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As one of the region’s leading international film festivals, it’s no surprise that its 2017 lineup—another stellar showing of some of the world’s best underseen films—feels like a grand political statement. Indeed, at least one filmmaker scheduled to appear at the festival may not make it because of President Donald Trump’s travel ban. Feras Fayyad, co-director of the documentary Last Men in Aleppo, is trying to travel from Syria.
But here’s the truth: Filmfest DC isn’t doing anything different than it has in past years. It’s always been a festival with a political bent. And, like every year, there’s a healthy crop of films not centered on social and political issues. “The Lighter Side” program features comedies, “Trust No One” offers a collection of thrillers, and “Rhythms On & Off The Screen” includes seven music films.
The highlight of this year’s festival is its “Division & Debate” program, a thought-provoking collection of films that focus on some of the biggest issues of the day—globalization, immigration, government policies, and racial tension. A good film should spark conversation and debate, and these will. The people of D.C. are more ripe than usual for some serious conversation about the current state of affairs. —Matt Cohen
Directed by Joachim Lafosse
The cinematic resemblance is striking: Belgian director and co-writer Joachim Lafosse’s domestic drama After Love is so taut and full of not-always-disguised venom that it feels fresh out of Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s playbook. Bérénice Bejo (who is also in Farhadi’s The Past) and Cédric Kahn play Marie and Boris, a married couple about to divorce. She, coming from wealth, owns the apartment that they share with their young twin daughters. Because he doesn’t have a penny to his name, he takes temporary residence in their den, though he can only see the girls on certain days and must come home after they’ve gone to bed on others. Bejo’s Marie seethes with so much anger that she sometimes hisses her dialogue, putting you on edge and keeping you there, at least until a devastating moment of softening. To watch this family fracture is heartbreaking, but to witness such superb filmmaking is a triumph. —Tricia Olszewski
Fri., April 21, 6:30 p.m., AMC Mazza Gallerie; Fri., April 28, 6:30 p.m., Landmark’s E Street Cinema.
Strangers on the Earth
Directed by Tristan Cook
One way to deal with death—your impending death, or the death of someone you love—is to take a 500-mile walk. That’s the crux of Strangers on the Earth, Tristan Cook’s documentary on the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage across Spain leading to the Cathedral of Santiago de Campostela, and ultimately to the rocky cliffs of the Atlantic coast. Thousands of people make this pilgrimage each year, starting at differing points and taking different routes. Many walk for weeks, if not months. The movie follows renown cellist Dane Johansen, who walks with his giant instrument strapped on his back and gives a free public concert each night. His revelations are as humble as those of more than a dozen other pilgrims who speak in Strangers on the Earth. They walk to celebrate recovery from cancer; look for love; overcome “a sweet tooth” for women; take an affordable vacation; spend time thinking about whether to get a divorce; mourn the death of a sister; work out a beef with God; show devotion to God; and to search for a God. —Alexa Mills
Fri., April 21, 6:30 p.m., Landmark’s E Street Cinema; Sun., April 23, 3 p.m., Landmark’s E Street Cinema; Wed., April 26, 8:30 p.m., Landmark’s E Street Cinema.
Directed by Ivan I. Tverdovsky
Russia, France, Germany
From the opening minutes of Zoology—director Ivan Tverdovsky’s subtle and melancholy melodrama about one woman’s struggle with her own self-acceptance—it’s clear that Natasha is harboring a secret. Her coworkers are merciless and cruel as they talk shit about her behind her back. (At least, that would be the courteous thing. They do it within earshot.) As it turns out, the source of Natasha’s self-confidence deficit is a rare medical deformity: She has a tail. And it doesn’t help that Natasha, soon to be entering middle age, still lives with her overbearing, religious nut mom and her sick cat. Natasha has an awakening when she visits a doctor about getting her tail removed and strikes up a romance with the attractive, young X-ray technician who doesn’t seem to care about her weird medical condition and is attracted to her personality. Tverdovsky keeps things low-key up until the film’s somewhat shocking ending. It’s a quietly charming picture, even if its oddball premise might be a turnoff for casual moviegoers. —Matt Cohen
Sat., April 22, 6:30 p.m., Landmark’s E Street Cinema; Mon., April 24, 9 p.m., AMC’s Mazza Gallerie.
