A Belated 2015 NOFF Report

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The 26th Annual New Orleans Film Fest stretched across the city about a month ago & I’m finally getting around to submitting this better-late-than-never journal of my experience. My relationship with the festival is usually fairly removed, amounting to a single screening a year. It’s typically where I catch limited release indies that played months earlier in larger cities before they arrive at Netflix purgatory. It’s where I first saw the grossout romcom Wetlands, the grossout grossout Human Centipede 2, and the not-gross-at-all documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. This year, on the other hand, I was up close & personal with the festival. I’m currently working at a movie theater that serves as a NOFF venue, so the fest literally swirled around me on a daily basis during its run. I’d liken that experience to what it might be like if a small mom & pop record store were used as a venue for a large music festival one week out of the year. It’s pretty intense. More importantly, though, I actually exceeded my quota & got to see triple my usual amount of NOFF screenings this year. It’s far from what more dedicated attendees gobbled up while they had the chance, but I’m still proud of myself for making the effort. The three movies I saw have already been covered on the site, but here’s a quick report of how the screenings went.

The very first screening I caught was the Roy Ferdinand documentary Missing People at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art’s Howard Memorial Library. If you’ve never seen that space before, you should really check it out as soon as you get a chance. It’s a gorgeous room, one I’ve seen at various poetry readings & museum-curated events, but never fail to be impressed by. Watching a movie about fine (outsider) art in that context elevated the material a great deal, especially since the Ogden is one of the few venues in New Orleans that still displays Ferdinand’s work & is located mere blocks away from some of the film’s establishing shots. Also strengthening the atmosphere was a post-film Q&A featuring the documentary’s director David Shapiro, the owner of Barrister’s Art Gallery Andy Antippas, and the deceased Ferdinand’s surviving sisters. The director added some context of interest, especially in the details of his relationship with the film’s other subject, art collector & Ferdinand enthusiast Martina Batan. Shapiro had first met Batan when she collected a piece of his work & it took two full years of knowing her before she trusted him to film in her Brooklyn apartment. He also revealed that Batan’s real-life MRI scans were included in the film & that the word “missing” in the title was meant to be read as a verb & a noun. Ferdinand’s sisters were even more fascinating, though, however sad. They joked about Roy’s claim about being an OG in the film, but mostly they lamented that they never had a chance to collect their brother’s work (and had seen most of if for the first time while watching the film) and argued with Antippas about how Roy’s ashes (which they donated to Barrister’s) are currently displayed in a Voodoo alter instead of a Christian display. It was a little awkward, as was Antippas’ nitpicking of the film’s Batan-Ferdinand content balance, but it was also a fascinating, one-of-a-kind experience.

Just a couple hours after Missing People concluded, I zipped Uptown to catch a BYOB, midnight screening of John Carpenter’s The Thing at the Prytania Theatre. Although it technically wasn’t an official NOFF screening, it directly followed one & the crowd very much felt in the festival spirit. It was somehow my first time ever seeing The Thing, as I’ve mentioned before, and that communal, loopy, nearing-2am atmosphere was more or less the perfect introduction to the immortal creature feature. After watching the film a second time in dead-sober daylight, I’m perfectly willing to declare it a masterpiece & am proud to have it included in The Swampflix Canon. It only sweetens the deal that I pushed through after the Missing People screening (and a boozy intermission at The Kingpin) to catch it on the big screen.

The next NOFF screening I caught was the second & final showing of Driving While Black at the Theatres at Canal Place. The movie itself was hilarious & politically provocative, playing very well with a large crowd (as opposed to watching comedies in the silent room of at-home streaming). The post-screening Q&A with director Paul Sapiano, however, was more or less fruitless. The questions were less frequent, less enthusiastic, and less interesting than they were at the Missing People screening. This might’ve had something to do with Sapiano’s visible fatigue with self-promotion, which was gradually edging towards open hostility. There were some interesting revelations nonetheless, even if they were mere confirmations of things I had already assumed. For instance, he & the film’s lead actor Dominique Purdy started writing the film as a comedy, but it took a much darker turn from there in terms of tone. Also, Purdy improvised a lot of his own lines, while Sapiano was responsible for the majority of the racist cops’ dialogue. Makes sense to me. I also liked Sapiano’s confession that, “I get bored easily in movies, so I like to keep things moving,” when questioned about the movie’s pace. Otherwise, the screening was mostly significant due to the game-to-laugh audience & the accompaniment of a short film titled Traction, which more or less amounted to a 5min one-liner about mock outrage vs. true-life racism. I found myself wishing after the screening that Purdy were there to answer questions instead of Sapiano & I doubt the director himself would disagree with that sentiment. He seemed pretty exhausted with the process.

