Reviews of Submissions to the Columbus International Film and Video Festival

I am a juror for the 2010 Columbus International Film and Video Festival that begins November 16th and screens mainly in the Canzani Center at the Columbus College of Art and Design. I juried for both the Social Issues and Religion categories, which means that I watched 25-30 films and recommended the ones I felt deserved attention to a superior juror. Any filmmaker can submit to the CIF+VF given that they are able to pay the entrance fee. That open call policy attracts an intriguing assortment of entries that span the absurdly DIY to the government funded. The disparate origins of the submissions makes for a filmic environment teeming with fringe interests and oddball visions - which rules. Though, honestly, I wouldn't have been surprised to see a high percentage of the submissions in mainstream theaters. After the jump is a selection of snippets I wrote about the films to give to the judges above me. At the end of each snippet I give my "rating" on the 1 to 7 scale the CIF+VF uses.

Also, see this story I wrote last year for The Lantern about Stacie Sells's experience as a juror.

The Long Road of the Sika Deer is an aptly titled documentary which spans a 25 year period of a Taiwanese deer species's reintroduction into the wild. The 25 years isn't just talked about, you can see it in the hodge-podge 16mm and HD, new and old and somewhere in the middle. It's an uneasy jumble topped off with an awkward title, informative graphics, and an imprecise English translation. The content of the documentary is the by the numbers, rote Animal Planet narrative - colonial and capitalist exploitation of an once plentiful indigneous species has led to near total eradication. A group of plucky conservationists decides to raise the animal and eventually release it into the wild after micromanaging its diseases, behavior, and in a ten minute segment of "the long road," its shit. In between this conservationist-as-hero narrative we learn how the deer is born, eats, fucks, fights, etc. We are introduced to a special sika deer named "Little Six" who is supposed to help put a cuddly face on their effort but dies in the next scene instead. While Little Six dies an untimely death, the reintroduction effort is a success - 50 become 1,000 over the course of 25 years. This documentary isn't bad, per se, but it's really only suitable for late night National Geographic channel from the mid-90s, a zoo exhibit, or something you are forced to watch in a middle school science course. This is because of the humorous background music and the aesthetic decisions that detract from the story but it is also because the story does not deviate from a cliche we have all heard. It does not ask how colonial exploitation and conservationist micro-management are both symptomatic of the deep reserve of humanity's desire for control and its inability to see animals as anything other than pawns, whether it is killing them or keeping them alive. 
2 of 7 

BOYHOOD SHADOWS is an hour long interview-based documentary about the life-long repercussions of childhood molestation - but only for boys. Our main character is Glenn Kulik, abused by a friend's uncle 30 years ago and still trying to piece together his life since. Other men are interviewed, predominantly white middle and upper-middle class men. Boyhood Shadows tells a vital tale but not necessarily one which will strike anyone as a revelation. The subject it covers is well addressed in contemporary society. The production value of this film is high, "professional" quality, but it still has its fair share of hokey aesthetic choices. In particular, reoccuring songs from a female singer-songwriter whose lyrics directly recapitulate the themes in a literal and maudlin style which gets unintentioned laughs. Its main fault, though, is its too narrow focus on those who have suffered immensely from molestation AND are white, male, and upper-middle class. I am unsure as to why the filmmakers did not make an intentional effort to intertwine the stories of a broader spectrum of people. 5 of 7

Little Alien is a vital 
documentation of an escalating contemporary social issue which has been producing political waves in Europe. More and more immigrants come to the EU each year, looking for asylum, work, and a life worth living. Little Alien shows the maddening labrynithes of inhumane bureaucracy and police beatings that greet the unwanted immigrants, even those who are teenagers trying to escape broken states like Afghanistan and Somalia. Little Alien shows us the human face to an issue which often is talked about it the macro - numbers and data instead of daily lives and injustice. As a parallel to the ongoing immigration crisis in America, Little Alien is essential and timely material. 7 of 7

ALASKA KING SALMON ON A FLY is a seven-minute souvenir of a not too articulate pre-teen and his father's Alaskan vacation. The film focuses on fishing. The kid calls fish "monsters" and "beasts." Other people would think this film is "cute," "heartwarming," and, perhaps, "family fun for all ages." However, this film is really just a self-indulgent exhibition of class and species privilege. I have a hard time envisioning an audience - outside of the child's family and friends - that would like to see this film. 2 of 7

NO PITY is a short recap of the history of cultural representations of people with disabilities in advertising and charitable campaigns, with the overriding progressive position that "pity" should not be used to raise money for the disabled because it leads to society seeing the disabled as pitiable. A message that I, and most people, will find agreeable. The film is paced well and provides sufficient information about a topic most are unlikely to consider familiar. It is set up much like an academic essay. Where it is good, the imagery is provided by newsreel footage. Where it is bad, it is corny computer graphics. The production value vacillates wildly between those two poles. It is also a personal film, as the narrator/filmmaker is disabled and speaks through an electronic program. It is unclear if he is including captions for the benefit of deaf people or if he thought that his voice would be unable to be understood. In either case, the captions often make the image on the film too busy or, rather, they are not sufficiently differentiable to the viewer. 
On the whole, the content, pacing, and message are vital and interesting. If only the graphics had been so as well.
BTW: The filmmaker, Drew Morton Goldsmith, is apparently 14 years old. Though I am unsure as to why that should be considered. 5 of 7

