Wrapup Reviews From SFFILM 66

by on May 16, 2023

Geeta Gandbhir and Samantha Knowles’ documentary short “How We Get Free” admittedly falls into the “interesting people doing interesting things” documentary genre.  Yet what central subject Elisabeth Epps does ensures the people she helps won’t have their lives ruined by the Colorado criminal justice system.


Colorado’s cash bail system, in particular, happens to be the cause of this ruination.  If a defendant lacks sufficient personal financial resources to stay out of jail until their next court date, they’re imprisoned until the court system gets around to their case…however many weeks or even months it takes.   Colorado Freedom Funds, the organization Epps apparently runs by herself, smartly uses its limited funds to provide cash bail for such impoverished clients.


Cash bail may have started as a financial incentive to encourage accused people to return to court rather than fleeing to escape the court’s reach.  Epps’ outrage at seeing clients spend lots of prison time for minor infractions could conceivably be rebutted by saying incarceration discourages an arrested person from blowing off the charge because it’s a minor one.  Yet that consideration is outweighed by the greater injustice of personal circumstances forcing the arrested person to compromise their possible legal innocence.   An accused’s boss has little incentive to keep a defendant’s job open while the criminal justice system’s gears slowly grind on.  Copping a guilty plea thanks to the pressure of inability to afford bail feels equally unjust.


Gandbhir and Knowles’ short film partly follows Epps’ work to liberate several clients from their cages.  She may work with a client to get the bail amounts they need to raise reduced.   Providing support and transportation home for a client isn’t too much for someone who would otherwise be stuck spending Christmas Day in jail.


A 2015 Beyonce’s birthday celebration that went sour proves key to understanding Epps’ drive to do this work.  During the celebratory outing, Epps and friends saw the cops mistreating a kid having mental health issues.  Epps’ attempt to intervene led to her getting jailed and caged.  Despite the passage of a few years, the cops’ caging of people protesting the unjust death of George Floyd indicates the Denver police haven’t moved away much from their general role of enemy of social justice.


During the two year period covered by this film, Epps decides to run for a seat in the Colorado State Assembly.  This career move comes out of her realization that abolishing the cash bail system requires the type of systemic change made possible by gaining political power.  Whether other legislators can eventually be persuaded to sign on to Epps’ cause remains to be seen.



Adamu Chan’s mid-length film “What These Walls Can’t Hold” slaps back against entrenched socialized othering of the incarcerated or the formerly incarcerated.  More than a few law-abiding types may consider prison inmates solely as community outcasts whose welfare lies outside their sphere of concern.  Yet how the COVID pandemic struck California’s prison system would reaffirm John Donne’s famous sentiment that “no man is an island.”


Chan was a prisoner at San Quentin at the time COVID lockdowns began in California.  Sheltering in place might have seemed easier for the prisoners incarcerated in San Quentin as they already seemed to have a place to shelter in.  The California Department of Corrections officially claimed they had any COVID outbreak in their facilities under control.   However, prisoners such as Chan knew this was an utter lie.  Places such as San Quentin lacked the internal medical facilities to treat people who contracted COVID.  In fact, the measures correction authorities did take inadvertently helped spread the virus.


“What These Walls Can’t Hold” recounts how the prisoners, with the help of friends and family on the outside, organized in the face of such official callousness and neglect.  However, Chan’s treatment will turn off viewers who see politics and organizing as a species of civilian bloodsport.  There are no melodramatic clashes between prisoners and their official captors seen here.


Instead, a more humanistic form of organizing gets captured by Chan’s film.  It draws from the letters these prisoners sent and the phone calls they made to friends and loved ones on the outside to let them know what was really happening inside places like San Quentin.  That information helped such people as Chan’s dearest friend Isa fight on the prisoners’ behalf.


Prisons such as San Quentin may hold the physical bodies of the men sent there.  But as the film’s title suggests, what the prison’s walls can’t contain are prisoners’ abilities or desires to form a community through sharing their life stories.  Using the TV and film equipment at San Quentin’s media center provides one way for such sharing.  Another may be maintaining personal contacts with friends and loved ones.  Seeing footage of a crowd of friends and relatives excitedly greeting men released from San Quentin buoys viewers’ spirits and shows them the point of having such a community.


Chan’s film would argue that even a subject such as Lonnie deserves to have a community standing behind him.  Lonnie’s a prisoner who has been in San Quentin for 40 years.  Should serving such a sentence mean his only option is to build his community from scratch?


Mantas Kvedaravicius’ posthumous feature-length documentary “Mariupolis 2” might be called the opposite of conflict porn.  Flying bullets or building-flattening explosions never get foregrounded during the film’s running time.  Instead, Kvedaravicius focuses his film on small gestures of ordinariness that symbolize larger acts of defiance towards Russian military aggression on the titular city.


As the title implies, “Mariupolis 2” is a sequel to the director’s earlier documentary set in the same city.  But it doesn’t appear that watching the earlier film is necessary to appreciate Kvedaravicius’ last film.  (The director was killed by pro-Russian forces before the film’s Cannes premiere.)


