Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Ole! Artists...Have You Done Your Part?! Speech by best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love) on Ted Talks
*Five Stars

This is a brilliant speech (which received a standing ovation) by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, on the anguish, love and inspiration for the creative life. Whether you're a painter, musician, poet, novelist, journalist, sculptor, or just related to one, this is one of the most brilliant speeches I've seen in the past couple of years on the psychological intimidation of being an artist and how we may hope to deal with the incredible weight of expectation on our craft. It's not a surprise that she had a standing ovation! This is really worth watching...

Friday, October 23, 2009

Oktober Film Fest: 7th Annual Flagstaff Mountain Film Festival
Flagstaff, AZ

Picture left: Karen Custer Thurston, Rachel S. Thurston, Heather Roberto, and Steve Abbey. Picture right; Volunteer Ayala, two of the Flagstaff Mountain Film Festival Directors Chris Becker and Ron Tuckman, and Filmmaker David Thanh

God I love Flagstaff!
Mama Chihuahua (MC), the Beloved Badger, and I (the Fire Kitten) all share a love for adventure travel and documentary films. Thanks to MC, we've now made it an annual tradition to attend all four days of the Flagstaff Mountain Film Festival set in historic downtown Flagstaff where she lives. For the past week, we've watched 18 hours worth of movies from around the world.... saturating ourselves, immersing, processing, drinking hot cups of chai, munching on popcorn, then going back for more….

The film festival punctuates our year now with its inspirational, moving, and occasionally hilarious short and feature-length documentaries. This year the Festival offered 49 films highlighting all seven continents. I can't recommend this festival highly enough. I've been going to the Banff Film Festival series of winning films that comes through Santa Barbara for the past seven years and the Telluride Film Festival series for the past two years. I've also worked for a couple of different filmmakers as well as dabbled in documentary filmmaking. The Flagstaff Festival features many documentaries in the same vein: action-adventure films intermixed with socially and environmentally-oriented flics. For only $54 we each bought VIP passes which allowed us to see as many films as we wanted as well as the opportunity to have dinner at a gallery and meet other filmmakers visiting for the festival.

For the past several years, I've been wanting to blog more about this festival and give it its proper due! The five directors—Ron Tuckman, Chris Becker, Cameron Clarke, John Tveten, and Kristen Faxlanger have done another fantastic job at putting together a powerful line-up.

I've highlighted some of the more noteworthy films that were among many of my favorites. Several will be available to rent, one has been picked up by HBO, and a few others may be more difficult to get a hold of. For a teaser, I've included a few of their trailers. If any of these catch your fancy, check out their websites for info around venues where you can see them. And by all means, go check this festival out in Flagstaff for yourself!

There were many headlining films which I wasn’t able to make this year but of the ones I saw…these are a few noteworthy ones:

63 Marathons in 63 Days
USA, 2009. 102 min.
Director: Deborah Carr
Producer: Bradley Carr
Incredibly inspiring movie about a young endurance runner, Tim Borland, who decides to raise awareness for a rare, terminal, childhood disease that is affecting 500 kids in the U.S. by running not one, two, three, four, or five marathons in a row but SIXTY-THREE marathons around the country in sixty-three consecutive days with the support of his wife, kids, and best friend/coach as they travel by rv. The movie seamlessly weaves stories of families and children affected by A-T (which degenerates children’s bodies/muscles with each year) wih Borland’s intrepid mission to selflessly spread the word about A-T through the country. Truly inspiring and very well done.

USA, 2008. 74 min.
Director: Paul Devlin
Producer: Claire Missanelli
Such a fun, light-hearted, and suspenseful movie about a team of astrophysicists attempting to build and launch a telescope carried by balloon above the atmosphere to record the beginnings of our universe and distant galaxies. Featuring gorgeous photography,Blast showcases a fun team of scientists that seem to keep their spirits up even when they lose their hard drive (painted white) in the snow along a 120-mile stretch of Antarctic ice. I also loved Blast’s brilliant soundtrack that truly captures the spirit and suspense of their expedition.

The Farm: 10 Down
USA, 2009. 93 min.
Director: Jonathon Stack; Producer; James McKay
The Farm: 10 Down is the perfect example of how you should never judge a documentary by its description. By the fourth day of the festival—and unlike Steve--I had little desire to watch a movie following the lives of several prisoners at Angola, the oldest and largest prison in the U.S. set in the Deep South. It didn’t sound like a fun way of spending my last afternoon at the festival…but I got chills in the first few minutes of being introduced to the characters when the narrator’s deep James Earle Jones’-like bass voice came across like a wise grandfather who’s going to tell you a story and lead you somewhere truly grand. And boy did it deliver.

