Dispatches From The 2022 Tallgrass Film Festival
Everyone's favorite fall tradition is back! Unfortunately, this year it hit at the exact same time as everyone's other favorite fall tradition, KMUW's pledge drive... so I had to fit screenings in around fundraising. As a result, I only ended up with 10 films from the festival this year, but that also means I'll have a lot of (hopefully) great stuff to catch up on that I didn't get to see. But here's a look at what I did catch...
The Opening Night Gala film for the festival, a charming, colorful, sweet comedy about a small-time heist in Los Angeles’ Little India—I won’t say a lot about it here, except that it’s a low-key delight, and you should just go listen to my interview with director/writer Ravi Kapoor.
Wes Schlagenhauf is Dying
I have no idea if making a pandemic comedy is still in terrible taste or if we’re past that, but at least Parker Seaman and Devin Das, who wrote and star in this movie (Seaman directs), have figured out a smart way to do it—they set this in 2020, when we were all even dumber than we are now about COVID-19. And it’s a good place to mine jokes, because so many of us had similar experiences, being shut away inside our houses, and very, very, very concerned with hand sanitizer and face shields.
Seaman and Das play semi-struggling movie directors, or, really, TV commercial directors, as those seem to be the gigs they’re able to get. They don’t love it, shilling for corporate America, though it pays some of the bills. One day, they get a call from their friend Wes, who used to live in L.A. with them but who quit acting and moved home to Boise three years earlier. Wes says he has COVID (“Nineteen???” one of them asks) and he’s probably dying. So Seaman and Das, the good sensitive friends they are, decide to shoot a documentary of themselves traveling to see Wes before he maybe (but probably doesn’t) die from the disease. Really, Wes doesn’t seem all that bad off, but who can tell.
The movie comes at all of this from a couple of angles, and it’s most successful when it’s finding its comedy in the early-pandemic world, because much of the humor isn’t right in your face—Seaman and Das do a good job of just reminding us how nutty it all was to go through, it’s not something that needs much punching up (during one phone conversation the two have with each other, we quickly cut between each of them pinching their extra tummy fat while looking in the mirror, something distressingly familiar to nearly all of us). It’s weaker when it gets a little too meta with the documentary film, largely because at this point in time, that’s a tired device that’s not really necessary to tell the story. I admit there were times when the characters grated on my nerves, though some of this is by design, and fortunately it’s short and doesn’t overstay its welcome. And, ultimately, whether the movie is tasteless or not, it made me laugh.
Home Owners (Para entrar a vivir)
Part of the festival’s “Murmurations” program, featuring movies from Spain, this shows a good way to have a successful comedy with a very small cast, basically one location, and a pretty simple idea (it doesn’t seem like it, but it is). Ana and Maxi are a thirty-something couple looking for a place to live that doesn’t cost them a lot of money. They come upon a too-good-to-be-true apartment in the middle of the city, an apartment that’s enormous, beautiful, has a swimming pool and a garden, you get the idea. Why has no one rented this, considering it’s going for a bargain-basement price? Ah, well, that’s the question, of course. There’s talk about the previous tenant having gone insane and disappeared, and apparently the building was designed by a strange German architect who held Freemason meetings there, but what of it? And at this price, too!
The two move in, and before long they realize something strange is going on. But not at all what you might expect going into something like this. It does seem there is a supernatural force, but this one actually seems kind of… good? And not just good, but really good—essentially anything either Ana or Maxi wishes for just shows up. It fulfills their every desire instantly. Want some tikka masala for dinner? Done. A huge TV with video games? Done. Heck, you want to win the lottery? Check your bank account. Does everyone live happily ever after then? Well…
Naturally, things get a bit hairy, and maybe this unseen force isn’t quite as benevolent as it seems, which is all compounded by the fact that Ana and Maxi aren’t really on the same page when it comes to their future together—he wants kids, she really doesn’t seem interested right now, and it strains their relationship.
This is essentially what we get, and it works because it’s short (just more than 70 minutes, though it could have been shorter) and the characters are relatable. Yeah, the guy does some dumb things for a while, but when he’s confronted with the reality of what they’re dealing with, he doesn’t need a ton of convincing. It’s a fun spin on the “haunted house” idea, and even more so on the pandemic-initiated trend of having just a couple people in one space.
