Hot Set: AG Picks for the 2019 New Orleans Film Festival


With well over 200 films to choose from in this year’s New Orleans Film Festival—now entering its third decade!—you might feel overwhelmed by such a bounty of viewing options. The cinephiles of ANTIGRAVITY are here to help. So grab some snacks, silence those phones, refrain from chatter, and enjoy the show.


LOUISIANA FEATURES

MOSSVILLE: WHEN GREAT TREES FALL

Alexander Glustrom’s 2014 directorial debut Big Charity: The Death of America’s Oldest Hospital is essential viewing so far as Katrina-related documentaries are concerned. Recounting the closure of a treasured public institution, the film is an incisive look at the post-flood blend of politics, corruption, and capitalism that reshaped New Orleans into what it is today. While Glustrom’s second documentary leaves city limits, it doesn’t stray far. Taking place in a small Louisiana town outside of Lake Charles, Mossville: When Great Trees Fall (pictured above) tells a story of land and its meaning. The predominantly Black community of Mossville, settled by freed slaves in the 1800s, is utterly decimated when a South African chemical and energy company stakes out the town for a sprawling industrial facility complex. Seeking clarity at a granular level, Mossville follows the saga of Stacey Ryan, the town’s stalwart holdout living amongst the ruins of his hollowed out hometown. But the film also succeeds in widening its scope, visiting communities outside of Johannesburg similarly impacted by living alongside gas and chemical plants. It’s a sad and uncommonly stunning exploration of environmental racism and the adverse effects of industrialization on fenceline communities. Glustrom continues to impress as a skilled documentary filmmaker with a marked sensitivity to injustice and a commitment to its exposure. (Saturday 10/19, Orpheum Theater) —Andru Okun


DOCUMENTARY FEATURES

THE HOTTEST AUGUST

In August of 2017, director Brett Story and her small crew travelled around New York’s five boroughs, interviewing strangers about their daily lives and their visions of the future. The end result is a lovely and unhurried rumination on climate change, capitalism, and apocalypse. Connecting heterogenous narratives while alternating between private moments and collective experiences, the film is an understated and loosely organized chronicle of absurdity, of “living in a time in which we’re knowingly hurrying our own extinction,” as Story recently told Filmmaker Magazine. In producing a politically engaged documentary void of overt messaging, Story creates a valuable space for reflection. Much like her excellent 2016 documentary The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, The Hottest August derives much of its merit from a faithfulness to representational filmmaking and a tactful and sustained engagement with the dire nature of present day America. This may make the film sound like a tremendous bummer, but it’s somehow not. It’s beautiful and highly relatable—a personal favorite of this year’s fest. (Thursday 10/17, New Orleans Advocate; Friday 10/18, CAC) Andru Okun

HUNTING FOR HEDONIA

In the 1950s, Robert Galbraith Heath—a controversial gay conversion therapy pioneer and founder of the Tulane University Department of Psychiatry and Neurology—implanted the first electrodes in the human brain. Despite its controversial and often frankly malicious beginnings, Hunting For Hedonia (directed by Pernille Rose Grønkjær) follows the study of Deep Brain Stimulation and its applications in the treatment of depression, Parkinson’s, and schizophrenia. Promising as it may be, there are still ethical considerations. For instance, what will prevent a future where people are inclined to have potentially popular invasive brain operations that aren’t medically necessary? What will a future, where human beings could inhabit any personality they want, look like? Will enabling anyone with the ability to tap their pleasure centers for dopamine create a Braver New World? Tilda Swinton narrates this thought-provoking doc. (Saturday 10/19 and Tuesday 10/22, Broad Theater)  —Coco Cruse

 