Although this is a follow-up piece to the original film The Farm shot in 1997, it stands strong even on its own.
The Farm: Ten Down is a brilliant piece and one of my top favorites from the festival. Gorgeous raw, blues soundtrack and surprisingly, a really inspiring look at prison reform from within the walls of Angola where the warden is running a highly-esteemed model of a prison where crime and suicide rates are low and morale is relatively high and where prisoners are given the opportunities to “live” and to treat each other with civility and work their way through the ranks of the prison gaining degrees, playing sports, running a television channel, radio station, and a newspaper. The warden is also encouraging victim reconciliation with prisoners and believes with all his heart that some prisoners are capable of rehabilitation and wants to give them the opportunity to have a second chance and prove themselves as leaders.

These are hardened criminals with major sentences…no one with any less than forty years is sent to Angola. Many are murderers, multiple offenders with life sentences and either one chance or no chance at parole. Truly great testament to prison reform.

This is movie-making at its best: When you’re changed afterwards. When you care about the characters. And When you leave the theatre with a lot more questions than you have answers. And when you can’t stop thinking about the film in the days that follow.

Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai
USA, 2008. 80 min.
Directors/Producers: Lisa Merton, Alan Dater
This wonderful doc illuminates the lifelong heroism of Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Prize Winner from Kenya who developed the Green Belt Program which has planted forty-five million trees throughout a largely deforested Kenya. If you thought Wangari was just a glorified Janie Appleseed, the movie clearly shows how her tree revolution has played a part in her lifelong struggle to fight for human rights, environmental rights, civic rights, women’s rights, and democracy during years of rule under Kenya’s dictators. From encouraging women to grow their own food and replant their forests to leading a sit-in of women protesting (and consequently beaten) the imprisonment of their sons being held as political prisoners….Wangari has become the Nelson Mandela of her generation. Not surprisingly, she’s the first woman in East Africa to have received a Phd and one of many brave Kenyan souls who has risked her life to fight for her ideals. Two of my favorite quotes from this fiery woman: “Culture is our coded wisdom…” and, while addressing sexist remarks from belligerent adversaries in the political sphere, “We should be focusing on the only anatomy that is appropriate right now, the one above the neck…” Go girl! This woman is a force to be reckoned with.

Oil + Water
USA, 2007. 94 min.
Director/Producer: Seth Warren
Oil + Water is a fun, playful documentary about two unlikely bio-crusaders traveling from the north point of Alaska to the tip of South America in a renovated fire truck that’s been supped up to run purely on recycled vegetable and animal oils that they glean along the way. The two young kayakers remind me a lot of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure through North and South as they blunder their way through borders, police stops, clogged engines, and bad roads……laughing their way through the whole thing. Amazingly, enough press builds around their pilgrimage that, by the time, they make it to Chile, they’re meeting with the U.S. Ambassador and have appeared in multiple news conferences serving as educators and ambassadors of alternative fuels. It’s amazing listening to these guys that they manage to fix engines and navigate their way out of some bad places…and similarly, their lacksidaisical attitudes cleverly disguise their kayaking abilities and resourcefulness as travelers. I would have liked to have seen a longer movie with more details around how they converted their engine and planned for this trip. Although I loved the lightheartedness of the movie, I feel like it almost glossed over every challenge they had too much….leading the viewer to believe it was just one dang fun trip. Which it probably was but misery loves company and an audience, too. ;)

Sand and Sorrow
USA, 2007. 94 min.
Director/Producer: Paul Freedman
Winner of Best Human Interest Film
Although this was not one of my favorite movies at the festival, I feel I have to mention it as well. It’s been picked up by HBO and will no doubt garner even more press in the coming year. Narrated by George Clooney, Sand and Sorrow, is an utterly depressing look at the history of the Darfur Crisis with excellent interviews with leading scholars (including Pulitzer Prizer Winner Nicholas D. Kristof who will be lecturing at UCSB next week) ….who were so articulate that I found myself rapt by their eloquence and how well they nail the politics behind world governments failing to address contemporary genocides.

Although it was clear that Sand and Sorrow was made by people passionate about the cause and included thoughtful footage and history, I feel like it missed the mark on several levels. I’ve seen multiple war movies and have taken a keen personal interest in the holocaust histories of Eastern Europe, Cambodia, and Africa but the movie in its attempt to shock with photos and stories of atrocities went overboard to the point that all the stories just became one big blur and that, by the end of the movie, I felt completely numb. I would have preferred that they had humanized the victims/survivors by following just a few individuals in their daily lives in the refugee camps so we can actually develop a personal connection to them. It felt like the movie was very much intellectualized where the closest we get to any of the main characters are in interviews with scholars and two Africans who work in the refugee camps.

