LA Report :: Inside the 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival

by Ed Rampell

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday July 4, 2010

The Los Angeles Film Festival is one of L.A.'s top annual cultural events, drawing thousands of movie buffs and makers to the filmfest produced by Film Independent, the nonprofit organization that also produces the Spirit Awards for indies. This year, for the first time ever, LAFF took place Downtown at L.A. Live, a major new entertainment/dining complex with Times Square-like neon lights, jumbo screens and glitz located near the Convention Center and Staples Center.

From June 17-27 screenings of international, cult, political, retro, studio, indie and LGBT-themed features, shorts and documentaries took place mostly at Regal Cinemas L.A. Live Stadium 14. A gala presentation of Cyrus with John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei was held there on the Premiere Cinema's 70-foot-high screen, while the nearby Nokia Theatre was the site of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse's world premiere and of the closing night screening of animated feature Despicable Me, with Steve Carell's voice. In addition to dozens of films, the Festival included conversations with various talents, panel discussions and "Artists In Residence."

Stallone speaks

Among the latter was an out of costume Paul Reubens, who presented 1985’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Frank Capra’s 1938 anarchic classic You Can’t Take It With You, starring Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur, and then enthusiastically took part in Q&As after the screenings. Other celebrities who participated in this year’s LAFF included "Guest Director" Kathryn Bigelow, who scored Oscars for The Hurt Locker; Chris Nolan, who helmed 2008’s The Dark Knight and the upcoming, highly anticipated Inception; actors John Lithgow and Ben Affleck; and producer/director Roger Corman, King of the B-Pictures.

I sat in the front row in the Regal Cinemas during the "Festival Conversation" with superstar Sylvester Stallone. He may have made Ugly American movies promoting U.S. imperialism and adventurism in Vietnam, but the action hero looked dapper and handsome. For someone about to turn 64 Stallone could pass for 40-something. Although I enjoyed some of the Rocky flicks, including the 2006 installment Rocky Balboa, Rampell hates Rambo and its militaristic messages. So I have to admit to having been inclined to consider him stupid prior to Stallone’s sold out live interview with the excellent dreadlocked critic Elvis Mitchell at the Downtown’s.

However, Stallone revealed himself to be quite bright, thoughtful and an excellent raconteur. The 90-minute or so talk was extremely entertaining as a screen legend discussed his life and career with a topnotch film journalist. The conversation was preceded by Stallone’s "reel," with clips from his various films, and later included clips from his newest action production to reportedly be released this August, the typically bloody mercenary movie The Expendables, which Stallone directed, co-wrote and co-stars in as Barney "The Schizo" Ross, along with other actions stars such as Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke plus Eric Roberts, etc. (For the record: the clip looked ugly and awful.)

And the winners are...

LAFF offers cash and prestige prizes in a number of categories. The Narrative Award recognizes the finest narrative film in competition at the Festival and went to Pernille Fischer Christensen for A Family (En Familie). The Documentary Award recognizes the finest documentary film in competition at the Festival and went to J. Clay Tweel for Make Believe. Both awards bestow $50,000 on their directors. The cast of Adam Reid’s Hello Lonesome won the Best Ensemble Performance award. The Best Narrative Short Film award went to Pablo Larcuen’s My Invisible Friend. The Best Documentary Short Film award went to Tomasz Wolski’s The Lucky One. The Best Animated Short Film award went to Beomsik Shimbe Shim’s Wonder Hospital.

Viewers were given ballots at screenings, and the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature went to Four Lions directed by Christopher Morris. The Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature went to Thunder Soul, directed by Mark Landsman. The Audience Award for Best International Feature Roberto Hernández and Geoffrey Smith’s went to Presumed Guilty. The Audience Award for Best Short Film went to Dock Ellis & the LSD No-No, directed by James Blagden. The video for OK Go’s This Too Shall Pass, directed by James Frost, OK Go, and Syyn Labs won the Audience Award for Best Music Video.

