After 8 exhausting and exhilarating days, the 2012 NASHVILLE FILM FESTIVAL is at an end. I was so consumed with the fest and my day job that I haven’t had a free moment to post on The Film Talk for the past three days. Here’s what I saw Tuesday though Thursday.
LA CAMIONETA: THE JOURNEY OF ONE AMERICAN SCHOOL BUS was not on my original docket; but I had nothing in that Tuesday night slot, and the reviews seemed positive. My chief worry about subject documentaries, that the subjects can overshadow the quality of filmmaking, was quickly assuaged. The documentary follows a U.S. school bus from the Texas auction lot all the way to the final buyer in Guatemala. Boy, I’m glad I gave this one a shot. Every aspect of the production was professional, artful, and highly-skilled. Director Mark Kendall told the story with a great respect for his subject and an eye for detail. Early on in the film, we learn that Guatemalan bus drivers are preyed upon by extortionists who demand money for protection. Those who don’t comply are killed. New footage shows one bus ablaze, bombed, 7 passengers dead and more injured. Documentary filmmakers too often rewrite the facts (THE KING OF KONG) or stand idly by while the subjects are in danger (BLACK BULL) for the sake of the story. It is to Mark Kendall’s great credit that he decided not to follow the bus on its highly-dangerous city route. As he explained in the Q&A, he did not want to risk the lives of the bus operators by bringing a camera on board. It would have made for a compelling ending to the film. But some things are more important than images. Kudos to Mark. I eagerly await his next film.
Next up was UNDER AFRICAN SKIES, a documentary about Paul Simon’s return to South Africa to reunite with the GRACELAND musicians, directed by Joe Berlinger (BROTHER’S KEEPER, PARADISE LOST). First off, let me confess that I lack the Paul Simon gene. His music just doesn’t do it for me. I showed up for the consistently great work of Joe Berlinger. Even if you’re not a Simon fan, you’ll find much to like, especially the extended discussion of the controversy surrounding Simon’s decision to break an international embargo to record in Apartheid South Africa. In the end, I found Simon’s arguments much less persuasive than Artists Against Apartheid founder Dali Tambo’s. UNDER AFRICAN SKIES is slick and high in star power (Oprah Winfrey, Paul McCartney, etc), but it so lacks the grit and artistry of Berlinger’s earlier films that I wonder if it’s primarily a meal ticket. Grit or no, the film is a worth your time.
I started out Wednesday with the Romanian film ADALBERT’S DREAM, a film I had reviewed for the Nashville Scene. Yes, I liked it so much, I watched it for again. My second viewing only deepened my appreciation. Here’s my Scene preview:
This biting Romanian satire opens with the final moments of the 1986 European Cup, when Steaua Bucharest goalie Helmuth Duckadam miraculously blocked all four of Barcelona’s overtime spot-kicks. The next day, it’s all safety engineer Iulica and his factory co-workers can talk about, back-handedly praising Helmuth by wondering, “What’s wrong with him?” A fitting metaphor for life in Communist Romania where beneath the surface, the real economy bubbles — Iulica sells tickets to private screenings on his contraband VCR, a lathe operator makes extra utensils on the sly, another worker smuggles eggs in her hair buns. While the workers attend the premiere of Iulica’s two new “work safety” films, another accident occurs, perhaps inevitable in a culture where survival means keeping up appearances while looking the other way.
My final film Wednesday was the only repertory film of the fest: Brian DePalma’s glorious rock opera PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE. I had really hoped Paul Williams would attend the screening, but sadly he was not due until the next day’s screening of PAUL WILLIAMS STILL ALIVE. While the direction was choppy and the character motivations obfuscating, Paul William’s songs were great and the set and costume designs positively inspired. There were several unexplainable lapses of competence including vocals mixed way too low in some songs and the clearly miscast Jessica Harper. I can see why PHANTOM was a flop, but I can also see how it has slowly gained the status of a cult classic. As late shift organizer Jason Shawhan astutely pointed out, Swan’s Death Records bears an uncanny resemblance to Nashvillian Jack White’s Third Man Records.
I asked off work on Thursday to cram in more films on the festival’s final day. The first was Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary PAYBACK based on the Margaret Atwood book of the same name. Jennifer’s last NaFF entry was MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES, and it was one of my favorites of that year. After buying my ticket (and before the screening), I learned of the PAYBACK’s mostly-dismal reviews. Critics accused it of being desultory and unfocused. While I agree with that assessment, I still recommend the film. The book and film set out to explore the subject of debt in all its forms. In the case of the film, that meant the debt BP owes the environment, an Albanian assailant owes his victim neighbor, and Florida apple orchard companies owe their workers. The subjects are disparate in category and scope, and that may be magnified by a pesky sub-theme of conservationism in two-thirds of the main stories. We so want this to be a ’cause-doc’ in the vein of FOOD, INC or LAST CALL AT THE OASIS. Perhaps the fault lies with Baichwal in not properly managing our expectations. Yet I feel, like MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES, PAYBACK is philosophical exploration, not a conclusion. Meandering isn’t a weakness. It goes with the territory.
My second film Wednesday was OSLO, AUGUST 31, two days in the life of Anders, a recovering heroin addict. NaFF 2012 was an extremely strong year, and yet this film was easily, EASILY, my favorite film of the festival. Second-time director Joachim Trier isn’t a master in the making. He’s already there. An early scene takes place in a cafe. Anders helplessly eavesdrops on the conversations surrounding him. The scene is composed with such effortless skill and beauty that it rivals the best moments of Tarkovsky, Bergman, or Dreyer. Yeah, the film is that good. See it any way you can.
THE DYNAMITER won the festival’s narrative prize (announced the day before), so I decided to watch it instead of 5 BROKEN CAMERAS. While I wouldn’t have awarded it the prize when PILGRIM SONG and ADALBERT’S DREAM were eligible, THE DYNAMITER was thoroughly entertaining. I agree with Jim Ridley’s assessment in the Nashville Scene when he said, “. . . a real diamond in the rough. … Comparisons to Days of Heaven and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows suggest less the style or level of accomplishment than the mark the movie leaves in memory.” NOBODY KNOWS it isn’t. But it’s still an impressive debut from director Mathew Gordon. Keep an eye out for him.
Of course I was going to enjoy the closing film PAUL WILLIAMS STILL ALIVE! The star and director attended, and how can you be bet against the man who wrote RAINBOW CONNECTION? The documentary tracks down the reclusive songwriter and former television icon and offers a glimpse of what his life has become (celebrity gold tourneys, concerts in the Philippines). A big part of my enjoyment came from the osmotic energy of Paul Williams being in the house. The lively Q&A also was fascinating. Without that contact high, I may have given the film a decent 3 out of 5 stars. If you enjoy William’s work, don’t miss it.
And thus ended the 2012 Nashville Film Festival. I can honestly say that this has been the best year of the 6 I’ve attended. I screened 22 films. I’ll end my coverage with my top 5. I was not able to view the documentary prize winner SALAAM DUNK or the acclaimed ABSENT, 5 BROKEN CAMERAS, A TRIP, or GIRL MODEL. Thanks for reading. Next stop: Cannes! (I can dream, can’t I?)
4. PILGRIM SONG
<– Naff Day 5
Tony Youngblood is a film and music snob and producer of the experimental improv music blog and podcast Theatre Intangible. His favorite films include Eric Rohmer’s The Green Ray, Abbass Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us, Ingmar Bergman’s The Magician, Lee Chang Dong’s Oasis, and Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap.