Film Festival Diary, March 7: Lin-Manuel Miranda Looks Back on ‘Encanto’ in Santa Barbara

On the War in Ukraine and an Unusual Music Documentary at SBIFF

Lin-Manuel Miranda speaks onstage at the Variety Artisans Awards. | Credit: Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images for SBIFF

MIRANDA SIGHTING

Lin-Manuel Miranda swung through town on Monday night as part of the Variety Artisans Awards showcase. The poly-talent behind Hamilton and In the Heights appeared as an Oscar nominee for the song “Dos Oruguitas” from the film Encanto. Also on hand was Encanto‘s score composer Germaine Franco, who happens to be the first female composer hired for a Disney animated film, thanks to Miranda’s clout.

Not surprisingly, Miranda got a hero’s welcome at the Arlington. He pointed out that “I was adamant about having an all-Latin creative team.” He also pointed out that his song-penning work happened under lockdown conditions, tying in with the film’s theme of transcending obstacles. “In writing this in the pandemic,” he said. “If you’re enduring great pain, there might be a miracle on the other side of it.” The larger metaphorical message of his statement, even referring back to SBIFF’s return to the streets this year, rang true.

WAR CRIES

Trenches, a slow but engrossing documentary shot literally “in the trenches” during the conflict in eastern Ukraine with Russian separatists, would be intriguing on its own merits as a war chronicle. Tragically, the film takes on an entirely urgency because of current events of the past few weeks, a time of dangerously ramped-up warfare in Ukraine. French war journalist Loup Bureau embedded himself in the trenches where young soldiers deal with the angst and pained ennui of waiting for battle. Shot with a conscientiously graceful visual style in black and white and blessed with a tastefully applied minimalist score, the film feels at once very specific and timeless.

Ironically, to pass the time between mortar fire, soldiers play Mortal Kombat on laptops and offer loaded commentaries, such as “God is with us. I think he exists, but he’s hiding.” A kitty is traumatized by a trench-building blast, and a wise, rare woman soldier in the ranks says, “They look like men, but they’re mostly just kids. This is a nursery school.” An older officer who is more experienced and realistic gives a general overview of the causes of the conflict. “It’s all about money,” he says. “We just want our independence.”

As the soldiers head home, two months after their trench residency, the film stock switches from black and white to color, and they talk excitedly of “whiskey and coke,” not to mention visions of sex. A post-script reports that the war rumbled on in 2021. Sadly, in early 2022, we know where things are actually headed, and it’s not back to the trenches.

ROCK DOC WITH A FEW DIFFERENCES

From another corner of this year’s healthy documentary contingent, undoubtedly the most outside-the-box entry of music films this year is Sirens, your not-so-basic rock doc about a rare all-female punk metal band. Director Rita Baghdadi developed friendship and trust with her subjects over a few years of working on her fascinating end product. Sirens follows the familiar format of an anatomy of a band saga, including breakups and makeups, onstage ecstasies, and letdowns (such as a festival set for a few handfuls of people at the Glastonbury festival) and the business of self-designed marketing mythology.

But of course, the circumstances around the band impose degrees of separation from conventional rock-doc fodder, including LGBTQ elements and the backdrop of protests in the band’s home of Beirut. Baghdadi creates dramatic tensions and crafty cinematic juxtapositions, as in the startling shot of the massive port explosion in August 2020 abutting explosive sight-and-sound energies in a live show. Later in the film, our main protagonist, guitarist Lilas, is detailing her previous night of debauchery to her bandmate Shery when a loud anti-regime protest march sweeps past them, as if on cue. They casually continue the conversation and fall in with the marchers without missing a beat.

In a post-screening Q&A, the articulate Baghdadi explained to interviewer Claudia Puig, the new SBIFF head of programming, that she originally intended to create a coming-of-age tale about this young band, but a cluster of significant issues — revolution, COVID, and the explosion — made the environmental background unavoidable. “We had to choose what catastrophe to focus on. We chose the protests, partly because that’s where Lilas and Shery first met.” She added that “the country of Lebanon was the third character in the film.”

THE SWEET SPOT

A sweet, quiet, and artfully made film from Canada, Islands is one of the soft-spoken wonders of the festival program. With a deceptively leisurely pace, writer-director Martin Edralin draws on a cinematic language of thoughtfully composed static shots — like poised still-life photographs — in telling the simple tale of a shy, middle-aged Filipino man. It could be seen as a late-breaking coming-of-age story.

He lives with his aging, ailing parents and goes through a shift of perspective and confusing emotions when a kindly female cousin arrives as a caregiver in the house. The target of her care also extends to our protagonist. The plot widens slightly but serves as a minimal framework out of which the film grows. The film itself, sometimes reminiscent of the kinder, gentler Dogme 95 film Italian for Beginners, has more up its sleeve than we might immediately expect. Halfway through, the mostly music-free tale suddenly hosts a vintage bolero booming out over a real-time shot of a microwave for a full minute. It’s a ripe awakening moment for the viewer/listener, a sly cinematic wink in a discreet delight of a film.

See sbiff.org and follow our daily SBIFF coverage at independent.com/sbiff. Don’t forget to catch our cover package on the festival here.

Credit: Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for SBIFF

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