Ebertfest, Day Four: MARATHON MAN

Today (Saturday) was the marathon, which meant that the breakfast area at Eastland Suites had a bunch more people in it. But besides the race, there was also a marathon of movies, as the Virginia was showing four films.

Last night was really the first good night of sleep I’ve had the whole festival, though I figured I’d need it to survive four films. I ended up calling Donny to get a ride from the hotel, as @Plaidgirl was already at the venue. His wife Anne picked me up just as the shuttle arrived.

Anne dropped me off before going to park. Before the first film, I went down to the first floor of the Virginia and met Omer Mozaffar, who was convinced we had met before (even though we haven’t). Like most of the people I’ve met whom I’ve corresponded with first through Twitter, he knew my Twitter moniker better than he knew my actual name.

The first film of the day was the tearjerker A Small Act, which was introduced by Jennifer Arnold, the director. Now, I always keep a wad of tissues with me, due to my leaky faucet of a nose. During the screening of A Small Act, I used most of them up. I ended up having to grab napkins to use later in the day.

A Small Act is the story of Hilde Back, a German Jew who escaped the Holocaust by being sent to Sweden. Sadly, her parents died in the concentration camps. The title refers to her decision, as a retired school teacher, to send less than $15 a month to help educate a child in Kenya. That child ended up being Chris Mburu, who grew up to start The Hilde Back Foundation in Kenya, in gratitude to his benefactor. The foundation gives scholarships to the brightest students in Kenya, based on their results in a nationwide test, in order to allow them to continue their education past primary school. In the film, we follow three of these students – Ruth, Caroline, and Kimani.

Though he started a foundation in her name, Chris had never met his benefactor. Due to her, however, he was not only able to continue his education, but to attend Harvard Law School and pursue a career as a United Nations Human Rights Commissioner. Therefore, in addition to following the plight of the three students above, the film shows the first meeting (and subsequent meetings) between Chris and Hilde, including Hilde’s trip to Chris’s hometown in Kenya (where she is made an honorary elder), and Chris’s trip to Sweden to celebrate Hilde’s birthday with her friends. It also covers the political unrest that erupts in a close Kenyan national election.

This is a wonderful and inspiring film, with an even better twist at the end, [SPOILER ALERT] as only one of the three students received a scholarship from The Hilde Back Foundation, yet they all were able to continue their education. Kimani wants to be a neurosurgeon, Caroline wants to be a model and university lecture, and Ruth is the top student at her school.

I had to use the restroom right after the screening, but I came back just as Hilde was introduced to the audience. She received a rousing (and well-deserved) standing ovation. Though she was brought out by Roger and Chaz, she was soon joined by Nate Kohn (festival director), Chaz, Jennifer, and Patti Lee (the producer).

Nate, Chaz, Hilde, Jennifer, and Patti

Amazingly, this is Arnold’s first film. While studying a year abroad in Nairobi, she wanted to donate to a fund there, and so asked her roommate, Jane, which one she should donate to. Jane happened to be Chris’s cousin, and that’s how Jennifer heard about Hilde and Chris.

At the premiere in Sundance, Arnold told us that Bill Gates cried. After the film ended, he wanted to meet Chris and Hilde. Even better, they were able to raise over $90,000 at Sundance for The Hilde Back Foundation. (If you want to help or make a donation, visit www.smallact.com)

A funny anecdote: during the civil unrest in Kenya, Arnold and Lee were able to keep filming by creating a makeshift “PRESS” sign and putting it in their window whenever they saw villagers. When they saw the army or police forces, they would take the sign down and pretend they were lost tourists.

During the Q&A with the audience, we learned that one of the reasons for the sorry state of public schools in Kenya is that all of the good ones were “poached for private schools”, which may also be why the test scores were so low the year that Arnold filmed this movie. Also, Hilde donated money to the hospital so that Kimani’s mother could be treated there (in the film, we see her in pain most of the time).