The House on Coco Road
Directed by Damani Baker
“The Grenada I knew didn’t exist anywhere in the media,” filmmaker Damani Baker says during The House on Coco Road. For many who grew up during the Reagan era, the documentary will illuminate an island best known for a brief U.S. military excursion that spawned exactly one war movie: Clint Eastwood’s Heartbreak Ridge. During the ’70s, Baker’s mother became tight with black-power icon Angela Davis, a relationship that eventually led the family to the tiny Caribbean nation in time to see a socialist revolution take hold. Baker links America’s eventual attack to cycles of violence against black people in general, and as he humanizes Grenada’s doomed political heroes, he puts a fresh lens on a pivotal moment of the ’80s. The film also serves as a smaller-bore, more personal companion to recent docs such as The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, Let The Fire Burn, and The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. His story is ultimately told through the eyes of boyhood, and it’s a reminder that movements may collapse, but viewpoints are much harder to spoil. —Joe Warminsky
Sat., April 22, 8:45 p.m., Landmark’s E Street Cinema; Tues., April 25, 6:30 p.m., Landmark’s E Street Cinema.
Directed by Frédéric Schoendoerffer
Fast Convoy is a low-rent version of The Fast and the Furious, minus the fun. It follows several professional criminals as they drive a shipment of hashish from southern Spain through Paris. Only one car has the actual drugs—the others are there to monitor potential police blockades. But they fail at that task, and the car with drugs finds itself at a checkpoint. A shootout ensues, and the criminals try to make sense of the ensuing chaos. The characters all have a chance to chat (the drive to Paris is a long one), yet the dialogue is coarse and banal to a fault. A sun-soaked opening sequence eventually gives way to the midnight blues of a Michael Mann film, and yet the experimental photography cannot coalesce into an inventive chase or action sequence. For a film where most of the characters are pushing 100 MPH, most of Fast Convoy is in neutral. —Alan Zilberman
Sat., April 22, 9 p.m., AMC Mazza Gallerie; Wed., April 26, 9 p.m., AMC Mazza Gallerie.
All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception, and the Spirit of I.F. Stone
Directed by Fred Peabody
Investigative journalist I.F. Stone knew about fake news long before a certain commander-in-chief began crowing about it. Stone’s claim, however, wasn’t self-serving. Untethered to a mainstream news outlet, Stone ran a newsletter from 1953-71, examining government documents himself to tease out what was really going on with any given incident versus what other journalists were telling the public. It’s this legacy that fuels the present-day rogue reporters featured in All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception, and the Spirit of I.F. Stone. Director Fred Peabody includes commentary from the usual suspects, like Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore, and features independent outlets such as Democracy Now! and Young Turks. Heralded as the modern-day Stone is Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, who reams today’s media—regardless of political leanings—as “creating this endless minefield of stupidity.” No administration, not even seemingly clean Barack Obama’s, emerges from this documentary unscathed. —Tricia Olszewski
Sun., April 23, 3:30 p.m., AMC Mazza Gallerie; Tues., April 25, 6:15 p.m., Landmark’s E Street Cinema.
Directed by Lucian Perkins
Tucked away on a dead-end street in Adams Morgan, Joseph’s House is a place of rest and end-of-life care for homeless men and women with terminal AIDS and cancer. In his first full-length documentary, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Lucian Perkins turns his attention to the volunteers, the majority of whom are college students and recent graduates in their early twenties, who learn to care for the dying residents over the course of a year. One young woman, Cameron, enters Joseph’s House unsure of what she wants to do with her life, but she learns to trust and love herself from the residents for whom she cares. Brittney, a volunteer certain she wants to work with HIV positive individuals, finds her faith being tested by stubborn residents who struggle to accept their fates. The interactions between the volunteers and the residents provide the film’s narrative arc, but Perkins’ subtle cinematography is what makes the film so memorable. He captures their deaths, at times focusing on the open mouths and eyes of the recently departed, with dignity. It doesn’t feel exploitative or cheap. Rather, it tells a necessary story about how kindness and compassion benefit the dying and those who care for them. —Caroline Jones
Sun., April 23, 3:30 p.m., Landmark’s E Street Cinema.
Directed by Lutz Gregor
Early in Mali Blues, a stirring and soulful documentary, a poor black musician sits on the edge of a broad river, picking out a blues melody on his guitar. It’s not the Mississippi Delta, but the Niger River on the outskirts of Timbuktu, where jihadists have banned music and driven the city’s musicians out to the country. It’s a fascinating parallel that lingers throughout the film. There is little conflict or drama in Mali Blues. Instead, it’s a pleasing hangout movie in which we chill with some of the country’s finest musicians at a time when their livelihood—and their very reason for living—is threatened. We hear songs about poverty and politics and angry rappers taking on the radicals in verse. The emotional show-stopper is a folk song about genital mutilation sung in front of a group of teary-eyed women, young and old. None of the songs resemble American blues, but they serve the same purpose: to tell the truth and let their singers soar above their pain, if only for a few bars. —Noah Gittell
Sun., April 23, 3:45 p.m., Landmark’s E Street Cinema; Mon., April 24, 8:45 p.m.
