The Giverny Document: Single Channel (2020)

The first feature I watched at this year’s virtual-edition New Orleans Film Fest was a 40-minute “experimental documentary” (read: essay film) about Black women’s cultural identity, a project that started as an art gallery instillation and an act of small-scale political protest. I gotta say, it felt nice to get back in the swing of things. The Giverny Document (Single Channel) is a little uneven & impenetrable in a way a lot of experimental art-project cinema can be, but its contextual positioning within a film festival environment made those qualities almost warmly familiar instead of cold or alienating. The Giverny Document packs a powerful emotional/political wallop when it feels like going for the jugular, but much of its runtime is a loose, dissociative experience that’s much more about puzzling through What It All Means than it is direct, clear messaging. As COVID has severely limited my access to film festival offerings of its kind this year, I found myself just as warmly nostalgic for this type of deliberately bewildering Art in general as I was affected by what this particular work was striving to say.

The Giverny Document is a conceptual art piece about Black women’s relationships with their own bodies and the meaning of “feeling safe.” These topics are clearly announced in plain dialogue & text so that the audience is at least grounded in terms of subject, even if the tools it explores that subject with are much more abstract. The “Single Channel” subtitle refers to the film’s nature as a synthesized work comprised of many smaller, disparate parts. In an art gallery setting, The Giverny Document is a three-screen instillation piece that simultaneously runs loops of multiple short films comprised of alternating, contrasting images: nature, police brutality, drone strikes, dancing, self-portraiture, etc. This distillation of that project combines all these opposing elements into a single montage, occasionally interrupted by people-on-the-street interviews fit for a local 1990s news broadcast and a stunning Nina Simone performance of the song “Feelings.” It’s a messy, provocative collage that attempts to make sense of the simultaneous, dizzying ways Black women occupy the world: from the personal & internal, to the globally political, to the spiritual & Natural. That’s a lot of ground to cover in a mere 40min stretch, which director Ja’Tovia Gary tackles by keeping its various thematic connections loose & poetic.

I don’t mean to contextualize The Giverny Document as A Film Festival Movie as a means of dismissing its artistic merits or political message. The film intentionally anchors itself to that Experimental Cinema niche by directly, cyclically referencing Stan Brakhage’s famous short Mothlight, which created a crudely beautiful form of animation by running actual insect wings through a film projector. This movie knows exactly what kind of Art World territory it’s trafficking in. It’s not all headscratching obfuscation, though. Often, the 90s-style news reporter will announce to potential interviewees that the movie is “about being a Black lady” to lure them in front of the camera, or police brutality footage will be interrupted by plain block text announcing “WE DON’T DESERVE THIS” as a direct plea for relief. Ja’Tovia Gary’s ambitious, poetic explorations of Black femme identity in both personal & political arenas is very much worth engaging with inside its own confines, which can alternate between disorienting & alarmingly direct the way its imagery alternates between Nature & culture. The experience just also made me consider how much I missed attending in-person film festivals over the past eight months of social distancing, since they’re one of the last places you can still encounter & enjoy this kind of Experimental Cinema provocation (outside the walls of an art gallery, at least).

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #95 of The Swampflix Podcast: #NOFF2019

Welcome to Episode #95 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our ninety-fifth episode, Brandon and CC review the full list of low-budget, high-ambition films they caught at the 30th annual New Orleans Film Festival: shorts, documentaries, and narrative features. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– CC Chapman & Brandon Ledet

Swallow (2019)

In a thematic sense, it’s near impossible to talk about the eerie, darkly humorous thriller Swallow without comparing it to Todd Hanes’s Safe. In both films, wealthy housewives suffer enigmatic health crises that can’t be controlled or even fully defined by their frustrated doctors & families – evoking a kind of existential horror take on the Douglas Sirk melodrama. They also both reach a third act turning point where their respective protagonists break free from their confined, controlled homelives to seek out a community of their own choosing – disrupting the structure of a typical thriller in remarkably similar ways. As similar as its content may be to Haynes’s prior achievement, however, Swallow has no trouble distinguishing itself as a unique work in tone or purpose. Safe is a pure exercise in mood & atmosphere, avoiding any direct answers as to what physical or cosmic affliction is tormenting its unraveling housewife protagonist beyond a vague association with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. By contrast, Swallow is much more willing to function as a straightforward genre film, discussing its themes & central conflict in clear, unflinching terms so that it can fully deal with the sinister consequences onscreen. Its wicked humor, squirmy body horror, and open discussions of financial & gendered power dynamics make for an equally disturbing but much more easily digestible picture – pun heavily intended.

