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On the Southern Circuit in the Time of October Surprises: Sidewalk, Third Horizon Caribbean and Hot Springs Film Festivals


Birmingham, tucked right in the middle of Alabama, is easily the biggest city in “the heart of Dixie”; its 1.1 million-person metropolitan area dwarfs the populations of Huntsville and Mobile, Montgomery and Tuscaloosa. The central business district, like that of many American cities that haven’t gentrified after white flight, can feel eerily vacant on the weekends or at night. But during the Sidewalk Film Festival, whose 18th edition was held on the final weekend of August, the center of its modest downtown contains many wonders. Sidewalk knows how to throw a party; in front of the historic Alabama theater, the street is blocked off all weekend as bands play and food trucks dish out edibles amidst some of the thickest humidity America can conjure. The festival is quick and blunt, three nights and two days of movies in venues all over downtown, almost all of them in comfortable walking distance of each other despite the heat. It’s a southern cinephile’s paradise, a festival that is truly festive, with dance parties on the top of parking garages and late-night breakfasts to send off the winners. This year, they even had a kombucha sponsor.

Kristopher Avedisian’s Donald Cried won the festival’s prize for Best Narrative Feature. A hit at this year’s SXSW, the film, which will soon be released by The Orchard, is a comedy of maximum discomfort. Expanded from Avedisian’s earlier short, Donald Cried stars the writer/director as Donald Treebeck, who helps a visiting childhood friend (Jesse Wakeman) after the latter loses his wallet and ID in Warwick, Rhode Island, their childhood hometown. Embodying equal parts American Movie‘s Mark Borchardt and Robert De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin from The King of Comedy, the character of Donald ought to be a starmaking turn for Avedisian, but that assumes people still watch “independent films,” a term at least one writer for this publication thinks we ought to stop using.

But based on the crowds I saw at Sidewalk, people still do watch independent film. Ti West’s In The Valley of Violence nearly sold out the Alabama, a massive 1920s movie house, on opening night. That’s a big-ticket item with movie stars, of course; many world premieres, of which Sidewalk hosts more than most festivals of its profile, struggled to draw the same support. Honorable, ambitious and uneven films like producer Thomas Woodrow’s resourceful post-apocalyptic directorial debut We’ve Forgotten More Than We Ever Knew — which, like Donald Cried, co-stars the lovely Louisa Krause— and Adam Kritzer’s spirited if somewhat confusing Brooklyn gentrification drama Good Funk premiered to less than full houses.

The festival had to add a second screening of Gip, however. The world premiere of Patrick Sheehan’s deft and illuminating film sold out well before showtime; the second screening, which I attended, was nearly as full. The picture draws its name from the legendary Bessimer, Alabama juke joint, perhaps the last of its kind in the entirety of the Cotton State. Its proprietor, the octogenarian gravedigger Henry “Gip” Gipson, lives in a house on the same property as the blues club in his backyard. When local authorities try to shut him down after a series of noise complaints from his neighbors, downright rage boiled up inside me. Gipson is clearly a local and regional treasure, one of the last of a generation of black bluesmen who arose from the cotton fields and made ways for themselves. In the case of Gipson, that meant temporarily putting aside the ghosts of genocide and human bondage that haunt the place in order to give the pain a conciliatory sound. A crowdpleaser, the movie is sure to find great traction throughout the southern festival circuit, one that begins more or less with Sidewalk and winds its way through terrific events in Savannah and New Orleans, Memphis and Cucolorus, Oxford and Atlanta. Gip walked away with both the Audience Award for Documentary Feature and the Alabama Prize.

