It’s hard to be objective about Boston as a movie town. I’ve lived in (relative) close proximity to the small city for most of my life, and when I found myself completely enamoured with cinema in all of its forms in the 2000s, embarking on a career to study both cinema and cinephilia, I couldn’t believe more people didn’t take advantage of its film resources. Boston is home to some treasured arthouses including Cambridge’s Brattle Theatre, co-founded by the renowned Janus Films distributor, the late Cyrus Harvey; the Coolidge Corner Theatre, one of the most successful not-for-profit theaters in the US, and of course IFF Boston’s home base, the Somerville Theatre, all of which have been independently owned and operated for several decades.
The Independent Film Festival of Boston, which just completed its ninth year, keeps Boston on the movie map as it remains committed to independence in the venues it selects and the films it presents. Rather than flying in high profile Hollywood names, the festival attempts to host as many indie filmmakers as possible. It helps that it overlaps somewhat with the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, yet it maintains its unique perspective and flavour with films that boast local filmmakers or local subjects, and a decidedly DIY attitude. (From its inception, the festival’s working staff is 100% volunteer, and that includes its management and notably Program Director Adam Roffman). IFF Boston caters to the city’s cinephiles and smart cultured crowds, providing a space where filmmakers can interact with audiences without being preoccupied with the pressures of spotting Harvey Weinstein (or other moguls) in the crowd.
Documentaries have always held their own at the festival, so perhaps it’s not surprising that this year it took a gamble and gave prominent opening and closing spots to documentaries: Being Elmo, a close look at the man behind American public television’s favourite furry red puppet; and Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, which follows the late night show host and Boston native on his post-TV series tour. At least half of the more than110 films at the festival were documentaries, and such programming signals IFF Boston’s ongoing commitment to the nonfiction form and its ever-increasing popularity with Boston audiences. Based on this and the overall strength of the documentary lineup, I decided to focus my film-going energies on documentaries and documentary shorts, which were collected into two programs.
The City Dark
One of the more fascinating documentaries to screen at the festival was The City Dark, a comprehensive illumination of the many ways in which light pollution affects our lives. Its director, Ian Cheney, has local ties, and has been to IFF Boston before with other environmental-oriented films. His first documentary film (with Aaron Wolf), King Corn (2007), travelled across America to reveal the problems of corn’s ubiquitous place in almost all processed foods and in diets, while The Greening of Southie (2008) observed sustainable architecture in action with the construction of one of Boston’s first green residential buildings.
With The City Dark, Cheney travels across the US, starting with whimsical observations and slowly building on to the more serious implications of excessive light. The film makes the case that too much unnatural light causes problems and ultimately harm to human beings and animals alike. The film starts in Times Square, spends a lot of time focusing on the overproduction of light via billboards, glittering marquees and a dizzying array of lights. At first glance, those obsessed with the night sky or astronomical concerns are played for laughs: in New York City and its nearby boroughs, a cast of amusing characters with thick regional accents illustrate that we can no longer even see the stars from the island of Manhattan. Unnatural light threaten ecosystems, as we see in Florida where turtle hatchlings are drawn away from the ocean environment they need to survive and scurry as they hatch toward the bright lights of boardwalk hotels instead. In another American city, thousands of birds lose their lives flying into buildings that never turn off their fluorescents. As the film progresses, the gravity of the light pollution problem becomes more pronounced, and reveals (not surprisingly) a connection to cancer.
The irony of watching The City Dark with flickering lights in a darkened room is not lost on Cheney, who noted at the Q&A how he wishes the screening room had a hole in the ceiling, like planetariums. While at times Cheney relies heavily on a voiceover that waxes a bit too romantically about his ongoing personal fixation on the night sky, undermining to some extent the serious nature of the very issue he’s addressing), The City Dark covers territory which would otherwise be neglected or overlooked.
One of the most powerful and affecting documentaries appeared in one of the documentary shorts programs. Clocking in at a mere 38 minutes is Sara Nesson’s first documentary (already nominated for an Academy Award), Poster Girl. Technically, we’ve seen this before: a portrait of a returning soldier’s conflicted conscience and ongoing battle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), central to many films that appeared in the mid-2000s concerning veterans back from Iraq and Afghanistan (Deborah Scranton’s The War Tapes  and Patricia Foulkrod’s The Ground Truth  come to mind.) However, unlike in those documentary portraits, there appears to be no attempt on the part of the filmmaker (or her subject) to hold back when it comes to the expression and display of anger, resentment, sadness and depression. Emotions are not contained but overflow without apology here, and which don’t appear maudlin but genuine.
