Anchorage International Film Fest: 12 highlights

play@adn.comDecember 5, 2013 

  • Anchorage International Film Festival

    Dates: Dec. 6-15
    Location: various
    Tickets: $8 per film, $30 for the opening gala, $100 for a festival pass
    Online: anchoragefilmfestival.org

As pretty much anyone expecting to see "The Frozen Ground" in an Anchorage theater can attest, we often get shorted by which movies come up. But for the past 12 years, the Anchorage International Film Festival has brought a lot of foreign, art-house and independent films that wouldn't be seen here otherwise.

"There are so many great films out there from all over the world," said programming director James Parker. "I think we're doing a service to the community by presenting films from all over the world, because that reflects Anchorage."

This year's screenings will begin Dec. 6 with "Icebound," a documentary about the 1925 Serum Run. The mix of films changes with each festival, and Parker noted that Mexican programming (selected by the Mexican Consulate) has been beefed up. There are also more foreign features and LGBTQ selections. New this year is a short horror program that includes the feature-length "Mine Games" and the animated short "The Narrative of Victor Karloch."

The festival will bring up many of the filmmakers featured so you can pay your respects or ask them what the big idea was, depending on how you feel after sitting through their work.

The annual Alaska filmmaking challenge, Quick Freeze, includes two categories this year: short films of five minutes or less and super shorts at 90 seconds or less. They'll be shown at Anchorage Community Works 9:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 13.

From Bollywood to Antarctica, from the silly to the tragic, about 125 films  are being shown in Anchorage this week -- including "The Frozen Ground," so if you missed seeing it on the big screen, this is your chance. Here is a guide to get started, but for the full list, see anchoragefilmfestival.org.

McConkey
Documentary: 109 minutes
8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7
Bear Tooth Theatrepub
6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 11
Alaska Experience Theatre

It's a truly great documentary that is engrossing even to those who aren't interested in the movie's general subject, and "McConkey" is just such a film.

"McConkey" is a documentary about Shane McConkey, a skier and BASE jumper who died in 2009 while performing a stunt in Italy. He was 39. Because of McConkey's line of work, it's also a ski movie, with some truly jaw-dropping footage. But "McConkey" is such a compelling mixture of themes and stories that skiing may be the least of what you'll walk away thinking about.

On the slopes from a very young age, McConkey just barely missed a spot on the U.S. Olympic team and subsequently flunked out of college. How he went from delivering pizza and living in his friend's shed to performing back flips off cliff faces and parachuting to the ground is a story about either a great artist or a madman, depending on your perspective. As McConkey progresses from ski flips to BASE-jumping to ski-BASE-jumping to doing back flips off mountains on skis and gliding to the ground in a squirrel suit, it becomes clear that McConkey's work will surely kill him -- no matter how careful or skilled he is. That's not only because what he did was beyond dangerous, but because his passion and genius was in pursuing ever more visionary, and therefore perilous, feats. Even while his contemporaries died and retired and he became a father and husband, he kept pushing.

What makes it more poignant is that McConkey comes across as a genuinely sweet and funny person. Footage of him dates back to his high school years, and so his taste for practical jokes has been well documented throughout his life (blazing down the mountain naked was a go-to move for McConkey, and one that got him kicked out of Vail). To borrow from McConkey's terminology, this is a documentary to get stoked about.

-- V.B.



Life on Ice
Documentary short: 15 minutes
7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7
1 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 15
Alaska Experience Theatre

The logistics of camping at the edge of a glacier unsupported for two months are complicated enough. Throw in a spouse, a toddler and an infant, and that story becomes infinitely more intriguing.

"Life on the Ice" is Greg Chaney's short documentary film about author Erin McKittrick and environmental scientist Bretwood Higman, a couple that first made their mark by traveling by foot and pack-raft from the Puget Sound to the Bering Sea -- about 4,000 miles. In this trip, their two small children are along for the ride as they retrace a 1890s expedition that crossed the Malaspina Glacier in coastal Alaska.

Their mission -- and that of their nonprofit, Ground Truth Trekking -- is to examine environmental issues up close, but much of "Life on Ice" focuses on the domestic details of camping in a remote place with their children Katmai and Lituya. McKittrick and Higman calmly demonstrate their lightweight cookstove, note bear tracks following their own, chat with their toddler and change diapers on their pack-raft in the midst of a snowfall ("this must be the only expedition sponsored by a diaper company," McKittrick observed. They're the biodegradable variety, natch). In one mesmerizing sequence, the children gleefully gum on whole sticks of cold butter for about two full minutes.

