Film festival season arrives in tandem with the baseball season this year, which is welcome news for those who like to watch. (And if we learned anything in the last year, it’s that everyone likes to watch. Up to a point, of course.)
You might be asking where the films are coming from to light up the lineups at Cinejoy, SFFILM and the smaller April festivals waiting in the wings. That is, how did any movies get made during last year’s lockdowns? Yes, shooting was shut down after the first quarter of 2020, but directors, editors, composers, sound designers and postproduction technicians had all the time they needed to snip, shape, tuck, tweak and polish their footage. Throw in the films that postponed their releases and the pipeline is quite full, indeed.
The South Bay’s long-running annual smorgasbord is billing itself as “Cinejoy featuring the Artists & Films of Cinequest.” But the recipe is the same, namely a slew of independently made films by people you’ve never heard of—including a raft of world premieres—mixed with a slate of premieres and Q&s featuring stars like Gabriel Byrne (festival opener Death of a Ladies’ Man), Julie Delpy (My Zoe), Alec Baldwin (Crown Vic), Rosario Dawson (This Is Not a War Story), and Maverick Spirit Award recipients Sam Neill (Rams) and Eddie Izzard (Six Minutes to Midnight).
One of the more jaw-dropping debuts you’ll ever see, I’m an Electric Lampshade, begins as an intriguing though conventional verité portrait of newly retired, happily married, 60-year-old accountant Doug McCorkle as he embarks on a song-and-dance career. Before you know it, we’re transported to a queer-positive Manila performing arts class where McCorkle’s transformation begins in earnest and the movie steps into the fabulous dreamland of music videos.
Harlem, NYC-based director and co-writer John Clayton Doyle was born in Oakland and raised in the East Bay burbs, and he successfully meshes middle-class stability and drag flamboyance into a lush fantasia. McCorkle delightedly takes his EDM clubland fantasy to the limit in the lavish Mexico City finale, applying a Leonard Cohen-ish spoken-word approach to sexualized lyrics.
By its triumphant end, I’m an Electric Lampshade has long since abandoned documentary realism and leaves us wondering, not unhappily, where McCorkle’s footlight dream ends and Doyle’s tale-weaving begins.
If I’m an Electric Lampshade is best enjoyed with your dozen most uninhibited friends (or at a packed Castro Theater later this year, hopefully), Alex Liu and Leonardo Neri’s wonderful A Sexplanation lends itself to a more intimate party. Intended as a conversation starter about sex and sexuality—even, or especially, for adults who’ve gotten this far with their shame, judgements, fears and myths intact—A Sexplanation is an irreverent, informative and disarming road trip from Dolores Park to the Kinsey Institute (in Indiana) to Pornhub HQ to Saratoga High.
Liu, a South Bay native and broadcast/online health reporter whose credits include KQED, is our charming guide and, more importantly, our surrogate. His “donation” to a Rutgers University study of pleasure and the brain makes for an especially vulnerable sequence, but his uncomfortable, revealing and inspiring conversations with his parents go even further. How 2021 is it that our best catalyst for coming clean about our sexual confusions and desires is a gay Asian American man in his mid-30s?
A Sexplanation deserves to be disseminated as widely as possible, although it’s too explicit for a TV broadcast (even in California or New York) and a tad too informal for a theatrical release (though it is kind of an ideal date movie). Classrooms and the web are its natural home, with word of mouth (insert pun here) essential. As Alex Liu would say, come as you are.
I generally avoid first-quarter pronouncements, but it’s not too soon to declare Jasmila Žbanić’s Quo Vadis, Aida? one of the best films we’ll see all year. A taut dramatization of the events immediately preceding the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica that unfolds like a cascading nightmare in broad daylight, this Oscar nominee in the International Feature category masterfully strikes the tricky balance between personal travails and epic suffering.
Žbanić centers her narrative on Aida Selmanagić (a powerhouse performance by Jasna Đuričić), a Bosnian Muslim teacher working as a translator for the (Dutch) UN peacekeepers during the Bosnian War. In the opening scene, as the officer in charge of the UN force assures the mayor that air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs are scheduled for the following morning, Aida is coolly professional.
But the bombing doesn’t take place, and the UN fails at every subsequent turn, from refusing to allow more than a few hundred fleeing refugees access to the safety of the UN base, to the Dutch colonel’s misguided efforts to pacify the bullying Serbian Gen. Mladić, to the unseen higher-ups who are unavailable to take a call at a pivotal juncture.
As the Serbian Army advances through the UN-declared safe zone right up to the gates of the base, Aida’s focus shifts from serving as an intermediary between the Dutch soldiers and her people to saving her husband and sons from impending catastrophe. Violence is never far away in Quo Vadis, Aida?, and its impact is undiluted by taking place off-screen. The upshot is that we’re never given a grisly excuse to look away, and thus are enlisted as witnesses.
We are ineffectual witnesses, of course, though Žbanić is careful not to indict us for complicity. But anyone with a trace of conscience or compassion will feel the blow anyway. We can and do lament the West’s failure to act in 1995, and yet there are current injustices, in other places, where raising our voices could make a difference.
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