28th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival Preview | Nov. 7-17, 2019

The 28th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival will screen no less than 389 films from 63 different countries, an embarrassment of riches for the city’s dogged film lovers. This year’s staggering selection contains works from established auteurs and exciting up-and-comers, alike.

On the documentary front, there’s the latest from Werner Herzog, Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin (11/17, 1:05 pm, Tivoli), a deeply personal travelogue and tribute to Herzog’s friend and collaborator, named in the title. Agnès Varda’s final film, Varda by Agnès (11/17, 7:30 pm, Webster University Winifred Moore Auditorium) will be screened, likely drawing a big audience, as well as two films that played at the True/False Film Festival this past March: Treasure Island (11/8, 6 pm, Plaza Frontenac) and Up the Mountain (11/16, 2:45 pm, Plaza Frontenac).

For lighter docs of interest, be sure to check out The Booksellers (11/9, 2:30 pm, Tivoli) and Gay Chorus Deep South (11/12, 8 pm, Tivoli). Booksellers presents a long and fascinating survey of New York’s book dealing scene, with plenty of exploration into the history of bookstores, famed collectors, and hallowed first editions. With a fervent defense of print in today’s electronic world and a visual feast of literary relics, the film will be a treat for any bibliophile. Director D.W. Young and DP Peter Bolte will be in attendance.

Gay Chorus Deep South follows the San Francisco Gay Men’s Choir through a tour of several Southern states as they perform primarily in churches. Not only does this empower the LGBTQ+  communities within the various conservative cities on the tour, but several hands reach across dividing lines, a unity seemingly engendered by the music itself. In one of the more poignant sequences, a choir member reconnects with his staunchly right-wing father, with whom he has not spoken for several years. Throughout the choir’s many stops, they encounter a surprisingly small amount of resistance, or at least the filmmakers don’t show resistance very often. Instead, there is a resounding message of hope and a focus on the potential for acceptance and progress within states heavily influenced by religious doctrine. A performance by the Gateway Men’s Chorus will be held alongside the film.

On the heavier side, this year’s powerful and emotionally resonant documentaries such as Colossus (11/15, 7:30 pm, Washington University Brown Auditorium) carry a high recommendation. Colossus follows Jamil Sunsin, whose family was deported to Honduras in 2009. Being the only member of the family with U.S. citizenship and fearing for his safety after a near fatal encounter in Honduras, Jamil leaves his family to live in the States with a cousin. The separation proves to be a source of great anguish on both sides. Shot with touching intimacy and candidness, Colossus has a devastating and spellbinding effect. Jamil’s ambivalence towards his situation may be the most heartbreaking dilemma of all, as illustrated during a tearful goodbye to his American friends before he embarks on an ultimately temporary stay back in Honduras, where he must also contend with the complexities of family expectations and his own aspirations.

While many of the films leave great impressions, others seem bound to have mixed reception. When I Last Saw Jesse(11/16, 1:00 pm, MO History Museum) could end up with both fans and detractors. While the subject shows promise, that being the unsolved disappearance of college student Jesse Ross in 2006 at a Model U.N. conference, the overall story feels lacking— another mysterious missing person case among many like it, with nothing particularly notable or surprising about the investigation. The film did benefit, however, from poignant stylistic choices. Shot on grainy black and white film, the visuals are all of locations pertaining to the case, with only the voices of relatives, witnesses, and law enforcement telling the story. This, combined with an evocative, ambient score, create a ruminative and melancholy tone that effectively conveys the sorrowful stasis experienced by those close to Jesse who, due to the unresolved nature of his disappearance, have never quite moved on. True crime fans might be disappointed, but proponents of atmospheric mood pieces may very well find the experience worthwhile.

A range of anticipated narrative films in the lineup will prove tantalizing to all festival-goers, especially several hits from the Cannes and Sundance Film Festivals. Cannes Grand Prix winner Atlantics (11/14, 7:05 pm, Tivoli) by Mati Diop, the first black woman to feature in competition at Cannes, and Queer Palm winner Portrait of a Lady on Fire (11/11, 7 pm. Tivoli) will have one-night only screenings and likely many in attendance (so get tickets ahead of time!). Sundance Grand Jury prize winner, Clemency (11/16, 6 pm, Tivoli), starring Alfre Woodard, and Noah Baumbach’s new film, Marriage Story (11/7, 8 pm, Tivoli) have been drawing buzz ever since their original festival premieres, so their inclusion in the lineup offers a great opportunity for those wanting to catch them early.

