Women in Film at Denver Film Festival 42 – 3 Films You Need To Experience

Saint Frances, my favorite film at DFF42
Show Me What You Got – a sexy film reminiscent of Jules et Jim
The Truth (La Verité)

This year’s Denver Film Festival had a particularly robust Women + Film program. 14 films, including the film series Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema directed by Mark Cousins. Four of those films won awards at the festival–Song Without a Name, The Conductor, Scheme Birds, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. And though the Women Make Film series was uneven (Part One was a fascinating 3-hour tour w/hundreds of clips of women’s work to illustrate the first 7 of 40 topics of filmmaking & Part Three was a snooze fest with fewer extended clips), the rest of the selections showed the breadth of women’s films from documentaries to social justice to hilarious farce.

There was also a Women + Film luncheon featuring a discussion between Britta Erickson, DFF Festival Director and Svetlana Cvetko, writer/director/cinematographer and winner of the Grand Prix du Public in Films de Femmes in France. Cvetko has a long history with the Denver Film Festival. Starting as a photographer for the festival, her shorts and then documentaries screened at DFF. Her latest film, and first narrative feature, Show Me What You Got played after the luncheon. The beauty of this film, shot in evocative black and white, and the intimate portrayal of three talented young adults trying to find their place in the world is impressive. Sexy and tender, the relationships feel real and I was drawn into their embrace. Shot in LA, Italy and Paris with a multilingual cast and narrated in French, the actors become more beautiful the longer Cvetko’s camera lingers on them. The title doesn’t seem to represent the film and I didn’t feel it needed to be narrated in French yet I loved this film. I hope it will get distribution and receive the audience it deserves.

My favorite film at DFF42 is an award-winner from the Sundance Film Festival. Saint Frances is hilarious, rude, and incredibly astute. I described it as — if Brie Larson starred in a dramedy with the young actress (Quvenzhané Wallis) from Beasts of the Southern Wild and the plot was reminiscent of Obvious Child (director Gillian Robespierre with star Jenny Slate). Writer and star Kelly O’Sullivan has crafted a charming film about a young woman whose considerable talents have not yet resulted in a satisfying career or relationship. The young woman takes a position as a nanny and begins an affair with a younger man that results in a pregnancy. Her life and choices resonated with me on a deeply personal level.

Director Alex Thompson, who met O’Sullivan when making her sizzle reel, handles the material with finesse. Though there are a few under-developed characters, the central relationships are awkward and fraught and real. I love this quote from Thompson that refers to the surprisingly well-handled appearances of blood in the film. “The movie is all about the ways that women are made to feel ashamed of their bodies, their choices and inherent parts of womanhood,” says O’Sullivan. “It’s annoyed me that [menstrual blood] has never made its way believably on screen — even in TV commercials for tampons, the liquid is blue! Knowing that we would be tackling this subject matter in a realistic and authentic way, the only way to do that is show it the way it is. Saint Frances is a feminist film, and I wanted to approach it so that these inherent parts of womanhood would take place on screen, not off.” 25 New Faces of Independent Film 2019, Filmmaker Magazine

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed The Truth (La Verité). There had been little buzz about this film at other festivals even though it has such an amazing cast. After I was telling friends how much I loved the film, I heard the sad news about Catherine Deneauve having been in the hospital for a minor stroke. The Truth, directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda (last year’s Indie hit, Shoplifters) is very meta. It’s about a famous actress and her fraught relationship with her daughter, played by Juliette Binoche. The daughter has traveled with her daughter and her sitcom-actor husband (a nice turn by Ethan Hawk) to celebrate the publication of the famous mother’s biography. There’s a film within the film and both actresses give very nuanced performances. There’s even a woman acting as Deneave’s character’s mother in the film played by the wonderful Ludivine Sagnier. It’s a film about mothers and daughters, jealousy, memory and forgiveness. How a Korean director making his first English language (and French) film got so much right show a great talent. This film is a real delight. Take your mom!

Overall, a stellar year for women in film at the Denver Film Festival and a wonderful slate of films! The Truth (La Verité) has distribution with Wild Bunch so look for it an arthouse cinema near you. Saint Frances is still traveling the festival circuit (in Cork this week!) but it doesn’t look they’ve announced a distributor yet. Show Me What You Got is also still on the circuit and was being shopped at the American Film Market last weekend. Follow the films on social media for release dates.

The Serendipity of Agnés Varda

Serendipity

ser·en·dip·i·ty/ˌserənˈdipədē/ noun

  1. the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way. “a fortunate stroke of serendipity”

Three film festivals. Three opportunities to celebrate Agnés Varda.

