A funny thing happened on the way through the post-screening Q&A for the Zulu Summer, an altogether sweet, quirky, and uplifting documentary that had its world premiere yesterday afternoon at the Lobero Theatre. SBIFF programmer Audrey Arn was leading an interview with directors Joseph Litzinger and Eric Michael Schrader, and community radio DJ Dark Sevier.
Suddenly, a fourth member of the project magically appeared when Mokai — one of the three lead characters in this story of South African Zulus who came to Butte Montana for a summer — showed up in Schrader’s hand, via FaceTime. He was soaking up the triumphant ambience of the film’s world premiere, all the way from home in Nongoma, South Africa. The crowd went wild and shared in Arn’s startled delight, saying, “I’ve never seen that happen.” Mokai spoke to the crowd and had them utter a couple of Zulu words, but the main takeaways were both an extension of the film’s theme of transcultural compassion and interest, and an illustration of the capacity for surprise in the festival experience.
Zulu Summer, edited down to a tidy 78-minutes from a reported 10 terrabytes of footage, traces the unusual tale of a Zulu prince and two friends from Nongoma who initiated a cultural exchange with the small, beautiful town of Butte (pop. 34,000), through the unlikely introduction to America through its radio station KBMF. What seems like a head-scratcher of a human-interest story appears to be one of the most inspiring and conflict-free films on the 2019 SBIFF program, in which the kindly people of Butte fully embrace these African visitors, whose own positive outlook and experience-ready senses are infectious.
Africa, and the fictional nation of Wakanda, became part of the narrative in the non-fictional story of genuinely heroic actor Michael B. Jordan, at his Arlington tribute last night. Jordan, whose career began as a child model and actor — including a role in the soap All My Children — was flung into the orbit of “actors to watch” with his role in Ryan Coogler’s stunning Fruitvale Station, went on to successive heights in Coogler’s Creed franchise of post-Rocky films, but most legendarily as the anti-heroic powerhouse Killmonger in Black Panther (the Wakanda connection). Youth (he turns 32 tomorrow, Saturday), good looks, fierce talent, and a commitment to the cause of telling stories that matter become him, as the Arlington crowd learned.
Black Panther, the most successful film of 2018, with $1.3 billion in global box office earnings, is also clearly a high-water mark in the evolving saga of black artistry in Hollywood. That achievement, Jordan said, “was a proud feeling. We shot it in Atlanta, with a lot of black and brown faces on the set. It was like our Star Wars. We can play make-believe, but also be rooted and grounded in our culture.”
Before being given his Cinema Vanguard award by a hip and humorous Jamie Foxx, Jordan spoke about his feat of helping expand the possibilities for African-Americans in the mainstream, movie business. It was not part of a grand or calculated plan. “I like reverse engineering things,” he said, “seeing a goal and figuring out ‘how do I get around that? Can I be this Trojan Horse, to get in the door and leave a crack open?’” Yes, he could.
Films to See: Jeff Daniels is a multi-talent who remains hard-to-pigeonhole or get an easy handle on. He was an everyman character for years and the goofball from Dumb and Dumber, until we saw him in grimmer circumstances such as The Squid and the Whale and his viciously good bad guy/articulate portent of doom in TV’s Godless. He’s also a musician, who sometimes plays music with his son (and played at SOhO a few years back).
Then along comes Guest Artist, a film that Daniels wrote as a theater piece, smartly translated to the screen by director Timothy Busfield. It’s a story “based on an incident, which became a play, which became this film,” that opens in NYC, but is mostly set in a Michigan train station. Over the course of a boozy, cynicism-brewing night, Daniels’ burnt-out playwright character berates, regales, and otherwise rattles a theater hopeful (Michael Alden) sent to pick up the veteran for a residency in the small-town’s theater company. (Daniels, incidentally, is a Michigander). Issues of truth and bitterness, wisdom of age vs. the idealism of youth, and other subjects are broached, as well as the traumatizing after-effects of 9/11, and its residual effect on, for instance, writer’s block.
The “transit” factors in the enticingly strange yet engaging Transit may also reflect on a central conceit of director Christian Petzold’s film — though telling a story about stealthy modes of travel and escape plans in France during WWII, it is set in modern-day. That cognitive dissonance is initially disorienting, but we soon succumb to the temporal twist-up, accepting its absurd logic and contemporary relevance in a tale of alienation under duress. Our protagonist is a German traveling to Marseilles, and ultimately Mexico, and carrying papers of a dead writer whose wife (Paula Beer) becomes a romantic ally and narrative pawn. It’s an existential thriller along the lines of Casablanca meets Antonioni’s The Passenger.
Other festival highlights to consider in the last two-day run of the fest: Polish director Krzyzstoff Zanussi’s excellent religion-trumps-science parable Ether, the ripe and sparkly Argentine comedy Not Quite Adults, the Murphy’s Law midlife crisis romp from Turkey, Siren’s Call, the WWII-era Norwegian film The Bird Catcher, and Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke’s enigmatic and hypnotically stylish character study of a gangster’s moll, Ash is Purest White.
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