LGBT films :: Dogsweat reveals clandestine Iranian gay culture

LAFF’S lesbian, gay, bi and transgender offerings included films in French, Farsi, Hebrew and Yiddish, as well as English. In the Festival’s Opening Night Film, Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play a same sex couple in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right. (The film, already a favorite in festivals around the country, is scheduled for release on July 9, 2010.)

When the oldest son dies in Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Marineau’s Family Tree, surviving relatives act unpredictably in this family drama set in the countryside of France. A homosexual relationship emerges in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox society in Haim Tabakman’s Eyes Wide Open.

Interestingly, filmmakers boldly go where imams fear to tread in another Middle Eastern country. Hossein Keshavarz’s Dog Sweat, which he says was clandestinely shot in Iran, follows eight young rebels who dare to not follow the party line. Dog Sweat made me reflect on how difficult it must be to break taboos in a so-called Islamic Republic. Whereas political, religious and sexual transgressors in the West often confront customs and culture, as well as sometimes the government itself, imagine what it must be like to resist a theocratic system where religious zealots rule and run the state apparatuses of repression, enforcement, etc.

The German Communist psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich wrote about how a key for totalitarian control of the individual is through manipulating his/her sex life, and we clearly see this in Dog Sweat. Two of this underground feature’s characters are young would-be male/female lovers simply looking for a private place to have sex. But far more daring is Dog Sweat’s candid look at the love that dare not whisper its name in Iran. Readers may remember Pres. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2007 dubious remarks about gays at Columbia University, and in Dog Sweat Keshavarz dares point his camera directly at the homosexual scene in Tehran, where same sex relationships are probably far more controversial than gay marriage is here.

Hooshang (Rahim Zamani) and Hooman (Bagher Forohar) appear to be more than "just friends," although the precise nature of their relationship is never clearly defined and remains ambiguous. Are they same sex lovers or is theirs a non-consummated homoerotic type of relationship? Be that as it may, in theocratic Iran parents seem to have lots of control over their children, and Hooman’s mother pressures him to marry (and I don’t mean to Hooshang). He enters into a more or less arranged marriage with a female singer, Mahsa (Maryam Mousavi), whose musical career is frustrated by theocratic limitations on women and singing. (What would the ayatollahs make of Lady GaGa?) Without knowing each other very well, and seeking a measure of freedom from their meddling parents, they wed and move into their own apartment.

Hooman avoids Hooshang, whom he has trouble facing. There is an interesting glimpse of Iran’s underground gay life at a park which seems like a gathering place for Tehran’s persecuted homosexuals. In any case, Mahsa eventually realizes she has "made a mistake," but the film is unclear. Did she make a mistake by giving up on her recording career or does she realize she’s married a gay man? Dog Sweat remains ambiguous on this and other points, and it’s difficult to follow eight different characters, especially for non-Persian audiences who don’t speak Farsi, as subtitles whiz by.

Presumably set against the backdrop of the mass protests of the so-called "Green Revolution" which is never actually seen per se, the film deals with other forms of rebellion, such as drinking. The title seems to refer to alcohol, another taboo topic in the Islamic Republic. Adulterous hetero characters also stray from the straight and narrow path prescribed by the imams. The most direct form of resistance comes from Massoud (Shahrokh Taslimi), a heterosexual pal of Hooshang and Hooman who confronts religious zealots for cramming their ideology down people’s throats.

Overall this supposedly secretly made feature provides a fascinating inside glimpse at today’s Iran, youthful rebellion and homosexuality there. What a pity that one of the main opponents of U.S. imperialism and policies is a society that so represses its own citizens. After Dog Sweat’s screenings Keshavarz participated in Q&As with screenwriter Maryam Azadi, and the film did so well a fourth screening was added.

Fest favorite :: Gustav and Alma

Mahler On the Couch is co-written and co-directed by that rarity, a father and son team, Percy (1987’s Bagdad Cafe) and Felix Adlon. Their German language movie reminds me of 1976’s The Seven-Percent- Solution based on Nicholas Meyer’s novel about Sherlock Holmes (Nicol Williamson) being treated by Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin). Unlike that invented encounter between the make believe British detective and the Viennese psychoanalyst, Mahler opens with a disclaimer, asserting that while Freud’s meeting(s) with the musician actually occurred, the movie’s treatment of Mahler’s treatment by Freud is fictionalized.

