2018 Nashville Film Festival
Festival Coverage by Andrew Swafford and Jessica Carr
For ten days in May, the Nashville Film Festival screened over 100 feature films from around the world. Established in 1969, it is the longest running film festival in the state. Andrew and Jessica were able to catch six features across three days of the festival.
ANDREW: Six films out of over 100 is a pretty weak number, I’ll admit up front. However, in our defense, the Nashville Film Festival (hereon referred to as NFF) has a straaaange screening schedule. The fest spans two weekends, doesn’t start screenings until 1 PM, and saves many of its most prestigious titles for the middle of the week. As out-of-towners with full-time jobs, our options were limited. As a result, we didn’t get to see my most anticipated movies of the fest (Eighth Grade and First Reformed), we had to pass over some of the festival’s many trademark music documentaries (though Nashville certainly showed up for If I Leave Here Tomorrow: A Film About Lynyrd Skynyrd), we weren’t able to see any of the repertory screenings (which included Rosemary’s Baby and Jurassic Park) and we weren’t even able to see the film screening of Qwerty by Cinematary’s own John McAmis — who won an award! Just wanted to give a full disclaimer about all that stuff before we jump into the stuff we did see. (And for the record, I think that in the future, NFF’s scheduling could be greatly improved by mimicking Big Ears--decrease the number of films in the lineup, limit the fest to four days, only screen each film once, and start screenings at 8 AM.)
JESSICA: Yeah, the scheduling was definitely a bummer for both of us. However, I do think that we got to see some fairly good films overall. Which leads us to our first film of the festival…
Bikini Moon (2018) by Milcho Manchevski
ANDREW: A documentary crew is gathering footage at a nonprofit organization providing aid to the homeless, until they are utterly transfixed by a strange and beautiful woman who calls herself Bikini. (Just Bikini, she says, like Cher or Beyoncé.) Bikini claims to be an Iraq war veteran who has had her daughter taken from her, but her speech is prone to cycles of redundancy and rides the borderline of incoherence, free-associating from her past to her present, from The Wizard of Oz to her love for praying mantis. Almost immediately, the film switches gears to follow Bikini, as the filmmakers themselves attempt to help her find lodging and, later, her daughter.
The camerawork is scrappy and spontaneous, sometimes switching between high-definition digital cinematography to MiniDV or iPhone footage, depending on who’s shooting. The crew has no qualms about showing the strings, either, as boom mics often fall into the frame and the director indiscreetly shouts about where to pan the camera. We also see them in the editing room, showing Bikini footage we’ve already seen them take of her--some of it obtained unethically.
When focusing on Bikini’s story, this seems to be a movie about homelessness and mental illness, but when focusing on the craft, it’s very much a movie about documentaries--specifically how exploitative they can be. And I’m not sure how much more I can say, as it’s very difficult to determine what constitutes a spoiler for Bikini Moon. There’s one fundamental element that, if known, could completely change someone’s experience with the film--but it’s so fundamental that I’m not sure how not to talk about it. I went in ignorant and stayed pretty ignorant (maybe I’m not discerning enough), and to be honest, I felt a little robbed once I figured it out. But what do you think of Bikini Moon, Jessica? Do you think we should just come out and say what else is going on here?
JESSICA: I thought it was clear after we saw Bikini Moon that you weren’t as into it as I was, but I guess I kind of decided to ignore the documentary aspect of the film and read it as a narrative film. To me, this is the best way to enjoy Bikini Moon because it is kind of all over the place. From the very first scene, the people on screen just felt like they were acting to me, so from there, I just made my mind up that this was a fictional story. In that respect, the rest of the film becomes much more interesting because you can focus on Condola Rashad’s performance as Bikini. She is an eccentric character that has clearly seen some trauma in her life. She is mostly an enigma for the first half of the film as the “documentary crew” try to find out more about her. She slowly starts to reveal parts of herself which includes her fascination with the praying mantis. After watching the trailer, I really wanted this film to plunge down into surreal territory but it decided to mostly stay calm which was a real shame. Now that the secret is out, Andrew, would you have enjoyed this film better if you knew it wasn’t really a documentary?
ANDREW: Maybe, although knowing that up front may have made me more impatient with the more tangential, freewheeling stretches of the runtime that I was originally able to justify in my head as being “part of the documentary experience.” They seem to be trying really hard to look and feel like a feet-on-the-ground doc, down to the sloppy camerawork and a rabbit trail structure that changes the focus as new information is brought to light. Knowing that it’s fiction, I think I agree with you in that I would have much preferred it to lean harder into the surreal elements that get introduced in the film’s final moments--I’d like to imagine a version of Bikini Moon that makes its own unreality abundantly clear around the halfway point and then drifts into stranger territory. The human drama loses some of its weight after the illusion is broken.
