What I saw: Highlights from the 2018 New Orleans Film Festival

New Orleans Film Festival 2018 (Image: NOFF)

Editor’s Note: The following series Popcorn Poppin’ in The Big Easy is a week-long series curated by Piper Stevens as part of the Digital Research Internship Program in partnership with ViaNolaVie. The DRI Program is a Newcomb Institute technology initiative for undergraduate students combining technology skillsets, feminist leadership, and the digital humanities.

There are nary two things that go together as harmoniously as popcorn and movies. October happens to be National Popcorn Poppin’ month as well as the time of year when New Orleans theaters open their doors for the Annual New Orleans Film Festival. Therefore, it seems an apt time to appreciate New Orleans for the film mecca it has come to be. This grouping of articles explores and appreciates New Orleans’ culture as it relates to film in the past, present, and future.

For the past week, New Orleans has been awash in films (and filmmakers) hailing from across the globe, but sadly the 29th annual New Orleans Film Festival has come to its conclusion. Being my first time at the festival, it was almost overwhelming the amount of interesting films available for view at all times of the day. I didn’t get a chance to see everything that was on my wish-list, but below are a few selections from the fest that I really loved and felt stood out. Note— I’ve kept these reviews fairly general, so you shouldn’t have to worry about any spoilers beyond basic plot details and characters’ names. So here it goes:

If Beale Street Could Talk

“We’ve got all the time in the world.”

Gorgeous and devastating, director Barry Jenkins’s follow-up to Academy Award-winning Moonlight is an affecting story of love, family, and the ways we endure it all in a hostile and imperfect world. Told through the eyes of 19-year-old Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne) we follow her relationship with Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephen James), a lifelong friend turned lover, as they navigate the tumultuous inequality and pitfalls of 1970’s Harlem. With a lush score from Nicholas Britell— one that’s been stuck in my head since watching— and several great performances (especially in a short cameo from Atlanta-star Brian Tyree Henry), If Beale Street Could Talk was my favorite feature from the fest.

As in Moonlight, Jenkins proves himself here a master translator of the most delicate aspects of internal life with honest and unforgiving close-ups that capture every twitch and segment of thought process in a given scene. He also gives his characters plenty of space to breathe and time to talk amongst themselves with rarely any interactions that feature more than two people in conversation.

While watching, I found myself thinking a lot about Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet— stripped of the centuries of melodramatic connotations or whatever hate was imbued in the text in 9th grade English class. At its heart, that play is a story about how love possesses us, how those who fall in love create a void for themselves to exist, and then how the “real” world comes roaring back in to challenge, and in some cases violently tear apart, that disconnected, perfect place.

That ephemerality is at the heart of Beale Street, shown in how Tish and Fonny attempt to navigate through all the perilous societal and historical baggage and violence of their time (and ours)— how they attempt to sustain themselves against everything and what that costs. It’s one to think more deeply into, and I’ll look forward to watching again. You should too when it comes out next month.

Heimat (Homeland) & Ebrahim

“…there is a feeling of existential fear in Europe.”

Two of the short documentaries that I loved the most were featured back-to-back during the “Divide” program: Heimat (Homeland) directed by Sam Peeters and Ebrahim directed by New Zealand director Elliott McKee (who was in attendance at the screening). Both were excellent and intelligent commentaries on the refugee crisis in Europe and its multifaceted effects on those undergoing it.

Heimat is set in a Flemish suburb of Brussels where the silence is utterly deafening and only broken by the work of neighbors on small, menial tasks: sweeping, doing the dishes, cleaning a bird cage, turning on a model train set— and talk, both fearful and full of hate concerning the influx of migrants and refugees from Syria and other parts of the Middle East. Peeters uses his medium to explore the idea of facades — both of houses and who they hold — and that maybe the true face of right-wing populism and xenophobia spreading through Europe isn’t marching through Paris, but is instead dawdling in the kitchen with the TV on, regurgitating talking points they heard that morning from their local political pundit.

Meanwhile, in Ebrahim we join an 18-year-old Syrian refugee navigating life in a camp in central Greece. Through images of daily life in the camp and traveling to a nearby city, McKee expresses the commonality between us all and attempts to break the caricature painted by right-wing xenophobes (as seen in the previous film). Ebrahim cooks dinner with his newly made friends, takes German classes, sings half-remembered songs, and tries to remember stories from his hometown of Idlib, a place he can’t go back to because he would be targeted by both the Assad’s forces and the Free Syrian Army in the conflict still raging there. Ebrahim captures a perseverance of spirit in trying times and appeals to the viewer to look past caricatures and any other evocations that would dehumanize and villainize those coming out of one of our time’s worst crises.

Tides & Palenque

“One day, in a movement, you will find me again.”

The act of remembering is at the core of these two films screened as part of the “Afterlife” documentary shorts program. Tides by Columbian director Anna Silva-Schlenker follows Erika, a synchronized swimming coach living in Budapest, Hungary. Through lyrical and deeply affecting filmmaking, the viewer comes to understand Erika’s tough demeanor and coaching style as an extension and reaction to personal tragedy. The film attempts to show an individual acting her way through grief and honoring a memory of something no longer there.

On the other side of the world, another South American director focuses on the small Columbian town of San Basillo de Palenque— the first town in the Americas to have broken free from European domination and one of the few free towns to still exist into the common era. Director Sebastian Pinzon Silva tackles what’s it’s like to live in the town, capturing the rhythmic beat of daily life— chopping and grinding corn, washing and beating clothes in the stream, chanting to neighbors for fresh cooked food. It’s a lovely exploration of the beauty found in simple daily acts and what it means to exist as a living memory of a time and struggle long gone.


“Is everything a transaction?”

This heightened and exhilarating thriller from Academy Award-winner Steve McQueen is a tour-de-force. Co-written by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn and led by an all-star cast led by Viola Davis (with menacing supporting roles by Colin Farrell, Daniel Kaluuya, and Robert Duvall), the film centers on a shaky alliance between a group of widows trying to repay a debt after their husbands’ last heist goes awry. It’s an absurd premise and in the hands of anyone else may have gone off the rails quite easily, but McQueen steers the ship and grounds it in images and sequences that examine the perils and depth of grief, maps the emotional and physical consequences of inequality, and shows how hard genuine connection has become between these broken people living in an even more broken world.

I don’t think it will be everyone’s cup of tea, and I see audiences taking the movie’s grim view of politics and crime as not a pulpy-posture, but an actual description of fact (I mean, Chicago’s crime problems have become a rampant fantasyland for political pundits, so that’s no surprise). The thing I appreciated most about it was how the film was able to translate just how insecure all of these characters are and how they act out in ways that express their insecurity in the overall hierarchy of this world. Whether they be rich political dynasties, crime lords, or widows of bank robbers, no one feels safe and no one has enough to ensure that safety. It’s in this world of constant betrayal and violent coercion, that a simple genuine connection between characters— a smile, tears, and a, “How you doing?”— can be so affecting.

Other Things I Liked (But Don’t Have Time To Write On):

Green Book, Respect: The Original Pinettes Brass Band, “Boyish” – music video from the band Japanese Breakfast, De Colores

Things I Wish I Had Been Able To See (But You Should Totally Look Out For):

Buckjumping, Roma, Cane River, When Lambs Become Lions, Science Fair, Laila at the Bridge, Jules of Light and Dark, Little Woods

This was originally published on Oct 26, 2018.


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