Bentonville Film Festival Roundup

By James Lindorf

For seven consecutive years, The Bentonville Film Festival has been one of the most progressive festivals in the world. Better than the majority of their peers, they understand that elevating different voices changes the artistic landscape for the better. This year’s hybrid edition came to a close on Sunday and showcased dozens of films. Of which 71% were directed by women, 75% by the BIPOC or AAPI communities, and 33% by people who identify as LGBTQIA+. While those numbers are both impressive and important, the fact that 87% featured a female lead, 81% a BIPOC or AAPI lead, and 30% an LGBTQIA+ lead maybe even more so. The diversity can be found in all facets of production, with 96% of these films having a cast and crew made up of more than half of people from these same communities.

Like many smaller festivals, many of Bentonville’s diverse slate of films originally premiered at other events, from Sundance and South by Southwest to the Berlin International Film Festival and many more. Because Bentonville is offering a completely virtual program for the second year in a row, you don’t have to worry about making the trek to Arkansas to experience the films. If you didn’t get to attend in person or from home, here are some films that you should be on the lookout for at theaters, streaming services, and festivals near you. My favorite movie is still “I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking),” which I profiled back in March as part of South by Southwest. You can read that review here if you haven’t already.

The highlight of the narrative films I was able to see during the six-day event has to be love in the time of covid, also known as “7 Days.”

7 Days, Director/Writer: Roshan Sethi: Ravi is set up on an arranged marriage date with Rita by their traditional Indian parents. When the circumstances of quarantine force them to shelter together, Ravi discovers that Rita is not quite the traditional girl of his dreams.
Cast: Mark Duplass, Geraldine Viswanathan, Aparna Nancherla, Karan Soni

This simple comedy features a cast of two, plus a few voices on the phone or webcam, dealing with perhaps the most challenging moment of their lives. In traditional odd couple fashion, Ravi is an uptight neat freak, and Rita is a wild slob. When these two are thrust together, there are only two ways it could go, they fall in love, or someone has to die. We have all seen the premise multiple times, and it does suffer from some of the typical RomCom tropes. However, those faults are overcome by sheer charm. If they get together or never see each other again doesn’t matter to me. I want to be friends with both of them. Having a nice light vegetarian lunch with Ravi before beers and burgers with Rita would be a wonderful day. There is one issue that may have been an accident or purposely done. Either way, it was a mistake. The pacing in the latter half of the film is all over the place. Is it day 4, 14, 47? I couldn’t tell you, except the title “7 days” seems to imply it all took place over a single week. It could be caused by budgetary restraints or inexperience. Still, I can’t help but wonder if that feeling of what day it is isn’t something Sethi tried to build in. Losing a sense of time was something so many of us experienced during lockdowns and quarantines.

On the non-fiction side of things, the best and most motivating documentary playing at Bentonville this year was “Kili Big.”

Kili Big, Director: Ida Joglar: A group of plus-sized women from around the world attempt to climb the tallest peak in Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro.

In 2019 the revenue for the U.S. weight loss and diet control market was 78 billion dollars. A group of women got together with one goal in mind. To show the world, they are capable of more than the world believes them to be. Getting to go that while hiking the largest mountain in Africa with 19 of your friends, well, that’s just a bonus. Mount Kilimanjaro is a volcano in Tanzania that tops out at just over 19,000 feet. Every year an estimated 35,000 people try to reach its summit in 6-10 excursions, but only 60% make it to the top. These women know they all will not make it, but they are determined to try and will support each other along the way. “Kili Big” is a beautiful movie not just for the fantastic shots you can get of sunrises at 19,000 ft, but because of its message. The hardest part about losing weight or just being comfortable at your size is getting yourself to do what you need or always wanted to do. Working out is hard and painful. Traveling or going on adventures can be embarrassing, but these women are begging for you to fight through the pain to shrug off the embarrassment, live your best life, and love yourself.

Other movies just missing out on my favorite spots include another documentary and two more narrative features.