JESSICA: I completely agree with that. Honestly, Bikini is the only character that I even remotely cared about. If this movie did anything for me, it was convince me that Condola Rashad needs to be cast in more lead roles. Her performance was enthralling from start to finish.
The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales (2018) by Benjamin Renner and Patrick Imbert
JESSICA: This French animated anthology film was delightful in every way possible. It includes three separate stories that are framed with animals putting on a play. The first story is about a stork that gets tired so he guilts a rabbit, a pig, and a duck to deliver the baby for him. This one feels a lot like Raising Arizona and contains lots of fun gags with the baby. The second story is about a fox, who isn’t scary enough, so the wolf convinces him to steal a bunch of eggs, raise them, and then eat them when they are grown. Of course, when the eggs hatch and the first thing they see is the fox they assume that he is their mother. The fox becomes attached to the chicks and finds that he cannot eat them. Also, the chicks think they are foxes which makes for some adorably funny moments as well. And finally, the third story is about saving Santa Claus — seriously, that’s pretty much what the whole thing is about.
There are lots of great moments in this film, and the jokes are non-stop. I was amazed at how a children’s film can still effectively use visual humor and not have to rely on constant fart jokes. It really blew my mind knowing that was still possible in 2018. My one critique of this film would be that the anthology aspect really worked against it. I read that this was originally conceived as a episodic TV special and that makes so much sense to me now. Andrew, I know you also weren’t a fan of the anthology aspect of this film.
ANDREW: I completely agree that it would have been stronger as a single-narrative feature. The second of the three shorts — ”The Big Bad Fox” — has a delicate balance of laugh-out-loud humor and genuine pathos that I think could have been mined for something deeper if it had the runtime to spare. This studio’s first film, Ernest and Celestine, uses this approach to wonderful effect, playing light and cute but also getting at some still-important universal ideas about forming relationships outside of your immediate bubble, as well as a delightfully French takedown of how capitalism sells you solutions to problems that it’s also selling you (I’m thinking of the mama and papa bear who own a candy shop and a dentistry right across the street from one another). The Big Bad Fox could have totally worked similar magic with the raw material it’s already working with--parenthood, identity, nature vs. nurture, etc. (This hypothetical movie is starting to sound a lot like Fantastic Mr. Fox, actually...)
But I digress. Even-better-parallel-universe-version aside, I really liked The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales! And perhaps it is well that we put that hypothetical version aside, too, because Big Bad Fox knows just what it is. Unlike many films at the festival that aren’t quite succeeding at what they’re setting out to do (Bikini Moon being a big example), The Big Bad Fox is pitch-perfect at being exactly what it wants to be: a collection of looney ‘toons. It is able to find laughs (usually visual ones) in every minute of the runtime, often finding humor in the interim between jokes by continually delaying or interrupting the action that you’re invested in. I also get a very nostalgic vibe from the kind of visual gags it delivers, which are lovingly indebted to the work of Chuck Jones. The Big Bad Fox is full of cartoon tropes you almost never see anymore. There’s a scene where two animals stand on each others’ shoulders in a trenchcoat and pretend to be a human! There are multiple scenes in which the lights go out but the whites of each characters eyes are still visible! There’s a scene where a character gets dragged offstage with a cane! There are gags that are punctuated with muted trumpets going WOMP WOMP WOMP WAHHHHHHHH! The only thing missing is an anvil. Far from being a lackluster imitation of jokes from the past, The Big Bad Fox is consistently funny on its own terms and breathes new life into old tropes by giving its characters unique and believable personalities that feel a cut above your average cartoon character.
This won the Animation Competition Grand Jury Prize, by the way, and although we weren’t able to catch the other animated features in competition, I’m really glad for its success and look forward to its eventual release.
Circles (2018) by Cassidy Friedman
ANDREW: I have an immediate bias in favor of Circles, as it’s about the implementation of restorative justice at an urban high school. I was trained in restorative practices firsthand when I worked at a comparable school for three years, and I’m a firm believer in the practice. For the uninitiated, restorative justice is a philosophy of discipline developed for situations in which trust has been lost between law enforcement and citizens or between teachers and students; before (and/or instead of) employing punitive measures, restorative justice seeks conflict resolution by way of open dialogue, group therapy style--with all participants sitting in circles.
