It is often said that art imitates life. But considering how much of our current reality resembles a smoldering garbage fire, it’s a good thing the films playing at this year’s Filmfest DC don’t much reflect life. Instead, Filmfest DC presents 80 films from 45 countries that are touching, thoughtful, funny, and sometimes heartbreaking escapes from reality. Now in its 32nd year, this year’s Filmfest has some familiar themes—the Trust No One collection of thrillers and Justice Matters showcase of social justice-oriented films are longtime staples of the festival—but offers some fresh films for those seeking an escape in the theater. Check out the films featured in the Global Rhythms showcase to get your music doc fix (How They Got Over: Gospel Quartets and The Road to Rock and Roll and Mama Africa: Miriam Makeba are standouts, though most of the City Paper staff are quite stoked for the Grace Jones documentary, Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami), while Cine Latino highlights some of the best Latin American films you probably haven’t heard of. Like every year of Filmfest DC, there is something for everyone, whether that be a Turkish crowd-pleaser (Sour Apples), Zeitgeist issue doc (The Cleaners) or, uh, a paranoid experimental sci-fi acid trip (Spectres of the Spectrum). Also, Jurassic Park, which is screening for free, because why not. —Matt Cohen
Mama Africa: Miriam Makeba
Directed by Mika Kaurismäki
South Africa, Germany, Finland
Finnish director Mika Kaurismäki’s 2011 documentary Mama Africa: Miriam Makeba is a conventional, workmanlike film but proves its worth through inspiring footage—from the 1950s up to 2008—of the titular powerful South African singer and activist. Kaurismäki tries to convey Makeba’s life in a largely straightforward manner through interviews and an assortment of concert footage, black-and-white photos, news coverage, and an excerpt from Makeba’s appearance in the 1960 film Come Back, Africa. The movie only includes a bit of her childhood before it jumps to her singing career and early international appearances, followed by her South African ban because she spoke out against apartheid. In the U.S., Makeba’s rise to fame came after Harry Belafonte saw her perform in London. He helped set her up with New York City jazz club gigs and TV show appearances. Makeba’s unique mix of traditional South African melodies and jazz techniques, coupled with her regal onstage presence, demonstrate how she quickly became an international star and pan-African role model. Exiled for 31 years until Nelson Mandela took steps to bring her home, the film shows how Makeba’s life in the U.S.—and later Guinea, Belgium, and back in South Africa—includes some triumph despite oppressive racism and tragedy. Through interviews with her grandchildren, bandmates, ex-husband Hugh Masekela, and others, the film paints a portrait of the compassionate woman who always had food available for starving students, the musician harassed by the FBI due to her marriage to the militant Stokely Carmichael, and the mother with a close relationship with her musically inclined daughter, who tragically died young. Offstage, Makeba spoke out against apartheid at the United Nations. While onstage she prominently noted, “I don’t sing about politics; I sing the truth.” —Steve Kiviat
Mon., April 23, 8 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema; Sat., April 28, 8:15 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema.
The Foreigner’s Home
Directed by Rian Brown and Geoff Pingree
Ask a group of people to define the concept of “home” and you are likely to get a variety of responses. It can be a simple location or a complex set of emotions that tap into the ideas of belonging and acceptance. Author and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison touches on the idea of home in many of her novels, and in a 2006 exhibition she curated at the Louvre. That exhibition, The Foreigner’s Home, is the subject of this documentary that combines footage Morrison’s son Ford shot in Paris more than a decade ago, clips and photos of individuals who Morrison considers to be foreigners, and a 2016 interview filmmakers recorded between Morrison and writer Edwidge Danticat.
Morrison explores the concept of the foreigner by pointing out ways in which individuals can be considered foreign, even if their families have lived in the same place for generations. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, she points out that it was not just the race but the class of residents of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward that caused them to be considered outsiders and therefore ignored by the U.S. government. Civil rights activists and refugees face similar struggles as they fight to claim their space in their homelands.
Morrison’s breakdown of these concepts is fascinating—her cultural criticism is crafted with the characteristic eloquence of her novels. Animated sequences, which break up the narration, distract from her message and feel slightly repetitive. The author is able to sustain her audience’s interest without any cinematic quirks. —Caroline Jones
Thurs., April 26, 6 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema; Sat., April 28, 7 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema.