If Holmes’ cocaine abuse prompted Dr. Watson to send his friend to see Dr. Freud, Mahler’s (Johannes Silberschneider) troubled marriage to sexual rebel Alma Mahler (Barbara Romaner) compels the composer to seek the father of psychoanalysis (Karl Markovics) out while he’s on holiday in Amsterdam. Alma has been depicted as the uber-groupie of all time (move over Pam Des Barres!), who worked her charms on Europe’s top intellectuals in early 20th century Europe. I first heard of this enigmatic femme fatale in the 1960s, thanks to that peerless parody songwriter Tom Lehrer, whose droll song Alma includes the lyrics:

"Alma, tell us!
All modern women are jealous.
Which of your magical wands
Got you Gustav and Walter and Franz?"

The Gustav, of course, refers to Mahler, who was about 19 years his wife’s senior. Ignored by her workaholic genius husband and sexually dissatisfied, Alma has a passionate affair briefly but fairly explicitly depicted onscreen with Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus architect. (The "Franz" refers to the novelist Franz Werfel, who is not portrayed in Mahler On the Couch -- to show all of Mahler’s many amours would require a mini-series.)

To me, Mahler is more about Alma than the composer or the shrink. Far more than a groupie, Romaner’s insightfully drawn Alma is portrayed as a forerunner of the emancipated woman, liberated sexually, as well as intellectually and artistically. However, this free spirit had the misfortune of being born in pre-feminist times in 1879, and was pressured by patriarchal society to submerge and sublimate her own creative drive to that of her husbands’ and lovers’ (who included the painter Oskar Kokoschka). The budding composer stopped writing music when she married Mahler, and this movie suggests that this more than sexual frustration drove Alma into the arms of others. After all, as Lehrer astutely noted in his witty ditty: "The loveliest girl in Vienna Was Alma, the smartest as well," combining talent, brains and beauty.

Mahler On the Couch also has humor, as well as high drama and Mahler’s music conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Markovics’s Freud has a sly wit, but none of the compassion that marked Arkin’s incarnation of the psychoanalytical pioneer who sought to save civilization from its discontents and illusions. Romaner, a stage actress, is stunning in her first major screen role, and one suspects that if Barbara pursues a film career she shall conquer a cinematic Roman empire. The real Alma was a Jew who eventually fled the Nazis (who had no use for Jews or liberated women), crossing the Pyrenees Mountains on foot, escaping to L.A., where she established an artsy salon and Hollywood adapted Werfel’s Song of Bernadette in 1943 starring Jennifer Jones (who won the Best Actress Oscar). So it seems that women named Alma (which means "soul") make the most extraordinary lovers.

Fest favorite :: exotic locales

The most unique film I saw at LAFF was Bastien Dubois’ Madagascar, A Journey Diary, an animated short set in that Indian Ocean island off of the African continent. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the "exotic" subject matter exploring the culture, flora and fauna of this onetime outpost of French colonialism, what thrilled me most about it was the 12-minute picture’s unique style. How often do you go to the movies and see something totally new that you’ve never seen onscreen before? (In stark contrast to, say, the predictable clips full of the typical murderous mayhem screened during the June 23 conversation with Sylvester Stallone from his forthcoming The Expendables.) Madagascar’s film form looks like the animation is done not by CGI, et al, but via a watercolor type process, along with some impressive looking 3D-ish imagery.

This refreshingly formal elegance compliments Madagascar’s content, as a visitor is invited by Natives to witness and participate in some sort of indigenous rituals that have to do with something like raising the dead. The short reminded me a lot of my time in another French colony, Tahiti, in terms of its delightful ukulele-sounding music, "bizarre" (to outsiders’ eyes) customs, language, local people, etc. I had the joy of discovery watching this one of a kind cinematic spectacle about the joy of discovery. Bravo, Mssr. Dubois. Formidable!