Lipstick Under My Burkha
Directed by Alankrita Shrivastava
Hollywood may be lagging on showcasing complex female characters, but Bollywood’s Lipstick Under My Burkha doesn’t shy away from the intricacies of its female characters’ lives. The film follows a multigenerational cast of four loosely connected women in a small Indian town, weaving their stories together with the narration of a romance novel. The language of sexual desire and longing is extended to all of the women’s wishes: for true love, for a fulfilling career, for ownership of their own destinies. As these women struggle with what’s expected of them and attempt to rewrite the fates that have been handed to them, they grow and gain confidence, breathing a little easier with each hard-won scrap of freedom. The tone remains airy and upbeat with some genuinely hilarious sequences, and for a while it seems that each woman has all she desires within the scope of her grasp. The film ends on an optimistic note, but not before each character gets her own sobering reminder of the indignities of womanhood and the futile feeling of trying to defeat them. —Stephanie Rudig
Sun., April 22, 4 p.m., AMC Mazza Gallerie; Sat., April 29, 4:45 p.m., AMC Mazza Gallerie.
Directed by John Jencks
A story about a soused writer is nothing new. But a story about a soused writer who’s sent to investigate a family and concludes that a boy might have fucked a horse? Now that’s novel. The Hippopotamus, based on the novel by multihyphenate Stephen Fry, walks a tightrope between witty and too clever, aimless and too contrived. But in the end, it’s amiable enough. Roger Allam plays Ted Wallace, a Christopher Hitchens-like washed-up poet and freshly fired theater critic who happens to run into his adult goddaughter (Emily Berrington) at a bar. She has leukemia and has been given three weeks to live, but has a proposition for him: Starting with a $25,000 check and a promise of more to come, she wants him to visit the manor of an old friend (a terrible Matthew Modine) to find something involving the miraculous. He’ll know it when he sees it, she assures. Well, the film takes a while to get there, and in the meantime you’re stuck watching Wallace get drunk and spout put-downs such as “the snaggle-toothed myopic hobbit.” Some of it is hilarious; much of it would never escape an actual person’s lips. Like the amateur investigator, you’ll have to suspend disbelief. —Tricia Olszewski
Sun., April 23, 6 p.m., AMC Mazza Gallerie; Sat., April 29, 9 p.m., AMC Mazza Gallerie.
Directed by Alicia Scherson, Cristian Jimenez
Sometimes, it’s OK to let supporting characters be one-dimensional. Yes, it goes against a standard that critics often rail about, but Family Life is proof that there can be exceptions to the rule. Though the Chilean film is about a house-sitter named Martin (Jorge Becker), the film bookends his exploits with unusually in-depth portraits of the family who hired him. There are hints, for example, that the couple’s marriage is troubled and that their young daughter has anger issues. Neither of those problems, however, factor into the main story. The point of the film is itself a bit of a mystery, though it eventually settles on the notion of identity. It doesn’t help that Martin is a jerk, pissing in the family’s garden, wearing the man’s clothes, and knocking all of their books off the shelves. Love—or lust—does come to rescue him, but he makes a mess of that just like he’d made a mess of the living room, and the directors made a mess of this film. —Tricia Olszewski
Sun., April 23, 7:30 p.m., Landmark’s E Street Cinema; Sat., April 29, 9 p.m., Landmark’s E Street Cinema.
Directed by Christophe Barratier
On the heels of the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis, the French bank Société Générale experienced a loss of nearly 5 billion euros and the only alleged culprit, Jérôme Kerviel, was found to have created fraudulent transactions and traded millions more euros than he was authorized to. Thus, an inevitable question: Was Jérôme really acting alone, and even if he was, how could he have traded such huge amounts unnoticed? The film The Outsider supports the notion that bank bigshots encouraged Jérôme (Arthur Dupont) to continue his methods in pursuit of increasingly bigger profits. Jérôme kept a modest salary and took relatively little bonus money, so what might have driven him to commit his crimes? Unfortunately, the film is vague on those details. Jérôme has parents he loves, a flimsy romance with a coworker, and a knockoff Gordon Gecko mentor, but none of these details paint a complete portrait of the man nor give him a compelling motive. Still, The Outsider tightly ratchets up the tension and suspense as Jérôme’s misdeeds inevitably catch up to him. —Stephanie Rudig
Sun., April 23, 8 p.m., Landmark’s E Street Cinema; Fri., April 28, 8:30 p.m., AMC Mazza Gallerie.
