This year’s American Film Festival features six European premieres. Like the rest of the festival they reveal a cinematic landscape richer and more rewarding than any major US studio would have us believe.
The motivational industry runs the gamut, from get-rich-quick entrepreneurs who guarantee overnight success and speakers more interested in mindfulness and well-being to nefarious speakers not far removed from Tom Cruise’s character in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999), who guarantee they can get socially maladjusted males laid just by looking at a woman the right way, or saying the right words. James Arthur Ray was a motivational speaker with a cult-like following, until one of his weekend retreats resulted in the death of three people and a custodial sentence for Ray. Jenny Carchman’s Enlighten Us: The Rise and Fall of James Arthur Ray, approaches its subject soberly, asking questions about the culture that indulges the level of narcissism and lack of real remorse that Ray exhibits.
Staying with narcissism and Donald Trump’s looming over the US Presidential elections. Does his claim that the elections might be fixed might actually hold some truth. Well, not really, but Jason Grant Smith’s I Voted? Does throw up some anomalies about the system by which American’s cast their vote. Having mostly disposed of the simple pen and paper ballot in favour of computer systems, it has become clear that efficiency is not something the new systems can boast of. But is it error or corruption?
In Matthew Lessner’s Automatic at Sea, a young female tourist accepts an offer from a man to visit an island. When she arrives and discovers that no other visitors are planned to come, she begins to worry about his intentions, while the place itself becomes increasingly unsettling. Paying more than a little lip service to European arthouse movies of the 1950s and 1960s, one of the pleasures of Lessner’s film lies in its archness. It’s also beautifully shot and the sense of unease is palpable.
Peter at the Farm is a compelling character study of a deceptively complex man. A (mostly) fly-on-the-wall documentary, Tony Stone’s film follows a 68-year-old farmer as he ekes out a living raising sheep and cows, fighting hyenas and the demons within that he can barely control. Over time, we find out a great deal about Peter’s past, from his days in the forces to the bliss of family life, both of which have receded into the distant past. He drinks heavily to forget his woes but his failing health forces him to change his ways. In one stunning sequence we hear Peter and Stone getting drunk in the farm, but the camera remains outside. The scene is edgy, tense even, and leavened only by Peter’s affection for the filmmaker. Like many other moments, it’s both touching and revealing.
Weirdness abounds in Adam Pinney’s impressively made curio. It opens in the late 1960s and a toy fair, where an incident takes place that affects the future of the group. We then jump forward to the mid-1970s and follow Foster Kalt (an impressive Mike Brune) as he attempts to win favour with Sylvie, a woman he has loved for years. This might not seem much, but in this rarified world Pinney has created – featuring stunning recreations of the periods – nothing quite adds up. It’s a bizarre concoction and, like Driftwood, unlike anything else screening in the festival.
Driftwood recalls a popular science question for kids entering high school: how would you tell an alien how to boil an egg. Before discussing the rudiments of thermodynamics, students would have to grapple with the problems of language and semiotics. So it is with the encounter opens Paul Taylor’s wonderfully strange Driftwood. A woman emerges from the sea. She looks human but it becomes clear that she cannot communicate and has no concept of the modern world and how to behave in it. Not that the man who picks her up lives in a hi-tech nirvana. He occupies a modest wooden shack in the middle of a woods. We don’t know his name because he doesn’t speak. Not that he can’t, but when the person you live with has no concept of language words become useless. All communication is done through repetition of action. And those actions are limited because the woman is confined to the house. In a way, Driftwood is the story of Josef Fritzel if it were written by the Brothers Grimm. It is both strange and strangely compelling.
Ian Haydn Smith