Originally published on Ink 19 on November 4, 2020
AFI Fest 2020
Virtual • October 15-21, 2020
Since our landing in Los Angeles back in 2015, we have made the American Film Institute’s yearly showcase, AFI Fest, the definitive festival to help us define the year’s achievements in the medium. Arriving during the anchor leg of festival season each fall, AFI Fest is that curatorial effort that not only draws in significant world premieres, but also the finest efforts that have been honored at different festivals throughout the year.
As 2020 has seen a new normal go into effect for almost every aspect of life thanks to the novel coronavirus, and with every public event with live attendance being either cancelled or dramatically reduced down in scope, we wondered over the summer if AFI Fest would decide to sit this year out, as Cannes had so prudently chosen to do at the height of the outbreak in Europe. We also pondered as we read the news of Cannes’ cancellation as to how that highly influential event’s absence would take its toll on the festival programming that usually follows in its wake, but when Toronto, New York, and Venice made their decisions to move forward with varying degrees of scope, we started to have a glimmer of hope that AFI would find a path towards at least a virtual festival, and thankfully, between October 15th and 21st, they did.
Last year, AFI Fest added a dedicated section of documentary features and shorts, and the inaugural AFI Conservatory Showcase, and this year’s completely virtual edition of the festival proudly continued its commitment to these efforts. In total, AFI Fest 2020 programmed 124 titles which played in the aforementioned Conservatory Showcase and Documentary sections, as well as blocks dedicated to World Cinema, New Auteurs, Cinema’s Legacy, Short Film Competition, and the Meet the Press Film Festival.
Beyond the eclectic film programming this year, each day also saw a different informative edition of the AFI Summit, a series of thought-provoking conversations and panel discussions featuring acclaimed filmmakers, top industry executives, and high-profile thought leaders. 2020 also included four tributes, as AFI Fest honored documentarian Kirby Dick, directors Mira Nair and Sofia Coppola, and Academy Award-winning actress, singer, and dancer Rita Moreno.
Given that this year’s AFI Fest was virtual for all, we converted the time that we normally would have spent waiting in lines into consuming even more content than we have ever during any of our last five trips through AFI Fest’s programming. Similar to our method in years past with our coverage of the festival, we will not review any of the Summits, Tributes, or short films that we saw, but unlike years past, rather than providing reviews for every one of the twenty-three features we viewed, we will instead only focus on our absolute favorites from AFI Fest 2020 because, during these strange and urgent days, we want you to know that these are the films that need to be seen.
Collectiv (Collective) / dir. Alexander Nanau
On October 30, 2015, a fire occurred in the Colectiv music club in Bucharest that directly resulted in the deaths of 27 people and left over 100 injured. An investigation that followed proved that the club had received an operating license without a proper inspection from the Fire Department, which caused a public uproar, but when a subsequent story written by Gazeta Sporturilor journalist, Catalin Tolontan and his team, verified that 38 of the victims, many of whom had non-life threatening burns, had died in the weeks following the tragedy from hospital infections caused by a criminally negligent dilution of the disinfectants supplied to the burn wards, it led to demonstrations that forced a toppling of the Romanian government. Now, with a population out for revenge, Vlad Voiculescu, a well-meaning patient rights advocate, is selected to fulfill the role of Health Minister to control the damage, and it is here in the narrative where director Nanau provides you with seldom-seen, simultaneous access into both the inner-workings of the Minister’s office and the diligent team at the Gazeta Sporturilor as they continue to uncover a wide-ranging network of corruption that existed at every level of a government that strived to defraud the very healthcare system it was charged to administer for its members’ own personal gain. Throughout Collective, director Alexander Nanau carefully balances this rare glimpse into both sides of a system going down in ruins, while masterfully keeping the human suffering of the victims, and their families, omnipresent in the viewers’ minds.
