Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
The Port Townsend Film Festival has kicked off its 22nd (mostly virtual) event. I’ve been involved as a host/interviewer with PTFF since 2001, when I did a Q&A with Eva Marie Saint after a screening of All Fall Down (oh, what a blissful night). This year, I recorded three Zoom interviews with filmmakers—for Beans, The Story Won’t Die, and Mission Joy: Finding Happiness in Troubled Times, if you must know. Consider supporting PTFF this year, and check out the lineup here.
Some quick hits on movies I’ve seen:
The Story Won’t Die: A documentary look at Syrian artists who fled the civil war in their country and are trying to make sense of the chaos through art. This would be a compelling subject even in a halfway-decent presentation, but director David Henry Gerson has honored these vivid people by creating a film that is itself beautiful to the eye; its interviews embody the idea that documentaries might use camera angle, lighting, and color to evoke a way of seeing the world, rather than simply reporting on it. That’s what artists do, too, and the approach suits this sensitive treatment of these Syrian artists—some of whom were tortured by the state before they left the country, all of whom carry the trauma of the displaced. As one person says of past harassment, “Luckily I am an artist, so I have space to put my memories,” a cogent statement about the gift and responsibility of being an artist.
Beans: Director Tracey Deer experienced the Oka Crisis (a months-long standoff between Mohawk communities and the Quebec government in 1990) as a 12-year-old girl, and shapes this memory-film through the perspective of an adolescent. The movie has just the right blend of Historical Document and coming-of-age drama, and it doesn’t sugarcoat anything. Plus, the film has a nervy central performance by Kiawentiio, a young indigenous actress who easily carries the complicated business at hand.
Mission Joy: Finding Happiness in Troubled Times. A blissed-out portrait of the friendship between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, largely drawn from a long interview with the two, but filled out with other perspectives and histories. (One of those perspectives comes from the Dalai Lama’s interpreter, who seems worthy of a documentary portrait himself.) The two have a playful, almost childlike rapport, and it makes you wonder whether we’d all be better off at this level of kindness and play. There’s one fascinating passage that creates a fascinating talking point: The two men meet a group of immigrant children, and one little girl breaks down; Tutu responds with plain compassion, the Dalai Lama with the Buddhist long view, which suddenly sounds just a little inadequate when dealing with a child in pain. And yet, not wrong.
End of the Line: The Women of Standing Rock. Heart-rending look at the Native American pushback against the Dakota Access Pipeline, with special emphasis on some incredibly gutsy women at the forefront. It may make you wonder why we have a world in which people are constantly standing in front of bulldozers and police dogs.
Luzzu: A serious and dedicated neo-neo-realist film, set in Malta with mostly non-professional actors. The milieu is the twilight of small-boat fishermen, with a focus on one young father who still uses the same brightly-colored wooden boat his great-grandfather took to sea. It’s not that writer-director Alex Camilleri finds a lot of surprises in the storyline—there’s a black market in seafood into which our main character (played by a Maltese fisherman, Jesmark Scicluna) inevitably wades, for instance—but that the setting and the people are so authentic in their bones, and that the sadness of the situation is everywhere felt. There aren’t a lot of long speeches about what went wrong in this system, but the shots of huge container ships looming over the harbor seem to be speaking clearly. It builds to a scene in a junkyard that I won’t describe for fear of spoilers, except to say that it includes a moment that comes close to magical realism, without ever really going there, and that it is completely earned and terribly poignant.
September 24, 2021
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.