The film’s footage was shot during March 2022, mere weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  Instead of wandering around Mariupolis, the film’s scope is limited to the area in  and around the Christian Baptist Evangelical Church.  Here, local residents hide in the church’s basement to take shelter from Russian shelling.  Yet how long can this church provide a sanctuary from the war?


Repeated shots of the church building’s exterior show that the edifice is generally unscathed.  Some windows have been broken or shot out, but the place of worship still stands.  However, whatever comfort might be provided by the church’s presence feels tempered by the fear that some Russian artillerymen may treat this sanctuary as a challenging target for their mortars.


Yet there are no Russian soldiers ever seen on screen.  Kvedaravicius isn’t interested in treating them as objects of fear or anger.  Instead, his film focuses on capturing the ways the ordinary Ukrainians who appear in the film live every day despite the devastation inflicted by Russian shelling.  Using scavenged supplies to make a huge pot of borscht in the backyard provides simple nutrition for body and soul.  The silence becomes a cherished phenomenon, as it indicates nothing aggressive is being launched or detonated.


Admittedly, some sympathetic viewers will still find Kverdaravicius’ cinematic immersion in the realities of these ordinary Ukrainian citizens’ lives a hard watch.  The vignettes recorded by the director lack either narrative or story.  This is not a film for viewers who prefer their cinematic immersions in reality to be overtly mediated by offscreen narration.  But for viewers willing to stretch their empathy and imagination, Kverdaravicius’ film allows a closer emotional connection to the lives of the people captured on screen.  Whether it’s mourning a not-quite-paid-for house flattened by Russian shells or sharing a slight sense of security from the locking of a gate that would not keep out determined Russian soldiers, the film’s images discourage a dispassionate response to the events captured.

“Mariupolis 2” is ultimately not a chronicle of any particular individual subject’s fate.  It should be considered a collective portrait of a people trying their best to survive another day until a better future arrives.



“Stone Turtle,” the title of Woo Ming Jin’s FIPRESCI-winning drama, takes place on an island whose true nature is in dispute.  To the more traditionally-minded, its central mythos involves a male turtle that was turned to stone.  For the non-traditional women who call the island home, they live on land shaped like a pregnant sleeping woman.


That disagreement over the nature of this island could also extend to characterizing the nature of the story Woo is telling.  Is this a revenge tale?  Is this a story of rebellion against the patriarchy?  Could it be a time-traveling tale of redemption?  Woo’s film provides evidence for each of these interpretations.


Refugee Zahara Anggi lives with a little girl named Nika and a small group of other women on the sparsely populated Turtle Stone Island.  To the island comes Samad, a man who claims to be studying the endangered sea turtles that lay eggs there.  Yet it soon becomes clear that Zahara and Samad have secrets and share a mysterious connection.


The films of Apichatpong Weersethakul provide a good aesthetic north star for assessing what Woo has done in this film.  The more fantastical elements of the story (e.g. a possible time loop, a hint of the supernatural) co-exist with more mundane elements (e.g. endangered species smuggling, Nika engrossed in the first G. Willow Wilson-scripted “Ms. Marvel” collection).  Yet unlike Weersethakul, violence also forms a significant part of Woo’s story.  An “honor killing” happens in “Stone Turtle”’s opening minutes, and this death is not an outlier in the film’s story.


However, Woo’s film doesn’t even try to follow in the footsteps of Hong Kong action film director John Woo.  The chief fascination of “Stone Turtle” comes not from its violence but from slowly unraveling the mysteries surrounding Zahara’s past.  Could her question about meeting Samad before be more than just an idle query?  What role does Zahara’s work in a fish market play in the story?


The process of answering these questions and others depends on Zahara’s increased willingness to face her sometimes ignominious history.  She knows the answers deep down yet she has strong incentives for not acknowledging them.  When Zahara says she prefers being a living person on an island of ghosts to being a ghost in the land of the living, it’s an admission of wanting to dodge the pain of confronting old traumas.


In a way, it doesn’t matter what sort of mechanism puts Zahara in a sort of time loop or why Samad suddenly sees his missing brother.  Woo calls back to Weersethakul by getting the viewer to accept that these mysterious events just happen and wanting to know “how” distracts viewers from the story’s heart.

Woo’s film eschews flashy visual effects in favor of delivering satisfying quirks both visual and character-based.  There’s a beach ritual that seems like a callback to the classic horror film “The Wicker Man.”  The legend of the stone island turtle is rendered in a charming bit of simple animation.  Despite the barriers posed by a different language and the level of Nika’s reading abilities, the little girl’s still able to understand the gist of “Ms. Marvel”’s first story arc.

But the most unusual character moment might be Zahara’s decision to save Samad from the quicksand pit he’s stepped into.  Given the refugee’s ultimate goal, this way of disposing of Samad would normally be expected to be as good as any other method.  Could this rescue be the first sign of Zahara’s fatigue at being stuck in a time loop?  Or is she starting to realize killing Samad is a mistake?  Woo leaves it up to the viewer to draw their conclusions about this and the other events depicted in this entertainingly enigmatic film.


(“What These Walls Can’t Hold” won the festival’s Golden Gate Award for Mid-Length Films.)

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