NOTE: THE FESTIVAL HAS BEEN POSTPONED.
Although I’ve covered dozens of film festivals in New York since becoming a member of New York Film Critics Online twenty years ago, none is closer to my heart than the Socially Relevant Film Festival, now in its 7th year. Its mission statement defines its goal as shining the spotlight on filmmakers who tell “compelling, socially relevant, human interest stories across a broad range of social issues without resorting to gratuitous violence or violent forms of film making.” While Hollywood produces movies like “Joker,” SRFF offers documentaries and narrative films that shed light on the condition of ordinary people living in extraordinary times. Considering the extraordinarily terrible conditions of the past year, we are indebted to SRFF director Norah Armani for curating films of the sort reviewed below.
Speaking of terrible conditions, you are likely to consider the coronavirus pandemic that has already led to the suspension of basketball games and other large-scale events. In light of that, the festival, which begins on Monday, March 16th, has issued this statement:
NOTE regarding COVID-19:
The festival will run as planned unless a directive from the city obliges us to cancel. Please check back regularly, keep calm, and wash your hands as directed by the official communications. Download the instructions here.
In 1981, Louis Malle made a film titled “My Dinner With Andre” that had a cast of two: Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn. They wrote the screenplay and played semi-fictional versions of themselves. During the entire 111 minutes, the cameras were trained on the two as they sat eating and chatting at Café Des Artistes, a luxurious restaurant on the upper west side. Despite defying Hollywood film conventions across the board, the film impressed Roger Ebert enough to name it best of the year.
“Good Morning,” a Lebanese film, is this year’s “My Dinner With Andre.” Every morning an 80-year-old former General in the Lebanese army and an 84-year-old military doctor meet at a coffee shop in Beirut to spend time working on crossword puzzles together. They, like me (I am a bit younger), enjoy doing such puzzles both intellectually and therapeutically. They hope that by exercising the brain, they will stave off dementia just as jogging or bicycling will stave off heart disease.
Unlike “My Dinner With Andre,” which featured Andre Gregory as a flamboyant raconteur and Shawn as his timid interlocutor, the dialog between the General and the doctor is far more mundane. The drama, however, flows from their uphill battle against declining cognitive and physical abilities that puts their long-time friendship into bold relief. They become Everymen facing the inevitability of death just Max Von Sydow’s Knight faced off Death, the hooded chess master in “The Seventh Seal.”
Each day, the General habitually approaches total strangers in the coffee shop to ask them if they’d like to hear a joke. For most of the film, we don’t make too much of this since we accept this as the attempt of an elderly man to enjoy interaction with younger people, even if fleetingly. Toward the end, he begins to overstay his welcome at tables to the point that the doctor warns them that it has become a sickness with him. The look of consternation on the hapless General’s face is enough to bring tears to your eyes.
Against the human drama taking place within the four walls of the coffee shop, Lebanon is sinking into the regional crisis. Suicide bombers attack every so often while Syrian refugees beg on the street beneath them. Like most old-timers, they are nostalgic for the Lebanon of their youth. When they are not working on crossword puzzles or sharing their latest medical complaint with each other, they sing classic Arabic songs.
Considering the likelihood that the director Bahij Hojeij used an actual coffee shop and modest technical gear to make “Good Morning,” this film would educate aspiring filmmakers that a work of art does not require a $10 million budget. It requires instead deep humanist instincts and a flair for storytelling, traits that remain priceless.
With a Russian director (Alexey Zlobin) and a mixed Russian and Armenian cast, “Lorik” tells the story of a middle-aged actor in Yerevan that Freud would have diagnosed as a case of extreme narcissistic disorder. He cares nothing about the people around him and only expects them to cater to his needs. When a makeup artist is a bit late supplying him with the fake nose he needs to play Cyrano de Bergerac, he throws a tantrum. Upon further reflection, you might say that in the world of actors and actresses, he is fairly normal.
His world is turned upside down when he learns that the local government has decided to renovate his beloved theater. Robbed of a stage where he is in complete control, he makes the mistake of ordering the construction crew to cease and desist. Unaware that goons from the local government are providing security at the site, he gets the heave-ho and lands on his head on the pavement below the theater. When he regains consciousness, he is shocked to discover that people no longer see him as Lorik the famous actor. In their eyes, he has become Johnik, a parking garage attendant his neighbors regard as the village idiot.
Through some sort of supernatural process, Lorik—so used to playing larger-than-life characters like Cyrano—is now transforming into real-life characters who represent the social contradictions of Armenian society, both male and female, young and old. Among the youngest is a bed-ridden girl who requires costly surgery to recover from a serious illness. Not long after he sheds her “role,” he turns into the crooked politician who ordered the closing of the theater. He plans to turn into headquarters for his nationalist party.
Whether or not the screenwriter Michael Poghosian, who also plays Lorik, intended it or not, the film has a strong affinity with Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” Lorik is Scrooge and the sickly girl is Tiny Tim. In the course of stepping into the roles of Yerevan’s divided society that overthrew a nationalist oligarchy last year, Lorik experiences redemption. Poghosian is excellent as Lorik. Despite my impatience with magical realism in other films, I found “Lorik” altogether enchanting.
Like Greta Thunberg taking on the fossil fuel energy producers, the fifth graders in PS15 in Red Hook, Brooklyn are taking on the fossil fuel plastic manufacturers threatening marine life.