Telluride Film Festival (TFF46) dedicated their festival to her memory. Mill Valley (MVFF42) hosted Mind the Gap celebrating women in the industry and screened a film featuring Varda, Serendipity. Varda would applaud the festival’s (lead by the wonderful Zoe Elton) gender equity mission to have 50% of films feature women directors programmed by 2020. Denver (DFF42) also screened Varda by Agnés and has a great Women + Film program started 14 years ago by Tammy Brislin and supported, and now lead, by Barbara Bridges and her foundation.

I was lucky enough to be in the audience at the Telluride tribute and screening of Varda by Agnés. What an incredible panel with her family and friends there to speak. Martin Scorsese spoke about her visit with JR to his The Irishmen set. She teased him about his lack of female characters. They seemed to have had a warm relationship and he considers her a great talent. Varda’s daughter and son discussed carrying on her vision and what it was like growing up with a mother who documented their lives wherever they lived. Tom Luddy, a founder of the festival, is actually featured in the documentary! He introduced Varda to her uncle in Sausalito and helped get her crew together to film their meeting–Uncle Yanco, in 1967. He was also instrumental in encouraging her to film the Black Panther movement in Oakland. It was a pleasure to hear him speak and then see a younger Tom Luddy on the big screen.

Those serendipitous moments continued. I traveled to Mill Valley to help manage the Outdoor Art Club for the festival and one of our events was a reception for Serendipity. Prune Nourry’s documentary is her story of how her work as a sculptor and her journey through breast cancer was incredibly intertwined; reflected and refracted. She is a French sculptor married to the art photographer JR. The film includes a sequence filmed by Varda when Prune Nourry shaves her head. During the Q & A after the screening, Nourry revealed that during that filming, Varda had breast cancer too. “She had the young woman’s version of cancer, aggressive and fast”, Nourry said shaking her head. “I had the old woman version, slow to spread and easier to stop.” Agnés would die of her breast cancer a few months later.

The documentary is powerful and beautiful and celebrates the transcendence of art. It was also incredibly personal to me having myself had a breast biopsy and a family that has suffered the ravages of breast cancer. The night of the screening, I had just received news of a new case of breast cancer in my own family. What a sad serendipity. Watching JR, in his sunglasses even at the evening film screening, supporting his wife as she travels with her film, I thought of the wonderful film, Faces, Places (Visages Villages). And again, there was the frission of synchronicity.

Now I’m the Denver Film Festival and the one film that fit into the schedule for my two busy film festival buddies…Varda by Agnés. As we had drinks post-film, I shared the story of Prune Nourry’s connection to Varda and my own relationship to her film, Serendipty. My life is full of serendipity and I’m grateful for my wonderful friends who share my journey. Now I want to get back to SF to visit JR’s photography exhibit at SFMOMA…on thru April 2020.

How to take advantage of a festival if you’re a procrastinator!

The 42nd Denver Film Festival is halfway over. What if you’re just realizing it’s happening? You put it on your calendar and didn’t manage to purchase any tickets yet. Is it too late? Of course not! The Festival is on till Sunday, November 10th. You can still take advantage of some excellent programming even TODAY!

An exciting documentary series

Here’s where to start: head on down to the Festival Annex at the McNichols Building. Yes, yes, parking can be tough in the Civic Center area but there are garages nearby or take an Uber/Lift. Once you walk through the doors, head to the ticketing counter and ask what special $5 tickets might be available. Yes, that’s right, $5! Weekdays between 11am and 5pm there are a selection of tickets available and even prizes and giveaways!

Now grab a program and enjoy a libation in the cafe. Look at all the exciting activities available right there at the Annex. There’s more to this festival than films! You could check out some of the Free Virtual Reality in the Arcade. There are conversations and panels, art exhibits and parties. Ask other festival goers for their recommendations on films or experiences at the Festival. Escape from Godot is an exciting escape room experience based on “Waiting for Godot” or maybe you’d prefer “Star Wars Shakespeare”?

If you want to check out some of the excellent film programming, there’s still time. It’s a very diverse slate of comedies, dramas, animation, shorts and everything in between. There’s been a lot of buzz about The Conductor, Zumriki and the CO feature, 3 Days, 2 Nights. I can recommend the feminist adventure The Aeronauts and the wonderful documentary on Agnès Varda, Varda by Agnès.

There’s a steamy romance that’s beautiful and has a gorgeous lush soundtrack, Show Me What You Got. My favorite documentary 17 Blocks, has one more screening. If you’re interested in film making, there’s a comprehensive 14-hour documentary series called Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema. Now don’t worry, you don’t have to see ALL 5 parts! Nor do you have to see them in order. Tonight is Part Two and it’s a 3-hour look at different aspects of film making using women’s films as examples. Prepare for some enlightening cinema and expose yourself to directors you may have never heard of, and images you’ve likely never seen.

