'Flickers': Scenes from the Rhode Island International Film Festival 2013
From a sci-fi drone drama to an African death metal doc, a variety of short films and features articulate political rage and engagement.
Flickers, the Rhode Island International Film Festival, ran from August 6-11 across the state, primarily in downtown Providence. Venues from the ornately appointed Veterans Memorial Auditorium to museums and libraries offered an exceptionally lively lineup of short films and features.
One highlight of Friday night's program was the world premiere of Jeremiah Birnbaum’s Torn, a drama about families in a Bay Area suburb who lose their sons in an explosion at the local mall. It follows in the recent tradition of films like The Attack and Beautiful Boy, tracking the aftermath of a terrorist attack by asking of the perpetrators' parents, in effect, What did they know and what could they have known?
Michael Richter’s script doesn’t provide many surprises as it considers community and law enforcement responses to the parents of two of the teens killed. A bull-headed cop (John Heard) announces to a Pakistani couple that he lost a son in Iraq, in other words, that he suspects them as well as their son. When bricks are thrown through windows and hate-graffiti applied to their garage door, the husband, Ali (Faran Tahir), encourages his wife Maryam (Mahnoor Baloch) to decamp for Pakistan. He argues convincingly that there’s not much keeping them in Alameda County, as they eat from takeout containers every night and appear to have no friends. Maryam, a striving real estate agent, isn’t so sure, though, as she’s started to bond with the other mother, Lea (Dendrie Taylor).
Lea doesn’t appear to have much in common with Maryam; she cleans offices at night and looks to have spent a few years of her youth riding on the backs of various motorcycles. But they find common ground in their pain. At least until the FBI shows up and, using language that Richter appears to have filched from a Law & Order script, starts slinging accusations of terrorism at Ali and Maryam’s dead boy. The denouement delivers a quiet surprise of an ending that nearly upends all the low expectations created by the rest of the crisply acted but too obvious melodrama.
Fortunately, Torn screened with a pair of terrific short films that also explored the lives of individuals caught up in social and political confusions. Ali Asgari’s More Than Two Hours (Bishtar Az Do Saat) follows a young man and his sick girlfriend as they drive the streets of an Iranian city at night, looking for a hospital that will examine her even though they’re not married. Facing bureaucratic complications and theocratic absurdities, they come to an end that’s half tragic and half mysterious. In Vladimir de Fontenay’s nearly wordless fright-poem Mobile Homes, a truck-stop prostitute wanders through grimy tussles in motel rooms under the watchful eye of her pimp. Meanwhile, her young son kills time in mobile home display units, pining for refuge. Their aimlessness leads to an initially terrifying and ultimately liberating chase, concluding with something like a mythological perfection.
Also playing Friday was the 2013 Slamdance audience award-winner Hank and Asha. Asha (Mahira Kakkar) is an Indian film student studying in Prague who composes a video fan message to Hank (Andrew Pastides), a New York-based filmmaker whose piece she just saw at a festival. He responds with his own video, and so they start a cross-Atlantic correspondence that branches out into a series of self-revelations. She’s a big-eyed romantic and he’s a born raconteur. Using footage from the couple's video messages, with each speaking directly to the camera, director/co-writer James E. Duff risks chaining the film to a straightjacket of a conceit. But he takes his time, unfolding the layers of the relationship with refreshing precision. The result is a surprisingly winning digital epistolary romance.
The short showing prior to the Saturday afternoon’s RISD Museum screening of Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia was Daniel Jewel’s Drone. A calculated story about the near future that may as well be set today, it focuses on an office drone with fluorescent pale skin (Ewen Bremner). When he seats himself on a quiet floor in an office park, lights up his multiple terminals and sips his coffee, instead of stock flows, he sees satellite feed of a man loading up a pickup truck. The screen shows the date is 2022. The drone toggles his joystick, fingers the file folder in front of him. He makes decisions with either a blizzard of moral weighing or no second-guessing at all. We're all too aware that his target is oblivious, that he can't know some guy is now staring at him from the sky like a god, wondering whether or not to end his life.
Nicholas D. Wrathall’s sly documentary seems almost to pick up the themes of Jewel’s short, in that Vidal spent decades of his life railing against the military-industrial machine. The film shows Vidal late in life quoting his grandfather, Oklahoma Senator Thomas P. Gore, on the eve of World War II asserting, “I will never rob the cradle to gorge the dogs of war.” As much as Vidal plainly admires the senator's literate resistance, he vividly castigates just about everyone else -- except his longtime companion, Howard Austen.
One of the rare men of letters in the 20th century who deserved to be called a "wit," Vidal's malevolent humor is apparent throughout the film. Wrathall’s interview clips capture Vidal later in his life, holding forth from his cliff-side villa in Ravello, Italy or back in the Beverly Hills home where he relocated in order to have his illness treated. In addition, the film stitches together a rollicking series of images of Vidal's varying incarnations: bright-eyed and controversial postwar novelist, Hollywood screenwriter and bon vivant, political candidate, television debater, bestselling writer of pulpy historical novels, and imperious scold of American imperialism. But as much as it admires Vidal’s last-lion status, the film never bows down in complete obeisance, a tack that makes sense, given his own persistent, brilliant self-awareness: "I have depths of insincerity," he says here, "as yet unplumbed.”
Sunday's schedule included the North American premiere of Jeremy Xido’s Death Metal Angola, paired with two shorts about struggle and survival. Matthew VanDyke’s Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution is an unabashedly partisan take on the Syrian civil war that follows a young photographer, Nour (Nour Kelze), and a rebel commander, Mowya (Omar Hattab), through the shattered streets of Aleppo. Pointing at a cat Nour is hugging, he quips that they should put cats on YouTube to get people to care about the 100,000 Syrian dead. He grins, but his eyes are dead cold.
Todd Looby’s enthusiastic documentary Lollywood shows another group of people devastated by war, in this case Liberian orphans who want to make their own version of the raggedly produced but addictive “Nollywood” dramas they all love so much. In a matter of hours, 15-year-old Edwin Kollie throws together what Looby calls the most “ridiculously awesome” indie film he’s ever seen, about some warriors’ quest to recover a mythic egg. From what we see of Kollie’s film, Looby’s characterization sounds just about right.
Xido’s documentary also tracks people living in extremis while still creating art. Death Metal Angola is about the small and bellicose clutch of death metal and rock bands trying to build an audience in their rock-averse country. Xido structures his film around an orphanage in the devastated inland city of Huambo, as dozens of boys are putting together the area’s first rock festival. The band Before Crush deploys genre-typical lyrics (“My heart filled with chaos”) and heavy beats, while Dor Fantasma comes up with a more frenetic style, based around the lead quitarist’s incredible fretwork.
The orphanage’s matron, Sonia, displays both a rock fan’s dedication and a mom’s warmth, as well as a trauma victim's hollowed-out exhaustion. “All of our culture disappeared with the war,” she notes sadly. Xido takes too long to get around to the music festival, but his hopeful film pulses with a feeling of catharsis, revealing how rock can liberate the ravaged soul; it’s ridiculously awesome.