Directed by Yilmaz Erdogan
FilmfestDC has long specialized in the international crowd-pleaser, and this family epic set during a tumultuous era in Turkey is just that kind of politically aware yet ultimately safe movie. Writer/director Yilmaz Erdogan (who starred in the great Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and directed the biopic The Butterfly’s Dream) stars as the mayor of a rural village and the father of three beautiful daughters, each of whom is courted by a hopeful suitor. Sour Apples starts off as a broad 1970s comedy that depicts villagers as country bumpkins who don’t even know how to use shampoo. But as the characters bump into history—namely, the Turkish coup of 1980—and grow up, the more somber tone makes better use of the strong ensemble cast. The mayor’s attempt to tame the sour apple trees in his orchard is too on-the-nose as metaphors go. Still, by the time the movie reaches the 1990s, it succeeds thanks to a simple yet potent dramatic device: the passage of time. —Pat Padua
Sun., April 22, 3:30 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema; Fri., April 27, 6 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema.
The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful
Directed by Ya-che Yang
Ya-che Yang directed this Taiwanese crime drama about Madame Tang (Kara Wai), who lords over three generations of businesswomen caught in the middle of a hopelessly complicated and violent land-grab. Wai, who starred in the 1981 Shaw Brothers classic My Young Auntie, won Taiwan’s equivalent of an Oscar for her performance as the ruthless matriarch, and continues her late-career resurgence with the kind of role that would have been perfect for Joan Crawford in another time and another place. The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful is wildly inventive but too densely plotted for its vivid central performances to really take hold. Still, the movie features intermittent commentary from a kind of Greek chorus in the form of an elderly female musician, decked in fabulous finery, who sings traditional songs about the family’s misfortune. Richly hued costumes and strange magical interludes contribute to a spectacle that will look great on the big screen, but this convoluted tale of corruption is, in the end, a lush, violent story about inflated real estate values. —Pat Padua
Sat., April 21, 4:30 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema; Sat., April 28, 6:15 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema.
Directed by Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck
The relevance of any tech-oriented documentary can be woefully short-term, given how fast things change these days, but The Cleaners retains its bite four months into the festival circuit. The film premiered at Sundance in January, well before the series of events that landed Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg on Capitol Hill for grillings about how his social media company handles its business. Consider The Cleaners a small but evergreen part of the broader backstory, as it exposes a content-curation mill in Manila where young Filipinos make thousands of split-second decisions about questionable photos and videos each day. Young directors Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck give the film a noirish vibe, as the professional digital censors describe the brutal simplicity of their jobs: Delete. Ignore. Delete. Ignore. It’s not clear which social media giant they ultimately work for, but their immediate employer is a contractor—an arrangement that allows a major corporation some deniability about its effects on anything from political discord to outright genocide. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether the cleaners in the film are clicking away for Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, or whatever, because the lingering impression is that none of Silicon Valley’s giants will ever get things completely right. —Joe Warminsky
Wed., April 25, 8:30 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema; Fri., April 27, 8:30 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema.
How They Got Over: Gospel Quartets and The Road to Rock and Roll
Directed by Robert Clem
Avid readers of Eddie Dean’s music writing for City Paper and other publications will immediately grasp what’s going on in How They Got Over, because the story arc of the mid-20th-century African-American gospel quartets in the film is similar to the path of the contemporaneous hillbilly artists whose stories Dean has preserved. Groups like The Highway Q.C.’s, The Dixie Hummingbirds, and The Soul Stirrers took a high-energy, often guitar-based sound that rose in the Deep South in the ’30s and ’40s and made it a national phenomenon, eventually giving early rock ’n’ roll some of its juice and initiating the secular careers of singers like Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls. As documentaries go, How They Got Over isn’t particularly cinematic, but it draws upon rich archives of 1950s television appearances by many of the groups, and director Robert Clem smartly lets the harmonies linger. For every bland pronouncement by one of the experts in the film, there are at least a couple of minutes of transcendent music. The music itself is still kicking these days—most notably via the Blind Boys of Alabama, who figure prominently in the film—but it’s been at least five decades since it was America’s definitive gospel sound. Clem managed to do interviews with several legends of the circuit before they died in recent years, and their accounts of racism and the rough economics of road life are deeply resonant. —Joe Warminsky
Sun., April 22, 5:30 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema; Mon., April 23, 6 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema.
The Third Murder
Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
Hirokazu Kore-eda is arguably the best Japanese filmmaker working today. He is known for thoughtful, plaintive dramas about life in modern Japan. His recent film, After the Storm, received a theatrical release in the United States, and made many year-end lists. His follow-up is The Third Murder, and while it toured the major film festival circuit last year, it still has not received U.S. distribution. It is fascinating, even thrilling, and yet the lack of domestic interest is hardly a shock.
The Third Murder is a dialogue-heavy drama about a murder trial. Kōji Yakusho plays Misumi, a construction worker who admits to killing his boss. The trial is meant to decide his punishment—the defense wants life in prison, while the prosecutors prefer the death penalty—but Misumi’s changing story calls the basis of the case into question. Kore-eda recreates the same events from multiple viewpoints, recalling Kurosawa’s Rashômon, except here his aim is to undermine faults within Japan’s legal system. This film suggests the truth is fundamentally unknowable, and legal principles have not evolved in hundreds of years to reconcile that problem.
