By James Lindorf
The 6th annual Bentonville Film Festival (BFF) is underway even though the pandemic has caused the programmers a lot more stress than in years past. The seven-day event, August 10th-16th, will include virtual screenings, panel discussions, and even a few special live events. The festival is organized by the Bentonville Film Festival Foundation; a non-profit focused on promoting underrepresented voices in film. Their mission is to amplify female, LGBTQ+, people of color, and people with disabilities in entertainment and media. They accomplish that mission through research and education, which is primarily conducted by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. The foundation also supports the production and distribution of inclusive content. That mission is reflected in the BFF selections with more than 80% of BFF’s feature film showcase directed by women; 65% by BIPOC and 45% come from the LGBTQIA+ community. Single film passes, tickets to live events, and of course, unlimited virtual passes are now available on the Bentonville Film Festival Foundation website.
I figured there was no time better than day 1 to watch the first program of BFF’s short film competition. There are seven films in this group covering a wide range of topics from what it means to be disabled or biracial to growing up queer and Asian. Each film has its own merits, but I have a clear idea of my top two.
Writer-Director Ashley Eakin takes my top spot in group one with her anti-romantic comedy about our preconceived notions of life with a disability, “Single”. Delaney Feener (Kim) and Jordan Wiseley (Jake) star as the potential couple out on their first blind date. Everything starts well even though Kim is trying to hide the fact that she only has one arm, but when she notices Jake only has one hand, she is pissed. “Single” is a funny, insightful, and well-made film that makes you feel for its characters even if things don’t go so smoothly for them. Between the jokes and the barbs, Eakin asks us to question if the way we interact with people with a disability is genuinely well-meaning or thinly veiled condescension.
On the heels of “Single” is writer-director Robert Broadhurst’s Black Lives Matter themed “An Occurrence at Arverne.” The film is a study in using staging and tone to set a mood. What should be a simple favor for a friend takes on ominous air as a young black man is alone in the house of people he doesn’t know. Things go wrong from the second Marcus (Curtiss Cook, Jr.) arrives at the home. The key isn’t where he expects, and he must find another way into the house, then the alarm goes off, and a neighbor might have been watching him close the curtains. All of this while handling multiple phone calls reminding him not to be late for a date. Each element builds on the one before, and it wracks on the nerves of the viewers as they anticipate a particular outcome. Whether or not that is the outcome isn’t the important part. It is heartbreaking that society is in a place where what should be viewed as a meaningless set of events leads to the conclusion that someone is about to lose their life. The film’s importance is in realizing that fact. Hopefully, that recognition will encourage viewers to continue pushing for changes that will allow a movie to be about a black man running errands without making a foregone conclusion of what fate awaits him.
The next three films all look at people trying to find their place in the world. Whether they are biracial, a queer Asian, or transgender. They have all struggled with who they are and where they belong. “Broken Bird” follows Birdie, a girl preparing for her Bat Mitzvah and wondering if she should be more like her white Jewish mother or her black father. The most exciting part is probably watching how her hair changes throughout the movie as she tests the waters of living like each of her parents. She does make the best decision in the end, and the film closes with a dance number to show that she is finally comfortable with who she is.
“Dancing On My Own” is all about the queer Asian experience from the struggle of coming out to the triumphant discovery of Bubble_T. New York’s radical dance club where everyone is welcome but Asians dominate. “Dancing On My Own” is fun, bright, and informative but also feels incomplete. It feels more like a proof of concept than a finished story. There is so much to say on this subject and fascinating people to profile that thirteen and a half minutes can’t hope to contain all the information that the audience craves.
“Ava & Bianca” is a short documentary about best friends who are both cinematographers nd transgender. They even took turns shooting the film that is about them. It is easily the most beautiful film of the first group which shouldn’t come as a shock. The film’s primary purpose seems geared at normalizing the process of transitioning. It doesn’t have to happen at a certain point in your life, and you don’t have to proceed at anyone else’s pace. There is no one way to take on the monumental task, and each path is valid and should be appreciated.
