Ah, too many quality films, too little print space. Please catch up with me on the WestView website: westviewnews.org.
Let’s Go to the Movies…
I went to the Athena Film Festival (which shows films by and about bold and creative women) at Barnard College. Among the terrific films I saw were these opening this month:
Director / Screenwriter: James Lapine
Viola Davis stars as a family court judge in NYC, where she is confronted daily with family drama in the form of good and bad parents. Their children are usually terrified, out of control, abused, or completely overwhelmed by the circumstances that have placed them in foster homes. The judge has her own personal domestic crisis that involves a long-term relationship falling apart without her being aware that it is. In court, we see her dealing with a single mom (Catalina Sandino Moreno, Academy Award Nominee for Best Actress for Maria Full of Grace) who works two jobs to care for her 13-year-old son and maintain her household. We see her son trying to get away with something his mom does not think is appropriate. He accidentally falls, hitting and bruising his head. His teachers notice and report the matter to Family Services who put him in foster care and charge his mother with child neglect. Davis tries to wade through the charges and the reality of a frantic mom who clearly loves her child. At the same time, the judge is reeling from her own domestic eruption. Custody is a reality check, as we see how class and tabloid media all play into each other. We, as the audience, are left to decide who is at fault. The story is complicated, beautifully nuanced, and provoking.
2: LITTLE PINK HOUSE
Director/Screenwriter: Courtney Balaker
Based on a true story in New London, CT, which also became the subject of Jeff Benedict’s successful book Little Pink House: A True Story of Defiance and Courage, Little Pink House is not a documentary—it’s a narrative film that plays like one. Balaker has taken liberties with the actual story about Susette Kelo, played with cunning, observational skill by Catherine Keener, who beautifully captures the no-nonsense style of a working-class woman used to taking care of herself. Kelo, a divorced, self-sufficient EMS worker, finds a lakeside, fixer-upper house that she wants to call home. It requires work, which she willingly does, laboring to transform it into her home with help from a local hardware store owner who becomes smitten with her. When finished, she proudly paints it pink. Unknown to Kelo, or her neighbors, the politically ambitious governor (Aaron Francis) is eagerly pursuing a multi-national corporation (Pfizer) to place its new campus with jobs and taxes where 70 homes, including her pink house, are located. He hires the president of a local college (Jeanne Tripplehorn) to serve as the public face of the development. He assigns her the task of convincing the owners to sell; most resist even when offered more than the market rate. Kelo, while no Erin Brockovich, becomes the community voice. She emphatically refuses. Frustrated, the governor begins to take the homes through eminent domain. He breaks with the common practice of using eminent domain to facilitate public works, and instead uses it to benefit commercial interests. A NYC progressive law firm then gets involved and fights strenuously—all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 5-4 ruling written by Justice Roberts, Kelo loses. But media attention causes 21 states to clarify their eminent domain laws. This film is a strong wake-up call to any working-class community facing gentrification. I saw this film at the Athena Film Festival and the real-life Susette Kelo was there. She reminded me of a diner waitress I knew in Long Island City.
New Directors, New Films at MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center
Each spring, MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center present the best films by new directors they have collected from festivals around the world. Twenty-nine films and shorts make up this year’s finds. While I have not seen many of these, I’m including five that were among the best I saw at Sundance 2017.
1: PATTI CAKE$
Director/Screenwriter: Geremy Jasper
In this story of an overweight white female rapper, Patti is a teenager from New Jersey whose self-belief sustains her in moments of ridicule and rejection. Embodying the very elements at the core of why black people rap, it just might be the Moonlight of 2017—if not in content, at least in low budget creativity that is so sticky.
2: BEACH RATS
Director/Screenwriter: Eliza Hittman
This film chronicles four beach town white youth who act as a posse, smoke weed, hit on girls who take “no shit” from them, and then party as a unit. But one has a secret only revealed late at night in the darkness of his room as he scours the internet. Hypnotic tension builds as the story takes a dangerous turn.
3: STRONG ISLAND
Director: Yance Ford
This movie brings closure to a family’s question, which has been repressed over the course of 20 years: “Why was my beautiful son/brother killed by a NYC cop?” With the integrity of a Steve James documentary and the visual style and economy of an artful David Fincher music video, it seduces the eye and challenges the soul. Strong Island was one of the three most stunning films I saw this year at Sundance.
Director: Joshua Weinstein
At this particular moment, when the right to look different is suspect, Menashe arrives to take us into the Brooklyn Orthodox community as one man faces a personal crisis when his wife dies. He is left to raise his 10-year-old son while the community’s social norms demand things, which he is incapable of doing. Whew!
5: THE WOUND
Director: John Trengove
This was the second of the most challenging films at Sundance 2017. A stunning narrative re-creation of a Xhosa tribal ritual introducing adolescent boys to manhood, the film takes place in a mountainous corner of the Eastern Cape of South Africa. It is one of the most unusual, forbidden love stories I have ever seen.
6: THE SETTLERS
Director: Shimon Dotan
7: BEN-GURION, EPILOGUE
Director/Screenwriter: Yariv Mozer
The Film Forum has taken the lead in anti-Semitic cinematic education. The discovery of lost footage has become the basis of new knowledge that most people today—unless Jewish—still do not want to learn about. Again, in this programming, the Film Forum steps up to provide a unique service by programming Ben-Gurion, Epilogue—a film based on found footage of a personal interview David Ben-Gurion did in 1968 at age 82, four months after the death of his wife. (The interview was filmed at his home in the desert.) It is being shown in tandem with a new, challenging documentary on one of the hottest button issues of the day. The Settlers is about the people who occupy the settlements.
When I first learned that these films were played as companion pieces (requiring separate admissions), I wondered if it was because of external pressure. I had seen The Settlers at the New York Film Festival and witnessed Jews debating Jews about the value of settlements. I knew that The Settlers was being promoted as “the first film of its kind to offer a comprehensive view of the Jewish settlers in the occupied territories of the West Bank.” The Settlers is a historical overview, a geopolitical study, and an intimate look at those people at the core of the most daunting challenges facing Israel and the international community today as the Palestinians and Israelis resume talks.
I also knew that I was surprised by my reaction after viewing them. Ben-Gurion was a warm, inquisitive, and thoughtful man who was very clear on what he wanted to say. He surprised me with how peaceful yet strong he appeared to be. Yes, it could have been the way the footage was edited. I know I would have wanted him as my grandfather. No, he doesn’t talk about the 40 years of Zionist-Socialists who had lived in Palestine before 1948. He does take credit for creating Israel as a Jewish State in 1948 and hopes it will survive. It’s interesting to hear him talk about meditation and Buddhism and to see him sitting in conversation with musician Ray Charles. I wonder what he would say to the current Prime Minister of Israel.
The Settlers also reminded me of the right-wing extremist Christian movement here in the U.S. Both groups seem to think that they are above the law and only take direction from a power higher than the state government and the laws of the land. And each, for the most part, has gotten away with breaking the law. There is not enough space here to discuss all of the ramifications of each film. I hope that someone does organize a respectful public conversation. I suggest each as a must-see documentary. I also advise you to see Ben-Gurion first.
Jim Fouratt: firstname.lastname@example.org.