Public Toilet Africa (Amansa Tiafi)
An entry in this year’s Gordon Parks competition, and one that may both benefit and suffer from trying to be too many things at once. It takes place in Ghana, and generally follows a young woman who had been sold to a rich white man as a servant, but who has now left her bondage and seeks revenge on those who were responsible. But we only spend some of our time with her, at other points we’re with a local politician who’s out stumping for votes, with two ex-cops who are sort of bumbling around trying to figure out how to pay back a debt before they get into too much trouble for owing that debt, and with a man who’s being tried in a rigged village court.
But this is not what’s too much—showing all of these aspects of Ghanaian life (even as heightened as some of them may be here) was by far the most welcome part of this film. Local politics is something I often see African filmmakers shoving very sharp knives into, and I’ve said more than a couple times that the social commentary that results is as cutting and trenchant as any in the world. And that’s no different here. Neither is the look at the local trial, a sham process that we’re told is a sham, in which the outcome is predetermined and everyone knows it, including the man on trial. The proceedings here reminded me of a number of scenes from films by the great Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène, in which the ridiculousness of the situation is apparent throughout and only escalates as it continues. And the two ex-cops—many (most?) cultures have a folkloric tradition that involves two bumbling characters who seem to get into trouble, often by their own doing, and whose seemingly innocuous actions end up having much bigger consequences. I certainly can’t guarantee that’s what was being referenced here, but I wouldn’t be surprised. These two spend a lot of time bantering with each other, scurrying from one place to the next, before hitting on a scheme to steal palm wine from one person to pay it back to the other person they owe, all of which ends up having a major effect on most of the other characters in the film, while they run off in the other direction. The way it all plays out is magnificent, seeming to be kind of aimless for much of the film, but actually being something else entirely.
What is all too much is the film’s style. And what I mean is that it often seems like it’s been directed by multiple people (though only one director is credited, Kofi Ofosu-Yeboah). There are scenes that involve thrilling camerawork and seem expertly crafted, right alongside others that are clunky and amateurish. There are artfully observed pieces of social critique alongside a voiceover that’s awkward in execution (though I understand the use of it, the idea wasn’t a bad one). It’s just a little hard to reconcile the wide gaps in quality, and I’d be curious to know more about how the film was made. Still, if your biggest sin is trying to do too much, that’s far more forgivable than taking no chances at all.
The winner of the festival’s Narrative Feature category, which you’d have to expect after seeing each of the movies in competition. Though a couple of them were delightfully creative, this was by far the most inventive, using an astonishing array of animation styles to tell its (loose) story. Basically, it follows two guys in the Old West who may or may not have accidentally been responsible for the death of a musician and who are trying to get to the town where that musician is now, assuming he’s not dead. Because it all depends on which universe they’re in, of course. What I’m saying here isn’t quite right, but it doesn’t matter, because really we use this as a springboard for a very wiggly narrative that plays with the idea of infinite universes and timelines that all sprout from each other and different decisions that are made at different times. And mostly, we’re here to look at the animation, much of which is rotoscoped, that technique of animating over live action, a la Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, which clearly was a huge influence on this film, in technique, tone, and philosophy. This one is deliberately paced in the way Linklater’s movie is, which I’m not sure does this one a great service, or at least doesn’t at 100 minutes—the wisp of a story combined with the brain-twisting multiverse aspect leaves me mostly just admiring the animation, which is very much to be admired. But it’s also not enough to keep me going for the full running time. I love innovative animation, but it’ll only take me so far. This all may be less of a criticism of the movie than an admission of my own biases, but mine is the only perspective I can give, at least in this universe. Still, there’s a whole lot to like here.
Midday Black Midnight Blue
A situation in which I very much applaud a film having an idea, even if the execution wasn’t to my tastes. A bearded man is grieving the death of his partner, who walked into a lake Virginia Woolf-style (there are a lot of Woolf references here, some explicit, some less so). We see the man as he is now, with his distant stare, and we see him in flashback when the woman he loved was still alive. And along the way, we see how their relationship played out, the good and the bad.