The tormented housewife in question here suffers from a psychological disorder known as pica – which prompts her to compulsively swallow inedible objects of increasing danger & difficulty. Outright rejecting any need for subtlety or restraint (two vastly overrated impulses in modern filmmaking at large), Swallow openly acknowledges that this compulsion is its protagonist’s way of exercising control over her body in a closely monitored, oppressively boring life as a domestic servant for her own wealthy husband. Denied privacy, autonomy, and pleasure in all other aspects of her life, she finds a new, exciting fixation in swallowing increasingly dangerous, seemingly random household objects: marbles, thumb tacks, AA batteries, etc. On the surface, she seems to have won the lottery of life – living in the right house, impregnated by the right husband, curating the perfect nuclear home. The way she’s steamrolled & ignored in daily conversation makes her out to be more of home appliance than a living, breathing person, though, so she invents ways to exert control over her life & stir up internal adventures by swallowing forbidden objects. The financial & patriarchal authority figures in her family & medical community might not fully understand why she puts her life (and by extension her fetus’s life) at risk for such an unproductive thrill, but the audience totally gets it – and the horror comes not only from being unable to stop her, but also from being tempted to cheer her on.

There’s plenty of tonal & stylistic choices that distinguish Swallow as a uniquely satisfying work – especially regarding how it plays with genre. The contrast of the cold, crisp, color-coordinated spaces our thumbtack-swallowing heroine occupies emphasizes her need to break free from her domestic prison in nearly every frame. There’s also a deliciously wicked contrast between the humor & horror of her affliction; you both secretly want to see her get away with sneaking the next sharp object down her throat and squirm in anguish as it scrapes against her teeth or is surgically removed. The real distinguishing factor here, though, is Haley Bennett’s performance in the central role. Both Swallow and Safe essentially function as one-woman shows. Bennett had a daunting task in distinguishing her own performance in that paradigm from the living legend who is Julianne Moore, something she seemingly accomplishes with ease. Appearing like a scared child in June Cleaver housewife drag, Bennett conveys a horrific lack of confidence & self-determination in every gesture. Her fragility & despondence under the control of her wealthy, emotionally abusive family make you want to celebrate her newfound, deeply personal path to fulfillment, even though it very well might kill her. As she snacks on fistfuls of garden soil while watching trash TV instead of obeying her family’s orders all I could think was “Good for her!,” which is about as far from the sentiment of Safe as possible. It’s a less opaque, less thematically subtle work than Haynes’s film, which I honestly believe makes for an improvement on the already satisfying formula. It could not have gotten there without the strength of Haley Bennett’s performance though; the whole enterprise rests on her shoulders and she carries it with an astounding ease.

-Brandon Ledet

#NOFF2018 Ranked & Reviewed

Here we are almost a full month since the 29th annual New Orleans Film Festival has concluded and I’m finally gathering all of titles I caught at the fest in one spot. CC & I will be recording a more fleshed-out recap of our festival experience on a near-future episode of the podcast (Episode 71, due early December) – in case you’re interested in hearing about the goings-on at the handful of downtown theaters where the festival was held, the various short films that preceded some of those screenings, and the reasons why we suspect Vox Lux is going to be the mother! of 2018. This list is a more bare-bones kind of recap: a ranking from the best to the . . . least best of the features we managed to catch at this year’s festival. Each title includes a link to a corresponding review. Enjoy!

1. Vox LuxLike mother!, Vox Lux is a divisive, gleefully unsubtle work that gets outright Biblical in its internal, philosophical conflicts. It dares you to hate it, then asks for forgiveness. It spits in your face, then blows you a kiss.”

2. Pig Film “The degradation of the picture quality (as it was shot entirely on expired, second-hand film stock) combines with the grimy art-instillation surreality of its pig farm setting to establish an overriding sense of isolation & rot that feels more emotional & subliminal than overtly political. Human or not, our sole on-screen character is the last shred of humanity left stalking the mess of a planet we’ll soon leave behind, emptily mimicking the records of our behavior she finds in our rubble and converting that industrial garbage into beautiful song. It’s a gorgeous, grimy nightmare – a sinister poem.”

3. Chained for Life “At times eerie, howlingly funny, cruel, sweet, and disorienting, Chained for Life mines a lot of rich cinematic material out if its initial conceit of discussing Hollywood’s historic tradition of exploiting disabled & disfigured performers for gross-out scares & sideshow exploitation. Freaks isn’t the movie’s target so much as its jumping point, so that Browning’s self-contradictory act of empathetic exploitation is demonstrative of how disabled & disfigured people are represented onscreen at large.”

