LOU'S VIEWS: Heartland fest's bests ... and the rest

October 10, 2009

This year’s Heartland Film Festival (Oct. 15-20) includes a record 87 features and short films.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t pre-screen them all. But, with the help of Rebecca Berfanger from IBJ’s sister publication Indiana Lawyer, award winning dramatic features, documentary features, and shorts got a viewing. Plus many of the not-in-competition films.

Below you’ll find the ones that we strongly recommend roughly in order of our preference -- then some thoughts on others we've screened. 

We’ll be adding reviews throughout the festival, so stop back often.

“After the Storm”
(documentary feature). I’ll confess that I saw the title and callously thought “Here comes another Hurricane Katrina documentary.” But this account of the experience of a group of New York Broadway folks as they help the damaged St. Mark’s Community Center pull off a teen production of the hurricane-set musical “Once on this Island” proved magical.

It’s got drama. It’s got music. And it has a deep-seated sense not just of the triumph of survival but also of the pain. There’s a moment where a preacher’s son attempts to be brave while recounting his experience that, as I type this, still brings tears to my eyes.

Beyond the emotions, what “After the Storm” has that many other documentaries don’t is a compelling story arc. From casting to performance and beyond, there’s a pull that helps this well-observed film transcend.

(dramatic short). After watching this harrowing, just-the-right-length tale of relief workers in a brutal moral bind, I was surprised to learn that it’s a student film. Its style is ragged, as befits the situation, but it’s remarkably polished, professional, and thoroughly believable.

It begins with do-gooders making a relief drop in a desperate African village. But shortly after they leave, they must return under orders to reclaim half of the food and water in order to keep members of a recently raided refugee camp alive. I’ll say no more.

“Big John” (documentary feature). Like a Greek tragedy, the Norwegian father-son boxing team in “Big John” dramatically rises and ultimately falls. But hindsight is 20/20 for Big John Klemetsen and the son he trained for greatness. Beyond the boxing is the heartwarming and realistic father-son relationship, including their band that plays Gypsy music. Big John also wants to instill in his family a sense of pride about their Romany heritage while facing another, more personal tragedy.

“Sergio” (documentary feature). One of the pleasures of a good film festival comes from discovering lives you hadn’t previously thought about. And as influential as he was, I’ll admit that I came into this film with no knowledge of Sergio Vieira de Mello, his work with the United Nations, or what happened to him at the U.N. bombing in Iraq. What seems at first to be a worshipful biopic transforms, however, into a riveting search- and-attempted-rescue story. That de Mello’s mistress, the two rescue workers, and the man trapped with him come across as more rounded characters is a plus, not a minus in this powerhouse of a film that underlines both our strength and our fragility.

“Entre Nos” (dramatic feature). A woman arrives in the United States from Colombia with her two children—only to be quickly abandoned by her husband in this nuanced tale of a family’s survival. Understated performances and a steadfast refusal to stage Hollywood-type big scenes help make this a very moving winner.

“Rough Aunties” (documentary feature). A determined group of women try to make things better for the most vulnerable members of their community–children who’ve been abused and raped. Operation Bobbi Bear, in Durban, South Africa, works with local police, child protective services and community members to hold aggressors accountable for their actions. The film is not for the faint of heart–and child abuse isn’t the only devastating tragedy in this film–yet the small actions of these aunties might just restore your faith in humanity.

(dramatic feature). It starts as the intense tale of an Iraqi teen’s Herculean efforts to get to England to be with his girlfriend, and then shifts its focus to the French swim teacher who helps him. But the midstream shift in “Welcome” actually helps accentuate the tension and heartbreak in this well-made, character-driven film. Of the features I screened, it’s the one most likely to find breakout success.

“Side by Side” (documentary short). A filmmaker sets out to understand why his father and his neighbor haven’t spoken for 15 years. The result is a half-hour smile that is joyfully, awkwardly human. 

“Holy Land Hardball” (documentary feature). This one’s not in competition, but it’s a fun, what’s-going-to-happen-next account of the American entrepreneur (he developed pre-packed, cream-cheese-stuffed bagels) who decides he’s going to bring Major League Baseball to Israel, a country whose interest in the sport is highly debatable. If, like me, you have no idea how the experiment turned out, you’ll be captivated. If, unlike me, you are a serious baseball fan, this is mandatory viewing.

