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When the DC Independent Film Festival launched in 1999, the meaning of “indie” in regard to art was still relatively pure. Sixteen years later, the word is slapped onto anything considered “alternative,” or just plain odd. But DCIFF, which runs through March 1, continues in its quest to showcase the top movies produced by emerging filmmakers without studio ties or corporate input—for better or worse. Here, a random sampling from each of the festival’s categories.
Southeast 67 (top) is the local star among the documentaries on the docket, portraying the daily battles kids faced in the quadrant during the years the District became known as the murder capital of the U.S. In 1988, businessman Stewart Bainum became involved in the I Have a Dream Program and promised 67 students at Kramer Junior High School that he would finance their college education if they graduated.
Betsy Cox’s film is part history, part Where Are They Now?—and even at a mere 71 minutes, only partly compelling. Too much of Southeast 67 sinks under documentary clichés: tracking a subject walking slowly, wind in her hair, deep thoughts undoubtedly in her head; Behind the Music-esque arcs of success followed by doom; shots of empty school hallways (a lot of them). Revelations about the paths the “Dreamers” took sometimes mimic the vapidness of people-on-the-street commentary during reports of a tragedy. (What was it like to have a crackhead mom? “It was hard.”) Despite its amateur feel, though, the doc is inherently heartening.
If health and wellness is your thing, you’d be better informed—and more entertained—browsing Wikipedia than watching Sally Pacholok (above), one of DCIFF’s eight features. Based on a true story, the film is about a tenacious but somewhat dim ER nurse who learns about the many ways a B12 deficiency can wreak havoc on a person’s physical and mental well-being. The problem here is that she not only won’t shut up about it, nearly every patient or even random character who pops up throughout the movie suffers from B12 deficiency. It’s mentioned in every scene. If that weren’t irritating enough, Sally regularly pouts as if she’s about 12 years old, and for some reason, all the doctors and medical staff she comes into contact with get bizarrely angry about the subject—like, shun-her-and-go-to-the-union-about-it angry. To be fair, though, there’s one moment that will make you cheer: when she’s forced to sign a gag order promising not to talk about it on duty. This plot point also might not make sense, but character-wise, it’s a step in the right direction.
The shorts program holds more promise, if only because you don’t have to suffer long if they’re, well, let’s say misguided. Top marks for originality go to Bedbugs: A Musical Love Story (above), a funny riff on people’s horrified reactions to news of an infestation. Yes, there’s singing, there’s dancing, and the bugs—portrayed as stuffed toys, one with a Latin accent—teach our heartbroken heroine that she’s lovable just the way she is. Far opposite is the pedestrian My Love Is Real, which tells the story of an affair between a couple who are both committed to others. There’s a hint of a worthwhile concept regarding the survival of love in “real life” versus a passionate part-time interlude, but it’s not explored, leaving the situation one you’ve seen a million times before.
Other shorts, like Birthday Boy and Thicker Than Water, tread in the macabre. The latter is forgettable, but the former will hold your attention if only for its look, with partial animation and colored-in black-and-white footage. First Metro, about a homeless man practicing his panhandling plea, kicks up cynicism at first as he invents a slew of backstories—which makes the guilt you’ll feel at the end a sucker punch. By far the worst of the shorts is We Know, about a young man suffering digestive issues while visiting his girlfriend’s parents for the first time. The characters are pointlessly awkward and clueless (“Is he just washing his hands?” asks the mom when the guy’s in the john for a while), and worse, the girlfriend’s mentally challenged sister delivers what I suppose is supposed to be the punch line. Was the sketch written as such, implying that only someone of underdeveloped intellect would say something honest? Is the point that she’s the only one behaving normally here? There’s not one laugh in this apparent comedy, roping the audience along with the boyfriend in needing some relief.
Story lines lean abstract in the animation selections, none of which run longer than 15 minutes. Brevity doesn’t do any favors for films like the two-minute Bar, which features a watering hole housed in a tree trunk with a few woodland creatures smoking outside. It’s cute, but the gist of the plot is unclear. A far more confounding question mark lingers over the one-minute, 42-second Re-Place, whose description—”Often enough, we only see what we expect to see”—fails to illuminate the meaning behind its wow-worthy animation, with lifelike barren trees and nature barnacled with inky, creepy, claw-y things before a look at Earth from space. If you were expecting to see a story, its summary is rendered false.
Two animated winners are Bear Story (above), a touching tale about brown bear who portrays his family’s fate—and likely licks his wounds—in a wind-up marionette show with a happy ending, and Starlight, which follows a cat as he explores a drive-in theater. Its retro look (and Bogart-esque romance on the drive-in screen) leads to a sense of melancholy as the parking lot empties and the concession building goes dark; with a few laughs mixed in, it’s an overall charmer.
Finally, the single entry in the experimental category is The David Whiting Story—and it’s an apt example of what independent film festivals are for. Generously, it can be called brave. Realistically, a better word is nonsense. But for viewers who crave something different and challenging, it hits the nail: Real people like Mike Wallace and Ayn Rand are portrayed by actors; scenes from a movie and a talk show are repeated with different actors; these actors are interviewed with different identities, etc. Actually, not “etc.,” because it’s almost certain that nothing you’ve seen or experienced will help you telegraph where this is going. Superficially, it’s about the death of the title character. In its layers, it’s about true indie whimsy.