Wednesday, March 21, 2018

QWFF 2018 part 1

The Queens World Film Festival is bigger and better than ever this year, and as someone who has been coming to it ever since 2012, it's breathtaking to see. Don & Katha Cato both go to extraordinary lengths to make the show as inclusive as possible without sacrificing quality, and little by little, the rest of New York City is noticing. I'm grateful to be back writing about the movies here. Expecting some good stuff, as always.

Once again, the Museum of the Moving Image and the Zukor Theater at the Kaufman Astoria Studios are the venues. This year's report will be split into two parts, one for today and the other for next week.

MARCH 15: Opening Night

Reserving my press pass was easier this year, at least for me. QWFF has switched to an online system and it confused me at first last year, but now I've got a handle on it. Opening night was scheduled for 7 but it got pushed back to 8 for some reason.

Saw some of the usual familiar faces: Pat handled press passes this year; she gave me mine. Sam worked near the main ticket desk, telling people where to go or something. I imagine he'll also handle projection, as usual.

The MOMI lobby was packed with filmmakers and their entourages, taking pictures in front of the QWFF banner. A dude played movie theme songs on an accordion; that was a first. My cell was running low on juice and I didn't see anyplace to recharge, so I couldn't even fiddle around online while waiting for the main auditorium to open.

I did, however, make some conversation. I spoke to a woman who was a film block host for the first time this year. She said her regular job was as a midwife, and her blocks have a medical theme to them. Unfortunately, they're not on my list. Oh well. I also spoke to this kid who was a rookie volunteer, an aspiring actor.

Among the pre-show activity included a tribute to one of this year's Spirit of Queens honorees, director Vincent Gagliostro, a former art director and long-time gay rights activist. His current film, After Louie, is playing in the fest.

Filmmakers in attendance on Opening Night

The Opening Night lineup was really strong:

- Atomic Mother. An abstract treatise about the nuclear age and how atomic bomb testing in the American Southwest has impacted the Najavo Indians who live there. You could say it's Koyaanisqatsi meets Fail Safe directed by... some music video director. It's stunning to look at, and the experimental cutting and music sampling doesn't detract from the story.

- You Deserve Everything. Two guys are in a relationship. They seem deeply in love — but one is hiding something. When the secret is revealed, I wanted instant retribution, but the resolution is gentler, perhaps, than is warranted. Starts off kinda slow, but ends on a grace note of hope. Not bad.

- Bricklayer's Poet. A man and a woman talk in a bar around Christmastime, but there's something unique about this woman. A blue-collar Before Sunrise, this one, surprisingly, stayed with me awhile, for personal reasons, and I got caught up in it pretty easily. Based on a play.

- Our Wonderful Nature: The Common Chameleon. A parody of BBC-type nature programs, fearuring a chameleon with eyes bigger than his stomach. Reminded me of the Oscar-nominated short Garden Party, only a bit more cartoonish in art style.

- (Out)caste. An Indian mother in a rural village has the worst possible job — and it takes it toll. Odd to see a modern Indian village without indoor plumbing but with cellphones. I suppose such places must exist, but it's hard to believe. The acting is good.

- Backstory. A life in eight minutes, from birth to death. This one was remarkable. The gimmick was, we only see the back of the protagonist's head the whole time, in roughly the same fixed position, until the moment of his death. It immerses us into his life, but I might have held off on showing his face until the very end. Here we get a "whole life flashing before his eyes" sequence where we do see his face. It didn't bother me much, though. I liked it a lot.

Zukor Theater

I'm taking off days from the fest since it's so long this year. I think it'll be easier on me — less running around from one venue to another. Plus, the 19th is an official off day. I had a wonderful day with Virginia yesterday and now I'm relaxed and ready for tonight.

The Zukor Theater, inside the Kaufman Astoria Studios, is how I remember it. Don and Katha popped in as I was waiting for the doors to open. Katha spotted local councilman Jimmy van Bramer, a big supporter of QWFF, standing to the left of me and rushed over to say hi, chatted with him, then noticed me and hung onto my arm while she continued talking, like I was Hugh Hefner or somebody. I think she just didn't want me to think she was ignoring me. That's Katha for you.

- Tempo Rubato. An inside look at folklore music from Columbia, and the musicians who work on a piece that uses it to address current events in that country. I know Columbia mostly for the advances they've made in public transportation and livable streets in Bogota, so seeing what else is going on there was enlightening. Music is tied directly to the soul of people of color there, and that's reflected in the songs they sing. Very nice.

