The pandemic has brought movie theaters to their knees. Big studios, armed with productions that they expect to bring in big cash, are holding back. But that doesn’t mean filmmakers aren’t at work. And the film festivals that many independents depend on as their initial outlets, are soldering on, albeit without red carpets and opening night parties.
The Montclair Film Festival, now in its ninth year, usually takes place the beginning of May. This year it was rescheduled for October. They used a makeshift drive-in at a county-owned archery field to screen a couple movies a night and presented the rest online.
The various restrictions associated with the content made the Eventive site which they used for streaming somewhat maddening to use if you wanted to cast the films onto your TV screen. But there was one advantage to having the festival online. I watched 18 movies (two at the drive-in and the rest virtually) during the 10 day festival.
I can’t promise that these were the best films of MFF20, but these were my favorites out of the 18 I saw.
My Name is Sara
How many movies have been made about young Jewish girls in Nazi-occupied Europe? No matter how many, they don’t lose their moral weight. Nor do they fail to be heartbreaking.
Sara is a 13-year old girl who lives in western Poland. Poland is occupied by Nazis and they are systematically exterminating Jews. Sara’s parents know their fate and they encourage her and her brother to run off and hide in the woods. Sara swims across the river to the Ukraine where she ends up as nanny and all-around servant to a gruff Ukrainian farm family. She assumes a new identity, a new life story and to pass the test of non-Jewishness learns to cross herself properly, takes communion and goes to confession.
This is a true story and with that comes the astonishing cruelty of German Nazis. In one scene they round up all of the Ukrainian residents in their small agricultural village and announce that two German soldiers were killed by resistance fighters. They will kill 10 civilians for every German soldier killed. Ten people are rounded up and shot before their husbands, wives, mothers and fathers.
Like all the films of this genre, this is a story of survival, not just for Sara but for the farm family she is living with. The Nazis steal their animals, the resistance fighters do too. They have to turn over much of their grain to the occupiers. On top of that, they cheat on each other, fight with each other and generally seem to hate each other. A grim story, but they all make it. It is only after the Russians have driven the Germans out of the Ukraine that we hear the words “my name is Sara.”
I’m sure at least some of my readers are thinking ‘that’s not for me,’ But it’s a brilliant movie. The best I saw at the festival. The cinematography is exceptional, the actors and actresses convincing. You can’t watch this and not be moved. I’m sure it will stay with me for a long time.
Down a Dark Stairwell
On a November night in 2014 Akai Gurley and his partner got tired of waiting for the elevator in their East New York high rise. They started down the stairs. Coming up the stairs was NYPD officer Peter Liang doing what the police referred to as a vertical patrol. Liang pulled his gun and what he later referred to as an accidental discharge resulted in a bullet that ricocheted off the wall and killed Gurley. Gurley is Black. Liang is Chinese-American.
Gurley’s family, neighbors and supporters took to the streets demanding justice. He was unarmed and did nothing wrong. Liang was indicted by the Brooklyn prosecutor on eight charges including second degree manslaughter. Then the Chinese-American community took to the streets. They called a Liang a scapegoat who was paying the price for the murders of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and other Black men at the hands of police who were never indicted or charged. In all Chinese-Americans demonstrated in 43 cities. And a third group took to the streets, Chinese-Americans who supported the African-American community, calling for an end to police violence against minorities.
The movie goes through the entire episode: killing, indictment, trial, sentencing. The filmmaker notes that in 14 years in New York City, 130 black men were killed by police and Liang was the only one to face charges.
I can’t remember a more powerful documentary about race and racism in America than this one. There are times when these groups of demonstrators end up on opposite sides of the street shouting at each other. But there remains a broad recognition that the other minority community is not the enemy. The film captures numerous conversations, not just between the community leaders, but literally with men on the street. These conversations reveal the diversity of views within both minority communities. The comment that stands out for me comes from a Chinese-American man talking to an African-American demonstrator: “This is all about white supremacy.”
Two of Us
Two older French women, Madeleine and Nina, have a romantic relationship that they have kept secret from those around them. They live together is one apartment but rent separate apartments across the hall from each other for appearances sake. When Madeleine has a stroke and loses her ability to speak, their secrecy creates seemingly insurmountable barriers for them to be together. Not the least of those barriers is Madeleine’s daughter and son, as well as a 24-hour caregiver.
The story is simply told. We learn very little of their previous lives and most of the movie takes place in a single apartment. Given the plot you may be surprised to hear that this film is filled with suspense and tension.
The movie is punctuated by silences. The story oft times moves along without dialogue. This is the first feature film for director Filippo Meneghetti. He has taken a unique story and given it a stylish rendering.
You would be hard-pressed to find a more unique and insightful movie. Farewell Amor is the story of an Angloan immigrant family in New York. Amor is the nickname that the wife Esther uses for her husband Walter.
Walter has been in New York for 17 years before his wife and daughter join him. He works as a cab driver and has been living with another woman. When Esther arrives, they find themselves with little in common. They are unable to connect physically. Esther has turned deeply religious, which is something of a mystery to Walter. And along with Esther is teen daughter Sylvia who has her own struggles, coming almost literally right off the plane into a New York City high school, and dealing with an extremely overprotective mother.
The film is presented in segments. The same time frame and events are presented from the perspective of each of the three principal characters. The situation they face seems to be a recipe for disaster. Yet what we see is an honest and sincere dedication on the part of each to reconstruct this family.
On the surface you might think how lucky this family is to escape a country torn by civil war and to be reunited in the U.S. It was no doubt a very long hard road to get where they are. Once here though it is still a long hard road. I’m not sure this story has been told that often or this effectively, It is a moving one.
Zappa played guitar. He fronted a rock and roll band. He composed orchestral music. He even made movies. This documentary covers it all. It is the most extensive source of information about Frank Zappa I’ve encountered.
There are interviews with musicians who played with Zappa and with his wife. Alice Cooper tells us that he thinks Zappa sabotaged his own records because he was afraid to have a hit record. But he did have a hit record. One. Valley Girl. That was inspired by his daughter Moon who, at age 13, slipped a note under his door introducing herself and reminding him that she lived in the same house.
That’s the side of Zappa that the fans of his music don’t have to deal with. He was obsessive, self-absorbed and no doubt to many around him a complete prick. He is, of course, not the first famous musician to turn out to be a shitty father. He wasn’t that good of a husband either. “I like to get laid.” was his explanation.
There are all sorts of tidbits of information about Zappa that show up in this documentary. His initial fascination as a child was with explosives and he planned to blow up his high school (with nobody in it). At the other end of his life he was invited, and accepted, an invitation to appear at the celebration of Czechoslovakia’s independence after the Velvet Revolution. He testified in Congress against the mature audience labels that were eventually put on albums.
But amongst all this he was making music like no one else, whether it was played in rock clubs or by chamber music ensembles. This is a long documentary. If you’re a Zappa fan, like me, you’ll be glued to your seat. My wife, on the other hand, stayed in the next room and just popped in for the parts she thought sounded interesting. You can do stuff like that when everything is streamed.