Madagascar played on a double bill with Malcolm Murray’s Camera, Camera, a motion picture meditation on picture taking by tourists in Laos. This documentary is somewhat similarly themed, in that, like the far superior Madagascar, it deals with how foreigners interact with and see the people, culture and nature of this beautiful Southeast Asian nation. Camera’s style veers from avante garde formalism to conventional narrative techniques (I guess Murray and writer Michael Meyer wanted audiences to actually see their work), as it looks at how Westerners perceive and live with Laotians. Along the way it reveals much about tourism, as Westerners romp in a low cost rural society.

Some are enthralled by Laos’ Buddhist culture, largely unspoiled tropical beauty, inexpensive prices ($2 per night for a thatched bungalow over the Mekong River!) and/or, but of course, sexually affordable and available people (perhaps including children). At a series of bars along the Mekong Western youths frolic, swinging Tarzan-like over the water, wrestling and playing tug of war in mud pits, like female mud wrestlers or hippies at Woodstock.

Camera is self-reflexive: filmmakers with far superior gear film tourists shooting digital photos and some video of the "exotic" Laotians and their society. It made me think that perhaps there’s something to that old saying regarding Westerners photographing Third World people (especially without their consent): "White man’s magic steals souls." This doc has a very American sensibility in that it shows people traveling abroad to get away from it all, only to bring "it all" with them.

This especially includes the filmmakers. They are thousands of miles from home, apparently by their own admissions breaking that country’s laws with unauthorized filming, and instead of really focusing on the society at hand, the film is, but of course, primarily about us. How we react to "foreigners" (when we are really the foreigners there), in particular by incessantly taking digital snapshots of them. It is fixated on self, like so many narcissistic Yanks, instead of on the other, even when we are in the other’s homeland. We learn little about Laos, such as, for instance, does it still have some of the characteristics of a socialist state? If you want to find out, don’t look for the answer regarding this and so many other questions in this self-absorbed doc. Its sensibility reminded me of that early 1960s Marlon Brando movie, The Ugly American.

Fest favorite :: truth stranger than fiction

Freakonomics proves truth really is freakier than fiction. This is a great documentary adaptation of Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt’s bestselling book that applies statistical and economics theory to various phenomena, finding extraordinary explanations and insights. Master documentarians direct various segments linked to interviews with the co-authors, including:

Morgan Spurlock of 2004’s Super Size Me fame puts down the Big Macs to explore the Big Moniker question: Does a child’s name determines his/her destiny? The film delves into the cultural divide between white and so-called ethnic names, and if naming offspring say, Todd, instead of DeShawn, or Emily instead of Shaniqua, will affect his/her future career or even incarceration prospects. The doc shows that the trend of African Americans using "unique" names for their babies arose during the Black Power movement, with its "Black is beautiful" aesthetic. However, Spurlock’s segment inexplicably omits the salient explanation for why this is, something that Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little) indicated: African Americans’ last names are often derived from their slave owners’ family names, so in order to compensate U.S. Blacks place special emphasis on often Africanized sounding first names. Why the super sizer missed this essential fact I don’t know. It’s like neglecting the fact that Blacks consume more junk food per capita than whites because as an oppressed minority, they have less discretionary income and eating at MacDonald’s, et al, is cheaper than dining out at Spago.

I would also have liked to see an examination regarding how naming an infant after someone -- especially a prominent person -- eventually affects him/her. For instance, your humble and most obedient scribe was named after none other than CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow, and voila!, I became a journalist. Spurlock is a great filmmaker but his segment also incorporates obviously dramatized portions mixed in with nonfiction footage, and there should be disclaimers or labeling pointing this out in an otherwise so-called nonfiction production.

Alexander Gibney is also one of the documentary world’s top talents; he won an Oscar for 2007’s Taxi to the Dark Side, about torture in Afghanistan. Gibney’s Freakonomics segment uses statistical data to explore alleged corruption and cheating in the world of sumo wrestling. Gibney notes that as sumo has divine origins related to the Shinto religion, its sacred aura conveniently masks, and deflects from probing, wrongdoing. Among the interviewees are Konishiki and Akebono Taro, the now retired wrestling champions from Hawaii. (Gibney doesn’t look into whether recruiting Polynesians, who are traditionally far larger than men of Japanese origin, to the sumo ring is in itself a dubious practice, as some purists have maintained.)