4. The Gospel of Eureka “The documentary finds its most satisfying groove in cutting back & forth between performances of the Gospel drag show & the Passion Play as they separately cycle through their respective routines. Performers on both sides apply their own make-up, lip-sync to pre-recorded soundtracks, and exaggerate their religious narratives to the point of over-the-top caricature – practically in unison thanks to editing room cross-cutting. More so than a shared passion for Biblical scholarship, they share a weakness for over-the-top pageantry; the only difference is that the drag end of the divide is self-aware of that commitment to camp & caricature, whereas the other end believes they’re merely being devout.”

5. United Skates “A documentary ‘about’ black skating rink culture that’s actually about how all pockets of black culture are policed & legislated out of existence in small, cumulative increments.”

6. Cane River (1982) – “Effectively a Romeo & Juliet love story without all that pesky tragedy & bloodshed getting it the way of its humor & romantic melodrama, Cane River is just as much of an escapist fantasy as it is a political screed & a historical document. The small-stakes love story at its center is so playfully sweet that it’s easy to frequently forget that it’s all in service of illustrating a culture clash within a geographically specific black community – one with implications of class & skin-tone discrimination with much larger cultural significance.”

7. Jules of Light and Dark“Dual coming of age stories— one for a smart kid in their early 20s and one for an overgrown man-child in their early 50s— are allowed to remain largely separate throughout Jules of Light and Dark, but they converge early when the fallout from ‘the last rave of the year’ leaves several characters in need of intensive post-trauma physical therapy. Estranged from their families because of their sexuality, our two disparate protagonists find unlikely kinship & emotional support in each other; their parallel tales of recovery are both quietly transformative, although never grand nor overachieving.”

8. Empty MetalEmpty Metal‘s greatest strength is in its direct, assertive call for violent uprising against vile real-life public figures. It’s a shame some of that direct, assertive messaging is lost in such a messy, loosely edited-together sci-fi narrative that just can’t muster up the enthusiastic momentum needed to match the energy of its politics.”

9. Nailed It “As fascinating, succinct, and stylish as Nailed It can be, the film never really transcends its limited means to become something especially great. It’s the kind of moderately successful documentary that gets by on the interest of its subject, when it has the promise to be so much more.”

10. This One’s for the Ladies . . . “As compelling (and visually interesting) as its subject matter can be, it’s undeniable that This One’s for the Ladies hits a wall somewhere in its brief 80min runtime. The pro wrestling & ball culture-style pageantry of the dance events never gets tiring, and the times the film documents the prurient pleasures therein it’s a hoot. Where it struggles to maintain that excitement is in the behind the scenes interviews with participants, which stray from discussing the dance event circuit to touch on issues of racial & economic inequality the film makes no point to explore in a distinct or substantive way.”

-Brandon Ledet

The Best of NOFF 2017 Ranked & Reviewed

Here we are almost two months since the 28th New Orleans Film Festival has passed and I’m finally gathering all of titles I caught at the fest in one spot.  CC & I recorded a more fleshed out recap of our festival experience on Episode #45 of the podcast in case you’re interested in hearing about the weird goings-on at the handful of downtown theaters where the festival was held, the various short films that preceded some of those screenings, and the reasons why I’m wrong for hating I, Tonya. This list is more simplistic than that kind of recap: a better-late-than-never ranking from the best to . . .  the least best of the titles I managed to catch at this year’s festival.  Each title includes a link to a corresponding review. Enjoy!

1. The Florida Project: “The Florida Project doesn’t dwell on or exploit the less-than-ideal conditions its pint-sized punks grow up in, even when depicting their most dire consequences; it instead celebrates the kids’ anarchic energy and refusal to buckle under the false authority of adults.”

2. Tom of Finland:Tom of Finland excels as a kind of filmmaking alchemy that turns an unlikely tonal mashup of Cruising & Carol into the feel-good queer drama of the year. Its high class sense of style & lyrical looseness in narrative structure feels like the best aspects of Tom Ford’s features, but without his goofy storytelling shortcomings. While its sexuality isn’t quite as transgressive as the leather daddy-inspiring art of its subject, it’s still a passionate, celebratory work that sidesteps the typical pitfalls of queer misery porn dramas, yet still manages to feel truthful, dangerous, and at times genuinely erotic. It’s hard to believe the film is half as wonderful as it is, given the visual trappings of its subject & genre, but its leather & disco lyricism lifts the spirit and defies expectation.”

