The 25th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival continues through Sunday, November 13 with films from 72 countries: live action and animated, feature and short subjects, fiction and nonfiction. A bonus of the Film Festival is that dozens of directors introduce and discuss their works, providing additional opportunities for insights into various offerings intelligently addressing critical, contemporary issues.
I'll highlight just a few of the terrific films I've had the opportunity to see. One of the most uplifting and gorgeous films is the documentary The Eagle Huntress. In remote Mongolia, 13-year old Aisholpan becomes the first woman ever to compete in the annual Kazakh Eagle Festival against 70 men. But what happens before and after that event in her family is one of the most absolutely engrossing presentations on film this year, much of it made possible by extraordinary drone camerawork.
Other excellent documentaries show during the week as well. Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, My Life as a Film and The Liberators prove the strength of nonfiction subjects and these directors' expertise at presenting them. The subject Maya Angelou, this intelligent, insightful artist, speaks for itself. My Life as a Film pursues a provocative question. Does director Eva Vitja's guarded father, who obsessively films his family, use it as a tool for intimacy or as a way to keep his cool distance? Director Cassie Hay's The Liberators follows the search for the post-WWII Quedlinburg art treasures to Whitewright, Texas where Army Lieutenant Joe Meador took priceless art.
Mid-week also highlights several noteworthy foreign films, all of them in the language of origin with English subtitles. Venues include the Missouri History Museum, Landmark's Tivoli and Plaza Frontenac Cinemas, Webster University, St. Louis University, and Washington University, the Hi-Pointe Backlot, and the Stage at KDHX in Grand Center. For more complete information, including descriptions, trailers, show times, and ticket links for all the films, you may visit the website at: cinemastlouis.org.
The 25th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival runs Thursday, November 3 through Sunday, November 13 with 72 countries represented by 185 narrative and documentary features. There are 419 offerings including the short film programs with screenings of fiction and nonfiction, live action and animation selections at over a dozen St. Louis venues.
For those looking for particular themes or countries of origin, films are listed in the program and on-line under categories including: Asian, Eastern European, French and Italian groupings; the New Filmmakers Forum; a spotlight on women; an interfaith competition; an LGBTQ spotlight and one for Race in America: The Black Experience. The four-year initiative Mean Streets is represented with 15 programs, and the superb African-American director Charles Burnett will receive SLIFF's Lifetime Achievement Award with his To Sleep with Anger and Killer of Sheep screening. There are also special-event programs including master classes on documentary filmmaking and on screenwriting for independent film.
I have time to highlight only a few early standouts. From Guatemala, their 2015 submission for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, Ixcanul tells an anthropologically rich story of Mayan families, the teenage Maria in particular, working in the shadow of a volcano on a coffee plantation as she prepares for her wedding. Beautifully shot with local residents represented in the cast, the story gains momentum and tragic dimensions as it progresses. Equally immersed in its specific moment and based on a true story, The Fencer begins in the early 1950s in Estonia with Endel fleeing under a false identity from certain imprisonment if the Soviet police learn of his WWII military service. In an understated but intense series of events, Endel must decide if he'll support his students at a fencing competition in Leningrad.
Take note also of Manchester by the Sea, Demimonde, local video artist Van McElwee's program of shorts, and too much more to list. All foreign films are in the language of origin with English subtitles. For more complete information, including descriptions, trailers, show times, and ticket links for all the films, you may visit the website at: cinemastlouis.org.
The film simply titled Christine offers an absorbing, at times mesmerizing, and ultimately mystifying character study. How could anyone wholly explain Sarasota television reporter Christine Chubbuck's live, on-air suicide in 1974? But credit to director Antonio Campos who carefully charts the nooks and crannies of Christine's complex, troubled personality and Rebecca Hall in an Oscar worthy performance.
With Christine anchoring every scene with only a few exceptions, Hall must segue convincingly through vulnerability informed by determination, ambition struggling with paralyzing stress, and assertiveness undermined by self-criticism. Hall is pitch perfect: clashing with her unhelpful mother Peg with whom she still lives, arguing with TV station boss Mike who channels his own '70s sexism, attracted to on-air anchor George but incapable of relaxing with him, and cool to her colleague Jean who tries to show support. Hall's stiff body posture, slightly tense jawline, and arrhythmic delivery communicate one aspect of Christine's persona. This contrasts with the calm, relaxed, modulated verbal and nonverbal presentation when Christine performs with her hand puppets for children at local hospitals.
