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I’m no expert on documentaries about the unfortunately ever-irrelevant subject of veterans — their stories, homecomings, and internal pride and torments. But I have born witness to the best veteran doc in my experience, as of yesterday’s world premiere of Bastards’ Road. The screening, with gruffy articulate veterans advocate Jonathan Hancock in-house for a Q&A, may also qualify as this festival’s most tear-inducing film/event. We cried for the specifics of the film and it’s tough emotionality, we cried for this soldier’s face, and for the ceaseless specter of war.
Bastards’ Road effectively and artfully deals with both general conditions of war and veteran life, via highly specific aspects. Director Brian Morrison followed Marine veteran Hancock’s remarkable journey — literal and therapeutic — as he walked across America in 2016, logging 5,800 miles between Maryland and camp Pendleton in California. Along the way, he visits Marine brothers and Gold Star families of fallen soldiers connected to his 2/4 unit, known as “Magnificent Bastards,” which suffered heavy losses and brutal battle conditions in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2004.
As powerfully centering and charismatic as the epic walker is, watching his fellow veterans open up about their experiences and struggles is a critical component of the film’s power. Although harrowing in in some ways, the film is also funny, warm, wise, and flecked with hope. As Hancock explained in the tearful Q&A afterwards, “This film is for civilians more than veterans, who already know all about these issues.” Going public with a painful subject often left unsaid, Hancock asserted, is the underlying goal of his walk, and now this film. “Now is the time to bridge the gap. The dream is to be able to open up.”
By way of announcing today’s free screening at the Lobero, at 2 p.m., Hancock closed the Sunday afternoon screening and tear-fest with a hearty invitation: “Bring your friends, and bring beer.” (As a sight gag, during his final speech at Camp Pendleton, one hand cradles a can of the craft beer known as Angry Bastard’s Ale).
WRITING AND THINKING UP A STORM: Deep into SBIFF’s ever-popular Screenwriter’s Panel, Sunday afternoon at the Lobero, the incurably bright and charming Greta Gerwig — actor, and this season, writer-director of the multiple Oscar-nominated Little Women —broke ranks with the strict business at hand on the panel. “I love being up here with writers,” she gushed, “and am loving listening to them.” She then confessed a sentiment not uncommon among writers: “Sometimes, I have this fear of being a total fraud.” Alas, she keeps disproving that fear.
Little Women, she commented earlier, is “so melded with who I was. I always wanted to be Jo March.” The path to her making this inventive seventh screen version of Louisa May Alcott’s famed novel started with her re-reading the book. “I felt I knew it so well and yet [it was if] I hadn’t read it. I realized it was about women and art and ownership and money.” Regarding her script’s complex chronology, she quipped “linear time will catch up to me.”
Also on the panel were writers Noah Harpster (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), Lulu Wang(The Farewell), and two members of the masses-fueled worlds of Pixar and Marvels, Stephany Folsom (Toy Story 4) and Christopher Markus (Avengers Endgame).
Harpster, who went to UCSB before entering the Hollywood atmosphere, spoke about his 10-year process of creating the script for the acclaimed film about the late, great Fred Rogers, who was “unwaveringly awesome for 76 years.” He also remembered the thrill of the moment when he learned that Tom Hanks would play Mr. Rogers, a perfect fit for this icon who was “vulnerable yet confident, with a chewy center.” Hanks has gone on to earn his first Oscar nomination since 2001’s Castaway. Something, or many things, came together in the Neighborhood.
Markus was asked by moderator Anne Thompson about the worthier aspects of action/superhero movies that seem keen to show things blowing up. “Well, Martin…” he started, wryly referencing Martin Scorsese’s recent and controversial damnation of the Marvel universe’s assault on Hollywood. “You don’t go again and again to watch things blow up,” Markus reasoned. “You can call it a theme park, but you don’t ride the roller coaster all day. Genre is a delivery system for stories.”
FILMS TO SEE: Strong films continue to reel past in the SBIFF program, reaching its Day Five midpoint on Monday. Papicha, directed by Mounia Meddour, tells the story of a determined and liberated 18-year-old college student in Algeria in the 1990s, battling the Civil War’s incursion of oppressive, misogynistic attitudes.
Director Norbert ter Hall’s My Life (Mi Vida), one of the best of the fest, endearingly tells the tale of a sixtysomething Dutch woman seeking new vistas and learning a new language in Cadiz, Spain, as she tries to figure out “what to do with the rest of my life.” That future may or may not involve a new life away from family obligations, with a new setting and set of friends.
Another feelgood entry, which packed the largeish theater in the Metro 5 on Sunday, is If Only, a French film about children sent on holiday with their filmmaker father, and the tender and tense follies that ensue by the seaside, with Greek Orthodoxy and “Bionic Man” in the margins. You have to be there.
Another festival highlight, and one of the more refreshingly unique and humane films this year is 37 Seconds, Japanese director HIKARI’s feature debut. Our heroine is a young manga artist, afflicted with cerebral palsy and confined to a wheelchair, coming of age in her own syncopated way. She seeks sexual awakening, through a new friend in the sex worker industry, and liberation from her micro-managerial mother, while discovering missing pieces in her life story.
HIKARI has done a masterful job with a film garnering respect and dignity for a differently protagonist, beautifully played by non-actor Mei Kayama. As the director explained, her film is part of an aim to “break through the glass wall, or the ice wall” too often separating differently abled people from the rest of society.
Other films of note: By a Sharp Knife, The Pencil, and Bastards’ Road (bring beer).