SBIFF is, by nature and self-definition, a smorgasbord effect of film program — and a willfully international smorgasbord. But there are recurring riffs and thematic through lines to be found under the programming umbrellas, sometimes in the course of a day in the festival field. Take Day One, Thursday, February 2, with echoing ideas and iconography built around two of the festival’s stand-out films, both rightly up for Oscars: the stunning I am Not Your Negro, director Raoul Peck‘s bracing, culture-sweeping wild ride of a study of racism in America built on the eloquent power of James Baldwin’s words; and the Swiss stop-motion animation wonder My Life as a Zucchini, Charles Barras’ remarkably, disarmingly beautiful and poignant “social realist animation” project with appeal for both adults and kids.
As if synched with the beginning of Black History Month, this first full day in the 32nd annual SBIFF was also the Day of Denzel (as in Washington), not only shining in his “this has been your life”-style tribute night spotlight at the Arlington last night, but appearing as the voice of John Coltrane in director John Scheinfeld’s fine, illuminating and musically resplendent doc Chasing Trane. Among the most articulate interviews and Coltrane-worshippers in the film: Sonny Rollins, Bill Clinton, and Common.
Introducing the film to the audience at the Lobero (where many of the good ones screened yesterday), Scheinfeld spoke of his awe that Washington accepted his invitation to read Coltrane’s words and essentially play the great tenor saxist visionary (part of a handful of indisputable jazz deities), and appreciated the fact that Washington “plays his character with a quiet inner strength, which Coltrane also had.”
At the Arlington, Washington brought that quiet, sturdy focus, intensity, and obvious passion to his interview with Leonard Maltin, accepting the Modern Master Award in a hot year for the actor — his striking performance in the new screen version August Wilson’s Fences deserves the Oscar (Says me.) He spoke about his suddenly growing collection of major awards, including two Oscars (so far), Golden Globes, a recent SAG award and a Tony, but that his favorite awards are the college degrees of his grown children. “There’s life and there’s making a living,” he said about priorities in his life and work. When that first one came out, that was it.”
Next up on his more-than-active agenda is the privilege and challenge of bringing more of the late, great August Wilson’s plays to the screen. “I’m in the service business,” he said, accepting his SBIFF trophy at evening’s end. I’ve done well, and now I’m here to serve August’s work.” Earlier, he touched on his giving spirit, in cases such as the revitalization of a debate team in Texas after directing the film The Great Debaters. “I get a lot of joy out of seeing someone do well….It’s the most selfish thing you can do — give.”
Also on the inventive animation front in yesterday’s film schedule, Anne Marie Fleming chalks up another one for the historically rich tradition of creativity in the animation field in Canada with her Window Horses — not quite like any animation film I’ve seen. Based on a graphic novel and with autobiographical gestures all along the way, the story follows a young Chinese-Iranian-Canadian woman (in stick figure form, played by actress Sandra Oh) to a poetry festival and familial discovery in Shiraz, Iran.
I started out yesterday in the early “Breakfast Club” slot (home to some of the festival’s better films) with the intriguing Czech film The Teacher, a tale from the communist era of 1984, involving a manipulative teacher and a microcosmic tale of an oppressed society and its gradual strides towards liberation.
What to See File: The not-to-miss list for the next couple of days certainly includes My Life as a Zucchini and I am Not a Negro, and the poetic, moving Swedish “Nordic sidebar” entry Sami Blood. Strong thumbs-up status for Chasing Trane, the Swedish Strawberry Days — with its immigration/class conflict issues and rerouted Romeo and Juliet angle — the American indie film The Good Catholic, a surprisingly engaging film about a young priest’s crisis of faith and lure of earthly love, and director Yanillys Perez’ naturalistic gem, Jeffrey, about a bold-spirited teenager from the Dominican Republic with dreams of fame in the Reggaeton game, but gruff realities in his impoverished day-to-day existence.