Like most kids, they love whales and other creatures living in the ocean. When their teacher takes them on a field trip to Jamaica Bay, they are disgusted to see all the plastic garbage strewn across the beach and in nearby bushes. They are even more disgusted to learn that the plastic stiffens under years of sunlight and then fragments into tiny particles. Swept up by the tides and into the ocean’s depth, the fish cannot distinguish them from food. Consequently, they eat them and perish. All in the name of a corporation’s bottom line.
Seeing the interaction between the students, mostly black and Latino, and their dedicated teacher, you wonder why can’t every school in the USA be following their example. They examine plastic fibers under a microscope connected to an Apple laptop. Imagine the most exciting science project that ever took place in your school and you’ll get an idea of the intellectual and political energy taking place at PS15. I taught fifth grade for a week in 1968 and would have stuck with it if I had the training to teach science to kids like these.
In addition to chronicling the intellectual odyssey of these youngsters, the film is also a primer on plastic pollution in the oceans. The website has information on the movement to reduce plastics in New York City that resulted in the elimination of Styrofoam in their school and plastic shopping bags in local grocery stores. The task of building a sustainable society will require a crusade against petrochemical energy and plastics companies. We are fortunate to have kids like Greta Thunberg and these fifth graders on the front lines.
Undermined: Tales form the Kimberley
The Kimberley is the northernmost of the nine regions of Western Australia. Bordered on the west by the Indian Ocean, Aboriginals make up forty percent of the population. The documentary describes their efforts to defend their homeland against mining companies and corporate agriculture. For those who have been following the struggles of the Lakota in the U.S.A. and the Wet’suwe’en in Canada against energy company incursions, seeing this film will help you understand that they are global in character.
Like Montana, Wyoming, and other rugged western states, Kimberley is a magnet for billionaires who buy land by the thousands of acres and build luxurious ranch estates. Ted Turner owns two million acres and fifteen ranches in 10 different states. Australian versions of Ted Turner have also moved in on Kimberley. Worth $15 billion, mining company owner Gina Rinehart is at the forefront of “developing” Western Australia. She was involved with a secessionist movement that would allow capitalists to exploit the region’s valuable natural resources at a faster rate than the government in Canberra would allow.
Besides her, the Aboriginals also have to contend with Kerry Stokes, who has major investments in mining and media companies. He is also a big-time rancher like Ted Turner. Stokes bought 1,563 square miles of land in the Kimberley and then stocked it with 20,000 head of Red Brahman cattle worth up to 40 million Australian dollars. To give you an idea of his commitment to environmental values, Stokes is on record as stating that the fires that raged last year in Australia do not have much to do with climate change.
Gratefully, the film does not pay much attention to such characters. It mostly allows Aboriginals, some of whom are small ranchers devoted to a pastoral lifestyle, to make the case for keeping predatory big businessmen out. If memory serves me correctly, this film gives Australia’s indigenous people the biggest opportunity to speak for their culture than any I have ever seen in a film.
Speaking most eloquently for the Aboriginal cause, Albert Wiggan seemed to be poised to enjoy the benefits of urban life as a college graduate and a professional. Instead, he returned to Kimberley and became a tribune of a struggle to maintain a civilization that goes back thousands of years. He belongs to the Bardi-Kija-Nyul Nyul people who live near Cygnet Bay on the Dampier Peninsula. When the government tried to build the world’s largest LNG plant at James Price Point, he lobbied the Supreme Court and led a blockade until the developer withdrew from the project. He now works as an environmental consultant with the Nyul Nyul Rangers and is Deputy Chair of the Kimberley Indigenous Saltwater Science Project. Like the fifth graders in Red Hook, Brooklyn, he is on the front lines of the struggle to make this planet livable for thousands of years into the future. Like “Microplastic Madness,” “Undermined” is a powerful tool on its behalf.
Stonewall With A ‘T’
Directed by Samy Nemir Olivares, a gay Puerto Rican immigrant and media activist, this film examines the rift between transgender people and the gay movement in the years following the Stonewall riot. While you are accustomed to seeing the case for LGBT rights today, for a number of years the T was absent.
Despite being sympathetic to transgender rights, gay men in leadership positions felt that legislators in both Albany and Washington would not pass a bill that included gender identity. The irony, as the film points out, is that it was transgender women who finally stood up and resisted the cops back in 1969.
Stonewall was not a club patronized by closeted stockbrokers or lawyers. Owned by the Mafia, it was popular with the poorest and most marginalized people in the gay community. They were up-front about their identity: butch lesbians, effeminate young men, drag queens, male prostitutes, transgender people, and homeless youth.
The film celebrates the leading roles played by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, black and Latina transgender activists who were to the transgender movement that Harvey Milk was to the gay movement. To get an idea of the oceanic gulf between a Tim Cook and such people, I recommend a Washington Post article that celebrates Stonewall :
Sylvia Rivera even credited Johnson with saving her life — a life marked by hellish trials from the beginning. Her father abandoned her at birth, and her mother killed herself when she was 3. As a child, Rivera would try on her grandmother’s clothes and makeup, and was beaten when caught. By 11, she was a runaway and child prostitute.
She met Johnson on the streets in 1963, when she was still a preteen.
“She was like a mother to me,” Rivera said later. Johnson gave Rivera a measure of stability and love she had never experienced.
There are many stories about what Johnson and Rivera did in the early-morning hours of June 28, 1969, when the Stonewall riots erupted. Almost everyone agrees they were there. One legend has Johnson throwing the first “shot glass heard around the world”; another has her throwing the first brick. Stonewall historian David Carter concluded it was “extremely likely” that Johnson was among the first people to resist the police.