Katmai and Lituya certainly seem healthy and cheerful. As McKittrick points out, it's not simple to raise children out in nature, but "it wasn't always easy and straightforward at home either."

"It's hands-on. We're out here with them all the time in the kind of environment that people have had kids in for thousands of years."

-- V.B.



9 Full Moons
Feature: 103 minutes
3:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 8
Alaska Experience Theatre
*Filmmaker attending
6:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 12
Anchorage Museum
*Filmmaker attending

There is a long tradition of indie films that tell the story of beautiful, wounded lovers trying to make it together in a corrupt world. Tomer Almagor's film "9 Full Moons" is a decent entry into the genre.

Viewers should be aware going in that there is a somewhat graphic depiction of sexual assault in the first 10 minutes of the film.

In this L.A. noir, Frankie (Amy Seimetz) is what other characters call "a train wreck." She's an alcoholic, has bad judgement in men and her only apparent "work" is collecting discarded property off the side of the road and selling it at yard sales. She is extraordinarily beautiful. Lev -- played by Bret Roberts, an actor from Alaska -- is also beautiful. Lev is a limo driver trying to make it in the music business. They both have serious daddy issues, of course. Can the two find happiness together, or will their personal struggles sink each other even further?

There are a lot of dark, divey bars in this movie, along with mumbled confessions, cigarette smoking and wordless glares. There are also some genuinely sweet moments that keep the film from being unremittingly depressing -- nighttime bike rides, a small scene in which Lev sings Frankie a Russian lullabye. While their progression through the relationship seems a little inexplicable, their tenderness feels real, even amongst the obligatory seedy L.A. scenesters. Seimetz is particularly fine; her brash, troubled Frankie is a train wreck that's easy to fall in love with.

-- V.B.



Everything is Fine Here
Feature: 75 minutes
6 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 8
Anchorage Museum
*Filmmaker attending
5:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 12
Alaska Experience Theatre

Arghavan (Marziyyeh Valipoor), a talented young writer in Tehran, is invited to Heidelberg, Germany. Her father is concerned over her traveling alone, and her fiancée, Hesam, is preoccupied with the notion that she'll never come home. Yet the street in front of her family's apartment becomes infinitely more dangerous than a trip abroad when she's abducted and raped. Her laughter and brightness quickly fade to melancholia, anger and emptiness.

From then on, Arghavan's thoughts are the narration of the events taking place. Her family is frustrated with her silence, and she thinks, "Humans are never satisfied with the present situation. If you are silent, you must talk. And when you talk, you'll surely become silent." Police begin to suggest she has fabricated the entire event. Hesam's family calls off the engagement. Her situation becomes frustrating to those who love her, inconvenient for those around her and fodder for gossip in the community. She is an outsider looking in at her own life.

This is an ambitious attempt for director Pouria Azarbayjani, addressing a sensitive subject in a sensitive place. He's already had one film banned in Iran, "The Skyless City," for covering the international trafficking of women. But here the flow of the story hits a couple of roadblocks with confusing or missing subtitles. Various permutations of the family in the car become monotonous, and in several places, the film itself appears quite literally stuck in traffic: the director fails to give the audience an emotional break. No humor, beauty or joy punctuate the story beyond the first 10 minutes.

Marziyyeh Valipoor's despondence as Arghavan seems authentic, and many of the supporting characters are well-cast and memorable. In one of the final scenes of "Everything is Fine Here," Arghavan flatly refuses to have a documentary made about her -- in a film that is essentially a documentary about her. This is important.

Not every film needs a hero; not every story about rape has a positive or even lukewarm conclusion. But when the narrative arc goes plunging off a fishing boat, the story ends painfully and predictably, albeit not at all abruptly.

-- E.K.



Detroit Unleaded
Feature: 90 minutes
1:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 8
Alaska Experience Theatre
*Filmmaker attending
8 p.m. Monday, Dec. 9
Bear Tooth Theatrepub
*Filmmaker attending

Given the title, you could be forgiven for assuming "Detroit Unleaded" is a documentary about the failed auto industry. It's actually a love story about a man who works in a 24-hour gas station in one of the Motor City's poorer neighborhoods. Sami, an Arab-American, inherits the gas station, despite his dreams of escaping to college in California. He finds himself cornered -- by circumstance, but also by the bulletproof box in which he spends most of his time after his genteel father is shot to death in a hold-up.

