The BAMcinemaFest wrapped its 10th edition earlier this week. We already covered some of the festival’s selections here. For our final dispatch, we look at a handful of strong documentaries from up and coming filmmakers, as well as a major new film from American indie film veteran Andrew Bujalski.
As with 2010’s exceptional October Country, Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher’s The Gospel of Eureka brings an intelligent, discerning empathy to matters of political, moral, and ethical divisiveness. But whereas the documentarians’ first feature focussed on expressions of discord and reconciliation within a family, their new film broadens that scope enough to encompass the population of a small town. Surveying the ways in which LGBTQ rights and religious practice coexist and clash amongst the eclectic residents of Eureka Springs, Arkansas — around the time of a vote on a controversial non-discrimination ordinance — Palmieri and Mosher examine ideological differences in a way that’s neither apolitical nor didactic. Instead, as with October Country, their interest is in the ways these differences play-out in social discourse — while their politics are asserted through the emotional connections they form with their subjects. Palmieri and Mosher also continue to use the particular milieus of their films as microcosms of American sociopolitical life: In October Country, aural histories of war and abuse probed a nation’s burgeoning awareness of its own traumas, and here, a bravura sequence that cross-cuts between an open air theater performance of The Great Passion Play and a drag show inside the Eureka Live Underground bar, both performed by devout Christians, offers a potential path toward intersectional faith and progressivism. Sam C. Mac
A driving force behind the work of Andrew Bujalski is his passion to transcend the vapidness found in so much of contemporary American independent filmmaking. Funny Ha Ha inaugurated “mumblecore” — one of the most important and influential movements in international cinema since the French New Wave — and Bujalski’s subsequent features have continued to accelerate cinema forward by using the intricacies of his dramatic frameworks to maneuver through various distinct social systems, and to understand the individuals’ functionality within these spaces. The director’s latest film, Support the Girls, acutely examines the interpersonal dynamics fostered amongst the staff and patrons of a Hooters-like Texas sports bar called Double Whammies. Bujalski has begun to work with established actors, but he’s also continued to find roles for non-actors as well (a key element of his mumblecore beginnings), and for Support the Girls he casts New York City rapper Shayna McHayle (a.k.a. Junglepussy), whose role here is made to rival the emotive force of the film’s biggest star (Regina Hall). The eclectic ensemble of personalities and professional backgrounds that Bujalski draws upon is vital to an understanding of Support the Girls. Taking place primarily over the course of one particularly exasperating workday, the film mounts a hyper-specific articulation of the emotional compartmentalization necessitated by late capitalism. Patrick Devitt
One room, six cameras, thirty-something individuals — these are the spare elements with which Leigh Ledare constructs The Task, a scintillating study of group dynamics rooted in the Tavistock method, captured over a three-day conference at the Art Institute of Chicago. A number of participants, seated in a spiral arrangement of chairs and monitored by a few “consultants” (psychiatrists trained in the method) and silent observers, are asked — broadly speaking — to examine the dynamics of the group itself. The result is as chaotic as could be expected, with histories and dynamics of race, gender, economic background, et. al informing the inevitably contentious proceedings. (As one consultant says: “Like an idiot savant, this group has spread shit over every reflective surface it’s come across.”) What sets The Task apart from other such conferences is Ledare’s very act of documentation, which adds yet another thorny element to the mix (and which becomes a significant point of debate). As an examination of current U.S. group relations, The Task is necessarily limited, but also riveting and revealing. It’s the rare documentary that goes into the actual work of confronting issues too often co-opted by lazy commentary and invective. Lawrence Garcia
Minding the Gap begins by opaquely tracing the lives of three skateboarding high schoolers — including the film’s director, Bing Liu — in their economically diminished hometown. Liu staves off any threat of tedium in this opening section by forgoing typical onscreen skateboarding action shots in favor of serene, balletic sequences of boarders gliding down city streets, doubling down on rough beauty with handheld shots that wend through and around the action. Liu’s mélange of thematic concerns – which confront the toxic relationship between self-doubt and self-improvement, the cyclical nature of destructive tendencies, the unknowability of the self without social contextualization, and the enervating effects of economic decay – organize themselves near the twenty-minute mark, and inform what becomes one of the most emotionally visceral, organically expressed examples of documentary filmmaking this decade. Broadly, documentaries can be dichotomized into works that necessitate a visual medium and works that don’t. Minding the Gap lands emphatically in the former category, as the experience of watching its young subjects speak for and about themselves, over the many years that filming took place, evinces the emotional and psychological contradictions of self-reflection that exert their influence on this formative phase of life. Liu’s film, then, becomes a deeply personal catharsis, as well as a socioeconomically poignant portrait of the effects of post-industrialism on a community. Luke Gorham
Distant Constellation focuses on a Turkish assisted living facility, whose barren halls visualize the tragic loneliness afflicting the residents, members of a forgotten generation whose suffering seems irrelevant to a country that is trying to rebuild itself. The elderly Turkish residents of the facility can never forget the horrors that they witnessed during the Armenian Genocide, and director Shevaun Mizrahi allows her subjects free-range on what they wish to discuss, allowing them agency: some delve into their past lives as womanizers (one subject suggests marrying Mizrahi on the spot to combat his loneliness), while two older men bicker in a leisurely-moving elevator over the existence of aliens. Another woman explores the repressed memory of watching their village burn in front of her as a child, and a man expounds on his life as a photographer who has lost his eyesight, and becomes forced to let go of the possession he once loved. It’s whenever the film shifts its focus away from its subjects that its more didactic tendencies take over — particularly evident in the contrast it establishes between the old assisted living facility and a new development being built, which loses its potency due to how many times the image is returned to. Distant Constellation is at its best and most beautiful when it remains generous towards its human subjects, granting them space to tell their stories — so they do not become lost and forgotten to history. Paul Attard
Chained for Life opens with a quote from Pauline Kael: “Actors and actresses are usually more beautiful than ordinary people. And why not?” Director Aaron Schimberg’s invocation of this quote immediately establishes his film’s broad thematic palette, but it also reflects its ironic sense of humor. Unfolding around an exploitation film production replete with a Naziistic caricature of a director and which depicts the familiar tale of a blind woman who learns to love a deformed man, Chained for Life’s central leitmotif addresses the relationship between interior/exterior beauty and ugliness. An early interview scene with the actors finds them confronted directly with their film’s exploitation of physically deformed people, a move which simultaneously draws attention to the film’s meta nature and those implications while also critiquing its beautiful stars for their own vapidity. The opaqueness of this narrative structure allows for the film to play with various dichotomies: it dresses itself as both modern and classical, obfuscates the line between the reality of its thematic concerns and the fiction being spun at its center, and finds humor in the pretensions of what is “normal” versus the characters that are being exploited in-film. Interestingly, Schimberg allows this progression to lead to an unexpected place: in highlighting the humanity of characters who are often misrepresented and relegated to roles predicated on their abnormalities, he circles back to ask if beauty is not also exploited for cinematic effect? The result of all this can feel muddled and unformed, but Schimberg is starting a conversation about the role of physical appearances in media that’s worth having. Jason Ooi