Monday, May 12, 2014

The 2014 Life Fest Film Festival (A Review)

Finally, missing the past few years, I was finally able to attend the Life Fest Film Festival. The event seeks out movies and documentaries that highlight the importance and dignity of human life. You might say that it has a generalized “pro-life” mission. This year, prior commitments kept me from days one and two, which apparently featured the best film selections, but on day three I managed to drive over to Family Theatre Productions, a Catholic media center in Hollywood, for the closing set of films and workshops. Here are my thoughts on the programmed works for that day.

First off was The War on Humans, the documentary tie-in to new ebook by Wesley J. Smith is a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and blogger on Human Exceptionalism, part of the National Review Online. Now I’ve watched and appreciated a number of Discovery Institute films, but this one rubbed me the wrong way. (What a way to start off the day!) To start off, it sensationalizes the controversy over animal rights while simultaneously admitting that these claims haven’t made headway in court. It appears that the DI is making a mountain out of some small fringe group’s molehill to…to do what? Get Christians panicked over another perceived threat to their well-being? Don’t we have better things to worry about? Apparently not. So the film continues, yet it never actually builds a case for “human exceptionalism.” We’re confronted with two conflicting premises: Other living things like plants and animals have equal rights as people, versus they don’t. The audience is never told why the latter is true, just that it is. Other unsubstantiated claims made: Somehow “human exceptionalism” implies (in fact, requires) humans to be kind to the lesser living creatures. (It does? How? They’re avoiding backing this up with the necessary moral claims.) And Darwin’s evolution, reducing man to a mere animal, implies that people must reduce their consumption and fertility so that other creatures can be better off. (Really? And whatever happened to the “survival of the fittest”? I don’t see cheetahs worrying about gazelle’s rights!) I don’t have time for such dribble. If you do, be my guest:

Second came the short drama Evelyn (directed by J.D. Flom), about a police detective frustrated with his demanding job and inattentive to his sick wife. I felt that this had been a rush job to make a deadline. Whatever change of heart the protagonist was supposed to have, it wasn’t convincingly written into the story. The film was plagued with poor lighting, low-quality filming, sound balance issues, missing props (e.g., a police badge), plot holes, and a confusing premise. Went it ended I was a bit confused, not as to why it was submitted, but why it was chosen to screen.

Next up were the 5×5 Competition Films Screenings. Similar to the 168 Film Project, the 5×5 Competition gives filmmakers five days to shoot a five-minute short constrained by the festivals theme, a character name, a line, and a prop. This year, about a dozen group started off, but only two actually finished, submitting a completed film by the deadline. And unfortunately, a technological glitch kept one of the entries titled Forced from screening. [Guess what? D.A.S.H. Entertainment, maker of Forced spotted my blog post, and provided a link (below). The short looks at the fairly recent practice of mandatory sterilization to prevent black welfare mothers and other undesirables of the time from procreating. I really wish I'd been able to view it and vote for it last Saturday.]

Your $1 Hamburger, which appeared to have been filmed on a phone, was about “buckaroos.” I was confused about how its subject fit its title and the festivals overall theme.

To pad the time slot, past winners were also screened. The 2013 one was Life Lessons from a Young Girl (directed by Mark Dendy), based on a true story involving an attempted suicide. I think that the five-minute time limit didn’t allow the filmmakers to do the subject justice, and I didn’t appreciate its needless overt politics. The 2012 winner was The Choice, addressed unplanned pregnancy. I liked some of the husband-wife banter, but the actors didn’t come across as physicians (which wasn’t really pertinent to the story). The ending was cute.

In the afternoon came the “Shorts Compilation”: Graham Messadieh’s Red Phone, as a distraught alcoholic father is transported into his memories in a fashion reminiscent of The Matrix. The script falls into the category of those that hide too much from the audience. I had a difficult time getting into the story.

Red Phone Teaser from Graham Messadieh on Vimeo.

Based on some true life events, Chris Kato’s The Christmas Gift was a cute short about a Jewish father, disabled and out of work, who wants to buy a teddy bear for his daughter. One thing I appreciated was the consistency in directing. Too often in indie films, when a director also acts, the quality noticeably changes depending on when he is or isn’t present in a scene. I’m not an expert, of course, but this didn’t seem to be the case with Kato’s work.

