Tag Archives: AFI

AFI Documentaries 2016 Reviews

My reviews of the 2016 AFI documentaries


Directed by Ellen Martinez, Steph Ching

Zaatari, a refugee camp in Jordan, was built in 2012, a year after war broke out in Syria. It now houses most of Syria’s refugees—about 80,000 residents, more than half of whom are children. Ellen Martinez and Steph Ching’s documentary After Spring, executive produced by Jon Stewart, offers a look at life inside this city of tents. After Spring, unlike some other documentaries on the camp, does not romanticize the “look, there are shops and cell phones and restaurants” aspect of Zaatari. In fact, it underlines the bittersweet reading of this—that this camp has existed for so long and that with only 1% of refugees worldwide being granted asylum, this camp is life, and not some temporary limbo they must pass through and endure. A Korean teacher builds a Tae Kwon Do school for the children, but education and care are hard to come by—not because Zaatari is mismanaged but because Zaatari relies on the largesse of the World Food Program and other donors for any of its services.
After Spring offers a look at life of precarity, uncertainty, and struggle, that is, sadly, the closest semblance to normalcy and home for millions of people worldwide.


Directed by Pieter-Jan de Pue

The Land of the Enlightened is a docu-fiction, a fairly unusual film format. Shot over seven years on 16mm film, it’s stirringly beautiful and fairytale-like. A band of children (who jokingly call themselves “brass bandits”) live in an old abandoned Soviet base in Afghanistan and survive by trading in opium, discarded shells, lapis lazuli, and any other wares they might chance upon during their caravan-robbing escapades. Director Pieter-Jan de Pue also offers footage from one of the last remaining U.S. military bases, while a narrator intersperses stories of a great king in Afghanistan’s history. One of the film’s most visceral scenes shows American soldiers shelling and shooting at a hill, where someone is hiding. The image of nature being blasted into smithereens by a relentless onslaught of firepower makes for heavy emotional viewing and offers a unique take on what war actually looks like. The children are neither powerful nor powerless—they neither want your pity, nor can one forget that they never had a childhood. They drift through the wreckage of a war-ravaged reality, salvaging and scavenging.


Tempestad is a trenchant commentary on the human cost of government corruption in Mexico. Mexico-based director Tatiana Huezo (The Tiniest Place) tells the story of two women—Miriam, a mother and a Cancun Airport worker, arrested on false charges of human trafficking and sent to a prison run by the Gulf Cartel, and Adela, a circus clown, whose daughter disappeared and has never returned, likely abducted by a cartel. Huezo never shows Miriam; instead the film is an evocative riff on everyday life in Mexico—images of people riding a bus, people working at a market make for an innovative (for documentary film-making) technique, which isn’t as befuddling to the viewer as one might think. Tempestad allows the voices of the two women to weave a story devoid of patois and bare in its brutality. Miriam describes herself as one of the country’s many “pagadores”—people literally made to pay with their lives, so the government may pretend it is doing its job. The “prison” she is sentenced to asks Miriam’s family to pay $5000 to “respect her life” and $500 each week thereafter for her “keep.” Those unable to pay are murdered. Tempestad unsettles in a profound way; villains shift shapes and the people are the ones buffeted about in this powerful tempest.

Spooky Movie 2012, International Horror Film Festival in Washington, DC

My coverage of the 2012 International Horror Film Festival, Spooky Movie, in Washington DC

Spooky Movie 2012, an international horror film fest running from Oct.12-18th at the AFI Silver Theatre, is a veritable twilight zone of too ghoul for school films. This festival is the thinking horror fan’s Mystery Science Theatre—the films will have you racking your brain for days afterwards, for better or worse.

 In its seventh year of bringing mystery, mischief, and mayhem to audiences, The Spooky Movie Festival delivers impressively on the thrills and chills with 21 features and 31 shorts, including festival standouts “Chained,” “Resolution” and “Excision.” Festival Director Curtis Prather remarked upon how happy he was to have finally landed the festival in the home he had always wanted for it, the AFI in Silver Spring.

One of the breakout films of the festival was “Chained,” the third major feature film by David Lynch progeny Jennifer Lynch, made its U.S. debut on Friday. A tour-de-force ride into the mind of an uber-misogynistic serial killer, “Chained” is the story of Bob and Rabbit [Eamon Farren], the boy whose mother Bob kills and who becomes a servant, a student, and for lack of a better word, a son to him.
 Lynch initially wanted to title the film “Rabbit” to take the focus away from the depersonalizing surroundings of the character and focus on the psychological aspects at play. She described her movie as a “tough watch—a story about how real monsters are made.”

When Lynch first read the “Chained” script, she said it ran too much like “torture porn” (a charge that was often leveled at her for debut film “Boxing Helena” which she made when she was nineteen). Lynch wanted to make a film that ran less like a typical horror gore piece and delved more into “figuring out why he is doing this and the relationship between him and Rabbit.”

The film is shot in a cinema verite/documentary style, essentially showing the world through the claustrophobic lens of Rabbit’s existence. Lynch explained that she likes to make movies about “people obsessed with other people or characters that are forced into an environment they can’t leave. The claustrophobia factor really interests me.” With no soundtrack to the movie save for the creak of floorboards, the thud of footsteps, and the screams of Bob’s victims, “Chained” is mercifully low on the gruesome and ghastly Saw-like sensibilities that have invaded recent horror fare.

In explaining her film’s milieu, Lynch said, “terrible things in broad daylight are much scarier than things that go bump in the night.”As such, the “house gone wrong” that Bob and Rabbit live in is the perfect setting for the father-and-son-like relationship gone wrong that take place in it. Bob’s question “Oh, you are not my son!? Point to one thing in this house that doesn’t say that,” is especially trenchant on so many levels.
“Resolution,” directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead and selected for distribution by the Tribeca Studios, upends a number of horror movie tropes to create a strange amalgamation of buddy flick-meets-Lost. Mike (Peter Cilella) goes to an abandoned cabin in the woods (natch) in a last-ditch effort to get best friend Chris (Vinny Curan) to stop his downward descent down the crack pipe by literally chaining him to a pipe so he can detox for a week. That one week proves eventful as Mike starts finding various eerie antique objects in the house and encounters a series of strangers odd upon odder, including drug dealers, a space cult, and a French gentleman. The greatest aspect of the film is the interaction between Mike and Vinny, which yields comedic gold in its dramedic ways, but also provides a poignant portrait of a deep relationship weather-beaten by the buffeting of…life. Vinny Curan is especially compelling in his portrayal of an addict hell-bent on convincing everyone to leave him alone to his “destiny” which he perceives to be drugs, yet as the week progresses, allows for the possibility that he simply has given up on believing he can beat this. The horror story aspect of the film is almost an afterthought, although Mike’s increasing obsession with figuring out what is happening, eerily parallels Vince’s own addiction. Ironically enough, “Resolution” does not offer one at the end—the ambiguous at best ending will have audience scratching their heads for quite a while, but the film’s theme of “every story has a beginning, middle, and end,” hints at something along those lines.