(Editor's Note: This is the first of two columns on the 2021 AFI Fest to be featured in The Recorder. The second will be featured in next Tuesday's edition of The Recorder).
Established in 1967, the American Film Institute launched the first comprehensive history of American film and sparked the movement for film preservation in the United States. Over several decades, they have established themselves as a major pillar in the motion picture art form, and their annual film festival is one of their many contributions.
The 2021 AFI Fest was held in Hollywood at the historic TCL Chinese Theatre. It featured films from all over the world, showcasing established directors and giving space for new and diverse voices to be heard. This year’s festival offered both in-person screenings and virtual screenings. This flexibility allowed more options for audience members.
In their mission statement, the American Film Institute states they believe in the power of diverse voices to drive culture forward; and strive to cultivate and sustain an inclusive environment that actively affirms and, is respectful of, the identities of all people, across genders, abilities, ethnicities, sexual orientations, socioeconomic backgrounds and ideological perspectives — and one where self-reflection, honesty and accountability are practiced. AFI Fest sticks to this mantra wholeheartedly. The filmmakers and on-screen talent in the 100-plus films screened at the festival represent a diverse population representing the diversity that exists in the world. Before many of the screenings, one of the AFI Fest staff members would make a verbal acknowledgement of The Tongva, the indigenous people who originally populated the Los Angeles basin more than 3,000 years ago.
Short Films are an important format featured at film festivals, and this holds true for AFI Fest. The films showcased this year came in a variety of genres, and included shorts in live-action, animation, and documentary formats. Some highlights included Zonder Meer (Beglium), The Death Cleaner (Mexico), H.A.G.S. (United States), New Abnormal (Thailand), Your Street (Germany), Shark (Australia), and Only the Moon Stands Still (China). The latter won the Audience Award for Best Short Film, and it's about three generations of Chinese women saying goodbye to their family ballroom dance studio.
The other Audience Awards were given to Jockey for Best Narrative Feature and Juice WRLD for Best Documentary Feature. Jockey is about an aging jockey who hopes to win one last title for his longtime trainer who has acquired what appears to be a championship horse. Juice WRLD is an intimate documentary that explores the life and death of the young hip hop star, Juice WRLD. Both films are fantastic, and absolutely deserved their wins.
Their competition was fierce, as the festival featured a multitude of other fantastic films. Petite Maman was the low-key new film from director Céline Sciamma. Her previous film Portrait of a Lady on Fire was an epic and acclaimed masterpiece. This new film is brief (at only 72 minutes), and features a simple cast and location. Still, it offered a unique storyline about a young girl magically befriending a young version of her own mother. The concept is unique, and the story is sweetly told.
Hit the Road from Iranian director Panah Panahi (son of cinematic great Jafar Panahi), was another festival highlight. This road trip movie was full of heart, humor, and surprises. Like all great movies that take place within moving vehicles, the confined environment pressurizes the character relationships in exciting ways. New information is casually revealed and characters have breakthroughs with one another. This film was fantastic, and demolished all expectations.
One of the most exclusive screenings at the festival was Memoria, the new film from Thai genius Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Filmed primarily in Colombia and starring the legendary Tilda Swinton, Memoria tells the story of a Scottish woman, Jessica Holland, exploring the source of a strange thudding sound she’s been hearing in her head. The motivation for the film came from Weerasethakul’s own personal experience with a mysterious sensory syndrome. The exclusivity of the film comes from the fact it will only ever be screened in one theater in the world at any given time. In that way, the movie will have more in common with an art installation at a museum than it does with a traditional film release. This is fitting too, as Jessica visits several museums over the course of the film.
At one point in the storyline, one possibility presented is the loud sound is a curse caused by Jessica’s sister approaching a famously reclusive indigenous tribe as part of her job. Jessica investigates the source of the sound, but as is common with this director’s films, the story presents more questions than answers. Weerasethakul is a filmmaker who dwells, lingers, and is never in a hurry. His style of cinema has been dubbed “slow cinema,” with him often choosing to hold a static shot for several minutes at a time. During one prolonged sequence, Jessica finds she might have shared memories with a stranger, or her syndrome is capable of accessing his memories like an antennae.
Sound is an important aspect of Memoria. The film opens with a quiet, calm shot that's loudly interrupted by the aforementioned thudding sound. The sound is jarring, abrasive, and startling; just as it is for Jessica. The film also features long sequences where no sound is heard at all. In these cases, silence itself makes a sound, and contributes to the overall atmosphere of the scene. These quiet scenes are often empty of any characters. Weerasethakul will hold a shot in a scene before and after a character is within it, illustrating the point physical spaces exist with and without the human beings that occupy them.
The other in-person screenings were spectacular, with several featuring memorable Q&A sessions with the cast and crew of their respective movies. Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog had its Los Angeles premiere, and featured a panel with Campion, cinematographer Ari Wegner, editor Peter Sciberras, and actors Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Kodi Smit-McPhee. It was moderated by actress Kathryn Hahn. The movie premieres on Netflix on December 1.
