[25 March 2009]
The 11th Annual D.C. Independent Film Festival (4-15 March 2009) featured movies of all types, with potential appeals to multiple audiences. The range is at once exciting and daunting. On the first Saturday, I saw some 15 films, surviving on popcorn and a gallon of Diet Coke, bleary-eyed from taking notes by the light of my cell phone. By the time it was over, I had seen 35—a rewarding whirlwind of innovative ideas and images.
The opening night’s theme was “Give Peace a Chance.” The films included The Day After Peace, a David and Goliath story documenting director Jeremy Gilley’s 10-year effort to establish “an annual day of global ceasefire and non-violence with a fixed calendar date.” Gilley introduced the film, the recipient of the DCIFF’s 2009 Visionary Award, to a surprisingly small crowd.
The film opens on Gilley showing an earlier version to the League of Arab Nations, a version that indicated his effort had resulted in a unanimous U.N. resolution in 2001, naming September 21st “Peace Day.” A public ceremony and press conference in New York City, for which Kofi Annan would ring a huge “Peace Bell,” was scheduled for 9am on September 11, 2001. The ceremony that was supposed to be captured on film quickly unravels, replaced by panic, confusion, and thick irony.
The remainder of the film is as much a commentary on the weight of celebrity endorsements and Gilley’s concerns over selling out to corporate sponsorship as it is about the political and humanitarian machinations behind the ceasefire effort. The film cuts back and forth between Gilley’s meetings with Coca Cola executives, Jude Law, and Roshan Khadivi from UNICEF Afghanistan. The film closes with his success, born of a sort of perfect storm of financial backing, publicity, and agreements to humanitarian aid.
Another sort of grass roots activism is showcased in Chris Taylor’s frankly inspiring Food Fight, which chronicles the development of local organic food movements. It was shown with A Bakery Story, a narrative short that even director Matt Bizer admitted had nothing to do with food, except that it takes place in a bakery. Still, there was a huge turnout for the session that showcased these films—a session titled “Food, Glorious Food.” This was also the case for the session called “Senior Moments,” which featured the Audience Award winner for Best Short, Beautiful Hills of Brooklyn, based on the play by local author Ellen Cassedy and starring Joanna Merlin. My personal favorite from this session was Old Days, a cute and comic narrative short about a 74-year-old widow who begrudgingly moves into a retirement community and struggles to find her place as the new girl; think: Mean Girls with septuagenarians.
The afternoon sessions included Stirring Water, a “modern travelogue” examining the brutal poverty of Haiti, as well as The Ville, which looks at racism, poverty, and fear in North St. Louis, with alternating perspectives narrated by an elderly black woman and a young black man. But the clear highlight of the afternoon was BYRD: The Life and Tragic Death of James Byrd, Jr., a stunning documentary about his 1998 murder in Jasper, Texas. Byrd was walking home alone one night when three white men picked him up, then dragged him to death behind their truck. The film recalls Byrd’s life through interviews with his friends and children, and also analyzes the media coverage and law enforcement response to the crime, drawing some startling conclusions. Among these is activist Dick Gregory’s suggestion that the astonishingly quick arrest of the three white suspects (they were arrested eight hours after the crime was committed, before the body was even identified) is a way of covering up the embarrassment over such a thing happening. Gregory compares Byrd’s murder to Emmitt Till’s, a point the film punctuates with 100 years worth of lynching photos, culminating with those of the blood-stained road where Byrd was killed.
BYRD received one of two DCIFF Grand Jury Awards for Best Documentary (the other went to Witch Hunt, produced and narrated by Sean Penn). Still, it went almost unseen at the Festival: it was heartbreaking to sit in the theater with only a handful of other viewers (I noted four, but I’m hoping I miscounted in the dark).
Although it didn’t win any awards at the DCIFF, another of my personal favorites was the documentary March Point (which aired last year as part of PBS’ Independent Lens). Cody, Travis, and Nick are three teens living on the Swinomish Reservation in Washington State, chosen to participate in a filmmaking project with Native Lens. The boys eagerly agree, thinking they would get to make a gangster movie or rap video, only to learn that they had to make a film concerning “environmental issues.” The result is as much an insightful look at these three boys as it is a study on the impact of two oil refineries on the traditional Swinomish culture.
As they learn about their tribe’s history, from its fishing traditions to the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliot and the subsequent and continuing boundary dispute surrounding March Point, Cody, Nick, and Travis meet with everyone from tribal leaders to activist John Trudell (spokesperson for the Indian of All Tribes occupation of Alcatraz from 1969–1971). Their film culminates with a trip to D.C. to interview Washington Senator Patty Murray and Congressman Rick Larson. Although they weren’t allowed to film those interviews, footage of the boys immediately following is telling. They seem a little shell-shocked and can’t really say what they had been told, except that they didn’t get any answers about March Point. Still, they note, “There were a lot of bright faces. We were the only dark faces.” As they say they didn’t “fit in” because they didn’t wear suits for the visit, we start to feel manipulated. Why were they sent to D.C. in their sweatshirts, baggy jeans, and ball caps? If it keeps them authentic unto themselves, it also underscores their “otherness” in that setting.
How to Be
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the comedy How to Be received Grand Jury and Audience Awards for Best Feature. The first feature film by writer/director Oliver Irving, the film follows 20something musician Art (played by Robert Pattinson, pre-Twilight), in the midst of a “quarter-life crisis.” Art hires a self-help guru and both move in with Art’s parents. Momentum for the film has been building as Pattinson’s popularity surges, with more festival dates added almost weekly and along with them, additional Audience Award wins. The first screening at the DCIFF sold out a week ahead of time, prompting organizers to add a second screening the following day. I stood in line for the first screening along with 220 others who waited without complaint for well over an hour before filing excitedly into the theater.
How to Be was a misfit in a session called “Futureshock,” that mostly featured well-done if despairing sci-fi shorts. Described in the program as “a timely look at the increasingly common phenomena of grown-up children living at home,” How to Be’s qualifying characteristic seemed to be that this familial model is a “wave of the future.” Irving did a Q&A by phone afterwards, during which Michael Rossetti, director of Scion, remarked that when he heard the session was sold out, he was shocked so many people were interested in his film. After seeing several excellent films the day before playing in a nearly empty theater, I couldn’t help but feel happy for Rossetti with his captive audience.
Audience response to How to Be was predictable. They came planning to love this movie and nothing was going to dissuade them. As it turns out, the movie earns their devotion with its wry charm. Trying to pinpoint the cause of his unhappiness, Art blames his critical and dispassionate parents (Rebecca Pidgeon and Michael Irving), all the while trying desperately to connect with them on the advice of Dr. Ellington (Powell Jones). Art is actually the least screwed up person in his circle, though he doesn’t recognize it. Much of the humor comes from Dr. Ellington popping into scenes with his analysis of the action and Art’s interactions with his friends, agoraphobic Ronny (Johnny White) and geek-turned-wannabe-womanizer Nikki (Mike Pearce). Ironically, when the explanations for others’ behaviors finally come, Art misses all of it, embodying How to Be’s simultaneously bleak and liberating notion that the reasons we perceive ourselves as “messed up” are ultimately as irrelevant as the search to uncover them is futile.