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Since 1999, the DC Independent Film Festival has presented features, shorts, and documentaries from filmmakers who work outside the corporate and studio channels. But don’t necessarily go looking for the next George Kuchar here. The festival’s programming may take more risks than the area’s art house theaters, and though that sometimes leads to bold narrative choices, it doesn’t always make them the right narrative choices. City Paper sampled a handful of this year’s features, which address timely issues with various, often frustrating, degrees of success. If what’s on screen in this year’s festival doesn’t appeal to you, the DCIFF encourages you to roll your own: The workshop Getting Started in a Media Career (Feb. 17 at 1 p.m. at the Burke Theater at the Naval Heritage Center, 701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW) gives attendees the chance to “speed-date” with emerging filmmakers. And the seminar Building Successful Web Series without Breaking the Bank (Feb. 19 from 1:30-3:30 p.m. at the Carnegie Institution for Science, 1530 P St. NW) may help you craft your own local underground media.
AndoverDirected by Scott Perlman
One of two films in this year’s festival to address cloning (Patient 001 screened on opening night), this sci-fi dramedy asks what might happen if you cloned a loved one after their death. Adam (Jonathan Silverman) is a genetics professor at Andover University, and is happily married to Dawn (Jennifer Finnigan). After she dies in a fire, the cloning project he’s developed for lab mice takes on a new urgency. With the help of a student assistant (Scout Taylor-Compton) who happens to have a crush on him, he tries to recreate his late wife—over and over, with predictably bad results.
This lite hybrid of Vertigo and Re-Animator confronts the ethics of cloning, and casting Silverman resonates with the material, at least to a point: you may remember him trying to prop up a dead body in the 1989 comedy Weekend at Bernie’s. But as Adam grows creepier (his last name is the on-the-nose Slope, as in the slippery one he’s walking), Silverman doesn’t quite manage the Jimmy Stewart-meets-Nicolas Cage intensity needed to fill out a character who’s pretty much a middle-aged frat boy that hasn’t learned that he can’t always get his way. This is the first feature for writer-director Scott Perlman, and you wish he’d taken more of a risk with his controversial topic, but Andover finally comes off like a mildly provocative sci-fi bro comedy.
Feb. 19 at 6:30 p.m. at the Carnegie Institution for Science.
The Astronauts’ BodiesDirected by Alisa Berger
While Andover is ultimately predictable, this flawed German drama can’t be accused of spoon-feeding its audience. The movie follows Michael (Lars Rudolph), an alcoholic single father who gets more volatile after his grown children leave home. Nobody adjusts to the new arrangement very well; his son Anton (Béla Gabor Lenz) can’t get far enough away, and participates in a program simulating space travel, and his daughter Linda (Zita Aretz) gets caught up in a difficult first romance. Meanwhile, Michael spins further out of control.
Rudolph starred in Werckmeister Harmonies, and if writer-direct Alisa Berger’s 76-minute run-time is more efficient than Bela Tarr’s glacially-paced marathons, her approach to filmmaking can be just as elliptical, its fragmented narrative of broken people conveyed in lyrical images that connect Anton’s preparation for space travel with his father’s worsening alienation. Yet the movie spends too much time charting Linda’s ordinary love story, abandoning the visual poetry that is the movie’s strength. Conventional scenes of domestic strife keep The Astronauts’ Bodies safely grounded, but the movie works best when it aims its drama outside the stratosphere. Still, its simulated journey is nevertheless a promising one; remarkably, this is the thesis project for Berger, made for her degree at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne.
Feb.18 at 1 p.m. at the Carnegie Institution for Science.
Born in Deir YassinDirected by Neta Shoshani
Much as director Joshua Oppenheimer faced the perpetrators of Indonesian massacres in his essential The Act of Killing, this 63-minute documentary from director Neta Shoshani confronts Israeli soldiers who took part in the 1948 massacre of the village of Deir Yassin in Palestine. A state mental hospital was built on the site of the carnage, and Shoshani frames the film with the story of a man whose mother was its patient. Given the seemingly eternal conflicts of the region, it’s sadly appropriate that the film’s parallel narratives never quite merge. Interviews with Israeli soldiers who were there provide conflicting accounts, but even those who deny what happened there—or, worse, recall its atrocities with glee—seem irreparably damaged and haunted by the experience. The man whose mother spent the rest of her life in an institution on that blood-soaked site never meets the aging soldiers, which leaves its discord ever unresolved. The film’s final act follows a plea to Israeli courts to have photographs of the massacre released from Defense Ministry archives, but while it’s acknowledged that such photos exist, they remain classified. Born in Deir Yassin is a heartbreaking tale made frustrating by bureaucracy.
Feb. 18 at 5 p.m. at the Carnegie Institution for Science.
Killing DiazDirected by Cameron Fife
Cam (Josh Zuckerman) has had it with his roommate Joe (Adam Brooks), who eats Cam’s food and even borrows his clothes without asking. So Cam kicks out Joe, who sleeps with upstairs neighbor Diaz (Krysta Rodriguez) and tells her that he loves her. But he doesn’t, and when things get complicated, Joe plots with his friends, including creepy Tyler (Max Crumm, who starred in the Broadway revival of Grease), to put an abrupt end to the problem. The first feature from writer-director Cameron Fife, Killing Diaz is adapted from Fife’s one-act play, but with a twist: the movie shifts in and out of drag, the conspirators devising their plot with a campy vigor right out of the underground films of George Kuchar (albeit with much better production values).
This strange narrative conceit almost works. Cinematographer Noel Maitland’s vivid, highly saturated palette casting a garish tone over the proceedings. With much of the cast reprising their roles from the stage production, the actors are fully invested in their evil camaraderie, and Fife lingers on unusual details, such as miniature action figures falling from Diaz’s clothing as she undresses, and an unusual sequence turns a simple beer run into an extended reverie of Sisyphean futility. The script unfortunately loses focus as the plot closes in, but Killing Diaz transcends its post-Tarantino ‘tude for something that at least temporarily puts the underground back into independent film.
Sunday, Feb. 18 at 9 p.m. at the Carnegie Institution for Science.
Million Loves in MeDirected by Sampson Yuen
Katy (John Y) and her abusive mother Mrs. Fong (Koon-Lan Law) are wealthy eccentrics and obsessive consumers: it’s not unusual for them to clear out an entire stock of designer purses in a single shopping trip. But retail therapy can go just so far; Katy is wooed by a waiter who only wants her for her money. The Fongs keep a second apartment in which they hoard hundreds of animals in cages, pets that seem to be the only creatures that truly care for Katy. But when neighbors in their apartment complex grow curious about this mysterious extra room, the Fongs are charged with animal cruelty. Based on an actual case in Hong Kong that echoes the Beales of Grey Gardens, this Canadian-Malaysian production feels like a sanitized feature-length episode of Hoarders shoehorned into a soap opera. Director Sampson Yuen is sympathetic to his characters, and his slick sentimentality is tempered by what seems a scathing critique of consumerism, but the movie both pulls punches (the Fongs’ apartment isn’t that dirty) and favors melodrama and sensationalism over compassion. And while John Y is effective in the role of a woman, the casting seems to add a tabloid veneer to its tragic tale.
Feb. 15 at 7:30 p.m. at the Naval Heritage Center.