Luckily we’ve never had to miss out on the St. Louis International Film Festival, despite the pandemic. Last year’s entirely virtual festival was wonderful as ever in terms of lineup, and this year a hybrid in-person and virtual festival promises even more gems with easy access. If anything, the COVID restrictions on theaters have yielded unintended benefits in some areas. Many critics would consider it heresy for me to say this, and while I certainly believe films are best seen in the theater, I also believe in the accessibility of art. That’s why I’m glad to see so many promising titles streaming virtually this year. As problematic as COVID has been to film-going, it has democratized a number of festivals, as virtual options have allowed many to catch things they may never have seen in their hometowns.
Case in point, SLIFF has acquired Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest opus, Memoria (Tivoli, Nov 14, 5:00 pm), for a one-night-only screening. If you’ve heard about the film and have any interest at all in seeing it, I would have to give it my highest recommendation, with the advice that you make it a top priority. Its distributor, NEON, made the somewhat shocking announcement that it will never be released on home media, will never stream in the US, and will only ever play in theaters forever, one theater at a time. As a form of experimental distribution, the method sounds pretty neat, but it really blows if you don’t live near an art house theater or have availability whenever it rolls into your town. Who knows when it will come to St. Louis, if ever, aside from now? Even worse, the premise sounds highly intriguing., something not to be missed. His first English-language film, it stars Tilda Swinton as a Scottish expat in Colombia who begins hearing a mysterious sound around the same time she visits her ailing sister in the hospital. Knowing Weerasethakul, he’ll take this odd and simple idea and stretch it into a beautiful and meditative experience unlike anything else in cinema. All the more reason to get a ticket ahead of time.
Big hits from previous festivals this year include Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, France, King Richard, Petite Maman (directed by Celine Sciamma of 2019’s major SLIFF hit Portrait of a Lady on Fire), Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, The Worst Person in the World, and three new films by Hong San-soo: In Front of Your Face, Introduction, and The Woman Who Ran. However, some of the other, lesser known titles will be well worth your time, too, and might not get a release later this year or next due to their relative obscurity.
Eyimofe: This is My Desire (Tivoli, Nov. 10, 3:00 pm) may not be one of the big names of the festival, but it’s one of the most essential. Directed by twin brothers Chuko and Arie Esiri, it devotes the first and second half of the film to Mofe (Jude Akuwudike) and Rosa (Temiloluwa Ami-Williams), respectively— two working-class Nigerians attempting to escape their oppressive financial circumstances by immigrating to Europe. Shot in rich and intimate 16 mm, Eyimofe presents the working class Lagos locale, although steeped in poverty and squalor, with affection and warmth, which doubles the tragedy of the movie’s deeply sympathetic protagonists. Nigerian culture surrounds them in the meals they eat, the idiosyncratic Nigerian English they speak, and the traditional rituals they continue to carry out even as austere capitalism isolates and demoralizes them and crushes the very nexus of hope and wonder that constitutes spirituality. As Mofe and Rosa resolve to leave for a better financial future, they struggle to hold onto their sense of self. Akuwudike and Ami-Williams give unforgettable performances, instilling their characters with heartbreaking resignation and defeat as each successive step towards their goal adds another layer of indignity and prompts further setbacks. Brief glimmers of hope do remain by the end, however, and while Eyimofe may not sound like the most uplifting film, it can’t be said to be cynical or pessimistic, as it’s a celebration of human resilience in addition to an examination of economic systems that incentivize callousness.
Other films with promising descriptions may be less essential, but they have easily accessible and, in some cases, cheaper virtual viewing options. A number of independents will be screened virtually, although some are better than others.
And So I Stayed (Wash. U/Brown, Nov. 14, 1:00 pm, free event) follows several victims of domestic violence who were or currently are incarcerated as a result of killing their abusers. Former inmate Kim Dadou, who shot her partner in self defense, leads the cause for the Domestic Survivors Violence Justice Act, which gives judges discretion in cases involving domestic abuse survivors to impose more lenient sentences. Watching this documentary and reading supplementary materials about domestic violence effectively answers the age-old question, “why didn’t she leave?”. The title And So I Stayed functions as a response to that question, as the ensuing film prevents the likely alternative to staying in end-stage domestic violence situations. Women whose only option in many cases was lethal self-defense escape from their violent home lives but still remain unfree, bound to an antiquated and overly punitive justice system. A lot of the information presented in this documentary will be hard to stomach and infuriating to watch, but it’s necessary viewing for those unfamiliar how the domestic violence situation in the U.S. continues to go woefully unaddressed.
