By Gary M. Kramer
The DC Independent Film Festival, billed as “the oldest independent film festival in our nation’s capital,” started screening dozens of features, documentaries, shorts and animated films March 4-13. Here are some of the highlights from this year’s program.
Train Station (March 10, 8:15pm) is an impressive anthology film made by 44 directors working with different casts and in different countries (they collaborated exclusively online). The film opens in Africa, with a man deciding if he should wait for a late train that might never come or go home and miss the train he hoped to take. The man leaves, and the film shifts to Brazil, where a man leaves a train station, only to meet a man who says he could change his life. The film continues from this point on with different characters—of different genders and ages—picking up the story thread. Train Station is about random chance and choice, having control and encountering fate. As the first story plays out, a car accident, a large sum of money, someone named Valentin, and an unexpected situation are presented. Train Station then picks up another narrative and goes in a different direction, telling a story about a golf ball injury and a wallet. Viewers may appreciate the “choose your own adventure” format of the film, which allows for the multiple directors to explore themes like love and fear across cultures, and show how characters express everything from affection and anger. Train Station philosophizes and rhapsodizes about avoiding or suffering one’s choices. The filmmakers make some interesting choices themselves, ranging from episodes with a couple having a baby to “heal” followed by a pregnancy that is horrifying, or surreal sequences, such as one set in a prison when a man is unjustly accused of a crime. Train Station is an ambitious film, but this daring experiment pays off.
Internet Junkie (March 11, 6:25pm) is a compelling Argentine-Mexico-Israel co-production written and directed by Alexander Katzowicz. It connects a handful of characters including Ari (Brian Jagodnik Chab), an Israeli who plays chess online with the Colonel (Antonio Birabent), who seduces a series of women, including Lorena (Paula Carruega), who works in an art gallery. Meanwhile, Martín (Nicolas Basksht) is a virginal teen who pays for online sex with Caro (Mijal Katzowicz), until her boyfriend Rodo (Nicolás Mateo) discovers them. Other characters and subplots ebb and flow—such as one involving a seductress, Lolly (Victoria Doubovik)—but none overstay their welcome. Internet Junkie juxtaposes the identities both real and imagined that exist in cyberspace and in real life, suggesting that love is really only valid when there is truth. This may not be a new or particularly deep statement, but Katzowicz’ film is entertaining with comic scenes of Ari bullying his parents, or when Martín pays a visit to his bickering grandparents (Buñuel actress Ángela Molina and Mexican filmmaker Arturo Ripstein). If the Colonel’s storyline is the weakest—because it is the most obvious—the sum of Internet Junkie is greater than its parts.
Writer/director Benjamin Meyer’s feature, Fools (March 13, 5:50pm), is an offbeat romantic dramady about two strangers, Sam (Michael Szeles) and Susan (Mary Cross), who meet repeatedly on the subway and follow each other home. When Susan is kicked out of her apartment, she shows up at Sam’s place and moves in with him. She claims she is a Hungarian princess; he recounts the acting lessons his father passed down to him. Both are lying, but their relationship is built on these fantasies; reality simply gets in their way. Fools requires viewer’s to make a similar suspension of disbelief to go along with the characters. For those that do, there is a touching love story that results. Both Sam and Susan are fragile people, damaged by their families, and looking to cope with the pressures they face. The find this in the closed circuit they create, which is what makes this film work. Fools is never twee or too precious; it is grounded by the strong, credible performances by Szeles and Cross in the lead roles.
The shorts programs at the DC Independent Film Festival also feature some gems. The “Seriously Funny” shorts program (March 12, 1:10pm) features at least two very clever shorts. Mi Casa, Su Casa has Celine (director Sara Verhagen) returning home from a trip to Mexico. But her apartment has been taken over by a complete stranger, Bartleby (Paul Bandey), his wife, their hipster friends, as well as a naked old man and other assorted characters. Celine insists it is her apartment, but Bartleby assures her it is not. As she tries to figure out where her stuff is, and what is happening, Mi Casa, Su Casa delivers a smart twist that is very funny. The short is incredibly well acted by the entire cast who exhibit a real comic verve with all the zany characters and situations. And stay tuned through the end credits for a final zinger.
Dog Bowl is more strange than funny as Debra (Marci Miller) exhibits peculiar behavior, especially after she steals a service dog vest. The short, written and directed by Gordy Hoffman, builds slowly and creates real empathy for Debra before it takes a surreal turn. Viewers who go with it will find this short to be odd, but satisfying. The “Edgy at Nights” shorts program (March 12, 8:30pm) is more of a mixed bag. On Second Thought concerns Leroy (Dan Berg), an artist who wants to be rich and famous. When he sells his soul to the devil, he realizes he may have made a mistake. While there are some comic bits involving a couple bickering in limbo, and a devilish performance by Mace Sorensen as “The Appraiser,” this short is overlong and mostly underwhelming, never quite making its points about getting what one wants or deserves resonate.
In contrast, Mauvaises Têtes (Bad Heads) is a luminously shot (in black and white) “horromance.” A fun intro sets up this tale about Jenny (Alice Dessuant), a lonely young woman who finds a way to get the men of her dreams—and keep them. The short connects the disparate parts of fantasy and gothic as Jenny commits some rather nasty acts in her flapper dress, pearls and heels. If the short telegraphs its punch line early, it still is an enjoyable “joke.”
Lastly, one of the shorts that has already played at the fest but deserves mention is the Oscar-nominated documentary Last Day of Freedom. Bill Babbitt narrates this affecting animated film in which he recounts his “education” about the death penalty in heartbreaking detail. His troubled brother, Manny, served several tours in Vietnam. When he returned home, he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and was in and out of mental hospitals. Bill found it painful to watch his brother slide into despair, but he confronted real agony when he realized his brother was responsible for a murder. “I had to do what I did,” Bill says, describing his decision to contact the police. What transpires with the subsequent court case and aftermath prompts Bill to address issues of forgiveness and regret. The animation is used to emphasize Bill’s emotional pain, and it is quite effective. Moreover, a coda that explains some of the facts of the case is especially heartbreaking. Last Days of Freedom is a powerful film that has the capacity to change minds.
Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and co-editor of the Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.
For more information on the festival, visit http://dciff-indie.org/