LA Film Fest 2011

Surprisingly enough, they show films in Los Angeles.

The current incarnation of the Los Angeles Film Festival (branded LA Film Fest) as an arm of the Film Independent organization is going into its tenth year, although something that bills itself as the film festival for Los Angeles has been around for decades. It’s interesting that the city, one of the progenitors of global cinema and the home of the Hollywood juggernaut, is at best a mid-sized blip on the international film festival scene. The cinema community here turns into a ghost town in late January as everyone performs a snowbird migration to Park City for Sundance; the biggest local event is perhaps the American Film Market, which is more of a trade show than a film festival. The rest of the year, it’s left up to the American Film Institute (with AFI Fest) and Film Independent to foster the local festival culture.

Previously scattered across a host of movie theaters in the college-town district of Westwood, the LA Film Fest set up shop last year in the more concentrated space of downtown Los Angeles, taking advantage of the millions of dollars being poured into development in the area. And if a film festival is reflective of the ethos and spirit of the city that it calls home, perhaps all that needs to be said about Los Angeles is summed up in the fact that the most visible change in the LA Film Fest at its new downtown digs is the increased availability of parking.

The festival starts June 16 and runs until the 26th; after the opening night premiere of Richard Linklater’s new film Bernie (a black comedy starring Jack Black as the eponymous mortician), the festival serves up double-barreled action: fresh from its Cannes debut, the neo-noir Drive will land Stateside on the second night of the festival. Starring Ryan Gosling as a Hollywood stunt driver/criminal wheelman plunged into a sea of violence, the film won Best Director at Cannes for Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn. Also screening is Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, the highest-grossing Brazilian movie of all time. Directed by José Padilha — who, in Hollywood’s poaching mentality, has been tapped to direct the new RoboCop — the film has shades of Michael Mann as it follows a police special operations group through political infighting, prison riots, and paramilitary gun battles on the streets of Rio.

However, those bursts of adrenaline are outliers, and the heart of the festival is truly an “independent” one: slates of quirky low-key comedies, heartfelt personal dramas, and incisive investigative documentaries from all around the world. There are, of course, the requisite screenings of films bursting with indie buzz: Miranda July’s The Future, Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut Higher Ground, and the darling of SXSW, Natural Selection. But the festival also looks to bolster and make visible filmmakers who are edging onto the international scene; the films in the main competition category include Please Do Not Disturb, a triptych on the contradictions of life in contemporary Tehran, and Mamitas, a charismatic East Los Angeles coming-of-age piece.

The selection of documentaries at this year’s festival is exceptionally strong, and of special note are the slate of sports biographies that cover a wide range of disciplines and interests: the philosophical UFC fighter Evan Tanner (Once I Was a Champion), the transgender tennis player Renée Richards (Renée), and glamorous Formula One driver Ayrton Senna (Senna). Regardless of what the sport actually is, there’s something about the larger-than-life personalities and the strictures and rules of the game that give these sports stories the weight of grand metaphor, and as such they tend to be crowd-pleasers — which leads to the intriguing question of why documentaries are practically invisible at the local multiplex.

That notion of sport as a grand structuring metaphor is certainly not lost on the makers of Salaam Dunk and Skateistan: Four Wheels and a Board in Kabul. It’s a phenomenon that rears its head every so often, when something sweeps through the cinematic zeitgeist and two separate movies end up converging on some urgent thematic space. Here, both films take a look at a country rebuilding in the aftermath of American military incursion, and how the lives of its women change when new sports and new values flood in from the West. Salaam Dunk follows the women’s basketball team at the American University of Iraq – Sulaimani, as the ragtag group of young women struggle to become an organized and competitive team, while Skateistan shows not only how the introduction of skateboarding has changed the lives of young Afghanis, but also how precarious those changes can be.

The festival has a special spotlight on Cuba this year, anchored by the world premiere of the documentary Unfinished Spaces, which looks at the construction — and virtual abandonment and repudiation — of Cuba’s National Art Schools as a lens into the mindset of the post-revolution regime and the sweep of recent Cuban history. Composed of archival footage, interviews with the architects, and recent visits to the schools (which have taken on the quality of ancient ruins) it’s a fascinating look into the politics of architecture and the architecture of politics. The doc is joined by a quartet of films from and about Cuba, covering the gamut from romantic comedy (Habana Eva) to urban omnibus (Suite Habana).

The rest of Latin America is also well-represented; in the narrative competition there’s The Bad Intentions, a nuanced and darkly comic portrait of childhood amidst the terrible violence of 1980s Peru, while in the documentary competition Paraiso for Sale examines how expatriate tourists and international developers have transformed the natural and social ecology of a group of islands off the coast of Panama. These films are joined by the Argentinian romance Sidewalls, the Chilean meditation Decline, and The Night Watchman and The Tiniest Place, two documentary slices-of-life from Mexico.

In what might be one of the most joyously bizarre events of the festival, LA-based rock duo Sparks will be performing a live version of their musical The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, originally produced for Swedish National Radio. Centered on the legendary director as he is tempted by the glitz and glamor of Hollywood, the cast and musicians will be joined by surreal Canadian director Guy Maddin, who will read from his screenplay for the forthcoming film adaptation as the musical unfolds in front of a series of projected images. If the result is anything like Maddin’s films, the experience will be somewhere in the neighborhood of bewildering and transcendent.

My primary coverage of the LA Film Fest will be posted as dispatches at Slant Magazine’s House Next Door blog, while expanded reviews and articles will be located here at The Hypermodern.