Alabama is likely to give its nine electoral votes to Manhattan businessman, entertainer and racist heir Donald J. Trump. He is leading the polls in the state — which is 68% white and still a bastion of segregation and white supremacist sentiments — by nearly 20 points in many surveys. His evident bigotry doesn’t raise enough eyebrows in those parts. Despite his lack of sanctimony or religiosity, these Bible Belt voters have long been in thrall to the G.O.P.’s southern strategy, for which Trump, who has been disavowed by much of the party for saying in clear terms what it has been advocating for decades with winks and nods, is an odd torchbearer. While at another outpost on the southern circuit earlier in the summer in Dallas, I visited a Trump rally on the one-year anniversary of his free-wheeling, highly improvisational, markedly racist Presidential campaign. I left fairly shaken, certain in the knowledge that whatever was once referred to as a social contract in America has been irrevocably broken.

Our has always been a violent and ignorant country. But Trump’s demagoguery speaks to a great yearning. His words soothe the ignorant and damaged while being tinged with enough rueful and well-earned anger to resonate. For his supporters, distrust of and desire for dissolution of our corrupt oligarchy, one that Hillary Clinton has become a sad representative of, somehow gets married to getting rid of Mexicans and Muslims when Mr. Make America Great Again takes the stage. For the young men in the uniforms of southern privilege, gingham shirts and khaki shorts with sockless loafers and distressed baseball caps over their frosted blond tips, Tolerance and Decency are mutually exclusive to such ideals, it seems. This explains the chants of “jail her” and the T-shirts that read “Clinton/Lewinsky 2016,” with a caption beneath that reads “Don’t Blow It This Time.” Where, one wonders, will all this meanspiritedness go come November 9th, at the end of an election one candidate, who, because of his demagoguery, has been able to align the entire mainstream media in advocacy against him, is already calling rigged?

I don’t want to live in a country that is foolish enough to give Donald Trump access to America’s nuclear arsenal. For this to come to pass, Trump will have to win Florida’s 24 electoral votes, where he currently trails in the polls — albeit within many of their margins of error. To carry the state, Trump will have to draw significant support in the upper panhandle and central Florida, Republican strongholds both, and also will have do better than expected in Miami-Dade County, which, in the era of José Fernández’s boating death and LeBron James’s return to the Buckeye State, just can’t catch a break. Ransacked by Zika all summer long, Miami is the cultural center for both the Latin American and West Indian world that, if global warming projections hold fast, is living on borrowed time. Hurricane Matthew, which caused over a thousand deaths in its rampage through the Caribbean and up the Atlantic coast, hit the city just days after the curtain dropped on the inaugural Third Horizon Caribbean Film Festival. So things are looking up in at least one respect.

The brainchild of locals Robert Sawyer, Keisha Rae Witherspoon and Jason Fitzroy Jeffers, the festival, held at the O Cinema in the quickly gentrifying Wynwood section of Miami, interrogates the history and future of Caribbean cinema with a slate of screenings and panels, parties and gallery exhibits that escape the clichés and exoticism often associated with what the program’s welcome note describes as “the world’s greatest unintended experiment in human diversity.” From French Guiana to Bermuda, Belize to Barbados, Jonathan Ali’s textured and dexterous program reflects the diversity of the region. Opening with recent TIFF premiere Ayiti Mon Amour, by Haitian director Guetty Felin, the selection included a bevy of idyosyncratic features and shorts, while making room for repertory pics like Horace Ove’s 1975 film Pressure, a classic of West Indian diasporic cinema that has never been properly released in the U.S. Rounding out the broad palette were remarkable and headscratching visions of Afro-futurism, such as Miguel Llansó’s Ethopian-Spanish co-production Crumbs; earnest if somewhat confusing docs on black and brown activism in the U.K., like Cassie Quarless and Usayd Younis’ Generation Revolution ; and neo-realist exercises like Damian Marcano’s 2013 fest circuit hit God Loves the Fighter.

