It’s more than fair to say that the strengths of SBIFF, and its upward strides in the festival world, come partly thanks to the blessing of the deity known as Oscar. Timing is key, in that the festival is strategically situated between Academy Award nomination announcements and the big night. Santa Barbara’s proximity to Hollywood, combined with the festival’s bold artistic guidance mixed with crowd-baiting celebrities, help make it a prime cultural contender on the local calendar, and beyond.
Thus, this year’s Oscar nominees brought to town included Viggo (Green Book) Mortensen, Yalitza (Roma) Aparicio, Glenn (The Wife) Close, Melissa (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) McCarthy, and Michael (Black Panther) B. Jordan Also, this year, the “Outstanding Directors” gathering at the Arlington last Thursday was truly outstanding — the only time all five Best Director nominees gathered in a public setting (before getting together for official Oscar biz).
And then there are the Ones Who Got Away in the Oscar sweepstakes, the foreign film Oscar bids from countries far and wide, which didn’t make the nomination cut, but are well-worth the watching. That list this year includes two shining jewels which screened at the Lobero Theatre on Monday: Crystal Swan, from the post-Soviet nation of Belarus’ for the Oscar, and the Czech Republic charmer Winter Flies. Different as they are from each other, both films deal with the fragile yet rebellious, hope-powered nature of young adults and, stylistically, are fresh inspirations to our movie cliché-blurred senses.
In the case of director Darya Zhuk’s Crystal Swan, the thematic impulses include showcasing the determined spirit and escapist desires of a young woman (Alina Nasibullina, perfect in the role), as well as the challenges of the immigration machine, a timely subject. In a suitably absurd plot mechanism, our heroine is a young DJ in Minsk, with minimal career prospects and a powerful desire to go to Chicago, “the birthplace of house music.” After putting the wrong phone number on her visa application, she is forced to travel to the small country town of Crystal to field a phone call confirming her falsified application. What transpires in that town alternates between comedy, poignancy, and the sobering sting of sexual violence. Crystal Swan tells its quirky story with seductive visual style and a bemused — but occasionally indignant — eye on the human tragi-comedy.
Czech director Olmo Omerzu’s Winter Flies delves into the liberation-seeking spirit of youth in a unique way — as a road movie combined with criminal joyride movie. A teen jacks a car and his awkward but game pal, in a comical camo coat and serious pellet gun in tow, talks his way into an adventure of potentially dangerous dimensions. Narrative chronology is cleverly convoluted, as the tale is told on the road and in the moment, but also in retrospect as our protagonist cagily talks to and embellishes his story officers in a police station. Impressively subtle but also pumped up with the juice of youthful abandon, Winter Flies pulls us into a world of its own devising.
Films to See: The elephant poaching crisis in Africa is a heartbreaking and pressing issue in the animal world — and our world, humans being the bringer of doom to this majestic creature. That majesty and tragedy comes through in the strong documentary Silent Forests, which succeeds in bringing us closer to the reality of the crisis, rescuing it from the realm of abstraction. Directed by Mariah Wilson, and beautifully shot by Santa Barbara-raised cinematographer Zeb Smith, the film builds its story by chronicling various efforts at stemming the elephant poaching, black market ivory trade, mostly in the Central African Congo Basin.
Coming at the subject from different angles and telling a handful of empathetic stories of various elephant conservation efforts, the film follows — and puts a human face on — the work of the first female “eco-guard,” and a Congolese biologist who patiently observes the behavior of elephants in his “Elephant Listening Project.” Deep into the film, the filmmakers follow ivory trade sting operations and undercover tactics from the police side.
Yet we also get the perspective of former poachers turned crusaders for the save the elephants cause, explaining the lure of resorting to the potentially lucrative poaching to feed their families in otherwise impoverished and employment-challenged villages and cities.
An elephant (and animal) lover and advocate from the Czech Republic trains dogs to sniff out ivory, a scenario in which, he says, “animals are helping animals, even though they don’t know it.” Late in the film, he addresses the question he sometimes gets as to the motives behind his passion: “When, if not now? Who, if not me?”
David Crosby: Remember My Name, from director A.J. Eaton and journalist/director Cameron Crowe, is a surprisingly unusual twist on the tired pop star doc form. It is a candid portrait of the artist at 76, a public confessional for his multiple instances of unleashing his inner asshole going back 50 years, but also a celebration of his musical powers, from his masterpiece If I Could Only Remember My Name to his current late-blooming burst of creative energy.
Crosby does double duty at SBIFF, also appearing and opining in another surprisingly good music doc, Echo in the Canyon, an intriguing twist on the oft-trodden mythos of the Laurel Canyon scene of the 1960s. Director Andrew Slater was inspired by the 1967 film Model Shop, a cool cinematic curio by Jacques (Umbrellas of Cherbourg) Demy, a dizzy trip through L.A. in the ’60s, through Euro-colored glasses.
They recorded a concert with Dylan and allies such as Cat Power, Beck, and Regina Spektor performing gems from the Laurel Canyon era, while creating a documentary about the period. For the film, they consulted Tom Petty, Eric Clapton, all the CSN bunch (but nothing from enigmatic kingpin Neil Young), Roger McGuinn, Brian Wilson, and others about the era and also garnered fascinating musical details. It feels like musicians are behind the sight and sound, part of the resonating charm of the thing.
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