Bright Lights Film Journal

A Family Affair: Brooklyn’s BAMcinemaFest (June 18-29, 2014)

Amanda Wilder's Approaching the Elephant

“Based on the sample of crowdfunded films at BAM, “public” funding in a country where public, government funding for arts is rapidly diminishing and has long since paled in comparison to support offered by other countries, seems to have allowed these filmmakers a good deal of leverage to experiment and to take risks.”

New York City is certainly not short on film festivals, but BAMcinemaFest, hosted by the Brooklyn Academy of Music and now in its sixth year, has become one of the city’s most important recent additions. BAM’s key focus on new American independent film has filled something of a gap among the city’s long-standing festivals. Its selections run the gamut of film styles and genres from fiction to documentary; feature-length to short; and traditional, realistic genres to highly experimental, non-narrative modes. This two-week festival, which ran June 18-29, gave local audiences the opportunity for a first look at new works by major American directors that would soon see national theatrical release, films like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood and David Wain’s They Came Together, but it also exposed audiences to highly innovative new works by young filmmakers from New York and across the country.

In fact, the major boon of this festival was the inclusion of many films presented by first-time directors. Among the festival’s 28 feature-length films, 12 were debut efforts. And while a good many of these had their world premiere at other, larger festivals – Sundance and SXSW, principally – the much more intimate scale and feel at BAM, where most of the films were shown on only one screen, produced a palpable and almost familial excitement. During many screenings, for example, I became aware that the director’s parents, an actor’s brother or cousin, or co-workers from the sound engineer’s day job were sitting just behind or in front of me. At one screening, I overheard a trio of young women next to me chatting about the tight production schedule of the film we were about to watch. Based on their conversations, I gathered that they had worked as interns or assistants on the project. In short, the audiences here were chock full of people connected to the films in one way or another, people with important investments in the films – whether emotional, financial, or as is often the case, both. Toward the end of the two-week run, I even began to notice that cast and crew I had seen presenting and speaking about their films earlier in the festival were now in attendance at many later screenings. This close connection and commitment became a hallmark of the festival, and the many New York City and Brooklyn based films helped that, certainly.

New York City, with its perhaps mythic allure and its dense population of performing arts professionals, regularly features on the silver screen. This particular lineup of films, though, included a good many that are truly local and that offer New Yorkers and regular visitors to the city the distinct pleasure of seeing familiar spots on the big screen. Desiree Akhavan’s very funny Appropriate Behavior, a film about an adrift young woman, a bisexual Iranian-American, is a full-length follow up to the actor-writer-director’s popular web series The Slope. (The title refers to Park Slope, a tony Brooklyn neighborhood not far from BAM and that abuts Prospect Park.) Akhaven’s episodic feature takes place across the New York City metropolitan area, but it’s securely rooted in Brooklyn and its various well-known neighborhoods. Madeleine Olnek’s The Foxy Merkins is another must-see New York City-based comedy, this time focused on the imagined world of lesbian prostitutes. Margaret (Lisa Haas) is a recent transplant to the famously unforgiving city; she meets Jo (Jackie Monahan), a seemingly successful prostitute to closeted, upper-class lesbians. The pair quickly form a sort of lesbian prostitution team, working together or finding dates for each other. They sleep and store their things in a bathroom at the Port Authority Bus Terminal very near the city’s theater district, and they regularly loiter for dates outside a Talbot’s clothing store on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The Foxy Merkins‘s many scenes in the dingy Port Authority almost made me nostalgic for that avoid-at-all-costs bus terminal that I used to pass through twice daily. Almost … Other NYC-based films include the festival spotlight, David Wain’s meta romantic comedy, They Came Together; Zachary Wigon’s eerie thriller about Skype dating and duplicity, The Heart Machine; Mike Cahill’s thought-provoking sci-fi I Origins, a fitting follow-up to his Another Earth (2011); Lawrence Michael Levin’s Wild Canaries, a Manhattan (1979) inspired screwball murder mystery set in Brooklyn; John Magary’s The Mend, a comedy set in the Upper West Side about a deadbeat blogger who crashes his brother’s seemingly perfect life; and two revivals: Spike Lee’s important Brooklyn-based film Do the Right Thing (1989) and Manfred Kirchheimer’s rarely screened documentary about city graffiti, Stations of the Elevated (1981).

While no one theme dominated the selections at BAMcinemaFest, a loose thematic strand, like the repeating presence of New York City, that runs through many of these films is human intimacy and its by turns pleasurable and disconcerting effects. All across these films, characters form too-close bonds with one another, see too much of each other’s flaws, and, sometimes, withdraw from each other.

Paul Harrill’s Something, Anything

An important highlight in this regard was Paul Harrill’s debut feature film, Something, Anything. Saying a few words before the screening began, Harrill warned the audience that the film isn’t for everyone, but he added that he hoped we would each take something away from it. To my mind, his words were unnecessary. Something, Anything is a highly watchable film, a moving and quiet story about Peggy (Ashley Shelton), a young woman from the American south, a woman whose future initially seems fixed down the perfectly conventional path of marriage to a handsome, successful man, children, and an upper-middle-class career. When Peggy miscarries her first pregnancy, though, her perspective on life and on her future changes radically. She separates from her husband who seems to little understand her, moves into a small apartment and begins a radical downsizing of her material belongings, shifts from a lucrative real estate career to an entry-level position at a local library, and – perhaps most amazingly today – trades in her iPhone for a land line. All of these major life changes are performed with an almost meditative and deliberate quietness. While Peggy, or Margaret as she comes to call herself, is the film’s principal subject, she remains mysterious. The film doesn’t seek to make her motivations or thoughts transparent; it doesn’t seek to explain her or her actions. Peggy keeps a diary, a pink notebook given to her by a hospital nurse after her miscarriage, and she writes in it regularly, filling it up by the film’s end. Whereas some films that feature diarists record most or all of their intimate writing in voice-over narration, here Harrill opts to reproduce only a few selected lines in subtitles. We never hear Peggy’s inner voice, and we’re privy to only a small slice of her thoughts.

There is a religious angle to this film, and it’s perhaps this that Harrill sought to warn viewers of in his opening comments. Peggy receives a sympathy note from a friend’s older brother following her miscarriage. The note touches her, and she comes to learn that this man has taken vows and is now a Catholic monk. She researches monks in her library, her thoughts of him spur her own newly ascetic lifestyle, and she begins to read and annotate a photocopied Bible. Something, Anything is about a conversion, to be sure; it’s about one woman’s reaction to the pressures faced by many young women, but it’s not exactly a Christian film. It doesn’t proselytize or moralize, and for this viewer, a long-time atheist, the character’s engagement with the Bible and with Catholicism, an engagement marked by questioning, deepened the film’s introspection.

With strong ties to High School, the landmark observational documentary made by Frederick Wiseman in 1968, Approaching the Elephant is another festival standout that underscores intimate relationships, this time between children and adults. A nonfiction film by first-time feature-length documentarian Amanda Rose Wilder, Approaching the Elephant tracks the inaugural academic year of the Terry McArdle Free School in New Jersey. The film is both a highly sympathetic portrait of the principal characters who stand out among the students and teachers taking part in this educational experiment and an introduction of sorts to the philosophy and methods of the free schooling movement. Free schooling is a radically democratic approach to education where children shape their schooling as much as the teachers that surround them. All school rules, for example, are discussed and voted on by students and teachers together, and the students each decide what they want to do throughout the day with teachers asking the whole group if anyone wants to, say, work in the woodshop or practice piano. Wilder’s documentary presents many different scenes from the school day, but it captures especially well the sometimes frustrating, often illuminating dynamics of the weekly all-school meetings where problems and issues are debated and decided upon by children and adults together.

Shot on MiniDV, using available light and sound, and edited in black and white, Approaching the Elephant looks and feels like an ethnographic documentary from another era. From the first day of the school’s opening, Wilder alone shot the footage and recorded the sound; she integrated herself into the small rooms and crowded hallways of this busy new school, housed in a church basement; teachers and students all seem natural around her and the camera. Three subjects emerge as the chief protagonists of the film: Alex, the school’s director; Jiovanni, a clear leader among the kids but also a troublemaker who tests the limits of the school’s philosophy; and Lucy, one of the youngest girls, a highly thoughtful and articulate student who easily holds her own in debate with Alex and the other adults. As Wilder indicated in her post-screening discussion with the audience, she realized that these three were her principal characters early on in her two years of shooting; other students she saw as internal “watchers,” and indeed, some of these children become, over the course of the film, stand-ins for the film’s own viewers. A growing nonfiction subgenre, “school docs” are steadily increasing in popularity (think Waiting for Superman [2010], The Lottery [2010], and The Bully [2011]). Approaching the Elephant is a major contribution, an important documentary that places viewers inside a new school to witness, at nearly firsthand, the many relationships and the conflicts and resolutions that regularly take place between students and teachers.

There were many other important highlights in the festival. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s Ellie Lumme, an unnerving psychological thriller, running a mere 42 minutes, is this film critic’s first go at filmmaking. Loner Ellie (Allison Torem) approaches solitary old man Ned (Stephen Cone) at a party. Shortly after this one rather bold move on her part, he aggressively and ever more demandingly inserts himself into her everyday life. In Ned, Vishnevetsky has created a character at once fascinating and unsettling. Joe Swanberg’s Happy Christmas, a largely autobiographical film shot in the director’s own home and starring him and his toddler son alongside the talented Melanie Lynskey, who plays his wife, is about a young married couple contending with everyday concerns as well as with a new resident in their home: the husband’s newly single and directionless younger sister (Anna Kendrick). The film is particularly convincing in its dialogue and in the tensions and comedy that arise between the three family members. In the Q&A, Swanberg explained that he wrote very little for the film, preferring his actors to improvise based on his general storyline. His openness to and confidence in his very capable collaborators is surely one of the reasons for the film’s success. Happy Christmas is a strong addition to this productive young director’s other popular films including his 2013 Drinking Buddies.

The festival featured two very unusual and thought-provoking films by promising directors: For the Plasma and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. Shot on 16mm by first time directing duo Bingham Bryant and Kyle Molzan, For the Plasma had its world premiere at BAMcinemaFest. It’s quite a curious film, a thriller that draws on horror and science fiction conventions yet never reveals any specific threat or otherworldly presence. The story is about Charlie (Anabelle LeMieux), a young woman who travels to a remote house in Maine where she will help her friend Helen (Rosalie Lowe), who spends her days scrutinizing CCTV feeds from the woods surrounding the house in order to apply what she sees there to shifts in the financial market. The film doesn’t set out to fill in the gaps in the supernatural, quasi-psychic connection between Helen, the Maine forest, and the market. Instead, it revels in leaving much unknown. The film has an intense creepiness, but it leads not to any knowledge of a creepy being or situation, but simply to the experience of creepiness itself. This is heightened by the film’s eerie, electronic score and by the stilted quality of the actors’ dialogue delivery, recorded in post-production.

Also with many gaps in its storyline, Josephine Decker’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely is a beautifully shot film with strong undertones of horror and mystery. The film takes place on a Kentucky farm where Akin (Joe Swanberg, director of Happy Christmas) is hired for the season to live with and help a farmer (Robert Longstreet) and his daughter (Sophie Traub). Akin soon grows leery of the increasingly odd behavior of his hosts even as he develops an unmistakable attraction to the young daughter. This film has been described as an erotic thriller, and while that isn’t inaccurate, rather than moments of intense suspense that most thriller induce, this film invokes instead a continuous dread and anxiety. The film’s cinematographer, Ashley Connor, expertly captures multiple points of view throughout the film, including, most strikingly, the visual perspectives of farm animals. She also avails herself of extremes in depth of field, often filming in very tight close-up, hemming in the viewer’s visual field. Thou Wast Mild and Lovely and For the Plasma are both cut from a rather Lynchian cloth for their deviance and mysteriousness. These two films won’t likely see wide, mainstream box-office success, but they are challenging works that stay with viewers long after the theater lights have been turned on.

Among the shorts in this festival, each of which preceded a specific feature film rather than screening together in a shorts program, Here Come the Girls, the first cinematic work by the playwright Young Jean Lee, was an important highlight. A fake documentary about a filmmaker obsessed with her down-on-his-luck musician subject, this short delves into boundary crossing between people and the ethics of documentary filmmaking. Here Lee plays the documentarian and, in fact, shoots the film. Her character/filmmaker probes the painful depths of her subject’s past experiences, prompting him at times to tears and, invading his physical as well as his emotional privacy, follows him into the shower, where she instructs him to re-wash his balls and his butt so she can more easily film them. The short is at times quite funny, but more than anything, it leaves the viewer with mixed feelings about certain documentary practices, about the intimacy that can develop between filmmaker and subject and may too easily lead to exploitation.

Overall, BAM’s selections for this year’s festival show clearly that American independent cinema is thriving in spite of the shrinking of traditional funding sources. After a few quick Internet searches, you’ll find that a good many of the films showcased here were funded in part (sometimes in large part) through successful Kickstarter campaigns. Following many of the screenings, this information was made known to audiences when the credits featured names of some individual contributors along with the traditional thanks afforded to family members of cast and crew. That this kind of financial support should be necessary and should link so many of these very high-quality films might signal a problem for independent filmmaking in this country. Funding is limited, hard to come by. But, at least based on the sample of crowdfunded films shown this year at BAM, this kind of funding, “public” funding in a country where public, government funding for arts is rapidly diminishing and has long since paled in comparison to support offered by other countries, seems to have allowed these filmmakers a good deal of leverage to experiment and to take risks. This festival shows that stimulating and entertaining films are out there waiting to be supported, screened, enjoyed, and talked about. And BAM has continued to make important new films available to audiences in an approachable, intimate setting.