'Wakanda Forever' star Angela Bassett (left) and director Ryan Coogler arrive at the 2023 Santa Barbara International Film Festival | Credit: Don Brubaker

“The queen is in the house,” SBIFF head Roger Durling announced, with fervor, last night at the Arlington Theatre, where veteran actress Angela Bassett was being feted for the Montecito Award. Of course, he was referring to her current Big Moment on screen, the Wakandan royalty who earned an Oscar nom for her performance in the second Black Panther film, Wakanda Forever.

But as the evening’s retrospective of film clips and conversations about her life well spent as an actress, her regal profile has had many positions of power along the way, including her turn as the “queen of rock & roll,” Tina Turner, in What’s Love Got to Do with It? work in John Singleton’s iconic Boyz in the Hood and Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. If her filmography isn’t packed with great films, her work in the film at hand—including those directed by Wes Craven—mark her as a standout performer, and a model in the too-slim ranks of black actresses with deep resumes.

Asked about her early commitment to acting, which started out in theater and studies at Yale, Bassett commented “it would have been more difficult for me to do something I didn’t have a passion for than something I had a burning passion for.” On the subject of becoming a black icon and inspiration for fledgling black actors and others, she asserted “that represents what I longed for. To be able to offer that is a full circle moment for me.”

In presenting the Montecito Award, Black Panther director Ryan Coogler sang her praises and pointed out qualities necessary for greatness as an actor: “you’ve got the God-given talent, the charisma, and also the work ethic and the love for what you do. She’s got all of that.”

Credit: Don Brubaker

Life in the Screening Rooms

What better way to start the trip down the SBIFF rabbit hole than with an 8 a.m. “breakfast club” screening/ meeting with Werner Herzog? The documentary Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer is the first official and sanctioned portrait of the innovative, outspoken and German director in Los Angeles, who himself has produced a vast filmography of features and envelope-pushing documentaries.
Early on in Thomas von Steinaker’s sweeping yet compact and intimate doc, Herzog–the man with the instantly recognizable voice (check out Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams and episodes of “The Simpsons,” for starters) and deceptively calm vibe–explains “I rarely dream. it feels like a void.” Obliquely alluding to his artistic mission, Herzog comments that “my experience has a story… There are things within us that have haven’t been articulated yet.”

In the film, we are lead seamlessly across geography and hurt sake in history, from LA to the ski resort village of Sachrang, where he visits a special waterfall of his youth, exclaiming “this is my place, where I belong.” In Munich as a young and already iconoclastic filmmaker, he became part of the “New German Cinema” scene, with his acclaimed early film Signs of Life. The sideways cinematic adventure continued, with his quirky charmer Even Dwarfs Start Out Small, and the Klaus Kinski-fueled classics Aguirre, Wrath of God, Nosferatu (for the record, he appeared at a screening of Nosferatu, plus a typically mischievous post-talk at UCSB’s Carsey Wolf Center a few years back) and the logistically outrageous and rebelliously romantic Fitzcarraldo. His fascinating and highly original body of work as a documentarian reached popular peaks with Grizzly Man and Encounter at the end of the world, but his wandering mind has taken on a dizzying array of doc subjects over the decades.

Through it all, Herzog remains seemingly unfazed from a waves of criticism or popularity, moving ever forward with his inveterate creative energy. As he says, with customary deadpan resolve, “I just want to be a good soldier. A good soldier of cinema.” Mission accomplished.

Among the many rewarding programming channels SBIFF has championed for many years, the festival can be counted on for uncompromising Latin American Cinema we’re unlikely to catch elsewhere. Two strong examples of that focus showed up during Thursday’s screenings in the form of Laura Braumeister’s potent Nicaraguan film Daughter of Rage (La hija de todas las rabias) and, from Columbia, La jauria. Both films are dark and edgy in tone but truthful glimpses of life on the outskirts, tinged with touches of mysticism beneath the grit, and graced by artful cinematic approaches.

In Daughter of Rage, the daughter in question is Maria (Ara Alejandra in surely one of this festival’s greatest performances by a young actor), who lives with her hard-scrabble mother on the fringe of a dump. Things turn harsher when her mother leaves Maria in a recycling plant while seeking undisclosed opportunities, and the story turns into a motherless child journey with existential and poverty-stricken dynamics. Fateful dreaming and puppies also figure into the moving film’s narrative.

La jauria, directed by Andres Ramirez Pulido, takes place in a hellish jungle scene involving young prisoners in a dubious “model” camp, teetering precariously between a former criminal’s well-meaning and guru-like idealism and thuggish jailers and connivers threatening life and limb. Despite the film’s sinister tone, aspects of misdirected justice, malevolent backgrounds and a certain supernatural force hovering around the plot’s center keeps the film in a suspended emotional state, between bursts of brutality.

On the Doc Dock

Two documentaries well worth watching are showing up on Fridays screening docket. Christine Yoo’s heartfelt and beautifully-made 26.2 to Life literally takes us inside the legendary, Johnny Cash-mythologized maximum security prison at San Quentin, to relay the tail of dedicated marathon running inmates in the motivational “1,000 Mile Club.” Of course, this marathon route is extremely compacted to the perimeter of the yard, which is likened to running on “a hamster wheel.” Director Yoo skillfully interweaves the personal stories of her model prisoner subjects, conveying a larger mission of advocacy to the film, but with admirable subtlety.

Bernardo Ruiz’s fascinating and revealing El Equipo chronicles the humanitarian forensic team first formed by Dr. Clyde Snow to research the skeletal remains of “the disappeared” under Argentina’s infamous dictatorship. That origin story serves as a documentary footnote to the current Oscar nominated feature Argentina 1985, but the team has gone on to research atrocities around the world, in search of truth and, ideally, some semblance of justice.

On more peaceable turf, the candidate for Film Most Likely to Incite an Appetite, we lobby for The Art of Eating: MFK Fisher. As a savory roster of fans–including Alice Waters, Anne Lamott, and assorted academics–emphasize in this affectionate portrait, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher not only helped pave the way for fine cuisine in America, but made food seem sensuous and life seem delicious.

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