- Maximo: Devil or Saint. In Guatemala, the people's deity of choice is a saint known as San Simon, or Maximo, who they say can work miracles. So why does the Catholic Church consider him a tool of the Devil? This reminded me of the Brazilian film The Given Word: the disguising of a secular deity amidst Catholic trappings, the virulent opposition by Catholic priests, the alleged association with witchcraft and devil-worship. Co-directors Robert Flanagan and Suzan Al-Doghachi, who were on hand, spoke of how they lived among the Guatamalan people and gained their trust. They said worship of San Simon incorporates good and evil, darkness and light, together, as opposed to Catholicism, in which the two are kept far apart. Fascinating as a cultural study as well as a religious one.

Maximo directors Suzan Al-Doghachi and
Robert Flanagan (far right)


Birthday greetings on Facebook and Twitter all day long. It's nice.

Rushed down the street after this blog finished to go to my writing group, so I missed the Q&A session. I have a chapter up for critique this week, so I have to be there. Won't be there next week, though; I want to see the Queens filmmakers block. Briefly said hi to Elizabeth on my way out; would've liked to have talked longer, but I think we both had other things to do.

- Kayla in 1A. An observation of a peculiar neighbor. This was done using homemade puppets, and I have to admit, I found it adorable, in a way. A score of some kind would've been nice, but otherwise, this wasn't bad.

- Rendez-vous. A painter gets a close encounter with his muse. A silent piece, it felt like a slight twist on Pygmalion, but it ended too soon! Would've liked to have seen more.

- Belgiac. I didn't understand this at all. Something about a lesbian relationship, Belgium, a lot of abstract imagery... I dunno.

- Nothing Changes: Art for Hank's Sake. 87-year-old Hank Virgona has spent his entire adult life as an Illustrator and fine artist, and he shows no signs of slowing down. As soon as I read about this, I knew I had to see it, and I was not disappointed. This guy comes from Queens into his Manhattan studio six days a week, despite his age, because he's just gotta draw and paint. He's quite good, too; his current obsession is drawing ink sketches of people on the subway and rendering them in watercolor washes, but that's just one of many styles he has worked in over the long years. He's not famous, but he's okay with that: the work is the thing. Fascinating portrait of a true artisan.


- Thank You and Good Night. The impending death of the filmmaker's grandmother prompts her to examine her family and the nature of life and death itself.

QWFF's Don Cato presents Jan Oxenberg with the Spirit of Queens Award, in the form of
a bowl of chicken noodle soup

Jan Oxenberg is the second Spirit of Queens honoree this year. Known mostly as a writer, she's also a director and producer, mostly in television, over a career that dates back to the 70s. Thank You was a film from 1991 that recently received a digital restoration.

Imagine Michel Gondry directing a Woody Allen movie and you'll get some idea of what Oxenberg's film is like: documentary footage of her grandma, Mae Joffe, in her final days, along with Oxenberg and the rest of her family, interspersed with peculiar, yet funny, imagery: Oxenberg as a game show contestant attempting to answer questions about Mae; a homemade rocketship blasting into a cheaply-made outer space sequence; a variety of strangers parading through a tunnel to the tune of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready."

Equal parts tragedy and comedy, with a distinctly Jewish attitude about life and death, it's idiosyncratic and unmistakably the vision of its creator, who wrote, produced and directed. Some of it was painful to look at, but other moments were funny (her philosopher brother, for instance), and the DIY aesthetic ties everything together.

Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of Thank You is the use of cardboard cutouts of Oxenberg (as a little girl) and Mae throughout the film, functioning as avatars of the women, in a way. Some of them have self-mobility, others are manipulated off-camera, but most don't do anything other than stand or sit or lie. It's safe to say I've never seen anything like this movie. In an age of computer-generated spectacle, Thank You makes the most of its ultra-low-budget to create something with genuine heart and love.

Oxenberg, with Thank You co-producer
James Schamus

Oxenberg appeared in a Q-and-A moderated by Thank You's co-producer, Academy Award nominee and indie film legend James Schamus. Her mother Helen, who also appears in the film, was in attendance as well. Jan Oxenberg said her original intent was simply to record her grandma's last days. Turning the footage into a film was her attempt "to make meaning out of this experience." It was Schamus, she said, who realized the heart of the film revolved around her sister Judy, who died as a child and is invoked periodically throughout the film, including in a re-enactment of the car crash that took her life, using another cardboard cutout in her place.

Here's a New Yorker piece on Thank You.

Part two of QWFF comes next week.

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