The next film of the day was also set in Africa, but is fictional. Called Life, Above All, it deals with the AIDS epidemic in Africa through the eyes of a young teenager and her experiences with her mother and her mother’s lover. It’s based on the book Chanda’s Secrets by Allan Stratton.

At the beginning of the film, the teenager’s family is burying her baby sister. Only later do we discover the baby died from complications from AIDS. In fact, the word “AIDS” isn’t mentioned until near the end of the film, and then by the teenager, Chanda. She is played by Khomotso Manyaka in what was the best performance at the festival (and this is the year Tilda Swinton came). Even more incredible, she was just 13 when she performed in the film (she’s now 14 1/2, but is more poised than I am), and has never had any previous acting experience. In a sense, that may be why her performance was so unaffected. As she said during the panel discussion that followed, acting came easily to her. She also made Chaz cry (before the panel) and Pablo cry (during the panel).

Khomotsu Manyaka and Oliver Schmitz receive their Golden Thumbs

Along with Pablo Villaca, the panel included Michael Barker (distributor), Manyaka, and the director, Oliver Schmitz. Schmitz grew up in South Africa during apartheid, and this film is the first movie shot in Northern Sotho, a language in South Africa (thanks, Wikipedia!). The director chose that language because he needed the main actress to feel comfortable during the shoot. In addition, the actress who plays her friend Esther in the movie (Keaobaka Makanyane) is her friend in real life, too. And while Manyaka may have fallen asleep once or twice during the shoot, “She always woke up for her lines,” Schmitz said. I’d say she did a bit more than wake up. She’s one to watch.

On the way out, I heard from Susan that Grace wanted to have coffee with a bunch of us whom she was meeting for the first time that year. I thought that was very kind of her, especially considering how busy her schedule was as an FFC (and considering the fact that she would be getting free food for dinner, so she couldn’t stay for long with us). Odie, Kenji, Donny, and Anne joined us, with Donny hanging back to talk with Grace on the way there. A little bit later, Susan showed up with Anath White, whom I was able to talk to for a bit. Unfortunately, Donny and Anne ending up spending most of the time talking to Grace, and while I heard bits and pieces, I didn’t get much of a chance to talk with her, except to make funny asides that, in retrospect, were not funny. On the other hand, I did get quite a bit of time to talk with Anath, whom I hadn’t met before.

The next movie was one I had seen before, but it was better the second time around (you can read my original review here). Tim Blake Nelson’s Leaves of Grass also was the first (and only) sold out show of the festival.

Tim Blake Nelson introduces "Leaves of Grass"

I had thought about asking Nelson a question about classical tragedy and how it’s used in his film, but the panel (consisting of Nate, Michael Mirasol, David Poland, and Nelson) covered it rather well before the Q&A. Nelson is one smart guy. Some of my favorite quotes from him:

  • The monologue in the beginning talks about being side-swiped in life and about tragedy. Nelson wanted to employ an “older style of storytelling where very dramatic things happen.”

  • He wanted a story about a guy “who believes if you follow the rules, everything will work out.”

  • A color is always echoed elsewhere.” (speaking about the film)

  • Whitman’s lesson to Bill is “each individual life must meter itself.”

  • Bill again: “At the beginning of the film, he lives his life as a sonnet; by the end he lives his life as free verse.”

  • ‘Director in television’ is an oxymoron.”

  • You should “find a rehearsal for life” in film.

As for their “weed research,” Nelson said they got much of it from the Pineapple Express because Norton’s girlfriend was a producer on that film.

Michael, Nate, Tim, and David

Once the panel ended, I ran (okay, walked very fast) to the first floor to get a picture of Nelson that didn’t look like it was shot in a dark closet with a disposable camera.


The final film of the night was I Am Love, a film I was less than enthusiastic about when I saw it at SIFF last year. I enjoyed it more this time, but I still don’t think it’s a great film, just a great-looking film (Grace puts her finger on the crux of the problem here). And I still don’t know what’s up with that last shot (my notes: “WTF is w/ that last scene?”).

