The Anchorage International Film Festival is back, with more than 100 films from Alaska and beyond (plus 15 student films from the Iditarod Area School District). There's something for everyone here -- shorts, animated films, documentaries and more. The Festival has recently announced it will add "Winter Project" to the lineup -- the Alaska-made documentary about epic backcountry snowmachine riders that has gotten big buzz around the state and already packed the Bear Tooth. That's at 10 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 10, at the Alaska Experience Theatre.
Unsure where to begin wading through the program? Here are some highlights.
On film, two depictions of Alaska seem to prevail: the postcard-perfect nature documentaries, with their sweeping helicopter shots of pristine glaciers and sped-up aurora footage, and the increasingly idiotic "reality" shows, in which Alaska is a deadly wasteland populated by trigger-happy morons.
The Alaska presented to Outsiders on screen is almost always a heavily edited backdrop painted to suit whatever version of the Last Frontier the director thinks people want to see. Which is what makes "WildLike" so refreshing.
The film, which opens the Festival, follows Mackenzie, a jaded teenager from Seattle who's been shipped up to Juneau to stay with her uncle while her mother is in rehab. Mackenzie's situation spirals out of control after her uncle sexually abuses her and she sets out for herself, eventually latching onto a hiker named Bart and accompanying him through Denali National Park.
Director Frank Hall Green rounds out all the characters in the film -- Alaska among them -- with nuance and restraint. Shot in Juneau, Whittier, Anchorage and Denali (as well as the Parks and Marine highways), the film conveys the realities of Alaska to those Outside while still remaining genuine and familiar to Alaskans. The succinct visuals and diverse locations lack the touristy heavy-handedness many of us have become accustomed to seeing. Like Alaska itself, "WildLike" is vast and unpredictable, at turns gorgeous and tragic, isolating and exhilarating.
Ella Purnell delivers a powerful performance as the lost but resourceful Mackenzie, though her silent brooding becomes tedious at times. In fact, the film as a whole could stand to brood a little less; although the plot is full of subtle beauty, it's probably not substantial enough to warrant a running time of an hour and 45 minutes.
But the occasional dragging is offset by the grounded performances of Purnell and Bruce Greenwood as Bart, Mackenzie's reluctant protector. Greenwood is totally believable in this challenging role, and it's satisfying to see how his character evolves along with Mackenzie. A lineup of carefully rendered supporting characters adds additional depth.
"WildLike's" faithful, unflinching depiction of Alaska and its frank treatment of sexual assault make it a particularly apt choice for the Festival's opener. At a time when Alaska is struggling with how it presents itself to the world and how it deals with its darkest plight, "WildLike" offers a balanced but hopeful outlook. -- Egan Millard
Showing 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 5, at the Bear Tooth Theatrepub opening gala and 9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 12, at the Alaska Experience Theatre
A village in northern Greenland and a small tropical island are the focus of this beautiful documentary from director Matthias von Gunten. Though they are located on opposite sides of the planet and have wildly different environments, "Thule Tuvalu" explores how two communities are linked by the same desperate problem.
In Qaanaaq, Greenland, glaciers are melting at a record pace, making it more and more dangerous for hunters to cross broad swaths of ice in winter for food. On Tuvalu, a small island in the Pacific Ocean, that melting Greenland ice contributes to a rising sea level that is gradually eating away at the borders of the island, killing vegetation and fouling the drinking water.
This is a documentary about climate change, but in the forefront are portraits of two very different but equally enthralling cultures. It's mesmerizing to watch the Inuit of Greenland gut seals and train puppies, or the Tuvaluans night-fishing from a speedboat. Director von Gunten takes the viewer practically onto the whaling boat, where you can hear the husky puffs of breath from a narwhal before it's shot.
Most of the people interviewed in the film seem pragmatic about the need to adapt, even while they struggle to accept it or to imagine the future. In Greenland, they talk about tourism and fishing. In Tuvalu, relocation to another nation at a higher elevation, like New Zealand.