3. She’s Allergic to Cats: “She’s Allergic to Cats hides its emotions behind an impossibly thick wall of ironic detachment. It even goes out of its way to reference infamous so-bad-it’s-good properties like Congo, Howard the Duck, Cat People (’82, of course), and The Boy in the Plastic Bubble to throw the audience of the scent of the emotional nightmare at its core. When its protective walls break down, however, and the nihilistic heartbreak that eats at its soul scrolls ‘I need help’ across the screen, there’s a genuine pathos to its post-Tim & Eric aesthetic that far surpasses its pure shock value peers. It’s a hilarious, VHS-warped mode of emotional terror.”

4. Love & Saucers: “David Huggins is entirely sincere about his reports of hundreds of encounters with space aliens, which are mostly sexual in nature. His impressionistic paintings that illustrate these encounters are more art therapy than ironic kitsch, and you could hear the terror & the sadness in his voice as he recounts the stories behind them. There’s inevitably going to be a contingent of viewers who view Lovers and Saucers as a ‘Get a load of this weirdo!’ line of humor at David’s expense, but the truth is that both the movie and the artist are tragically, horrifyingly sincere.”

5. Damascene: “Detailing a single, hour-long conversation shot on two bike helmet-mounted GoPros, Damascene boasts the bare bones storytelling of a one act stage play. It makes the best of its limited resources it can, though, reaching into the discomforting dark humor and emotional trauma typically reserved for deep-cutting stage dramas. It’s an exciting reminder that a great film doesn’t necessarily require a great budget, that a handful of people and a commercially-affordable camera are enough resources to produce top tier cinema in the 2010s.”

6. The World is Mine: “It would be easy to imagine a more traditional, informative documentary about Hatsune Miku’s history as a cultural phenomenon or Westerner cosplay as an act of cultural appropriation, but The World is Mine isn’t especially interest in either line of thought. Instead, Oren implies a simulated identity crisis performed for the camera through the guise of an already simulated character. Lines like ‘The problem with reality is that fairy tales are full of frauds,’ don’t help much in illuminating what Oren’s learned as a living doll modeled after a popular computer program. She’s just one physical copy of Hatsune Miku among many and the eeriness of her lack of a distinct personality is only amplified in the Miku fandom visually approaching a kind of ecstatic singularity.”

7. Young and Innocent: “Young and Innocent is a little stilted by its student film production values & depends heavily on audience familiarity with Hitchcock’s original film, but it plays so loosely with Psycho’s basic DNA that it generates a tense sense of mystery & dread all of its own. More clever than outright hilarious, Young and Innocent’s awkward romantic tension is endearingly cute, while still maintaining the original film’s sense of impending doom through surrealistic violence in its dream imagery and the basic vulnerability of following a runaway teen protagonist through a series of risky decisions.”

8. Mudbound: “Mudbound is at its weakest when it’s tasked to convey a sense of grand scale scope it can’t deliver on an Online Content budget. The voiceover narration and scenes of tank & airplane warfare are where the seams of the limited budget show most egregiously. Rees still delivers a powerful punch whenever she can afford to, though, making sure that the muddy & blood details of Mudbound’s smaller moments hit with full, unforgiving impact.”

9. Wallay: “Wallay feels significant in the way it adds a new wrinkle to the European housing block narrative by giving that community an external perspective. These kids really are caught halfway between two identities and I haven’t seen that cultural limbo represented onscreen quite like this before.”

10. Wexford Plaza: “At its heart, Wexford Plaza is a dark comedy about the difference between treating menial service labor as a consequence-free playground in your 20s and the way it becomes an escape-free economic rut you depend on for sustenance in your 30s & beyond. The movie can be frivolously funny in the aimless stoner comedy moments of its opening half, but evolves into a much more surprising, rewarding watch as its story unfolds onscreen.”

11. The Joneses: “I can’t recommend The Joneses as much of a transformative feat in documentary craft; if anything, the filmmaking style often gets in the way of the work’s best asset: its subject. As a work of progressive queer politics, however, it’s often endearing just for its patience in documenting a universally recognizable American family that just happens to have an adorable trans woman at the center of it. There’s a political significance to that kind of documentation the film should have been more comfortable with instead of pushing for immediate dramatic conflict.”

