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"Kevin," by Jay Duplass

As someone who is couch surfing with family and non-blood relatives throughout Europe and the States since I can no longer afford to pay rent, staying in high-end digs on a beautiful beach and lounging around in 80-plus weather during the day while covering the Miami International Film Festival recently was equal parts ironic and surreal. So it was something of a happy accident that while visiting my Tucson-residing best friend from high school I stumbled upon a poster advertising the Arizona International Film Festival. Since I was in town anyhow I figured I might as well check out a portion of the 100 some odd films from 25 countries screening over 20 days (to celebrate AIFF’s 20th anniversary). Certainly I wasn’t expecting the western gem that I found — a filmmakers’ oasis in the desert indifferent to the latest buzz flicks from either coast that sucked me in for its entire lengthy run. Kudos to festival head Giulio Scalinger — after two decades with little administrative turnover (most of the volunteers I talked to were either energetic young guns or had been onboard an average of ten years or more) AIFF is a well-run, highly organized, cinematic machine with a firm identity that’s local, grassroots and community-inclusive. Shrink SXSW.

And add in a healthy dose of wonderful Wild West cinephiles. AIFF’s tireless Director of Marketing & Development (and more) Mia Schnaible, a passionate organizer with the no-nonsense skills of a political campaign operative, made sure I met everyone and anyone affiliated with Arizona’s intertwined arts scene. She introduced me to a fellow writer from the online Tucson Filmmaker who handed me her card, which intriguingly read “ (} After this city slicker wondered aloud why it is I’d never heard of a film scene in Arizona, the Iowa transplant noted that doc director and Arizona native Kirby Dick is a fan of The Loft Cinema, Tucson’s equivalent to NYC’s Film Forum, and then gave me the scoop on all the young talent in town, including Jonathan Vanballenberghe (who was actually in NYC preparing to screen his short “Guru” at Tribeca Film Festival). At the Short Docs program I chatted with a ticket-taking older volunteer, who looked like a retired linebacker. He said he saw 53 movies at last year’s fest. Later I ran into local music legend Al Perry — a soft-spoken radio personality and AIFF fan who was hosting a Saturday night of acoustic sets as part of the annual Tucson Club Crawl on Tax Day weekend. By the time Mia apologized to the crowd for the festival website having not been updated — due to their webmaster’s traveling across the border for the Mexican AIFF tour that was going on simultaneously — I realized I’d been too busy to even hit the Internet. Tucson’s social networking still happens offline, with real people in real time.

Indeed, just riding the bus into downtown Tucson where most of the screenings were held — appropriately enough, at an art-house venue called The Screening Room — was akin to watching a daily short film. On one journey an older black man sporting a gold pendant shaped like a bird around his neck got on with the younger man seated across from him after he inquired, “Is that an African Grey?” (The opposite of NYC, it seems to be a citywide mandate that you must make small talk with your fellow travelers when taking public transportation. I also think you can get arrested for not owning a firearm.) “A cockatoo,” the man replied.
“I stole one of those from the zoo,” the other noted without missing a beat.
“Aw, you shouldn’t do that.”
“But I’m Mexican — the guy made a racist remark.”
‘The cockatoo?”
“No, the guy working there,” the younger rider clarified. This verbose cockatoo-napper then held forth on the subject of certain small birds with incredibly sharp beaks. “You can use them as can openers,” he added as the bus moseyed to my stop down the street from the Hotel Congress (where the Dillinger gang was nabbed way back in the day).

Fortunately, opening night — with delicious pre-screening chile rellenos and other southwestern cuisine prepared and served by students from a high school culinary arts program — on the eve of April Fools Day at the historic and newly renovated Fox Tucson Theater went off without a hitch. After the requisite introductions — including a councilwoman touting AIFF’s focus on up-and-coming filmmakers, which made the fest’s choosing of Journey from Zanskar, the latest from attending director Frederick “Hoop Dreams” Marx for the opening slot a bit ironic — a couple of local Buddhism practitioners chanted before the documentary began. On its surface a film that follows two monks from Zanskar (part of Kashmir) who escort a few chosen children on an arduous trek from their village to an indigenous culture-preserving school in Manali 180 miles away might seem a long way from the American southwest. However, its subject matter actually dovetailed nicely with the Tucson Mexican-American community’s current battle to keep their own culture in the local schools.

