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“Sickie” Docs and Features: The 20th Maryland Film Festival

Sickies Making Films

Sickies Making Films

By Gary M. Kramer.

The 20th Maryland Film Festival, held at the Parkway Theater and various additional venues in Baltimore, took place May 2-6. The program included more than 100 features, documentaries, and shorts. Here are some highlights and lowlights from this year’s festival.

Anahí Berneri’ gritty character study, Alanis, introduces Alanis (Sofía Gala), a 25-year-old prostitute and mother of a 18-month-old Dante (Dante Della Paolero), at a particularly low point in her life. After opening the door for a client, Alanis and her friend/coworker Gisela (Dana Basso) are evicted and arrested, respectfully. Moving in with her aunt Andrea (Silvia Sabater), Alanis tries to get money and eke out a life. However, Alanis experiences frustration and setbacks at almost every turn. Berneri rubs the viewer’s nose in Alanis’s miserablism. She does this most notably during a degrading sexual encounter in a seedy fantasy hotel room that her client makes her pay for. But this scene is oddly hypnotic as Alanis succumbs to such a level of despair. Berneri’s point – that women like this must survive the only way they can – is powerful, and non-judgmental. Despite her increasingly bad decisions – stealing money from her aunt’s cash register, to honing in on other prostitute’s turf – viewers will be sympathetic to Alanis; a marvelous interrogation scene reveals her toughness and attempt to maintain her dignity. Berneri effectively humanizes her protagonist, coaxing an extraordinary performance from Gala. The filmmaker also employs a dynamic visual style that effectively layers the action using mirrors and windows to reflect and reveal just how raw and unvarnished Alanis’s life is.

Alanis

Alanis

Two documentaries at the Maryland Film Festival also tackled sensitive topics with varying results. Caniba, directed by Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor (Leviathan), gave viewers an extreme close-up of Issei Sagawa, a cannibal living with his brother Jun in Japan. Issei talks in a confessional tone about his actions and his fetishistic desires. Jun, however, can’t understand Issei’s cannibalism, and is especially disturbed by Issei’s manga book that illustrates his actions in graphic detail. As Jun is seen caring for the disabled Issei, feeding him chocolate and giving him a plush toy to cuddle, the relationship between the brothers is tender. When Jun reveals his own strange masochistic perversions to his brother, and friction develops between the siblings, the film almost becomes interesting. These moments suggest that a stronger film could be made about their relationship. Even home movies of the brothers as children indicate there may be a deeper meaning behind the brothers’ violent desires. But this thread goes largely unexplored. Most of Caniba is boring, not fascinating, as relentless close-ups of Issei’s face go in and out of focus. The film does border on repellent as Jun is seen torturing himself with knives and barbed wire, and there are videos of Issei receiving a golden shower in an explicit but pixilated sex tape. Paravel and Castaing-Taylor take an audacious approach to a social taboo, but they fail to justify it.

In contrast, Sickies Making Films is an illuminating documentary on the Maryland Board of Censors. The Board was the longest operating state censor for cinema in the U.S. Director Joe Tropea, along with writer/producer/editor Robert A. Emmons Jr., tell this unique story with humor, wisdom, and fabulous film clips. While anti-censors insist you have the right to say, read, and see what you wish, members of the community felt they had the right to determine what should be seen. Initially, censors edited and banned films for content and even prize fights were censored for glorifying violence as well as for showing African American men defeating white athletes. As various organizations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement and the YMCA formed to protect children, illiterates, and immigrants from films that might corrupt them, local police became early censors determining if films were suitable for public consumption. Rules such as the 3 foot-kiss – that a kiss scene should be no longer than 3 feet of film in duration – were enacted before the Hays Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency with Will Hays and Joseph Breen setting rules about what films can and cannot show. Tropea provides interesting case studies from Ecstasy featuring a nude Hedy Lamarr, to The Outlaw with a bodacious Jane Russell, and Pinky, in which a black woman passes for white, to show how movies cleared in other states faced exhibition hurdles in Maryland. Sickies Making Films (a weak title) features other notable examples, from The Well, which featured pejorative language, and Roberto Rossellini’s The Miracle, which was deemed blasphemous. Tropea’s film really hits its stride when it focuses on Maryland Censor czar Mary Avara, a larger than life Italian woman who deemed many films to be obscene and took great joy in doing so. How Baltimore exhibitors like Ronald Freeman of the Rex Theatre, and filmmakers, like John Waters, got around Avara provide some of the best moments in this enjoyable documentary; for they helped change the rules that should have changed with the times.

