Highlights from The 15th Annual Phoenix Film Festival – Part 1
Article by Ray Schillaci
For quite some time Phoenix, AZ has played host to one of the friendliest film festivals to independent filmmakers in the nation. Originally started in 2000 as a film festival for Arizona filmmakers by independent filmmakers Golan Ramras and Chris LaMont, they enlisted the help of Program Director Greg Hall and World Cinema Director Slobodan Popovic to further their ambitions. Later in 2004, they would bring on Festival Director Jason Carney. The festival has grown over the years, developed the added attraction of hosting the International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival that plays alongside the regular film fare and has become the biggest festival in the state of Arizona, screening features and shorts from all over the world.
According to many attending the festival, filmmakers and moviegoers alike, this was one of the best years yet. There seemed to be an over abundance of great films that ran the audience through a gamut of emotions. Parties and live entertainment were aplenty at the Party Pavilion with attendees encouraged to join the filmmakers for further Q&As regarding their films. Informative seminars were offered by industry professionals. A “Kid’s Day” was provided for children of all ages, giving them great insight into the art of film. And, a “Geek Day” for the kid in so many of us celebrating everything from comic books to zombies.
Probably the most humbling part about this particular festival is that it has never forgotten its roots. After becoming a huge success, and attaining such high profile movies from Disney to Al Pacino films (“Danny Collins” and “Manglehorn”), the festival continues to spotlight and honor Arizona filmmakers from shorts to features. Also, the festival and its highly enthusiastic volunteer staff continue their time-honored tradition of having a profound respect for filmmakers and moviegoers alike.
With sixty features and well over 100 shorts screening in an eight day period, it was impossible to see everything. That is why I have made this a two-part article. What I was fortunate enough to see proved to be quite rewarding. Intriguing documentaries, heart warming dramas, remarkable foreign films, and some horror and sci-fi that one cannot help but tell their friends about.
The documentaries really shined this year, and some of the competition films proved to be every bit as good as the showcase films. I happened to catch four documentaries, three of which were competition films. All were not only highly informative, but very effective in providing a wave of strong emotions. Some were so good, one could not help but wonder how anybody could pick a winner.
Bryan Law’s “Of the Land” was not only a documentary, but was also a World Cinema competitor as well. Law presented his effective argument in regards to our agriculture and land in the last half-century and how it has drastically changed more than in thousands of years, and probably for the worse. For those who never read Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” this film may not only swear many off meat, but it may leave so many others to wonder where we can turn to for food.
Using stock footage from the ‘50s and ‘60s to add bite to his bark, Law also enlists the aid of scientists and organic farmers making us aware of the effects of GMOs and how corporate greed (Monsanto) is dominating our food industry at the cost of the world’s health. At one time people had a better choice by turning to organic foods, but the family farms are proving no match to the power of Monsanto. The director brings to our attention how the corporation has not only gain control of organic farming, but has also infiltrated the food and drug administration, and has a clear hold on our government. The film is more of an awareness piece than a fear mongering one, and leaves us with an urge for demanding answers and taking action.
“A Dog Named Gucci” left many in tears with its poignant story. But to the filmmaker’s credit, it was far from manipulating. Director Gorman Bechard was also one that was more interested in an awareness campaign rather than taking the easy route of inflammatory cinema. The “Gucci Bill” changed the laws in Alabama turning animal cruelty into a felony, and starting a wondrous domino effect throughout the nation. Gucci was a ten week old puppy that was hung by its neck, beaten repeatedly and then set afire. Somehow this pup survived, and his savior and new owner, Doug James, fought not only for his life, but for all other animals in his state.
Where many could have focused on the cruelty and the perpetrator, Bechard chooses to highlight the fight against such viciousness, the happiness and companionship that blossoms, and the bureaucratic struggles to achieve what is right. It’s a wonderful and beautiful testament to Gucci, his owner, and all other animals and the people that care for them. If all that was not enough, Bechard encourages us to stay through the entire credits delivering absorbing anecdotes, information on how to combat animal cruelty, and an absolutely compassionate song that makes one want to go out and purchase it immediately.
