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Cleveland International Film Festival 2006

Faith, in one way or another, seemed to be on trial frequently at the 30th CIFF.

Cleveland International Film Festival 2006

The theater hosting the 30th annual Cleveland International Film Festival is situated in between two of Cleveland’s landmarks: Tower City and the Gateway Sports Complex. Tower City overlooked the St. Patrick’s Day parade on the festival’s first full day and, later in the week, President Bush’s cavalcade, and Quicken Loans Arena hosted three Cavs games, a Coldplay concert and a leg of the Women’s NCAA Basketball Tournament. With all that going on, it’s easy to imagine the festival taking a backseat to all of the hubbub in the city—in fact, it proved to be stronger than ever. Adding in midnight screenings and expanding early morning options—theoretically making it possible for fanatics to view seven films in one day—helped to break the festival’s attendance record. Of course, screening a handful of more popular options (American Dreamz, Guys and Balls) alongside some local favorites and offering morning screenings to high school students is another measure of expansion: Cleveland Film Society’s desire to make the event something that everyone in Cleveland is actually aware of. If the crowds are any indicator, CFS is well on their way.

Faith, in one way or another, seemed to be on trial frequently at the 30th CIFF, perhaps nowhere more gorgeously or grotesquely than in James Marsh’s The King. Nihilism and fundamentalist religion make odd bedfellows, but such is the challenging juxtaposition set forth in the film. One of several films that managed to sell out both of its screenings, The King features remarkable opposing performances from Gael García Bernal (effectively the Devil…) and William Hurt (…against the preacher), though its aftertaste is appropriately bitter. When the two main forces come to a head, the film’s essential unanswered question is one of how far faith can go; that it forces the question onto the audience rather than answering it itself is disappointing, but it’s hard to question the conclusion’s timing. In its best moments, Eigil Bryld’s camera reminds one of the work of Harris Savides, and Pell James’s simple turn as the daughter of a preacher is worthy of its fierce opposing leads.

The most interesting take on such a deep-seated devotion to faith came from a rather unexpected source: a documentary based on Jehovah’s Witnesses. Admitting the faith itself to be the butt of the joke to the majority of the American population, Knocking moves swiftly from that and takes the faith’s most well known tenet, the door-to-door work that the title implies, and spins it as a positive. The Witnesses, as it turns out, are one of the few fundamentalist faiths that don’t seem to think all other faiths are evil, hell-bound and worthy of being annihilated from the face of the earth. Rather than focus on the faith as a purely religious endeavor, though, Knocking goes through several of the dozens of Supreme Court rulings revolving around Jehovah’s Witnesses since World War II; one might be surprised to learn that such a strict faith had such a quiet impact on civil rights litigation. In keeping with the idea of this faith as progressive rather than archaic, Joel Engardio and Tom Shepard profile a young Witness in need of an experimental “bloodless” liver transplant. Even though this leads to one of two “everything is solved” tearjerker conclusions. One of the bloodiest operations needs to keep transfusion out of the mix due to faith. Even though this leads to one of two “everything is solved” tearjerker conclusions, the film’s odd spin of this notoriously “backward” religion into a positive, progressive option ends up as one of the festival’s more interesting spins.

Progressive faith rears its head again in Camp Out, the profile of the first gay Christian Bible summer camp. Ten campers take up the offer to try to celebrate a faith that has many proponents condemning them to Hell. This bothers some (now-Wiccan Scancy) more than others (Thomas, now at Bible college), and the film focuses more on issues surrounding the gay teen than it does the gay Christian teen. Camp Out profiles a camp that’s more like a regular summer camp than one might think, but that’s only because the only real interventions of faith come through the aforementioned Thomas; we’re introduced to other, non-faith related issues in most of the other campers that eat up some of the more interesting challenges these teens must deal with day in and out.

Being confronted on a daily basis with questions of one’s sexuality certainly isn’t news to Hard Pill’s Tim, who volunteers for a study that will use a pill to remove his homosexuality. Though characters and fake interviewees in the film position the drug (or any such endeavor) as an absolute evil designed to eradicate homosexuality, both Tim and the film treat the drug more like an antidepressant. Tim is unhappy with his homosexuality—he can get a date with a woman, but gay men aren’t interested—and seeks a treatment much like his straight friend Don who wrestles with depression. It has an amateur feel to it, but Hard Pill does cover just about every possible aspect of this drug’s side effects, not just to Tim but also to the co-worker who hopes he comes back straight so they can date, or the ambiguously straight guy who comes out to him in a romantic fashion.

