Tuesday, 6/25/2019

Notes in the Margins

American Independents at FILMFEST MÜNCHEN

Notes in the Margins

Watch it: CALIDRIS by Peter Azen

American presidential campaigns: fighting for votes, slandering opponents. The last one earned a particular place in our collective memory. To some it was a great triumph; to others it remains a bitter defeat. And now the whole thing is starting up again. It seems like every week, another politician has announced that he or she is running for president. The ever-deepening divide within the country is now being reflected in art as well. Portraying society as it is and questioning social norms are the focus of the American independent productions at FILMFEST MÜNCHEN this year.


A leading voice in the 2016 campaign, Steve Bannon, is the subject of Alison Klayman's documentary THE BRINK. The director accompanied the political adviser on his travels to form "The Movement", a political shift to the right in numerous countries, which Bannon supports by meeting with nationalist parties. Klayman presents the demeanor of Steve Bannon, the man, without commenting on it. This removes the force that is often credited to his statements. The contrast between the aging conservative and the young director as well as his uncertainty about what side of himself to show her make this documentary a unique insight into the character of the man who propelled Donald Trump to the White House. The nationalist movements in the United States that Bannon helped to stoke have led to minorities being further marginalized by American society. An ideal is aspired to, and those who don't fulfill it don't belong.

HAIL, SATAN? by Penny Lane focuses on precisely such a group of different-minded people who are fighting against this "ideal". The Satanic Temple has taken on the task of reminding society that the United States is a secular country and that church and state are supposed to be separated. Why, then, are the Ten Commandments posted outside public buildings, but not statues representing other religions? The Satanic Temple had a statue of the demon Baphomet put up in order to decry this injustice. Penny Lane documents a number of such campaigns in her portrait of this religious group. The result is an entertaining portrait of a clever social community that's campaigning against the marginalization of those who think differently. It puts preconceived notions of "Satanism" in a different light.




The fight for equality in the United States is associated with no other minority as closely as it is with the African-American population. In WHAT YOU GONNA DO WHEN THE WORLD’S ON FIRE? Italian director Roberto Minervini, who lives in the US, examines the history and present-day circumstances surrounding this segment of the population. In doing so, he sheds light on current movements such as the New Black Panther Party as well as on the lives of individual people. Fifty-year-old Judy Hill, who was sexually abused as a child, gives a particularly moving account. The next generation has its say as well when 14-year-old Ronaldo King and nine-year-old Titus Turner make clear that they're already aware of their bleak prospects in life.

Similarly aware of their situation are the Brazilian immigrants in New York whom director Peter Azen presents in CALIDRIS. In this experimental film, Azen, himself an immigrant from Brazil, intertwines the fictitious story of Jane and Carlos, who attempt to start a new life in New York, with personal recollections and real experiences shared by immigrants. PAPI CHULO tells of an unusual friendship between a Mexican immigrant and a weatherman named Sean. When the latter has a nervous breakdown on live television because he hasn't overcome the separation from his partner, he's given a leave of absence. In order to remove all traces of his ex-boyfriend from his life, he hires Ernesto, an undocumented immigrant whom he selects from among a group standing in front of a home-improvement store, to help renovate his house. Soon, however, Sean is paying him to go to parties with him or just to go hiking. These strangely imposed moments shared by two very different persons and amplified by the language barrier unexpectedly lead to a tight bond. In Matt Bomer and Alejandro Patiño as disparate friends who adorably skid from one unpleasant situation to the next, Irish director John Butler has found an ideal cast for this intercultural bromance.




Personal experiences with a minority are what director Kirill Mikhanovsky portrays in GIVE ME LIBERTY. The Russian immigrant's first job was driving a bus for people with a physical or mental disability. In his motion picture, the director's recollections are embodies in 25-year-old Vic, who within a single day manages to get himself between a rock and a hard place. Vic, you see, can't say no, so he decides that he'll transport not only his usual passengers, but also a group of mourners who end up turning the bus into a chaotic battlefield. The director's affection for his characters as well as the casting of physically and mentally disabled actors makes GIVE ME LIBERTY a film that chooses not to exhibit diversity, but rather to depict it as a normal state of affairs.