Well, sort of. At some point it becomes clear that the man has had a serious break with reality, and these flashbacks become more and more chaotic, and eventually call into question everything we’ve seen to that point, making us wonder if even the more mundane flashbacks were shown to us objectively in any way, or if they were all filtered through his increasingly erratic subjectivity.
All of which is an idea I like a lot. The problem is, the slow burn ends up being too slow. It takes so much time to get to where we see what is all going on that I was far too disengaged from the people in the movie to have a real emotional reaction. Compounding that is the fact that no one is all that interesting to begin with—they’re just not saying or doing anything that made me want to spend time with them, and so by the time we get to the central conceit, it’s just a curiosity. Either we could have had our characters feel and behave like real, complicated people, or we could have slid down the slope much more quickly. But we can’t have dull characters and an extremely slow burn at the same time, there’s no way for us to stay engaged until we get to the turn. It’s unfortunate, because there were some possibilities here. But I would always rather have filmmakers shoot for an idea and fail than play everything safe and succeed at taking no chances.
Shall I Compare You to a Summer’s Day?
There’s a theme emerging among the Narrative Feature competition entries, in that they certainly have ideas, but they’re ideas that may not fully work for me, personally. Wes Schlagenhauf mostly did, but Midday Black Midnight Blue couldn’t quite execute its plan to my satisfaction, and Quantum Cowboys is wondrous in many ways, but for far too long (give me a 70-minute version of that one and I’m telling everyone to see it). Here, though, is one that does exactly what it wants to, is terribly creative, and doesn’t overstay its welcome at all, but simply uses a style that rarely connects with me. But if you’re not me, you might love it!
This hour-long film takes the form of a sort of diary of the romantic/sexual experiences of its director, Mohammad Shawky Hassan, told as if they’re stories from One Thousand and One Nights. It’s not entirely clear if it’s entirely fictional, or partly so, or not at all, but that hardly matters. We have the director speaking to his lovers, who address the camera directly while all manner of dazzling scenes play out around and behind them—animated scenes, musical bits, brightly colored dancehalls, images I could never have conceived of myself. And all of that it truly a delight to see—sadly, for me, this style of having an extremely loose narrative delivered in this quasi-confessional way is just not something that’s ever worked all that well. It’s a wonder to look at, though, and as with this entire category: ideas, ideas, ideas. I will always salute you for that.
The Pez Outlaw
The winner of the Documentary Feature competition, and while I haven’t seen the other entries in this category, like Quantum Cowboys, which won for Narrative, it’s not terribly hard to see why this took the prize. Intrigue? Yes. Nostalgia? It’s here. Hazy truth? Everyone loves it. A genuine character as your subject. Boy howdy.
This tells the story of Steve Glew, who spent much of the 1990s running a sort of black market trade in Pez dispensers, bringing dispensers from Eastern Europe to the U.S.—because Pez America had total control over which dispensers could be sold in this country, there were a whole ton of them that collectors here couldn’t get ahold of, because they weren’t allowed in. This is where Steve came in. The thing is, he wasn’t some master smuggler or anything, he’s just kind of a kooky guy who went and did this thing. His real genius was having the gumption to do it.
The documentary does a good job of setting up heroes and villains, no matter how much that may or may not reflect reality. There’s Steve, our hero, although we know he’s kind of full of it sometimes, and he may not really be telling us the whole truth about everything. There’s the head of Pez American (the “Pezident,”) who tries to thwart Glew at every turn, and even a mysterious Austrian whose actions and motives are shrouded in secrecy. It’s right after the end of the Cold War, Eastern Europe is dangerous and morally hazy… what more could you want?
