Binge-viewing the Port Townsend Film Festival
One of the best I've attended in Port Townsend
September 29, 2022
I attended the Port Townsend Film Festival from 2016 to 2019, and wrote reviews of its films that were published in The Port Townsend Leader from 2017-19.
After 2 years of COVID-prompted cancellations, followed by virtual screenings, the Port Townsend Film Festival has returned, under new management, to offer both virtual and in-person screenings for 2022.
So, from Sept. 22 through Sept. 25, I planned to screen 12 feature-length films - eight documentaries and four narratives - plus two short films accompanying two of the feature-length films, all in person.
To fuel me through this movie marathon, I have loaded my backpack with 32 12-ounce soda bottles, 40 Rice Krispies Treats, 40 Welch's Fruit Snacks and an 18-ounce bag of Cap'n Crunch.
Maximum effort. Total coverage.
We're doing this.
Thursday, Day 1
"The Forger" adapts the memoir of Cioma Schönhaus, an artist who lived illegally as a Jew in hiding in Berlin during World War II, and forged identity documents that helped hundreds of German Jews survive.
Tonally, this film could not be further removed from a treatment such as "Schindler's List," since Louis Hofmann plays Cioma, still a fresh-faced twentysomething in the early 1940s who is as motivated by a mischievous schoolboy pride in the cleverness of his own forgeries as he is by his desire for the food ration cards he's paid to forge.
Even after several close calls with authorities, Cioma remains less cautious than his charismatic housemate and fellow Jew-in-hiding Det Kassriel (Jonathan Berlin), but Det uses his connections as a tailor, and with the "market ladies," the same way Cioma uses his ration cards and falsified identities: to score cheap sex and petty conveniences.
Whatever judgments we might pass on Cioma for saving lives for what he admits are selfish reasons are rendered moot when we see nearly everyone around him driven by equal acquisitiveness, including the scolding landlady who sells his deported family's property.
When a society is bankrupt of morals and resources, as Nazi Germany was, everyone becomes a hustler, because they're either cold and hungry, or they're not far removed from it. Nothing works, and no one has enough to make do unless they flout rules that no one else follows anyway.
"Surf Nation" was co-directed by New York Times photo editor Jeremiah Bogert Jr. and Los Angeles Times video journalist Jessica Chen, who chronicled China's efforts to train what its government hoped would become its first generation of Olympic surfers in 2019. Chen was available to answer questions.
Although Chinese and Australian coaches cobbled together an eclectic training regimen out of sources as informal as YouTube videos, the Chinese achievement press remained in force, as government officials exhorted young surfers to win as a means of affirming their country's national pride.
While the documentary draws its frisson from the cultural and attitudinal dichotomy between the disciplined, team-oriented Chinese adults and the relatively freeform, individualistic kids they're trying to mold into Olympic athletes, Chen said "Surf Nation" reflects experiences common to many young athletes as they grow up.
Teenage Alex and twenty-something Lolo find themselves liberated and confined by their favorite sport. Alex appreciates how surfing has exempted him from formal schooling, but he'd prefer to compete against professional surfers, rather than as an Olympian, as the Chinese government intends. Lolo confesses her parents' scorn for her chosen profession, before we see her radiate frustrated contempt toward her boyfriend, as he likewise belittles her choices, but while trying to ride the coattails of her talent.
Chen said the Chinese government never asked her or Bogert to censor anything they'd filmed, but she admitted to moments when their edits exercised discretion on behalf of their young subjects' turbulent emotions.
Friday: Day 2
Butterfly in the Sky
"Butterfly in the Sky" profiles the history of the educational public television series "Reading Rainbow." The film takes care to frame even its minor innovations within their cultural contexts to allow those who didn't grow up with the show to appreciate its significance and influence.
I expected a well-researched, insightful documentary, covering a facet of my Generation X childhood, which co-directors Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb certainly delivered.
I wasn't expecting how this film's opening shot of a white-haired LeVar Burton, sitting in a library, gently turning the pages of the children's book "Amazing Grace," would reduce me to a watery-eyed kid faster than a millennial catching up with Steve Burns from "Blue's Clues."
Even today, television is considered inherently antithetical to literacy, so when "Reading Rainbow" used TV to get kids to read, it was brilliantly subversive for any era, especially as "Butterfly in the Sky" reveals how many publishers initially resisted allowing their books to appear on the PBS show.