For more than a hundred years, women have fought to have their voice heard. Strong female protagonists are fortunately starting to become common in film. Bob Byington's FRANCES FERGUSON is a portrait of a teacher who is sent to prison for having an affair with a pupil. The actions of the unhappily married teacher are neither explained nor defended. Only the intent gaze of up-and-coming actress Kaley Wheless reveals her inner turmoil. An inability to communicate also defines the life of Bridget, the protagonist of Alex Thompson's feature-film debut SAINT FRANCES. Bridget, in her mid-30s, is not interested in making a commitment in either her professional or her personal life. Only when circumstances force her to take a job as a nanny does she meet a six-year-old named Frances, who immediately notices her insecurity. A caring relationship develops between Bridget and little Frances in which both find the answers that have been lacking in their lives. Katherine Newbury is a woman who seems to have her life under control. The host of a successful late-night show in the United States, she manages her staff with an iron fist. When she's to be replaced by a younger male host, however, she doesn't know what to do — until Indian-American Molly Patel offers a breath of fresh air and new ideas. Mindy Kaling, a leading figure in US female comedy, wrote the screenplay for LATE NIGHT. She also plays Molly in this intelligent portrait of a woman who acts more macho than her male co-workers and who must recognize that her true strength lies in her femininity. Emma Thompson shines as a character who is both an insufferable boss and a charming TV personality.




Just as toxic as Katherine's idea of how a skilled professional must comport herself is the image of masculinity conveyed to Casey in THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE. This shy man is often teased because of his high-pitched voice. When he is beaten up, he decides to become like his attackers: a strong man, a real man. He joins a dojo and takes karate lessons. But is the masculine ideal that's celebrated in these strange evening courses really the right thing for Casey? The film humorously questions sexual stereotypes, and director Riley Stearns has found in Jesse Eisenberg the perfect actor to play this odd misfit. Achieving the perfect male bond is just as unrealistic as becoming a real man, as Mike and Kyle find when they reach their limits in THE CLIMB. During a bike tour just before Kyle's wedding, Mike confesses to having been involved with his bride. It's the perfect moment, since Kyle can't do anything except keep pedaling so that he might be able to finally confront Mike about it. Further episodes from the lives of the two men follow that illustrate the high and low points of their "bromance". This builds a momentum that carries the audience along. The scenes are never placed in context, and so the viewer never knows precisely how these two friends relate to each other at this point in their lives. Director Michael Angelo Covino and Kyle Marvin based the script on their own lengthy friendship. With this film, they've created a love letter to platonic relationships that have the power to overcome all adversity.

Keola Racela's horror comedy PORNO doesn't spend much time questioning masculinity. Rather, it enjoys putting its destruction on display — in the literal sense. In a small Christian town, a couple of teenagers work at the local movie theater. After the final screening, they're allowed to stay and watch a private screening of A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN. One evening, they discover a smaller, hidden theater and rolls of film that include a psychedelic soft porn film. Projecting this film releases a sex-hungry demon that happily pounces on the young adults. Exploding testicles and confusing stripteases add up to a fun and colorful slasher.




Mystical elements such as demons can also be representative of characters' inner turmoil. Benny, who suffers from a chronic compulsion disorder, travels to Iceland in SPELL. This young man feels compelled to lick metal — any kind of metal, even water faucets in public rest rooms. That sounds absurd, but SPELL shows us a character who suffers not only from his disorder, but also from a great loss. After a wild night of partying with a few friendly locals, Benny gets a tattoo of an ancient Icelandic rune, which adds magic to his life. Hallucinations confront him with his loss as well as with the mystical world of Iceland. He is led down a creepy path of discovery, not only of this foreign country but also of his own emotional state.

Getting over one's grief by escaping to another world can also be an uplifting experience. Mark Webber's THE PLACE OF NO WORDS tells the story of a family about to be dealt a heavy blow. To explain to his three-year-old son what exactly death means, Mark creates an imaginary world in which he and his child can feel absolutely safe. As tough Vikings, they roam mountainous landscapes, reach legendary castles, and cross stormy seas. Tenderly and thoughtfully, the child is introduced to the concepts of life and death.




The American independent films that FILMFEST MÜNCHEN is screening in 2019 offer a platform for diversity. Different religions, sexes, living conditions, and opinions are shown, brought into focus, and — above all — accepted.