There are no talking heads or scientific experts in this film. Instead, von Gunten lets the Inuit and Tuvaluans talk about their world and the changes they've observed. It's an intimate look into the lives of interesting, thoughtful people -- who happen to find themselves on the front edge of a global crisis. It's a pleasure to watch, but that doesn't make it any less sobering.
Shows 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 7, at the Alaska Experience Theatre and 6 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 10, at the Anchorage Museum
Joe Hardesty (producer) and Ben Bolea (writer and director) are both Alaskans now living in LA. They'll be back in their hometown for the world premiere of their film "Mr. Intangibles," about a frat guy whose girlfriend leaves him for the college star quarterback.
When asked why they chose to focus on college football and fraternities (themes not exactly native to their home state), here's what Bolea had to say:
"When we were in college, Tim Tebow at the University of Florida was a national phenomenon. Our roommates were watching him on ESPN and it hit us -- there is probably some average guy out there whose girlfriend left him to date Tim Tebow. And the worst part is that the average guy most definitely loves Tebow as well."
James Pumphrey stars as the guy who loves his girlfriend and Tebow (well, Tate Armstrong here) and who is mostly known as "Junk." His sole assets appear to be an asymmetrical dimple and ability to take a beating. He's charming enough to keep things entertaining, though the film strains believability in several places and is a little difficult to relate to if you don't have an emotional investment in a sports team. However, if you enjoy movies about drunken but endearing frat guys, or movies starring Seth Rogen, you'll probably enjoy this flick.
8 p.m. Monday, Dec. 8, at Anchorage Museum and 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 14, at the Alaska Experience Theatre
Backing Out of Time
When horror novelist Stephen King was asked during a 2013 NPR interview what scared him, he replied that it was nothing supernatural -- it was Alzheimer's. "That's the boogeyman in the closet now. ... I'm afraid of losing my mind."
In Mary Katzke's documentary "Backing Out of Time," five Alaska families try to help elderly parents who are facing that disease.
At first it seems cheerier than you'd expect -- almost all these elderly people live at home, surrounded by people who love them and work hard to make them comfortable. There are struggles, but also happy moments. But over the course of three years of filming, the disease inexorably worsens. Alzheimer's makes these parents and grandparents hallucinate and lash out. Caregivers are worn down, not only by patient care but the need to navigate insurance companies, medical appointments and their own jobs and families.
And as Mona, a normally convivial woman whose father keeps wandering away from the Pioneer Home at night, grimly observes: "The very worst part is that there's no hope of it ever getting better."
"Backing Out of Time" is a compassionate and committed documentary that seems to be aimed at families who will become caregivers -- there are medical experts interviewed, rudimentary illustrations of the disease and some education about resources. However, this is an illuminating film for anyone touched by the disease. That is probably all of us -- according to the film, one in nine seniors will be diagnosed with Alzheimer's or associated dementia, and Alaska has one of the fastest growing populations of seniors in the nation.
There are a lot of movies about 20- (or 30-) something-year-old Americans who can't seem to get their act together. "Appropriate Behavior" falls squarely into that delayed-adulthood genre, but is also one of its most delightful examples.
Shirin is an Iranian-American Brooklynite with elegant parents, a successful surgeon brother, a master's in journalism and no clue what to do with her life. The story begins with her breakup from her girlfriend. It was her first romantic relationship with a woman -- something she never came out to her family about.
Fumbling for a way to move on, Shirin takes a job teaching filmmaking to 6-year-olds (this is Brooklyn, after all) and picks up a variety of strangers for one-night stands. Along the way, the audience learns about her ex-lover through a series of flashbacks.
