I have always drug my feet when it comes to updating this blog. In fact, outside of a couple of random post early on, my presence on this blog has been non-existent. My brother Christian has however kept this blog filled with posts on his thoughts and feelings on film of today.
He does however, tend to shy away from Documentary and Indie film. As mentioned in his last post, he is a lover of old Hollywood, heart warming plots, and happy endings. Nothing wrong with that, but I tend to like the grittier,violent, controversial, and all around more bleak films. The more sex, drugs, and rock n' roll the better.
With that said, I want to share my experiences of the Sidewalk Film Festival that transpired this weekend. This was the 13th year of Sidewalk, and my 6th year to attend. This festival has only gotten better in the years that I have attended and participated in it. Some of my favorite Indie films of the last several years I saw at Sidewalk. Living in Birmingham , AL, can be very disconcerting for a film fan who isn't just interested in the standard thoroughfare of Hollywood money makers that populate our major chain theaters. Sidewalk provides a gateway to a world that is typically only accessible through Netflix, putting you months behind the film community and hopelessly out of touch.
The only bad thing about Sidewalk is trying to cram as many films into a short two day period as possible. For me, that means cutting out most of the narrative films and focusing on documentary, which Sidewalk consistently serves up some of the most poignant and well made non fiction films that I have seen.
Before I get started talking about the Documentaries, I will start with the opening night film, The Innkeepers. Directed by Ti West, the film focuses on two employees of the Yankee Peddler Inn during its final nights of business. Pat Healey plays Luke, a paranormal enthusiast and amateur web designer who firmly believes that the hotel is haunted and works to compile all of his evidence in between trolling the internet and viewing porn. His co-worker Clair, played by Sarah Paxton, shares Luke's determination to document definitive proof that their place of employment is possessed. The film develops much of the same way as most haunted house films, but the cast could easily have been pulled from a Joe Swanberg movie: directionless twenty somethings, working a dead end job, and evoking what it means to be stuck in small town America. Luckily the dialogue is delivered without the jaded acting style that defines the mumblecore genre. In fact, the one thing I feel the film is a champion of is its ability to not succumb to being a cliche genre film. At its core, The Innkeepers is a haunted thriller, peppered with comedic moments and character drama that is more commonly seen in European films. Paxton evokes the indie charm of Zooey Deschanel with the comedic timing of Amy Poehlor, and Healey could easily fit into one of Edgar Wright's scripts along side the likes of Simon Pegg. Thrillers and horror are hard genres to do at a festival, and especially hard to put as an opening night film, but The Inkeepers was a fine start to the festival.
Holy Rollers, directed by Bryan Storkel was the first documentary film I saw, and was an excellent start to Saturday. I will not go to in-depth in this post, because I intend on a more in-depth analysis later this week. The film follows a Black Jack team that comprises of only Christians. The immediate contradiction is, "How can Christians justify gambling?" The founders of the team believe that this question is answered in their desire to take money from casinos, who would otherwise use the money for, "evil things." The participants in the film in turn use the money to support their ministries. Regardless of the noble intention, many contradictions arise throughout that paint a different portrait of the team. As I will discuss in my forthcoming post, the film presents two strong metaphors that I noticed concerning the nature of God in the new church movement and humans desire to create community. Storkel is a self-proclaimed Christian who did a great job of being as unbiased as possible. Holy Rollers is still looking for wider distribution and is definitely worth checking out.
You've Been Trumped was by far my favorite film of the festival and director Anthony Baxter is definitely someone whose career I will watch diligently. First, if you don't already hate Donald Trump enough, then this film will put you over the tipping point. Baxtor chronicles the struggle of the residents in Abersheen, Scotland, as they desperately cling to their homes that are threatened by Donlad Trump's quest to build a billion dollar golf course. Trump's relentless bullying of the residents of Abersheen is despicable and Baxter's tenacity to represent them is nothing short of heroic. Faced with limited access and a larger than life nemesis in Trump, Baxter uses all of the best run and gun camera techniques and utilizes all the best that new digital filmmaking has to offer, including giving one of his participants a camera of her own. I had the pleasure of talking with Baxter that night after his film had played, and was able to pick the directors brain about his thoughts and feelings on his personal feelings towards Trump and documentary filmmaking which was a real treat. The film also is treated to the gorgeous music of Jonsi, which provide s perfect music bed for the beautiful shots of the Scottish coast.
Dragonslayer was my least favorite film of the festival this year. This portrait documentary follows professional skateboarder Josh "Skreech" Sandoval in his small SoCal suburb, getting kicked out of empty pools, falling in love, and taking his his son (from a failed relationship) on trips to the zoo. What made Dragonslayer so lack luster was that this character has already been done in film, both narrative and documentary, and done so much better. The gutter punk aesthetic has grown stale and Sandoval becomes another face in the crowd of slacker documentary subjects. The one redeeming quality of the film is that a lot of the footage is simply pretty to look at. If you are looking for a slacker film that is more entertaining, I recommend the mockumentary Fubar.
The biggest surprise for me at the festival was the bio Documentary on race car driver Ayrton Senna, titled Senna. Comprised of only archive footage, Senna is a heart pounding portrait of one man's life and career, which is as complex and entertaining as any narrative film. Racing teammate Alain Prost is the perfect antagonist to Senna as he rises to super stardom in the racing world, and the thick backdrop of racing politics draws the viewer in up till the final moments of the film. I am not a fan of sports films, but Senna transcends that generalization.
Where Soldiers Come From is an intimate portrait of young men from Northern Missouri as they embark on their journey in the United States Army reserve. The group have been friends since childhood with strikingly unique personalities. When the group travels to Afghanistan to help disarm IED's, they are changed men. Interestingly these changes are strikingly different based on who they were before going to war. While no one in their group is seriously wounded or killed they still have been transformed after their 9 month deployment. From severe concussions to skewed views of Middle Easterners, the men have a very difficult time readjusting to their old lives. The film itself does not stand out in the plethora of post 9/11 war films, however it is a well made one and shows a very personal side of the Americans fighting in the Middle East. The only thing I think that could have made the film better would have been a larger sampling of people from different areas of the country and different Socio-economic backgrounds. However it is clear that the film is committed to just these boys' story.
The final film I saw was Septien, by Micheal Tully. The filmmaker was present for the screening and offered no set up for the dark southern tale of the return of a prodigal brother (played by Tully), and the aftermath of his return. Frightening, bizarre, and funny at times, Septien manages to ride no higher than absurdest storytelling with limited subtext. Much like the film Rubber, which I recently viewed, Septien left me with an empty stomach when I really wanted a 7 course meal. Both films have some enjoyable "Lynchian" moments, but suffer from the inability to take these far out scenes and storytelling any further.
Besides the films, Sidewalk did and excellent job at hosting the filmmakers, Guests, and VIP, to excellent After Parties. Especially noteworthy was the Good People Brewing Company Party, with loads of free Microbrew's and was an excellent chance to meet the filmmakers and get further insight into their films. Sidewalk will continue on into its next year and is definitely a festival to check out for something different.