Circles is a single-subject documentary that follows a restorative justice specialist named Eric Butler who has charisma I’m envious of and professional leeway I kind of can’t imagine. He dresses like his students, rather than in buttoned-up shirts (see above, left), and is able to speak his student’s language — not just their vernacular words and grammar, but also their informality, profanity and all. At one point in a parent-teacher conference with the principal present, he tells a female student that if he ever sees her prostituting herself on the side of the road, he will fucking run her over with his car. This sounds like the setup for a “bad teacher” movie, but it’s anything but. Butler has an amazing ability to relate with his students and get them to open up about their struggles — in one of the film’s first scenes, a teenage girl chimes into a group discussion led by Butler to share the story of how she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, and the response of each member of the circle is warm and validating (Butler even hugs his student, which is considered dangerous in a public school setting). This level of confident vulnerability is absolutely influenced by Butler’s ability to be on his students’ level: in his clothes, his speech, and his posture — sitting beside them rather than standing over them (a critical element of restorative justice circle discussions). Butler was present for a Q&A afterwards, and I asked him how he was granted so much freedom to be “unprofessional” for the sake of his students, and his answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, boiled down to being able to cultivate relationships — in this case with his principal.
At the end of the day, unfortunately, the film feels a little too much like educational material than something you’d want to watch at home — there was even a breakout session afterwards (which we weren’t able to attend, for lack of time), which solidified that impression. I’m also a little underwhelmed by the moviemaking of Circles, which is pretty standard fly-on-the-wall documentary stuff — lots of mildly shaky camerawork and extreme close-ups — but as far as documentaries are a medium to observe a person being themselves, Eric Butler makes for an extremely compelling case study. There’s also a nice structure and thematic push-and-pull throughout the film, as Butler’s philosophy of discipline is challenged when his own son becomes entangled with the criminal justice system and he struggles to hold onto his idealistic approach. Jessica, I’m curious — as someone outside of the world of public education who had no background in restorative justice before seeing this film, how did Circles play differently for you?
JESSICA: What made this viewing so fulfilling for me was the fact that I had absolutely no idea what restorative justice was. As Eric mentioned in his Q&A afterwards, justice has a different definition for each individual. Restorative practices have the ability to help those that the system has failed and catch those that have fallen through the cracks. In a similar sense, documentaries have the ability to educate and to help people better understand an issue. I was instantly drawn to Eric and his mission to help these students. I am not a documentary kind of gal at all, but I do appreciate the journalistic aspects of them. I felt like I left this screening with a better appreciation for teachers.
I agree that the film had an internal push-and-pull that compels the audience to pay attention to what is happening. This film was right after we ate food and I’m sorry to say that I planned to take a little nap in this because I knew documentaries weren’t my thing. I’m happy to report that my eyes stayed open the entire run-time. Andrew, do you think you’d recommend this film to anyone? Or specifically someone that is a teacher?
ANDREW: I do think that it’s a film that anyone could connect to (and should see!), though I have my doubts that general audiences not at a film festival are going to be motivated to seek it out or give it a chance on streaming. Dear reader, consider this your recommendation! Circles is well-worth your attention.
On Chesil Beach (2018) by Dominic Cooke
JESSICA: Let’s talk about On Chesil Beach. First off, I want to say that I would probably watch any movie that Saoirse Ronan is in. She has to be one of my favorite actresses working today and she does an amazing job in this film as Florence Ponting. The narrative begins in 1962 with Florence and Edward on their honeymoon. As most couples are expected to do on the eve of their wedding, the couple tries to consummate their marriage. But there are some awkward mishaps along the way and we find out that there is more to the story which is told through flashbacks in the film.
I found this film to be a heartbreakingly tender experience. It is about the natural anxieties and expectations that come with marriage but also the misunderstandings that can come with any relationship. The editing in the bedroom scene allows the audience to see, hear, and practically feel every uncomfortable moment that plays out.
