Situated in beautiful downtown Boulder, the Boulder International Film Festival (BIFF) runs from March 5-8 and attracts roughly 25,000 festivalgoers. The festival covers four venues, 30-plus features, 15 or so short subjects, filmmaker talkbacks, Q&As, musical performances, cooking demonstrations, special events, and lounges around town to take part in.
Under the direction of Robin and Kathy Beeck, BIFF curates its program from thousands of entries as well as a few hand-selected invitees. I had the esteemed pleasure of sitting on this year’s selection committee, but unfortunately, none of the movies I selected for exhibition made the final cut. However, none of the movies I selected were as good as the ones that did make it, and so, justice reigns.
Below is a summary of the movies I have seen and can recommend. The paper I write for, Boulder Weekly, also published a selection of movies worth seeking, and you can find that article here, as well as a write-up from Dave Kirby on Bill Vielehr, BIFF’s board president from the beginning, who recently passed away last October.
More information can be found at biff1.com.
OPENING NIGHT RED CARPET GALA – THE WRECKING CREW
USA, Feature Documentary, 2015, 101 mins
Directed by Denny Tedesco (in person)
Boulder Theatre, 8:00 p.m.
The Wrecking Crew is a documentary that was finished in 2008 (it was withheld from distribution due to music rights), but the filming began long before that. The project is actually 18 years in the making, and it is a love letter from director Denny Tedesco to his father, Tommy Tedesco, a guitar player for The Wrecking Crew and one of the many unsung heroes of the record era.
The Wrecking Crew was a Los Angeles based studio-backing band that helped define the sound of 1960s pop, rock, and R&B. The documentary follows a dozen or so musicians who worked together and made up the core of The Wrecking Crew as they reminisce about the good old days and what they personally brought to the music. These are consummate musicians who didn’t have time to practice because they were too busy cutting gold records.
Despite its rough-around-the-edges style, The Wrecking Crew is a specific look behind the curtain at how the sausage is made, revealing that the singer/songwriters that many cherish were not the only geniuses in the room. We know the writers, the singers, the front men and women, but those in the room contributed just as much and, in some cases, more to those iconic tunes wedged so deeply in our minds.
DAY ONE: FRIDAY, MARCH 6, 2015
Stream of Love
Hungary, Feature Documentary, 2013, 70 mins
Directed by Anges Sós
Boulder Theatre, 10:00 a.m.
Documenting a small Romanian town, Stream of Love interviews the two dozen widows and three widowers, their ages ranging from 75-90, that make up this tiny agrarian town. What do they talk about? Sex, naturally.
Ferenc, one of the few men in the town, cruises the streets in a horse-drawn carriage, calling to the ladies, “Hello, my lovelies!” The women watch and wave to Ferenc, giggling like a bunch of teenagers. Ferenc wonders to the camera, “Why is there desire if the ability is lost?”
Ferenc and the women of the village discuss the many aspects of love, both their fond memories of romantic love and the not-so-fond memories of marital duties that were often forced upon them. For some, sex is strictly a duty, while others find a great deal of excitement and wonder in it.
What led director Ágnes Sós to this village to ask these questions is never addressed, but what is remarkable is how easily and candidly these octogenarians talk in front of a camera. One tells the story of a difficult childbirth, another recounts her moment of sexual discovery (long after her husband passed on), and Fernec gives out seriously considered ideas on the social ramification of sexual positions.
At 70 minutes, Stream of Love is short and sweet, with the lush Romanian countryside providing the best possible backdrop for an easygoing discussion of love.
The Hand That Feeds
USA, Feature Documentary, 2014, 88 mins
Directed by Robin Blotnick and Rachel Lears (Lears in person)
First Presbyterian Church, 10:00 a.m.
Hot & Crusty (a New York City Upper West Side restaurant chain akin to Panera Bread) is the site of the 2012 battle between a group of restaurant investors and their workers—primarily undocumented immigrants—fighting for livable wages.
Embodying the American spirit, these workers risk arrest and deportation in order to form their own legal, independent union and gain much-needed leverage in the workplace. Their battle lasts over a year, including a two-month strike, but what they gain is far more ennobling than the raises they receive.
However, there is a frustrating aspect of The Hand that Feeds, one also felt by the workers, and that Hot & Crusty remains virtually faceless. Hot & Crusty is a chain restaurant owned by multiple investors, who have similar interests in other restaurants around the city, and none of them seem to give the strike, or the worker demands, a moments notice. Only one “owner” makes an appearance, Anthony, but I suspect that he is merely a pawn in the investor’s game. Even he seems helpless when the store does not reopen in time. When the workers do win their battle, a title card delivers the official statement of congratulations, signed by no one other than “the new owners.”
Maybe intentional, possibly accidental, director Rachel Lears exposes the trials that await the conscious worker, and it’s not pretty. Proof that even happy endings aren’t necessarily uplifting.
Imber’s Left Hand
USA, Featured Documentary, 2014, 74 min
Directed by Richard Kane (in person)
First Presbyterian Church, 2:45 p.m.
Painter Jon Imber, a former CU-Boulder student, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 2012—a disease that would eventually claim him on April 17, 2014—but the end of his life was anything but tragic. ALS provided Imber with the adversity and urgency that would motivate and transform his paintings and how he crafted them. Imber admits that ALS provided him “With the kind of freedom that artists literally die for.”
Director Richard Kane follows Imber from diagnosis to death, which came just three days after Imber gave up painting. For the eight months Kane followed Imber, he produced close to 200 paintings, a remarkable output for any artist, with the limitations Imber faced creating surprising solutions to craft and detail each painting.
