This year’s Brooklyn Film Festival broke new ground with superb storytelling. And, we couldn’t get enough of it. According to the festival’s Executive Director, Marco Ursino, “BFF featured the largest presence of female directors within a single festival edition to date. I’m also proud to say that four out of our six festival programmers are women and the festival is run mostly by women.” What a refreshing and revitalizing statement from a male festival organizer. Time will tell if other male festival directors will follow suit with domestic and international film festivals in the future. Brooklyn Film Festival’s (BFF) roster of films included 133 features and shorts from over 30 countries spread over six continents. The lineup included 37 world premieres, 29 east coast debuts and 34 first-time screenings in NY. In addition to the 13 narrative features and 10 documentary features, the festival presented 39 short narrative films, 23 short documentaries, 28 animated films and 20 experimental projects.
Documentaries at their core are meant to raise awareness and provide a candid journalistic perspective on subjects completely devoid of mainstream coverage. The documentaries that rose to the occasion in this year’s festival are: Clean Hands and RocKabul.
Clean Hands, directed by Michael Dominic, follows a family in Nicaragua over the span of seven years (2011-2018) living in extreme poverty and relying on a garbage dump, La Chureca (Central America’s largest garbage dump) for food and everyday necessities. When we first meet the 4 children in the Lopez family, they are aged 6 – 10, unable to read and write and depend on each other for companionship and engage in sibling rivalry. They are unaware of a better life, unlike their parents. When they receive an opportunity from a foundation to move into a new home on the condition that the kids go to school, the family seems destined for a bright future until other underlying problems set in. Dominic’s storytelling is raw, and depicts his subjects as they are. The director captures moments that are heart-wrenching in its portrayal of this family and lets audiences experience the highs and lows with them. In the end: you’re rooting for the Lopez family instead of pitying them.
In RocKabul, Australian director/journalist, Travis Beard goes on a journey with the first metal band in Afghanistan: District Unknown. What’s so interesting and compelling about this movie is the universal love for music these subjects exhibit. Whether you love metal or not, you will be immediately drawn in by these subject’s relentless pursuit of their passion for music – a passion that is frowned upon by the conservative and extremist government of Afghanistan. Beard, having lived in Kabul for seven years, and a metal musician as well, injects himself in the documentary as an advocate and mentor for the group. District Uknown’s story is bittersweet as Beard chronicles the band’s discovery of rock music, playing an international festival in India, and capturing Kabul’s underground party scene. The band members face insurmountable threats by the Afghani system and ultimately must make a decision on the future of the band.
Two narrative features that boldly address unconventional themes in their films and were awarded Certificates of Achievement by the Brooklyn Film Festival this year are: #LIKE for Best Producer Award and Only Good Things for Best Original Score Award. Both directed by female filmmakers. These films are true standouts in their own right.
In #LIKE, director Sarah Pirozek begins the story with the aftermath of suicide brought on by cyberbullying and the family members left to pick up the pieces, one year later. In this instance, it’s Rosie’s point-of-view, a teen from Woodstock New York confronted with the harsh reality that the anonymous man whom bullied her younger sister into committing suicide is back on the prowl trolling for new victims online. After getting nowhere with the local police and realizing their lack of interest to prosecute her sister’s assailant, Rosie decides to seek retribution. This is more than a vengeance-thriller film. Pirozek is smart to keep Rosie’s teenage perspective with every action and decision she makes – even if detrimental. We empathize with her situation and revel in the psychological exploration of captor vs. captee.
Only Good Things (Solo cose Belle) by director Kristian Gianfreda is delightful all around. The premise: a popular 16-year old teen starts to question her loyalties and character when a bizarre family moves into her small town of Rimini, Italy. Unwanted and stigmatized by town regulars and her own mother, father, who’s the mayor of the village; Benedetta can’t – in good conscience – follow the pack and mistreat her new neighbors that are quite odd, but familial and loving nonetheless. As Benedetta’s moral compass keeps getting tested, the surprise ending will leave you feeling warm and fuzzy. No wonder this film won the festival’s Achievement of Certificate for Best Original Score Award for composer, Bevano Est.
Two shorts in the documentary and narrative categories that left me smiling and hopeful are One Leg In, One Leg Out and Dunya’s Day.
One Leg In, One Leg Out, won Best Documentary Short at the Brooklyn Film Festival this year. The film is about a transgender female (Iman) sex worker who dreams about becoming a social worker to help her fellow transgender community. Canadian Director Lisa Rideout follows Iman as she seeks out johns on the street and interacts with them on the phone. Iman is skilled at her job, but knows her profession has a limited shelf life. In pursuit of bigger things, she seeks information about a social work program and seriously considers the career change. Rideout aptly lets the audience get to know Iman with no preconceived notions. The film paints the transgender subject in a positive light – especially in the era we are living in, where LGTBQ rights are being stripped away by the U.S. government and attacks against the group have increased exponentially.
Dunya’s Day, a narrative short by writer/director Raed Alsemari pokes fun at Dunya, a well-to-do Saudi Arabian woman who is in the midst of having her college graduation party and is abandoned by her help staff. Who doesn’t want to see entitled people struggle? I suspect just the entitled. Even through her desperate attempts to save her soiree, Dunya still wants to be perceived as “having it together” and a gracious host by her rival affluent friends. It’s comedic timing is spot on. Dunya’s Day is the winner of Sundance’s Short Film Jury Award for International Fiction at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
The Brooklyn Film Festival has been supporting competitive film events since 1998 to drive worldwide attention to Brooklyn as a purveyor of stellar cinema and independent filmmaking. This year the 22nd Brooklyn Film Festival collaborated with several South American film organizations: Proimagenes (Colombia), ChileDocs, IMCINE (Mexico), Universidad del Cine (Buenos Aires, Argentina), Festival Internacional del Cine Buenos Aires (FIDBA), Cinema Tropical and Proyector Film Series to increase Latin American film submissions. I’ll be waiting with bated breath to see what’s in store for 2020. To learn more about the Brooklyn Film Festival, click here.