When she received her Golden Thumb Award from Roger, Tilda got on one knee and was “knighted” with it. Then I believe she bit the thumb. Anyway, Michael Barker was on the panel again, and it’s not even his film! Kartina Richardson joined him, as did “Saint” Tilda Swinton, as Roger calls her.

Roger, Chaz, and "Saint" Tilda

Swinton mentioned how she first met the director for I Am Love, Luca Guadagnino, when he was 22 (I Am Love is his third feature film). When she met him, he hadn’t even made a short film, yet she could see his brilliance. She picked him for this film because, as she put it, “If you have no reputation to break, you have more freedom” in making a film. For the atmosphere of the picture, both of them looked to novels (in fact, Swinton’s character’s name, Emma, is a nod to Madame Bovary). When Emma twists the ribbon around her hand in an early scene, that gesture comes from novels.

I have not seen many of Swinton’s films (this is only the third one I’ve seen that she’s starred in), but I gather than many of her projects, like Orlando, Julia, and this film, deal with identity issues. She mentions how, in this film, characters have to behave a certain way, at which point Donny took my notebook and wrote the following [WARNING:STRONG SPOILER IN THE LAST LINE]:

Emma’s identity subsumed by the family totally; the dressing, the jewelry,the soup the last bit of self she had before taking the lover: when Edo dies, that is stripped away as well.

Swinton then talked a bit about her mentor, the late Derek Jarman, who directed her in several of her earliest films. It is Jarman she credits for teaching her how to be a filmmaker. She also said that the film has not been released in Italy, as Berlusconi owns all the theaters and won’t show any film not made by his movie company.

I noticed that Kartina seemed nervous talking to Tilda, a fact that was confirmed once the panel was over and she was outside, talking to some of the volunteers. I would’ve been, too. In fact, I wrote down at one point, “Kartina nervous being that close to Tilda?” I also thought, at one point, that Barker was hogging most of the time, unless he noticed how nervous Kartina was and was trying to give her time to gain her composure. Kartina did talk about her piece that she did on I Am Love, but she had very few questions for Swinton.

Swinton ended the panel (before the Q&A with the audience began) by talking about “Saint Roger Ebert.”

Someone said that you’re a national treasure, but I take issue with that. You’re not just an international treasure; you’re an intergalactic treasure,” she said.

She then went on to say that people forget to be enthusiastic when watching films, to appreciate those moments of “simply being alive.” What she was getting at is that Roger is the rarest of critics in that he is a fan of films. He enjoys watching films. And he never forgets the spell that films can cast over us, in a darkened theater, with complete strangers. It’s a lesson I keep reminding myself when my critical faculties threaten to overwhelm my emotional experiences. Both matter. What separates art from other forms of creation is that it’s meant to provoke a reaction in us, and to provoke it honestly. If we ignore the emotional impact that a film has on us, and it’s an impact that we felt honestly, then we are watching films only half-alive.

I hitched a ride back to the hotel with Donny and Anne, with an invitation from @Plaidgirl to join my cohorts in crime for brunch tomorrow morning. It’s hard to believe that tomorrow is my last day here. Just one movie left to go, and then I go back to Seattle.

LAST POST: Ebertfest, Day Five: SAYONARA

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Author: Greg Salvatore

Author. Voice Actor. Humanist. Feminist.

3 thoughts on “Ebertfest, Day Four: MARATHON MAN”

  1. Whew, that was purty detailed. Holocaust, I suspect, will remain an eternal source, it is blasphemous to say resource. I never used a napkin to wipe tears, not having shed even a quarter of a spoon in my life. Well, the hurly burly’s done and now back to planet earth!!

  2. Enjoyed your recap, Greg. It was quite a long but awesome day. I spent the day up close on the main floor, row 3, on the aisle – up close and personal, and capped off the day getting to ask Tilda Swinton a question during the Q&A. Had to miss Sunday though.

    1. Then you’ll enjoy my Day Five recap (when it comes). While I had to miss some of the panel (and the Poetry Slam) on Sunday, I got to see the film.

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