Festival of Cinema NYC has wrapped its 3rd season – and it was a season replete with films tackling trauma, love, and hope with authenticity. Cinema fanatics from not just Queens (host location), but all over the world were treated to more than 125 films, relentlessly holding audiences’ emotions hostage and settling up well-deserved ransoms at the end of each screening with sensational works of art.
This years’ roster of indie shorts held their own and commanded as much attention as their full-length narrative features and documentary counterparts. The films that merit mention: Red Dress, Red Straps, Keylight, and Coffee and a Donut – brief in presentation, robust with long-lasting, heart-felt and controversial themes that permeated well after their screenings. Red Dress. Red Straps by director Maryam Mohajer follows the story of a young girl in her grandparents’ home in the midst of Iran-Iraq war in 1985. She’s enamored by a pretty pop star’s red dress she sees on television all the while listening to her grandfather’s favorite radio program spouting “Death to America” chants. The child is nonetheless consumed with how the dress her grandmother is making for her will turn out during this upheaval in her life. The whimsical animation touching upon war, coupled with a child’s perception of the world she lives in is bittersweet and enchanting. Red Dress. No Straps was produced in the U.K. and won the Best Animation award from the 11th annual NYC Independent Film Festival. To learn more about Red Dress. Red Straps, click here.
Keylight by director Simon Kay begins with former child star Sarah, (Samantha Strelitz) about to audition when she’s suddenly confronted with what seems like stage fright but turns out to be thoughts of a traumatic incident in her past she’s incapable of letting go. Sarah finds a way to channel this experience to bring forth her best stage performance – but via dark introspective means. Winning the Festival of Cinema NYC’s Best Cinematography Award, Keylight offers a fresh perspective on how people can address past trauma to release cathartic enlightening and rise above it. To learn more about Keylight, click here.
Finally, the last narrative short that resonated with me was Coffee and a Donut by director Cary Patrick Martin. The story is about a young Spanish-speaking immigrant (Memo), whom after hearing a patron request a coffee and a donut at a local diner, perpetually asks for the same order because it’s the only English phrase he’s learned. He suffers in silence as he watches others order mouth-watering pancakes and the like – until he meets a fellow Spanish-speaking customer (Rocio Mendez) that helps him learn English, but not without some hiccups. This short film has resonated with audiences as it explores the universal immigrant experience of adapting to a new country they now call home; it’s sweet, funny and empathetic; a film so vital in today’s current political climate, particularly with the current administration’s animosity towards immigrants. Actress Rocio Mendez received this year’s Festival of Cinema NYC Best Supporting Actress Award. To learn more about Coffee and a Donut, click here.
Documentaries must be given their spotlight too. After all they focus on topics that are rarely covered in mainstream films. This year’s standouts: Over 18: A Documentary About Porn and The Queens. Over 18 by directors Jared Brock and Michelle Brock chronicle the life of Joseph, a 13 year-old boy recovering from a porn addiction since age 9. Shocking? Absolutely. As the film progresses and shares eye-opening data, the more disturbing it becomes. The filmmakers examine the correlation between the Internet and the easy accessibility children have to porn sites with inadequate, limited restrictions; the male porn stars and companies who’ve profited and continue to make money from pornography, the female stars exploited and left to pick up the pieces – post porn work, and most importantly, the devastating effects and consequences porn addiction can have on children and adults. The directors did a fantastic job of interviewing subjects to discuss their roles in porn culture – specifically content, distribution and consumption; and what ultimately needs to change to safeguard children’s accessibility. To learn more about Over 18: A Documentary About Porn, click here.
The Queens documentary introduces audiences to a whirlwind of female impersonators and female illusionists around the country vying for the coveted title of Miss Continental. The national pageant, founded by Jim Flint in 1980, is held annually in Chicago and has preliminary qualifying Miss Continental contests around the country and the world. Forget everything you’ve heard or know about traditional pageants. The true super stars are the contestants in this documentary. Filmmaker Mark Saxenmeyer follows contestants that have invested tens of thousands in becoming Miss Continental; the dance routines they create and practice; the lavish costumes and makeup they spend money on; the perseverance they posses is immeasurable. Saxenmeyer delves into the culture of female impersonators and what’s at stake for them to follow their dreams with grace and integrity. To learn more about The Queens, click here.
In a film festival, more often than not, there’s a film that makes you stop, reflect and ponder for a while what you just saw. For me, this film was: Quest: The Truth Always Rises. Quest, written and directed by Santiago Rizzo, is autobiographical. Rizzo’s character Mills is played by Greg Kasyan. Kasyan (Netflix’s “Daybreak”) portrays a troubled teen in Los Angeles from an abusive home that seems destined for doom with tremendous grit and vulnerability. The teen is a graffiti artist and is talented in his tagging pursuits and expresses interest in school, but lashes out, as he internalizes the consistent physical and verbal abuse his stepfather (Lou Diamond Phillips) bestows on him. There’s a teacher and football coach that takes notice of his behavior and attempts to befriend the youth, albeit with resistance, but ultimately changes his life. The educator played by Dash Mihok (Showtime’s “Ray Donovan”) shows a display of compassion and lack of judgment so admirable and mirrors Rizzo’s true-life mentor, Tim Moellering. Mihok interprets the character with great stoicism and sincerity and the audience can’t help but root for both student and teacher. Receiving Best Feature Narrative at this year’s Festival of Cinema NYC, I can’t recommend this film enough. We need more stories like these to be told and raise awareness of troubled youth, the good these films can do to improve their lives and impact change. I impart Santiago Rizzo’s words from his emotional post-film Q&A: “Trust Your Struggle.” To learn more about Quest: The Truth Always Rises, click here.
Festival of Cinema NYC’s name was recently changed from Kew Gardens Film Festival to promote film submissions globally. The Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment and Governor Andrew Cuomo recently acknowledged the tremendous strides the festival is making to promote filmmakers and their work, and the free programming film panels and workshops events they sponsored in New York City. To learn more about Festival of Cinema NYC, click here.