RECORDER: THE MARION STOKES PROJECT

Marion Stokes was a collector of the highest order, a librarian in a love affair with the archival. For 30 years, 24 hours a day, Stokes recorded television on multiple channels, accumulating 70,000 tapes in secret. Starting in 1979, Stokes was prompted by the yellow journalism of the Iran hostage crisis and began continuously recording television news. A lifelong Communist activist, Stokes had a keen interest in how media bias and influence affected her communities. She saw how reporting was not only inconsistent but often outright fraudulent. So began a lifelong preoccupation. Her obsession was not without its pitfalls, however, as it placed a great deal of strain on her personal life. Still, it was a commitment she saw through until the end, passing away while taping a live news report of the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012. Directed by Matt Wolf, with Owen Pallet (Arcade Fire/Final Fantasy) providing a tasteful and transfixing score. (Monday 10/21, New Orleans Advocate) —Coco Cruse

 

A WOMAN’S WORK: THE NFL’S CHEERLEADER PROBLEM

Feminism and football clash in this documentary by producer-director Yu Gu, which recounts the controversial court case of 2014 where two former NFL cheerleaders filed lawsuits against their teams (the Oakland Raiders and Buffalo Bills) for wage theft. The two cheerleaders describe their lives behind the pom poms, which included below minimum wage pay and forced “volunteerism” for various community activities, with zero compensation for gas and other expenses. The film does an excellent job exploring the history of the NFL cheer league in general, giving us perspectives on both sides of the argument. Yu interviews the older generation of dancers, who argue cheering for the NFL is a “privilege,” despite the lack of wages—a fantasy these women were led to believe for the past 50 years. What is so honorable about the film is Yu’s two subjects, who do not take on a victim narrative. Instead, they are emboldened women working hard for a change in times of adversity—not just for the sake of themselves and their families, but for the future of women overall. (Saturday 10/19 and Wednesday 10/23, New Orleans Advocate) —Jacqueline Davis

WHY CAN’T I BE ME? AROUND YOU

Filmmaker Harrod Blank needed van repairs, so he was referred to a brilliant mechanic, Rusty Tidenberg. A non-binary trans woman, Tidenberg may not look or act like the typical conception of an automotive mechanic, but she knows her stuff. She’s also learning more every day about the trials and tribulations of being an outlier in the hypermasculine world of hot rods. After 53 years in the closet, she is overjoyed and relieved to be living her best life, opinions of others be damned. While transition is isolating, she finds community in other Albuquerque trans people and searches for love. High heels and her copper motorcycle in tow, Tidenberg is ready to take on the world in this very personal portrait of individuality and self discovery. Bonus points given for the oft neglected intersex representation. (Monday 10/21, Broad Theater; Wednesday 10/23, CAC) —Coco Cruse


NARRATIVE FEATURES

JEZEBEL

Director Numa Perrier’s semi-autobiographical tale is set in the late ‘90s. 19-year-old Tiffany finds herself and sexuality in Sin City. The Las Vegas studio apartment she shares with three siblings and her sister’s unemployed boyfriend is brimming with conflict and desperation. In an attempt to help make ends meet, Tiffany’s older sister introduces her to the world of online sex work. Tiffany and her sister have a complex bond; in the midst of poverty and maternal loss they balance the weight of mothering and maintaining their household with all of its inhabitants. By exploiting their sexuality, the two sisters often use the fantasies they create for clients as a reprieve from real life circumstances. Racism and macho male clients are strong subjects in Tiffany’s crash course in adulthood. The silver lining of this film is the beauty and resilience of sisterhood. (Sunday 10/20, Broad Theater) —Jamilla H. Webb

A GREAT LAMP

This experimental narrative film from director Saad Qureshi takes a quiet, curious look at a day in the life of three 20-somethings navigating grief, shame, loneliness, and friendship. A gentle, impromptu companionship emerges between Howie and Max, through the alchemy of their respective suffering. The pair amble around town, slowly revealing to one another the tools through which they make sense of their realities while waiting for a rocket launch. Gene grapples with his feverish shame in keeping a secret from his dad. Well-suited for anyone who’s trying to name their ghosts and looking for suggestions. Shot in black and white, featuring occasional scribbling animation, some crackly audio, and a touch of magical realism, A Great Lamp is a float-along walking film, sometimes fun, often heart-tugging, and raw and tender the whole way through. (Friday 10/18, New Orleans Advocate) —Elizabeth G.