This film is teeming with dialogue, and it unfolds at a languid pace for a thriller. The characters are reserved, with Kore-eda slowly revealing details about their interior lives, but there is undeniable power in watching hardened, cynical lawyers change their minds. —Alan Zilberman
Fri., April 20, 8:30 p.m., AMC Mazza Gallerie; Sun., April 22, 8:15 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema.
Tunu: The Gift
Directed by Jordan Riber
A classic Dickensian story is typically about a young person who leaves the countryside and learns the harsh realities of the city. Tunu: The Gift, a drama from Tanzania with dialogue in Swahili, is about a young person who leaves the city for the harsh realities of the country. It is an interesting reversal, and one that suggests hopeful possibilities for the country’s future, yet the film dwells too much on maudlin pedagogy.
Mashoto is about 20, and he’s hustling on the streets in an unspecified city. His uncle calls, telling him his mother has died, so he returns home. He receives a small inheritance and some land, but it does not take long for him to lose it. The small village is teeming with gangsters and corrupt police officers, so the film follows Mashoto as he comes of age, saves the day, and falls in love.
Director Jordan Riber includes gorgeous jungle imagery, but too often scenes tilt toward maximum poignancy. The cumulative effect is like an after-school special, with Mashoto internalizing one lesson after another. That feeling is only exacerbated by the cloying music, which tells you exactly what you’re supposed to feel at any given moment. Then there is the ponderous voice over, like something out of a Terrence Malick movie, that sounds like it should mean something and amounts to little more than New Age gobbledygook. By the time Mashoto develops some courage and carves a respectable existence for himself, the film will have already loosened its grip. —Alan Zilberman
Fri., April 20, 8 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema; Tues., April 24, 6:30 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema.
Spectres of the Spectrum
Directed by Craig Baldwin
Last week, legendary radio personality Art Bell died. Not everyone knew Art Bell by name, but his influence seeped into so many corners of the cultural Zeitgeist that most are probably familiar with his radio show Coast to Coast AM—or at least the idea of it. The heavily syndicated late-night radio show, which ran from the late ’80s until Bell’s retirement in 2007, featured Bell espousing wild conspiracy theories about the paranormal—alien abductions, ghost stories, etc.—and taking calls from people who allegedly had similar encounters. It’s unfortunate that the most obvious and well-known influence on Bell’s show is probably Alex Jones, who uses his show to spread dangerous and false right-wing propaganda. But the fact is, in the realm of science fiction, Bell has had a huge influence on classic TV shows like The X-Files and Twin Peaks.
Spectres of the Spectrum feels like a kind of filmic collage ripped straight from the radio waves of Coast to Coast AM. Originally released in 2007, Craig Baldwin’s paranoid acid trip of a film combines 16mm footage with vintage found footage—old TV broadcasts, 1950s education and training videos, and various other cinematic ephemera—to tell the story of a telepathic scientist father and daughter who must save the world by traveling through an electromagnetic wormhole to find a secret message hidden in the airwaves of a 1957 broadcast. Baldwin tells this story through excessive voiceover that very much feels like an episode of Coast to Coast AM, but with a trippy, kinetic visual accompaniment. It’s an altogether amusing—albeit exhausting—cinematic experience. —Matt Cohen
Sun., April 22, 4 p.m., National Gallery of Art.
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Twenty-five years ago, a little-seen film about dinosaurs resurrected in the modern age, directed by an unknown talent named Steven Spielberg, had its world premiere at Cleveland Park’s illustrious Uptown Theater. If you managed to miss Jurassic Park when it stomped into theaters in 1993—and no one would blame you, hardly anyone saw or heard about it—good news: Filmfest DC is hosting a free anniversary screening.
Shot on a shoestring budget with a cast of unknown actors, Jurassic Park tells the story of an ambitious capitalist parading as an environmentalist whose team of scientists figures out how to breed dinosaurs through dino DNA found in prehistoric mosquitoes trapped in amber, and creates an entire theme park filled with living, breathing dinosaurs. Naturally, things go straight to hell when a paleontologist, a paleobotanist, a wise-cracking mathematician who specializes in chaos theory, and a lawyer are brought to the park to sign off on it and the dinosaurs break loose. Anyway, some stuff happens, life finds a way, and the movie ends. It’s a shame no one saw this movie upon its release; it would’ve made for an interesting, if not lucrative, franchise. —Matt Cohen
Sat., April 21, 12:30 p.m., AMC Mazza Gallerie.