The film’s subject is Robynn Murray, a former cheerleader who enlisted in the Army with the promise that she would be working in Civil Affairs helping people. However, once she arrived she was handed over for combat duty and became a machine gunner in Iraq. Nesson follows Murray on her daily routines, and the latter narrates as she tells the story of being reprimanded for not opening fire on an area populated by civilians; of seeing things she never wanted to see and doing things she never wanted to do.
Murray’s voice wavers through much of her explanation of her experience, and at one junction she collapses in tears, the weight of her short stint in Iraq too much to bear. Her body is tattooed with guns that grace her clavicles; she takes at least at dozen pills to keep anxiety, depression and other physical and mental ailments at bay; and each day she confronts an ongoing battle with the US Office of Veteran’s Affairs, which owes her more than $27,000 in back pay and continually questions whether the tour of duty has actually caused her long-term disability.
The film does not let affective response take over completely, but it is through this lens that Murray understands her experience. Back home Murray undergoes a visit to Veteran’s Affairs in order to determine if she is eligible for disability benefits. She is accompanied by Bill Perry, a Vietnam veteran, and after she returns from the interview, she’s visibly shaken. What bothers her most, revealed in dialogue with Perry, is that her interviewer had no emotional response to the questions he asked her – questions about attempted suicide, thoughts of causing harm to herself, and so forth. Murray is offended that his tone never changed while she struggled to stay calm through these questions.
Murray’s PTSD shapes how she will always see the world from now on, always through a fractured lens.
While it’s clear that what Murray experiences is marked by being a woman in the service, (the novelty of which lands her on the cover of ARMY magazine, for which the film is named), it’s not something she discusses openly. She redirects the energies of her trauma via The Combat Paper Project, an art collective in which soldiers cut up their uniforms and churn them literally into a pulp, from which they make paper and art. Murray is filmed at an art show by the group called Iraq, Paper, Scissors, and notes, “I didn’t think anybody would care about what I had to say.” Luckily, filmmaker Nesson disagreed and has given Murray a new way to think about her definition as a Poster Girl.
A film no less poignant but perhaps far less dramatic in its mode of address is Raising Renee, directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaking couple Jeanne Jordan and Stephen Ascher, whose first film Troublesome Creek (1995) won a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Jordan and Ascher reside in a Boston suburb and are well known in local filmmaking circles; their film So Much So Fast (2006), about a man’s struggle with ALS, was an audience favourite at IFF Boston that year.
In Raising Renee, Beverly McIver, a successful African American artist and painter, promises her mother Ethel that she will care for her mentally disabled sister, Renee, once she is gone. Beverly makes this promise thinking the moment will come in a distant future, yet it arrives rather quickly and unexpectedly, when her mother is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The subsequent burden this places on Beverly informs the narrative arc of this film, which grapples with the issues of race, class and mental illness that serve to complicate and define her family life.
Beverly is a talented painter who creates vivid portraits of herself and others, specifically her family members. She’s the recipient of Guggenheim fellowships and her work has been featured in many gallery shows, primarily in New York City. Beverly also teaches at Arizona State University, but her position also allows her to spend time in New York to remain current in the art world. Beverly, as she’s introduced to viewers, is the very epitome of success and freedom.
This loss of freedom based on her new responsibility for Renee might affect her success, but yet again, perhaps it might not. It’s not really clear what impact becoming Renee’s caretaker has on Beverly’s career. It does mean she can travel less and can be less spontaneous. But Renee, who has the mental capacity of a third-grader, seems likable and easygoing, happy and content with busy activities such as making birthday lists and creating potholders. It does not appear that she creates serious conflict or tension for those around her, or might be harmful to herself or others. Incidentally, at film’s end much happiness arrives for both Renee and Beverly when Renee moves out to live in her own apartment, a feat that seems rare for many mentally-disabled adults.
Beverly narrates much of this story, which provides a mostly manicured look at how she responds to these varied pressures and burdens of being an artist as well as a caretaker. Despite some traumatic events and revelations, we don’t see sorrow or anger erupt — not even at her mother’s funeral. At one point, Beverly looks at the camera, smiles, and says, “Can I scream now?” but essentially does not, maintaining her performance of control.
