By Andrea Chase
SXSW 2021 went virtual. The group experience was missing, but the films were just as compelling. There were the headliners and award-winners that grabbed a lot of attention, and rightly so. Megan Park’s narrative THE FALLOUT won the narrative feature competition for laying out the impossibility of feeling secure in a world where violence can erupt at any time and any place, while Jeremy Workman’s LILY TOPPLES THE WORLD, winner of the feature documentary award, shares the virtual community surrounding the sheer pleasure of watching the dominos so carefully set up by its subject line topple with giddy, clacking rhythm.
The star of In Martin Edralin’s ISLANDS, Rogelio Balagtas, won the Special Jury Recognition for Breakthrough Performance for his role as Joshua, a shy middle-aged man grappling with the loneliness of his life while caring for his aging father. In a film full of comedy, drama, and the tiny tragedies of a life unlived, Balagtas deadpan face and introverted body language profoundly bespeaks years of self-effacing disappointment. That all changes when his cousin (Vangie Alcasid) arrives to help out, sparking Joshua to ponder, and not without trepidation, what his life will be like after his parents pass on.
Other films to note include Ivan Herrera’s BANTÚ MAMA following Emma (Clarisse Albrecht) from her isolated life in France to the slums of Santo Domingo after she’s arrested for smuggling drugs. Escaping from the local police, she’s given shelter by three siblings who have been left to their own devices after their father is imprisoned and their mother dies. Motives are hidden in a subculture where morals are a luxury, but Emma’s maternal instincts are triggered by the vulnerability beneath the siblings’ tough exteriors in this beautifully photographed, immersive narrative that is full of understated, yet powerful, performances, and a sense of unrelenting background tension. There is nothing sentimental about the story, or the setting where life is both dangerous and unpredictable, and trust is a complicated matter.
Self-reflexive and suffused with the Inca mythology, Floyd Russ’ AYAR is an intriguing film about immigration, motherhood, and the American Dream. Told with an experimental approach that doesn’t just break the fourth wall, it disintegrates it, the title character, Ayar (Ariana Ron Pedrique), returns to Los Angeles after COVID-19 puts an end to her stalled singing career in Las Vegas. Hoping to become a part of her 5-year-old-daughter’s life, Ayar is turned away by her mother (Vilma Vega), and left on her own in a motel full of transients, ponders the path that led her there. This is no ordinary narrative. Characters are introduced to us by way of a collage of photos tracing their lives from infancy to the present, and sentences trail off into echoes. Ayar’s motel room is haunted by phantom coughing and a vine that threatens to swallow it whole. Beyond that dash magical realism, the actors address the camera as themselves, recounting how their own life experiences were transmuted into the story. The result is a film of raw honesty and a truth that mere facts could not convey.
A pair of documentaries addressing racial inequality offer unexpected and arresting perspectives. Jennifer Holness’ SUBJECTS OF DESIRE, is a trenchant documentary about the racial politics of beauty. Using black female stereotypes, The Mammy, The Jezebel, and The Sapphire (aka Angry Black Woman), SUBJECTS OF DESIRE unpacks a history of racism and misogyny with both depth and clarity that starts with a young black woman telling us that she likes being black, and cuts to a clip of Malcolm X angrily questioning why black women are the most oppressed people in America. More than a diatribe against the European standards of beauty that the media inflicts upon us, it confronts such fraught issues as the preference for light skin within the black community, the cultural significance through the centuries of black hair, and Rachel Dolezal. >That< Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP chapter president who created a firestorm when it was revealed that she was a white woman passing as black, who contributes a surprising and eloquent insight into how the internal self-loathing caused by the Western ideal of beauty affects the relationships between black men and black women. Even ones who are passing.
Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler’s WHO WE ARE: A CHRONICLE OF RACISM IN AMERICA explores the roots of America racism as carefully laid out by African-American attorney and civil rights activist Jeffery Robinson. Amid the better-known history of when the first slave ship landed in 1619, there are the more subtle reverberations, including the disturbing third verse of the “Star Spangled Banner,” and the legal argument made by its author, Francis Scott Key, in his role as government prosecutor of an individual accused of the capital crime of possessing abolitionist materials. If you need a straight line between the past and the present, and proof that, in the words of William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” there is Robinson reading an ante-bellum South Caroline law proclaiming that an enslaved person’s death while resisting a master is not a felony” and the spine-chilling addition, “It’s still not.” Even more insidious is Robinson addressing coded bias, and revealing that when he took a Harvard test designed to detect it, it revealed his own bias towards black men. Using the personal as well as the historical, Robinson’s talk is interspersed with clips of him talking to a wide spectrum of people, from childhood friends, the mother of Eric Garner, to a defender of the Confederate flag claiming that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery, but, who under Robinson’s careful questioning using the Socratic method, finds himself befuddled and defending color-blind slavery.
Andrea Chase has been reviewing movies on radio, television, in print, and via the internet in the San Francisco Bay area for over 20 years. She says, “After moving here from Louisiana many years ago, I received my film education the way nature and the Lumiere Brothers intended–in movie theaters, both the mainstream venues that showcased the latest from La La Land, and the art houses that were more numerous in days gone by. They gave me a thorough grounding in current and classic cinema from all over the world and from the silents to the latest cutting edge Hong Kong flick.”
She is a member of the Women Film Critics Circle, as well as the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, and has been heard on non-commercial syndicated radio since 1996, and on British Forces Broadcasting throughout the world. Currently, she is the Movie Chick on KGO-Radio’s Maureen Langan show, her series, Behind the Scenes, is part of PRX.org with over 350 episodes, and she contribute reviews to The New Fillmore. Both Rotten Tomatoes and the MRQE link to her site, KillerMovieReviews.com, making the world safe for film lovers since 2002 with reviews and interviews. Read her other reviews and interviews for EDF.