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Gangsters, Aliens and Privatizing Public Ed at CFF

by Mark Pizzato

September 27, 2016

Many cities are famous for their film festivals: Venice, Cannes, Berlin, Toronto, and even the several Utah cities that host Sundance. Charlotte has had an annual film festival for almost a decade now, though without the fanfare of other "world class" cities. Yet it has become a vital outlet for local filmmakers and a key showplace for films from abroad.

Dozens of films from around the world are being shown at the Ayrsley Grand Cinemas 14, through Sunday, Oct. 2.  The eight annual Charlotte Film Festival includes features from the U.S., the United Kingdom, Canada, Cuba, Japan, Iran, Hungary, Bosnia, the Philippines and Singapore, as well as short films from five continents (and from local filmmakers), plus many others, full-length and short, from across the U.S. 

Here are some highlights from the first week of the festival (full remaining schedule here)

Trespass Against Us (dir. Adam Smith, United Kingdom, 2016; trailer here), with familiar faces Michael Fassbender and Brendan Gleeson in lead roles, is like a British Sopranos, but without the therapist, teen kids, and overbearing mom. Instead, Chad is the second in command of a small group of gypsy-like gangsters, including mostly men but also some women and children, who live in campers in a field.  His dad, Colby, is the alpha male and his loyal wife, Kelly, a fretful mom to their two small kids, Tyson and Mini.  Many scenes show Chad as a loving father and son, torn between his dad’s communal life of wild, underclass rebellion and his wife’s desire that their kids have a better life by going to school, unlike their patriarchs.  Several car and foot chases are shown, with Chad daring and outwitting the cops, but Stills from Trespass Against Us, Papagajka and Harmonium killing a police dog to escape—reminding the audience of the dangers to animals, children, and law-abiding adults from his family’s trickster lifestyle, despite the charming wit of his religion-adapting dad.  Eventually, Chad redeems himself in the eyes of his son, father, wife, and the film audience.  But throughout the film, American audiences may have difficulty understanding the local British accents, making the film frustratingly foreign.

Fortunately, Harmonium (dir. Koji Fukada, Japan, 2016; trailer here), a prize-winner at Cannes this year, has subtitles—as it subtly explores the tragic aftermath of gangsters trying to return to civil homelife environments.  Yet its slow, poetic pace may also challenge American viewers, accustomed to action-packed gangster melodramas, with obvious heroes, villains, victims, and violence.  Instead, this film shows the daily life of Toshio, who runs a metal press shop on the first floor of his home, Akie, his dutiful wife, and Hotaru, their preteen daughter.  The marriage is already disharmonious when Toshio allows his friend, Yasaka, to work for him and live with them after 11 years in prison.  The romantic triangle at first seems obvious, with desire, betrayal, and violent lust.  But mysteries emerge as to why Toshio feels indebted to Yasaka: how Hotaru becomes damaged by her parents’ sins; how Akie survives as a traumatized caretaker of her disabled daughter; why Yasaka’s son, Takashi, appears in their lives eight years later, and how the innocent are doomed to suffer along with their guilt-ridden elders.  This is a genuine tragedy of fate, focused on an isolated group.  Yet it reflects both Eastern and Western ghosts haunting modern Japan—with controlled emotions eventually erupting, through ties to a Protestant minister and personal confessions, OCD and repetitive machine work, hallucinations and suicides.  It is worth the effort to watch it, despite its tragic trajectory and questions left unanswered.

Also developing slowly, but with less emotional resonance,Papagajka (or The Parrot, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2016; trailer here) is Australian director Emma Rozanski’s feature debut, after graduating from a Bosnian film school.  Its strange electronic soundtrack suggests that the English-speaking visitor to a security guard’s Sarajevo apartment might be a sci-fi alien.  But the lovely lady with a suitcase claims that her handbag was stolen, with the address of her friends, so she has nowhere to stay.  The shy Damir allows her to sleep on a mattress on the floor, wipes her brow when she has a fever, and gradually lets her take over his kitchen and home—while he draws tic-tac-toe games on the window of his solitary guard booth and dreams chastely of his visitor.  He only confronts her when she starts to take over his bedroom.  But he also submits to her feeding him with his eyes closed—in a “game” she offers—and then swallows quickly as she demands, until he chokes and she comforts him, like a nurturing yet controlling mother. Damir’s nosy sister finds the visitor’s passport, which appears to be American.  So, one might view this surreal film as a parable of American consumer culture invading Bosnian life.  But its ambiguous seductions remain opaque, with many extreme closeups of ordinary objects and actions, suggesting meanings that are never clarified.

Much clearer and more horrifying in its own way is the documentary, Starving the Beast (dir. Steve Mims, USA, 2016; trailer here).  This film gives both the big picture and local views of a nationwide shift of public university costs from state (and taxpayer) funding to an individual student burden.  Its case studies include UNC Chapel Hill, plus examples from Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Through statistics, images, and compelling interviews with various people on both sides of this issue, the film shows a change in our country from valuing higher education as a benefit to society, with a willingness to pay collectively for our public research and teaching institutions, to the student as “consumer,” who simply studies to get a better job (devaluing other areas of inquiry). Ironically, the Tea Party movement to cut taxes and balance budgets has benefitted the wealthy, whose children can still afford to attend public or private institutions. But in North Carolina, where public universities were set up, according to the state constitution, to be “as far as practicable … to the people of the State free of expense,” yet now cost thousands of dollars per year for in-state tuition, the non-elites are hitting a social mobility ceiling.

And yet, by offering such films about local, national, and international issues, public and personal, the Charlotte Film Festival demonstrates the value of investing in areas of inquiry that are not simply money-making.  Hopefully, more audience members will join the organizers in this endeavor, currently and in future years.

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Tags: Charlotte Film Festival, Ayrsley Grand Cinemas 14, Harmonium, Trespass Against Us, Papagajka, public education, UNC Chapel Hill, Steve Mims

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