The newest competition in this year’s Festival was the Greg Gund Memorial “Standing Up” Competition, honoring films that, in the words of the festival organizers, “have a conscience.” The result was a marked rise in (largely one-sided) films on activism, for better or worse. One-sided to be sure but also provocative—particularly in the northeast Ohio area—is American Blackout, unsurprising winner of the audience vote. Blackout serves two real purposes: bringing light to the various ways that elections are effectively being “stolen” and profiling the up and down career of Rep. Cynthia McKinney. The film has the odd distinction of being a Michael Moore film without the cutesy, manipulative propaganda; director Ian Inaba’s “just the facts” approach, while giving it a one-sided feel, doesn’t ever manage to feel too deceptive. When profiling McKinney, a guest at the film’s second screening, the film picks up its “standing up” torch with verve, flaunting McKinney, outspoken to the last, as a potentially model representative, practicing her own level of social justice and activism at the national level.

However, the potentially more interesting film in the category (by just a smidgen, at least) is Clear Cut: The Story of Philomath, Oregon. A fellow Sundance screener, Clear Cut investigates the questionable pulling of a small-town scholarship program when the foundation’s organizers decide that the school district is turning its students against the town’s native logging industry. Remarkably well edited between the two sides, director Peter Richardson’s feature-length debut garners a remarkable amount of trust from both sides in order to make one of the most even-handed documentaries in recent memory. The narrative is remarkably well strung throughout contrasting interviews without the aid of narration. Its inclusion in the category is most interesting, perhaps, because the person “standing up” in this instance is a right-wing old-fashioned nut who’s the exact opposite of the heftily liberal crowd at CIFF.

But, sadly, a lot of the films in the category do come off as either one-sided or self-congratulatory. I’m glad, of course, that the workers in the Sesame Workshop profiled in The World According to Sesame Street love their work and put all their effort into it, but inundating the viewer with the same peppy chant grinds the film to a halt. The self-promotion of the film manages to detract from the (honestly quite interesting) procedure of adapting Sesame Street to other cultures and the pitfalls encountered along the way. More inundation occurs in Zero Degrees of Separation, which claims the longest epithet-title of the festival with “gay-and-lesbian Jewish/Palestinian couples documentary,” begging the question whether or not there’s any room left in the film for the story. Again, the subjects repeat the same mantra over and over again, aggravating not only the Israeli soldiers they readily test, but also the patience of the viewer. Switch Off is another tale of injustice, here a power company that uproots Chilean nationals for kicks, that offers no real support to the tortured souls other than getting their story on film. Whether or not limited screenings at a handful of film festivals is enough to placate the loss of their homeland certainly remains to be seen.

Only two juried competitions exist at Cleveland’s festival: an Eastern European film category and a documentary filmmaking competition. A Little Piece of Heaven, hailing from the Czech Republic, took home the former category, wrapping the weighty subject of political prisoners around the little finger of making prison life bearable. It’s not a direct steal of either Life Is Beautiful or The Shawshank Redemption, but there are enough common elements to make the film all too familiar from the get-go, and so its effect is diminished in spite of a solid crop of performances. The Nesnadny & Schwartz documentary film competition’s main prize was awarded to Iraq in Fragments, a sort of foil to Gunner Palace in that it takes the fractured view of the Iraq war not from the soldier’s standpoints, but from three ordinary Iraqi citizens. Not only an impressively edited but also a gorgeously shot doc, Fragments has an intimacy and a genuine feel to it that most films from foreign crews exiting the Middle East can claim.

But the big prize (both in name and in scope), the Plain Dealer Roxanne T. Mueller Memorial Audience Choice Award, was awarded to Live and Become. Radu Mihaileanu’s moving, tripartite tale of an Ethiopian refugee masquerading as a Sudanese Jew to save his own life isn’t a far cry from the usual Audience Choice winners, most of which focus on inspirational children overcoming adversity (the last three winners, in order: Mad Hot Ballroom, Born into Brothels, and Spellbound). There is a child overcoming adversity here, as Live and Become’s Schlomo fits the mold perfectly, but the three performers taking on each different stage of his life remarkably realize his character. Schlomo tackles all manners of challenges: disconnection from his mother, Jewish intolerance to refugees, racism and the like. What sets Live and Become apart from other recent audience award winners, though, is its remarkable direction: Though Mihaileanu focuses in on a handful of scenes of conflict, he’s more interested in the fallout and interaction between these characters, making for a less immediate, more nuanced film.