Gibney, who produced/co-wrote 2005’s superb Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and produced/directed 2010’s Casino Jack and the United States of Money, goes on to perceptively compare sumo’s purported monkey business to that of Big Business and Wall Street’s fiscal fiascoes, and how media worship of the supposed "masters of the universe" and the free market served to cover-up financial hanky panky. Gibney also notes the doubletalking dark side of The New York Times, which uses terms such as "enhanced interrogation techniques" when referring to harsh questioning methods by U.S. inquisitors, but uses the word "torture" when the purported perpetrators are, for example, Chinese. All the propaganda that’s fit to print and Orwellian "Newspeak," indeed.

Another documentary powerhouse, Eugene Jarecki -- who directed 2005’s Why We Fight and 2002’s The Trials of Henry Kissinger - helms what may be the segment with Freakonomics’ most controversial analysis: That legalization of abortion is directly responsible for the lowering of the U.S. crime rate in the 1990s. The statistician’s thesis is that unwanted babies are more likely to grow up to be not only cowboys (as the Willie Nelson song puts it) but criminals, too. The doc argues that unwanted children are more likely to become criminals, and providing women with the legal means to terminate pregnancies led to the elimination of much of the pool of potential wrongdoers. Jarecki imaginatively deploys clips from Frank Capra’s 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life to make the film’s point.

The prospect of how giving students materialistic incentives affects their test scores and school performance is certainly worthy of investigating. Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (co-directors of 2006’s powerful Jesus Camp) document suburban Chicago ninth graders who are essentially bribed with offers of money, limousine drives and status to induce them to study and work harder at school. Interestingly, these capitalistic incentives have nominal affect on the teens’ learning process. One of them typifies the ignorant dolts who fill the U.S. armed forces, a by his own admission clueless person who ponders joining the Marines as an alternative to continuing his schooling. Of course, mindless ignoramuses are easier to manipulate to fight despicable wars, as they are less likely to have the critical capacity to discern the complexities of U.S. foreign policy and to question orders. (I know that not everybody serving in the U.S. military is an idiot, but let’s face it, many recruits are, and the lowering of scholastic and criminal standards for a "voluntary" military desperate for personnel as it continues to fight dubious wars has exacerbated this problem.)

The problem with Freakonomics’ final segment is that Grady and Ewing never explore other "incentives" for education: The sheer joy of learning, the attaining of wisdom, the eventual role a good education can play in the highly competitive 21st century job market and so on. The doc’s last song - the Moody Blues’ Question -- during its credit sequence seems to come out of nowhere, but in reality it subtly rebukes the concept of applying the market ethos to the educational process. The Moody Blues stood for the counterculture’s quest for Enlightenment, and playing this song serves to remind us that the attainment of wisdom cannot be done with bribery and a dollar sign in the hearts of pupils.

If you want to get your nonfiction freak on, don’t miss Freakonomics.

Fest favorite: revolutionary dissent

The radical movements of the 1960s/1970s provides great grist for the creative mills, but far too few filmmakers have, to mix metaphors, drawn from this well. Writer/director Tanya Hamilton has in Night Catches Us, a sort of Black Power version of John Sayles’ 1979 Return of the Secaucus Seven and Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983The Big Chill. Set in 1976 Philadelphia after the heyday of the Black Panther Party, this film noir-ish feature depicts the fallout of involvement in the Black liberation cause has on ex-Panthers and others.

In comments after the screening, Hamilton perceptively likened the Black Power struggle to a war, and as in combat, some of its survivors also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. How does one cope after the revolution - especially if that revolution has failed? The beautiful Kerry Washington (whose credits include Fantastic Four movies as the Thing’s blind girlfriend Alicia Masters) portrays an ex-Panther whose Panther husband was slain in a police raid back in the day. Washington’s character has only partially moved on: Her Patricia Wilson lives in the same house where her late spouse was gunned down with their young daughter Iris (Jamara Griffin). Patricia has left militancy - if not commitment - behind, becoming a civil rights attorney who now uses the law book instead of guns to resist the "pigs."

