October 12-15, the Ojai Film Festival — responsible for bringing independent and foreign films into the valley every Sunday — will present an impressive selection of independent and student films, as well as larger releases. Screenings of animated, documentary and fictional short films are scheduled alongside seminars, “craft talks” and awards ceremonies in what is becoming a more widely recognized festival with each passing year. Here are my picks for some of the films that should not be missed.
This is Not a Film
Michael Connor is a somewhat oblivious shoe salesman bewildered at the loss of his girlfriend of three months, Grace, who has gone renegade during a trip home to Dublin. Banking on the theory of six degrees of separation, and recalling Grace’s fondness for messages in bottles, Michael begs for help from his viewers as he flashes Grace’s photo constantly in front of the camera. As he reminisces about their relationship, he badgers his one-time crush, actress Nadia, into re-enacting scenes from his time with Grace in order to flesh out what it is he’s trying to get back.
The hilarious film-within-a-film attests to Michael’s inexperience in directing, made worse by the fact that his brother/financier demands to be included on-screen. And instead of chronicling the lovelorn plight of the director, the documentary highlights Michael’s failings as a boyfriend as Nadia continually breaks character to berate him for his lack of sensitivity. “No one’s going to be pulling for you here,” she argues during a particularly pointless fight. No one, that is, except for the cast of eccentric but sympathetic characters who quietly join Michael in front of the camera, offering their advice and theories about Grace.
Saturday, 3 p.m., Ojai Art Center Theater; Sunday, 8 p.m., Ojai Art Center Theater.
The Hole Story
Although listed as a “narrative feature,” we are never completely sure that the mysterious hole at the center of this film didn’t exist, or that producer/director/star Alex Karpovsky didn’t have a nervous breakdown while trying to produce the pilot episode of his fledgling “Provincial Puzzlers” TV series.
An aspiring filmmaker who makes his living editing graphics for karaoke videos, Alex hires his own crew and relocates to Brainerd, Minn., where the -20 degree temperatures have frozen all but one lake. Hopes of unraveling the mystery of the mile-and-a-half long stretch of unfrozen water are dashed when the hole mysteriously closes, sending Alex into a downward spiral of introspection.
Where the movie could have gone the expected route — metropolitan at odds with rural — Hole Story instead gives us a man with a deep reverence for the mysteries of life and faith. As the unshaven, disheveled Alex makes his rounds, filming interviews and attempting to salvage his expensive investment, the questions he poses are less about re-opening the mysterious void and more about redeeming himself. Alex’s motel bathroom confessionals to the camera, paranoid in nature, evolve from pep talks about the nature of filmmaking to comedic primal rage at his disappointing culture. Why can’t he have a Paul Bunyan, as the folks of Brainerd do?
Friday, 10 a.m., Ojai Art Center Theater; Sunday, 12:30 p.m., Ojai Art Center Theater.
Izzy is a struggling photographer getting ready to settle down with her professor fiancé when she is violently attacked and the sunny vision of domestic bliss they once shared is compromised. As she suffers the inevitable depression and her fiancé, Peter, makes a valiant effort to support her, there is no easy answer for the characters or the viewer.
The film hits a few false notes where Izzy’s recovery is concerned, with too much screen time given to Izzy’s mother and her cutesy neurosis — a Cybill Shepherd clone plays the stock clueless mother unable to cope with her daughter’s pain. Elliot Gould as Izzy’s father, however, forges a strong chemistry that ought to have been played on more. Although scenes between the three are sweet and gratifying, in the context of this film, the sudden domestic comfort is almost too easy.
The film’s strength lies in its examination of the couple at the center. The powerlessness that Izzy struggles with is mirrored by Peter’s apologetic frustration at how little he can do to help her and his keen awareness that he can never understand the extent of her suffering. The couple’s emotional reversals and flickering devotion to each other provide a noteworthy study of how life continues after violation.
Friday, 3 p.m., Ojai Playhouse Theater; Sunday, 5:30 p.m., Ojai Playhouse Theater.
The butterfly effect presents itself to a group of urbanites one sunny afternoon in this playful examination of human interconnectedness.
A young woman sits with her dog while a professional-looking young man paces behind her, trying to decide whether to approach; a 20-something breakdances while an old man pushes his wife’s wheelchair near a twitchy addict waiting for his next hookup. A group of vying gang members approach each other. A mother and her young daughter approach. Tragedy looms as the death of a bicyclist seems unavoidable, and when a contemplative DJ falls from the sky with his spinning equipment in tact, he views it all from several angles, unnoticed but integral in this slick, poetic piece.
Friday, 10 a.m., Ojai Art Center Theater; Sunday, 12:30 a.m., Ojai Art Center Theater.
In this sad but hopeful film, an AIDS orphan arrives in a big city, ready to get a solid education while living with his uncle. Instead, Lucky spends his days with the one thing his mother left him — a tape-recorded message — and the only stereo he can find belongs to the racist Indian woman down the hall.
Saturday, 3 p.m., Ojai Playhouse Theater; Sunday, 12:30 p.m., Ojai Playhouse Theater.