"On Coal River"

Though my friend’s friend (the mother of a two-year-old) was moved to tears — soaking a woolen cow finger puppet she found in her purse — I felt Marx’s Richard Gere-narrated doc with its home video-style camerawork took a too-academic approach. The director’s hands-off and respectful filmmaking distances rather than draws us in and makes us suffer right along with those kids and their families who won’t see them again for 10-15 years. Then again I also walked out of Janet Grillo’s Fly Away, which ended up taking AIFF’s award for Best Feature (and which both my sharp-eyed editor here at Filmmaker and many folks at its SXSW premiere gave a big thumbs-up to). Grillo’s autism-themed film struck me as a series of situations in lieu of developed scenes — a story being forced to fit an idea rather than one that grows organically through believable characters. For me a far more emotionally engaging movie, which also found its local parallel in the controversy surrounding Tucson’s copper mining industry, was On Coal River, from Francine Cavanaugh and Adams Wood. A sort of Gasland for the strip mining industry the nuanced doc centers on the tug-of-war being waged between the articulate and powerless “hillbilly” residents of West Virginia’s Coal River Valley and Massey Energy whose contamination even reaches a frighteningly ideological level. (While a school board member assures an impassioned father that the elementary school next to the toxic waste facility is completely safe the filmmakers cut to a banner that reads, “Massey Energy – Partnering in Education with Marsh Fork Elementary.”)

Another eloquent environmental doc about a valley much closer to AIFF’s home, Greg Rainoff’s El Muro, explores Homeland Security’s overriding of all our environmental laws in order to create the newest border fence through California’s last remaining unobstructed wetland. Footage of the serene estuary in the Tijuana River Valley is juxtaposed with talking heads ranging from a scientist who disturbingly claims that numerous ways to make the wall green are being ignored, to an anti-immigrant Minuteman with an Australian accent, to a wily female coyote. Watching the Valley’s bird-filled preserve being bulldozed made me wish only that the doc had been preceded by one of my favorite shorts of the festival, Petr Stupin’s Bird, a stunning and soaring visual poem from Russia about a touching friendship that develops between a man and a bird — neither of whom can fly. Landscape and animals coalesce into an existential meditation that’s nearly Herzogian.

And the narrative Bird had plenty of competition from the surprisingly strong Short Docs program. (Though the two disgruntled elderly ladies in the back of the theater — one of whom sighed, “This is like watching grass grow!” during the screening of King Dong — would beg to differ.) Marcos Nine’s A Comic Author X-Ray is a meta offering from Spain that combines B&W footage of graphic novelist David Rubin with the artist’s own animation as he makes “a comic about the fact that they’re making a doc about me,” as he puts it. Maria Fortiz-Morse’s Little Mom, a product of Stanford University’s MFA program, follows two 12-year-old girls — one white, one black, both caring for their 16-year-old brothers with cerebal palsy. Part of the million-plus child caregivers in the U.S. their dedication is nothing less than astounding.

On a lighter note Charles Fairbanks’s 12-minute Irma uses mostly ambient sound, spicy music and colorful, Mexico-infused images to paint a portrait of one kick-ass granny — former world champion, female professional wrestler Irma Gonzalez. Then there’s Simon Mercer’s King Dong — a biopic that would be right at home preceding indie fave Winnebago Man — and a sweet peek at Moron Movies founder Len Cella, a one-man, short-movie studio in his own right. An underground wonder who created VHS precursors to the YouTube video, Cella started making his quirky, 8mm home movies (“Why Jell-O Isn’t A Good Doorstop” is the title of one short “not” selected to air,” says Johnny Carson in a clip from The Tonight Show) in 1967 then bought and renovated a theater in his Pennsylvania hometown since he couldn’t find anyone to publicly screen them. (“What a pain in the balls. B-A-L-L-S!” yells the foul-mouthed, Stephen Wright-deadpan seventy-something about securing distribution. He also exclaims, “That picture is the best picture of me — and I’m an atheist!” in response to a question about a photo of him dressed as the Lord that graces his wall.)

But perhaps the greatest short doc revelation of all was Jay Duplass’s fresh-from-SXSW film Kevin that screened with Robert Philipson’s T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s, both of which could be expanded into fascinating features. While Philipson’s doc gives proper attention to legends like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith it also uncovers the virtually unknown Gladys Bentley — an unapologetic bull dyke who dressed in tuxes and rivaled Jack Johnson in giving societal conventions the finger. Duplass’s short is similarly a fan letter to an inspirational musician, but one wrapped inside a psychological detective story. The titular hero of Kevin is Kevin Gant, a musical fixture in Austin in the early 90s who inexplicably disappeared from the scene in 1995. In voiceover Duplass describes the artist’s mystical mixture of Spanish guitar (Gant even equates flamenco with the American blues — both having come out of generations of pain), a Motown voice and New Age lyrics as having the ability to wrap a live audience in a cocoon. And he’s right. “This is a life experience first — a movie second,” Duplass announced as he brought the charming Kevin Gant onstage after the screening to treat us to an intoxicating acoustic set. With a theme not of simply overcoming adversity but of employing that adversity in order to “transcend” (a word used by Gant both at the beginning of the doc when he’s mystified by his own use of it in a lyric and at the end once he finally embodies it) the short also says a lot about the director’s own personal values. “Kevin the doc” becomes irrelevant in light of the fact that Duplass has made a difference in “Kevin the man’s” life. For Duplass his own creation pales in comparison to the opportunity to show his gratitude by giving the inspiration back.