When former comrade Marcus Washington (Anthony Mackie, who appeared in the 2008 films The Hurt Locker and American Violet) returns to the scene of the crime after years away from Philly, his best friend’s widow orders him to call her "Patricia," not "Patty." (The latter may be a reference to Patty Hearst, who had her own New Left misadventures, while "Marcus" may refer to the early 20th century Black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey who, like Hamilton, was originally from Jamaica.) Marcus is reputedly a "snitch" and his relationship with Patricia develops.

This stylish film incorporates archival footage of the beret and black leather-clad Panthers, who were fashion as well as revolutionary icons. When I asked Hamilton why there were no clips per se of Panther co-founder Huey P. Newton, she indicated that that footage was too expensive. (What price revolution?) When I pointed out that Amari Cheatom’s trigger happy character Jimmy, a post-Panther wannabe militant, bears a striking resemblance to Huey, she said this wasn’t intentional.

Wendell Pierce, who plays musician Antoine Batiste on the HBO New Orleans-set series Treme, co-stars in Night as a detective, proving that pigs come in all colors. The revolution may have been lost in Night, but police abuse of power, poverty and other social ills still affected Blacks in 1976 - as they continue to in the era of Barack Obama’s presidency. A thought provoking film that’s well worth seeing, Night Catches Us reminds us of a radical legacy, even if it provides no answers for African American liberation. Perhaps because, as the Panthers used to say, revolution is still the only solution.

Fest favorite :: man loves beast

Lisa Leeman’s documentary One Lucky Elephant is a pachyderm pic packing a poignant punch. It’s similar to the 1990s fact-based features Buddy and Gorillas in the Mist starring, respectively, Rene Russo and Sigourney Weaver, wherein humans living closely with wild animals. All three films study the paradigm of inter-species relationships. In Lucky David Balding, who is childless, adopts a baby African elephant named Flora, and makes her the star of the circus he owns, naming it after the tusker: Circus Flora.

The doc follows the touching bond between human and pachyderm, and what happens when the two must inevitably go their separate ways. After Flora demonstrates belligerent behavior, like Iraq War veterans and the ex-Panthers of Night Catches Us, she is diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Can elephants caught in the wild after supposedly witnessing their parents’ murder by poachers suffer from this syndrome, like their afflicted Homo sapiens counterparts? Well, they say that an elephant never forgets.

This nonfiction film, co-written by Leeman and Cristina Colissimo, poses, but does not answer, this and other questions. I have experienced elephants firsthand several times at Thailand, such as at the Elephant Hills camp near Khao Sok National Park, and found this doc to be compelling and intriguing. Flora may be lucky, but due to his interaction with her, Balding is also one lucky human. In a sensitive, moving way One Lucky Elephant shows the love that can exist between man and beast, explores the nature of that affection and is a worthwhile picture for children of all ages.

Fest favorite :: walking in space

Swiss filmmaker Christian Frei’s documentary Space Tourists is about rich Americans who are privatizing the former Soviet Union’s much-vaunted outer space program, which in the 1950s launched Sputnik and the space race. Today, due to the collapse of the USSR, the industry that put the first creatures and human into the cosmos has largely been reduced to providing Yankee billionaires with an extraterrestrial playground - for, of course, a fee: $20 million per launch. (Apparently the ability to defy gravity also makes one lightheaded, while it lightens these capitalists’ wallets.)

Space Tourists takes us to the Baikonur Cosmodrome at Star City, Kazakhstan, where the proud, secretive Soviet space program had long been hidden away from prying Western eyes. We see the kitschy cosmic art and faded glory of this now partially deserted metropolis in the middle of nowhere in Central Asia. In addition to following the exploits of American moneybags who can afford to blow big bucks to be blown out into space, Space Tourists also shows us Kazakh "garbage collectors" who reclaim, recycle and sell the heavy metal of the rockets that fall back to Earth in Kazakhstan’s vast deserts.

