SBIFF Day Five Report: Docs at the Drive-In

Last Call, Teach Me If You Can, and Eastern European Films

Behind the scenes of 'Last Call' | Credit: Courtesy

It somehow seemed good and poetically proper to head to SBIFF’s arthouse drive-in by the sea (still sounds strange to describe it thusly) to catch director Johnny Sweet’s doc Last Call: The Shutdown of NYC Bars. (Read an interview with Sweet here.) 

Both the film itself and the fact of the drive-in’s temporary existence, after all, owes to the reality-altering facts of life during COVID. NYC’s early COVID embattlements are well-known, and now SBIFF is making its own kind of history with the 2021 edition’s laudable efforts at putting on a grand show — online and in the drive-in screens by Leadbetter Beach (free to all comers, by the way). 

Sweet lends a powerfully sympathetic ear, interview time, and visual storytelling brio to the subject of the instantly devastating effect of New York’s harsh pandemic victimization starting last March. Generally, the film’s subject is the shuttering of NYC’s hospitality industry and specifically, showcasing the plight of a beloved bar, The Sparrow Tavern, in Queens, the hardest hit borough. 

Along with workers, artists, and workers who are often also artists, the interviewee list includes New Yorker writer Jon Michaud, who speaks to the connective importance of bars and eateries as a “third place — not work or home. The bar is that place. There’s a leveling of social status. Everyone is welcome. Also, the hospitality industry feeds artists.” 

On a prospective up-note, Michaud suggests that, just as the formerly funky Lower East Side once spawned a wealth of artistic expression and invention, in the post-COVID gotham, “a New York hollowed out by the virus may trigger an outpouring of art.”

Another day at the drive-in, another illuminating doc: Teach Me If You Can is a lovely and uplifting French documentary chronicling impassioned itinerant teachers who venture out into remote villages to teach otherwise illiterate children. Director Emilie Therond treks to the vastly varied terrains and cultures of Burkina Faso, a flood-zoned area of Bangladesh, and the rugged arctic turf of the Mongolia area nomadic, reindeer-herding Evenki people. 

With its seamlessly layered impact, Teach Me celebrates the intrepid teachers and the intellectual awakening of endearing children, while serving as a valuable geography lesson/adventure, visiting global corners normally far from general public view or awareness. It is, in short, a “feelgood” film in all the right ways. 

EASTERN PROMISE: Each year at SBIFF, some of the more intriguing — and sometimes perplexing — programming comes to us from Eastern sources not normally granted access to the mainstream public movie stream (“stream” in the literal and digital sense). One of many memorable entries from the Eastern Europe/Western former-USSR region alighting SBIFF screens in past years was the Oscar nominated Hungarian 2017 film Of Body and Soul, a remarkable love-in-the-slaughterhouse tale from writer-director Ildikó Enyedi, who was in-house at the Lobero Theater.

There will be no Eastern filmmakers in Santa Barbara venues this pandemic year, of course, but the trend of eye-opening cinema from behind the former Iron Curtain continues to be a strong faction in the festival’s programming. Case in point: one of the finer films screened so far, at mid-point in the festival run (through April 10) comes to us from Bulgaria, with Ivalyo Hristov’s amazing, serio-comic film Fear (Strah). Though shot in black-and-white, giving it a vintage feel, the narrative is disarmingly up to date, with its running themes of xenophobia over immigration and refugee traffic, and even a surprise “Black Lives Matter” sub-theme tucked into the tale of a courageous woman (Svetlana Yancheva) and the Germany-bound Nigerian refugee (Michael Fleming), she takes up with.

Villagers in this coastal town on the Bulgarian/Turkish border do not take kindly to her close ties to a “negro,” who she initially calls “Africa.” There are points of tensions and touches of existential darkness along the trek (not to mention a wink of a surreal finale ala Palm Springs), but also a dry comic air echoing the Finnish Kaurismaki’s cool humanist drollery. It’s a winner, pure and not-so-simple.

From another place and attitude entirely, we are drawn into the mysteries of the curious war film Flood Won’t Come, The (Tvano nebus) through various side doors of perception, with as many questions as answers. And that can be a compelling reason to dip into cinema, at least on occasion. The Lithuanian film, from director Marat Sargsyan, qualifies as one in the SBIFF slate’s perplexing category, starting at the start: an atmospheric shot of a Zen monk in some icy mountainous shrine, alluding to the ravages of the A-Bomb “solution.” 

Cut to an unexplained city in an unexplained wartime, with soldiers trying to induct a sobbing mother’s sons into combat. That scene will recur, hauntingly, and other strange vignettes unfold, including a sheep-romancing Major, a “Last Supper-“ like tableau and other sequences that seize attention on their own merits. And yet our confusion prevails: which war, which enemy, what reason for the conflict? Our colonel anti-hero seems at times like an anchor of at least vestigial morality and reason, but he, too, is subject to upheavals of allegiances and dramatic logic. 

A possible message: war is not only hell, but anarchy and absurdity incarnate, where the specifics are razor sharp and potentially fatal, but the underlying roots remain inscrutable. Suffice to say, it’s unlike any “war film” we’ve seen.

DIRTY TRICKS OF THE MIND: Dealing with schizophrenia or other mental illnesses in a film context can be delicate business, risking exploitation or stereotypes partially exacerbated by the reckless treatment in Hollywood/cinematic history. The poignant, painful beauty of writer Steve Waverly’s and director Peter Sattler’s indie film Broken Diamonds comes primarily from the sensitivity of the material, and the careful balancing of the victim’s story with that of the ripples in familial fabrics around the victim. 

In this case, the sharp portrayals of the actors involved — Ben Platt as the compassionate twentysomething bother of the troubled Cindy, played with a volatile intensity and alternating maverick charm by Lola Kirke — bring us inside a tale rife with agonizing dark passages, and high on hope. A denouement with actual schizophrenia victims and family members struggling with loved ones in need brings the film back to some reality check moment: this is not just a movie, but a reflection of a struggle in hiding and in plain view.

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