The second way it falled short was in its failure to humanize any of the soldiers in the Janjaweed. If we are to learn from these genocides we must examine how it is that people are so capable of committing such brutal atrocities against their own people. The Janjaweed were never discussed…their ages, their backgrounds, their motivations, nor the culture of violence that has led to this brutal war.

Its final shortcoming was in its length. It was too frickin’ long. I felt like it became the never-ending movie. There must have been over four false endings where it would go dark and then it would flash back to another story line. The editors needed to be more ruthless and cut this movie down by at least twenty minutes. Minimum. I felt so beaten down by the movie at the end that I was annoyed and drained. Sure the interviews were great but there was a lot of redundancy. Sometimes passion in the editorial room breeds blindness and, when filmmakers are so attached to their project’s message, it’s difficult to “kill the darlings” and cut a film down to make it more powerful.

Lastly, any war movie has to leave the viewer with some hope. War Dance one of my favorite documentaries from 2007 and is a perfect example of how a movie so deftly balanced the themes of light and dark when addressing genocide survivors (in this case child war refugees striving to play in a national music competition). As viewers, we must feel that ultimately, although evil things may be happening, that there is hope somewhere and that there are people making a difference.

It’s a shame really. Perhaps I'm being a bit harsh but Sand and Sorrow just left me feeling that, in the Sudan, that’s mostly what remains…a lot of sand and a lot of sorrow.

Afghan Girls Can Kick
Afghanistan, 2007. 50 min.
Director/Producer: Bahareh Hosseini
An excellent look at two parallel stories…a grass roots school in Kabul designed to get kids off the street and into school and Afghanistan’s first all women’s national soccer team. The Kabul-based school empowers young Afghan Girls through education and encouraging them to play sports, something that is still disapproved of by many Afghans and a pursuit which was banned and consequently banished by the Taliban only years ago. One character who stands out is a teacher from the school who goes around Kabul herding kids she finds working out on the street into the protection/guidance of the school. Second memorable character is Roya, a highly disciplined, talented girl on the National Afghan Football (Soccer) Team.

Fridays at the Farm
USA, 2006. 19 min.
Director/Producer: Richard Power Hoffman
Winner of Best Short Film
Beautifully shot film which was really a complilation of 20,000 images that the filmmaker shot during several season working on an organic farm. I saw this one before at the Telluride Festival and really liked the serene beauty of it and the filmmaker’s poetic narrative on developing a closer connection to the food that his family grows and eats. Not an adrenaline or drama-packed movie but sublime and beautifully-done.

Tibet: Murder In The Snow
Australia, 2008. 52 min.
Director: Mark Gould
Producer: Sally Ingleton
Winner of the People’s Choice Award
Wish I could have seen this one! It looks riveting and was supposedly a very powerful movie. We had plans on the last night of the festival with some Flagstaff friends and couldn’t see this one. From what I’ve heard, it’s highly recommended. Check out the trailer here.

Move of the Wall
Slovenia, 2008. 42 min.
Director/Producer: Igor Urtacwik
I’ve seen so many climbing movies over the years that I’ve found many of them--although filmed beautifully and with clever editing and musical touches--often assume that the viewer cares as much about climbing as the stars of it do.
This one seemed to explain why we should care. Perhaps b/c it was shot by Slovenians, but there seemed to be a different feeling to this one. Some excellent camera angles and beautiful tracking, unique use of Jimi Hendrix, and some great, cinematic moments such as two of the climbers sharing their philosophy of climbing as they play chess at a café in Lubjliana. I really liked this one and was charmed by it.

One Crazy Ride
India, 2009. 87 min.
Director/Producer: Guarav Jani
One of the festival favorites
Directed, filmed, and edited by Indian Filmmaker Guarav Jani who also came to the festival this year with another one of its stars, One Crazy Ride is a fun, romp through one of the most remote regions of northern India, Arunachal Pradesh, He and four of his fellow riders from the motor club 60kph, attempt to cross the remote region by motorbike with dodgy maps, roadmarkers, and questionable roads. The movie gains momentum the further into the jungle that the five friends go as they cross rockslides, rivers, and bamboo bridges and pass through tribal villages which have mysteriously gained unreasonable reputations for being fierce and brutal to foreigners.By the end of the movie, you find yourself cheering for the riders and amazed at the obsessiveness that Guarav Has in doing all the filming himself even when he’s riding alone.

Thank you again to the festival directors (Ron, Chris, John, Kristen, and Cameron), to the sponsors, and all the filmmakers!
We can't wait for next year!