A British teen is obliged to help his incapacitated father do everything but speak. As he aids his father with a quiet dignity, it becomes clear that Antonio may never be capable of leaving the apartment completely, no matter how often his friends ask him to come out.
Friday, 8 p.m., Ojai Playhouse Theater; Saturday, 10 a.m., Ojai Playhouse Theater.
A small Norweigan city is beset with flocks of ominous black helium balloons. Moments of profound beauty unfold in this narrative collection of still shots, combining silence with sparse orchestration. As the floating aliens contrast with the white landscape below, the citizens confront the balloons with an odd ritual, to mixed results.
Friday, 10 a.m., Ojai Playhouse Theater; Saturday, 12 p.m., Ojai Playhouse Theater.
Is it really a simple job interview, as a tame and agreeable software engineer believes? Or is his paranoid competitor right to be gearing up for a fight? And why does the interview involve a personality test and a two-way mirror?
Friday, 10 a.m., Ojai Playhouse Theater; Saturday, 12:30 p.m., Ojai Playhouse Theater.
King Leopold’s Ghost
In 1877, King Leopold II of Belgium embarked on what has become one of the most disturbingly brilliant PR campaigns in history: successfully disguising his genocide in the Congo as philanthropic work, claiming he was civilizing the natives and serving as their safeguard from slave traders. The United States was influential in leading the West to recognize Leopold’s claim on the land, and in encouraging the rest of the world’s acceptance of the newly formed nation. In truth, Leopold was enslaving millions of Africans in what we now know as the Democratic Republic of Congo, forcing chiefs to sign away their land while he amassed a territory 76 times larger than his own Belgium. By his death, he had acquired approximately $1.1 billion in profit and, it is estimated, could be held accountable for upwards of 10 million Congolese deaths.
Pippa Scott’s moving documentary is based on Adam Hochschild’s 2001 book of the same name. This study of what Hochschild refers to as “a striking example of the politics of forgetting” offers a cohesive series of interviews with Congolese and Belgian historians, former Belgian and Congolese officials, clergy members, survivors of the genocide and assassinated Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba’s daughter, bringing to light a comprehensive history of the beleaguered nation that has borne Leopold’s brutal legacy long after the man’s death, with a succession of oppressive regimes. King Leopold’s Ghost is far from an easy viewing, but beside the horror that inspired George Washington Williams to coin the term “crimes against humanity” are inspiring shows of courage. In great detail, we see the origins of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the galvanizing of ruthless investigative reporters and the glimmer of what might have been, and what still might be, in a nation whose young, by some estimates, are given only a 30 percent chance of survival.
Saturday, 10 a.m., Ojai Art Center Theater; Sunday, 5:30 p.m., Matilija Auditorium.
Three Women and a Chateau
The American obsession with beauty and prosperity is embodied by Chateau Carolands, a 98-room home conceived and built by an heiress, salvaged by a countess and rescued from demolition by a doctor. With a rumored curse and an incomparable design, the second-largest residential home in the U.S. has been both a bane and a gem in Hillsborough, Calif. Its story is told by former residents, architects and historians in a pastoral but dark tale of architectural ambition.
Friday, 12:30 p.m., Ojai Art Center Theater; Sunday, 10 a.m., Ojai Art Center Theater.
If There Were No Lutherans … Would There Still Be Green Jello?
A 12-minute look at the warmth and humor of Lutheran Reverend Steve Molin, who uses a movable letter sign to attract visitors and, on a grander scale, to amuse the community of Stillwater, Minn. His tasteful wit warns of upcoming speed traps, alerts to lost dogs and gives personalized notes of goodwill, while adding comedy to the more traditional front-lawn church fixture. Many of his signs are laugh-out-loud funny, funnier than a man of the cloth ought to be, and the jovial clergyman does more of a service to the community than he seems to realize.
Friday, 5:30 p.m., Ojai Art Center Theater; Saturday, 8 p.m., Ojai Art Center Theater.
There is not a single selection that isn’t worth viewing in its own right. The collection is host to several styles of animation, from the polished CGI charm of the sweet Smile, the charming child’s tale, Moongirl, and the playful Kungfu Gecko, to the frenetic, folk-art infused El Doctor and the more traditional yet surprising Sock Puppet. Guide Dog is remarkable for its range of emotion, using a smoky, film noir soundtrack to underscore the misadventures of an endearingly overenthusiastic bulldog. Improving Communications is a delightful exploration of one of the most obscene words of our language, dissected in a style reminiscent of “Schoolhouse Rock!” Non-Linear is a colorful but sparsely illustrated tale of ornery creatures at a crossroads (read international politics into it if you dare), and in Pockets, the most simplistic of the styles, the sole animator has poured several facets of herself into the work — including early voice recordings — to explore the joyful burdens of motherhood. While her pockets disappear, a young woman delights in a whimsical flow of babies growing quickly on her back, all to the dulcet tones of a choice Rolling Stones track. Rounding them out is Memorial, easily the most tragic of the group, which uses computer animation and graffiti art to flesh out the dark landscape of a young woman’s grief.