Notturno / dir. Gianfranco Rosi
The winner of the Arca Cinema Giovani Award at this year’s Venice Film Festival, Gianfranco Rosi’s Notturno is his first feature since his Oscar nominated 2016 film, Fuocoammare (Fire At Sea), which dealt with the tragedy of the European Migrant crisis as seen through the eyes of a twelve-year-old refugee named Samuele. As the aftermath of war has been the focus of his work, Rosi, with his fifth feature, Notturno, filmed, for over three years, the regions where the actions of ISIS have been the most devastating between Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan, and Lebanon, pausing his camera on the people of these places where horrific acts of violence have occurred. For everyone you meet in Notturno, war has been their reality for a very long time, and so Rosi includes into his narrative, observational footage of more of the mundane actions of people who are trying to regain some sense of normalcy, such as hunters looking for game at dusk, to present a harsh contrast to scenes of people who cannot get through the day without dealing with the grim reminders of conflict. From the child who discuss the brutal images of war that are realized in his classmates’ crayon sketches at school, to the mother who listens on her phone aloud to voicemail messages from her daughter who had been abducted by ISIS, Notturno goes beyond those war documentaries that flood you with scenes of carnage until you are rendered numb. By employing an impressive array of sumptuously framed landscapes, coupled with a sound design of overwhelming silences against the witnessing of crushed souls and cries of sadness, you are forever reminded that war is not a contained moment of time that can be simply examined like the pages of a history book.
Piedra Sola (Lonely Rock) / dir. Alejandro Telémaco Tarraf
Inspired by a poem from legendary Argentine folk singer and writer, Atahualpa Yupanqui, director Alejandro Telémaco Tarraf has crafted his successful debut feature, Piedra Sola, which smartly blends ethnographic film elements with a fictional plot that adeptly balances the physical and metaphysical through the observance of nature, cultural rites, and the day-to-day necessities of human survival. Over the course of one year, director Tarraf, cinematographer Alberto Balazs, and a small crew lived with llama farmer, Ricardo Fidel, and his family in their home high in the Andes in the remote village of El Condor in Sierra de Jujuy, Argentina, and it is there where he filmed the story of Ricardo and his community’s efforts to preserve the harmony between their people and Pachamama (mother nature). Piedra Sola begins with Ricardo’s family and the ritual slaughter of one of their llamas as a blood offering to Pachamama, but despite their oblation, some of Ricardo’s other llamas are found dead, which prompts Ricardo to hunt for the mythical puma that he believes is singling out his herd alone. As Ricardo travels away from El Condor on his quest to find the puma, he goes on both a physical and spiritual journey that ascends the mountainous landscape and varying planes of existence contained in his village’s cosmology. What is remarkable in Piedra Sola is that with most ethnographic cinema, there is always the fear of exoticising the people witnessed, and in turn, an exploitation of a culture’s identity, but that feeling of exoticising never exists in Piedra Sola, as Tarraf and the masterful lens of Balazs blend pure observation and the constructed narrative elements into a form of storytelling that is always reverent in its discovery. This is an exceptional achievement for Tarraf, especially considering Piedra Sola‘s lean 82-minute running time.
Hopper/Welles / dir. Orson Welles
A year after Dennis Hopper achieved worldwide acclaim and was tabbed as a counterculture icon for directing his debut feature, Easy Rider, he sat down in Los Angeles for conversation, dinner, and what appeared to be several hundred gin and tonics, with the great Orson Welles, who, some thirty years prior, had equally realized a similar status as an outsider auteur who was also about to feel the wrath of the Hollywood system. Recently restored as a stand-alone feature, Hopper/Welles was originally filmed to be a small segment for the unsuccessful Welles project, The Other Side of the Wind. Edited together in a way that feels as raw and vital as when the conversation occurred fifty years go, it doesn’t take long for the pointed questions by Welles, all asked for dramatic intent, to hit their mark on Hopper, who responds on the shaky, but sharp side for the early portion of the film, but when the gin and tonics begin to take their toll and waves of indifference fill Hopper’s responses, the film’s tension is lost. Until those less lucid drunken moments though, the pair share their personal thoughts on the state of cinema at the time, discussing the work of Renais, Antonioni, and Buñuel. And when questions of American sensibilities and issues of national identity arise, Hopper’s life and his home studio editing of The Last Movie in Taos, New Mexico, which was situated close to multiple governmental munitions factories, bring out the paranoia in both men and some of the most interesting conversation in the film. For cineastes particularly, there is a special takeaway from Hopper/Welles: in knowing the poor outcome of Hopper’s sophomore effort, The Last Movie, and in listening to Hopper’s commitment to his maverick approach, which he is confident will not be well-received by the public, we gain a deep respect for his singular vision. In the end, despite the downturn in intensity during the latter third, Hopper/Welles remains as an amazing document of when the torch of old Hollywood’s dissatisfaction is handed off to a bright, irreverent talent, who based on his explanations and reflections, might have seen the road of cinematic misery coming, but moved forward regardless of his fears due to his profound love and knowledge of the medium.