One day, the beautiful and sassy Najlah walks in, and the two begin a tentative courtship despite her controlling brother and his family obligations. The love story of Sami and Naljah happens exclusively inside the gas station, where romance blooms amongst the cigarettes and cheap trinkets kept behind the counter -- in one particularly sweet scene, Sami drapes all the gaudy necklaces, rings and plastic tokens over Najlah as though they were precious jewels. It's a nice story, but what makes the film really stand out is Rola Nashef's good-natured exploration of how cultures meet on a run-down street corner -- from the black customers of the neighborhood, to Najlah's clubbing brother, to the guy who sweeps out the parking lot. Love can happen anywhere, even a run-down gas station in Detroit.

-- V.B.



Harlem Street Singer
Documentary: 77 minutes
8:15 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 8
Anchorage Museum
1 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14
Anchorage Experience Theatre

Reverend Gary Davis was a powerful force in the history of American music, influencing everyone from Bob Dylan to The Grateful Dead, but he spent almost his entire career playing on the street. Today, the composer of "Candy Man" and "Cocaine Blues" is known mostly through the performances of his students and admirers. It's a situation that "Harlem Street Singer" aims to change.

This competent, generous documentary traces the life of Davis from his start -- born poor and blind in rural South Carolina in 1896 -- to his death in 1972. Davis made his first guitars and banjos from his grandmother's pie tins at age 7. By 14, he was playing in a band with the great blues musician Willie Walker.

The documentary makes the case that if Davis is not as well known as contemporaries like Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, it is probably because he engineered a style that defies easy categorization -- his music visits the genres of ragtime, gospel, blues and folk. Fame and financial success eluded Davis for almost his entire life, but that didn't stop him from gathering disciples. "Street Singer" includes interviews and performances by many of Davis's former students, including Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, David Bromberg and Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane. There's also a wealth of footage of the Reverand himself performing and teaching in his living room.

In the final decade or so of his life, Davis and his music were taken up by some of the stars of the emerging 1960s folk revival -- Peter, Paul and Mary and The Grateful Dead were a couple of bands that covered Davis and introduced him to a wider audience. With the belated acclaim came royalty checks, and Davis was able to die in comfort. That was part of his due, and efforts like that of "Harlem Street Singer," which put the spotlight on the often-overlooked musician himself, are another.

-- V.B.



Furever
Documentary: 80 minutes
7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 9
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 10
Alaska Experience Theatre

Most of us pet owners freely admit that we're crazy about our animals. We dress them up, let them hog the bed, buy them gifts and often feed them better than we feed ourselves. So when I heard, in one of the opening scenes of Amy Finkel's "Furever," that "almost half of all pet owners admit talking to their pets," I thought, "only half?!"

And I immediately sympathized with the man in the first scene who was still grieving over the death of his cat, Boomer, several years prior He remembered Boomer with the usual truisms -- 'he lit up my life,' 'he got me through so much,' etc. Even his statement that he grieved more for Boomer than he did for his own father didn't surprise me.

Then he shows the camera a sealed baggie full of cat food with bits of scrambled egg mixed in: a sample of Boomer's last meal. And then one with a few lumps of feces in it: the finished product of Boomer's last meal. And one more baggie -- this one filled with Boomer's ashes.

But Boomer's final resting place seems prosaic, even crude, compared to some of the more outlandish pet funerary options shown in "Furever." Thanks to the explosive growth of the pet funeral industry in recent years, you can now have your pet's cremated ashes made into a diamond ring, tattooed into your skin, blasted into a fireworks display, made into garden fertilizer, pressed into a vinyl record, embedded into a portrait, or loaded into a shotgun shell. And if you have $100,000 lying around, you can even have your dog cloned.

But "Furever" also focuses on the growing practice of having one's pet freeze-dried or stuffed, and features several pet owners who spent substantial amounts of money to do just that. One woman casually strokes her freeze-dried Pomeranian in her lap; another couple takes their stuffed beagle for walks in a stroller. It all seems lurid at first, but because Finkel treads delicately and doesn't pass judgment, we gradually warm up to it. Her directorial eye is both gentle and objective, depicting tender moments of grief alongside shots of the gruesome taxidermy process. I can't recall another film which made me laugh, cry, gasp and gag -- all in 80 minutes. But when confronting death -- especially the death of a beloved companion -- these are all true and instinctive reactions, and the fact that "Furever" elicits them all in turn speaks to Finkel's wide-ranging talent.

