Last weekend I attended the 20th Annual Virginia Film Festival and I had an absolutely fantastic time. The theme of the festival this year, as I mentioned previously, was “Kin Flicks,” which means films about families. (Not to be confused with “family films,” i.e. children’s movies.) What this means is that almost all the movies shown dealt with the complexities of family relationships and even definitions of family. For example: one documentary captured a pivotal argument between father and son, another questioned if a support group for ex-cons can be considered family, another dealt with a White family whose ancestors owned slaves and now discovered they are related, by blood, to African-Americans. And still others dealt with what happens in a family when members suddenly discover one in their family has a deep, dark secret. Seeing all these films, back to back, really makes you stop and think and question what is the nature of a family, and what is your relationship to the various members of your own family.
There is so much to write about those four days, but unfortunately I don’t have room to discuss all the movies I saw in detail. So instead I will talk about four of the more significant films I saw, and in a future article to be published soon, discuss one really great director that I had the honor to meet.
First up: “Killer of Sheep.” This movie, from 1977, is considered a seminal film for African-American cinema. It’s about a family struggling unsuccessfully to overcome poverty while living in the Watts section of LA. Despite critical praise, I personally found it rather slow moving. It’s what you’d call a “slice-of-life” film with no real overall plot, just characters dealing with their frustrating daily routines, a bit like Sisyphus. Some scenes were more interesting than others; one of the better scenes was where Stan, the main character, was approached by people he knew who wanted him to be part of a crime. Another memorable scene was when two characters slowly and carefully carried a heavy car engine down several flights of stairs and put it in the back of a pickup truck only to have it later fall off the truck, irreparably damaged.
There seemed to be some real metaphors in this movie, especially the sheep which were killed in a slaughterhouse where the main character worked. However, director Charles Burnet, who was present and talked about the movie afterwards, contradicted that as he told the story of how, while he was writing the script, he got the idea to make the protagonist an employee of a slaughterhouse.
I think the audience had mixed reactions to it. Some seemed to really appreciate the effect of the socio-economic conditions upon the characters; others seemed to be bored by the movie. I noticed a few people actually walked out. Also, some guy in the row in front of me fell asleep and started snoring. Really, it wasn’t that bad. Especially when we found out later that this was Burnet’s first student film. Therefore it must be judged by different standards and it’s easier to forgive the scenes which don’t work so well or are too drawn out.
A much more powerful and emotional movie that I saw was “For the Bible Tells Me So.” It looked into three spots in the Bible that Christians often cite to justify their hatred and condemnation toward homosexuals and examined them in their appropriate historical context casting serious doubt on contemporary, literal interpretations. And it reminded us that the Bible also commands so many other ridiculous things which we, as a society, have long since ignored.
More interestingly, this movie followed five religious families and their various reactions to discovering that one of their children was gay. Some, such as the Dick Gephardt family, were immediately accepting; others took more time but eventually lead a crusade against their church and the anti-gay preachings of “Focus on the Family.” One family, unfortunately, never really accepted their child’s homosexuality at all. And one only did, tragically, after their daughter committed suicide. Interestingly, one of those gay children was Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Anglican bishop from New Hampshire.
Another excellent, though disturbing, film was “The Killer Within.” Here, we are introduced to Bob Brechtel, a man who outwardly seems normal and respectable: he’s an esteemed professor at the University of Arizona and a loving family man with a wife, a daughter, and a step-daughter. But Bob has a deep, dark secret which, after harboring for a half-century, he reveals first to his family, then to his friends, then to his university community. In 1955, he was a student at Swarthmore College (as was my mother, by coincidence, and in the interest of full disclosure) where he felt he was being bullied. In response, he planned a Virginia Tech-style massacre, setting out to kill all 250 students in his dormitory. He murdered one, Holmes Strozier, before finally coming to his senses and turned himself in. After spending five years in an institution for the criminally insane, he was set free and started life anew.
There is much negative reaction to Bob’s revelation, but also some support from the unlikeliest of places: the president of the university. Perhaps the most outraged is John Stozier, the brother of Holmes, who insists his brother was no bully. In fact, there is much evidence to suggest Bob was not bullied at all; rather the whole thing was “a product of his insane mind.”
There is an interesting comparison of the judicial system then vs. now. As someone pointed out, we are no longer in the “second-chance business;” later someone suggested the reason was because in the 1950s we were less jaded, as a society, by aggression and violence, and therefore we were more willing to be understanding and work through the issues and forgive; whereas today we are just so overwhelmed by the violence and don’t care anymore so we just lock them up and forget about them.
Perhaps the most shaken person is Bob’s daughter Carrah who struggles hard to come to grips with the fact that the man who loved her and reared her is a killer and might have become one of the worse mass-murderers in the history of the US. Even more fundamental, she had always believed killers should be executed, yet had her father suffered that fate, she’d have never been born. She wonders if her very existence is the result of a miscarriage of justice.
When the movie ended and the credits started going up, there was dead silence. 99 times out of 100, a film festival audience applauds when the credits start to role. If they don’t, it means one of two things: either they hated it, or they were just so stunned by it that they lost the power to bring their hands together. And I think it’s fair to say, in this case, that it was the latter.
There was an excellent panel discussion afterwards which was moderated by a professor from Virginia Tech. It’s only been six months since the infamous shootings, only 140 miles from here, and a story about a college shooting touches fresh wounds. And yet as Bob Brechtel’s case was discussed, we realized how vastly different he was from Cho.
A defense attorney and a psychiatrist who specializes in bullying joined director Macky Alston for a fascinating discussion that looked at so many aspects, not the least of which was how bullying could be considered a defense for murder. Millions, including the director himself who is openly gay, have been bullied but have not resorted to murder.
Finally, I want to talk about “Moving Midway,” a film directed by Godfrey Cheshire, who by an interesting coincidence, happens to be the cousin of Macky Alston. In my view, this movie was one of the two best from the festival. (The other was “Wide Awake” which I will get to in my next article to be published soon.) This movie is about the Southern, ante-bellum Midway Plantation, near Raleigh, NC, which has been in Cheshire’s family for generations. Charlie Silver, the owner and Cheshire’s cousin, tries to protect the homestead from encroaching suburban sprawl by literally uprooting the building from off its foundation and move it to a new location several miles away. This act prompts the family to explore the historical, social, and cultural implications of the pre-Civil War plantation, and, in the process, discover a whole new branch of the family they never knew existed: the African-American branch.
The documentary chronicles not only the amazing technical feat of moving a large house several miles, but also tension within the family and the surprising joy of meeting new relatives. The film also examines the myth versus the reality of the slave-labor-driven ante-bellum plantation experience including a look at culture-shaping films like “Birth of a Nation,” “Gone with the Wind,” and “Roots.”
The talkback after the film was the best of any talkback at the festival. A lot of good topics were covered: the changing South, ghosts, race, labor, Southern identity, reconciliation, and the historical past vs. the mythical past. David Edelstein, film critic for New York Magazine, happened to be in the audience and he commented that in his opinion it was one of the best documentaries he had seen in years. Also, during the talkback, we learned that Charlie’s two younger brothers didn’t support the move and strongly objected to it and to Cheshire making the movie. That’s a shame.
Still I must say, it was absolutely fascinating watching all these movies about family—families that love each other and families that hate each other—and I realized just how complex it all is. But I’m glad that the films raised all the issues that they did because they gave me a lot to think about.
And that, I think, is the goal of film.
For a more detailed and frank discussions of these and other films I saw at the VFF, visit my blog entries here:
Look for my article on filmmaker Alan Berliner, whom I met at the festival, soon.
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