LOVE CUTS (REŽI)

Following the spate of European “young woman in a world of shit but handling it” cinema, Love Cuts treads a lighter path while making a pun of its name: in that, cut it does not. At least, not when it doesn’t have to. Each scene, like the characters within them, is a singular self-contained unit—a description certainly befitting our hotheaded protagonist Aja, who for the entire opening of the movie seems to be trying to outpace the camera. Her brisk 70 minute saga leaves little room for ambience or dillydallying: when we need to see what she sees, the camera simply moves in front, then back again to frame her reaction (ranging in any given moment from pissed to scared shitless to smitten). And here in Belgrade, the rules are different. When hoodlums shank you, you don’t go to the hospital—you go see a vet who may or may not have the hots for your friend. You don’t call the cops; you call the neighborhood cavalry to dispense street justice. Bad deeds are done for the sake of good deeds which then, in wry comic fashion, lead to worse deeds. But there’s something philosophic to the telling: Aja’s wounding forces her to slow down, to allow the audience a chance to get to know her, to share her joys, her hopes, her pain. Ultimately, director Kosta Djordjevic’s story is about the soft side of hard people. (Thursday 10/17 and Wednesday 10/23, New Orleans Advocate) —Derek

PIG HAG

Pig Hag (directed by Colby Holt and Sam Probst) is an outspoken film that exposes the savagery of modern dating for the subgenre of women who do not meet the L.A. standard of beauty. Jodie, a 36-year-old travel nurse, must grapple with her fear of forever being alone, someday becoming “someone’s weird aunt.” The film focuses on Jodie’s experience with Dustin, a fellow Guns ‘N Roses fan who she meets after the concert. They spend the evening together, sharing tall boys and later their bodies. To no one’s surprise, Dustin ghosts Jodie the next day, leading her into emotional turmoil, trying to make sense of where she went wrong by replaying their short-lived time together—executed nicely through nonlinear editing. Though at times a bit disorienting, this device serves the narrative of the film well, offering a POV of Jodie’s memory—one that is filled with painful, yearning recollections of Dustin. Pig Hag will oddly have you laughing at Jodie, even in her most despairing moments. These vulnerabilities ultimately make Pig Hag a riveting film that will have you both smiling and cringing. (Monday 10/21 and Wednesday 10/23, CAC) —Jacqueline Davis

 

ROMANCE ANALYST

Romance Analyst is a swirling, playful dive into codependent friendship. Writer and director Rachel Wortell depicts the close-knit friendship of Felicia, a struggling filmmaker in need of stability; and Max, her best friend who’s constantly at her side trying to help. Towards the beginning, when Felicia admits she’s ready to get back into therapy, Max connects her with an acquaintance of his. As the film progresses, so does the extent of the entanglement of these three codependent individuals. Felicia and Max have natural onscreen chemistry, and the banter between them is seamless. Their characters seem wholly uninterested in becoming more independent, and instead intertwine their lives further, with cinematic choices to mirror that decision. The film dips into surreal vignettes of clothes-switching and dance routines that blur the lines between characters, intentionally skewing our understanding of the narrative, culminating in a meta-conclusion. (Saturday 10/19 and Wednesday 10/23, New Orleans Advocate) —Marisa Clogher

STRAIGHT UP

In his feature length film that he wrote, directed, and starred in, James Sweeney’s Straight Up provides nuance to the concept of soulmates. Todd, a man struggling to figure out the complexities of both his OCD and his sexuality, finds himself fitting seamlessly into Rory, a woman who matches his quick-witted neuroses. The two of them are off-kilter in complementary ways, and they brave the confusion that surrounds their unconventional, sexless relationship. The film is a romantic comedy skewed, where both characters are figuring out how to define romance for themselves. The two characters spend a lot of time spouting their intellectual musings on both the world and relationships, but the film is strongest when their action—or inaction—gives insight into what they truly want. The quick, angular shots match the internal compulsions of the main characters, while the dialogue piles on quickly to create a similar anxiety in viewers. (Saturday 10/19, CAC) —Marisa Clogher