El Prófugo (The Intruder) / dir: Natalia Meta
What is the source of the phantom sound that is suspiciously emanating from voice actress and choir singer, Inés (Erica Rivas)? Based on the novel, El mal minor by C.E. Feiling, and with a screenplay written by director Meta, this clever feature sits in a giallo-esque frame and plays out with comedic undertones as our protagonist Inés deals with the ramifications of a shocking incident that occurs at the start of the film while she is on vacation with her boyfriend, Leopoldo (Daniel Handler), whose ideas of romance and frivolity in a foreign land are never quite what Inés seems to have desired. When Inés eventually returns home, the ugly event that she witnessed begins to infiltrate her mind through bouts of insomnia and nightmares, which dissolve the border between her reality and dreams, and as Inés returns to the studio and her career of dubbing voices for films, the microphone she uses begins to start picking up some mysterious sounds that seem to come directly from her own throat. As these odd sounds disturb Inés’ ability to perform at work, the perplexing utterances also manifest when she is singing in the all-female choir that is her passion, leaving her unable to stay in key with her fellow vocalists. With Inés’ world coming apart, she receives “support” in the form of her mother, Marta (Pedro Almodóvar regular, Cecilia Roth), who comes to stay with her for a while. But despite Mom’s dispensing of rapid sage advice, and the introduction of a Phantom of the Opera-styled organ tuner named Alberto (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) into Inés’ life, the “intruder” living inside of Inés, continues to express itself at will. The traditional horror genre elements in The Intruder and its deliberately slow pace work exceptionally well in creating a mood for the film which places Inés in what feels like a dangerous physical predicament, leaving the door open for you to interpret her phantom voice as less of a paranormal or psychic warning system, and possibly more of a symbol of the internal struggle of a woman who is seeking to find her own way in dealing with traditional interpretations of love and family. Much of the credit to the film’s success goes to Erica Rivas, who embodies Inés with a complex blend of fragility and sadness, coupled with a staunch determination to realize her inner self.
Jacinta / dir. Jessica Earnshaw
While at the Maine Correctional Center working on a photo essay that examined aging in prison, director Jessica Earnshaw met Rosemary, an inmate at the center, and the mother of the titular Jacinda, who was also incarcerated at the same prison. As Earnshaw began to spend time with both Rosemary and Jacinta, observing their relationship closely, Earnshaw turned away from her photo essay and began to record the interactions of this mother and daughter who have been battling years of addiction in and outside of confinement. When Jacinta is paroled before her mother, Earnshaw chooses to follow Jacinta back to her hometown of Lewiston, Maine, where the young woman checks into a sober home to try and stay straight while attempting to reestablish her relationship with her then 10-year old daughter, Caylynn. Over the years that follow, Earnshaw closely documents Jacinta’s struggles to stay sober, her stumbles back into drug abuse and theft, and her family and friends who take both passive and active roles in Jacinta’s quest to stay clean so that she can be the mother she wants to be to Caylynn. For her debut documentary feature film, Earnshaw presents us with one of the most intimate portrayals of addiction that we have seen in some time, as we the viewers are given this rare view of not only the sometimes harrowing life or death choices of Jacinta, but also her personal dialogs with Earnshaw, who as a filmmaker, consistently straddles a difficult line between being the objective observer of a subject and a concerned friend. In the end, Earnshaw’s portrait of Jacinta never feels opportunistic, divisive, or exploitative, as it was clearly made with Jacinta’s full approval, and with the overall mission to serve as a harbinger for those who might be on the same destructive path.
