2008 Virginia Film Festival Chizfilm Movie Reviews
November 3, 2008

Responding to Aliens at the 2008 Virginia Film Festival

by Jonathan Chisdes

The annual Virginia Film Festival, which completed this year’s exciting four-day run last night, does something that few other festivals do: it unites almost all of its films around a theme. This year, the theme was “Aliens: Immigrants, Outsiders, and Extraterrestrials.” I thought it was quite interesting how the festival was able to take three different meanings of the word “alien” and find films that show how these three themes unite. So many of the 50-plus films talk to each other and demonstrate that we are morally judged by how we relate to those who are different from us, be they from another country, another planet, or simply refuse to conform to social norms.

Classic films such as “West Side Story,” “Bad Day at Black Rock,” “War of the Worlds,” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” were shown along with more recent responses toward aliens like “El Norte,” “Galaxy Quest” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” And a whole new generation of films, made within the last year or two, made their debut: “August Evening” about a Mexican-American laborer and his daughter-in-law, and “Waiting for Happiness” about a small village in Mauritania. The most popular of these was “Lake City,” the opening night premier film, about a young man who returns to the small town of his youth and is forced to reexamine his values. The screening attracted stars Jane Fonda and Sissy Spacek.

I must confess, the festival was quite an intense experience for me. A dozen films in four days. Not to mention forums, lectures, and other events. If I wrote in detail about everything I saw and did in the last four days, this article would be too long for anyone to read. So I will instead touch upon the eight best films that I saw.

The very first film I saw was called “The Prince of Broadway.” Directed by up-comer Sean Baker in the raw “Dogma” style, it told the story of a young African immigrant hustler, Lucky, who worked for a man selling counterfeit brand-name merchandise. Although it started a little slow, about 15 minutes into it, Lucky’s ex-girlfriend from two years before suddenly shows up on the street with a one-and-a-half year old baby; she hands him the kid saying, “This is your son. I’m going away for a while. You have to look after him.”

From there on, I was hooked. Interesting situations, interesting characters, interesting story-telling style. As Lucky struggles to deal with a baby that he has no idea how to take care of, while hustling on the street, his boss struggles with a marriage that is falling apart. The counterfeit items they push become a symbol for all that is fake in their lives.

Another film by the same director, “Take Out,” screened the next day. This was the story of a Chinese illegal immigrant who worked as a delivery boy for an Asian restaurant in New York. He’s in debt to a loan shark and has one day to make all that money in tips. Also shot in the “Dogma” style, much of the film consists of the main character making deliveries in the rain. The tension of the film is kept by the mystery—he never knows who will be on the other side of the door, if they’ll be rude, if they’ll be polite, if they’ll tip, or if there’ll be a problem even more serious.

I particularly enjoyed the talkback afterwards. We learned that this film was made on an incredibly low budget of only $3,000. Since rain was an important part of the story, I asked the filmmakers how they were able to get all that rain on such a low budget. Their response shocked me: all the rain was real. They just lucked out—that particular month when they shot the film, it rained every single day in New York. If I had been allowed a follow-up question, I’d have asked what would be their Plan B, if it hadn’t rained.

Another film which dealt with the issue of illegal immigrants was the documentary “My Life Inside,” which chronicled the tragic case of Rosa Jimenez, a Mexican who secretly crossed to the US to begin a new life, where she got a job as a nanny. One horrible day in 2003, a child she was responsible for asphyxiated to death on a wad of paper towels. Despite doing everything in her power to save the boy’s life, Rosa was charged with his murder.

It was heartbreaking to witness the rights Rosa loses in jail, long before any official determination of guilt or innocence—not only the loss of all personal freedom, but all access to her children, including the baby who is born to her in jail. The film also revealed a justice system that’s stacked against foreigners who do not know their rights, cannot speak English, don’t understand certain customs, and are victims of blatant racism which presumes guilt rather than innocence.

