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Independents at 25: Slamdance 2019

We are Thankful

We Are Thankful

By Gary M. Kramer.

Now in its 25th year, the Slamdance Film Festival – held in Park City, Utah, January 25-31, 2019 – is a showcase for independent filmmakers. Here is a rundown of several features and documentaries, plus a short screening at this year’s fest.

The festival opened with the world premiere of Ski Bum: The Warren Miller Story. Patrick Creadon’s film is an affectionate portrait of the late Miller who chased his passion, shooting, editing, and marketing ski documentaries to a growing fanbase year after year. Featuring an extended interview with Miller, the film traces his dysfunctional family life, and his first experiences skiing, to various personal and professional reversals of fortune. Interviews with skiers Scot Schmidt, Jonny Moseley, Dan and John Egan, as well as cameraman Gary Nate, among others, describe Miller’s work, including his folksy narrative, with corny jokes that amused audiences. Interviewees also acknowledge the amazing, adventurous footage Miller was able to record. The clips from his films will impress the uninitiated. There is also a display of heart, showcasing skiers with disabilities, and at least two incredible stories about near-death escapes. “Ski Bum” touches on the negative effect of Miller’s workaholic life, from the suffering of his own family to the financial ups-and-downs he experienced over the years. Creadon’s film is appropriately reverential, honoring a man whose true impact on skiing is unmeasurable.

One of the festival’s best entries is the South African import, We Are Thankful, by writer/director Joshua Magor. This fantastic documentary-fiction hybrid concerns Siyabonga (Siyabonga Majola), an actor who learns about a film shoot coming to the region and wants to get involved. The film stems from the real-life experience of Majola, who responded to an advertisement Magor placed in a local paper. Their meeting, recreated in We Are Thankful, became the impetus for the film. (The original project was jettisoned). Magor chronicles Siyabonga’s efforts to send an email to meet with the filmmakers, raise money for a cab ride to the interview, and banter with his friends, Sabelo (Sabelo Khoza) and Sbu (Sibusiso Nzama), who nickname him “Leonardo DiCaprio” and tease him about attending the Oscars. However, Magor does more than just follow Siyabonga on his journey. He captures the cadence of life in the KwaZulu region of South Africa. Two neighbors conduct a conversation just by whistling at each other. People wash and hang laundry. Kids play soccer in a field; an especially charming scene has Siyabonga show some kids how to kick a penalty like Cristiano Ronaldo. Magor’s unhurried approach allows viewers to lean into Siyabonga’s world and feel empathy for him. When he meets Magor around the film’s midpoint, their conversation is the film’s dramatic highlight, magnifying not only all that transpired up to that moment, but putting the scenes that come after it into bold relief. There is a quiet power and tremendous dignity on display throughout We Are Thankful. This, along with Siyabonga’s ingratiating “performance,” is what makes Magor’s film is so magical.

Slamdance’s sole Latin American entry, Boni Bonita, is an intriguing drama, told in four acts, about the relationship that develops between Beatriz (Ailín Salas), a teenager, and Rogério (Caco Ciocler), a musician twice her age. Rogério knows it is wrong to get intimate with this wild teen, and the inappropriate relationship between the leads is creepy – writer/director Daniel Barosa could be accused of fetishizing Salas’ body in a discomfiting way – but the pair act on their attractions, it is revealed, to compensate for the pain they feel regarding their own families. Beatriz is estranged from her father after being expelled from school. Rogério is struggling in the shadow of his successful grandfather. Boni Bonita leisurely charts the behavior of these two anguished lovers as they grapple with their emotions. Beatriz self-harms and has a tryst with Mario (Ghilherme Lobo), a neighbor, while Rogério doesn’t make much music, drinks, and sleeps with other women. Writer/director Daniel Barosa artfully conveys the boredom and jealousy that develops, and his slight, but absorbing character study that rewards patient viewers who pay close attention. The two leads are both quite expressive, telegraphing their restlessness.

Beats, set in a small Scottish town in 1994, is an energetic drama about two friends, Johnno (Cristian Ortega) and Spanner (Lorn Macdonald), who just want to attend the Rave to the Grave – an EDM party banned by the country’s recent Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. Both young men are struggling at home and need to have one last night out together. Johnno is under the rule of his mom’s authoritarian cop boyfriend, Robert (Brian Ferguson), and about to move away, while Spanner is bullied by his abusive older brother, Fido (Neil Leiper). The teens head out after Spanner foolishly steals money from his brother, Johnno steels himself and takes a risk, and both of them take some drugs. The story of revolting against oppression is nothing new, but Ortega and Macdonald have a rapport that buoys the film along. Beats, directed by Brian Welsh – who co-wrote the screenplay with Kieran Hurley, based on Hurley’s play – finds its humanity in these characters who help each other through trying times. Filmed in black-and-white (and subtitled given the thick accents and Scottish slang), and brimming with dance music, Beats ends on a poignant note that resonates.