Although "Reading Rainbow" soon earned enough acclaim to recruit celebrity readers, "Butterfly in the Sky" shows how its success owed to the empathetic educators who worked with the target audience of culturally diverse kids, to represent all their perspectives.
Burton gave Black kids an idol to identify with, and he was up for anything, including filming on an erupting volcano, while his ever-changing hairstyles and fashions complemented his childlike enthusiasm.
The Pez Outlaw
"The Pez Outlaw" had the audience at my screening constantly chuckling, as it spun an ostensibly real-life "Rashomon" epic out of conflicting testimonials about how one man's obsession with the plastic candy dispensers permanently altered the global market for Pez as a collectible novelty product.
With his raucous cackle and Rip Van Winkle beard, Steve Glew comes across as an improbable character even before confessing he's the reason why cereal box prize contests are limited to one entry per household.
Glew's OCD-driven collecting led him to a toy convention where, like a parody of a noir mystery, a woman wielding a rare Pez dispenser advised him to travel to Slovenia to find more models not available in the U.S.
The international intrigue that spiraled out of Glew buying models of Pez dispensers that were commonplace in Eastern Europe, then reselling them as rarities in America, feels more suited to contraband such as arms or narcotics, except the millions he made earned him the enmity of the candy manufacturer's allegedly petty "Pezident," enough for company employees to confirm for the documentary that Pez had the paranoid Glew under surveillance.
Even the most sober of commenters - from Pez employees and collectors to Glew's partners in crime - can't help but feel slightly off-kilter in this film's succession of dueling talking heads.
The retelling turns somber after Glew's wife, Kathy, is diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, and the "Pezident" inevitably ends Glew's trade, but give Glew credit for making Kathy's wellness his primary priority.
Savage Waters and Avawaves
"Savage Waters" launches from a premise that proves more promising than its execution, as sailboat captain Matt Knight and surfer Andrew Cotton are inspired by a 19th-century treasure hunter's journal to seek out the Savage Islands, a Portuguese archipelago in the North Atlantic Ocean, where the same reefs that have made for dangerous sailing for more than two centuries could also yield impressive waves for surfing.
Like "Surf Nation," "Savage Waters" generates goodwill simply through the quality of its surfing cinematography and the likability of its real-life subjects, as not only Cotton and Knight, but also Knight's wife, Suzanne Hobbs, and their four children - plus Cotton and Knight's mutual friend and multiple record-holding sea swimmer, Ross Edgley - are all acutely aware of the risks involved in this ambitious voyage.
None of these folks are fools. They call off a first attempt at reaching the Savage Islands when confronted with tempest-tossed waters. Knight knows the gravity of sailing into challenging conditions from having lost shipmates at sea. But such is the life they've chosen that Hobbs laughs at recalling how she promised Knight's mom that she wouldn't try to tame him, and his mother's face fell with disappointment.
Amusingly, Knight's vessel escort of Edgleys "Great British Swim" is treated almost as an afterthought, by the time the Knight kids finally ride the waves of the Savage Islands.
Avawaves scored the soundtrack for "Savage Waters," and provided an atmospheric yet minimalist accompanying music video, reminiscent of Dead Can Dance.
Long Line of Ladies and Daughter of a Lost Bird
"Long Line of Ladies," a documentary short film co-directed by Shaandiin Tome and Rayka Zehtabchi, gives audiences a glimpse into the coming-of-age ceremonies of the young women of Northern California's Karuk tribe, through 13-year-old Ahtyirahm "Ahty" Allen, who prepares for her "Ihuk," or flower dance, after experiencing her first period.
"Daughter of a Lost Bird" followed this short film, and illustrates by contrast what the absence of a continuity of respectful, supportive cultural tradition, as Ahty benefited from in "Long Line of Ladies," can do to a young Native American woman, as we're introduced to Kendra Mylnechuk Potter, who was raised with no knowledge of her Lummi heritage.
Kendra was adopted by a loving, upper-middle-class white family because her birth mother, April Newcomb, had yet to recover from years of abuse and addiction. When Kendra and April are reunited as adults on the mend, the fact that April was also an adoptee complicates both women's explorations of what it means to be Native.
Kendra is so dissociated from her true ancestry, she feels secondhand white guilt over the enforced cultural assimilation that U.S. government programs, such as the 1958 Indian Adoption Project, had previously inflicted upon her own people.
