Fate and the film festival
More than 70 films on tap for the Durango Independent Film Festival

by Judith Reynolds

Last week at press screenings for the Durango Independent Film Festival, a tiny sprinkling of media types attended. Given the three-night visual feast, that’s shocking.

As DIFF courageously powers through another year of organizing films and volunteers for an independent festival, the community ought to be lined up down the alley and around the block.

With more than 70 films on the roster for the Feb. 28-March 4 festival, it will be hard to pick and choose. A few die-hard fans make it a yearly challenge to see everything. For a week they suspend their lives, stand in line, and go bleary seeing all the films. They say it’s worth it, and I believe them. Our fledgling film festival provides enough fodder for conversation to last long after the titles have been forgotten.

The most widely recognized film that’s coming to the festival is undoubtedly “First Snow.” Directed by Mark Fergus, the feature centers on Jimmy Stark, a sleazy, on-the-road salesman (Guy Pearce). His car sputters out in a remote part of New Mexico (sound familiar), and he stumbles into his future. To pass the time, Stark visits a modern-day fortune teller (J.K. Simmons) who practices psychic readings. The predictions are so dark even the psychic cannot finish the reading. And Stark is startled to learn his fate.

The film poses the age-old question: If I know, or believe I am going to die soon, what would I do? Filmgoers and readers of fairytales and other great literature have been here before, but Fergus gives us a lead character with whom we may or may not identify. A further question drives the narrative: Can I stop or interfere with the hand of Fate?

Stark has enough smarts to grasp that he must change, make things right with his girlfriend (Piper Porabo) and a best friend whom he betrayed. That’s meat enough for a compelling film, and the locations make this quest all the more alluring.

Seattle is the prime location for “Expiration Date,” another major feature film in the lineup. Ironically, the story has a lot in common with “First Snow.” An awkward framing device gives an old Native American an obvious task. At a bus stop he tells a potential runaway the fate of Charles Silvercloud III (Robert Guthrie).

Every Silvercloud is destined to die on his 25th birthday, and III wanders through Seattle preparing for his demise. He knows he will be struck by a milk truck as his elders have been before.

Unfortunately, writer-director Rick Stevenson drowns this Fate-film in an overabundance of clichés, all of which can be predicted. 4 Silvercloud has a gift, a group of cronies, an ex-girlfriend, a widowed mother, and he encounters a fellow traveler in the person of fit, blond, quirky cancer victim Bessie (Sascha Knopf). She even has a troubled, but charming, dog whose name is Roadkill. The acting is wooden; the action languorous.

“Expiration Date” is a low-rent version of “First Snow.” See them both and decide for yourself.

The documentary side of the festival has been a strong suit as long as I’ve been attending. This year is no exception. We only saw part one of the three-part “Iraq in Fragments,” and it is compelling filmmaking. Like “First Snow,” this is not to be missed, and it is the only Academy-Award nominee in the festival.

“Fragments” presents three stories in sequence: a fatherless 11-year-old Sunni boy in Baghdad; Sadr followers in two Shiite cities; and a family of Kurdish farmers – representing the three major Iraqi groups. The boy Mohammed’s story was the only one screened for the press.

Combining voice-over narration and live action, the film reveals the bleak circumstances of young Mohammed’s life. His father is gone, and he doesn’t know if he will ever return. But Mohammed soaks up what looks like affection and concern from a surrogate father, a blunt garage boss. The boss seems sympathetic until he turns on Mohammed. The scene where the boss roughly chastises the boy for not learning in school and being late for work is heartrending. It gets brutal when the boss demands that Mohammed spell his beloved fathers name; the boy can’t.

Filmmaker James Longley varies the camerawork to imply that we see Baghdad through Mohammed’s eyes. And the graceful alternation between voice-over narration and dialogue is seamless. The American director spent more than two years filming in Iraq to give us this view from the inside.

Another documentary that uses a more overt storytelling technique, direct address, features someone known to local audiences: Ray Parker. I’ve heard Ray’s tales of his World War II experiences on various occasions, and he is a colorful narrator. Here in Mark Bonn’s “In Times of War: Ray Parker’s Story,” we get Ray at his best, illuminated by key stills and archival war film footage. This work shows you what a skilled documentarian can do with the standard components of the form: story, first-person narrative, supplemental visual material. Every film student ought to see it, and everyone who admires the former POW ought to see it and send Ray a note of appreciation.

Be sure to see “Papa Tortuga,” too. It’s a contemporary tale of the difference one passionate activist can make to save an endangered species. Filmmaker Rob Wilson unravels the story of Fernando Manzano carefully. You don’t get the final impact of his work until the closing scenes. This is a feel-good film, and it has earned every uplifting minute.

One documentary that’s getting a lot of hype is “Light of the Himalaya.” With apologies to director Michael Brown, the film is visually spectacular, but efforts to marry two stories, one altruistic, the other adventure, is troublesome. Privilege amidst poverty is always hard to combine. The healthy, well-equipped alpinists come off as spoiled Westerners when compared to the diseased and desperately poor Nepalese. For all the good intentions, and an obvious sponsorship by North Face, this film put a chill in my heart.

Among the shorts, there’s one charming, tongue-in-cheek one about fathers and sons and one dystopian vision not to miss. “Carmichael & Shane” looks like a documentary, but its premise of favoritism in families is so outrageous it can only be a fictional comedy. “Delivery” is an animated short from Germany. In nine minutes you enter a bleak world and it takes you to an unexpected place. That’s all I’ll say except see it. •