NewFest 2020 | Report 4

Ali LeRoi’s The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is a time loop film with a difference. True enough, the protagonist (Steven Silver), a young Nigerian immigrant, relives the same day over and over enough, which may put you in mind of Groundhog Day or Happy Death Day. The tone of Obituary is quite different, as you may guess from the title—it’s about a young black man being killed by the police, over and over again, each death immediately followed by him startling himself awake in his own bed, so he can live  the day of his death over again. It’s a dark movie, and one that makes a convincing case that his family’s wealth and “respectability” (his father, played by Sammi Rotibi, is a noted artist whose multilayered images echo the complexity of the social codes Tunde must master), his good manners, and his immersion in white culture (he attends an exclusive, mostly white, prep school) offer him no protection against policemen with itchy trigger fingers.

The screenplay by Stanley Kalu, winner of a screenwriting competition at the University of Southern California, is complex and the characters are nuanced. Tunde, like most teenagers, is both respectful of his parents and rebellious against them. His white boyfriend Soren (Spencer Neville), son of a television presenter (David James Elliott), is firmly in the closet, carrying on with Tunde’s best friend, a white girl named Marley (Nicola Peltz), in parallel with his relationship with Tunde. The details of Tunde’s death are different each time, underlining the point that there’s really no way for him to win where the police are concerned. To make things even more complex, Tunde takes Xanax, and notes at one point that hallucinations are a known side effect of that medication—so is any of this real? Even if you think the events of the film happened only in Tunde’s mind, however, that interpretation still leaves you with plenty of food for thought.

When we first meet Swedish teenager Amber Mastracci, she’s meeting with a counselor as part of the process of gender transition. The counselor begins by stating her pronouns (she/her), then asks Amber what she prefers. The answer, they/them, will be used for the rest of this review of Hannah Reinikainen and Lia Hietala’s documentary Always Amber, which documents three years of Amber’s life, incorporating clips from their social media accounts as well as footage shot specifically for the film.

My first reaction, as someone on the far side of age 60, is that the lives of young people these days are certainly different than my own life was at the same age. I don’t mean just the casual acceptance of a trans identity (Amber was introduced to the idea by their trans friend Sebastian), but also how comfortable they are with performing for the camera and posting the result to social media. Granted, Amber and their friends are not a random sample of Swedish teenagers, but still it’s impressive to see how comfortable they are experimenting with different looks and identities, and how little they seem to be concerned with conforming to received ideas of propriety.  They still have the usual teenage issues—like two people competing for the attention of a third, and the loser being none too happy with the result—but overall Forever Amber is perhaps the sweetest, most optimistic film ever made about the life of a trans teenager.

Film festivals are of course a great way to see new films, but they can also be a great way to catch up with some classic films that you you didn’t even know existed. Case in point: Michelle Handelman’s documentary Bloodsisters: Leather, Dykes, and Sadomasochism, which returns to NewFest 25 years after having premiered here in 1995. It offers a guided tour through the S & M community, led by the likes of Pat Califia, Tala Brandeis, and J.T. Collins, as well as a lot of people whose names may be less familiar.

One clear purpose of Bloodsisters is to correct misconceptions about the S&M community, some of which are prevalent today—like the practice being inherently abusive or antifeminist (insert eye roll here), or leather culture being synonymous with S&M (some people ride motorcycles, and some just like to wear leather). But even more than that, it’s a celebration of the varied subcultures that make up the world of S&M, and the fact that the participants (consenting adults all) have found what works for them sexually and are willing to share. There’s also a lot of creative filmmaking on display despite what seems to have been a small budget, with impressionistic clips of S&M activity alternating with interviews, and animations color tinting used to add an extra level of visual interest and fun to the proceedings. | Sarah Boslaugh

NewFest 2020 runs from Oct. 16 to Oct. 27, and most films in the festival are available for remote screening. Both single tickets ($12, $10 for members) and all-access festival passes ($95) are available. Further information, including details on the films and other events, is available from the festival web site.

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