Frei’s thoughtful but disturbing doc is, among other things, a rumination on how money ruins everything. The once noble space program that aimed at interstellar exploration is now largely a private preserve of profiteering. Just as the end of the Cold War meant that U.S. imperialism was no longer restrained by a countervailing force, the defeat of the Soviet Union has also signaled a major decline in man’s quest for the stars. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and end of the Cold War, instead of the promised "peace dividend," we got the Gulf War and more of America’s endless wars, unchecked by the East Bloc. What happened to the USSR’s space program is a metaphor for capitalism’s triumph over a form of socialism, as the anything-for-a-buck ethos of space buckaroos invades the pristine realm of science.

Archival footage in Space Tourists shows the animals Moscow first launched into outer space before Yuri Gagarin began manned space flights in 1961. This made me think that the mystifying ending of the 1968 sci fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey may have actually been Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s rendering of the universe as seen through a monkey’s eyes. Be that as it may, Space Tourists reveals another type of space chimps, wannabe astronauts with far too much money and time on their paws, as well as the Kazakh garbage men who pick up after them in order to pawn their rocket refuse for a handful of rubles.

Fest favorite :: filming the revolution

The problemo with Revolucion is that its, well, just not very revolutionary. Prior to its Norte Americano premier at an LAFF Gala screening one of the omnibus film’s 10 young Mexican filmmakers said he was given money to make a short to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution. Unfortunately, few if any of these directors have done precisely that in any of the vignettes strung together to make this 105-minute long picture, and you can start the revolucion without them.

One short with the most ties to the 1910 uprising depicts a young Chicana who inherits a pistol from her grandfather, who rode with Pancho Villa and/or Emiliano Zapata back in the day. Actor Gael Garcia Bernal shot a short about a boy who resists the Catholic church and its obsession with images, and a few of the other brief pics evince some sort of rebellious spirit. In one a grocery store employee takes on her bosses’ antiquated practice of paying with vouchers instead of cash.

In another a fiesta devolves into a raucous riot a la the beggars’ feast in Luis Bunuel’s "Last Supper" sequence in 1961’s Viridiana. Indeed, the shorts stylistically veer from social realism to surrealism, and many do have a Bunuelian sensibility. The vignettes are fine from an artistic point of view and it’s nice to see imagery of Mexico that has nothing to do with drug lords, gangs and undocumented immigrants. But the problem is these shorts have little, if anything, to do with that great upheaval a century ago. Simply put, Revolucion doesn’t live up to its grandiose billing and is sort of false advertising.

In the last short Zapatista type ghostly horsemen with sombreros, rifles and bandoleros ride through L.A.’s Olivera Street. Perhaps to these filmmakers Villa, Zapata, etc., are mere ghosts from the past. I’m no expert on Mexican politics, but it seems to me that this notion seems to be part of the problem. If anything, 21st century Mexicans need a powerful filmic reminder of their revolutionary heritage, from Zapata to the more recent Comandante Marcos. As for this gringo, when it comes to Latin American movies and politics, I prefer Sergei Eisenstein’s 1933 Que Viva Mexico! (aka Thunder Over Mexico) and Oliver Stone’s new doc South of the Border. Because, as Socialist Eugene Debs put it, "Revolution is the boldest word in any language" - including Spanish.

Fest favorite :: catch the zeppelin

Pablo Picasso was fond of creating art out of found objects, such as famously transforming a bicycle seat and handlebars he’d stumbled upon into a modernist bust of a bull. Dutch director/writer Ditteke Mensink has done something similar with Farewell, using found archival and newsreel footage to reconstruct the real life story of the first around the world flight of an airship, the Graf Zeppelin. Using a private diary and presumably letters, Mensink also reconstructs a tale of forbidden love, the personal story of the only woman aboard the historic 1929 flight, Lady Grace Drummond-Hay, a correspondent for William Randolph Hearst (the archetypal press baron Orson Welles fictionalized in 1941’s Citizen Kane).

Some 80 years later Mensink has managed to recreate Hay’s inner angst as she discovers that an ex-lover who’d recently jilted her, journalist Karl von Wiegand, is not only part of the press corps flying aboard the dirigible, but the Hearst editor she must report to. Like Led Zeppelin, Hay has a whole lotta love, but it is unrequited by this older man married to a mentally ill wife he won’t divorce.