Perhaps to be expected, some of the best films in the festival weren’t lumped into any particular category whatsoever. Two screenings out of Iceland, Screaming Masterpiece and Dark Horse in particular, represent some of the better off-the-wall selections of the festival. Apart from offering fantastic Björk and Sigur Rós concert footage, Screaming Masterpiece takes a look into the ever burgeoning Icelandic music scene. The film is more than just declaring Reykjavik the new Montreal in terms of emerging artists—it ties those sounds, often considered far too strange for the mainstream, into the search for a national identity. Björk’s generation and those following her are the first to really ask the question, “What does it mean to be Icelandic?” The question leads to music of all forms, shapes and sizes (and even helps to explain Medúlla in its own way), and the crossover between music and film is felt strongly when Dagur Kári, director of Dark Horse, appears in the film with his own band.

Iceland may be a small community, but it’s brimming with artistic talent in one form or another, and Kari’s second feature establishes him as a master of both. It must be a surreal experience to live in his world. Dark Horse’s main love triangle features a slacking graffiti artist, an overzealous wannabe soccer referee, and a bakery worker on shrooms. Until the film’s final chapter, the film powers forth on absurdity both in plotline and surroundings, until the two polarized storylines—the other about a judge—take their more serious turns into the ether. It’s this last chapter in which Kari really shines, putting his comedy on hold to get to the real heart of these characters, and doing it in some of the fine black-and-white cinematography.

Another black-and-white film at the festival, A Wonderful Night in Split, has the distinction of being the first Croatian film with Coolio as a supporting figure. Blending storylines together on New Year’s Eve, the film is shot by a much bleaker, more contrasted camera, following a drug deal gone wrong, an accidental crack whore and two young lovers who experiment with acid. Perhaps lasting just a few moments too long, the film makes great use of its gothic surroundings, even though none of the characters use the rebirth that the new year offers them.

Surely, too, there were only middling successes. Red Mercury is a particularly inert thriller that mistakes Juliet Stevenson (the mother from Bend It Like Beckham) for 24’s Jack Bauer and mistakes Stockard Channing for a Greek restauranteur in London. Channing manages to save the day in her own way—splattering a tray of Mediterranean delicacies over a terrorist (no, seriously, I don’t care if I give it away—that shit is funny). The film features the three most inept terrorists ever and a group of hostages who could do their jobs better, presumably because they watch 24 or things like Red Mercury on a regular basis. The whole thing reeks of satire, but it comes back to a serious tone too often to be considered pure camp.

Unlike two German features, Measures to Better the World and Guys and Balls. The former is a mashup of various “betterment” programs done in mockumentary style designed to poke fun at some remarkably ridiculous ideas. Some of the segments are hilarious (and would work brilliantly as shorts), but the overall effect is a little uneasy-are the filmmakers saying that progression itself is absurd? Or just the over-PC methods by which these are put together? Guys and Balls, on the other hand, already has its status as queer camp stamped on its forehead. Taking every derivative sports film plot and applying it to a gay soccer team works, well, about as well as every other derivative sports film does.

One of the few full-length animated features at the festival, Bill Plympton’s Hair High deserves praise just for its voice cast (including but not limited to Sarah Silverman, David Carradine and Michael Showalter). What Plympton gains in terms of voice direction and paying homage (Matt Groening and Don Hertzfeldt also star), he misses out on, though, in terms of taking the “shock” animation well past its prime. Sure, one or two gross-out moments in an animated film to break the mood is fine, but when they become the norm of the film, the effect is completely dulled.

The class of the festival, though, was Kim Ki-duk’s truly magnificent The Bow. His style remains largely the same, but there’s a different sort of audacity at work in the film, where the only words spoken by the two leads are hushed fortunes told by a fisherman’s bow and arrow. The bow itself takes on many forms, from entertainment for the couple to protection to representing their eventual bond. What’s more remarkable, though, than just the two leads remaining silent, is how strongly their emotions and relationship are registered. As Kim progresses, he remains fixated on Buddhist themes, but the glacial pacing and somber tone that worked so well in Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring is alive and well in The Bow, another fine addition to the Kim catalog.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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