--E.M.



The Words I Love
Documentary short: 17 minutes
8 p.m. Monday, Dec. 9
Alaska Experience Theatre
2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14
Anchorage Community Works

Have you ever tried to define a word for someone and found yourself at a loss for an accurate description? You grasp at synonyms, but without tangible objects or sensations to compare them to, their meanings falter. Only when you walk the person through a hypothetical scenario or point out something concrete that describes the word does it take on true significance.

As the poet William Carlos Williams said, "no ideas but in things."

Benz Thanachart's short documentary "The Words I Love" offers native English speakers the chance to re-examine their own language through the critical perspective of someone eager to learn its complexities. When confronted with an unfamiliar word, Thanachart asks a nearby stranger to explain it to him. He then overlays the person's unique verbal definition with a visual depiction of his understanding of the word, illustrating its meaning in a way no dictionary ever could.

Although Thanachart occasionally reverts to cliched ClipArt images and stock photos for these depictions, for the most part he uses stark hidden-camera footage he shot on the streets and subways of New York. As we listen to a passerby fumble through ineffective analogies in an attempt to explain the word "surreptitiously," we see a subway rider remove his wedding ring and slip it into his pocket. Through Thanachart's fresh perspective, we experience the satisfying instant of recognition and share in the simple joy of articulation.

Charming and unassuming, "The Words I Love" offers a surprisingly nuanced exploration of both the absurd limits of language and the delight of its precision.

-- E.M.



Antarctica: A Year on Ice
Documentary: 97 minutes
7:45 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 12
7:45 p.m. Friday, Dec. 13
Alaska Experience Theatre

At the beginning of "Antarctica: A Year on Ice," when director Anthony Powell tells us the film took 10 years to make, we feel instantly obliged to admire his dedication. And rightly so; it is a meticulous and sweeping documentary that manages to capture both the vastness of the continent and the claustrophobia of its cramped research stations. Unfortunately for Powell, this same ground has been covered more eloquently by other films -- namely, Werner Herzog's "Encounters at the End of the World," arguably the definitive Antarctic documentary. But it's still an impressive feat and an enjoyable journey.

For Anchorageites, though, the appeal may come not from the exoticism of Antarctica but from its uncanny familiarity. When Powell talks about the jarring contrast of the pristine landscapes against McMurdo Base's urbanized, utilitarian atmosphere, we understand. When firefighters, scientists and staff question why they've isolated themselves down there, away from their families and the rest of the world, we get it. When they bemoan the stir-craziness, the lack of sunlight and fresh food and the brutal temperatures, we've been there. And when they say they wouldn't trade it for anything, we couldn't agree more.

Powell is to be commended for crafting a film that focuses as much on the otherworldly beauty of the continent as the banalities of living in a research base. He doesn't sugar-coat anything; along with stunning time-lapse footage of Antarctic mountains and the southern aurora, we see frozen urine pipes, dead seals and ugly industrial equipment. The ability to depict such severe contrast in unflinching detail is the mark of a skilled filmmaker, and "Antarctica: A Year on Ice" is proof that nature documentaries don't need to be pretty to fascinate us.

--E.M.



7 Cajas
Feature: 100 minutes
8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 12
Bear Tooth Theatrepub
11:30 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 15
Alaska Experience Theatre

Somewhere along the way in "7 Cajas" ("7 Boxes"), love blossoms, a baby is born and a trio of transvestites steals the show. Policemen bumble, cheat and act heroically. A vicious criminal begs for insulin he can't pay for, and an evil mastermind exploits the desperation, naiveté or stupidity -- whichever applies -- of those beneath him. Connections between people, places, and events are built one after the other at a heart-racing pace.

Seventeen-year-old Victor (Celso Franco) spends more time daydreaming than breaking a sweat as a wheelbarrow delivery boy in Paraguay's capital city, Asuncion. Crime is prevalent along the Argentine border, an area known for smuggling, lax security and corrupt law enforcement. Victor has a chance to make $100, enough to buy his very own cellphone, for delivering seven mysterious boxes. He doesn't know what's inside the boxes as he weaves adeptly through the crowds, or where to deliver them, or when a call will come on a borrowed cell phone to direct him.