On the surface, Imber’s Left Hand doesn’t sound like something airy and light, yet it is just that. Imber’s wife, painter Jill Hoy, sums up her husband’s demeanor and the tone of the documentary with one line: “The two most important things are love and laughter, and he’s doing a really good job keeping us laughing.”
DAY TWO: SATURDAY, MARCH 7, 2015
Welcome to Leith
USA, Feature Documentary, 2015, 87 mins
Directed by Michael Nichols and Chris Walker (in person)
First Presbyterian Church, 10:00 a.m.
The town of Leith, North Dakota, is only three square miles, home to 24 residents (children included), and one business. An outsider describes Leith as “the B-roll of The Walking Dead,” but that tiny town is still there and ready to welcome newcomers with open arms. Why not, they could use a new face to look at and some new stories to help pass the time. Plus, a new resident means that they get to dust off all the old jokes for the fresh face. Too bad for Leith that the face they got was Cobb.
Craig Cobb is a notorious White Supremacist who discovered Leith and began buying up land with the goal of taking over the small government and making Leith a haven for Neo-Nazis. Luckily, Cobb’s plan was found out early on, and Leith launched a counter-offensive, one that put the brakes on Cobb’s plan but is still a long way from stopping him completely.
Directors Michael Nichols and Chris Walker gained an impressive amount of access both from the citizens of Leith and the members of the National Socialist Party and string the two together with ominous music to show the wolf already at the door. It’s a haunting look at the terrorists that call America home and the power they can wield.
Czech Republic, Feature Film, 2014, 100 mins
Directed by Andrea Sedlácková
Boulder High School, 12:30 p.m.
The Olympics come every two years, and for two weeks, we meet athletes unfamiliar to us, competing in sports that we never watch, enlisting our attention in ways we never thought possible. It is a large stage, and we fill it with narrative and emotion. However, what happens on that stage doesn’t amount to a hill of beans considering what it took for those athletes to get there.
Fair Play, the Czech Republic’s submission for the 2015 foreign-language Academy Award, is all about that struggle, including all the corners that get cut on the way there.
Anna (Judit Bárdos) is a gifted young sprinter with her sights set on the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, but she needs just a push to help get her in the top ranks. The team doctor prescribes her “vitamins,” and once she starts taking them, she suddenly explodes off the blocks and sets new personal bests. The vitamins also come with a bevy of side effects, one of them rampant body hair, which the young Anna finds most unwanted. Anna wants to keep her femininity intact and compete on her own terms, but a lot of people are riding on her ability to win, and that ability can earn much more than a medal.
Directed by Andrea Sedlácková, Fair Play is a fun peek behind the making of an athlete, even if it does come off as run-of-the-mill. Historically speaking, The Velvet Revolution is just around the corner, which makes the actions taken by the mother, the doctor, and the trainer unnecessary, at least if a win equals freedom. When a win equals sponsorship and records, then those “vitamins” sing on a completely different tune.
DAY THREE: SUNDAY, MARCH 8, 2015
Israel, Feature Film, 2014, 97 mins
Directed by Talya Lavie
Set in a remote Israeli desert base and populated almost entirely of female soldiers between the ages of 18 and 30, Zero Motivation follows the warriors not destined for the front lines but for the filing cabinets. Their duties are secretarial (serving tea and coffee, providing office parties, and documenting the soldier’s approved leave), and they perform these duties with an admirable level of apathy.
Divided into three sections—“The Replacement,” “The Virgin,” and “The Commander”—and revolving primarily around two close friends, Zohar (Dana Ivgy) and Daffi (Nelly Tagar), Zero Motivation finds the universal in the specific. Its greatest strength lies in the relationship between Daffi and Zohar. Two best friends who want to move in completely opposite directions. Daffi hates being in the desert and applies for a transfer to Tel Aviv—which requires special commander training—whereas Zohar’s main aspiration involves beating her Minesweeper high score.
Zero Motivation is writer/director Talya Lavie’s first feature film, and even though it isn’t specifically about gender roles in the Israeli Army, she manages to put a fine point on it, photographing the male soldiers with their semi-automatic rifles slung around their bodies (an excellent phallic symbol if there ever was one), while the girls only get two staple guns to play with. Zero Motivation’s droll depiction of an office space shows that there isn’t much difference between a desert army base and a suburban office building, especially the never-ending battle over the stapler.
Song of the Sea
Ireland/Denmark/Belgium/Luxembourg/France, Feature Animation, 2014, 93 mins
Directed by Tomm Moore
Boulder High School, 10:00 a.m.
Set on an island off the Irish Coast, Song of the Sea follows Saoirse (voiced by Lucy O’Connell), a young girl whose mother disappeared under mysterious circumstances when she was born. The loss has caused Saoirse’s older brother, Ben (David Rawle), to resent her presence while dad (Brendan Gleeson) drowns his loss at the local pub.
Grandma (Fionnula Flanagan) decides to take the two children to the city to raise them, but when Saoirse is removed from the sea, she grows deathly ill, and Ben executes a rescue mission to return Saoirse to the water. The two undertake a long journey that not only binds them together but also uncovers the mystery of their mother and the enchanted island their family inhabits.
Based on Irish folklore and soaked with mythic iconography, Song of the Sea confronts loss and sorrow head-on. Hand-drawn with beautiful watercolor imagery, Song of the Sea is buoyed with childlike wonder as Ben and Saoirse encounter magical creatures—and a slew of adorable seals that will delight many viewers—but it is how writer and director Tomm Moore addresses loss directly that makes Song of the Sea worthwhile for children and adults alike. The loss of a loved one is devastating, but that loss can be confronted with understanding and acceptance, easing the process of moving on.