At the Ready: Director: Maisie Crow: Ten miles from the Mexican border, the students at Horizon High School in El Paso (many of whom are Latinx) train to become police officers and Border Patrol agents. As they discover the realities of their dream jobs may be at odds with the truths and people they hold most dear, we learn the price they must pay as they grapple with their place within their communities at the intersection of identity, immigration, and personal politics.

“At the Ready” is complicated. Is Crow a true unbiased journalist just waiting for the story to unfold? Or is she trying to highlight the absurdity of having students practice drug raids, or is she a diehard supporter of the thin blue line and every man in uniform? The question is, was this the program that would allow her to come in and film, or did she want to go here to the exclusively Latinx class. It could be a happy coincidence that will enable her to highlight the debate within a community that generally doesn’t get the spotlight. However, it is awful and exploitative if it was done to say, see, not just white people. “At the Ready” is eye-opening and will lead to lots of debate and a few arguments because it won’t be easily forgotten.

Coast: Directors: Jessica Hester, Derek Schweickart, Writer: Cindy Kitagawa: Desperate to escape the trappings of her small coastal farming town, 16-year-old Abby falls for the lead singer of a touring rock band and must decide whether or not to leave her family and friends behind. Cast: Fatima Ptacek, Mia Frampton, Mia Xitlali, Kaylee Kamiya, Kane Ritchotte, Ciara Bravo, Eduardo Roman with Cristela Alonzo, Melissa Leo

Driven by a pulsing punk rock soundtrack and an outstanding performance from Fatima Ptacek, there may not have been a movie I was anticipating more than “Coast.” Perhaps it was a failure of expectations, but it fell well short of the lofty goals I set for it. “Coast” has a rawness to its presentation that feels genuine to the story of a girl teetering between rebellion and spinning out of control. However, its biggest fault is its main character, Abby. She feels like every out-of-control teenage daughter that dominated 90s daytime talk shows. She is wild because she can be; she is a lousy friend and thinks she is too good for the town and everyone in it. She has no depth. Her biggest problem is her parents are divorced, and her mom asked her to take a bag to her dad the next time she sees him. Other than that single bit of misfortune, she has no excuse for her behavior. The creative team has talent, and I would be interested in seeing what they do next. Still, I hope they find more motivation for their central characters.

Mogul Mowgli: Director: Bassam Tariq, Writers: Riz Ahmed, Bassam Tariq: On the brink of his first international tour, Zed, a British Pakistani rapper, decides to fly home to the U.K. to visit the family he has not seen in two years. In the midst of trying to reconnect with his parents, he is suddenly struck down by an autoimmune disease. As his condition worsens and his big breakthrough moment is in danger of vanishing into thin air, Zed descends into a physical and emotional crisis, amplified by vivid hallucinations. Opening Night Selection
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Anjana Vasan, Aiysha Hart, Nabhaan Rizwan

“Mogul Mowgli” is an emotionally raw examination of the complicated nature of identity. When the one thing you value about yourself is being taken away, what does that leave you with, who are you now, and where do you go from there? These questions threaten to break Zed in another powerful performance from Riz Ahmed. Perhaps the biggest impediment to “Mogul Mowgli” is its proximity to the release of “Sound of Metal.” Each film stars Riz Ahmed as a struggling musician who has a medical condition threatening to take away what he loves most. Unlike “Sound of Metal,” I don’t see “Mogul Mowgli” earning multiple Oscar nominations. Ahmed is a much better drummer than a rapper, and there is a detachment from Zed that is critical to a film of this nature. There is plenty of quality work here with Bassam Tariq’s handling of the character moments turning heads and drawing attention from the likes of Marvel as proof.

Not everything at this year’s Bentonville Film Festival was an undeniable hit, but there are plenty of truly great moments. More than the entertainment, it is a pleasure to see many points of view that haven’t been given a chance in the mainstream. I hope you will all be joining me next year for the 8th annual event.

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