12. Serenade for Haiti: “There might possibly be a more informative documentary to be made about the grand scale aftermath of the 2010 Haitian earthquake, but by profiling members of a single music school within Port-au-Prince before & after the event, the film offers an intimacy & a specificity a more wide-reaching documentary could not accomplish. The filmmakers behind Serenade for Haiti would have had no way of knowing the significance of what they are documenting when the film first began production, but they stumbled into a personal, up-close look at a historic tragedy in the process.”

13. Play the Devil: “Play the Devil is effective in its evocation of a spiritual & cultural atmosphere, but the story it manages to tell within that frame is a disjointed mess. I assume that the movie was aiming to be a poignant coming of age drama and not the less fun The Boy Next Door remake with #problematic queer subtext in accidentally stumbled into, which is a total shame. The Carnival imagery almost makes up for it, but not quite enough to turn the tide.”

14. As Is: “The recent small scale documentary As Is details the behind-the-scenes production of a one-time-only multimedia performance staged by visual artist Nick ‘Not That Nick Cave’ Cave in Shreveport, Louisiana in 2015. The film documents all of the artist’s intent, production logistics, and cultural context in the weeks leading up to this performance, then stops short of documenting any of the real thing once it’s executed. It’s like watching the behind the scenes footage of a concert you weren’t invited to for a band you’ve never heard of before. It’s very frustrating.”

15. I, Tonya: The violence leveled on Harding throughout I, Tonya certainly makes her more of a recognizably sympathetic figure than what you’d gather from her news coverage. However, the nonstop beatings are near impossible to rectify with the Jared Hess-style Napoleon Dynamite quirk comedy that fill in the gaps between them. The film either doesn’t understand the full impact of the violence it portrays or is just deeply hypocritical about its basic intent.”

-Brandon Ledet

Damascene (2017)

The democratization of filmmaking technology has meant that it’s now affordable for anyone to have a voice in modern cinema, whether or not they have properly funded distribution or production values to back them up. Films like Creep, Primer, and Tangerine, while benefiting from traditional modes of distribution, have been exciting reminders of just how much a no-budget indie can accomplish with the right players & screenplay. The recent found footage dark comedy Damascene, which saw its world premiere at this year’s New Orleans Film Fest, isn’t nearly as high profile of a release as those shining examples of minimalist digital filmmaking, but is just as worthy to be lauded for the effect it accomplishes with severely limited, available-to-anyone means. Detailing a single, hour-long conversation shot on two bike helmet-mounted GoPros, Damascene boasts the bare bones storytelling of a one act stage play. It makes the best of its limited resources it can, though, reaching into the discomforting dark humor and emotional trauma typically reserved for deep-cutting stage dramas. It’s an exciting reminder that a great film doesn’t necessarily require a great budget, that a handful of people and a commercially-affordable camera are enough resources to produce top tier cinema in the 2010s.

Two old lovers reunite by accident after a long absence while biking to a mutual friend’s party. They film each other in conversation with their own helmet-mounted GoPros while cruising the streets, parks, and back allies of a sunshine-drenched London. The conversation starts amicably enough. The woman is guarded & perhaps even annoyed by the intrusion of her old boyfriend on what was a solo bike ride, but they find enough common ground to casually discuss as they leisurely make their way to the party: making fun of their friends for treating romance like a social media meme, reminiscing over half-remembered anecdotes and a shared political interest in war-torn Syria, pop culture touchstones like Friends, Event Horizon, Bukowski, etc. Thiis protective shield of social niceties eventually corrodes, however, and their rapport takes a dark turn. Picking at the barely-healed scabs of their failed romance uncovers a long-buried trauma and an unresolved act of violence that can’t remain undiscussed forever. The darkness at the heart of Damascene gradually creeps in with a casually tossed-out sexist joke or an alcoholism-blurred memory of an nonconsensual public groping, chipping away at the pair’s apparent camaraderie. Once the guard wall is fully breached there’s a full, unstoppable catharsis in the film’s tragic streak that poisonously overpowers any kindness or illusion of healing that came before it.

It’s initially tempting to view Damascene as a Before Sunrise descendant, if not only for its structure as a single conversation contained mostly between two romantically-linked characters. The film is so much more caustic than Richard Linklater’s melancholic romance series, however. Its thematic explorations of unchecked privilege, toxic masculinity, and lingering trauma sit heavy on the audience’s conscience, especially as they’re brushed aside with playfully dark social humor. It makes total sense that one of the two main players is a former playwright, since this mix of comic & tragic tones combines with the conversational storytelling to amount to a very distinct stage play aesthetic. Staging this conversation through hydraulic-smoothed GoPro footage makes this dialogue-based work feel inherently cinematic, though. The camera operators build tension by squeezing between cars in London traffic and offer an eye-level version of drone footage of the city that feels unique to its productions style. Better yet, it’s often easy to forget you’re watching GoPro footage at all, once the dread & mystery of the dark places the conversation is going commands the back half. Damascene is proof in itself that there are great films to be made out of less than ideal equipment, even if it is never distributed wide enough for most audiences to see that proof for themselves.

