Saturday, May 10, 2014

The 2014 Newport Beach Film Festival (A Review)

From April 24 to May 1, 2014, one of my favorite Orange County events, the Newport Beach Film Festival, celebrated its 15th anniversary. As you all know, I had a busy, emotionally-charged week, and unfortunately had to miss out on a lot of films, including Belle, a drama about Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761–1804) the illegitimate mulatto daughter of British Admiral Sir John Lindsay, and The Immigrant, which is based on the real-life experiences of Ellis Island detainees. Hopefully, I’ll get to see both of these at a later time. Right now, I’d like to share some thoughts on the films I did manage to catch in case you come across them later on.

The first movie I saw was the documentary short Reporting on The Times: The New York Times and The Holocaust, which takes America’s most popular newspaper to task for its minimal of publicizing Nazi crimes against Jews during World War II. Rather than front-page headlines with large photographs, the stories were short single columns placed on the inside among other war stories. I had mixed feelings about how all of this was presented. Even though most of the interviewees seemed willing to give Sulzberger the benefit of the doubt and accept the past for what it was, I found the overall tone of the film needlessly accusatory. The filmmaker seemed intent on making publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger out to be a bad guy, yet I was thoroughly impressed that he would've allowed 1,000s of articles to be printed at all, in spite of American society being rather self-absorbed and generally hostile towards Jews. The Times really could’ve played it safe and completely ignored what was happening. Even though there are plenty of caveats given, my impression was that the film gives the impression that the newspaper could’ve stopped the Holocaust…a bit unrealistic in my opinion. Add that it was extremely bad form to present footage of German American Bund activities in such a way as to suggest that that group’s politics was representative of the American population as a whole. Despite the Madison Square Garden rally (1939) for which it’s infamous, the Bund remained extremely unpopular, even among German Americans, and although the United States cultural climate has been identified as generally anti-Semitic during that time, that’s not the same as pro-Nazi. Was Reporting on The Times well made? Sure. Most viewers would probably find it worth their time. However, so far it hasn’t made my list of favorites. I will check out the film’s inspiration, Laurel Leff’s Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper, though. Books often have a way of making stronger arguments than what come out in films.

Reporting on The Times Preview from Emily Harrold on Vimeo.

Next up was Before The Revolution, a fascinating documentary and touching tribute to its filmmaker’s parents. During the Shah’s regime in Iran, Israelis migrated for prime job opportunities and then were forced to leave as the Revolution gained full force. I love it when filmmakers use home videos, and this one had a lot of his own family’s material at his disposal. Although the Persian viewpoint was rather absent from the film – there being only one interviewee, and apparently not eye-witness – I appreciated the filmmaker’s efforts to get a variety of Israeli perspectives: government officials, embassy security, business men, family members, etc. They showed the diversity of life experiences and opinions about Israel’s political relationships with Iran. What was rather ironic was one woman’s defense that they were living such a good life that they didn’t pay any attention to the oppression around them. I say “ironic” because that’s an excuse generally criticized when given in connection with the Holocaust, and this film was paired with Reporting on The Times, mentioned above. Another point about balance: The film left me wondering about the Persian Jews, who were indirectly referenced when someone remembered an anti-Israeli political slogan that suggested that non-Israeli Jews didn’t pose a threat to the Revolutionaries. I wondered whether the Persian and Israeli Jews got along during the Shah’s regime and how the former group has fared since the Revolution. Guess I’ll have to wait for another documentary.

On the final day of the festival, my husband and I watched Untouchable: Children of God, an expos√© on the trafficking of Nepalese girls, who are forced to work as prostitutes in India. In this type of documentary, testimonies from victims and interviews with political activists are normally expected. This film had a unique surprised though: some footage from within a brothel thanks to the efforts of undercover cameramen. Unfortunately, I thought that it should’ve been more carefully used with a narrator explaining what had been filmed. Instead we were treated to repetition after repetition of the same dizzying and blurry scenes without much of a clue as to how the filmmaker wanted us to interpret them. This poor use of a footage goldmine disappointed me, and it highlighted the central problem of the whole film: very sloppy editing. I was, however, relieved to hear director Grant Knisely announce during the Q&A that the film was still going through some reworking. I’m looking forward to seeing the finished product at a later date. The cause against sex trafficking is very dear to me. I’d be saddened if some production mistakes prevented this film from reaching a wide audience.

UNTOUCHABLE: CHILDREN OF GOD - Sneak Preview from Grant Knisely on Vimeo.

Next up was something different: the feature film Cas & Dylan is a Canadian roadtrip comedy about an aging widower doctor and an energetic young wannabe writer who inadvertently cross paths and end up helping each other through some tough situations. Yes, I did say “comedy,” but I’m using the term loosely. Spoiler Alert: The film addresses a bunch of serious issues such as grief, domestic violence, unplanned pregnancy, and euthanasia. While I don’t agree with some of the things presented in the film, it was in no way “preachy.” I felt that I could really sympathize with the characters, as odd as they were, and appreciate the direction the film took.

Closing out was another Canadian film, Our Man In Tehran. A bit of a rush job to release within one year of Argo, this documentary attempts to set the record straight on a number of counts in telling the story of the six U.S. embassy personnel who escaped post-revolutionary Iran disguised as a Canadian movie crew (1980). This film shows how Canadian Ambassador to Iran Ken Taylor, Prime Minister Joe Clark, and Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Flora MacDonald, along with some Canadian embassy staff and their spouses, successfully managed to hide and smuggle out these Americans in the midst of political upheaval both at home and abroad. This film was funny, exciting, shocking, and everything. It successfully told both personal and national stories. It is a wonderful example of how careful editing can eliminate any need for a narrator and still allow for a coherent storyline. The only serious downside was initially my husband’s complaint: When recounting the history leading up to the Iran Hostage Crisis, the film ignores the Iranian coup d’√©tat (1953) during which the United States government successfully returned the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi back to power. Without this background information, the viewer is tempted to side with the film, believing that the Persian Revolutionaries were being unrealistic in assuming that the U.S. would aid the Shah’s return in 1979. With this background information, it seems quite reasonable that it might have.