Another uplifting discovery from a director in attendance was (Oscar-nominee for Genghis Blues) Roko Belic’s Happy, which plays like a road trip version of the recent ominibus Freakonomics but with ten times the heart. From thorough interviews with academics in the field of positive psychology, to global sojourns to the happiest and least happy countries (intrinsic-valuing Denmark and extrinsic-valuing Japan, respectively), and even to small Bhutan in China — whose government actually measures Gross National Happiness — the most startling thing about Belic’s visual inquiry into what makes people happy is the director’s post-screening announcement that he’s seeking funds to four-wall such a lighthearted and poignant flick. Watching the fulfilled European volunteer at Mother Theresa’s center for the dying and destitute, who refers to his own life as only being “on loan” and that he plans on “giving it back with interest,” is worth the price of admission alone. (Focus Features, where are you?)

And while Japan has had more than its share of hardship and bad press lately Happy also notes that the population of Okinawa happens to have the world’s highest longevity. (A 106-year-old shares her secret recipe of working hard during the day and drinking a glass of sake every night.) AIFF itself also gave a helping hand by donating to Red Cross’s Japan relief 50% of box office receipts from the screenings of The Gift of the Magi — a Tokyo University of the Arts animated short from Toshikazu Ishii starring an oddly Aryan, Japanese-speaking couple named Jim and Della — followed by Night of Fish, whose director Hiroshi Toda, a physician in Japan with a filmmaking hobby, deserves a retrospective, having sent a film annually to AIFF for the past eight years. Night of Fish would be right at home playing Migrating Forms or any of the other inventive underground fests, its point-and-shoot video-camerawork capturing a compelling, metaphorical tale involving an old man and his wife who make drink coasters for a living (hammering out the name of the client’s bar “Bacchus” in round pieces of leather). When the husband finds another old man in suit and tie lying in the street he brings him home, cares for him, then trusts him with making the coaster delivery to their customer and returning with the payment. Temptation is at every turn — will the stranger do the right thing or rob the Good Samaritan (whose mantra is “I never refuse who comes nor go after who leaves”) that saved him? This simple story with high human stakes is as accessible and direct as the script for a silent film — and left several of my fellow movie-going friends discussing it for days.

An unexpected find of a completely different kind from Japan (by way of a U.S. co-production) was Grandpa’s Wet Dream, a charming nonfiction flick from Chihiro Amemiya that preceded Canadian Sally Blake’s Peep Culture. The short follows a 75-year-old man as he gets his affairs in order in anticipation of the inevitable — though in this case his affairs include dealing with his secret life as a porn star for the past 15 years. (“It hasn’t come out but she might have sensed it,” he replies in answer to the question “Does your wife know?” The same inquirer later wonders, “What if they’re screened during your wake?”) Similar to Ondi Timoner’s We Live In Public, though with far less filmmaking artistry, Peep Culture is also less salacious than its title might imply. Blake trains her lens on an unassuming academic named Hal Niedzviecki, the author of a book called The Peep Diaries, as he puts himself in the guinea pig position of his own research into modern western society’s exhibitionism. A mobile phone-less husband and father, Niedzviecki becomes the focus after the filmmakers install webcams in his home and he travels to California, Vancouver and New Jersey seeking answers to his question of “How does peep culture change us?” (“Why can’t you just live your own life?” he genuinely asks a fan of a life-caster named Cork who says he likes watching this San Francisco IT guy live his life online.)

Another film that explores technology’s morphing of mankind is Man Made Men, a feature from director Alex Fegan, who was flown in from Europe courtesy of Tucson’s own Culture Ireland. Unfortunately, Fegan wears his Pi fandom — right down to the rabbis — on his futuristic sleeve. But unlike Aronofsky’s film, Man Made Men overflows with ideas involving religion, the apocalypse, and artificial intelligence at the expense of a developed script and characters with a soul. Though Fegan has a knack for graphic animation the director could have taken some dialogue tips from Rashad Ernesto Green’s well deserved, indie hit Gun Hill Road, which also screened (its score courtesy of Tucsonian Enrique Feldman). Though the lead character in Green’s film happens to be transgender Gun Hill Road, is, refreshingly, at heart a nuanced study of an estranged family trying to reconnect. (Much like Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right, being LGBT is not the film’s focus since being LGBT is no longer the sole focus of most real LGBT people’s lives.) And the always-underappreciated Esai Morales as the just-released-from-prison father turns in nothing less than an Oscar-worthy performance. Now if only Independent Spirit Awards were given out to film festivals.

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