The next two films are about love and letting go. “Daddy’s Girl” is about the relationship between Te Puhi and her aging father, Tūī. The pair has many inside jokes and love a good prank. There is also a lot of pain in their relationship as Tūī suffers from dementia. A perfect afternoon can be doused when he starts asking questions, and she is again forced to tell him the harsh reality of the losses his mind won’t let him remember.
The final film “Marie Celeste” is about romantic love as well as the love of art. Marie (Amanda Brugel), a renowned artist, is working with gallery assistant Lucy (Madeline Brewer) to prepare for her next exhibit. Marie welcomes the young woman into her elegant but strange world. Lucy knows a lot more about the unsuspecting artist than she initially lets on, but their dark connection bubbles to the surface. “Marie Celest” was well acted and filmed but suffered from a bad wig, an exaggerated French accent, and a little too quirky. In comparison, as enjoyable as “Marie Celeste is,” it is also my least favorite of the first program.
With two days of the Bentonville Film Festival in the books and the third rapidly coming to a close, there is still plenty of time to get your virtual passes and enjoy several of the event’s great films. I am halfway done with the short films after partaking in the second program of the short film competition. As with the first program, there are seven films, and there is a clear winner among the group of exciting films. Overall, program 2 wasn’t as strong as the first, but there are still some standout moments and powerful messages.
City of Widows may be the most beautiful film that I have ever seen. Cinematographer Jared Levy and Director Lacey Uhlemeyer contrasted the bleak nature of their topic with gorgeous establishing shots and stunning uses of color. The scenes captured during Holi, the festival of colors, have been on my mind since watching the movie. In stark contrast to the vibrant imagery is the heartbreaking revelation of how 46 million women in India are being treated simply for being widows. City of Widows is just under 11 minutes long, and there is so much left to explore. I would happily watch a three-hour documentary on this topic with Uhlemeyer and Levy behind the camera. City of Widows is my current choice to be the winner of the short film competition, and it will take something special to take its place.
The rest of the films in program 2 are a bit of a mixed bag. There is a crime movie, an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, tales of a lonely housewife, a child actor, a couple on the brink of a major decision, and a man who believes you need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
The weakest of the group would be Hollywoodland, even if they did make several interesting choices of how to adapt the Alice in Wonderland characters to fit in our world. A few smart decisions aren’t enough to make this tired trope of a premise interesting.
Long Time Listener, First Time Caller has a lot of potential. It explores how something unexpected can cause significant turmoil in our daily lives. For Nan, all it took was a simple phase for her to begin questioning everything around her and the choices that led to her current situation. It wouldn’t have taken much to set the film in the past where Nan and her naivety would have felt more natural. Nan is so inexperienced and unsuspecting it is hard to imagine someone like that existing in 2020. Nan and the potential sci-fi element detract from what could have been exceptional but ended up in the middle of the pack.
Velvet has a good look, something that I initially pegged as the early 70s but is actually 1965, the height of the spaghetti western. Outlaw lovers Eve and Austin are looking to escape the police and make it to Hollywood to begin a new life. Before they can even make it there, they will have to confront Austin’s racial prejudice, when he finds out that Eve has a Black mother. The message about confronting your prejudice, especially when you don’t consider yourself racist, is an important one that fits the times we will in. That story ends prematurely, making it seem like a problem that is easily solved. This could be forgiven if it was replaced with something great, but the focus shifted to Francesco Martino’s character Sergio Leone. It is unclear if this is supposed to be an homage to the Italian director or an attempt to say this is a true story, but it is ultimately a distraction.
They Won’t Last is a romantic dramedy about finding the one and the fears that can manifest. Commitment-phobe Christine and hopeless romantic Alex are attending their friend’s wedding. Alex has dreams of them being the next couple to tie the knot. In a comedy of errors, the biggest one may be the proposal. They won’t Last is all about the acting and the dialogue. Each Jack De Sena (Alex), Brittany Finamore (Christine) give excellent performances and have good chemistry. The dialogue is what sells the film though it feels so natural like this is capturing a fight one of the writers Portlynn Tagavi and Brandon Gale may have had.