Alien on Stage (Tivoli, Nov. 13, 6:00 pm) tells the intriguing story of a group of bus-drivers from Dorset, England who staged an amateur stage adaptation of Ridley Scott’s Alien. Their production was recognized by few at first, until the small cult following it garnered brought it to the attention of London’s West End. Original fans Danielle Kummer and Lucy Harvey document the troupe’s efforts to perfect the show in time for its big debut. While the personalities involved are endearing and watchable and the low-budget props, sets, and costumes charming to see, the presentation of the documentary feels unfocused and clunky, with not enough attention given to the technical side of the show and a somewhat irritating use of graphics. The stage show is amateurish by design, but that doesn’t mean the documentary has to be, too. Nevertheless, the overall silliness of the endeavor and the accomplishments of these hobbyist thespians will instill in you a vicarious pride in community organizing and creativity.
A Fire Within (Wash. U./Brown, Nov. 13, 7:30 pm, free event) uses interviews, archival footage, and reenactments to tell the story of three Ethiopian women in Atlanta who encounter a Derg general who tortured them, and resolve to sue him in federal court. Although their stories are compelling, there’s a lack of exploration into Ethiopia’s history which makes the movie less informative than it could be. The Red Terror, or the period in Ethiopia where militant Dergs violently repressed competing Marxist political groups in the aftermath of Emperor Haile Selassie’s removal, involved a lot of catastrophic political infighting and shifts of power that the movie brushes over for the sake of simplicity, leaving the background of these women’s stories unnecessarily hazy. Nevertheless, the strength and perseverance of these women and other refugees inspires hope, at the very least, that justice can occasionally prevail.
All Gone Wrong (Tivoli, Nov. 20, 8:00 pm) is a locally shot film, funded partially through kickstarter and co-starring Tony Todd of Candyman fame. Here, Todd plays the kingpin of a rural drug cartel of sorts. Jake Kaufman plays Chris Halvorsen, a rough-edged but dogged and dedicated veteran of the police force. When an undercover drug bust goes awry and kills the rookie he’s taken under his wing, Chris resolves to get to the bottom of the botched deal. In his investigation, he comes across a criminal conspiracy involving his own department. If that sounds like a hundred other drug-crime movies, that’s because it is. It amounts to an indistinct Law and Order episode with incessant talk of busts, set ups, kilos, 10 or 20 G’s, handoffs, setting meets, and other procedural buzz words. However, these stories exist for a reason, as they obviously do something for someone, and Tony Todd will always be eminently watchable. Plus, it’s fun to see all the St. Louis locations. I was agog to see Dave’s Diner, which is within walking distance from my house, being featured as a main location.
You may find it difficult to pin down Beautiful Curse (streaming only), the debut feature of Martin Garde Abildgaard, which is kind of a mixed bag. It features only two characters, Samuel (Mark Strepan) and Stella (Olivia Vinall). Mark, a lonely and introspective photographer, visits an abandoned town where all of the residents have fallen to a sleeping sickness. He stays in the house of Stella and falls in love with her, in an off-kilter analogue to Sleeping Beauty. The story of a sensitive and melancholic if not obsessive man falling in love with an idealized version of a flighty woman in a chilly locale primes itself to be compared, probably unfavorably, to Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind. While this is justified, Strepan and Vinall also make a charming pair, and the exploration of romantic fantasy and projection does feel sincere. Other films undoubtedly have done it better, but the viewing experience was no worse for it.
A number of the best selections, while they will likely see unrestricted distribution, will also be limited to in-person screenings only. Most notable among these is the opening film, Robert Greene’s Procession, which uses reenactment and group therapy in an exploration of trauma in victims of sexual abuse from the Catholic Church. Greene, a renowned filmmaker and professor of documentary journalism at Mizzou, last presented at the festival his masterful exploration of community guilt and economic/ethnic power structures, Bisbee ‘17. Fans of his excellent work will be eager to see his latest. In addition, the new documentary from Bing Liu, a younger director whose debut feature-length documentary, Minding the Gap, won an award at Sundance and an Oscar nom, will be shown. All These Sons follows key mentors in community-led anti-gun violence programs in Chicago as they struggle to successfully amend the situations of at-risk youth. Of course, a number of repertory screenings will also be played. Rats and the People Motion Picture Orchestra will be performing an original score for two masterpieces by Luis Bunuel: Un Chien Andalou and L’Age D’or.
As always, SLIFF brings some of the best to the table, not to mention the flawed but interesting, and the occasional hidden gem that makes a festival exciting. Perhaps the greatest thing to return, in addition to the festival and in-person screenings, generally is The Tivoli, which will be the primary screening location after a long hiatus. As the world of cinema rapidly changes, it’s a relief to see some things stay the same. | Nic Champion
Further information about the 30th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival, including pass and ticket prices and home viewing options, is available from the festival web site.