One of my biggest gripes with the film festival is its "competition" titles that vie for an award for best narrative feature, short, and a gaggle of other nonsensical laurels for a third-rate festival. A gold star from a festival is always a nice piece for a film to add to other appeal, but no one knows who's picking these winners, or even why some films are placed in competition and others aren't. Every year there's at least one title that will not have screened yet at the festival, but it won an award from the jury. That's akin to the juries of Cannes, Sundance, etc. picking their top film with two or three days before all screenings finish. There's no transparency and the awards for this festival are more of an afterthought, a needed piece of the festival circuit to secure its legitimacy.
Philadelphia has not, and never will be, one of the big festivals in the country, let alone the world. Its primary function is to let tens of thousands see wonderful movies from around the world: It's not in the business to establish itself as a film force to be reckoned with as seen by its overall lack of US, North American or world premieres of titles.
On that note, during closing night festivities on Friday the winners were announced with the Danish film "Queen of Hearts" claiming the narrative feature prize and Sundance's top winner, "Clemency," claiming the local feature prize (which has its only showing on Sunday evening).
The Audience Award Winner will be announced a couple of days after the festival ends. Without a doubt, I'm certain that will go to the documentary "Maybe Next Year" about the Philadelphia Eagles Super Bowl-winning season in 2017-18. (Oct. 29 update: "Maybe Next Year" didn't win the Audience Award even after a tie between two titles.)
Talk of winners segues perfectly into what a winning slate of pictures I saw Friday and Saturday: six in all, four of them documentaries. The subjects ran the gamut from Russian business dealings ("Citizen K" and "Red Penguins"), historical drama ("Seberg") and even food ("Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy"). With the exception of "Seberg", I enjoyed them all thoroughly.
Working out of viewing chronology I'll start with the two documentaries about Russia. Both look into the business dealings when free market capitalism replaced communism in the former Soviet Union in the early '90s. Without state support for their Goliath hockey team, the owners of the Pittsburgh Penguins and a stealthy marketing expert invest in building up Russia's hockey scene, changing the team from the CCCP to the titular Red Penguins. The Jerry Springer nature of these initial hockey games under capitalism were a real crowd pleaser and got Russians back into their favorite sport. Even Disney wanted to partner with them for a major marketing initiative. But the Russians leading the team swindled its American investors of over $1 million and all business ties ended... with some fatal consequences.
"Red Penguins" is a humorous documentary taking the candid observations of the investors, the marketer and the Russians involved. What was scarier to me than in the more serious "Citizen K" was the ruthlessness exhibited in Russia as the country developed into a super power again. Mind you, I did laugh a number of times in the film, as intended, but that last 20 minutes really focused on the grim underbelly of Russian business making. The shady dealings of its businessmen and the mafia-style hits showed the darkest side of what can happen wen laws are barely enforced in a country free from income restrictions.
If there's money at play, people will get it through any means necessary.
Such was the case for a group of early-'90s Russian oligarchs, particularly Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the titular subject of "Citizen K". Khodorkovsky created the first bank in Russia and began to eat up the oil sector, much to the chagrin of President Vladimir Putin. He was one of a number of high profile businessmen who controlled some of the biggest enterprises in the country. Putin, a former KGB officer, climbed the national political ranks quickly and his influence to control his opponents was quickly realized. Khodorkovsky was imprisoned in Siberia for over 10 years related to his business operations and fled to London as an exile working to replace the authoritarian rule that Putin has created.
The secrecy surrounding Russia's political affairs and social influence is not anything new to Americans, especially since the 2016 elections (whether you believe the accusations or not). "Citizen K" opens up that window a little more. Something I considered: if Khodorkovsky can be reined in for becoming too wealthy in a capitalist country, why has that not happened in the US? Reports spread so frequently about the biggest companies in the US not paying federal taxes, and before that the banks got paid out for hundreds of billions of dollars after causing an international market plunge. Where is the limit to the greed? Putin had other reasons in mind for why he wanted to jail Khodorkovsky besides his wealth. How do you separate capitalist interests from political gain? Is a capitalist society working too well when it can produce countless billionaires?
