2020 has been a year like no other, and it’s not done yet. Still, it’s nice to know that there are a few constants in life, and one of them is that if it’s November, it’s time for the Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF). The 29thedition of SLIFF will be a little different, however: due to the COVID-19 pandemic, everything will be run online. Which is not entirely a bad thing–it’s true that you miss the fun of seeing a film on the big screen in a communal setting, to say nothing of choosing your snacks from the concession stand, but on the plus side you don’t have to deal with weather, parking, getting a babysitter, and in most cases scheduling. Plus, of course, you can go to the bathroom whenever you want without missing anything. Most of the films are available for on-demand screening throughout the run of the festival (Nov. 5-22), while a few will be available for more limited periods of time.
As is the tradition, SLIFF includes a number of free events, which are listed here. These include all the films in The Divided City and Human Rights Spotlight, 17 films in the program Race in America: The Black Experience, six master classes, three special event livestreams, 12 documentary shorts programs, and two family-film shorts programs. Note that some of the free programs, including the master classes and live streams, are only available at scheduled times, unlike most of the films in the festival.
And then there are the films themselves. As a former Chicagoan, Steve James’ City so Real, a five-part, 340-minute documentary series about the city of Chicago, is at the top of my must-see list. James, director of Hoop Dreams, among many other films, began shooting in 2018, after the police shooting of Laquan McDonald, and the documentary includes interviews with people from all over the city. It’s a free program, but the number of people who can access it is limited, so you are advised to place your “order” now if you want to see it. Several other documentaries also focus on city life, including Joseph Puleo’s America’s Last Little Italy: The Hill (yes, that’s “The Hill” in St. Louis), Gianni Berengo Gardin’s Tale of Two Cities (both cities are Venice: one is the old Venice of cafes and markets, the other the Venice overrun by tourists brought by massive cruise ships), and Sabrina Bouarour’s Lights of Baltimore, a free program, which focuses on the war of images in Baltimore following Freddie Gray’s death in 2015. And for a more specific look at life in one city, Minnesota, there’s Deirdre Fishel’s Women in Blue, a free program, which focuses on Janeé Harteau, the first female police chief of Minneapolis, from 2017 to 2020.
If music is more to your taste, there are several documentaries on that subject as well. Zappa, directed by former St. Louisan Alex Winter, draws on archival materials from the Zappa family trust as well as interviews with Zappa’s collaborators and family members. Anne Flatté and Marlon Johnson’s River City Drumbeat, a free program, focuses on an African-American drum corps in the West End of Louisville, Kentucky. The Oratorio, directed by Alex Bayer, Jonathan Mann, & Mary Ann Rothberg, feature Martin Scorsese helping tell the story of the first Italian opera performed in New York City—the year was 1826, and the location St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Little Italy, which was also Scorsese’s childhood church.
Of course, there’s a lot on offer in terms of feature films as well, including a particularly strong lineup of films from outside the U.S. I’m up for anything including Shira Hass, star of Unorthodox and key player in Shtisel, so I’m particularly eager to watch Ruthy Privar’s Asia, which focuses on two Russian immigrants to Israel, a young mother (Alena Yiv) and her daughter (Haas). The Golden Bear-winning There Is No Evil, a German-Iranian production directed by Mohammad Rasoulof, looks at the stories of four military executioners to raise important questions about freedom and morality within a despotic state. Undine, directed by Christian Petzold, is a fairy tale set in Berlin, which gives the legend of the water sprite Undine a modern (and empowering) twist. | Sarah Boslaugh
A complete list of films and events for SLIFF 2020 is available from the festival web site, and films and other programs can be ordered through this web site. Most films can only be viewed in Missouri and Illinois, and some are available for only part of the festival run, General admission tickets are $10, or $8 for Cinema St. Louis members and students with valid ID. A number, and several types of pass are available; further details are available here. Once you begin watching a film, you have access to it for 48 hours (with one exception: The Dark Divide will be available for 8 hours).