The newest film by French director François Ozon, By the Grace of God, has garnered much interest, as well. While not as strong as his other award-winners, like In the House from 2012, By the Grace of God still demonstrates Ozon’s fine directorial skill. Depicting the true story of a sexually abusive priest and three male victims that expose him and Cardinal Barbarin for the coverup, the subject matter is compelling, alone. Still, Ozon, who also wrote the screenplay, finds creative ways to present the story through inventive plotting that avoids copying similar films, interweaving the stories of the three men while letting them carry roughly a third of the story, each. In doing so, he creates an open position for the protagonist to be filled by whichever of the leads will best serve to guide that particular thread of the film, or for the audience to occupy, themselves, given the universal nature of the issues at hand.

There are also some strong, lesser-known titles. One such film is The Ground Beneath My Feet (11/11, 3 pm & 11/12, 4:45 pm, Plaza Frontenac), a psychological drama in the same vein as Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, but set in the world of Marion Ade’s more recent critical success, Toni Erdmann. Business consultant Lola struggles to prove her worth in a highly competitive firm where even a secret affair with the boss does not solidify her place. When her older, mentally ill sister attempts suicide, Lola is thrown into the high-wire act of balancing personal obligations with professional ones, and soon her mask of sanity begins to slip upon receiving cryptic phone calls from her sister, who should not be able to make them. With relentless tension, the story carries you through a minefield of emotional triggers, quietly slipping in the most unsettling moments where they’re least expected and yet somehow remaining low-key in overall tone. The Ground Beneath My Feet functions as a chilling character study with perfect restraint and precision while also performing a subtle deconstruction of the facades we create to conceal our interior lives.

Coming from South by Southwest, Karen Maine’s directorial debut, Yes, God, Yes (11/15, 7 pm, Tivoli) tells the story of a sheltered catholic schoolgirl who discovers cybersex in the early 2000s. Although deeply uneducated about sexual matters, a rumor circulating around school that she performed a sexual act on her crush, specifically “tossed his salad”, places her under the judgmental eye of classmates and faculty. The Catholic satire is a little been-there-done-that, but still feels subtler and smarter than the ham-fisted Saved! from 2004. Natalia Dyer’s hilariously straight, faux-naif performance keeps the film eminently watchable, and the commentary on slut-shaming and the inherent and ironic hyper focus on sexuality within pro-abstinence religious spheres continually evolves to elicit damning criticisms. For those wanting to catch a comedy at the festival, this would be a good choice.

By far the best film I saw in advance was The Wild Goose Lake (11/9, 9:45 pm & 11/11 9:25 pm, Tivoli), a Chinese neo-noir which also played in competition at Cannes. Gangster Zenong Zhou attends a meeting of crime families that goes awry after a territory dispute, and in the chaotic and bloody aftermath, he kills a police officer by mistake. Hiding out in the only natural refuge near his urban crimescape, known as the Wild Goose Lake, and now the prime target of both a police chase and attacks by other criminals wanting the reward money for his capture, Zenong Zhou must place his trust in a weary and desperate young sex-worker who agrees to acquire the reward for his estranged wife so long as she takes a cut to gain her own independence. Very much like Fritz Lang’s masterpiece, M, The Wild Goose Lake intertwines the frenzied pursuit of a single man by both the legal and criminal entities that fight for dominance in a languoring city. Where loyalty is always for sale and true, unconditional human connections are scarce, Zenong and Aiai’s relationship forms the touching core of a twisty, sometimes darkly comedic and occasionally surreal, crime thriller.

The Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival never fails to disappoint. The options for this year are numerous and varied, with a film to fit truly all tastes. While I’ve seen my fair share of excellent selections already, the festival proper still awaits with even more films to come. | Nic Champion

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