When the Cinequest Film Festival sprouted in San Jose 25 years ago, the South Bay economy boomed (and occasionally busted) on silicon chips, not consumer electronics. Diverse, highly educated worker bees endured constant deadline pressure to innovate in Prisoner-like industrial parks. OK, that last part may still hold true -- but today’s computer, math and engineering brainiacs are far more socially skilled than the original geeks, and have even been turned into mainstream icons by commercials and TV shows.
If CQFF ever sought (among its unspoken aims) to fill the hole in the soul of its career-driven audience and to turn San Jose into a cultural hotspot, those goals have been superseded by the festival’s skill and focus in finding its sweet spots: honoring and celebrating iconoclastic filmmakers and directors, and spotlighting the intersection of film and technology. Here’s how the 25th festival, running Feb. 24–Mar. 8, hits its niche:
It’s a Maverick, Maverick World: An enticing array of artists from L.A. and elsewhere confide the secrets of their success via tribute nights and onstage interviews. Writer-directors John Boorman (with his latest, Queen and Country, Feb. 26) and Lawrence Kasdan (Feb. 28), who will no doubt be peppered with questions about his new Star Wars screenplays, head the parade, followed by crime novelist Dennis Lehane (Feb. 28) and actress Rosario Dawson (Feb. 28). Producer and one-time studio head Mike Medavoy (Mar. 8) can be expected to diplomatically slag the current state of Hollywood affairs while inspiring attendees to pursue their individual voices and visions.
(Over)achievers of the World Unite: The Valley is full of single-minded, highly motivated immigrants and expatriates from India, China and elsewhere. They are sure to see themselves—or their children—in Miss India America (one of an incredible 91 world, North American or U.S. premieres, screening Feb. 27, Mar. 1 and 5), a colorful comedy about a too-perfect high school valedictorian whose planned-within-a-millimeter future starts to crumble the instant she sheds her cap and gown. This less-than-likable lass (played by Tiya Sircar) enters a beauty contest (don’t ask why) where comic antics ensue and she learns humanizing life lessons. L.A.-based, British-born director and co-writer Ravi Kapoor affectionately skewers the lifestyles of well-off Indian-Americans, who seem to have assimilated quite nicely into another valley (San Fernando).
Corporate Retreat: Another world premiere, Thomas Miller’s feature-length sports documentary, One Day in April (Feb. 28, Mar. 2 and 4), relies on style over substance in tracing the paths of four favored relay teams (two men and two women’s) to the annual Little 500 bicycle race in Bloomington, Indiana. Miller ignores the class dynamics that propelled Breaking Away, the 1979 Best Picture winner set against the backdrop of the race, or any context other than individual determination in the service of team success. An excellent choice for middle managers or above seeking an activity to launch this year’s team-building campaign.
Poetry in Motion: My gifted and dear colleague in the field of film criticism, Richard von Busack of Metro Newspapers, will be deservingly honored with the Media Legacy Award on Mar 3. He’s chosen to screen French poet-filmmaker Jean Vigo’s gorgeous and elemental L’Atalante, the immortal tale of a barge captain who brings his new bride into the world of monotonous men’s work. If you’ve never seen the 1934 masterpiece, or know nothing of Vigo’s short life and precious few films, this is the ideal setting.
Family Affair: CQFF is unusually good at finding small, memorable films from other countries. In the first five minutes of The Life After (La Vida Despues), novice Mexican director David Pablos adeptly conveys the unique, private and loving relationship between a mother and her two young sons. But she can’t keep it together, and one day in their early teens they wake to discover a terse note: “I had to leave—Mom.” Rodrigo and Samuel set out to find her in the tender, sensual and aptly titled The Life After (Feb. 26, Mar. 5 and 7).
You Must Remember This: Ever heard of the World Memory Championships, an international competition of talented memorizers? (Don’t you dare say, “I can’t recall.”) Sweden’s Coolest National Team (Feb. 25 and 27, Mar. 1) a one-hour doc hailing from the titular nation, introduces us to this curious sport in which contestants memorize the order of all 52 cards in a shuffled deck, 200 spoken words, and a flickering stream of 0s and 1s. One of the most popular and effective techniques consists of inventing visual stories employing sexual or violent images. (The filmmakers miss a bet by not persuading a contestant to relate such a story, and animating it. Where’s Ralph Bakshi when you need him?) The dapper reigning Swedish champ, Mattias Ribbing, sells memorization skills to the educational market while battling the public perception that memory mavens are “a small, specialized group of nerds.” Maybe that rings a bell with Silicon Valley’s code writers and algorithm aces.
Putting the Motion in Motion Pictures: The English landscape photographer Eadweard Muybridge is best remembered hereabouts for his 1872 photographs, taken for former Gov. Leland Stanford’s pleasure and pocketbook, proving that all of the hooves of a galloping horse left the ground. Kyle Rideout’s lovely and curious Eadweard (Feb. 28, Mar 2 and 4) concerns itself with the chunk of the 1880s when Muybridge relentlessly photographed all kinds of motion (animal and human) at the University of Pennsylvania. Michael Eklund portrays one of the fathers of movies (Thomas Alva Edison also makes an appearance) as impenetrably eccentric on most days, and uncommonly charming on the others. Part scientist, part artist, Muybridge strode to his own rhythm—as does this picturesque Canadian character study.
Groupthink For Yourself: Cinequest generally prefers under-the-radar American indies to star-strewn Sundance entries, to varied effect. A winner making its world premiere, The Center eerily and believably conveys the steps by which an unformed twenty-something (a very good Matt Cici) with more frustrations than self-confidence becomes increasingly involved in a self-actualization outfit with resemblances to est, Scientology and you name it. I wouldn’t compare startups to cults, but The Center (Feb, 27, Mar. 1 and 3) will play like gangbusters at CQFF. This well-written, stylishly directed and efficiently lean (72 minutes) film is the work of Charlie Griak of Minneapolis in collaboration with a tight circle of friends and family.
War Correspondence: The Academy Awards chose to overlook the mixed messages of American Sniper, even as many viewers looked past the alienating and debilitating effects of the Iraq War (any war, really) on its participants. The powerhouse documentary Healing a Soldier’s Heart (Feb. 28, Mar. 2 and 5) accompanies five Vietnam veterans, desperate to call a truce in their ongoing personal wars, to the battleground of their youth. Bay Area filmmaker Stephen Olsson allows the men, their partners and Dr. Edward Tick, a therapist who’s worked with vets of that blasted war since the ‘70s, to relate their sagas. A deeply candid and compassionate film, Healing a Soldier’s Heart includes a few numbers to memorize: 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam, and 110,000 vets have taken their lives in the decades since. Cinequest may be located in the digital and virtual capital of the known universe, but the world it reflects and refracts is unmistakably real.
Cinequest runs Feb. 24–Mar. 8, 2015, at the Camera 12 and other venues in San Jose. For more information, see the festival's site.