Lost Holiday

Lost Holiday

Slamdance is also hosting the World Premiere of Lost Holiday, an affable film written and directed by Michael Kerry Matthews and Thomas Matthews. At a holiday party, Mar (Kate Lyn Sheil) is trying to reconcile her feelings for Mark (William Jackson Harper), who is in a committed relationship. Later that night, Sam (Keith Poulson) takes Mar and Hemmy (Thomas Matthews) to his visit dealer, Russian (Tone Tank). When a woman named Amber Jones (Ismenia Mendes) – who has a connection to Russian – is reported missing on the news the next day, Mar and Hemmy becomes partners-in-crime-solving. Although the film takes a good twenty minutes to kick into gear – and that may be too long for some impatient viewers – the film does feature a low-key chase scene, some gunplay, and a bag of money. Lost Holiday is a minor but enjoyable entry in the spate of mulmblecore sleuthing movies. (The best of the burgeoning sub-genre are Cold Weather and Wild Canaries.) The Matthew Brothers tend to over-edit to play up issues of time and emotion – specifically when they calibrate Mar’s turmoil regarding Mark – but Sheil gives an outstanding performance. Her mix of smarts and insouciance is why Lost Holiday is so enjoyable.

Another film having its World Premiere at the festival is A Great Lamp, Saad Qureshi’s rambling low-budget, black-and-white feature “made by his friends to make him feel better.” Whether viewers will feel any joy will depend on if they get into the offbeat rhythms of this ambling, minimalist drama. Max (Max Wilde) dresses in a skirt and goes around a North Carolina town illegally posting bills of his late grandmother on various surfaces. He meets Howie (Spencer Bang), who is excited about seeing a rocket launch. Meanwhile, another man (Steven Maier) is anxious about his dad finding out he isn’t going to his job with an insurance company. As the three characters wander around the city, they each talk about their guilt, dreams, wishes, and memories. Qureshi injects the film with animation, some nifty visual effects, and a few color scenes to keep “A Great Lamp” lively, but there is not much at stake with these twenty-somethings. At one point, Max admits, “I’m trying to figure out who I am. I’m going through character development.” It’s a didactic moment that does little to prompt investment in him. While, trio of actors provide some verve, but the film’s thin plotting and is far too modest to have much impact.

The documentary, Dons of Disco, recounts the story of 1980s Italo disco star Den Harrow – say it fast to get “denaro,” the Italian word for money – and controversy that arose over his lip-synching to songwriter Tom Hooker’s voice. The film shows that Den Harrow was quite Big in Europe – though most Americans won’t know who he is. After seeing this adequate documentary, many viewers may still not care. For those that do, there is a potentially interesting story here about how performer Stefano Zambri was a sexy “image” who sold 20 million records without really singing. Nevertheless, Hooker remains justly bitter about not being thanked or recognized for his contributions. However, Dons of Disco is as cheesy and as deep as one Den Harrow’s pop songs. Both men try to reconcile with their images – past and present, real and imagined. By focusing on the impact of this “scandal” decades later, the “Price of Fame” story becomes interesting only when director Jonathan Sutak shows what each man’s life has become. When Zambri admits how sad and depressing a concert he is asked to do in Germany is, the emotion is palpable. It’s an interesting contrast to Hooker’s pitiful experiences as an opening act where he sings Den Harrow’s hits as “his songs” for the first time. Likewise, seeing Hooker making parody videos as “Tam Harrow” is as embarrassing as watching Zambri appear on an Italian reality show. If Sutak suggests that these men “perform” for money or a way of coping with present-day reality, the film never quite digs deep enough to investigate their motivations. Interviews with fans, authors, and colleagues fail to illuminate the psychology of what it means to be a once-famous pop star or create a successful “hoax.” As such, the repetition of Hooker’s indignation grows tiresome, and he becomes less sympathetic, whereas Zambri, in the end, is far more fascinating a subject. Ironically, in making a film about giving credit where it’s long due, Sutak may have allowed Zambri to steal Hooker’s thunder once again.

Lastly, Butt Fantasia is a “cheeky” short, screening at Slamdance. Directed by Mohit Jaswal, who co-created/produced it with Nathaniel Hendricks, and Zach DeSutter – the latter is credited as a “butt assistant” – this wordless five-minute musical, features an old man’s (Bruce Patzke) memories of his tushy. Various nude cabooses are displayed with props ranging from noisemakers and cigarettes to toy guns being employed in clever ways. There is also an amusing sequence featuring bare derrières taking down a cardboard city. The story, told in the Fantasia mold, may not be very meaningful, but this cute short never wears out its welcome.

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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