Penguin Highway
Penguin Highway

By Gary M. Kramer.

The DC Independent Film Festival, unspooling March 1-10 in Washington, DC, is celebrating its 20th year in 2019. This year’s program features dozens of features and shorts, along with a tribute to director Phillip Noyce, who will present three of his features. Here is a rundown of some documentaries, features, and a shorts program screening at this year’s fest.

Opening night is the DC premiere of Pascui Rivas’s terrific soccer documentary, Ordinary Gods. The film features a scene that crosscuts between two men playing the game on a beach in Africa with an athlete in Germany playing soccer on a video game console, which proves Franklin Foer’s point that soccer explains the world. Rivas introduces six players: Alhassane Sylla from Senegal, Oliver Burke from Scotland, Emanuel Mammana from Argentina, Corentin Tolisso from Lyon, Gastón Guruceaga from Uruguay, and Roman Zobnin from Russia, all of whom dream of playing in the World Cup. Two are shown adjusting to loneliness and new cultures as they relocate to foreign countries. One player suffers a cruciate ligament injury that put him in the hospital and rehab. Others talks about channeling their emotions, fulfilling goals, or not being good enough. The mindset of these players who work hard to get where they are – and harder to stay – comes across as they make difficult decisions and personal or professional sacrifices. The film is full of heartbreak that is counterbalanced by the strong desire each man has to play. This is why Ordinary Gods will resonate with viewers who are not fans of “the beautiful game.” However, those who want to see some action on the pitch, the film features a nail-biter of a match between Lyon vs. Ajax for the Europa League Semi-Final.

Datsche is a slight but winning multi-cultural comedy about an affable American named Valentine (Zack Segel) who decides to spend the summer in his late German grandfather’s summer cottage. He wants to reconnect with his past, but he mostly gets caught up in his present situation. When Val arrives, he discovers Adam (Kunle Kuforiji) living in the house. An African refugee who has been unable to get asylum, Val vows to keep Adam’s secret and let him stay and help with the garden. When Val meets Zorro (Juan Carlos Los Sasso) at a laundromat, he invites the Argentine to move into the datsche as well. Zorro takes the liberty of inviting the Greek Maria (Marie Céline Yildirim) and the Bavarian Stefan (Luis Lüps). The five makeshift friends live and work together with minimal problems, but a nationalist neighbor, Gregor (Christian Harting), takes umbrage with the international residents and wants them to leave. Writer/director Lara Hewitt’s debut makes points about community, identity, and nationality in ways that may sometimes feel preachy, but they go down easy. The attractive cast has a real camaraderie even if the characters are not too deep or developed. Although not much actually happens—there are montages of gardening, some mild drama over stolen money, and gentle humor—Datsche provides a pleasant diversion before it ends on a nice, poignant note.

Cut Off is Jowan Carbin’s feature debut about Clive (John Robinson) who moves to New Orleans with his wife, Kate (Devyn A. Tyler). But after Kate has difficulty with her pregnancy, Clive becomes despondent. When Trevor (Jean-Marc Barr), Clive’s former professor, invites him to Cut Off in the Bayou, Clive tags along, but he soon finds himself in a sticky situation. Carbin’s film is certainly atmospheric, but it is narratively uneven. Viewers will realize something long before Clive does, which dilutes some of the impact of the story in the first act. The film is stronger in its second half when it takes an uneasy dramatic turn that jolts Clive out of his despair. Carbin is examining grief here, paralleling two stories of loss, with mixed results. Nevertheless, Robinson makes Clive sympathetic, while Barr is casually sinister as Trevor. Cut Off shows promise, but it could have been stronger.

Ordinary Gods
Ordinary Gods

The animated import, Penguin Highway – the first feature from Japanese director Hiroyasu Ishida and Studio Colorido – is an enchanting fantasy based on Tomihiko Morimi’s novel. Aoyama (Kana Kita), is a precocious 4th grader who sees a colony of penguins in a field in his village. He wants to use science and reasoning to solve the mystery of where they came from. He asks for help from “The Lady” (Yû Aoi), a woman who works in his dentist’s office, as well as his classmates Uchida (Rie Kugimiya) and Hamomoto (Megumi Han). However, when The Lady shows she can manifest penguins (from coke cans) and the animals provide an energy source, something strange is afoot – and they don’t want anyone to know. Penguin Highway depicts what transpires, as Aoyama’s secret is leaked by Suzuki (Miki Fukui), the class bully, and a jabberwock appears in the village heightening fear. The animation is inventive as penguins fly or form a raft that carry Aoyam and The Lady along with water. The film’s story gets a little long—it may cause younger viewers to grow restless – but the bright colors, and interesting characters are engaging.

The Five Dollar Movie is director Stephen Wright’s canny and entertaining documentary about the people who offer their services on, a website where folks can buy everything from voiceovers and graphic design to testimonials for $5 (and up). Wright decided to raise a $1,000 budget to spend on Fiverr services to make the hour-long film, and he proudly outsources as much as he can including his film’s narration and music, poster design, and social media promotion. He even does his own Fiverr gig – offering St. Patrick Day greetings while dressed as a leprechaun – as an experiment to raise money. What Wright discovers through his meta-movie addresses the (true) cost of the services being provided – how Fiverr folks are turning a profit and making their work financially viable—as well as issues of transparency as folks paid to give testimonials. Wright’s film is a welcome cautionary tale for our digital age.

The festival’s “LifeScapes Shorts” program features several live action films. Commuter, directed by Sam Cassells, features an exchange between two men (Michael Gabel and Kirk Lambert) who meet on a bridge when one is about to jump. Their conversation is compelling as it deals with issues of truth and trust, but the film feels a bit slight even for a short. Better is Jingle, writer/director Eric Wang Schwager’s pointed drama about a charismatic man named Bishop (Frantzdy Alexandre) whose encounter with a musician (Aaron Kitchin) starts out friendly but soon turns heated. The film’s depiction of how these two men treat each other speaks volumes about race and class in America. In writer/director Lauren Bair’s Sorry for Your Loss, a comic funeral is seen from the corpse’s perspective. The film has some amusing moments as family members – and even a stranger – mourn a young woman’s passing. The single-camera shot of the action serves the story well, but some of the vignettes are too obvious. A Very Beginning Mind, by Gao Peng, has Lao Wang (Bing Wang), a man who sells used appliances, agreeing to participate in a filmed opera, which irks his wife (Yuzhen Wang). As he practices his performance, delays and other factors impede his goal. The film effectively transports viewers to Lao Wang’s rural Chinese world, and the film’s gentle rhythms will reward patient viewers. Voices, from Japanese filmmaker Takeshi Kushida, is an arresting drama about a man who sees a shadow on his wall and proceeds to interact with it. This wordless short is visually inventive and quite poignant. What Here Needs Love? written and directed by Daniel Antebi, is a compelling, non-linear drama about a family. Splintered into several interwoven episodes, Antebi coaxes emotions out of each vignette, prompting viewers to put the story together. His deliberate approach may frustrate some folks, but it generates strong emotions.

Rounding out the program is Synesthetic Symphony, from Mexico, but it was not available for preview.

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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