(dramatic feature). From the “Lars and the Real Girl”/“Adam” school of unlikely, geek romances comes this story of a 30-year-old about to be evicted from his parent’s house and the woman he becomes infatuated with. The main character treads dangerously close to the stalker line—and the object of his affection is, in grand Hollywood tradition, a bit too attractive—but Matthew Lillard (you may know him as Shaggy in the Scooby-Doo flicks) and Nora Zehetner (from TV’s “Everwood” and “Heroes”), plus some terrific supporting performances and sharply casual writing, should make this the Heartland date film for 2009.

The Rest of the Fest

“Bicycle” (dramatic short). An original short that doesn’t overstay its welcome, “Bicycle” concerns a man whose means of transportation is stolen—and then recovered—piece by piece. A deadpan actor in the lead and a deft directorial hand help considerably.

“Chicken Cowboy.” A repeat from the Indianapolis International Film Festival, this short from Indiana-born Stephen Neary is a breath of silly air.

“For My Father” and “Seven Minutes in Heaven” (dramatic features). Two Crystal Heart-winning fiction films this year (both from Israel) deal with suicide bombings, each in its own strong way. “For My Father” begins with the failed effort that leads to an unlikely connection between a Palestinian man trying to bring honor back to his father and a woman estranged from her Orthodox Jewish family. “Seven Minutes in Heaven” deals with a bombing’s aftermath, as a women tries to piece together the events that led to the bus bombing that injured her and killed her boyfriend. “For My Father” is the more straightforward of the two (yes, there’s a pop-music-enhanced scene of the two riding a bicycle together), albeit with third-act plotting you wouldn’t find in an American mainstream film. “Seven Minutes in Heaven” is more cryptic and evocative. There’s a “Sixth Sense” quality to the heroine’s efforts to put the pieces of this life-changing incident together. Both have their rewards.

“The Final Inch” (documentary short). The attempt to eradicate the last strains of polio in the world is the noble subject of this documentary. The facts are interesting, but the filmmakers unfortunately play many of the same notes and miss a key dramatic transition. The result is informative but redundant.

“The Best Part of My Day” (dramatic short). While the camera keeps its distance and we don’t hear the characters speak, all is fine. But the fun structure is ultimately undermined in this story of an awkward guy trying to win the attention of his neighbor. Once we hear the characters, the magic is lost.

“P-Star Rising” (documentary feature). There’s an interesting father-daughter dynamic going on in this documentary about a struggling father and his star-potential child. But much of what happens feels either staged, irresponsible or annoying, and the end result doesn’t make the crucial documentary leap beyond the specific.

“Weathered” (dramatic short). woman avoids dealing with the loss of her fiancé by developing an addiction to doctor’s appointments. “Mad TV” regular—and Indiana University alum—Nicole Parker gives more dramatic weight to the undeveloped premise than the film ultimately deserves. Give this woman a real role.

“Kavi” (dramatic short). The filmmaking is strong and the subject matter chilling, but watching this grueling look at a young brick-making slave and his family is like screening only the roughest parts of “The Killing Fields” or “The Deer Hunter.” Only with a child at the center.

(dramatic short). Walter Wangerin Jr., who penned the brilliant novels “The Book of the Dun Cow” and “The Book of Sorrows,” also wrote the much-repeated short short story that forms the basis for this film. The filmmakers are very loyal to the thin and obvious allegory of a rag man wandering a city taking the pain away from its troubled citizens. But the shift to third-person necessitated by the jump from page to film doesn’t help the material, which may reinforce the faithful but is unlikely to win any converts.

“The Eagle Hunter’s Son” (dramatic feature) The highlight of this film is the scenery – sweeping images of mountains on the border of Mongolia and Kazakhstan that a young boy crosses when he runs away from home to find his brother who left the village for a rewarding job in a city. A brief scene where the boy joins the circus with his father’s eagle (the boy’s guardian angel of sorts) offers some break to the monotony, but the pacing seems slower than necessary and the symbolism of the eagle in Mongolian culture is never fully explained. A documentary about Mongolian eagle hunting surely would have been more interesting.

Small Collection” (dramatic short). Familiar territory (the loss of a loved one) is trod in an unsatisfying but original way in this short, where the voices of memory echo over places remembered.

“Grande Drip”
(dramatic short). If you believe we could use one more film about an adorable coffee shop employee, one more film about a cold businessman opened up to the world, and one more film about a homeless guy offering life lessons, then this is the short for you. If you are looking for something original, keep looking.

“Marbles With Thoreau”
(dramatic short). A pair of generic urchins meet with a would-be enigmatic Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond, but amateurish, pandering writing makes this slight project feel like the kind of film you watch—and make fun of with your neighbor—on a day in fifth grade when your teacher doesn’t feel like teaching.

Remember to check www.ibj.com/arts for more Heartland reviews.


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