If you’re a film aficionado looking for both eclectic fare and a high from buzzy world premieres, few fests beat Film Independent’s L.A. Film Festival (June 1-9, 2016).
At the same time, access to the festival’s tremendous variety—56 feature films (42 of which are world premieres), 58 short films and 13 short episodic works, representing 28 countries—makes deciding what to watch a challenge. Not to worry: With insider input from L.A. Film Festival Director of Programming Roya Rastegar and Creative Director Jennifer Cochis, we’ve got your screening schedule sorted.
Now in its 21st year, the festival is changing its venue in 2016 from L.A. Live to the ArcLight Cinemas in Culver City. Something else that’s immediately striking this year? The sheer diversity of the line-up. Across the feature competition categories (U.S. Narrative, World Narrative, Documentary, LA Muse and Nightfall), 43 percent of films are directed by women, and over a third by people of color. In the World Narrative category itself, three of the six films are directed by women, and three by people of color. Given Hollywood’s ongoing representation problem, L.A. Film Festival’s ongoing commitment to diversity is noteworthy. Also germane are the choices of Creed director Ryan Coogler as the fest’s 2016 Guest Director, and Selma director Ava DuVernay and her company Array Releasing as recipients of the Spirit of Independence Award.
For this list, we’re sticking with features that for the most part are also world premieres. Nonetheless, definitely check out the fest’s two unique categories: The Future Filmmakers Showcase: High School Shorts presents a slate of 33 voices from the heady post-millennial generation, while Episodes: Indie Series from the Web showcases a range of series in a format that’s a go-to for upcoming storytellers from different backgrounds.
Moreover, two Sundance-premiering films now playing in L.A. Film Festival’s Buzz category are worth a look: Meera Menon’s Equity, which stars Anna Gunn and opens later this summer in July; and Roger Ross Williams’ Life Animated, a documentary about an autistic boy who finds his voice by refashioning his favorite Disney movies into stories about coping, loss and connection.
Finally, if you get your jollies from horror, the festival’s programmers recommend three films from the Nightfall section—Abattoir, Beyond the Gates and Officer Downe—all of which have second screenings due to popular demand. (Cochis notes that last year every film in this category got distribution, indicative, she says, of “a global appetite for genre.”)
And now, on to our selections (in no particular order)!
72 Hours: A Brooklyn Love Story? (dir. Raafi Rivero)
This film is director Raafi Rivero’s feature debut. Though a narrative feature, it began as a short documentary made by Bilal N’Dongo (at the time 17) at Reel Works, a New York-based nonprofit that mentors at-risk teen filmmakers. 72 Hours: A Brooklyn Love Story? is thus the result of a collaboration among Rivero, N’Dongo and the teens at Reel Works, many of whom play fictionalized versions of themselves in the film. The title’s “?” might reflect the uncertainty faced by protagonist Caesar Winslow in the three days before he is due leave his Brooklyn hood and crew to pursue a prestigious educational opportunity. L.A. Film Festival’s Roya Rastegar hails Rivero as a “standout” in a line-up brimming with fresh cinematic voices. [Tickets]
Political Animals (dir. Jonah Markowitz and Tracy Wares)
An important historical contextualization of the groundbreaking legislative work done in the 1990s by four women—work that paved the way for the LGBT rights that the country enjoys today—Political Animals is produced and directed by Jonah Markowitz (Shelter), and Tracy Wares (Bomb It).
