It’s November, so it must be time for the Saint Louis International Film Festival. As usual, there’s so much to see that it’s hard to know where to begin. This year I’m trying something new by focusing on documentaries, since 1. I really love documentaries (could I be a closet Canadian?), and 2. They often don’t get the attention they deserve. With that in mind, here’s a sneak preview of some of the more intriguing docs playing at the 2018 Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival.
The Galax Old Fiddler’s Convention, which bills itself as the oldest and largest of its kind, attracts musicians and music fans from all over the globe. Julie Simone’s documentary Fiddlin’ (11/03/2018, 7:30 pm., the Stage at KDHX) gives you a good idea why this festival remains so enduringly popular—the on-stage performances, of course, but also the parking lot picking, the friendship and fellowship, the continuity with the musicians who have come before, and the celebration of a distinctly American culture. Fiddlin’ is jam-packed with performances and interviews with musicians young and old as well as organizers and fans, while also working in a lot of information about everything from the history of bluegrass and old-time music to luthier Wayne Henderson’s guitar collection.
It sounds like a fairy tale: a prisoner in a Chinese “re-education through labor” camp hides a plea for help inside a box of Halloween decorations bound for the United States. A woman in Oregon purchases the box at Kmart, finds the letter, and notifies human rights authorities. Leon Lee’s Letter from Masanjia (11/04/2018, 1 pm, Washington University/Brown Auditorium) tells the story of how a simple leap of faith by Sun Yi, a Chinese man imprisoned for his Falun Gong beliefs, set a process in motion that ended with the abolition of the labor camp system in China. Letter from Masanjia is gruesomely explicit about the abuse and torture (depicted with animated sequences) Sun Yi and other prisoners suffered in Masanjia, but also finds hope in the fact that some Chinese are willing to defy their government despite the severe consequences they risk by doing so, and also that international pressure can sometimes make a government change its behavior.
Eugene Richard’s Thy Kingdom Come (11/04/2018, 2:30 pm, Tivoli), the least traditional of the documentaries in this review, offers the stories of the kind of people who usually get overlooked or exploited, including prisoners and ex-cons, the aged, the terminally ill, and trailer park residents, (and of course those categories often overlap). The raw materials used in this 42-minute film were shot for potential use in Terence Malick feature film To the Wonder, but Malick gave Richards permission to shape the materials into a film of his own making as well. Thy Kingdom Come combines fiction—in the form of Javier Bardem playing a priest who initiates conversations with the individuals featured—and fact—in the form of the people he speaks with, and provides a revealing look at people who live on the margins of society.
We may talk about global warming in the United States, but in some countries it’s not just an abstraction. Kiribati, an island nation of about 100,000 people, is one of those places: for them, the consequences of global warming include not just hotter summers and bumper crops of mosquitoes, but the prospect of complete annihilation. Anote’s Ark (11/06/2018, 6 pm, Tivoli), written, directed, and shot by Matthieu Rytz, traces the efforts of Anote Tong, president of Kiribati, to protect the people of his country, while also providing a capsule history of this former British colony and celebrating the beauty of the country and its culture.
Thanks to Mad Men, we’re used to thinking of New York City as the epicenter of advertising in the United States. Well guess what? Draper Daniels, who shared more than a name with Don Draper, was head of the Leo Burnett ad agency in Chicago. After watching The City That Sold America (11/10/2018, 5:30 pm, .ZACK), co-written (with Mary Warlick) and directed by Ky Dickens, you may be inclined to give our neighbor to the north a lot more credit in terms of the development of the advertising business in the United States. Mail order catalogues? The Marlboro Man? Puffed rice? Soap operas? All Chicago innovations, along with more significant social developments like products and advertising directed specifically at the African American market, and the creation of campaigns to encourage now-common health habits like regular toothbrushing and wiping your nose with disposable tissues.
In 1919, four of the brightest stars in the movie business formed United Artists to gain themselves some freedom from the whims of the commercial studios. You’ve no doubt heard of Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, and Mary Pickford, but the fourth founder, Douglas Fairbanks, is less well-known today, largely because he never successfully transitioned to sound films. Clara and Julia Kuperberg’s I, Douglas Fairbanks (11/10/2018, 7:00 pm, Webster University Moore Auditorium; shown on a double bill with The Half Breed, staring Fairbanks) provides a capsule history of Fairbanks’ career, illustrated with a generous selection of clips from his many films. While the device of having Fairbanks (voiced by Peter Facinelli) apparently narrate his own life story wears out its welcome early on, the information provided and the choice selection of footage in this film more than makes up for it.
Father’s Kingdom (11/11/2018, 1:00 pm, Missouri History Museum), directed by Lenny Feinberg, offers an informative look at Father Divine, a religious leader who rose from humble roots (the son of emancipated slaves, he was born in Georgia or Maryland in about 1876) to attract more than a million followers at the height of his popularity. Father Divine was also an important force in civil rights issues like integrated housing and voting rights for African Americans, created businesses and employment agencies, and preached a gospel of self-reliance, mutual support, and celibacy to his followers. He was also a controversial figure—he claimed to be God, there were allegations of child abuse, and the large sums of money which passed through his ministry were not scrupulously accounted for—but he attracted followers from all races, and a small group of people still follow his teachings today.| Sarah Boslaugh