A welcome counterpoint to Kendra's sense of being caught between two worlds, without fully belonging to either, is provided by a meeting with Lummi tribal members. One of them assures her, without any ambiguity, that she is one of them, which leads Kendra to apologize for shedding "happy tears."
Saturday: Day 3
"Ferryman," my first purely fictional film of this year's festival, possesses the audacity to subvert its own cryptically grim cold open by turning a soldier's suicide into an opportunity for a romantic meet-cute, cross-fading the contrasting moods so gradually it never results in a tone break.
Ash (Oliver Lee) is a young combat veteran with survivor's guilt and no family left to miss him. Eve (Carli Fish) has loving, concerned parents, but has been diagnosed with an incurable degenerative nerve disease that will inevitably rob her of her ability to care for herself.
The two connect accidentally through an informal assisted suicide network known as "Ferrymen" - after Charon in Greek myth, who ferried the souls of the dead across the river to Hades - but they rediscover such a passion for life in each other's company that they're able to live for the moment.
Except the moment always passes, so even after a whirlwind courtship, complete with heated arguments (depicted perfectly through silent screaming matches, that allow audiences to imagine the characters' words for themselves) followed by equally passionate makeup sessions, Eve is still facing a future of declining health and independence, and Ash has no one and nothing else to live for except for her.
Eve's last visit with her parents captures how hard it can be to firmly say one's final goodbyes to loved ones, and Clint Dyer's opening role, as Ash's war-wounded sergeant who's home from the battlefield, looms large over the film that follows.
The Art of Rebellion
"The Art of Rebellion" makes a multicourse meal out of the creative career and freeform family of LA-based street artist, activist and single mother Lydia Emily, who answered questions after the film's screening alongside director Libby Spears.
We see Lydia secure commissions, from brand-name companies including Gucci, to make murals in public places ranging from Skid Row to an underground tunnel in Oakland, to raise consciousness about issues as serious as sex trafficking, while raising two daughters - one diagnosed autistic, both demonstrated prodigies - who are as outspoken and inquisitive as herself.
As a mom, Lydia strives to accommodate her girls' identities while developing their gifts, but when she's diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an initially promising romance seems to provide her household with a stabilizing co-parent, until his temperament darkens, and he cleans out her resources, leaving her worse off than before.
Lydia told screening audiences that the aftermath of her ill-fated "marriage for love" taught her a whole new set of inventive (and, as she admitted, questionably legal) coping skills, before she praised Libby for understanding her needs, since the director has coped with a long-term illness of her own.
It was heartening not only to see how accepting Lydia has been of all the quirky manifestations of the autism of her daughter Coco (who's since renamed herself Heather), but also to hear how Lydia took care to balance her other daughter Dorothy's need for privacy with the girl's desire to be included in this cinematic portrait of her mother.
Run Woman Run
"Run Woman Run" arms itself commendably with an all-indigenous cast, plus the ghost of real-life First Nations runner and Boston Marathon winner Tom Longboat, to tell the fictional tale of single mom Beck (Dakota Ray Hebert). Beck is still crashing at her dad's place after her mom's death, and she reluctantly starts running to reclaim control over her life, and the respect of her dad, sister and son, after a diabetic blackout.
After watching the documentaries "Long Line of Ladies" and "Daughter of a Lost Bird" honor Native American women, it's perversely refreshing to see "Run Woman Run" cast Native gals as protagonists worth rooting for even when they're aimless, mediocre slobs mired in emotional post-adolescence.
The source of Beck's underlying trauma is identified a bit too tidily, especially since exploring the familial roots of what appears to qualify as clinical depression on her part could have backed up the film's focus on physical fitness with a complementary positive message to care for one's mental health.
Still, any gal who starts her day by double-fisting Boston cream doughnuts for breakfast is my kind of woman, and Beck's running scenes convey the lingering struggle of that middling stage of getting back into shape, when even moving forward with shuffle steps can awaken a painful side-stitch.
Hebert has the talent to carry more prominent leading lady roles, and as a fan of obscure supporting character actors, I appreciated seeing Gary Farmer of "Reservation Dogs," "Smoke Signals" and "Forever Knight."