Don’t let the fun pass you by…come join the party at the Denver Film Festival!

A big groan for “Genesis”

@DFF, J’Adore + CineQueer

Rarely do I leave a theater angry. And I can count on one hand the times I’ve left a theater before the film ends! Genesis (Genése) was infuriating. A French Canadian film directed by Philippe Lesage (Les Démons (2015) & The Heart That Beats (2010)); this coming-of-age film features a sister and brother and a soundtrack the repeats the same pop song multiple times.

Almost an hour of random daily activities as each character attempts to find love or express love and there’s a rape and an expulsion from school. A brief tender moment between the siblings with no dialogue relating the tragic events they’ve experienced and then the film leaves them behind. A band is performing the same randy folk song from earlier and we have another musical interlude with teens dancing…and suddenly, the focus is on two NEW teens. Only later did I read that the young man is actually a character from Les Démons — an earlier autobiographical film. It’s one thing to make a film for your fans, but to expect filmgoers to have seen your previous film seems arrogant and unrealistic.

There’s rumbling from the screening next door (an action film? a war movie?) and vibrations that make me worry it’s an earthquake. What’s happening at the UA Pavilion Theaters? My fellow theater mate at the end of the recliners looked at me with alarm and we both gave the universal shrug 🤷‍♂️ and tried to get back into this disjointed film.

My level of irritation rose when the same French pop song began playing again. I wasn’t willing to wait out another side story to find the resolution to the first set of troubled teens. The first two hours had moments of interest, mainly the brother’s attempt to explain his love for his best friend to his entire class. There is a clear male gaze in the film with long shots of the young woman’s breasts. The casual misogynistic attitude of the characters…which seems to reflect the director’s sensibility, was maddening. One male teacher struts in front of his class of male teen students pontificating that while now the boys may be infatuated with breasts, when they mature–they’ll learn the joy of women’s vaginas!

One empty wine glass (out of 5 full ones) for this tragedy that tries to explore loss without presenting any closure or enlightenment.

The Boss Inspiring Lives Across the Pond

The effects of music on our lives is hard to put into words but Sarfraz Manzoor, who was born in Pakistan and raised in Thatcher-era England, did just that. He can tell you exactly what kind of impact one musician — Bruce Sprinsteen — had on his once wayward life.

Do you love films inspired by true stories? Do you fancy a sweet teen romance with great production values and an inspirational plot? Blinded by the Light, is set in a small British town in 1987. Rebellious teens are shown sporting crazy hairstyles and listening to New Wave music. One young Pakistani teen is struggling with his identity under a strict Muslim father in a neighborhood vandalized by white nationalists.

Enter The Boss. When a high school friend gives our young hero two tapes of Bruce Springsteen music for his Walkman, the lyrics become the anthem that changes his life. Viveik Kalra stars as Javed; lip-syncing lyrics and shifting between rage and the joy of young love — smiling from ear to ear. He’s been writing poetry to express himself but is navigating two worlds. How to honor his father, face up to the racist bullies and pursue his dream of being a writer? Inspired by Springsteen’s lyrics about working class heroes, he begins to understand that the class warfare and racial intolerance are something worth fighting for. Gurinder Chadha, who also directed Bend it like Beckham, is a great fit for this material.

Based on the book, Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N’ Roll; by Sarfraz Manzoor, the film uses Springsteen’s lyrics in a wonderful way. They become alive when the words are superimposed on the neighborhood buildings as Javed listens to them. The lyrics even swirl about his head as he absorbs them. By showcasing the lyrics this way, the meaning of the words and how they resonate for this conflicted young man are made real for the audience as well.

Many scenes are set inside Javed’s room as he writes away his frustrations or tries to style himself in The Boss’s image. Keeping the focus of the film on his home life and his interactions with his family gives this film an intimate feel — you are brought into the family dynamic. There’s a fun scene where the boys sneak a Bruce Springsteen record unto the turntable at the high school music station and that soundtrack follows the friends as they travel through town. As they travel past striking Union workers, a dance crew in the town square and their fellow students, everyone starts to dance to the music. This is a sweet teen film that tells the hero’s journey in a unique way. Blinded by the Light celebrates family and hard work and though it’s set in 1987 England, it’s sadly relevant for today’s America with our class division and intolerance.

Viveik Kalra, Nell Williams and Aaron Phagura appear in Blinded by the Light by Gurinder Chadha, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Nick Wall.

