I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — good writers read good writing. But I believe good writers watch good writing too, good writing that comes in the form of good movies. And that’s why every year you’ll find me at the Sidewalk Film Festival. If you’re in the Birmingham area, I hope to see you at this weekend’s festival, August 25-27.
There are always so many films showing at Sidewalk that sometimes I feel overwhelmed when trying to decide which films I’m going to see.
Fortunately, I have a pal to help me out. One of my colleagues at the Alabama School of Fine Arts is also a features programmer for the festival. Corey Craft has written about film since 2009, for five years as the primary film writer for The Tuscaloosa News and now exclusively for the upstart arts and entertainment website artsBHAM.com. He also teaches a history of film class at ASFA and has a degree in telecommunications and film with an emphasis in critical studies from the University of Alabama. So he knows his stuff.
I had a chat with him about the best movies to catch this weekend.
If I’m remembering correctly, you first saw “Step” (the opening feature at this year’s festival) earlier this year at a film festival and immediately knew you wanted it to be a part of Sidewalk. What was it that captivated you about this film?
I was able to catch our opening night feature, “Step,” earlier this year at the Nashville Film Festival and knew instantly we needed to get it for Sidewalk if we could. “Step” is just one of these irresistible crowd-pleasers that tells the beautiful story of three young black women overcoming adversity not only in a sports setting — their step team and the upcoming big competition — but in their daily lives, as they struggle with getting into college and earning scholarships. This is a story that touches both you and I as educators, obviously. I’d also say — though I had no way of knowing this then — it’s a film that resonates deeply after the summer this nation has had, touching as it does on issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement. Even then, I found it moving that it’s a story of triumph and empowerment for young women from a racial and socioeconomic background most popular culture ignores or downplays; given the events of the past couple of months, now it seems vital and necessary.
Are there any other films with female protagonists or female directors featured in this year’s line up that See Jane Write readers should put on their “must-see” list?
I’m so proud of the diversity in front of and behind the camera we’ve cultivated with this year’s selection of features. We have a number of wonderful films this year directed by or featuring women in major roles, and this is by no means a definitive list of them — they’re just the ones that stick out to me.
“The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography” is a wonderful film by the master documentarian Errol Morris. It’s a profile of photographer Elsa Dorfman, who approached photography as a career in the 1950s — not the most advantageous time for a woman to set out to accomplish anything outside the box. She made lifelong friendships with luminaries like Allen Ginsberg, and later experimented with Polaroid instant developing film to create the most unusual portrait photography you’ll ever see.
“A Life in Waves” is another documentary portrait of electronic music pioneer Suzanne Ciani, known for not only her “New Age” musical compositions but some of the most famous commercial sound effects out there — like, for example, the sound of a Coca-Cola bottle opening.
“Thirst Street” and “Most Beautiful Island” are both intense thrillers centered on female protagonists. The former is a study in obsession and madness, as our grieving flight attendant main character grows obsessed with a Parisian man and insinuates herself into his life. It’s a creepy movie with a wonderful lead performance from an actress named Lindsay Burdge. The latter is the story of a young undocumented immigrant woman, played by the director, Ana Asensio, who barely makes a living in New York working demeaning odd jobs. One night she agrees to take an unusual job she knows nothing about. And I won’t tell you anything about it from there, other than to say it takes a turn into horrific territory. It’s a must-see.
Jessica Kaye and Laura E. Davis direct an intense drama called “Inheritance,” about a woman, played by Kaye, who heads back home to Belize upon her father’s death and reunites with her estranged brother. Not everything is as it seems; things get intense and creepy. The same is true of the wonderfully disturbing drama “The Strange Ones,” co-directed by Lauren Wolkstein and Christopher Radcliffe, about a young boy on a road trip with a guy he claims is his older brother (played by Alex Pettyfer of “Magic Mike”). But this road trip takes some disturbing detours I’d hate to spoil.
“Lemon” is an absurd dark comedy directed by Janicza Bravo from a screenplay she wrote with her husband, the alt-comedian Brett Gelman. He stars in the movie as a middle-aged guy whose life falls apart. He doesn’t handle it very well. It’s alienating, weird and really funny; Bravo is one of those exciting new directors I look forward to watching closely. This movie also stars Michael Cera, Nia Long, Judy Greer and Gillian Jacobs.
“Whose Streets?” is a documentary compiled mostly of cellphone and camera footage from the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police shooting and killing of Michael Brown in 2014. It’s an absolutely vital piece of living history that puts you square in one of the most contentious moments of the recent past, and it’s a necessity for anyone interested in contemporary activism. It’s co-directed by Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis.
There are so many others: “Beach Rats,” “Blame,” “Forever ‘B’” (which is completely insane) and “Axolotl Overkill” are all directed by women, while “Like Me,”“Tormenting the Hen,” “The Death and Life of Martha P. Johnson” and “Princess Cyd” all tell women’s stories. And there are probably a ton I’m forgetting!
What 3 films are you most looking forward to at this year’s festival?
Tough to narrow it down to three films I’m most excited for people to see. There are so many films! It’s a packed weekend! But if I must pick three, first, I’m very excited for our Sidewalk opening night audience to see “Step” for all the reasons I said before. I love that film. I’m proud we have the opportunity to show “A Ghost Story,” which is a wonderful, deeply sad and haunting drama starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, about loss and the passage of time. That might be my favorite movie of 2017 so far. And for a third, I’ll throw out a little movie called “The Other Kids,” which we’re screening Sunday morning at the Birmingham Museum of Art. It’s a fascinating narrative-documentary hybrid that follows six high schoolers; they perform semi-improvised versions of their own life’s stories for the camera. You might think that’s nothing more than just an interesting experiment, but it pays off beautifully with a deeply emotional story. That one’s a bit of a sleeper that I can’t recommend highly enough.
What can we do to mentally and emotionally prepare ourselves for the closing film “My Friend Dahmer”?
Funny that you ask about “My Friend Dahmer”—I haven’t seen it yet! That’s a film our creative director, Rachel Morgan, saw and loved, but due to various circumstances none of the rest of us have had a chance to see it. So I’ll be there in the audience for that film on Sunday afternoon with everyone else. I hear it’s intense, though, so be forewarned.
Any practical tips you can give to people attending Sidewalk for the first time to help them have a great weekend?
First of all, if you’re planning to walk the festival footprint, don’t forget that those air conditioned interiors are deceptive. Stay hydrated! Birmingham is hot in August! And you should plan to walk — we’re showing movies all day Saturday and Sunday at all of our venues. Make sure you get there early; some of our venues are smaller than others and can fill up surprisingly quickly. After the movie, stick around to chat with our visiting filmmakers; we’re proud to show off Birmingham and our film community to folks who have never been here before, and more often than not, our visitors are amazed that such a top-notch festival with dedicated and passionate attendees can flourish here. And finally, recommend Sidewalk to friends and family! We try to program a little something for everyone, and I think this is our strongest film lineup yet.
Visit sidewalkfest.com for more information.