SIFF 2021: 7 Capsule Reviews from the Virtual Festival

Oh, how times have changed. The most beloved festival of the Pacific Northwest, cancelled last year, gone virtual this year. It’s a dagger to the heart, not that there isn’t a great joy in its continuation, but that we do not get to celebrate the greatest regional blocks of films, together. That I watched all these films alone, having the same experience with each of them. What makes festivals so wonderful is the show before and after the show. It’s the party atmosphere. Cinema writ-large, a whole form of art, expanded as a social event. All our greatest festival memories are memories of each other. While it’s with gratitude that I accept our lot in life, that we’re here again, and the possibility to continue supporting a Seattle institution, the way it used to be will always be in the back of my mind, knowing exactly what I missed. All of you. The organizers! The attendees! The press! The filmmakers!

It could never be the same this way. And it absolutely was not the same. What is usually a monthlong smorgasbord of divine filmgoing heaven, was reduced to a smattering of online selections. And yet, it is still the premier festival of the region. There is still superb value in attending and getting to see these films. While recognizing the profound privilege of my present position, I also must write and say what we are all thinking: I miss you. I can’t wait to see you next year. It will feel like the warmest embrace cinema has ever given. We will come together again and the movies will unite us.

Until that wonderful moment occurs, let’s have a chat about some of this year’s festival offerings:

Mogul Mowgli

Mogul Mowgli. Dir. Bassam Tariq.

Riz Ahmed is having a moment. In Sound of Metal (2020), he awed audiences with perceivably the best performance of the last year, as a heavy metal drummer who loses his hearing amidst long-term recovery from drugs. In The Long Goodbye (2020) — a concept album with a superb music video — he raps about colonial trauma in Britain, right as the realities of Brexit rear their ugly head. Mogul Mowgli, then, feels like a consolidation of the two: here, Riz plays a now-disabled rapper who puts truth-to-music, exploring the colonial fear of being a Pakistani, in a genre that does not support those outcomes. It’s another touching and resonant performance. Something has lit a fuse deep within Riz Ahmed and he has exceeded normal classification. In a time where stars are not as important as brands, he has gone outside the system, and is creating deeply personal work with wide-reaching angles of social empathy. Directed by Bassam Tariq and co-written by Ahmed, Mogul Mowgli is a bright and well-formed rap story, the kind rarely seen in movies.

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street. Dir. Marilyn Agrelo.

Sesame Street is for the streets. The original function of the show was to appeal to inner-city youths. This is the history that Street Gang celebrates. It’s the history of PBS, a viewer-funded platform that was able to provide early learning opportunities to the underprivileged through public access television. It’s both inspiring and essential to understand Sesame Street as a cornerstone of television history. While the doc is very good, it certainly raises important questions about the current state of Sesame Street. New episodes of the show premier directly to HBO Max, a premium network. For a documentary from that network, about how the whole point was the low barrier of entry and how that created all this brilliant and experimental television, it’s a hard reality that this programming could not forever sustain itself. Importantly, Sesame Street lives on, and continues to be chronicled in meaningful, and expansive ways. Read the full review here.

Little Girl

Little Girl. Dir. Sébastien Lifshitz.

I must consider a film like Little Girl as a father first. It was a deeply tearful watch. Sébastien Lifshitz’s film catalogues the brave transition of eight-year-old Sasha, who has made a decision about her gender. It plays out in a small French town, still deeply invested in biological outcomes of gender. The film is a disturbing window into exactly how hard all of that is on a child. Again, as a parent, I feel at odds with myself, so careful a guardian of my child’s own narrative, as I am. I believe in young Sasha and her journey more than anything. I do always wonder about documenting children, and the effect of creating documentaries about them. Nothing from this year’s SIFF could equal such a touching document of a child’s self-discovery and actualization. And as a parent, nothing moves me more than seeing such parents so proudly invested in their children’s future, whoever they decide to be. It’s a beautiful little documentary about a brave little girl. I may never know, ethically, what the right thing to do in such a case would be, but I’m awfully glad I could witness this outcome.

Summer of 85

Summer of 85. Dir. François Ozon.

I have a tumultuous relationship with the films of director François Ozon. He is something of a critical bugbear for me. A middle-of-the-road director who I find irresistible to dissect. What drives my interest are the possibilities of his films. In the Knives Out (2019) precursor 8 Women (2002), he made a thoroughly charming woman-led murder mystery musical, starring Catherine Deneuve and Isabelle Huppert. His films carry clever gay subtexts. Sometimes he is simply squandering his outsized potential and aping the style of another filmmaker. Swimming Pool (2003) is De Palma and Hitchcock adjacent in every describable way but fails to transcribe consistent tension and internal logic. Likewise, Summer of 85 (no relation to recent Summer of 84, 2018), its poster a fine replica of Call Me By Your Name (2017) — see: the colors, the heads tilted together, the font — is frothy Luca Guadagnino revisionism. And yet, I’m helplessly attracted to how middle-of-the-road his productions are. They are frivolous experiments within known formulas, sometimes breaking through, but regularly reminding us we’re dealing with a crafty filmmaker. Show me a film that wouldn’t lift my spirits by plugging in The Cure, and I’ll show you a film that doesn’t exist. May Ozon remain my favorite average director.

Slalom

Slalom. Dir. Charlène Favier.

As a pure ball of kinetic energy, Charlène Favier debut feature is damn impressive. It’s a film that moves. So it goes for a skiing film set on the French Alps. It’s also a super difficult film to watch. Young Lyz (Noée Abita) has just joined a premier ski club. She is all determination and grit. Up in the slopes, there are far greater threats than the environment and the crushing pressure to succeed. Her coach (Jérémie Renier) takes an interest in more than her skiing. From the skiing to the sexual content, the film is always moving, harrowing downhill with all of its might. It is very hard watching the young girl exploited by her coach and the sex scenes have the disturbing gravity of reality behind them. There is such authenticity to the film and a striking aesthetic. It’s a very good movie that I would like to never see or think about again.

Kim Ji-young, Born 1982

Kim Ji-young, Born 1982. Dir. Kim Do-young.

As a function of raw honesty, Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 is an aspirational debut for director Kim Do-young. The film takes aim at the patriarchal systems of South Korean society. Just do all of these chores and smile while doing them, society says. When a woman suffers a breakdown and feels she embodies the souls of her deceased relatives, nobody could ever blame her, living under the weight of that stress. While the film dozes off and gets knotted up in the weeds of its plotting, it draws our attention to two names to remember: director Kim Do-young and actress Jung Yu-mi, who are consistently rising above the material of the film. Based on the wave-making Korean #MeToo book of the same name, which was a best-selling feminist novel in Korea.

Sweat

Sweat. Dir. Magnus von Horn.

There’s certainly something to say about our relationship to social media influencers and their relationship to us. The thing is that it’s so obvious, it’s almost incredible that a movie was made about it. Just the thought process there, to frame social media through the eyes of an influencer. We know everything it could plausibly say about the burnout of the soul. If we’ve spent a moment on those sites, we have seen and possibly felt it first hand. The urge to share constant updates and then the refractory period of realizing we truly have nobody to share those internet moments with. Our internet culture has advanced so far beyond our brain’s ability to find a healthy medium for these interactions, how could the end result be anything but distress? For Magnus von Horn it must have seemed like a worthy venture for a feature film but the end result is so remarkably banal, we almost have to respect the team for going through the motions. We are left with the same feeling we get from posting a deluge of status updates. A lot has technically happened but only emptiness remains.

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Dad, husband, editor of thetwingeeks.com

Press: calvinkemph@yahoo.com

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