The third & final screening I caught this year was on the closing night of the festival. I made it out to Chalmette Movies for Goodnight Mommy, an Austrian art house horror film that I had been itching to see since Boomer reviewed it for the site. Because of that review’s warnings I spotted the film’s (admittedly overblown) plot twist long before its third act revelation, but I still wasn’t prepared for the gruesome violence ahead of me. For a film so crisp & so beautiful, it’s surprising how willing Goodnight Mommy is to devolve into schlocky brutality, setting its creepy children antagonists free to gruesomely torture a woman they believe is not their mother, but an imposter. As with Driving While Black, it was great to see the film with a full-capacity audience, as their discomfort (along with my own) with the film’s intense, intimate violence was very much audible. It was a great way to close out the fest for me, personally, because it took me back to the uncomfortable squriming of my past NOFF experiences with Wetlands & Human Centipede 2. I have no idea if I’ll be able to squeeze in as many screenings next year as I did this time, but I hope to have at least one of those uncomfortable group experiences again if possible. There’s an incredible sense of camaraderie that comes from surviving screenings like that as a group, especially when the audience is caught off-guard by what’s coming (let’s face it; film fest audiences can paradoxically be both stuffy & unassuming). Those are the experiences I live for & this year wouldn’t have felt complete without one, so it was a perfect note to end on.

-Brandon Ledet

Driving While Black (2015)

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fourstar

“As a black man, I have to deal with an extra layer of bullshit on top of regular life.”

The same year the aggressively crass (and surprisingly touching) Tangerine took America on a whirlwind tour through the seedy side of Los Angeles populated by trans sex workers & drug-addled pimps, Driving While Black offers a different perspective of the city rarely seen in cinema: that of the young, black stoner. With its tape warp hiphop/Stones Throw Records-leaning soundtrack (complete with a Charizma & Peanut Butter Wolf ringtone) & graffiti-flavor title cards, Driving While Black poses itself on the surface as a laid-back stoner comedy, but packs a much heftier political punch than what you’d typically expect from that genre. Detailing the public harassment & personal violation of being constantly persecuted by the police on the receiving end of racial profiling, Driving While Black walks an impressive tightrope of feeling like an important movie, but never losing track of being consistently funny. Unlike the way Dear White People softens its political provocation by focusing on the emotional stress of its college student protagonists, Driving While Black never strays from its musings about police brutality & abuse of power, but still somehow mixes that message with goofball gags like the image of its protagonist getting so high that he glides down the street like Dracula. It’s an impressive & often powerful balance in comedic tone.

Here’s the plot of Driving While Black in an over-simplified nutshell: Dimitri, an aspiring artist/overgrown pizza deliver boy, is trying to make it to a job interview at the behest of his girlfriend & mother to better himself, but on his way he is constantly derailed by a historically race-obsessed police force, the LAPD. There’s a depressing sense of routine & ritual in his run-ins with the law, which prompts him to mutter things like “Here we go again with the bullshit” whenever he’s pulled over. With direct references to milestones like the Rodney King riots & our current era of online activism in reaction to police murders of unarmed black youth, the film has a keen sense of history & knowing, hands-on experience with police abuse of power in L.A.’s black community. Establishing that it’s a cradle-to-grave problem, cops are even shown harassing children, calling them “little assholes” & “cum socks” (and then humorously over-explaining the meaning of that latter insult), and accusing them of crimes they obviously didn’t commit. In some encounters, cops lecture the protagonist on how to not look suspicious (because dressing or acting a certain way is likely to get you pulled over). In others, they overstep their authority with statements like “You’re not under arrest, but I am going to handcuff you for your safety and for mine”. There are some surreal scenes, like depictions of Ku Klux Kops (who wear a sort of police uniform, hooded robe hybrid) with glowing eyes & demonic voices, as well as just-as-surreal encounters where cops are surprisingly helpful. There are also some more believable moments where they’re portrayed as real people, however nerdy or unnecessarily aggressive. What really stands out, though, is the fact that Dimitri has to deal with police on (at least) a daily basis, completely against his will, a point hammered home by the fact that the LAPD uses his pizza place as a social meeting ground.

Speaking of Dimitri, actor Dominique Purdy should be given a lot of credit for making sure that the movie never tips too far into a didactic, political downer. He’s just a generally affable, funny guy, something that the movie is smart to exploit. Watching him go about his day, interacting with L.A. weirdos, drug dealers, street performers, and Homes to the Stars tour groups, are some of the film’s most enjoyable moments, which invites the audience to share in his frustration when his day is sidelined by police-related complications. The film is also smart to directly reference Dave Chappelle multiple times, as the comparison to his likeness & stoner-minded sense of political humor is likely to come up time & time again anyway. Since Purdy collaborated with director Paul Sapiano as a writing partner on the film’s script, he has a personal connection with the material that more or less allows him to be his effortlessly funny/charming self. It’s tempting to infer that Driving While Black is a glimpse of his Purdy’s personal Los Angeles, an affable stoner’s guide through the relentless annoyance & potential danger of a racist institution that complicates & threatens his otherwise pleasant, laid-back lifestyle. And because it’s a problem with no clear answer, the film ends that tour on a chillingly ambiguous note, a brave choice in conclusion for a screwball stoner comedy, however political. It’s a rare treat that a movie can be this consistently funny & still leave you with such a provocative feeling once the credits roll. I’m excited to see the rest of the world’s reaction as Driving While Black‘s distribution starts to gain traction. There’s surely to be a good bit of great post-screening lobby talk in the coming year as more people get to experience this gem.

-Brandon Ledet