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The Regional Is Universal at the New Orleans Film Festival

It was clear that current issues and events had a significant impact on the programming decisions.

Peter Goldberg



The Regional Is Universal at the New Orleans Film Festival
Photo: Sierra Pettengill

At this year’s New Orleans Film Festival, it was apparent that current issues and events had a significant impact on the festival’s programming decisions, which gave the roughly 230-film lineup a sense of mission and focus. Around the corner from the festival’s main exhibition venue at the Contemporary Arts Center there’s a tall white column, streaked with oxidized copper, in the middle of a traffic circle. Until recently, it supported a statue of Robert E. Lee. Now, in the wake of public battles across the country to dismantle such shrines to the Confederacy, it stands as a symbol of historical reckoning. In the first iteration of NOFF to be programmed since last year’s deadly rally in Charlottesville, an urgent need to address such issues shone through.

Several shorts tackled America’s legacy of racism. Graven Image, Sierra Pettengill’s superb archival documentary about Stone Mountain, the largest Confederate monument in the United States, and one whose protection is enshrined in Georgia state law, tracked the popular tourist destination’s on-and-off development over the last century. Although begun in 1917, Stone Mountain’s Confederate memorial wasn’t completed until 1972. The film’s juxtaposition of major moments in the civil rights movement with renewed attempts to complete the monument helps to reflect the reactionary impulses that underlie people’s undiminished loyalty to the Confederacy.

In a more personal take on the civil rights era, Maris Curran’s While I Yet Live focuses on the African-American quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama whose works, known for their intricate, abstract patterns and color blocks, have been exhibited in high-art institutions across the country. The Freedom Quilting Bee cooperative sprang up in Gee’s Bend in the late 1960s, and over a continual stream of talk—about civil rights, family, home, love, anything that matters to the quilters—the process by which the women make their quilts comes vibrantly to life, lending their art a deserved historical gravity.

Many of these stories of injustice are also stories of resistance. While people across New Orleans packed into bars to worship at the altar of the LSU Tigers, I watched Darius Clark Monroe’s Black 14, which tells the little-known story of the suspension of 14 black students from the University of Wyoming football team for their protest against rival Brigham Young University’s racist policies. The contemporary parallels are clear, but this illuminating film’s shifts between media interviews with white and black students points to the historical connections between athletic protest and the fight for civil rights.

The festival’s documentary lineup highlighted the breadth of Southerners’ experiences in ways that fall outside common narratives. The documentary shorts jury prize winner, Christine Delp and Pilar Timpane’s Santuario, focuses on Juana Luz Tobar Ortega, who’s been in indefinite sanctuary from ICE in a North Carolina church since last year. While it includes interviews with the church members who offered Jauna sanctuary, the film’s center of gravity is the woman’s limbo. As she paces her narrow world, watching TV and meeting with her family and church members, her nervous waiting and uncertainty as to whether she will deported or not begins to take on a material weight.

A different sort of Southern immigrant story, and one of my favorite discoveries of the festival, Gimme a Faith was spurred by an observation that director Hao Zhang made after arriving in North Carolina to pursue an engineering degree: Dozens of Chinese immigrants—raised under a communist regime—were embracing evangelical Christianity. Tempted to do so himself, the filmmaker wanted to understand why, and sympathetically investigates the complex motivations behind his friends’ conversion.

Capturing the American peculiarities of malls, frozen food, and even a public shooting through the eyes of a newcomer, Gimme a Faith is a sensitively told take on the contemporary immigrant experience. Over the course of the film, Hao complements his images with his own feelings of isolation as a recent immigrant to this county. Evenhanded with those who choose to hew close to the church, Hao encounters the profound, comforting power that community can hold, even when forged around a foreign and dogmatic religion.

Several films at the festival stood out because of the sheer peculiarity of their subject or design. NOFF seems to encourage these oddities, which, despite some wobbly moments, struck me as promising experiments from burgeoning filmmakers. And no attempt to represent America today would feel complete without an acknowledgment of the increasingly baroque ways in which social and political concerns get framed in the popular (and fringe) consciousness. The festival’s decision to program Chained for Life and Empty Metal—two inventive, though non-Southern, films that stretch contemporary discourse to its limits and which, despite their “difficulty,” proved to be more popular than I expected—made this point abundantly clear.

It would be wrong to say that writer-director Aaron Schimberg’s Chained for Life is only a film about ableism and representation—its meta, funhouse structure reflects on performance and cinephilia as well—but it deftly handles the topics, making clear that fantasy and desire are inseparable components of cinematic representation right in its opening moments. In a long take, a beautiful woman walks through the halls of hospital, surrounded by individuals with disabilities and a variety of other physical conditions. Then, a director yells “cut.” Turns out we’re on the set of a B-movie romance about a “beauty,” Mabel (Jess Weixler), and a “beast,” Rosenthal (Adam Pearson of Under the Skin fame). And as soon as the film’s crew and its stars begin to interact, Chained for Life digs in on its meta-cinematic playfulness.