But on an extremely light note was "Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy" about the then-95-year-old English woman who has become the Messiah of Mexican cuisine. She broke out into international success in the 1970's with her cookbooks about Mexican cuisine, traveling throughout the country to meet with families and learning their recipes and techniques for authentic Mexican cuisine. Shot in Mexico and largely at her compound in the Mexican woods, Kennedy is a funny, straightforward breath of fresh air. She will just as easily tell a food vendor he uses artificial coloring in his meats as she would to excoriate you for putting garlic in your guacamole. Food was never a hobby to Kennedy, it was her passion and it bonded people together. With the internet, she said, there is no unity. Food is a universal unifying element of societies. It's for parties, celebrations, sad times and good.
Kennedy doesn't hold herself up on a pedestal because she wants to make, and you to eat, delicious food. She is "nothing fancy" as the title indicates: she's Diana Kennedy. At 96, she is still living the best live that she wants and explores whatever and wherever she wants because she can.
Maybe we should all start exploring with as much joy as she exhibits.
It's a particular note that we should all be able to do, especially the characters of a small gem of a film called "Colewell" about a very small, rural Pennsylvania town that will lose its post office in a round of 2011 closures (the town is fictional, but the story of thousands of reported closures was real). Postmaster Nora, played by Karen Allen, runs the local post office out of her house and knows all of the residents by name. They congregate there with their family stories, crochet projects and any other reason to hang around in the office. I never knew a post office facility to be the happening spot in town, but what do I know? For a chunk of the film's 79-minute runtime I was wondering why that was the local "community center" and why there was despair when a packed town hall meeting to discuss the closure seemed like an adequate space to congregate. And it's not like Nora went out with any of these people outside of the office. She admits that she wouldn't even know what to say to them if her sales window was closed. Her only close relationship is with a mail courier and that's just an elaborate hi and bye every morning.
Beyond these issues, it was a very quiet, nuanced film about loneliness. Nora's entire identity is that post office, she even rambles off the zip code, 18311, as if it were a suffix to her name. It's a far cry from the hitch-hiking lifestyle she had in her '20s when she wanted to escape. Now, at 65, she is stuck in a town she has (unfortunately) settled into with an identity she is starting to lose, all because her post office is about to be closed.
Last year I did a feature about a sales clerk who worked at a local post office for over 30 years. He loved his job and he never missed a day of work (he banked up so much sick time he used a year of it before officially starting his retirement). He has served generations of people at that office and some came from different areas just to be helped by him. The well wishes and thank you cards came pouring in when word spread that he was retiring. Always the go-getter, he said it would take time to adjust to not doing the work he loved for years. That is how I felt about Nora, but she has no one for support and potentially retiring early was not something she wanted. All she has is her blue USPS sweater and her dignity.
After that was the film "Seberg", and this was a title I was looking forward to because I have great interest in the story. French-based American actress Jean Seberg was the focus of a top secret FBI COINTELPRO investigation that surveilled any dissident persons, groups, organizations or other establishments whose messages reportedly disrupted the American social fabric. Portrayed by France's own American muse Kristen Stewart, "Seberg" looks at her extramarital affair with a member of the Blank Panthers and the subsequent smear campaign instigated by the FBI saying she was pregnant with his baby. She would eventually lose the baby two days after birth and Seberg killed herself years later at the age of 40 around the anniversary of the baby's death.
During last year's festival I was reading up on the 1971 FBI Office Burglary in Media (about 30 minutes outside downtown Philly) which uncovered the COINTELPRO program. At the time I was working on a state historical marker application to commemorate the national significance of the burglary. In March, the state's historical commission approved my application. In my research I learned Seberg was one of a long list of prominent figures who were the focus of COINTELPRO (counter intelligence program) investigations from the mid-1950's to the early-'70s. Her story was included in my marker application. "Seberg" makes it seem like she was the only person whose life was ruined by the FBI, not elaborating what COINTELPRO was until the end credits and why the FBI was doing what they were doing. The FBI was using the program to harass people and that resulted in only a handful of arrests and convictions. Discrediting a political view was their goal, ruining lives was their lasting effect.