But the winner for Best Documentary and the Dr. Sydney K Shapiro Humanitarian Award went to “Angel of Nanjing”, the incredible story of blue collar worker Chen Si who for eleven years has been preventing suicides from happening off the Yangtze River Bridge in Nanjing, China. Jordan Horowitz and Frank Ferendo bring this incredible tale of human kindness in an unsympathetic matter-of-fact light much like the subject of their film. Chen, having no formal education in psychology, continues to save lives and finds himself compelled to do so. He cannot understand why the phenomena of the suicide rate on the bridge went on as long as it had.
We see Chen go about his daily life as a good and dutiful husband, a manager for a transport company, and the famous samaritan that he has become. But fame does not affect this man. Even with all the televised reports and news articles regarding his life-saving efforts, Chen Si remains grounded and dedicated. He is genuinely concerned about the people he saves and goes as far as to keep in touch and help solve the problems that burden them.
It’s an impossible task, but the man appears undaunted. Directors Horowitz and Ferendo chronicle the man’s life, but have no answers as to what compels him. That’s because Chen just finds it a natural act for him. He has immersed himself in saving lives and making them better, and cannot see any other way to live his life. What sets this human interest story above all others is not just the man’s commitment, but the way his blue collar roots are captured.
The spiky black-haired 42 year-old with the stained tobacco teeth and gruff exterior seems the most unlikely candidate for an angel. But for all intents and purposes, the man is. We witness his handling of many attempted suicides and ones that hang by the bridge merely contemplating their end. Chen has several different approaches. He can be sympathetic, and he can be no-nonsense, acting as if he is furious for their ridiculous thoughts of killing themselves.
Jordan Horowitz and Frank Ferendo take to the run-down streets and neighborhoods, the now famous bridge, and the crowded city and bring the weight of the world that is carried on the shoulders of these people through an almost murky look. Yet, they manage to bring a smile to our face as well with Chen’s subdued humor, which can be infectious. They demonstrate beautifully how one smile, one kind word, and the simple act of caring can break through all the gray and save a life that was once perceived unworthy by its owner, providing that much needed ray of hope for a better future.
“Best of Enemies” was the last documentary I was able to catch, and it was enormously popular the few times it played. Directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville treat us to the creation of the pundits. In 1968, CBS and NBC ruled the airwaves with the National Conventions. ABC was floundering, and resorted to something completely different; nationally televised debates between two infamous intellectual public figures, Gore Vidal and William F Buckley, Jr. What the network received was far more than it bargained for, and the ratings went through the roof.
These two men from opposite ends of the spectrum, far right and far left, actually loathed one another, and had no qualms about letting it be known. They went as far as taking their fight beyond their network show, into respected publications, and even went to court. Their hatred of one another was the fuel that some could say began network news as a new form of entertainment rather than the diligent information center that the public could trust and turn to.
Gordon and Neville bring back into the limelight these heated debates that get so heated they not only elicit laughter, but to this day still provide a few gasps as well. They also interject wonderfully entertaining interviews from people in the know from that time period. Those interviews not only give us a remarkable insight into these two intellectuals, but also provide a very funny look into ABC. It almost reminds one of what FOX was like when it first started with barely any following, floundering in the ratings, and eventually clawing to the top for success.
“Best of Enemies” doesn’t just stop at the sideshow of it all. The directors give us a melancholy portrait of the two men, their eventual end, and the near death of respectable news anchors. The film eventually delivers an era both cherished for its fresh take and reviled by many for what it ultimately became.
As I mentioned before, there were so many great film and shorts, and one I am compelled to give special attention to was the documentary short “Tomgirl” directed by Jeremy Asher Lynch. I happen to catch this particular screening cold, not knowing anything about it at all, and I have to say that it is probably the most impactful way to view it. The message this very special film delivers is sincere in its undertaking and remarkably touching.
The journey of this adorable seven year-old is so filled with joy and acceptance that one cannot help get caught into an emotional whirlpool of emotions. The whole production is gorgeous and near infectious in its joyous presentation. I could easily have watched this as a feature. It so left me wanting more. Director Lynch is to be commended along with all those that support this unique child. Do yourself a favor and seek out this exceptional film, and do not look up what it is about (as I did). I believe most of you will be as touched as the audiences at the festival were.