To Keep the Light
Directed by Erica Fae
It feels silly to complain that a film set in a lighthouse is overly romanticized, but that’s a big part of the problem with To Keep the Light. Framed as a story of female empowerment, the debut feature from actress Erica Fae too often veers into the stuff of romance novels. Fae plays Abbie, a lightkeeper’s wife in colonial Maine, who is operating the lighthouse while her husband recovers from illness. One day, a handsome foreigner washes up on the rocks. As she nurses him back to health, the two exchange stolen glances and unspoken promises, while a gaggle of townsmen circle her property, seeking to remove her from duty with her husband in extended convalescence. Despite the languid pace and lurid romance, there is much to admire here: effective use of light and shadow, a clever plot twist, and strong attention to historical detail. But the twin aims of titillation and propagation never quite come together in a meaningful way. To Keep the Light has a firm sense of time and place, just not of purpose. —Noah Gittell
Wed., April 26, 8:45 p.m., Landmark’s E Street Cinema; Thurs., April 27, 6:15 p.m., Landmark’s E Street Cinema.
Directed by Ivan Sen
Goldstone probably has more resonance in its native Australia than in the United States, but it’s still an effective thriller. An indigenous detective (Aaron Pedersen) stumbles into a small town to investigate a missing girl. Come to think of it, the word “small” does not do the desolation justice. There are no traffic lights and only a handful of buildings. The detective attracts the attention of the mayor (Jacki Weaver), the local cop (Alex Russell), and the seedy businessman (David Wenham). Director and screenwriter Ivan Sen weaves these characters gracefully, adding a solemn touch to the harsh climate. Goldstone might be an allegory for Australia’s birth—the film overtly deals with white/Aboriginal relations—and uses genre thrills to explore them. There are shootouts and even a car chase, and Sen films them in a deliberate way that only heightens the suspense. The conclusion is practically foregone, but inevitability has its purpose, too. —Alan Zilberman
Thurs., April 27, 6:30 p.m., AMC Mazza Gallerie; Sat., April 29, 8:30 p.m., Landmark’s E Street Cinema.
Two Trains Runnin’
Directed by Sam Pollard
Two Trains Runnin’ tells of two concurrent journeys through the segregated South during the early ’60s. If you have read an American history book, you already know about one of those journeys: Freedom Summer, in which whites and blacks alike rode to Mississippi to register new voters. Other films have been made about this story, and with far more depth and detail. But the second journey chronicled is new. That same summer, several groups of rich, white, blues-obsessed college students traveled to the South to search for two forgotten bluesmen: Skip James and Son House. The juxtaposition, which was surely alluring in the pre-production room, doesn’t serve either story particularly well. Comparing these music nerds to the civil rights activists reflects more poorly on them than they deserve, and the realities of Freedom Summer are drastically underdeveloped. At least the music is good. The film features Lucinda Williams and Buddy Guy performing the work of the old blues masters, as well as previously unseen performances by James himself that will set your soul on fire. —Noah Gittell
Thurs., April 27, 6:30 p.m., Landmark’s E Street Cinema; Fri., April 28, 6:30 p.m., Landmark’s E Street Cinema.
Directed by Sophie Boutros
Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt
“Do you want to sit still like statues?” This is a father’s refrain as he navigates a dramatic pre-wedding weekend with his son, future daughter-in-law’s family, and his frowning wife. The bride is from a small village in Lebanon. The groom is from Syria—a fact concealed from the bride’s mother until he arrives. Solitaire captures what follows on three levels. First: Of all the meetings humans have in their lives, the initial meeting of in-laws is the most awkward. Second: When that meeting is between families of different nationalities, races, or religions, things can get dicier. Third: When one parent has spent two decades nursing a hatred of the other family’s culture, the parties are reduced to a fight for emotional survival. And this is just Solitaire’s starting point. The bride’s mother is mourning her brother, who was killed by a Syrian bomb years earlier. So deep is her grief, she spends her days talking out loud to photos of her brother, which she keeps posted all over the house. And the photos talk back, egging her on as she does everything she can to sabotage her daughter’s engagement. In a delightful cross between Amélie, Volver, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the parties try to make it through weekend. Fortunately, most (but not all) of the characters are able to communicate their feelings better than Sesame Street muppets. They do not sit still like statues, physically or emotionally. —Alexa Mills
Thurs., April 27, 9 p.m., AMC Mazza Gallerie; Fri., April 28, 6:30 p.m., AMC Mazza Gallerie.