In a year where everyone else is figuring out how to make things happen virtually FilmFest919 says “Ain’t nobody got time for that”! North Carolina, being one of the most stringent states when it comes to COVID-19 protocols, caused the folks at 919 to approach things differently than they have in the past. Now I know all film festivals have had to deal with the nightmare that is this pandemic, we’ve been covering some of them, but unlike CIFF and NYFF, who are on their 56th & 58th iteration respectively, FF919 has only been on the scene for three years. Ergo, they are unlikely to have the kind of resources that the other two have but had to deal with 2020 all the same.
Considering the ever changing status of the state there was uncertainty on whether or not the event would even happen… but there was hope and optimism in spades. When the decision to move forward was made the team had 45 days to execute and they knew they’d have trouble developing an online format in such short notice. So, what do you do when theaters are closed and theres only one drive-in theater in the area? You build another! Enter Chapel Hill’s newly constructed dive-in at Carraway Village.
Undoubtedly, Murphy’s law has been in full effect– a worldwide outbreak, global shutdown, Hubie Halloween, & the film industry pushing all its products to the future causing theatre chains to shudder– even so FF919 stays the course by finding a new way to go on. Having built a drive-in for the event, these out-of-the-box thinkers now had two locations to gost screenings over the course of three weekends. After NC loosened its restrictions so theaters could open, the festival managed to get screenings in at their original venue, Silverspot Cinema, but their brand new venue rightfully served as the location for the opening night film One Night in Miami by Regina King, and helped set up the slew of incredible handpicked films from all over the world for the local cinephiles to enjoy.
Let’s go over some of the films that grabbed our attention at the festival.
One Night in Miami
One Night in Miami is a fascinating exploration of some of Americas greatest Black icons. A unique look into the lives of Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke, & Jim Jones as they celebrate the victory of Clay over Sonny Liston. Having been adapted by Kemp Powers from his own stage play, the film does suffer from feeling like it’s hovering in this strange in-between place from film to stage, a fact I worry will turn off many audience members though I wish they wouldn’t seeing as the conversations are beautifully crafted with words we in this time desperately need to hear. A reminder that things aren’t so different than they were back then and a challenge to all who wish to coast by allowing injustice to reign down on the oppressed. The film is beautifully captured by cinematographer Tami Reiker and very well directed by Regina King who makes her feature directorial debut with this film. The only complaint is that I wish I had felt more of a signature from her. In a dialogue heavy film such as this I feel she could have played a bit more with the camera showing us a unique vision. I’m not saying anything was wrong, on the contrary, everything was to the book. I simply hoped for more flare. Our performers were exceptional but the standouts were Leslie Odom Jr. playing Sam Cooke and, in particular, Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X. Their portrayal of the internal conflict within these legends are such that people will be discussing them for some time to come. An absolute must watch, and not only watch but absorb. 7/10
A stunning portrait of a mother’s strength and ingenuity through adversity, Herself does not boast in the complexities of high production but rather in the truth of life– the good, the bad, the pretty and the ugly. It is a special film that manages to elicit a wide range of emotions from it’s audience and tries to say something different about the dog-eat-dog world so many other stories tend to favor. The film opens with an incredibly powerful scene that grabs hold of you immediately. In this tale based on true events we find a mother who is the victim of domestic abuse and who decides she has had enough, wishing to no longer subject herself or her daughters to this. But how does a woman with multiple jobs, barely making ends meet, do to build a life for her family that will keep them from becoming victims once again? She gets creative! Touching from beginning to end with great performances and a killer soundtrack. If you like underdog stories this is one to catch. 6.5/10
MLK/FBI is an incredibly timely documentary from director Sam Pollard that depicts the FBI’s surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. as they attempted to gather information and damning evidence that would bring about the fall of MLK and the Civil Right’s movement along with him. One of the years most interesting docs going over the FBI’s darkest years. In a year riddled with poignant films highlighting the injustice and systemic racism in our country this one stands out as one to catch. 7/10
Uncle Frank is a captivatingly heartwarming film that will likely move you to tears. Beth and her Uncle, whose name you may have summized is Frank, must travel down to South Carolina to attend the funeral of Frank’s extremely conservative father while being followed by the lifelong secret he has kept from his family. The truth of his sexuality in the form of his lover Walid. Paul Bettany and the rest of the cast deliver career high performances and, sadly, not enough people will see them which is especially painful for me because it will likely end up being one of my favorites of the year. It’s a quaint film full of heart that forces you to empathize with Frank and the difficulties he faces as a man from the LGBTQ+ community who feels completely isolated from his family because of their religious and social views. It also patiently unveils the moment in his life that haunts and, ultimately, defines him and his actions. On the other side we have his niece Beth who, confused as she may due to her upbringing, understands only that she loves her uncle unconditionally, a sentiment Walid shares with her. The story comes together very well and is captured beautifully by cinematographer Khalid Mohtaseb. There is a science to cinematography that often gets overlooked. It deals with light, motion, coloring, and the human psyche, among others. The latter helps with our perception of the visuals and our understanding of the space the characters find themselves in. I found myself surprised at how much I admired the camerawork in this small feature. Within it’s simplicity there is great care taken because of the genuine understanding of the craft and the science behind it. The themes alone are well enough reason to add this to your watchlist immediately but make sure you pay close attention to the visuals. They elevate this film past its flaws and make it something truly precious. 8/10
New Order (Nuevo Orden)
New Order is one of the wildest films I’ve ever seen. Honestly, if you don’t think “WTF?!” at least once during this one there’s a good chance you fell asleep. The film comes to us from and centers around a group of people in Mexico as the under appreciated blue collar workers decide they’ve had enough and take to the streets in murderous riots that results in the military needing to intervene and establish a new way of doing things. A new order, if you will. In all honesty, this film really impressed me. It looks great, the performances are exceptional, and it keeps taking unexpected turns I didn’t expect when walking into it. That being said, the film suffers from a deficiency I solemnly can enjoy when it’s all said and done. It lacks hope. Aside from that the film doesn’t seem to have a clear protagonist, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but narratives always benefit from a character the audience can latch on to and this one gives you the illusion of one but it’s a lie. Again, it can be done but it’s a style that needs to be done exceptionally well to stick. On all other accounts though the film thrives, keeping you engaged and entertained thought though you can’t help but notice the all too possible bleak future it paints for its country. One that could too easily be applied to any other country whose leadership lacks moral and ethical backbone. 6.5/10
We have more reviews on the films screened at Film Fest 919 so make sure to keep an eye out!