Day Two at the Port Townsend Film Festival heralded the arrival of legendary independent filmmaker, John Sayles. Screening his Academy Award-nominated film, Lone Star, Sayles comes armed with many stories of horror and inspiration from the indie frontlines. He notes that current “filmmaking has democratized incredibly,” becoming a land of opportunity for young (read: resource poor) filmmakers.
Several features made their debut, including, Noble, the real-life story of the slightly-crazy, Christina Noble. Writer-director, Stephen Bradley, gives us a fictionalized account of Noble’s courageous quest to help the street children of Vietnam. Also premiering was director, Yorgos Tsemberopoulos’ troubling meditation on vengeance, The Enemy Within. Incorporating current social themes in Athens, Greece, this film asks that age-old cinematic question, “How far would you go to protect your home and family?”
Part history lesson, part Ecology 101, Return of the River is an uplifting documentary about how hope and perseverance can sometimes undo past wrongdoings. When frontiersmen came to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula to “conquer” the untamed landscape, they paid little attention to the ecological consequences on the Elwha River, and even less to the social impact on the indigenous Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. Dams were built and the river was re-routed, creating bustling new towns while destroying tribal lands and decimating the critical salmon population. With the river’s ecosystem on life-support, it seemed unlikely that anything could remedy the situation.
But a funny thing happened on the way to devastation… a group of environmental advocates, scientists, politicians and dedicated Klallam crusaders reversed the tide of public opinion and initiated the largest dam demolition in history. It’s the story of life, death and re-birth played out over a century of human manipulation. Aside from the breathtaking cinematography surrounding the Elwha River, co-directors, Jessica Plumb and John Gussman, keep their focus pointed forward. They introduce the somewhat radical notion that dams are transitory structures that will eventually fall prey to the same cost-benefit pressures that warranted their creation. Return of the River is hell-raising documentary filmmaking at its best, packed with natural beauty and a comforting message that hope is not lost for our bruised planet.
For Richie from Before I Disappear, life doesn’t come easy. He’s got a checkered past with plenty of pieces still left on the board. His two bosses (and occasional drug enablers) want to kill each other and Richie is stuck in the middle. Life keeps him on such a short leash that he can’t even find the right moment to kill himself. Richie (Shawn Christensen) is soaking in his own blood-tinged bathwater when he gets a call from his estranged sister (Emmy Rossum) looking for an emergency caretaker for her 11 year-old daughter, Sophia (Fatima Ptacek). Suicide postponed on account of babysitting.
Based on his Academy Award-winning short film, Curfew, writer-director-star, Christensen, imbues his adaptation with a Hunter S. Thompson vibe that blurs the line between reality and really messed up. Unfortunately, the blinding reds and throbbing soundscapes make the story appear more vividly portrayed than it actually is. In reality, Before I Disappear has a thin premise stretched far beyond its capabilities. The result is a film that has its moments of inspired lunacy and pitch-black humor, but lacks the narrative engine to arrive at these moments in a timely fashion. As an actor, Christensen tries to infuse Richie with the spirit of Mark Ruffalo circa 2000, but only succeeds in making us miss Ruffalo all the more. As a writer-director, however, it’s a promising first feature for Christensen that hints at good things to come.
19 year-old American college student, Ala’a Basatneh, is the unlikely focal point of the documentary, #chicagoGirl: The Social Network Takes on a Dictator. Armed only with the tools of social media (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Skype, etc), she coordinates protests back in her troubled homeland of Syria. She a courageous enabler, hooking up different factions of protestors and helping them stay one step ahead of dictator Bashar al-Assad’s extermination efforts. Joining her on the ground in Syria are several fearless citizen journalists, including another American college student, Bassel Shahade, who use camera phones to document a story the rest of the world can’t ignore.
Though riveting in most respects, there is no denying the fact that chicagoGirl suffers from the lack of a real-world resolution. Instead, writer-director, Joe Piscatella, uses expert interviews and first-person footage to highlight the impact of social media on modern warfare and revolution, as well as the devastating consequences for those on the front lines. That real people are dying (including some of the people featured in this film) keeps you constantly aware of the stakes; this isn’t a videogame or a wacky home video. Thanks to the immediacy of social media, the pen may, once again, be mightier than the sword.
Coverage of the Port Townsend Film Festival for Sound on Sight will be ongoing from September 19th-22nd.