Also entertaining was Patrick Sabongui’s Shakey’s Coffee. This coming-of-age short has a young man finding his inner-strength through a poem that once inspired an aging veteran (who owns a cafĂ©, in case you were wondering). The film suffered from repetition, sound balance issues, and poor editing when the poem was recited. The plot was too predictable, but I enjoyed the laughs, the product of good timing and a suitable cast.

Oksana (directed by Ray Arthur Wang) took me by surprise. An Indian-American and an “American Indian” adopting a Russian girl sounded like something I would’ve screened back in the days of the Mixed Roots Film Festival (now replaced by the Mixed Remixed Festival), but the issues of mixed marriages, transnational adoption, and culture shock were never really the focus of this short. The desire to hurt others, the scandal of child molestation, and forgiveness are themes that could’ve come up a more traditional family. SPOILER ALERT: What concerned me was the film’s implication that a false accusation of this sort would be (or could be) cleared up so easily and so quickly. I suspect that, in reality, the investigative process and the restoration of the falsely accused’s reputation would take a while, especially if a child was involved. The ending was to hunky-dory to be convincing.

The Calm Before (directed by Rupert-Anthony Ortiz), dealing with the pain of losing a child, was another one of those films that actively tried to keep the audience in the dark. I also had to roll my eyes at the casting of a woman as the devil. Unlike the sexually-ambiguous fair-complexioned Satan in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Jesus Christ, who just so happened to be played by a woman, this obviously female one being defeated by a male Christ-like figure seemed to play up to misogynistic stereotypes too many men hold. To make things clear, I’m not accusing Ortiz of anything; but this just didn’t sit well with me. I’ve seen the bad girl/good boy thing in books and films too often to ignore it.

The best short, in my opinion, was Eline Leslie Meier’s When the Smiling Stops, made in memory of her parents’ struggle with Alzheimer's disease. Although I was mentally deducting points for its My Big Fat Greek Wedding meets The Notebook beginning, the plot quickly took a more original turn. The acting was strong, and the ending drove me to tears, as would be anyone else who can identify with the pain of caring for someone affected by this terrible disease.

The final screening of my day was Hannah Allison’s Labeled, an exposĂ© on “special needs” children being denied necessary medical care. I have to say this film really, really needed to be made…I’m just not convinced that a sixteen-year-old and her potentially-biased parents were the best people to do it, regardless of the medical qualifications of her mother. The documentary was unbalanced and so poorly edited that it became a bit tiresome to watch. Instead of educating the audience about the problem, the film relied on appeals to emotions, filling up an hour running time with frustrated parents, gushing siblings, pictures of smiling disabled children, and political references. Noticeably absent were interviews with medical experts on the diseases and any serious discussions about legal recourse. The filmmakers preferred to rely on their own limited research skills. It’s no surprised that they ended up repeatedly confusing the conclusion of an article with the position of a medical journal and its editors. I’m also suspicious that they engaged in “quote mining” and may have failed to thoroughly investigate all the relevant literature. Again, if “labeled” children suffering from genetic diseases really are facing these sorts of discrimination, then this needs to be made public and fast. But it’s impossible to take seriously someone who hasn’t graduated from using the argumentum ad Hitlerum. I’ve known more than one young starry-eyed filmmaker who takes on a big project before he or she is ready. Like many of them, I hope to see Hannah Allison bounce back with work of a higher quality in the near future.

Labeled - Official Trailer from Hannah Allison on Vimeo.

Couldn’t keep a 6-year-old birthday girl waiting, so I wasn’t able to catch Driving Blind (directed by Brian Griffo), a roadtrip film about two brothers who suffer from Choroideremia (CHM), a degenerative eye disease, and decide to take in some sightseeing before their eyesight is gone for good. The documentary is available for purchase online; so, hopefully, I’ll have a chance to see this one at a later date. I once tutored a student who was suffering from the same thing (or something similar). It was amazing to hear him talk about preparing for permanent blindness and how that affected the choices he made. Too bad I lost contact with him, or I’d recommend the film.

Driving Blind - Trailer from Brian James Griffo on Vimeo.