Thursday, October 29, 2020

A virtual Denver festival and its rewards

    For the past week, I've been attending The Denver Film Festival. You'll have to grant me an ample amount of license here because I'm using the word "attending" in the loosest possible sense. I haven't left home. 
    The 43rd Denver Film Festival, almost an all-virtual affair, has been offering a large selection of films that can be viewed online and I must say that there are appealing things about the arrangement. 
    There are time limits for viewing but even with such constraints (most quite generous), it's possible to view films on your own schedule. You don't have to be at a theater at 7 p.m. and drive home at 10 p.m. -- or later if you decide to catch a late-night show.
     The limitations of online viewing are obvious, so I won't belabor the loss of a sense of community, the inability to schmooze with colleagues, and deficiencies of scale associated with viewing on smaller screens.
     But let's be honest: In the past seven months, we've all become accustomed to streaming -- and, for some, the conveniences of home viewing probably will limit future theatergoing -- even when the pandemic no longer makes us wary about visiting a multiplex.
    I don't think the future of theatrical viewing is especially bright, but I'm not convinced that theaters have seen their last days, either. I doubt that we're done with overpriced popcorn, sodas sipped from containers the size of small wastebaskets or, heaven help us, movie nachos.
     And, yes, Hollywood needs its big event movies and audiences probably want them, too.
     But I digress.
     Initially, the idea of a virtual festival struck me as a wan substitute for the real thing. The word "festival" denotes community and gathering. Virtual events unfold in isolation.
     Really, though, home viewing isn't disastrous.
     On crowds:
     I may be in a minority, but I've never been averse to going to movies alone even before I became a critic. The absence of movie mates doesn't bother me. I don't mind company but I've never found it essential to moviegoing. 
    As for audiences ....  
   They can be a mixed blessing, as well. We're all familiar with the negatives: talking and texting among them. 
    I've also been privileged to be among film enthusiasts who were as moved as I was by a particular film. At a film festival some years ago, I turned to a stranger after the showing of a film I particularly admired. Without saying a word, we understood that we were on the same wavelength. We knew we had just experienced a rare moment of shared appreciation. 
     That’s not the only time I’ve had such experiences. I miss those connections. But that doesn't mean that I can't be moved by watching a film in the comfort of my own home.    

A festival sampler

    So what have I been watching?
    I'll mention a handful of films that are worth putting on your radar.
    Two Iranian-based films -- the documentary Nasrin and the feature There is No Evil -- reaffirmed my faith in the humanity  and courage of those in Iran who struggle against a repressive regime.
     Nasrin tells the story of Nasrin Sotoudeh, a woman who works as a human rights lawyer in Iran, not the most welcome of trades in a highly restrictive society. Sotoudeh has specialized in defending prisoners who have received death sentences and in advocating for women who are being abused by the Iranian legal system.
     Her reward:  She's currently serving 38 years for her work regarding women's rights. The sentence also includes 148 lashes. If you've never heard of Sotoudeh, you owe it to your conscience to see this film.
      There is No Evil also deals with the death penalty, which is often carried out by men who have been conscripted into Iran's armed forces. Director Mohammad Rasoulof tells four separate stories that revolve around Iran's death penalty. But Rasoulof takes an unexpected and morally expansive tact: He tells stories that center on the executioners, two of them who refuse to participate and two who follow orders. 
    Although each episode stands alone, There is No Evil delivers a cumulative impact that you won't soon forget. 
    Other noteworthy films include Apples from Greek director Christos Nikou, who imagines a society in which people are being struck down by a mysterious amnesia epidemic. 
    As an apparently ordinary resident of Athens deals with his amnesia, he becomes a clean slate on which various physicians and helpers try to prescribe an identity for him. 
    That may sound like sci-fi, but Apples has a broader, more humanistic agenda as it slowly morphs into a meditation on grief, loss, and isolation.
      Fair to say that Korean director Hang Sang-soo doesn't make movies for everyone. A study in sly minimalism, Hang's Woman on the Run follows a woman whose husband has taken a business trip as she visits several friends. 
      The dialogue can be stunningly banal and Hang likes to employ zooms that feel dated. But if you stick with the movie, it offers opportunities for reflection on the role men play in the lives of the women in the story, as well as a kind of commentary on the emptiness of ordinary life.
      Not all documentaries follow the typical formula: interviews spiced with footage -- historical and otherwise -- that add movement and scope.
      Frederick Wiseman's four-and-half-hour City Hall continues Wiseman's dedication to fly-on-the-wall thoroughness as he chronicles various aspects of life in Boston with a particular emphasis on Boston's mayor, Marty Walsh. 
      You'll see the city trying to cope with inequality, homelessness, addiction, race and a host of other difficult issues. 
       As is his wont, Wiseman offers no narration but allows viewers to draw their own conclusions about the complexities of keeping a large city operating and the people who devote their lives to the task.
       So,  yes, City  Hall is about the efficacy of local government as seen at meeting after meeting, but by the time it's done, you may conclude what others have long stated: The city is the people. 
       Russian director Viktor Kossakovsky also leaves viewers to their own devices when it comes to finding meaning in his films. Some critics were put off by Kossakovsky's Aquarela,  a film about the earth's waters that, for me, qualified as an astonishing visual achievement. 
      With Gunda, Kossakovsky reduces his scope and seems to have gained more acceptance as a result. He has made a film about farm animals, specifically a pig who has just given birth to piglets,  cows that spend their time grazing and swatting flies with their tails, and a one-legged chicken. 
      I know. That's not the most exciting of descriptions, but Kossakovsky brings his camera into the world of animals in ways that make them the sole occupants of his film.
     Shot in black-and-white, Gunda presents these animals without anthropomorphizing them, but that doesn't mean that the animals we see don't suggest emotional lives that will make you think twice about what the phrase "cruelty to animals" means.*
      These, after all, are farm animals that are being raised for human consumption.
*The above photos are from There is No Evil and Gunda.

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