Victor's friend Liz (Lali Gonzalez) saves the "merchandise" more than once. Her character volleys between that of a scared little girl and a playful diva, but is ultimately revealed to be a quick-witted veteran of the market streets. Meanwhile, their teenage distractions, frustrations and flirtations are endearing reminders of their youth.

"7 Cajas" takes place in Municipal Market No. 4, a place the film shows with dizzying depth and energy. By night, Market 4 is an underworld of villains that travelers are advised to avoid, where violent crimes and kidnappings are increasingly common.

All but the primary characters in "7 Cajas" are real shoppers and shopkeepers from Asuncion. They speak in Jopari, a mix of the two national languages (Spanish and Guarani), and show the richness of community and friendship that can thrive even in the midst of poverty.

-- E.K.



Tu Seras un Homme
Feature: 87 minutes
8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14
Bear Tooth Theatrepub
*Filmmaker attending
1:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 15
Alaska Experience Theatre
*Filmmaker attending

About one-third of the way through Benoit Cohen's "Tu Seras un Homme" ("You'll Be a Man"), viewers may think they know exactly what's going on. Marc, an overworked and distant father, has hired 20-year-old Theo to babysit his withdrawn 10-year-old son, Leo. Leo is a somber child, not permitted to play outdoors because of an earlier injury, and his mother Charlotte is similarly homebound due to agoraphobia. Lighthearted and affectionate, Theo brings laughter to the melancholy house and provides the lonely Leo and his mother with a much-needed companion. The title seems to be an expression of Theo's role as Leo's gentle, guiding mentor; all will be well.

But the film soon breaks free of the familiar "Mary Poppins" formula and heads for more treacherous territory. While Theo brings out exuberance in Leo and Charlotte, he sends Marc further into the depths of austerity. After Marc expels Theo from the house, the long-dormant tension finally erupts. Suddenly, the perspective and meaning of the title is thrown into question; instead of being addressed from Theo to Leo, could it be reversed? Or could it apply to Marc, unable to release his fears and inhabit the confidence and serenity that mark a true man?

Thanks to fine acting, a solid script and high production values, the film far surpasses its initial sentimentality and develops into a delicate, intricate panorama that approaches the genius of Chekhov, whose influence imbues the entire production. The cinematography brings out the family's slow, quiet tragedy; as we meander with Theo and Leo around the vast, idyllic house, the emptiness and lack of love become more and more apparent. And each performance, down to the most minor role, exudes a rare combination of honesty and precision, scaling the heights of drama without floating into melodrama. In keeping with this masterful restraint, the film leaves us in the same state as the characters: confused and yearning for something intangible, but alive.

-- E.M.



Lion Ark
Documentary: 97 minutes
3:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14
Wilda Marston Theatre
*Filmmaker attending
3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 15
Alaska Experience Theatre

The promotional materials for "Lion Ark" describe it as "more action adventure than traditional documentary." In fact, it is not really either. This is a piece of advocacy for Animal Defenders International, written and produced by Jan Creamer and Tim Phillips, ADI's president and vice president and the film's central figures. That's not to say it's not an interesting-enough story to carry a movie, and it's easy to sympathize with their cause. The lions of the title, many of them beaten, malnourished and confined to small cages, could certainly use a champion.

We spend a lot of time during "Ark" with Creamer as she leads her group's quest to rescue 25 lions and other animals from Bolivian circuses following a country-wide ban. The crux of the drama is a fascinating logistical and cultural puzzle -- first the issue of getting the animals from sometimes-resistant proprietors, then the question of what to do with 25 hungry, sick lions who don't know how to fend for themselves.

Unfortunately, the film tends to get in the way of the story, and "Lion Ark" ends up being its own worst enemy. Crucial conversations are often obscured by background noises or Karel Havlicek's score. Frequent, jarring sound effects make the film reminiscent of tawdry TV true-life crime shows (a "chung!" sometimes sounds during scene changes). At one point, out of nowhere, the soundtrack blares Joan Jett's "Bad Reputation," appropos of nothing.

It would be easier to feel emotionally connected to the Lion Ark rescue project if the filmmakers took a more dispassionate approach. There's a self-congratulatory tone when Creamer and her colleagues from abroad swoop in to take the lions from their previous owners, screaming at and commanding the confused-looking and distressed locals. It becomes a little unsavory, especially when there isn't any attempt to understand their perspective -- the culture or economics behind why the lions might be there in the first place.

But for those who want to see some sad, sick lions catch a lucky break, it will probably be worth the ride.

-- V.B.

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