TEST PATTERN

Tackling America’s faulty health care system and how it treats victims of rape, director Shatara Michelle Ford’s first feature film focuses on an interracial couple dealing with the aftermath of a sexual assualt. The couple travels from hospital to hospital in Austin, Texas, in search of a rape kit as tensions build between them. In between the couple’s visits to various waiting rooms—doctors and nurses continuously turning them away—Ford shows us intimate moments of the couple first getting to know each other. These scenes recall the early work of Terrence Malick, and makes the devastation of the latter events even more tragic. What makes it all work is that Ford is able to juxtapose beautiful scenes with the horror of the assault itself and the aftermath portrayed harrowingly by actress Brittany S. Hall. (Friday 10/18, CAC; Monday 10/21, New Orleans Advocate) —Brandon Lattimore

 

THE WORLD IS FULL OF SECRETS

The voice of the narrator, worn by grief and time, sets up this sequence of events: a group of teenagers trying to outscare one another during a sleepover, culminating in some unspeakable horror not recounted since. As the girls commence their respective tales of bloodlettings, burnings, and black magic, rather than Are You Afraid of the Dark? style reenactments, director Graham Swon opts for long spoken passages, daringly delivered in unbroken takes and interwoven with atmospheric dissolves, forensic close-ups, and an ominous, warbly score. But the movie’s greatest capability comes in a late arrival with Rebecca, the friend with the older brother, world-wise, and who in her red choker looks like she could have stepped right out of The Craft. She acts as a shot of adrenaline, upping the ante at a time when the narrative might otherwise stall out. You have to give yourself over to The World is Full of Secrets, because the feeling it ultimately leaves you with (long after), as described at the beginning, is truly “hard to put in words.” (Sunday 10/19, Broad Theater) —Derek


DOCUMENTARY SHORTS

DEBORAH HARRY DOES NOT LIKE INTERVIEWS

This compilation of grainy archival footage is a glance into the nauseating interactions Blondie singer Deborah Harry has had to endure with the press. Her interviewers typically write the singer off as a former Playboy Bunny pinup, obsessing over her sex symbol status rather than her musical craft. While people might see one or two interviews with a star, it is rare that they will binge watch them. By compiling many interviews and tactfully splicing them together, director Meghan Fredrich shows the repetitive, mechanical process typical of celebrity interviews. Harry answers the same monotonous hyper-sexualized questions again and again. But after years of mindless repetition, she begins to take control of her interviews—with the assistance of a stuffed animal. (Saturday 10/19, CAC; Tuesday 10/22, Broad Theater) —William Archambeault

HAVANA, FROM ON HIGH

Since the 1960 American-sanctioned embargo against Cuba, trade restrictions have forced Cubans to repurpose everyday utilities. The same can be said for housing. Havana, From on High (directed by Pedro Ruiz) looks at how housing shortages in Havana have pushed residents into makeshift homes on the rooftops of buildings. Through interviews we are given glimpses into the lives of these rooftop people. Reynol, who has lived 40 years on the rooftops, muses over his existence above the streets of Havana. “Sometimes I feel like I’m living between two worlds; when I compare the earth and sky, I’m somewhere on the border.” The cinematography lends itself generously to Havana’s crumbling skyline, the vastness of Cuba’s capital shown repeatedly in the golden hours as the sun hangs low in the sky. Havana, From on High examines the fundamental values of life for marginalized Cubans living in dilapidated environments, and how the human spirit can attain joy without the reliance of economic wealth. (Thursday 10/17 and Tuesday 10/22, CAC) —Nathan Tucker