But more important and interesting than this love story is the fractious pre-war world Farewell reveals as it floats around the planet. Because Hearst actually financed the flight of the German-built zeppelin, the voyage started and ended near New York. Its stops included Germany, and there are fascinating glimpses of the Nazis and of a riot there that the inter-continental journey caused.

The Graf Zeppelin, which counted among its passengers an ardent Bolshevik, then appeared to snub the Soviet Union, diverting its course away from Moscow, purportedly due to weather conditions there. Glimpses of the USSR include a sort of personality cult balloon bearing the image of Josef Stalin being blown up that I’d seen before (perhaps in a Dziga Vertov newsreel?) and the endless vastness of what Vertov had called in the title of one of his documentaries "one sixth of the Earth."

Farewell’s most compelling footage is of pre-war Japan, where the dirigible made one of its few scheduled stops. There are twirling parasols, pagodas, geishas, kimonos as well as banzai cheers for the crew and passengers at the "mysterious East." On the other hand, the shots of 1929 L.A. - of which there must be an abundance to choose from - are quite disappointing. After a reputedly hazardous flight across the Pacific, the Graf Zeppelin touched down at the City of the Angels, which here looks pretty much like "Anywheresville, USA."

After an LAFF screening Mensink said it took her up to 13 years to make what she called a "puzzle" of a film, piecing together the jigsaw motion picture pieces of found footage, including shots from only one feature film, Dirigible, a 1931 thriller made by none other than Frank Capra. Farewell is a fascinating filmmaking exercise in making something out of nothing to present a lost reality Mensink would probably make a brilliant propagandist or maker of TV commercials. (Same thing, really...)

Fest favorite :: heartwarming documentary

Jennifer Arnold’s A Small Act is a genuinely heartwarming documentary that could be subtitled "Karma." As a small boy growing up in rural Kenya in the 1970s, Chris Mburu had plenty of brains but few shillings with which to pay for his school fees. Enter his benefactor from Sweden, Hilde Back, whose monthly $15 donations enabled Mburu to not only go on to high school, but to university and ultimately to Harvard on the graduate level, earning a Master’s in human rights law. Mburu went on to work for the United Nations at Geneva, where he continues to combat genocide.

As a recipient of largesse Mburu decided to pay it back, and created a foundation to endow bright but poor Kenyan students, so that they too could continue their schooling. Mburu named the scholarship after the supposed "philanthropist" who had helped him out when he was a lad, and the Hilde Back Education Foundation was born.

Eventually, curiosity got this cat, and Mburu decided to seek out the woman who had made his education a possibility. Eventually, he found Hilde Back, who was indeed still alive and well and living in Sweden. (NOTE to readers: Plot Spoiler:) However, much to Mburu’s amazement, he discovered that far from being a millionaire philanthropis, Hilde was merely a (now retired) school teacher. Furthermore, he learned that Hilde was not Swedish, but rather a German Jew, who escaped the Holocaust by emigrating to Sweden during the 1930s, although her parents perished at Nazi death camps, including at Auschwitz.

This beautiful, moving film goes on to show the eventual meeting(s) of Mburu and his benefactor, who had no idea a charity was named after her. Nor that this Holocaust survivor’s small act of generosity would enable Mburu to play a role in campaigning ethnic cleansing around the world as a U.N. international civil servant, including at his native Kenya. To save one life really is as if to save the whole world.

Kenyan rapper Gleam Joel’s life story is strikingly similar to the one told in A Small Act, a saga we dramatized together in the musical we co-created and recently presented in Switzerland called Still Standing. Gleam, who is creating a an anti-violence movement, was perhaps the only Kenyan at the LAFF screening of A Small Act, and he was visibly touched by its humane message of solidarity.

The philosophy of A Small Act shows how individuals can affect the world, like the ripple effect caused by tossing a pebble into a pond. In keeping with its ethos, audience members were given a $10 gift card to donate to a favorite cause at: This lovely, uplifting, transcendent doc airs July 12 on HBO, and as one of LAFF’s best films, is not to be missed.