As I watched this film I could not help but think about another mentally-disabled Renee to grace screens in a documentary, Renee Leblanc in Jonathan Caouette’s landmark DIY film, Tarnation (2003). In that film, Caouette reveals his troubled childhood marked by the schizophrenia and ongoing instability of his mother, but never seems to treat the responsibility of taking care of her as something that holds him back from living his life. It’s his choice to take her out of a dysfunctional home in Texas and into his own in Brooklyn. Raising Renee suggests that caring for a sick or disabled family member is something new, possibly disastrous, yet such a practice is commonplace. Lots of people serve as caretakers for family members. Is Beverly off the hook for this duty because she is an artist?
Yet when Raising Renee moves away from its emphasis on the limitations that Renee places on Beverly’s life, it provides us a fascinating look at Beverly as artist. The film rather deftly makes many other revelations; unearthing facets of her family’s history that help us understand her resilience amidst adversity. Beverly may hide her affective response as she’s being followed and filmed, and while that may seem disingenuous, it only helps to emphasise how cathartic and therapeutic art is for her.
I Have Seen The Future
Two narratives that drew sold out crowds included, at perhaps what might seem at opposite ends of the taste spectrum, The Troll Hunter (the Blair Witch genre Norwegian style, directed by André Øvredal) and The Future, Miranda July’s narrative but still experimental foray into feature length filmmaking.
At this point in her career, Miranda July is an artist that we want to admire and love even before we see her work. She’s the epitome of cool. Her first feature length film, 2005’s Me and You and Everyone We Know, launched her career as a filmmaker and since then she’s published short stories, created performance art as well as installations. Her work is offbeat and eclectic (but please, don’t call it quirky). As her second feature, there’s a lot riding on The Future, a film that wants to ask bigger questions than those posed in her first film. Yet, can philosophical foundations be built in the clouds? Or in this instance, an animated t-shirt, or an extended discussion with the moon? July pushes us to consider her experiment, which while ambitious in philosophy and creativity, does not always serve up answers.
In The Future, July plays Sophie, and lives what seems to be an unremarkable and uneventful life with boyfriend Jason (July look-alike Hamish Linklater). Their decision to adopt Paw Paw, a frail, sickly cat who must remain at the animal shelter for 30 days before they take him home, is the impetus for the couple to reassess their lives as individuals, and as a couple: in that time, they’ll go hunting for metaphors and meaning, and try to re-define their lives, heading off in different directions outside of their home (that, it appears, they won’t be able to leave once Paw Paw comes to live with them).
The quest for meaning fills their days with goofy and harmless acts – Jason knocking on doors and selling trees for a nonprofit, while Sophie attempts to create a dance a day for an entire month. Paw Paw, who often interrupts in a child-like voiceover (provided by July), helps maintain a sense of whimsy while reminding us that this film is trying to get to a place larger than it currently represents. While Paw Paw waits for his owners to retrieve him, the audience waits for a narrative twist that will make us more involved with our 30-something couple.
Sophie and Jason’s attempts to find personal meaning seem to bring out neurosis and lead us into more serious territory, especially as Sophie takes up with the single dad who made the drawing Jason bought at the animal shelter. And sadly, here is where July lets me down.
Full disclosure: as a viewer, I’ve always had a very difficult time with onscreen infidelity. I can’t feel any sympathy for a character that seems moved to betray a partner out of sheer boredom. Commitment should mean something, even in a fiction film, and affairs should not be treated as plot devices. Call me square, call me old-fashioned, but this selfish act certainly does not warm the audience’s heart in any way.
Jason’s reaction to her news (“I’m wild!) takes the film in a new, contemplative direction, and from this point on, there’s the idea that we should consider the universal nature of questions of mortality, fidelity, and the fear of growing old, possibly alone. Hamish Linklater’s earnest portrayal of desperation during this part of the film is endearing, as Jason’s hope for a silver lining in his now cloudy life is palpable. But The Future has spent so little time with Sophie and Jason together as a couple, it’s hard to root for them. We never get to see the strength of their commitment to each other before it is tested in this way. While the film does suggest that we should care about the Future, it’s less certain that the viewer should care about their Future.
Independent Film Festival Boston
27 April – 4 May 2011
Festival website: http://www.iffboston.org/