SUSTAINED OUTRAGE

Since 2004, over 1,800 U.S. newspapers have closed. The 25 largest newspaper chains now own one-third of all newspapers. As these numbers continue to become more drastic, Sustained Outrage (directed by Gabriela Cavanagh) illustrates the vital role that independent newspapers play in pursuing difficult stories possibly not favored by corporate entities. A profile of the Charleston Gazette-Mail shows firsthand the power of independent journalism and the dangerous concerns of shifting media climates. In April 2017, the family-owned newspaper received a Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for its coverage of the opioid epidemic in West Virginia. The recognition came after over a decade-and-a-half of its coverage of prescription drug use in the region. Only nine months after receiving the Pulitzer Prize, the staff panic when the paper announces bankruptcy. Reporters’ concerns heighten as a large corporate chain bids to take over the paper. They fear that they will no longer have the freedom to pursue the hard-hitting investigative work that has defined the Gazette-Mail for over a century. As one reporter explains, they work for the readers, not the publishers. (Sunday 10/20 and Tuesday 10/22, CAC) —William Archambeault

 

MADE IN PALESTINE

Set in the city of Hebron, Made In Palestine (directed by Mariam Dwedar) is a snapshot of cultural preservation in the face of occupation. As the West Bank’s largest city, Hebron is unique in that it is the only city in Palestine with Israeli settlers living inside of it. Barbed wire fences, military checkpoints, and Israeli Defense Force soldiers are routine for the Palestinian residents of the city. Against the odds, Hirbawi Textile prevails, the last factory in Palestine producing keffiyehs, the distinctive scarves that have served as symbols of national pride for the country since the 1930s. Inside the factory, the film documents the scarves’ manufacture and the voices of the workers on the significance of their labor. A worthwhile short film on a special heritage. (Friday 10/18, CC; Wednesday 10/23 New Orleans Advocate) —Andru Okun


LOUISIANA SHORTS

ALL ON A MARDI GRAS DAY: BIG CHIEF DEMOND OF THE YOUNG SEMINOLE HUNTERS

This short (not to be confused with a similarly titled All on a Mardi Gras Day) shines a light on the modern struggles of Mardi Gras Indians. The 22 minute documentary (directed by Michal Pietrzyk) follows Big Chief Demond as he prepares his suit for Mardi Gras Day. As he sews, Demond speaks bluntly about the current state of New Orleans. He leads the Young Seminole Hunters out of the Ninth Ward, where he was born and raised. Gentrification has dispersed his community-oriented tribe. Faced with the choice of affording to mask or stay in the Ninth Ward, Demond had to move out of the city. On Mardi Gras Day, the Indians ride from Chalmette to their native Ninth Ward in a U-Haul van. Demond explains that Indians and masking helped lead him away from a risky life involved with drugs. As economic issues disperse neighborhood tribes, one must wonder if today’s youths will be presented with the same opportunities that Demond had. While Mardi Gras Indians have been a beloved subject for decades, this short provides an insightful view into what it means to be a Big Chief surviving in today’s New Orleans. (Friday 10/18 and Monday 10/21, Broad Theater) —William Archambeault

BEIRUT ON THE BAYOU

Based on the novel under the same title, Beirut on the Bayou showcases a brief and beautiful narrative, intertwining Lebanese author Raif Shwayri’s family history with Lebanese culture as a whole, with special emphasis on Lebanese Cajuns and how they came to be an integral part of Bayou culture. Director and producer Brent Joseph features Raif Shwayri in the film, tracing the history of Alfred Nicola, Shwayri’s grandfather, who escaped from the Ottoman Empire in Beirut, Lebanon. A generous and self-sacrificing man, Nicola made a life for himself and his family in New Orleans, later peddling down Bayou Lafourche, where he befriended the surrounding communities, earning the nickname Sweet Papa. In addition to interviews, the film uses visually compelling images to follow the narrated history, playing both Arabic and Cajun music, which ties the story together perfectly: two very different yet merging cultures, working together in harmony. (Sunday 10/20 and Tuesday 10/22, CAC) —Jacqueline Davis