In the “Long Ride Home,” Brandon has risen about his humble childhood, but he must reluctantly return for a family gathering. His uber driver is initially excited to be picking up another black man in such an affluent neighborhood, but his enthusiasm quickly dissipates when he learns where Brandon needs to go. The movie is about Brandon learning the lesson that life isn’t always in your control. Sometimes no matter how hard we work and how much we want something, roadblocks prevent people from achieving their goals. It is an important lesson to learn, as it helps us develop empathy. Still, the films suffers from not pushing that message hard enough. It is left for us to infer the meaning, which may be more artistic, but in such a short film, sometimes it pays to be a little heavy-handed.
The final film in program 2 is Tree #3. Itai is an Israeli immigrant struggling with his love of acting being stifled after he was cast as a tree in his middle school’s production of Sleepy Hallow. Films with children at their core can turn on a dime depending on the child actor. Luckily in Tree #3, Lior Malka gives a very impressive performance. One of the most remarkable things about the film as a whole is that even at less than 20 minutes, it hits all the emotions you would expect during a standard 90-minute three-act film. The only noticeable shortcoming is the lack of suitable comeuppance for the villain of the story. She doesn’t even learn her lesson, which is even more frustrating.
Program 3 in the short film competition brings us another eclectic set of films. A raunchy comedy, a story of bonding in the harshest environments, parental abandonment, the struggle of being accepted for who you are, and a profile of iconic activist round out this third group. “Becoming Eddie” along with “Sky West & Crooked” are the two standouts from this group of six films.
“Becoming Eddie” follows a Korean American boy in the 1980s as he struggles to fit in with his classmates despite having a lot in common. What’s a frustrated boy to do, well in the tradition of “Big” and “Liar Liar,” makes the only logical wish to become America’s favorite foul-mouthed comedian. The movie has a few genuine laughs while maintaining its heart. It is a little weird watching the lip reading and hearing the adult voice coming out of a kid. The film wants to teach you about appreciating yourself and the people who are there for you and love you for who you are.
On the flipside is “Sky West & Crooked,” which is all about heartbreak. Annie (Vivienne Rutherford) is eight years old. A classmate bullies her because her father left on a business trip three years ago. One Wednesday morning in 1973 blends magic and heartache into one gripping story based on real events. When Annie and her class take a field trip to a local bowling alley, she runs into her absentee father (Matt Jones). He never left town; he has been making money by playing music in local bars, avoiding his responsibilities.
“Human Terrain” shares a fictional story of a real-life military program. In Iraq, helping the troops connect with the local culture, an American anthropologist befriends a Muslim-Iraqi woman and has to choose between her friendship and her loyalty to her country. The film explores the side effects of war and how these conflicts create breeding grounds for retaliation and extremists. The decision of who is right or wrong is left up to the audience because it can be interpreted either way.
In “La Gloria,” a queer, lovelorn teen struggling with depression finds an unexpected connection to her Abuela. Bonding through the secret language of dreams, the grandmother helps Gloria find a little comfort in accepting who she is and facing her problems.
Reaching back into the past to profile, one of the greatest activists for Indigenous people is “Ruth Muskrat Bronson.” Ruth was an early Indian rights and education activist who worked tirelessly on dozens of causes. She advocated for better opportunities and social justice for all Native people and went as high as meeting the president. There is so much to her story that this feels more like a sizzle reel because she deserves so much more screen time, and I would love to see something feature-length in the future.
The final film in this group is “Postmarked.” A young boy obsessed with his missing sister runs away from home after finding her long lost letters. The postcards were meant for him, and with a code only he would know they can be arranged to make a map. After a massive fight with their father, the boy sets out to find the sister he hasn’t seen in years. Postmarked is an exploration of what some members of the trans community are forced to endure at the hands of their families. It is dedicated to the ones we have lost.
Program three may never reach the lows or program two, but it also never comes close to the beauty of “City of Widows.” With only one program to go, it seems like my winner still has a high chance of being crowned.
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