A little bit less, actually, at least stylistically. Directors Amy Bandlien Storkel and Bryan Storkel pack the movie full of flash and zippy reenactments (oh, to transplant this movie back 40 years and watch the heads of “serious” documentarians explode at the liberties taken here). And it is fun to watch, but feels like it may have been a little bit of overkill. This is often something filmmakers do when they don’t feel like they’ve truly got the goods with their story and they need to punch it up a bit, but that’s obviously not the case here—they do have the goods, so I can’t imagine they weren’t confident in the story itself. More likely, it’s just a little too much enthusiasm and they ended up doing more than they needed to. We’re used to this kind of heightened filmmaking with documentaries these days, and so it’s not a huge deal, but I can’t help but think the movie might have been even stronger if this tendency had been toned down. Can’t beat a good character, though.
Our Father, The Devil
Easily one of the two strongest films I saw at this year’s festival, this is the feature debut for director/writer Ellie Foumbi. The movie takes place in France and follows Marie, a West African immigrant working as a chef at a retirement home. One day a new priest shows up, and it’s instantly clear something is very wrong when Marie sees him and passes out. It seems she thinks he’s warlord from her home country who, we learn, kidnapped her and killed her family. Echoing films like Death and the Maiden, she abducts him and holds him hostage in a cabin, intent on getting him to admit he is this warlord (who supposedly died years before) before she kills him. Is he? He doesn’t have the scar she remembers on his body, but she’s positive she hasn’t forgotten his face.
This mystery is, surprisingly, cleared up relatively early in the film, which is kind of a brilliant move, because it makes it all less about us wondering and far more about Marie’s own journey through her extreme trauma and massive guilt for her actions following her kidnapping in Africa. This man she remembers, he forced her to kill others, and whether she had a choice or not, she holds herself responsible. This guilt, even for something she didn’t choose, is crippling.
It's a smart move by Foumbi, but even more than that, she shows what a deft hand she has at the filmmaking craft, framing and blocking scenes to maximum effect, using the size and location of characters to manipulate our feelings—one quiet scene between Marie and the priest in a kitchen places the priest in such a way that he often obscures our view, and it fills each second with menace, as if his mere presence is overwhelmingly hostile (despite his seemingly innocuous statements). The film is not perfect (few are), it could have dropped some subplots, or at least some parts of those subplots, but Foumbi’s confidence as a director is exciting and, it seems, deserved.
The Blind Man Who Did Not Want to See Titanic
Like Our Father, The Devil, here is a film that’s incredibly smart about how it uses the camera, although here it sticks to one idea and sees it through to the very end, and is massively successful because of it. The “blind man” of the title is Jaakko, a man with MS who lives in Finland. At this point, he’s lost his sight and any use of his body below the chest, and we spend the entire film with him—so much with him, that nearly all we ever see is his face or the back of his head, with the space surrounding him blurred out. It’s a gutsy move by director Teemu Nikki, to make this the only thing we’re going to see for the entire film, but it pays off, largely because it’s not saccharine or patronizing, and because of the performance by Petri Poikolainen, who, himself, is blind and has MS.
Jaakko has struck up a telephone relationship with a woman named Sirpa, who has her own serious health problems (cancer, though it’s not clear if that’s all she’s dealing with), and the two pass the time talking about movies and their lives. Jaakko is a movie nut, especially enamored with 1980s John Carpenter movies, and, yes, refuses to watch Titanic (James Cameron spoiled his legacy by following his remarkable 1980s and ‘90s action/sci-fi run with such a naked appeal to the masses, Jaakko says). He seems reluctant to let Sirpa see him, demurring when she asks to video chat. But one day, after Sirpa gets some especially difficult health news, Jaakko sets out, alone, to travel to the town where she lives to see her in person. This is, you might imagine, difficult, largely because he has to rely on help from strangers to make sure he’s catching the right train, and because there’s always the potential for someone to steal from him if they can do it quietly enough. He has to put his trust in the world around him, which is quite reasonably a terribly difficult thing to do.
Things do not go smoothly, and we end up in an exceedingly tense situation, made even more tense by the fact that Nikki sticks to his guns in how he presents it all, holding tight on Poikolainen’s face no matter what’s happening in each scene. There is a touch of the “disabled guy overcomes a difficult situation despite his disability” that seems requisite for basically any movie about someone with a disability, but this is minimal as far as all that goes, and the filmmaking and Poikolainen are so strong that it doesn’t torpedo our feelings about the movie. An impressive piece of work.