For Markowitz and Wares, the “post-gay” generation we’ve seemingly transitioned into is unaware of the process it took to win over the “legislative wild west” regarding LGBT rights, which is the narrative focus of the film. This victory involved, among other things, the authoring by the doc’s subjects of bills on domestic partnership and anti-bullying. Indeed, L.A. Film Festival’s Jennifer Cochis says the film should be shown in all schools, so that young people understand how marriage equality actually happened—and that especially in this election year, the incremental political theater charted in the doc makes it essential viewing. [Tickets]
A Moving Image (dir. Shola Amoo)
Part fiction, part documentary, and part performance art, A Moving Image explores the impact of gentrification in the south London community of Brixton through the eyes of Nina, a young mixed race visual artist struggling to figure out to the extent to which she is complicit in the changes sweeping her neighborhood. Director Shola Amoo grew up in Brixton as well, so the film could be interpreted as partly autobiographical; Amoo went on to graduate from the prestigious National Film and Television School in the U.K.
The festival’s programmers stand firmly behind all six films competing in the very strong World Fiction lineup this year. Rastegar gushes that this might be her favorite compilation of films that she’s ever programmed. She emphasizes what a “smart, thoughtful engagement” A Moving Image is. [Tickets]
Namour (dir. Heidi Saman)
First-time feature director Heidi Saman says of this film with autobiographical undertones that she wanted to tell the story of a young Egyptian American valet driver dealing with the debilitating effects of the late 2000s recession on his family, his relationships and his understanding of the future. The film, Saman has said, doubles as an exploration of how a slide in class standing has implications for one’s ethical conduct, as well as a vehicle to “complicate the images we see of Arabs and Arab Americans on screen that [have] nothing to do with oppression of women, terrorism, or immigration.”
Rastegar says she is “very excited about [Saman’s] future work… There is a very strong directorial voice here.” Slotted in the festival’s LA Muse category and set in a suburbia similar to the world of Saman’s youth, the film tells a distinctively American tale. [Tickets]
Looking at the Stars (dir. Alexandre Peralta)
What does it mean to be a ballerina and to be visually impaired? Olhando Pras Estrelas (or Looking at the Stars) is a lilting, inspiring documentary set in the world’s first and only ballet academy for the blind, in São Paolo, Brazil. Director Alexandre Peralta follows Geyza Pereira, a prima ballerina and an instructor at the school, and Thalia Macedo, her teenage protégé, as they traverse through challenges that transcend their particular impairments. Both Pereira as well as Fernanda Bianchini, the creator of the academy, will travel to Los Angeles for the world premiere.
In addition to its unique subject, the doc boasts a truly international collaboration. For instance, Peralta himself is from São Paolo; producer and co-cinematographer Alejandro E. Martinez calls Nicaragua his home country; co-cinematographer Guan Xi hails from Beijing; and the rest of the producer team are Hmong American, Romanian, Brazilian and Lebanese Canadian. Like some other films in this year’s lineup, Looking at the Stars resorted to Kickstarter during different stages of production. Given its touching humanistic theme, it is not surprising that both campaigns were fully backed. [Tickets]
Dreamstates (dir. Anisia Uzeyman)
Rastegar says that Dreamstates is “probably the most experimental film” in the festival’s line-up. The directorial debut of Rwandan actress, playwright and filmmaker Anisia Uzeyman, the film sifts in a nonlinear fashion between dream and reality, as it follows Uzeyman and poet, singer and actor Saul Williams through 32 American states over 42 days. Williams and Uzeyman note the wondrousness of the notion of two people (themselves) “meeting in a dream and [then] meeting on the road, and having all of America as a backdrop.” Dreamstates is shot entirely on two iPhones.
Genre-wise, Rastegar notes that the film follows “members of the Afropunk movement, which sounds like it would be high-energy, but the whole film feels like a dream state.” If you need a breather from the confines of straightforward narrative, consider scheduling in this “underground portrait of sultry, sensual and quixotic America” (as the film’s Twitter describes it). [Tickets]
Company Town (dir. Natalie Kottke and Erica Sardarian)
Similar in theme and tone to Erin Brockovich, this documentary investigates the real-life horrors at the hands of a corporation in Crossett, Arkansas. In Crossett, all residents are employed by Georgia Pacific (GP), a company privately owned by the Koch brothers which manufactures Brawny Paper Towels and Dixie paper cups. One by one they are starting to die of cancer.