Another film, “The Response,” also brought up issues of how foreigners are treated by the legal system; but this one was about suspected terrorists at Guantanamo. Based on actual transcripts from Combat Status Review Tribunals, the film depicts three military judges (Kate Mulgrew, Peter Riegert, and Sig Libowitz; Libowitz also wrote the script) presiding over a hearing to determine if a prisoner (played by Aasif Mandvi of “The Daily Show”) has been properly classified as an enemy combatant. He protests his innocence, but he cannot defend himself since he is unable to see the evidence against him because it is classified. As the three judges debate, we are reminded that it is not the fact that we suffered terrorism, but rather our response to it, which defines us.

I thought it was a great courtroom drama. Though some of the legal and Constitutional issues were a bit dry for a lay audience, I felt that the acting, by four extremely talented actors, kept it riveting. The film was only 30 minutes long, but it really got to the heart of what Guantanamo is all about. The film didn’t preach, but rather presented the issue objectively, giving a fair hearing to all sides, and left it up to the audience to decide at the end.

Peter Riegert and Sig Libowitz themselves were present and, along with a legal scholar and a JAG attorney, participated in a fascinating and engaging forum following the screening. Afterwards, I was able to speak with Peter Riegert personally and tell him how much I admired not only this film, but many of the other films he’s been in throughout his long career.

The most delightful film at the festival, at least in my opinion, was “Sunshine Cleaning.” Its sold-out screening was in a huge auditorium on the University of Virginia campus; there was a long stand-by line of people hoping to get in. Word is traveling fast about this cute film that you can expect to be hearing much more about, soon.

It’s a wonderful little comedy about two sisters (Amy Adams and Emily Blunt) who go into the specialized business of crime-scene clean-up. There are family issues to be worked out, passed trauma to be dealt with, and a lot of mess to be cleaned up. There are so many things to be said about this pleasant film, but in the interest of space, I’ll save them for my future review when the movie is released in the spring, which I eagerly look forward to. But I cannot go on without mentioning that the most beautiful scene takes place one night when Emily Blunt’s character climbs a railroad trellis and a train passes just above her while bright sparks rain down. It’s a sight to behold.

Another film that I am eagerly looking forward to reviewing—which I hope will be distributed soon—is “Sleep Dealer.” This was actually the best of all the films I saw at the festival, in my opinion. It’s a Mexican Science Fiction film about the future of the Third World; thanks to a new technology that allows a body to be remotely hooked up to a machine, Mexican laborers can perform menial tasks in the US without actually leaving Mexico.

Using the metaphor of the future, this film deals with issues that are important for us today: the dehumanizing effect of technology, the poor treatment of immigrant labor, corporate control of resources, remote means of fighting wars, the value of memory, and the joy some people get in viewing wanton destruction. And it has a really great ending.

The final day of the festival, yesterday, I saw two Israeli films. The first, “Waltz with Bashir,” is an animated feature about a veteran of Israel’s first war with Lebanon. Two decades later, he finds that he cannot remember anything about the war, so he goes to a therapist and tracks down his old army buddies to uncover the truth which he had blocked out. Dreams, memories, and hallucinations are depicted. As he gets closer and closer to discovering the truth about a horrible massacre, we wonder if there is some sort of objective reality, or is reality something we just create for ourselves?

Afterwards, an excellent discussion of the film ensued, facilitated by two University of Virginia professors. Historical, political, and psychological issues were examined; and it was noted that the film’s popularity in Israel is indicative of that society’s collective memory breaking down since the Lebanon War, two decades ago.

The last film, “To See If I’m Smiling,” was an Israeli documentary about women soldiers who served in the Territories (Gaza and the West Bank) where a crazy war persists against the Palestinian population. I learned that the Israeli Defense Force is the only army in the entire world that drafts women. Through interviews and some file footage, we learn of bizarre, violent events where issues of gender and morality intersect in a terribly violent and surreal corner of the globe. In such an environment, these young women are turned into completely different people. And when they return to civilian life, two years later, they have trouble readjusting.

In one of the more shocking moments, we discover that some of the women posed for photographs with violently mutilated dead bodies. Shades of Abu Ghraib. One of the women is desperate to find that photograph—she cannot remember what exactly her state of mind was and she wants to see if she was smiling.

So that’s that. As you can imagine, seeing all these films within a four-day period was a powerful experience. There is so much to contemplate. I’m sorry that it’s over because I enjoyed the festival very much. Now I’m looking forward to next year’s VFF.

I wonder what the theme will be.

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