For as serious and grim this story is, it had a Lifetime feel to it. A paranoid woman worried about surveillance has her life destroyed by men, go figure. This story looks like a white savior turn gone awry, and it does. Now I can't say for certain, but I doubt a sympathetic FBI agent would actually help someone they are investigating, not on J. Edgar Hoover's watch. This film just wasn't working for me.
What followed "Seberg" was the surprisingly wonderful "Maybe Next Year". It was probably the first time I've ever seen more members of the general public lineup for a film over Philadelphia Film Society members and badge holders, easily 4:1.
Eagles fans are notorious as being some of the "worst" among all NFL teams. They are loud, extremely confident, not afraid to pelt Santa Claus with snowballs and even drag their team through the mud if they lose a game. I can't include myself in this bunch because I'm not an Eagles fan. Watching "Maybe Next Year" seemed appropriate to see at the festival because it's a Philly film for a Philly crowd. Needless to say, the audience loved it and cheered at every important play in their Super Bowl-winning season as if it were the first time all over again. Because of this, I think it will be the only contender for the festival's Audience Award this year. Without the usual crowd of more "uppity" folks, this true blue collar documentary is easily appealing to the throngs of Eagles fans who came to see it. If its world premiere at the festival on Monday night was just as positive, I'm certain about its award prospect. (Alas, I was way off.)
"Maybe Next Year" is not your NFL Films recap of the season. It's full of life and love as it goes through a brief overview of each game up until the big one. We meet personalities like Eagles' Shirley who will call into a local radio station to sound off emphatically about her favorite team from the kitchen of her home while wearing high heels... before she realizes she has to get ready for work. And then there's the hysterically angry and "negative" Bryant who became a YouTube sensation for his curse-laced tirades against the Eagles. Barry is a retiree who built a new structure on his property that serves as a bar he built for his friends and family to watch the games called the "locker room", and Steve who is a ride-or-die Eagles fan. He admits that he thought football was originally called "get that motherf----r" because that was the phrase he heard most watching games while growing up.
It's easy to get sucked up into the story and personalities of the number one underdog team in the NFL. The Eagles are the biggest source of pride in the Philadelphia area. If I had to guess, it encompasses about 30 percent of each fan's life, making space for family, friends, work and other hobbies. But the Eagles is a powerful symbol for this rough-and-tumble, do-or-die fanbase. After covering the Eagles for 10 consecutive days before, during and after the Super Bowl, I had had my fill of their victory for at least another 50 years. I didn't expect this documentary to delve into the personal stories of the aforementioned fans and what a win means to them. Cheering the birds on is that respite from personal struggles, and yet is that cheering factor they need to get through at the same time. Looking into the personal stories shows more than the rude fans who start fights in the stadium or punch a police horse. I hope this sheds a light to national audiences who our real fans are, they would be surprised.
"Maybe Next Year" was a great end to Saturday. Surrounded by a bunch of fans really added to the theater experience, even for a non-fan like myself. Can't get that on a streaming service through a computer, can you? The film's director is working on a theatrical distribution deal.
The Whistlers: Very Good
The Lodge: Poor
A Hidden Life: Fair/Good
Deerskin: Very Good
Varda By Agnes: Good
Les Misérables: Excellent
It Must Be Heaven: Excellent
The Truth: Good
Paradise Hills: Good
Porno: Very Good
Oh Mercy!: Good
Young Ahmed: Very Good
The Report: Good
I Lost My Body: Excellent
A White, White Day: Fair
By The Grace of God: Fair
The Human Factor: Very Good
Defending Your Life: (not rated)
Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy: Excellent
Citizen K: Very Good
Colewell: Very Good
Red Penguins: Very Good
Maybe Next Year: Very Good