Charming After All: San Diego International FF Wows with Unexpected Selections like Thelma and Resistance Is Life

On my last trip to San Diego, a friend of mine dragged me to a comedy show. “This city’s Gaslamp Quarter is what happens when a frat house decides to build a town,” one of the performers joked.

Saturday night in downtown San Diego is indeed reminiscent of a jaunt at my alma mater’s Greek row, a time and place I don’t much care to remember. So perhaps you can imagine how I was a bit hesitant to return for a film festival whose three primary venues were smack dab in the middle of SD’s nightlife epicenter. Would America’s Finest City again fail to charm me?

Quite the contrary; I’m happy to report that I was pleasantly surprised to find that San Diego International Film Festival’s programming highlighted some films that were truly dazzling, if at times a bit bewildering. (Major categories that accompanied the standard dramas and docs were the military and equestrian film tracks—both of which make more sense if you’re familiar with San Diego’s significant naval and horse owner communities.) Obvious favorites included Luca Guadagnino and James Ivory’s festival darling Call Me By Your Name, Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and Kurt Voelker’s second feature The Bachelors, which won the festival’s best feature jury award.

Marcel Mohab as Jakob and Pheline Roggan as Nicole in Josef Brandl’s “Nicole’s Cage.” Courtesy of Skalar Film and Concorde Home Entertainment

Some of the more offbeat selections were the festival’s standouts, especially when it came to the short compilations. “Nicole’s Cage,” a German short by Josef Brandl, was presented as a part of the Twisted Shorts slate, a group of quirky and ironically humorous clips. Brandl has worked as a set designer on films such as Cloud Atlas and The Grand Budapest Hotel, and it shows: the eponymous protagonist and her boyfriend Jakob live in an apartment that rotates around on an impossibly large Ferris wheel—and that’s not even remotely the most absurd aspect of their lives. The short cleverly juggles an insane physical environment with the complicated interpersonal politics of entering into a consensual BDSM master–slave relationship.

Ethan Engberg as Rabbit in Molly Katagiri’s “Waabooz,” winner of the festival’s Kumeyaay Award that was screened as part of the American Indian Stories compilation. Courtesy of Flamingo Films

SDIFF revealed some room for improvement on the panels front when two of the three shorts compilations I attended suddenly cancelled their advertised Q&As. I was gratified by a change of pace, however, after the American Indian Stories set, which was put together with the help of the festival’s American Indian Advisory Board, a diverse group of representatives from San Diego County’s many Indigenous tribes. Of the six shorts screened, four sent moviemakers to speak, and it was promising to see the festival highlight such an underrepresented group of voices in film.

Eili Harboe as Thelma in Joachim Trier’s latest film. Courtesy of The Orchard

Bar perhaps Call Me By Your Name, Norwegian thriller Thelma was by far the most impressive dramatic feature of the weekend. Louder Than Bombs director Joachim Trier has again teamed up with writer Eskil Vogt to deliver a film chock full of symbolism and metaphor that brings to mind Black Swan. At once chilling and heartwarming, Thelma is equal parts coming-of-age tale and supernatural thriller. The movie, which had its world premiere in August at the Norwegian International Film Festival, and its U.S. premiere at Fantastic Fest in September, follows Thelma, a young student who has just moved from rural Norway to Oslo. Thelma struggles to reconcile her religious upbringing with the influence of her new metropolitan (read: largely atheist) peers and a developing romance with another girl. Throw in some powerful not-so-subtext about the historical persecution of witches and its intersection with the treatment of mentally ill women, as well as some frankly gorgeous imagery, and you’ve got one of the most stunning features of 2017.

Evlin of Resistance Is Life plays with her school friends in a refugee camp on the border of Turkey and Syria. Photograph by Courtnay Robbins Bragagnolo

On the doc side of things, Apo W. Bazidi’s Resistance Is Life provided a welcome look into the hopeful perspective of some of the refugees from ISIS’s 2014–2015 siege of the Turkish-Syrian border town of Kobane, without pulling any punches. Bazidi’s primary focus is young Evlin, an 8-year-old girl with a fighter’s spirit who lives in a refugee camp on the border. Evlin, who is absolutely captivating, is maybe the most expertly chosen or fortuitously discovered subject of any documentary I’ve ever seen. Who better to embody the never-say-die mentality of the Kobane people than a little Kurdish girl whose heroes are the freedom fighter group the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and, more specifically, their female counterparts the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ)? Neither overly saccharine nor obstructively grim, Resistance Is Life paints a humane and optimistic picture of the situation of displaced Syrian refugees rarely seen by Western audiences.

SDIFF bills itself as a premiere event, and it delivers: celebrities like Sir Patrick Stewart and Kumail Nanjiani graced its red carpet, and San Diegans partied at a Friday-night celebration in Horton Plaza that lit up all of downtown—well, more than it was already lit up, that is. But beyond the glitz and glam, the festival also had the programming to back itself up. From world premieres like the horror movie Dismissed starring Dylan Sprouse, to Down the Fence, a doc that profiles the journey of horse trainers preparing for one of the most challenging championships in the world, San Diego International Film Festival surprised and delighted at every turn. MM

San Diego International Film Festival (SDIFF) ran from October 4 to October 8, 2017. For more information, visit the festival’s website here. Top image courtesy of San Diego International Film Festival.

1 Comment

  1. Tom

    October 24, 2017 at 8:27 am

    Not that I saw a lot of movies at SDIFF this year, but my favorite was Blake Robbins’ second feature, “The Scent of Rain and Lightning,” based on the best-selling novel. Great acting across the board (especially Maika Monroe, Maggie Grace, and Mark Webber), as well as excellent directing by Blake Robbins and cinematography by Lyn Moncrief.

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