What sets "Appropriate Behavior" apart is its exceptionally funny dialog and affectionate skewering of Brooklyn aspirational hipster culture. The film allows an astonishing number of secondary or even more minor characters to be funny -- from the petulant husband who instigates a threesome in a bar to an oddly intense bra store attendant and ex-Wall Street elementary school principal. It's all anchored by a wry, touching lead performance from Desiree Ahkavan, who also wrote and directed.
Plays 5:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 8, at Bear Tooth Theatrepub and 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 13, at Alaska Experience Theatre
6 Bullets to Hell
A throwback the old-school spaghetti Western, this hits all the marks you'd expect. Roving bandits, a bad guy named "Bobby Durango," a shootout in front of the local saloon. Crispian Belfrage does his best Shane, and is convincing in the role of peaceable farmer/retired sharpshooter, forced to return to the gun after his wife is raped and murdered by the Durango gang. He tracks down each of the six men, intent on giving each a bullet straight to ... well, you get the picture.
10 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 9, at Bear Tooth Theatrepub and 10 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 13, at Alaska Experience Theatre
The stories of three households intertwine via their open-air porches on a summer day. Emma (played by Canadian musician Laura Barrett) is getting ready to move out of her rental and get married when a man from her past comes across her front porch and stirs things up. The developments are commented on by the elderly Portuguese couple across the street and a pair of young siblings next door.
Writer and director Sarah Goodman keeps the focus mostly on Emma's turmoil, which has to do with her mysterious past as a kalimba player in a Canadian indie band -- details she won't discuss with her passive-aggressive fiance. Then Gabriel, a former bandmate, appears and brings back some old feelings. "I haven't seen you since Sappyfest!" she exclaims when encountering her friend (or is he?).
It's a little precious, and you're left wishing the film spent more time with the Portuguese couple, or the kids next door, who barely seem to get screen time at all.
But the film is lovely to look at, shot entirely in black and white, and adds a lot of interest with the device of using overheard conversations as part of the dialog. As the protagonists brood or have portentous conversations, Goodman will occasionally interject snatches of random conversations from people passing by on the sidewalk, adding some levity to theme of lives intersecting in patio season.
8 p.m. Monday, Dec. 8, and 6 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 10, at Alaska Experience Theatre
6 Dead Bodies Duct-Taped to a Merry-Go-Round
The title says everything and nothing about this strange, suspenseful short from Sprocketheads. Alaska talents Kevin Bennett and Cheyenne Beatty star as a truck driver with a bizarre secret agenda and a soldier looking for a way home (Bennett also wrote and directed). Not to give away anything, but "Love is a pretty damn good reason to go and do something stupid."
5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 13, at Alaska Experience Theatre (part of a shorts showcase)
The Puerto Rican trans and drag communities are the focus of this documentary from from directors Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini.
The film has many subjects -- drag queens, transgender women, sex workers and business owners -- but if there is a focus it would be Denise "Sandy" Rivera, a glamorous blonde with a kind of Samantha Jones hauteur, who works as a prostitute. Her acerbic observations do much of the work of framing the dilemma of Puerto Ricans who don't fit their birth-assigned gender roles. She observes that people like her are "like bats," coming out only at night. Finding regular work is difficult because employers tend to ignore transgender applicants.
Sandy spearheads the Butterfly Trans Foundation, which fights to ban workforce discrimination. Its members testify before their Legislature, and their success provides an upbeat ending for the film.
That political victory connects the goals and concerns of all the various people interviewed, but it's pretty superficially addressed. The real heart of the story is exploring a spectrum of people carving out their own identities, despite discrimination or society's disapproval. That ranges from a man becoming disenchanted with his feminine alter ego to a woman who resorted to black-market hormone therapy to a transplanted New Yorker who only wants to be passable in the supermarket. There is one man in film, and he struggles to find anyone to relate to at all.
It's hard at times to keep everyone straight, especially in and out of their makeup and costumes, but it's a completely absorbing trip.
8 p.m. Monday, Dec. 8, at Bear Tooth and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 10, at Alaska Experience Theatre
-- Victoria Barber