KATIE AND THE BLACK ROBIN HOOD

As an investigator for the Office of the Federal Public Defender in New Orleans, Katie Carter films interviews with clients to show to judges during the sentencing process. Focusing on the case of Christopher Simms, a man who robbed multiple banks and gave the money away to strangers, Katie and The Black Robin Hood calls into question the moral validity of the entire criminal justice system. Through Carter’s investigatory work, the complex life of Simms is unravelled, revealing a history of neglect and abuse at the hands of the system from an early age. Also included within the film’s narrative is a candid interrogation of reform and if such a goal is even possible, an important conversation spearheaded by Simms. Directors Alessandra Giordano and John Richie did a terrific job with this short film, providing an interesting glimpse into an indisputably broken system and a determined attempt to create change within it. (Saturday 10/19 and Tuesday 10/22, CAC) —Andru Okun


NARRATIVE SHORTS

THE BLUE CAPE (LA CAPA AZUL) 

It’s been two years since Hurricane Maria ravaged the island of Puerto Rico. Director Alejandra López takes viewers’ breath away using remnants of the natural disaster as her backdrop. Echoes of fallen trees, a sea of blue tarp, and the 4,500 plus individuals who lost their lives are the protagonists in the film, along with one special little boy. Junior has been sent on a mission by his mother to obtain life-saving medication for his ailing grandfather. His superpowers are his youthful hope and imagination, which transform a discarded piece of tarp into a superhero’s cape. Scarcity is his archrival as he courageously navigates treacherous terrain. Junior’s quest is an emotional one for sure. (screened prior to Havana, From on High: Thursday 10/17 and Tuesday 10/22, CAC) —Jamilla H. Webb


EXPERIMENTAL SHORTS

BLACK COMPOSERS TRILOGY PART 1: A QUALITY OF LIGHT

A Quality of Light is the first in a trilogy of works that focus on Black women artists and desire. In this experimental short, filmmaker Madeleine Hunt-ehrlich uses an actress to tell a story about her elderly grandmother Daphne Clement. A Quality of Light begins with details about a fall that Clement experienced in her old age. Her aide, her doctor, and her daughters bring forth an explanation based on some facts about Clement. As the narrator explains, “All those consulted were satisfied with this version of events and, if anyone imagined any other possibilities, they did not say.” This telling of events paints Clements as a fragile old woman. However, further exploration of her story details that she was once a powerful pianist who performed on the radio and in every church in Harlem. Having now told the audience more about Clement’s past, Hunt-ehrlich revisits the story of the fall. This time, Clement is no longer depicted one dimensionally as a frail old woman. (Sunday 10/20 and Wednesday 10/23, CAC) —William Archambeault


CINEMA RESET

CHILDREN DO NOT PLAY WAR

Decades of actions taken by the Lord’s Resistance Army ripple through the hearts and minds of Ugandans, not the least of which include the taking of children for soldiers. Children Do Not Play War (directed by Fabiano Mixo), a startling and immersive Oculus experience, puts you in the position of Aloyo, a young girl from Uganda as she attempts to bridge the divide between her family and community’s past, as well as its much brighter future. She laments the grave injustice of children forced to fight in conflicts beyond their conception, and celebrates the return of children to the fields, their ability to carelessly play intact. With powerful use of VR and sound design, Children Do Not Play War is riveting in its affect, touching in its character, and sobering in its message. (showing throughout the festival, CAC) —Coco Cruse


The 30th annual New Orleans Film Festival takes place October 16–23. The Festival hub and main box office is the Contemporary Arts Center (900 Camp St.); other venues include the New Orleans Advocate (840 St. Charles Ave.), The Orpheum Theater (129 Roosevelt Way), and The Broad Theater (636 N. Broad St.) For more info and up-to-date information, check out neworleansfilmsociety.org.

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