-Brandon Ledet

The Joneses (2017)

The subject/star of the documentary The Joneses, Jheri Jones, is introduced to the audience goofily modeling a one-piece swimsuit at 74 years old while favorably comparing herself to Madonna & Marilyn Monroe. The movie could use more of Jheri’s magic charm from this moment, which recalls the over the top fashion modeling Little Edie delivers in the classic doc Grey Gardens. Unfortunately, we only get it in glimpses as the film (somewhat understandably) focuses on the hardships suffered in her life, particularly in regards to her family. Jheri Jones is a trans woman & mother of four who transitioned late in life in rural Mississippi. Living with two of her sons & supporting her other two children in an almost equal capacity, Jheri bears a lot of weight on her shoulders. She finds tight social & economic restraints on what modern Mississippi living affords her as a working class trans woman with multiple family members struggling with disability. She’s absolutely fabulous as a personality, though, something The Joneses too often loses track of while it searches for the visual & emotional details of her hardships, often to its own detriment.

Because Jheri’s public gender transition is decades behind her, there isn’t much to The Joneses in terms of immediate plot. The film makes unnecessary attempts to build conflict around two central revelations: Jheri revealing her assigned-at-birth gender to her grandchildren and Jheri’s son revealing a secretive personal journey of his own to both his family & himself. The tension built in these conflicts is a distraction from what makes the movie special. The Joneses works better when it functions as a plot-free portrait of an American family living within highly specific circumstances, but universal commonalities. Flipping through The Joneses’ old picture albums or watching Jheri prepare an endless cycle of routine meals for her boys is far more interesting than the dramatic structure the film attempts to apply to their lives. You can feel the camera searching for tension in the family’s Confederate flag & trailer park surroundings, but none of it is ever as exciting as Jheri accidentally burning toast or the intrusion of a previously unseen house pet. The Joneses is at its best when it simply sits back to watch its titular family perform small acts of routine domesticity.

I’m not sure if the ideal version of this documentary would be a more investigative look at what it was like for Jheri to transition as a middle-age woman in modern Mississippi (something that’s only referenced in passing) or if it would be just a solid 90 minutes of her bullshitting & modeling her fashion for the camera. There’s nothing in the film’s domestic conflict that’s half as exciting as Jheri cutting jokes while wearing sunglasses & a fur coat, a testament to how endlessly charming she is as a personality. As such, I don’t think I actually enjoyed the New Orleans Film Fest Screening of the film itself as much as the Q&A with Jheri that followed, which I’m only mentioning here because I typically hate post-screening Q&A’s. I can’t recommend The Joneses as much of a transformative feat in documentary craft; if anything, the filmmaking style often gets in the way of the work’s best asset: its subject. As a work of progressive queer politics, however, it’s often endearing just for its patience in documenting a universally recognizable American family that just happens to have an adorable trans woman at the center of it. There’s a political significance to that kind of documentation the film should have been more comfortable with instead of pushing for immediate dramatic conflict.

-Brandon Ledet

Wallay (2017)

A somewhat common narrative from recent European indies has been detailing the lives of the massive immigrant communities that live in the large housing block projects at the fringes of cities like London & Paris. Titles like Girlhood, Swagger, and Attack the Block have found an unfathomably wide range of stories to tell within that context, but remain confined to those insular communities in a kind of stationary, immersive experience. The recent French indie Wallay offers a take on the housing block immigrant experience I haven’t seen before by transporting its subjects to a drastically external, literally foreign setting. Wallay is worthy in its own right as an endearing coming of age story about a second-generation French immigrant learning small scale lessons about responsibility, romance, and identity, but those are familiar story beats we’ve seen many times before. It feels much more unique & revelatory in the way it details the cultural limbo immigrants occupy between the European cities that keep them at arm’s length & the African villages they left for economic opportunity by thoughtfully profiling both ends of that divide.

