Free icediver Kiki Bosch in 'Descent.' (Courtesy International Ocean Film Festival)
Traveling is viable again, according to the CDC, for those with the blessed vaccine (and the bucks). But voyaging abroad remains a risky venture. Two local film festivals, both with exceptionally large footprints and coincidentally marking their 18th years, step up to satisfy the craving to be footloose.
Once upon a time, the most widely seen “nature” films outside of PBS were Warren Miller’s ski films and Thomas Campbell’s surf films. Winged Migration and An Inconvenient Truth mainstreamed Mother Nature far beyond the extreme sports crowd, then public interest and portable, durable, hi-res digital video cameras launched environmental films into what’s evolved into a dynamic subgenre of documentary.
Even still, the breadth and depth (pun intended) of the International Ocean Film Festival program is remarkable. Seventeen countries are represented across 11 themed categories (Our Blue World, Whales, Coastal Communities and Cultures, Coral Reefs and yes, Surfing, among them). Perhaps the pandemic hyper-focused filmmakers on their footage, turning 2020 into a busy year for editors (and composers).
The IOFF is onboard with the hallmark of the virtual film festival, namely audience participation. Join the conversation via numerous Q&As with filmmakers, environmentalists and activists, and watch for free and vote for your faves among the 10 finalists in the student film competition.
Of the dozen or so feature films, I sampled a couple of the U.S. premieres, beginning with Australian underwater cinematographer Nays Baghai’s ruminative portrait of Dutch ice freediver Kiki Bosch. For his debut feature (66 minutes, to be precise), Descent, Baghai willfully spotlights the meditative nature of diving rather than its adrenalized appeal. Instead of daredevil exploits, Bosch’s bone-chilling, cold-water ventures to Iceland and Greenland are presented as destinations on a personal journey narrated by its erstwhile heroine.
Originally, Bosch’s impetus was athletics and adventure. When she was raped in her late teens/early 20s, the joy of diving disappeared. Eventually she rediscovered cold-water activities as a means of healing, and through recovery and research became a practitioner of the Wim Hof method of breathing and cold therapy.
Descent is a sobering, contemplative coming-of-age story rather than a vicarious ride-along with someone testing their limits. Bosch seeks, and Baghi honors, “the calm under the waves.” Some viewers will embrace that vibe, while thrill seekers will have to be satisfied with gorgeous settings and jolting ice baths.
Bosch is the only figure in sight for most of Descent, while U.K. filmmaker Philip Hamilton fills every frame of Ocean Souls with whales and dolphins. Unabashed undersea wonder is a significant element of the film, contributing to its overriding goal of impressing us with the animals’ unappreciated and underrated qualities: intelligence, communication and sophisticated social structures (of child-raising, especially).
A narrator—one of those slightly arrogant British voices, alas—describes the thinking and behavior of the graceful and often playful creatures, but Ocean Souls assuredly does not anthropomorphize whales and dolphins. (That’s Disney’s domain.) The filmmaker makes another welcome decision to only include a few seconds, words and images conveying the human damage and ongoing threats (not just climate change but the volume of commercial ocean traffic) to dolphins’ and whales’ health and long-term prospects.
That restraint in no way lessens the implicit message of Ocean Souls, namely that these animals are immensely important and deserve protection. That’s the aim of the vast majority of films about the environment and the natural world, of course; their challenge is catalyzing viewers by means other than depressing, sensationalist destruction. The International Ocean Film Festival abounds with approaches that do precisely that.
In the early 1990s, on one of my trips to the enormous and now-defunct Montreal World Film Festival, the program included a sidebar on contemporary Greek films. Greece is known for many things, but its national cinema is not, shall we say, one of Europe’s most renowned. Indeed, it’s rare for a Greek film to get a U.S. release. So I squeezed a couple titles into my festival schedule, realizing this was my only chance to see movies from Greece. Unfortunately, both were lackluster works that looked and felt like ’70s TV movies.
Even a cursory peep at the San Francisco Greek Film Festival program is sufficient to render my Montreal memory mirage-like. The accomplished productions curated for your streaming pleasure—all free, incredibly—encompass every genre from cerebral arthouse riddle (The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea) to crime-tinged black comedy (Ballad for a Pierced Heart) to food-centered mystery (Green Sea). There’s even a musical drama, Fantasia, playing at the Par 3 in Poplar Creek in San Mateo on Sunday, April 18.
While I was tempted by all the aforementioned films, I opted for Tailor, a tender drama with a droll veneer. The film is precise and attentive to every detail and composition—reflecting its meticulous protagonist—yet fastidious about avoiding conventional plot turns and pat interpretations. Nikos is a middle-aged bachelor who’s labored in the shadow of his demanding father, sewing custom suits for discerning men. But that chapter is ending: The clientele is dying off, the bank is foreclosing on the business and health issues are forcing the father to reluctantly relinquish the business.
Dimitris Imelios, who plays Nikos, looks like mid-career Robert De Niro with a hangdog expression. A whiz with his hands, he builds a portable cart and takes his cloths and tools to the streets of Athens, where he unexpectedly stumbles onto a potential new market: women, notably mothers of brides in need of dresses.
Tailor operates on a curious yet accessible wavelength that has the effect of understating its themes of quiet mid-life desperation, stifled creativity and parental acceptance. To put it another way, the premise of Sonia Liza Kenterman’s feature directorial debut has built-in commercial potential that she consistently downplays, sidesteps or ignores. You have to respect that kind of integrity.
It even features a romantic subplot and a precocious child—a mother and daughter, as it happens—that pan out in ways we expect and ways we don’t. The film is both exquisitely made and willfully offbeat, so see it before an enterprising Hollywood producer remakes it—with a younger De Niro, or, heaven help us, Gerard Butler—and trades its low-key charms for syrupy sentimentality.
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