The Buddha is an obviously well funded and well thought out documentary on the Siddhartha's life that views Buddhism through historic and social lenses. Mostly poets and academics from the West comment on the religion though some monks and nuns from the East do as well. The graphics are gorgeous, add visual interest, and never detract from the story. The story itself is an illuminating introduction and overview of Siddhartha's life. Its only downfall is that its slow-moving pace combined with its elegiac mood and relatively long length makes it difficult to sit through without one's eyelids beginning to droop. 6 of 7

Divine Matters is an over-acted, melodramatic, and, at times, unintentionally funny six minute short film. The first five minutes are an imagined dramatic re-enactment of interested parties trying to get a new "terrorist" recruit to kill an Israeli politician. While this situation boils over with dramatic potential, this film capitalizes on little of it. It is instead a cheap shot, something in the vein of propaganda, and it ends suddenly, cutting over to real newsreel footage in a purposefully jarring moment that doesn't quite jar in the way intended. While the technical quality of the film isn't bad by any means, the acting, content, purpose, and execution all seem to be lacking. 2 of 7

Mzungu (n) white-wanderer is the perfect title for this imperfect film that is "about," if we can say it is about something, four middle-class white American christian college-aged males going to Africa to "help." At first I was unsure why this film was grouped in the religious category - it felt like a social issues film masquerading as religious. The only give away in the beginning is the cloying christian rock band that provides background music. The film is shot in a Real World style, full of head-shot "confessionals" that the director probably thought would "speak" to those in the youth groups that I feel this film was intended for. So how do these four dudes help Africa, specifically Uganda? One builds a recording studio. One doesn't do much of anything. Another hosts an "Abstinence Awareness Football Tournament" to help defeat HIV/AIDS. Ah, there is the religious issues category coming through. I am, however, not sure that spending thousands of dollars to document yourself promulgating abstinence as a response to HIV/AIDS is "help." In another sub-plot the college kids meet a woman on dialysis in need of a kidney transplant that costs $20,000.00. After pledging to do anything they can to save her life, the film moves along to other subjects. Then the kids find out through an email that she died. A moment later, the narrator laments this by saying that she felt bad for those guys - meaning the college kids. 
While I don't think this film is necessarily racist, it certainly has its racist moments. Anyone viewing this outside of a conservative christian framework will likely feel incredible discomfort at the protagonists' and the director's immense social blindspots. The mixture of uncomfortable levity (the first thing the kids do after landing in Africa is cut their hair into mullets and laugh about it), strong-headed arrogance (when the football guy is himself late to practice and finds everyone else has left he says with a smile, "I'm finding patience to be a virtue."), and pull-on-your-heart-strings-look-at-these-poor-people-who-need-help-and-god-and-abstinence, is, to say the least, dizzying. I have no idea what the director was going for but I doubt it was this. 2 of 7 

(Here are the notes I wrote while watching Mzungu. The lines in quotes are things the college kids say.) 
Probably should be in Social Issues Category, possibly racist in a subtle way. definitely an odd film. 4 white suburbanites and we're "looking through their eyes." "I wanted to be in danger." LOL. Has an MTV real world vibe in the beginning. Lots of white kids in Jamaican rastafarian "I like Bob Marley" hats talking to the camera. Building recording studios in Africa. Okay. "Really stoked. A little scared but that's alright." First thing they do in Africa is cut their hair into mullets and laugh about it. Doesn't seem to have anything to do with religion. Technically it is an adequate film, the music is heavy handed and smarmy, mostly head shot confessional footage intermixed with narrator on top of environment shots. Awkward, awkward film with really not much going on. Indulging white guilt.

"They've got big spiders here. They're just chilling in the tree over there."
The christian boys want to save a woman's life but need $20,000 - they ask an african man at the hospital for counsel about "whether it is worth it," and of course he tells through a christian parable about "one sheep" to say, "sure."
"It was good to see Grace, like, sitting up and stuff."
This micro perspective (one life), ignoring of course that the political party most identified w/christianity is also the one most likely to cut foreign aid/pull out of U.N./hate poor people but who cares about that. Whole film makes me really confused about their intent - both stated and implied - and further, the intent of the filmmaker to the audience. 
They visit Rwanda on that genocide tourism tip inspired probably by the film Hotel Rwanda which they bring up as soon as they start talking to a Rwandan. 
"I really felt for those guys when grace died."
"So these camps or whatever" 
"So they can form terrorist groups."

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