A second-generation, teenage French immigrant butts heads with his exasperated father who cannot control his behavior. A little badass in a bucket hat, the teenage delinquent commits minor acts of small scale rebellion in his Parisian housing block for payoffs as glorious as black market tennis shoes & appearing in YouTube-upload rap videos. He runs into trouble when he’s caught committing one of his more egregious schemes, siphoning off funds from the money orders his father sends back home to their extended family in West Africa. As punishment, he’s sent to the African village where his father was raised to live with the family he stole from, where he is tasked with paying back the money through months of manual labor. As a spoiled brat, he of course initially refuses to participate in this lesson in humility, scoffing in horror at his new “home’s” infrequent power supply & lack of indoor plumbing, His struggle to adjust to & learn from his mistakes is especially apparent in his relationship with his new caretaker & would-be employer, a harsh authority figure of an uncle. The language & cultural barriers between the mismatched pair eventually break down in the exact ways you’d expect them to, but Wallay finds plenty of delicate moments of humility, romance, familial love, and personal growth in the struggle, with many of them being solidly, endearingly comedic.

Berni Goldblat’s directorial debut saw its American premiere at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival. Outside a few scenes of its bratty teen protagonist struggling to trek through African wilderness or listening to hip-hop in headphones inside a mosquito tent, Wallay is only about a visually striking as you’d expect from a mini-budget indie with those means of distribution. The film finds its own tonal groove elsewhere, though, especially in its minimalist, plucked cello score & its circumcision-obsessed cultural humor, which can be much cruder than you’d expect from this kind of story. Teen actor Makan Nathan Diarra also elevates Wallay with genuine character moments as the lead grows into a better, more empathetic person. Mostly, though, the film feels significant in the way it adds a new wrinkle to the European housing block narrative by giving that community an external perspective. These kids really are caught halfway between two identities and I haven’t seen that cultural limbo represented onscreen quite like this before.

-Brandon Ledet

Tom of Finland (2017)

I can probably count on one hand the number of biopics that have struck me as phenomenal, formally impressive cinema. Stray examples like Ed Wood & Kinsey leap to mind as I attempt to recall biopics I’ve instantly fallen in love with, but for the most part the genre feels like an endless line of passable-but-unremarkable exercises in filmmaking tedium. Tom of Finland has joined the ranks of biopics that have transcended that mediocrity for me. Depicting the adult life of the Finnish illustrator/pornographer Touko Valio Laaksonen as he drew his way into queer culture infamy, Tom of Finland excels as a kind of filmmaking alchemy that turns an unlikely tonal mashup of Cruising & Carol into the feel-good queer drama of the year. Its high class sense of style & lyrical looseness in narrative structure feels like the best aspects of Tom Ford’s features, but without his goofy storytelling shortcomings. While its sexuality isn’t quite as transgressive as the leather daddy-inspiring art of its subject, it’s still a passionate, celebratory work that sidesteps the typical pitfalls of queer misery porn dramas, yet still manages to feel truthful, dangerous, and at times genuinely erotic. It’s hard to believe the film is half as wonderful as it is, given the visual trappings of its subject & genre, but its leather & disco lyricism lifts the spirit and defies expectation. The only disappointment I have with Tom of Finland is that most audiences don’t seem to be on its wavelength, dragging my enthusiasm down with bafflingly unenthused reviews.

Part of the reason Tom of Finland is so impressive in its transcendence of biopic tedium is that it entirely forgoes the birth-to-death trajectory of that genre’s traditional narrative structure. Glimpses of the artist as a successful older man, a reluctant young soldier, a closeted adman living with his sister, and a smitten middle age romantic who happens to generate pornography, mix in a cyclical, sublimely lit intersection of vignettes that play like sardonically funny paintings in motion. The domestic softness of Laaksonen’s home life mix with the transgressive, leather-clad brutes of masculine sexuality that define his pornographic artwork and invade his daydreams as horny, in-the-flesh hallucinations. War-related PTSD becomes inextricable from the erotic, as he fetishizes a handsome soldier he killed in battle as a young man. Orchestral sweeps find divine beauty in the danger of cruising men in public & producing illegal, sexually charged art. Tom of Finland jumps time & skims consequences, trusting its audience to follow along without being held by the hand. It’s a delicately sweet portrait of an artist that’s often interrupted by queer disco reveries & seas of hairy men posing in the leather getups that turned Laaksonen on so much that his depictions of them inspired an entire spectrum of sexual fetish. If arranged in a linear order or stripped of its playfully hallucinatory erotic fantasies, Tom of Finland could easily be the middling biopic its critical consensus reports it to be. Instead, it’s a gorgeous, dreamlike drift through the life of an artist with one of the mostly highly dedicated, specialized cult audiences imaginable.

