The World Comes to DFF: Dispatches From the 41st Denver Film Festival

On Oct. 5, the Denver Film Society announced the full program for the 44th Denver Film Festival. Running November 3-14, this year’s DFF will be in-person and virtual, with plenty of activities and talks. I’ve been attending DFF since I was in college (back when it was the Starz Denver Film Festival) and covering it since 2014. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be looking back at DFFs past in preparation for festival present. Up next, from Boulder Weekly Vol. 26, No. 12 and Vol. 26, No. 13, dispatches from the 41st Denver Film Festival: “The world comes to DFF” and “The World Comes to DFF: The sequel.”

The 41st Denver Film Festival brings together more than 300 shorts and feature films from Oct. 31–Nov. 11. Sure, there are bound to be some duds in there, but 2018 is a veritable cinematic bumper crop, particularly when you look beyond the borders of the U.S.

None more so than Cold War, a French/Polish love story set in the 1950s and filmed in sumptuous black and white. Advanced tickets to both screenings are already sold out, but if you are looking for one of the best movies you’ll see all year, including an ecstatic dance party set to the thumping beat of “Rock Around the Clock,” then lining up early for any released seats is time well spent.

You shouldn’t have too much trouble getting into The Image Book (Nov. 1 and 4), the latest essay film from French master Jean-Luc Godard. The Image Book is just that: a collection of cinematic images, some abstracted beyond the point of recognition—a scene from F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh becomes a flickering succession of neon greens and blotty blacks. Others he merely toys with: When Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet plunges his saber into Claudius’ chest, Godard inserts the sound of a cock crowing.

These images, most of them from the previous century, belong to the world of celluloid. Godard digitizes them, saturates their colors, and distorts them, making them products of this century. And though Godard perverts the past by immersing it in the present, this perversion is not degradation; it is simply how the passage of time treats images, ideas, thoughts, and words.

Border (Nov. 3 and 5), Sweden’s entry for this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar, is a grim fairy tale set in the modern-day. Tina (Eva Melander) is a Swedish customs agent who can smell “shame, fear, and guilt” on passengers as they disembark from the ferry. Not a typical skill, but Tina is not your typical anything—her physical appearance is your first clue. Viewers beware, Border explores some very dark corners, but it explores these boundaries with an assured hand and captivating storytelling.

In 3 Faces (Nov. 5–6), Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi—still working under a filmmaking ban imposed by the Iranian government in 2010—teams with famed actress Behnaz Jafari to uncover the mystery of an apparent suicide. Though their Homeric quest winds Panahi and Jafari through mountain roads and small villages—some teetering on the edge of existence, while others uphold social ceremonies with unfailing devotion—3 Faces is no murder mystery. Instead, it hangs like a shadow over this story, much in the same way the Iranian government hangs over the work of Panahi and obliteration hangs over these remote villagers. It’s a tough life, but it is life, after all.

Can the same be said of Dogman (Nov. 3), a beautifully shot Italian film about a wiry veterinarian and his hulking thug of a friend? Life is brutal, but Dogman wonders how far that brutality can go before it becomes more beast than man. And, just in case you were concerned, no dogs were harmed in the making of this movie.

Now to the French film, Non-Fiction (Nov. 9 and Nov. 11); it’s a talky movie, possibly the talkiest movie at the festival, but these discussions have the familiarity and warmth of an old cardigan.

Focusing on the publishing industry, Non-Fiction revolves around a half-dozen friends, co-workers, lovers, and adulterers and myriad conversations on literature, social media, love, sex, fidelity, and truth. It all sounds well and good (hell, you might agree with most of it), but writer/director Olivier Assayas cleverly juxtaposes scenes to show how everyday actions undermine beautiful words. Affairs abound, façades are a way of life, and the savvy mine these moments for artistic and capitalistic gains. And the best part, Assayas presents these characters so simply and matter-of-factly that it’s impossible not to find familiarity among this motley crew.

Non-Fiction might not be the sexiest, loudest thing you can see this weekend, but it sticks to the ribs better than most. Plus, it’s pretty funny.

Keeping with the comedic vein, Iceland’s Woman at War (Nov. 8–9) follows Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), a middle-aged choir conductor trying to adopt a little girl from war-torn Ukraine. But Halla also moonlights as an eco-terrorist, and with the Icelandic government hot on her heels, Halla must use all her resources to stay one step ahead of the police, the adoption agency, and her twin sister.

Heartwarming, quirky, humorous, and delightfully playful, Woman at War breaks with filmmaking convention just enough to remind us that the faces we see on screen, and these lives we spy on, are both a product of our world while remaining a construct for our entertainment.

Embodying both, Rafiki (Nov. 9–11), the second film from Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu, is an expressive movie full of vibrant pinks, deep purples, and neon greens; a stark contrast to the lack of warmth offered by the community it depicts.

Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) are two young girls in love, but neither their friends nor their family have any interest in seeing a happy same-sex couple. Not to mention, both are daughters of rival politicians campaigning for votes.

Initially banned in Kenya, Rafiki remains buoyant amid turbulent seas, at home and abroad. Rafiki may not come with a Hollywood ending, but, before we get to that ending, there is the delightful connection between two young girls clearly enjoying their first love.

And then there’s Panic Attack (Nov. 8–10), a grim Polish comedy that opens with a grisly suicide and gets more cringe-worthy from there. Deftly hopscotching between seven intertwining stories, Panic Attack revels in watching someone’s day go to hell in a handbasket. Maybe not for the easily embarrassed, but for those having a particularly bad day, Panic Attack carries a fair amount of catharsis. Or, at the very least, the notion that things could be a lot worse.