Through a 70s television monitor, director Campos introduces Christine, practicing and questioning her interview technique. And the demands of if-it-bleeds-it-leads journalism is never let off the hook as Christine argues for more than her human interest beat. As the station boss, Tracy Letts expresses a simmering and at times explosive frustration with Christine. Equally good are Michael C. Hall as TV anchor George, Maria Dizzia as colleague Jean, and J. Smith-Cameron as the mother. The art direction expresses Christine's demoralized moods with muted colors from costumes to surroundings.
Most important for this subject, Campos refuses to sensationalize the suicide, focusing instead on effecting an empathetic approach to Christine. He watches the reactions and ineffectiveness of everyone involved up to their shock at Christine's action. I thought of the disbelief and distress expressed repeatedly when individuals act out in violent ways. Christine sheds light on one such person without pretending we can ever quite understand. At Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Theatre.
Footnote: At the 2016 True/False Film Fest, director Robert Greene also took Christine Chubbuck's suicide as his subject matter. From another perspective, in Kate Plays Christine he investigates the event through Kate Lyn Sheil who is playing Christine Chubbuck in his film. Ethical concerns over dramatizing this event and the toll it takes for Sheil to play Christine add more layers to remembering such a horrific event as Chubbuck's suicide. Kate Plays Christine will screen at the St. Louis International Film Festival, held November 3 to 13.
Forget humming the song of the same name from "Hair," and start stamping your feet in the name of justice. That's what Dona Clara would do as she stands in front of her apartment building, defending it against developers, who want to raze it to build The Aquarius.
This is not the dawning of a new age for 65-year-old Clara but the knell of a golden age for the widow of 17 years. She raised her children in her apartment. She worked as a music critic from that building -- and music swirls throughout the film. She could swim in the ocean off the beach fronting her apartment. And she'll be darned if she's going to sell it to unscrupulous developers, who want to turn the two-story building into a skyscraper. They try to sweet talk her into something she knows is wrong.
The building stands in Recife, Brazil, the birthplace of the film's writer and director, Kleber Mendonça Filho. He has a bone to pick with authorities, and he does it with a fierceness befitting his protagonist.
Sonia Braga plays Clara. She covers a range from sweetly adoring gramma to tough momma with chiding children, from a political beast to a woman longing for physical love. Braga raises her voice as Clara rarely, so listen when she does.
Filho cleverly begins the story in 1980 at a birthday party to show that Clara's foremothers would have understood her politics and her perseverance and her sexiness. Filho's use of flashbacks for sex scenes is erotic and unexpected but meet and right especially contrasted with the developers' gaucheness. Aquarius has been controversial for sex and drugs and politics in Brazil and at the Cannes Film Festival.
With the film Certain Women director Kelly Reichardt proves again that she is as much a poet as a storyteller. What I mean is that Reichardt focuses not on events but on the minutiae of everyday life for her characters, here four carefully observed women. Some would argue that her minimalism lacks drama.
In fact, the intensity of Reichardt's scrutiny shows there is more going on in a glance, a slump of shoulders, or a transitory grimace than in all Hollywood's car chases and bomb blasts. The explosions here are emotional and implosive as the women suppress their overt reactions. The four individuals so introspectively captured share the small town of Belfry, Montana but only tangential personal connections. In a strong performance by Laura Dern, lawyer Laura Wells attempts to convince a workman's comp client that his appeals case is over. She treads a fine line between supportive and professional in a world steeped in sexism.
Laura has had an affair with Gina Lewis' husband though that's largely irrelevant to Gina's situation. As Gina, Michelle Williams wordlessly but profoundly registers the tensions among her, her husband and daughter as they work, quite symbolically, to construct a new home. The third act and the relationship most developed involves another lawyer, Beth Travis, who drives four hours each way from Livingston, Montana, to lecture a handful of teachers on education law. Jamie, an isolated woman who tends to horses on a local ranch, wanders in and returns repeatedly, enamored of Beth. The repressed interaction between Jamie (Lily Gladstone) and Beth (Kristen Stewart) is heartbreaking in its overwhelming longing.
Adapted by director and editor Reichardt from three Maile (My Lee) Meloy short stories, the film uses the stark Montana landscape to metaphorically express these isolated women's experiences. Details of dress and décor reinforce the psychological and physical attributes of their lives. Similarly, Jeff Grace's music, used sparingly but well, adds subtle texture to the mood.
Certain Women is a rarity in several respects. It is wholly Reichardt's vision with naturalistic acting that draws you into real lives. I wanted to follow them all and learn more from them even as they prompt insight into our own lives. It's quietly one of the best films of the year. At a Landmark Theatre.