Throughout the film, the dialogue proliferates to a stifling degree, as well-meaning but clueless hipsters offer up constant one-off approbations of diversity, comments about Orson Welles, and pseudo-profound aphorisms about, well, everything. This churning word soup is overwhelming, borderline meaningless, and often stereotypes the cast members with disabilities of the film within a film. But when those cast members take over the crew’s camera and begin to shoot scenes of their own design, Chained for Life shifts focus to their staged—but more direct and sincerer—conversations about their desires and fantasies. Throughout these shifts of perspective and focus, the film remains basically jocular, all the more so because it’s so keen to what we think we talk about when we talk about representation.

I was talking to a juror and her mother at a party one night when our conversation turned toward politics. The mother expressed a modicum of confidence in the future of the world, but her daughter and I were decidedly more pessimistic. Empty Metal was an excellent riposte to our reaction, taking that same pessimism and probing for a way out it. Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer’s gonzo approach should be evident from even a brief summary of their film: Under constant drone surveillance, a secret organization comprising a Rastafarian, Native American resistance fighters, and an Eastern European Buddhist monk telepathically tap three nihilistic band members to assassinate some of the most repugnant men in the U.S. and set off a revolution. The film is chaotic, dense with references to revolutionaries’ writings, and one of the more original political films of the last year.

Largely cast by nonprofessionals from the directors’ personal circle, Empty Metal is engaged filmmaking in the tradition of Born in Flames. Toying with a chopped and screwed version of our present decade’s aesthetic tropes, the film seriously, but not without humor, queries the limits and meaning of violence, the possibility for meaningful political action under hyper-surveillance, and the end of the world as we know it. Its politics are brazen, and might be objectionable on that front, but in a time where every film can claim to be necessary, urgent, or important, it does so with a lead grin.

Anxiety about the future of New Orleans sat in the back of the mind of every local I spoke with. Like New York and San Francisco before it, New Orleans is in the middle of a development boom that ‘s pushing out longtime residents and threatening to chew away historic neighborhoods. A film festival could likely play little role in reversing such damaging cultural losses, but NOFF entertained the possibility of a more optimistic future for the Big Easy.

Nowhere did this come into relief more than in the festival’s packed premiere of a restoration of Horace B. Jenkins’s 1982 romance Cane River, a melodrama with an affection for all aspects of Louisiana culture. The film, considered lost until a negative was recovered in 2013, concerns a dalliance between Peter Metoyer (Richard Romain), a light-skinned descendant of haughty, wealthy Creoles, and Marie Mathis (Tommye Myrick), a young woman from a poor black family living in a neighboring town. With lengthy musical interludes and a Romeo-and-Juliet narrative that shifts from country to city, the film uses colorism and class differences within black communities as the central conflict to give its well-tread and inevitably soppy source material new life.

Beyond its romantic aims, Cane River feels hopeful that upward mobility, enjoyed by the Metoyers only because of their exceptional history, could one day be shared by all black Americans. This attitude goes deep into the film’s production. Financed by a wealthy black family in New Orleans and shot in the Natchitoches parish, the site of a historically significant “free community of color,” Cane River wears these hopes proudly. Had Jenkins, a successful TV director, been able to distribute his film, there’s no telling what its impact on the region’s film culture could have been. Sadly, he died shortly after its New Orleans premiere and Cane River was warehoused, leaving the world with only a hint of what his popular-minded and fecund imagination was capable of.

Barry Jenkins’s radiant If Beale Street Could Talk proved an exciting complement to Cane River’s vision. Its place at the festival shows how programming decisions can enliven distinct films in unexpected ways. Though the film takes place about a decade earlier than Cane River and in Harlem, they’re both melodramas with grand ambitions. The film centers on Tish (KiKi Layne), a young, soon-to-be mother and her fight to get her boyfriend, Fonny (Stephan James), out of jail, where he landed after a false rape accusation.

If Beale Street Could Talk is achingly idealistic in its depiction of young romance and semi-realistic in its depictions of love’s frustrations at the hands of discrimination and systemic racism. From an opening title card that reminds us that “Beale Street” is in every black neighborhood, the young couple’s romance is tinged with a generality that lets them stand in for similar couples around the country. Their dream is to no longer have to fight for their love, and just like Peter and Marie’s romance in Cane River, and like millions of others, requires an America that doesn’t yet exist to achieve. With determination, that may yet materialize.

The New Orleans Film Festival ran from October 17—25.

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