally delightful and also of local interest is Tyler Mc Pherron and Bradley Smith’s irreverent documentary short “49 Mile Scenic Drive.”  San Francisco residents will recognize the ubiquitous street sign referenced by the title. Mc Pherron and Smith cheerfully recalls how the sign marking a route highlighting San Francisco’s unique architecture and views came to be.  Viewers will love Rex May, the man who designed the iconic sign. They’ll also boo the city bureaucrats who attempted to replace May’s sign with a poorly designed knockoff. Thanks to Smith’s short, true San Franciscans will cherish May’s sign as one of the City’s unique treasures…provided somebody doesn’t steal it off a signpost.

 

(“Rich Kids” screens at 7:15 PM on March 13, 2019.  “A Shelter Among The Clouds” screens at 3:10 PM on March 16, 2019.  Both of these screenings take place at the Century Downtown 20 Redwood City (825 Middlefield Road, Redwood City).  “Shorts Program 6 – Docunation” screens at 2:10 PM on March 15, 2019 at 3Below (288 S. Second Street, San Jose). For further information about these films and to order advance tickets, go to www.cinequest.org .)

           

 

Matthew Miller delivers an entertaining light-hearted valentine to a legendary French fashion designer in the fun “I Am Thinking Of Pierre Cardin.”  Animating old stock footage and images of Cardin’s famous fashions, the visually zippy short serves as both a mini-biography of the designer as well as a visual sampler of what Cardin thought would be forward-thinking fashion.  From this viewer’s perspective, though, the decades have not been kind to the innovations Cardin championed.

 

Equally delightful and also of local interest is Tyler Mc Pherron and Bradley Smith’s irreverent documentary short “49 Mile Scenic Drive.”  San Francisco residents will recognize the ubiquitous street sign referenced by the title. Mc Pherron and Smith cheerfully recalls how the sign marking a route highlighting San Francisco’s unique architecture and views came to be.  Viewers will love Rex May, the man who designed the iconic sign. They’ll also boo the city bureaucrats who attempted to replace May’s sign with a poorly designed knockoff. Thanks to Smith’s short, true San Franciscans will cherish May’s sign as one of the City’s unique treasures…provided somebody doesn’t steal it off a signpost.

 

(“Rich Kids” screens at 7:15 PM on March 13, 2019.  “A Shelter Among The Clouds” screens at 3:10 PM on March 16, 2019.  Both of these screenings take place at the Century Downtown 20 Redwood City (825 Middlefield Road, Redwood City).  “Shorts Program 6 – Docunation” screens at 2:10 PM on March 15, 2019 at 3Below (288 S. Second Street, San Jose). For further information about these films and to order advance tickets, go to www.cinequest.org .)

 

Filed under: Arts & Entertainment

Translate »