Drinks with Films Rating: 3 cups of Marsala Chai (out of 5)

One of my favorite films from 2016 is a messier version of this film — set in Ireland and also featuring a protagonist inspired by music and bullied by white nationalists — Sing Street was nominated for a Golden Globe but not seen by many people. If Blinded by the Light makes you smile but you’re more of an 80’s New Wave music fan…check out Sing Street. Not as much smiling, lower production values and more eye make-up — but also a lot of heart.

“VARDA BY AGNÈS”

Nothing is trite if you look at it with empathy and love. — Agnès Varda, from her last film, Varda by Agnès

a darling illustration of Varda from a bag I was lucky enough to score from the film’s publicist
Tom Luddy, Rosalie Varda, Martin Scorsese, Mathieu Demy, moderator Annette Insdorf

Agnès Varda, the Belgian-born French filmmaker died in March and the Telluride Film Festival dedicated this year’s festival to her and celebrated her life and work with special guests. Bringing in her friend Martin Scorsese and her two children, Rosalie Varda and Mathieu Demy and the founder of the festival, Tom Luddy to discuss her ground-breaking work and then screening Varda’s last film, Varda by Agnès. An instant film-studies classic, her film is a beautiful overview of her work and collaborations with actors and cinematographers. Varda is shown giving talks to students in both France and the US with clips of her work, then the film jumps to new footage of Varda speaking with her actors in the same locations where she filmed.

Martin Scorsese spoke about having Agnès Varda visit him on the set of The Irishman (Opening at the NY Film Festival where Varda’s film will also screen). She chided him on his politics and he soothed her with saying the film was about unions since she’s was all about the working man. It was touching to hear how he sought her approval and valued her opinion. Rosalie and Mathieu spoke about their unusual upbringing when famous directors and stars were guests at their home and they traveled to LA with their father, Jacque Demy and their mother. She was always busy making films. Indiewire has a lovely interview with Rosalie in Agnès Varda’s Daughter On Her Mother’s Death and the Future of Her Archive.

from the 46th Telluride Film Festival Program

I was so glad I got to be at the Tribute screening of this film because Tom Luddy spoke of his relationship with Varda from his years in San Francisco. He introduced her to Jean Varda, who turned out to be a relative of hers and she immediately decided to make a film about their reunion. Luddy is in the film as she recreated her introduction by him in the short Uncle Yanco…and it’s featured in Varda by Agnès. The short also screened at the festival with Black Panthers, another film that Tom Luddy assembled the crew for and encouraged Varda to make so she could document an important movement in US history. It was great to her about her filmmaking process and how her creative energies; her joie de vivre made her someone that no one wanted to say no to.

Agnès Varda was a true genius, working right till the end of her life and it’s so inspiring to see her work and celebrate her life. Faces Places (Visages Villages) brought her a resurgence of popularity and the film was nominated for an Oscar and won many International awards. I hope this film will also get the acclaim it deserves.

Say Hello to “The Farewell”

Director and Writer, Lulu Wang has been winning accolades for her touching, personal film. The Farewell was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and won Audience Favorite. The emotional story follows a Chinese American family traveling from America for a fake wedding. The immediate family have decided to hide the truth about the family matriarch’s diagnosis and the wedding is an excuse for everyone to say goodbye. Awkwafina is perfectly cast as the American daughter straddling two cultures; she plays a stand-in for the director. The Farewell is based on a true story about Wang’s family which the director first shared as a story in a 2016 episode of This American Life. The film poster reads “Based on an actual lie.”

The film explores the daughter’s feeling of conflict. Should the grandmother be told the truth so she can say proper goodbyes and get her affairs in order? The Chinese family knows that this is not the case and that this is a “good lie” and one that lets the matriarch, Nai Nai (grandmother in Mandarin) retain her dignity and possibly prolong her life by not focusing on the illness. It’s unusual to see so many older actors be the focus of a story and it’s a view of China and Chinese culture that’s likely new to most people. Instead of a sad movie focusing on death, the story has funny moments and focuses instead on the resilience of family bonds.  Awkwafina’s expressive face showcases a wide-range of emotions: fear, anguish, joy and finally, acceptance. After her hilarious turn in Crazy Rich Asians, it’s interesting to see her playing it straight in a drama.

You’ll enjoy the ending with the “real” Nai Nai. The Farewell will warm your heart, but do yourself a favor and book dinner (or lunch) at a really good Chinese restaurant for after the movie…because The Farewell will also leave you hungry!

Awkwafina, center, surrounded by her movie family in China

Drinks With Films Rating

The Farewell – 4 shots of Baijiu (Chinese liquor) out of 5 — to celebrate family