I might understand the complaint that Tom of Finland isn’t brutish or sexy enough to fully convey the transgressive spirit of its subject’s work if it at all seemed like Laaksonen was as wildly over the top as his drawings. The tension between his mild-mannered demeanor and the over-sexed aggression of his art is one of the film’s more rewarding charms. He’s far from a sexless character, shamelessly flirting with men and discussing his work in blatantly honest terms like, “My cock is the boss. If I have a hard-on I know it’s good.” Like most people, though, Laaksonen is portrayed to be not nearly as wild as his sexual fantasies might suggest, which makes it all the more amusing when he’s delighted/dazed to see his work come to life in the “heavy leather” queer kink communities they inspired in New York City & San Francisco. The sudden deluge of this dedicated fandom hits the audience with the same jolt of surprise, its accompanying disco soundtrack feeling just as surreally out of place as the imagined sexual fantasies that intrude on the physical spaces of his daydreams. The contrast between this playfulness and the high art cinematography & production design make for one of the more exquisite biopic experiences I can ever remember having in my lifetime. Normally, I’d worry if the fact that I saw this at a New Orleans Film Fest screening made me more enthusiastic because of the excitement of the environment, but a faulty stop & start projection and a fussy late night audience was actually more of a distraction than an enhancement. Given the less than ideal screening where I watched this beautiful film, it’s a miracle I enjoyed at all, much less instantly fell in love. Now I just need to figure out exactly why so few people seem to be on the same wavelength.

-Brandon Ledet

Dig Two Graves (2017)

It’s both fascinating and depressing how many minor indie films can slip through the cracks of theatrical distribution after first appearing for a festival run. The digitization of the film industry has democratized production to the point where almost anyone can make a movie, but opening the floodgates that way has meant that it’s much more difficult for a feature to stand out & be seen. The Gothic mystery thriller Dig Two Graves, for instance, premiered at the New Orleans Film Fest in 2014, but didn’t earn a “select theaters” release until nearly just three years later. The modestly budgeted film is now lurking, just a few months later, in the massive heap of under-publicized indies that eventually all find their way to Netflix. In some ways it’s easier to watch than ever before, but it’s also a victim of a distribution method that does it no favors in terms of visibility. It’s a shame too, because it’s actually a fairly engaging work that could be commercially viable with the right push.

There are two dueling timelines in Dig Two Graves. The film opens with 1940s cops dumping two bodies off a cliff into a backwoods river. It then jumps to two teen siblings standing at the same cliff in the 1970s. Unable to convince his sister to plunge with him, the older brother leaps to the water below on his own, never to resurface. The sister obsesses over this disappearance and is hurt that her family and community is able to move on. Her story starts to converge with the opening 1940s timeline from there, as she’s offered a proposition from old-timey gypsy vagabonds who promise to bring her brother back to life through black magic in exchange for the life of her schoolyard friend. The division between the 40s and 70s timelines loses its rigidity as she struggles with the implications of the magic that could bring her brother back. It’s a classic Southern Gothic tale of supernatural revenge that just happens to be set in the Midwest.

The pitfalls of revenge and the cycles of history repeating itself aren’t exactly novel territory for a mystery thriller to explore, but Dig Two Graves does a great job of visually distinguishing itself while remaining narratively familiar. Snakes, carnivals, magic tricks, the eeriness of the woods, and the hallmarks of hillbilly occultism all afford the film the feel of a strange bedtime story that resurfaces in your nightmares through half-remembered images. Jars of homemade moonshine and the field dressing of deer ground its supernatural story in a sense of real world brutality, while the lead vagabond’s battered top hat gives him a kind of Babadook quality. This is the exact kind of film I would have loved to have caught at a young enough age so that its specific images haunted me more than the mechanics if its central mystery; I’m thinking specifically of my relationship with The Lady in White. Still, even for an adult audience Dig Two Graves packs plenty of visually-triggered chills and can be technically impressive in its confident drifts between its two disparate temporal settings.

One of the biggest questions Dig Two Graves raises for me is just how many of these well-made indies are slipping through the distribution cracks and not even reaching Netflix. I even attended the 2014 NOFF where this film premiered (it’s where I saw Wetlands) and I’ve never heard of this film. I’ve had movies from subsequent NOFF screenings crack my Top Films of the Year lists, never to be heard of again in wide distribution. This is a strange time we’re living in for pop culture media, but I’m glad films like Dig Two Graves can at least find a way to get made even if they have to later struggle to be seen.

-Brandon Ledet