Not biased or anything, but I am fortunate enough to be a volunteer with the hippest film festival in Michigan.
The Waterfront Film Festival ran last month, June 9th-12th, and because of my volunteer brownie points, I had an all-access pass to every movie and party I could make.
Actually, I have never been to a film festival without an all-access pass. Do you know how great that is? As many free movies as you can watch… for days? And then, parties? As many parties as you can handle, with the people who made the movies? It’s like being a kid in a delicious candy store except all the candy is free and all the people who love candy as much as you do are also hanging out at said candy store. It’s perfect.
Unfortunately, there are plenty I still haven’t seen. I just never got the chance. Of what I did see, I’ll give a brief rundown of three of my favorite features and three of my favorite shorts.
Page One, a run-and-gun style documentary about a year inside the New York Times, was immensely enjoyable, even on a surface level. That is due largely to the sharp and colorful characters who populate the screen, from a wry and aging traditional reporter with a poetic soul and a come-back for absolutely everything, to the rising-star energetic poster-child of New Media, to the fair-minded Media Desk editor who has to deal with the blowback from the oft-controversial writings of his reporters.
On further reflection, it’s incredibly obvious that this documentary has captured a vital moment in the history of news media. As subscriptions and print sales dwindle, the New York Times, once a venerable and trusted institution, has to fight for its supper. From this central crux stems a whole rotary of other issues. To name a few: the importance of journalistic training in a world where anybody can be a journalist, salvaging a sustainable business model in a world where information is free and ad revenue goes to news aggregates, the profitability of sensationalism, the struggle for public trust after that whole weapons-of-mass-destruction fubar, and ultimately, doing what it takes to stay alive.
In this midst of this documentary, amazing things happen. The iPad is released. Wikileaks comes out with the infamous shooting video. The Tribune collapses.
If you get the chance to see it, then see it, see it, see it. This documentary certainly gives you no answers, and at times it has trouble really focusing on a plot thread, but it is absolutely captivating, and in a sort of snapshot jumble, manages to provide an inside look at a number of issues. Anyone with even a passing interest in the fate of media needs to watch Page One.
I think Jess+Moss can mean a lot of things to a lot of people, but to me, it was mainly about loneliness.
Let me rephrase. It was about two kids who are basically best friends, letting their imaginations go crazy and playing together over acres of wild farmland and abandoned houses in the seemingly limitless stretches of beautiful rural Kentucky.
What’s lonely about that? Hard to say, exactly, except that we sense this entire film is patchwork of memories, some faded so badly they are almost lost. We sense there is familial distress with both of the kids. Maybe nothing serious like abuse, but just the slow, festering loss of not having your parents around when you need them, or of not feeling the love you need to be yourself, so you tithe it out in all the places you can find. It’s hard when you’re a kid and all your friends are kids and you don’t really know how to deconstruct the things you feel. Or maybe it’s better that way, I don’t know.
The acting is beautiful. Sarah Hagan is particularly great, as she seems ageless. The character of Jess is clearly older than Moss, but she was possibly not much older - a case of an early growth spurt. This, actually, becomes part of the plot. Jess is emotionally stunted in ways, spiteful and unable to understand her own sexuality. She can perfectly enter into the play-space of a child much younger than herself. Whether this extended childhood is willful or imposed, that’s part of the discovery.
Do childhoods like these still exist? The kind that is wild and overgrown and not wasted on the internet? I hope so. It’s the kind of childhood I had. I got a computer when I was 12, and even then, I could palpably feel that free spirit leaving me. To be fair, there were many other things at play. I moved out of the country and into the suburbs. My parents were divorcing. And, inevitably, I was getting older. Sometimes you get older even when you don’t want to. I think that was Jess’s problem. I think Moss wished she was younger, too. I think that’s where the loneliness comes from.
Jess and Moss are second cousins. I spent a huge portion of my childhood playing in the woods with my second cousin, a boy. We were born two days apart, but all that weird stuff is still true about the problems of growing up and of discovering sexuality. We were best of friends until our parents had a falling out and wouldn’t let us play together. That tore us apart long enough for us to become pre-teens and feel awkward around each other. Now we haven’t talked for 15 years.
So yeah, I get a movie like Jess+Moss. You might get it too.
Sons of Perdition is a documentary about three teenage boys who escape Warren Jeff’s FLDS community. Escape is probably not the right word. It’s the girls who must to escape. It’s the boys who are often cast-out because they aren’t perfect or don’t tow the line. This is a form of social control and a means for maintaining the male to female ratio needed for polygamy.
This documentary will disturb you.
It will disturb you because it describes in exact, personal detail how very deeply manipulative and misogynistic this community is. These kids who leave it and enter the real world are completely unprepared for life on the outside. They have, I think, some very tragic hangups about whether or not they are going to hell. They are woefully uninformed about basic facts in politics, history, and religion. They are completely isolated from their families and everyone they’ve ever known. In some cases, they’ve been disowned by their own parents.
The girls often have to attempt to leave several times before it sticks. There is an immense pull, even from other women and family members, to return. If they stay with the FLDS, their entire lives are controlled, from how they wear their hair to who they marry. Often, they are married as young teenagers to older men, and by their early twenties they already have three or four kids.
This doc is pretty unapologetically condemning of Warren Jeffs and the FLDS, I think rightly so. I believe strongly in freedom of religion, but what happens if, within the enclave of religion, contemptuous and criminal acts are protected? I don’t think that freedom of religion gives one individual the right to take away the freedom of the other.
Still, the subject is thorny and messy. It’s messy in the same way that Sharia law and radical Islam are messy, because culture forces and internal pressures can take away someone’s power of consent before they even know they have it. By “cultural forces”, I mean things like lack of education and lack of a support system outside said person’s oppressive community. Maybe focusing on those forces will help us really address the issue in an effective way, instead of building opposition by storming in with guns, as is our habit.
Sons of Perdition is intensely personal and experiential. I think it’s important for any discourse on religion and freedom, and it’s powerful to watch. You can save it on Netflix and watch it when it becomes available.
Birthday Circle – A baby and a toddler are caring for themselves, alone in their home. What starts funny, ends sadly. A very intelligent twist, a very hard truth. It definitely hasn’t been getting enough attention. I’m interested to find out more about these filmmakers, and see what they do next.
Something Left, Something Taken – Maybe I’m a sucker for stop-motion, but Something Left, Something Taken was ingenious in both idea and execution. Very cute and darkly funny. A couple touch down in San Francisco to visit their friend and catch a lecture from a famous forensic scientist. As he says, there is always something left and something taken at the scene of a crime. On the ride from the airport to their friend’s house, paranoia sets in. Full version on Vimeo. Take ten minutes and watch it.
Thief – It’s always a risk when you attempt to make a film outside of your cultural sphere, especially when you’re dealing with something as contentious as our involvement in the Middle East. Thief manages to pull it off without any major faux-pas, largely because the story sticks to a very microcosmic, human scale. But sometimes, the personal is political, and the events of the wider world can’t help but invade even the smallest sanctuary. When we look under a microscope, we can talk about the big issues without extrapolating too much. The film was just subtle enough to avoid being preachy, and just pared down enough to really focus on what was important. Thief owes itself largely to two amazing performances by Maz Siam and Yousif Alshekh, who play the character of Mehdi at different stages of his life. Check out the website to see where you can watch this amazing short.