Another film with an excellent Q&A was Sean Baker’s new film, Red Rocket. The panel included Baker and the film’s three lead actors: Simon Rex, Bree Elrod, and Susanna Son. Like Baker’s prior films Tangerine and The Florida Project, this movie deals with the “underground economy” and a subculture that's not often told in stories on the big screen. In this particular case, Red Rocket is about a former adult-film star who has returned to his small Texas hometown. Rex plays the main character, Mikey Saber, and his performance is one layered with pathos and incredible comedic timing.
Baker has always made movies about communities he wants to know more about. He brought in five consultants from the adult film industry to provide notes about the story, and offer authenticity to it. With this movie, Baker also continues his trademark of mixing professional and amateur actors, finding the alchemy that works best between the two to produce a natural chemistry. He cites directors like Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, and Richard Linklater as his primary influences. The film didn't have a huge budget, but a big chunk of it went to the licensing rights for the NSYNC song “Bye Bye Bye.” Baker makes perfect use of the song in this absolutely wild and unique movie.
The festival quite notably screened a multitude of excellent documentary feature films as well. To What Remains is about World War II soldiers, and the team that searches for the bodies of the pilots whose planes went missing during the Battle of Peleliu. Citizen Ashe focuses on the tennis career and activism of Arthur Ashe, with particular emphasis on his impact on HIV activism. The film presents Ashe as the original athlete-activist, paving the way for people like Colin Kaepernick, Serena Williams, and LeBron James.
Simple as Water is a harrowing documentary about four Syrian families struggling as refugees in new countries. It shows the bond of family holding these people together. It's sad and bleak, and absolutely vital to understanding the horrific experience of war refugees. Simple as Water is currently streaming on HBO Max.
The two standout documentaries from the festival were The First Wave and Procession. The First Wave should be required viewing for all people. It follows the nurses, doctors, and administrators who responded to the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. It particularly focuses on a team of healthcare workers in New York City, one of the hardest hit cities during the early days of the pandemic. It's an absolutely heartbreaking, personal documentary that puts a face on a horrible situation. Some scenes are almost too difficult to watch, including the painful process of the healthcare workers having to call and inform someone their loved one has died.
The First Wave also delves into the Black Lives Matters protests that began shortly after the pandemic began. The protests were in reaction to the repetitious violence of black people in our country, particularly at the hands of law enforcement personnel. One of the rallying cries of the movement is “I can’t breathe;” the last words of Eric Garner, an unarmed man who was killed in 2014 after being put in a chokehold by an NYPD officer. The phrase holds resonance because it indicates an inescapability of suffering people in the movement believe is happening.
The phrase “I can’t breathe” takes on a dual meaning in The First Wave. COVID-19 causes major damage to the respiratory system, and more drastically affects those pre-existing respiration issues. The struggle to breathe is literally true for those with the disease, and figuratively true for those who feel trapped within a system of oppression.
Procession is another documentary all about trauma. Director Robert Greene has made a name for himself with his previous three documentaries (Actress, Kate Plays Christine, and Bisbee ‘17), all of which adeptly mix fiction and nonfiction to create a concoction of genres that's something all its own. Procession does the same, and in an incredibly dark way. It focuses on six midwestern men who are all survivors of childhood sexual assault at the hands of Catholic priests. In this documentary, the men use drama-therapy to collectively work through their trauma, creating reenactments based on their memories, dreams, and experiences. One of these segments is titled “Altered Boys.”
Procession is a film that examines and questions the culture and hierarchy of the church structure that allowed this abuse to continue happening. It depicts the men reclaiming the spaces in which they were abused, revealing the prospect of catharsis and redemption. This documentary is one of many that critique the sexual abuse that occurs within the Catholic Church, and joins the essential-viewing distinction of tragic documentaries like Deliver Us From Evil and Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. Procession can currently be streamed on Netflix.
The virtual screenings at AFI Fest offered a unique slate of options as well. Every short film was made available through the online portal, as well as many excellent feature films. An online-exclusive panel with professional actors, and their relationship with independent cinema, was particularly memorable. It featured Nicolas Cage (Pig), Simon Rex (Red Rocket), Ann Dowd (Mass), Dakota Johnson (The Lost Daughter), Colman Domingo (Zola), and Caitriona Balfe (Belfast). All involved had interesting things to say about their careers, and the independent movies they were there to promote, but veteran Cage stole the show with his sage wisdom. The man with 109 credits on his IMDB page has done every type of movie, big and small. He said he loves to work on independent films because there isn’t the issue of having a big studio trying to micromanage the entire movie production. Artists are able to take risks and experiment with their craft.
The Grand Jury Prize at AFI Fest was given to Love, Dad for Best Animated Short, and Al-Sit for Best Live-Action Short. These wins make them both eligible for the 2021 Best Live Action Short and Best Animated Short Academy Awards. Love, Dad was awarded for “its melding of form and content that makes for a deeply vulnerable and personal viewing experience.” Al-Sit was awarded for “going beyond its central story to make a densely layered and truly cinematic experience.” This year’s jury was composed of film curator and writer Kiva Reardon; Amanda Salazar, head of programming and acquisitions at Argo; and writer/director Angel Kristi Williams.
AFI Fest was an incredible tribute to film as an art form. It featured a variety of films, many of which will be hitting theaters and streaming services in the coming months. If you have a chance to attend the festival, it occurs every November in Hollywood and I highlight recommend you do so.