Co-director Natalie Kottke has produced several investigative documentaries, including ones on drones and on whistleblowers. Co-director Erica Sardarian recently produced O. J. Speaks: The Hidden Tapes and is also the creator of a greeting card company. Company Town was filmed for nearly four years, and follows pastor and community leader David Bouie, who worked at GP for a decade, take on his employer.
Rastegar, predicting that Company Town is going to get a lot of attention, says, “Given everything that’s going on in Flint, Michigan, I think this is another really serious injustice. It’s really inspiring to see members of the town go out and get answers.” She promises Company Town is a “riveting” documentary that “will make you angry.” [Tickets]
Chee and T (dir. Tanuj Chopra)
In case you thought our list was getting too serious, here’s some comic relief. Chee and T is the third feature from director Tanuj Chopra, whom Rastegar describes as a “stoner comedy director [working] with South Asian casts.” She says, “It’s a very specific niche and his work is really funny.” (Interestingly, L.A. Film Festival has relatively few comedic films this year; you might also want to check out Dying Laughing, a documentary about the world of stand-ups that features some iconic comedians, including Jerry Seinfeld.)
Indeed, from its teaser trailer, Chee and T appears to be a cross between Pineapple Express, where things go crazily wrong for two chill dudes, and Dope, where the self-righteous protagonist has to face threatening drug dealers. One of the film’s leads, Iranian American actor Dominic Rains, just won Best Actor in the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival for his role in The Fixer. You might remember the film’s other lead, Sunkrish Bala, as “Dr. S,” The Walking Dead’s sole South Asian character. [Tickets]
Paint It Black (dir. Amber Tamblyn)
This film, Cochis’s recommendation, is an adaptation of Janet Fitch’s novel of the same name, the feature directorial debut of actress and poet Tamblyn. Cochis says, “It’s a poignant exploration of grief, loss and mourning, and the things that we do when we are sad.” The film stars Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development) and Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs) as women from different worlds who are drawn into a warped relationship after the man they loved dies. Amy Poehler will moderate the Q&A at the festival; unlike the vast majority of screenings, this film will play at LACMA’s Bing Theater. [Tickets]
Free CeCe! (dir. Jacqueline Gares)
Produced by Laverne Cox, this documentary tells the saga of Chrishaun Reed “CeCe” McDonald, a trans African American woman who defended herself during a 2011 violent, racist and transphobic attack, only to be incarcerated in a men’s prison in Minnesota. The film goes on to focus the international movement that ensued and how CeCe went on to become a critic of the prison industrial complex. In Gares’ promotional trailer for the doc, Cox emotionally explains how vital CeCe was in preparing for her award-winning role of Sofia Burset on Orange is the New Black.
Although Free CeCe! is the only film in this selection not in a competition category, Rastegar definitely recommends checking it out. The current heated debate on transgender Americans’ access to restrooms is just one of the many reasons why. [Tickets]
Watch Our Picks
(All screenings at Arclight Culver City unless specified.)
Thursday June 2
6:45 p.m. – Free CeCe!
9:05 p.m. – Chee and T
9:10 p.m. – 72 Hours: A Brooklyn Love Story?
Friday June 3
7:30 p.m. – Paint It Black [at LACMA]
11:25 p.m. – Dreamstates
Saturday June 4
2:00 p.m. – Looking at the Stars
4:20 p.m. – Political Animals
Sunday June 5
1:40 p.m. – Namour
2:00 p.m. – A Moving Image
Monday June 6
4:20 p.m. – Chee and T (Second screening)
Tuesday June 7
6:45 p.m. – Company Town
9:00 p.m. – Paint It Black (Second screening)
Wednesday June 8
5:20 p.m. – Namour (Second screening)
Find the full festival guide here. MM
The Los Angeles Film Festival runs June 1-9, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.