Sunday: Day 4
"Sam Now" sees virtually lifelong filmmaker Reed Harkness - he started shooting amateur, improvised films when he turned 18, originally starring his seven-years-younger half-brother Sam - finally tackling the real-life mystery at the heart of his otherwise average, middle-class Seattle family: What happened to Sam's mom?
Even after the divorce of Reed's father, Randy, and Sam's mother, Jois, they remained on good terms, as Jois regularly visited Sam and Jared, her other son with Randy, until January 2000, when Jois left. As Reed reveals, Randy and the rest of the Harkness family stepped in with love and support for Sam and Jared, but no one really talked about Jois' disappearance.
While Jared seemed to slump in his mother's absence, Reed remarked that Sam seemed almost "too resilient," so Sam and Reed made films about Sam's superhero alter ego, the Blue Panther, until Reed suggested their next film center on the Blue Panther searching for his mom.
Reed Harkness demonstrates the intuitive skills of a young Orson Welles. Like "The Magnificent Ambersons," the Harkness family's placid exterior belies a number of subtly unresolved issues, and like "Citizen Kane," Jois Harkness leaves behind a narrative puzzle whose solution feels tantalizingly like it's hiding in plain sight.
It's no spoiler to disclose that Sam and Reed find Jois in Southern California, because even after Reed delves into Jois' background, including her own adoptive family in southern Oregon, she remains so enigmatic that it frustrates any impulse we might feel to cast aspersions on her.
Still Working 9 to 5
"Still Working 9 to 5" explores how an occasionally cartoonish office
comedy, that's since become near-universally beloved, began with one of the more "woke" movements of its era, the "9 to 5" National Association of Working Women, and has remained all too relevant with the "gig economy" and #MeToo.
It's fascinating to hear from the film's writers, advisers, leading ladies and snarlingly sexist antagonist (real-life good guy Dabney Coleman) how they carefully constructed a socially conscious sitcom to change people's perspectives by delivering lowbrow laughs.
Even their wardrobes were assembled to highlight the leading trio's respective characters, each representative of a different slice of the female employment experience - married, divorced, widowed, with and without kids - to the point that earlier conceptions of the story included Black and Latina co-leads.
The actresses' signature underlying personalities also helped underscore their characters' differences, as we learn that Lily Tomlin's taste in jokes is a bit finicky.
What's not amusing is to be reminded not only how dire women's workplace conditions and compensations were when "9 to 5" first screened in 1980, but also how many women workers are forced to endure treatment as bad, or worse, in the 21st century, in spite of significant progress on some fronts.
The montage of modern international "9 to 5" musical stage revivals turns sour when Harvey Weinstein, one of the musical's investors and producers, lurches onscreen from archival footage to not-so-humblebrag, "I know that everybody in my company wants to kill me, and they've all bought multiple tickets."
"Shambala," based on Chingiz Aitmatov's 1970 novella "The White Ship," uses the rich wilderness vistas of its on-location filming in Kyrgyzstan to offer an ultimately pessimistic prognosis of how well the country's culture can survive industrialization with its soul intact.
Artur Amanaliev is heartbreakingly adorable as Shambala, a lonely 7-year-old boy who lives in a remote mountain forest with his mystical grandfather and other scattered relatives, because he's just a little kid who wants the same comfort, affection, and sense of safety that all little kids want and are entitled to.
Unfortunately for Shambala's innocence, while he might occupy a rarefied patch of idyllic tranquility, malignant forces from within and outside of his isolated world are converging to disfigure its natural beauty.
Shambala's uncle desecrates sacred area artifacts, descends into stumbling, drunken rages, disciplines the sensitive boy for his impudence, and beats his wife for being barren, while construction rigs tear up the previously untouched landscape, and men with firearms make sport of its wildlife, dismaying the wide-eyed little boy who's been raised on his grandfather's tales of the mythical Mother Deer.
Against the clumsy, lumbering, hammering power of these crude, exploitative, predatory adults, Shambala's young dreams and empathy, and even his grandfather's age-old legends and wisdom, seem as fragile and pristine as the tiny white paper boat that Shambala sends floating down the river, with the hopes that it will reach the sea, where he's been told his long-gone father works as a sailor.
My thanks to the Port Townsend Film Festival, its volunteers and sponsors, and the surrounding community of businesses and residents for treating me to such a welcoming, well-run and worthwhile experience. This might not be my first Port Townsend Film Festival, but it's one of the best I've attended yet.