The festival, sponsored by Time Warner and The Knight Foundation, among others, really found its groove with a pair of personal docs: Damani Baker’s The House on Coco Road and Cecilia Aldarondo’s Memories of a Penitent Heart. Bowing at the Los Angeles and Tribeca Film Festivals respectively, these two searching documentaries by a pair of former 25 New Faces in Independent Film contain unforeseen depths of feeling as they delve into the families of the filmmakers. While Baker retraces he and his mother Fannie’s move to and flight from Grenada in 1983, just months before the assassination of revolutionary leader Maurice Bishop and the subsequent U.S. invasion, Aldarondo investigates the legacy of her uncle, a gay and mostly closeted Puerto Rican who died of AIDS 25 years previous. The films both use home movies, recent verité and interviews to excavate secret histories in ways that prove emotionally risky and aesthetically satisfying. One hopes that Sawyer, Jeffers and Ali’s new festival will continue to spread its wings; its heart is definitely in the right place when it finds room in its program for films like these, both of which throw assumptions about recent American political and social history on their heads while rendering the parochial in the most universal of terms.

The weekend of the #billybushtapes and #podestaemails, I was in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Bill Clinton’s hometown, for the latest edition of the country’s oldest documentary film festival. I still haven’t heard all the tapes or read all the emails. One doesn’t have to in order to know that the two people who have any shot at being our next President have no business being trusted to run this country. I’m staring at my absentee ballot as I write this, not knowing whether my vote matters much, given that it is impossible to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs. Whoever wins come November 8th, a sexual predator will once again stalk the halls of the White House, either as President or First Dude. Someone comfortable referring to young Negroes as “The Blacks” or “Super Predators” will, during business hours, occupy the Oval Office. All you can do is shake your head.

Hillary Clinton, who trails Donald Trump by 15 points in the Arkansas polls, despite having been the state’s first lady for many years, appears in Rita Coburn Whack and Bob Hercules’s Maya Angelou: Still I Rise, which I caught during the 25th edition of the Hot Springs International Documentary Film Festival. She is one of the many luminaries, including her husband, Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and Alfre Woodard, who speak of the poet, memoirist, actress, activist and film director’s many sanguine qualities. The doc is a pleasant piece of hagiography, a storytelling mode the festival seems to be enamored with. For the Love of Spock, a testament to the life and mensch-hood of Leonard Nimoy as told by his son Adam, is also styled as a 100-plus minute love fest to an enduring, recently deceased icon of the late 1960s. Neither film breaks a shred of ground, but both were looked on fondly by the elderly whites who make up the majority of the attendees at the festival, which is held in several ballrooms on the second floor of this old spa town’s gloriously fading Arlington Hotel.

An irony pervades this documentary film festival that sits in the birthplace of spring training and gangland-owned mineral bathhouses. The biggest guests of the festival, which showcases some of the season’s best docs, are usually Hollywood actors. Co-chaired this year by The Landlord co-stars Lou Gossett Jr. and Beau Bridges, Hot Springs, headed up by festival director Courtney Pledger, is routinely able to get a Joey Lauren Adams or Peter Coyote to show up and hang. After I grew tired of watching Donald Trump loom ominously over Hillary Clinton’s shoulder during the town hall debate on the third night of the festival, I moseyed over to a party at a New York-style pizzeria owned by an expat Brooklynite. His pies weren’t Grimaldi’s, but they were pretty damn good, a salve to the Mutually Assured Destruction the second half of the debate was sure to offer, where various folks, in our bubble of liberal filmmaking types, commiserated about the grave danger the Republic was in.

The festival’s laid-back vibe and welcoming posture play host to an assortment of films that have slipped through the cracks elsewhere, such as the world premiere of Lara Stolman’s terrific Swim Team, a meditation on a trio of competitive swimmers with autism that took the Spa City Best Sports Documentary Prize. Top honors went to Maisie Crow’s L.A. Film Festival favorite Jackson, which examines, with aplomb and thinly concealed outrage, the ongoing debate over abortion access. It focuses on three women: an abortion provider, an anti-abortion activist and an overweight and poverty-stricken young black mother. Crow reveals the Magnolia State’s discriminatory public health system, showing us just how a place the size of Mississippi can only have one abortion clinic. A devastating account of a broken commons, the movie reveals just how much the road to hell is paved with the best of intentions, how little common ground can be found within the same laundry list of hot-button political topics that have dominated American political life for generations. Our is a time of crisis and strife, with little end in sight.

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