The Maryland Film Festival also featured several short film programs. One showcase, entitled “Unorthodox-doc Shorts,” was a compilation of seven films that constructed narratives around truths. The films were all stylish, but somewhat uneven in terms of content. Moreover, they were shown in an order that placed talky narratives back to back, which tended to cause viewer fatigue. The first half of the program was the strongest, opening with Charlie Tyrell’s visually and emotionally engaging entry, “My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes.” Using animation as well as family photographs, voice-over interviews, and video footage, Tyrell examines the influences that shaped his father, with whom he had a complicated relationship. “Pumpkin Movie,” by Sophy Romvari, has the filmmaker and her best friend connecting via Skype to carve pumpkins and recount various micro-aggressions they have experienced as young women. The film benefits from Romvari and her co-star’s warm, ingratiating camaraderie. “Pumpkin Movie” does not build to a strong crescendo, but it does provide a quietly powerful payoff. “Palenque,” from Colombia, is an observational documentary set in San Basilio de Palenque, a small town that was the first to claim independence from colonialism. Filmmaker Sebastián Pinzón Silva showcases the dignity of the townsfolk as he captures the rhythm of life of various residents. Other shorts in the program were less successful. “Half a Chicken” depicted the efforts of a Los Angelino trying to keep his relationship and his pet chicken alive. It was too slight to be effective. Likewise, Shirley Bruno’s “An Excavation of Us” was an ambitious history of Marie Jeanne Lemartinère, a Haitian revolutionary. The film’s use of cave and shadow imagery was stylish, but the narrative was too didactic to communicate the power of its subject’s significance. Another experimental short, “Optimism,” by Deborah Stratman, had interesting scenes of gold mining in Dawson City, in the Yukon, but they were buried under scenes of curling and other activities Canadians use to stave off winter boredom. Rounding out the program was an amusing short, “Fear of Monkeys” that used animation to recount the filmmaker’s father’s tale of how he got a facial scar as a child.

Another shorts program, “Charged Spaces ” featured eight Intense narrative shorts. “Krista,” by Danny Madden, featured a young Asian actress (Shirley Chen) working out her feelings of abuse on stage. It was slightly muddled in its execution, but well performed.  In contrast, Tony Oswald’s “Great Light,” which also dealt with a form of abuse, was a taut, deliciously ambiguous drama about the matriarch of a family imposing her rules on her extended family, perhaps to exorcise her own demons. Likewise, “Gaze” was a powerful Iranian film by Farnoosh Samadi about a woman who makes a decision that she may ultimately regret. It was a powerful short that reached a palpable level of terror as the protagonist puts her life in jeopardy. “Caroline,” co-directed by Logan George and Celine Held, was also an uncomfortable experience as a young mother of three (Held) abandons her children in a hot car so she can go on a job interview. When a concerned citizen tries to address the neglect, trouble escalates. The filmmakers capture the claustrophobia of the car and the situation perfectly. The darkly funny entry, “Haircut,” by David Brundige, examined a relationship changing, perhaps for the best, as the man’s response to his partner’s haircut prompts some harsh reactions and brutal truths. “Lunch Time,” from Iran, meandered a bit as director Alireza Ghasemi told the story of a teenager who is deemed too young to identify her mother’s corpse in the morgue. However, the film’s unexpected ending packed a nice little punch. “A Gentle Night” (which has been playing on the festival circuit for over a year) has a Chinese mother looking for her missing daughter derives most of its power from what isn’t said or shown. Only the programs closing entry, “Emmy,” about a young woman trying to find a connection through a series of encounters, lacked the same impact as the other shorts in this solid program,

Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2

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