Mila (Apples) / dir. Christos Nikou
The global pandemic at the center of Christos Nikou’s debut feature, Apples, is a very powerful malady that is attacking the memory of all of its victims. One of these victims is Aris (Aris Servetalis), a mild mannered Athenian man who wakes up on a bus in a state of amnesia, a disease which has become so prevalent, that a governmental memory recovery program has been established solely to deal with the large influx of new patients. Set during the time prior to when we all became slaves to our digital devices, Aris is tasked by his doctors to create new memories for himself based on a prescribed list of recommended activities, and he is also given a Polaroid camera to document the completion of these essential new experiences in order to assemble a scrapbook that he can use as a substitute for his lost past. Doing as he is told, Aris spends his days fulfilling the duties needed to make his picture-perfect moments (riding a child’s bicycle, posing with a sex worker), and on a trip to see Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre at a local movie theater, Aris meets Anna (Sofia Georgovassili), who is equally afflicted with amnesia and medically charged with capturing the required, yet violent cinematic excursion, with a photograph of herself alone in front of the film’s poster. Having now met, this pair of amnesiacs share their similar predestined memories in an analog version of today’s social media culture where we all post the same media selected items of daily importance in an banal attempt to state an individual voice. Having worked as an assistant director to his fellow countryman, Yorgos Lanthimos, for his breakthrough 2009 feature, Dogtooth, Christos Nikou, has clearly gained some inspiration from Lanthimos’ style of depicting people who exist in an alternate universe constructed specifically for them that allows us to question the societal norms that we follow as law without resisting. Nikou’s use of absurdist humor throughout Apples is effective, in that it allows the film’s message to be delivered without a heavy-handedness that might overwhelm the essential humanity of Aris and Anna, who like us, may someday look back on a lifetime of experiences that we might have never wanted in the first place.
SPECIAL MENTION: Out of the Blue / dir. Dennis Hopper
After the overwhelming success of Hopper’s 1969 directorial debut, Easy Rider, Universal Studios greenlit the actor/director’s next production, The Last Movie, and gave him a budget of one million dollars and total creative control of the project. With money in hand and a major studio’s backing, Hopper flew to Peru and spent most of 1970 making his sophomore film, which garnered the Critics Prize at the 1971 Venice Film Festival, while notoriously falling at the box office. Disheartened by the failure of The Last Movie, Hopper concentrated solely on acting over the next decade, and turned in a plethora of excellent performances, most notably in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend and in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. After Apocalypse Now, Hopper was signed to star in a small Canadian feature titled CeBe, but when producers fired the film’s director, Hopper immediately stepped in to direct and quickly authored a script geared towards the talents of his young co-star, Linda Manz, and her admiration of punk rock. The film would be renamed Out of the Blue, and Manz would turn in a once in a lifetime performance as a troubled young woman who turns to punk rock and her love of Elvis Presley to cope with the crushing realities of having a heroin-addicted mother (Sharon Farrell), and a father (Hopper) who is serving a prison sentence for killing a school bus full of children while driving drunk behind the wheel of his truck. As Cebe, Manz’s emotionally erratic portrayal feels natural and embodies the punk mindset in a way where so many mainstream Hollywood films of that era failed, like Times Square. Generoso has long been a devotee of Out of the Blue, and he loudly extolled its virtues when he heard the sad news that Linda Manz had passed away in August of this year. The new 4K restoration that screened at AFI Fest finally allows audiences to experience the full effect Out of the Blue, with its loud thuds and its bleak imagery that harshly examine the rapid decline of the American family.
All films were screened at AFI Fest 2020 presented by Audi. Many thanks to AFI for another outstanding year of cinema and conversations, and a special thanks to Johanna Calderón-Dakin, Senior Publicity Associate for AFI Fest, who made our festival coverage possible.
Feature photo: Still of Catalin Tolontan from Alexander Nanau’s Collective. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Generoso and Lily Fierro