Rounding out Part One of this article, I have to give mention to the winner of three awards in all, including Best Picture, and another film that pretty much succeeded in its high wire act. One was a competition film, the other a showcase feature film. Both films were touching dramas that received enthusiastic applause and praise from their audience.
One cannot help but notice the effort director Chris Dowling of “Where Hope Grows” puts into crossing over from non-secular to secular and encouraging everyone to enjoy his story. The film is a non-secular film, but unlike so many others it does not wear its moniker on its sleeve. Dowling presents us with an absorbing tale of a former pro baseball player and single father who’s become increasingly self destructive over the years yet slowly turns his life around when he befriends a young man with Down syndrome.
To some, this may sound like movie-of-the-week fare, and in less capable hands it could easily be. But Dowling injects humor and pathos into the story along with a breezy quality in his character’s development. It also helps that our two lead actors Kristofer Polaha as Calvin Campbell and David DeSanctis as “Produce” have exceptional chemistry. Campbell gives us a lived-in portrayal of the frustrated and sometimes angry former pro. There’s almost a Kevin Costner-like quality, you know the kind that we now cherish from some of his greatest sports films. Then there is Mr. DeSanctis, who has Down syndrome and has never acted before, he is a natural. His warmth, genuine and humor always enjoyable. Not one false note.
What makes the film is their bond, and it is what successfully has this film become a crossover even with the light non-secular touches. Yes, there are the battles of alcoholism, the AA meetings, the return to church, but none of it’s overbearing. Dowling introduces most of the trappings with a very light touch. For the secular audience, we do not feel preached to.
If I had one small thing to change to make the film even more accessible to the secular audience it would be the brief scene when our lead falls off the wagon and goes digging through his trash for his alcohol that his daughter had thrown away. All too many times non-secular films tend to raise the dramatic bar with maudlin music to hammer their point across. Somehow that music accompanying that scene slipped by the director and for the secular audience that throws us out of the real drama of the moment. It may be a nit-picky point, but Dowling’s film ends up being such an enjoyable feel-good movie that it only causes this secular critic to want him to go the distance and not chance losing a well-deserved audience.
The big winner of the festival was Frank Hall Green’s “Wildlike”. Winner of Best Acting Ensemble, Best Screenplay and Best Picture which pulled out all the stops in its breathtaking Alaskan beauty and subtle emotional impact. Ella Purnell plays Mackenzie, a troubled teen who is sent by her struggling mother to live with her uncle in Juneau, Alaska. Unfortunately, Uncle is on the creepy side and is not above manhandling his underage niece. First chance she gets, Mackenzie runs away and attempts to head back to Seattle.
We see MacKenzie making bad decisions, stumbling through awkward situations, and eventually meeting up with an older man who’s wife passed away a year before. Bruce Greenwood delivers a gentle and earthy performance as Rene Bartlett, the man determined to travel alone through an area of Alaska that he and his wife were suppose to trek through. MacKenzie finally finds someone she can place trust in, but it is not an easy union.
Some may consider Rene to be the father figure that Mackenzie has been searching for, but he could easily be just a decent enough human being that Mackenzie needs in her life. Although, it’s not an easy pairing since the man resists having so much emotional baggage even though he does care for her well-being. Their journey through the Alaskan wild and how they connect on so many emotional levels is a trip worth taking. Frank Hall Green somehow not only captures the intimacy of his two explorers, but also of the wilderness itself. Quiet moments are so nuanced that one cannot help reflect on the wonders of both human nature and nature itself.
Ella Purnell demonstrates a natural ability to convey strength and vulnerability all at once. She can be both spunky and timid, and we believe her every step of the way. The one thing I could not get over was her striking resemblance to actress Reese Witherspoon, and how both have now done films with wildlife settings around the same time period.
Green gives us an absorbing look into this troubled teen, the men in her life all the while providing something much more than just a travelogue. He incorporates the John Ford techniques, showing us how small we really are compared to everything going on around us, but then brings us back with an intimacy that keeps us well in touch with those we care about. “Wildlike” is a gorgeous film that touches our heart and soul.
In Part Two of this article I have my picks of amazing foreign films from World Cinema and a close look into the terror and the fanciful of the International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival. In the meantime, I urge you to seek out release dates to these great films. Some already have U.S. Theatrical releases, some have VOD deals, and others are still seeking distribution. Here’s to all finding their audience.