ANDREW: We’ve already covered this one pretty extensively on the podcast, but I’ll rehash my take here. The structure and editing of this movie is surprisingly ambitious. The core of the movie consists of two scenes: the failed sex scene in the honeymoon suite and a dialogue scene on the titular beach. The former probably takes up less than 10 minutes of the runtime, but is continually interrupted by music-heavy flashbacks triggered by touches, glances, and shared stories. The latter, on the other hand, is lengthy and uninterrupted, functioning practically like a one-act play. The flashbacks of the first half can be frustrating for the viewer, but that’s the point--the characters are continually distracted by stray thoughts and memories, both romantic and traumatic. It felt less like a prestige-y costume drama and more like stream-of-consciousness literature — like how in Virginia Woolf short stories, it isn’t unusual to have extensive drama play out in the heads of characters while they don’t do anything other than look at each other (I’m thinking specifically of “An Unwritten Novel,” here). The director does a great job at making his characters’ insecurities and power dynamics clear in their framing, as well as using insert shots to highlight nervousness manifesting itself in restless feet and tense knuckles. The actors (especially Saoirse Ronan) are great at communicating with their bodies, too, communicating with eyes far more than is written in the script.
However, as the time ticks away on this relationship, the movie takes another risk that I’m not sure totally pays off — what is either the final act or the epilogue (I’m honestly not sure what it would qualify as) offers two scenes set in the distant future (which, in relation to the narrative’s 1960s center means the 1970s and 2000s). I compared this to Mountains May Depart, but you’re probably right when you mentioned that it’s more likely inspired by The Notebook — though unlike that film, which casts actors of different ages, On Chesil Beach utilizes makeup to age these characters in pretty extreme ways. It’s difficult to suspend my disbelief when looking at an actress as young as Saoirse Ronan (she’s younger than me, and I still get mistaken for a teenager!), so the elderly makeup definitely took me out of the film experience, which had been so intimate and human up to that point. And on a structural level, I think this final section is a bit unnecessary, overcommunicating things that are already implied by the two main scenes--but it also fucks up the beautiful symmetry that the film seemed to have before the fast-forward. There are also some potential issues of representation in this film, but I’ll hold my tongue and wait for more qualified folks (asexual/demisexual women, survivors of sexual violence) to weigh in on that when the movie gets a wide release.
JESSICA: The ending of this film is a cheesy mess. I really think the whole section in the 2000s should be cut completely. We get the consequences of the failed consummation spelled out for us in the 1970s scene. The eventual reveal of how their lives turned out is a real emotional gut punch for the audience watching — that is kind of ruined with the bad makeup job and melodramatic orchestra scene that plays out in the 2000s section. Regardless, I was very impressed with this film. I cannot believe other critics have viewed it so negatively. I’d be willing to watch it again when I’m able to.
The Laplace’s Demon (2017) by Giordano Giulivi
ANDREW: Speaking of movies that over communicate their ideas, DEAR LORD let’s talk about The Laplace’s Demon. This is a throwback-style Italian horror film that’s obviously inspired by Agatha Christie, The Twilight Zone, Gothic literature, and Giallo cinema. It shows its inspiration through cheap digital cinematography that is manipulated to look like beat-up black-and-white celluloid that’s starting to turn blue or green with age, also purposely employing bad dubbing and error-ridden subtitles to try and give an air of authenticity. The premise feels familiar as well, but it has a lot of promise. We are introduced to a ragtag team of eight scientists studying predestination — if all variables are understood, they propose, it is possible to predict the outcome of literally any event, even something as seemingly chaotic as how many shards a broken glass will shatter into. In the opening scene, they’re on a ferry out to visit a reclusive scholar, who lives in a comically large castle atop a comically steep mountain isle. When they arrive, they find it unoccupied, but they stumble upon a model of the castle itself, inside of which there are eight chess pieces standing exactly where they are standing--in front an even smaller model of the castle. They then find that the chess pieces move exactly where they do, but that the model is automated, and the resident scholar has calculated all of their “decision” in advance, demonstrating unequivocally that free will is an illusion and predestination can be mathematically deduced.
This is a really interesting concept for a horror movie — so much so that the festival invented a special award for it: the “Special Jury Prize for Imagination Philosophical and Scientific Rigor and Visual Inventiveness.” However, the film’s thesis ends up being its downfall, as it gets repeated out loud ad nauseam by these eight interchangeable characters who spend the film stuck in a room, talking. Do they explain what, historically, “Laplace’s Demon” really is? Of course they do, and it feels like a particularly boring university lecture. This should be a “characters explore a big spooky location” movie like Suspiria, The Shining, or House of the Devil, with light dialogue and heavy suspense. Instead we get...talking in a room. This does try to be an Agatha Christie-esque murder mystery, of course, so the characters do get picked off one by one, but they all die in exactly the same uninteresting way. Readers of my horror reviews know that I’m no lover of “creative kills,” but the lack of variety in this film had me yearning for them. After seeing the first 20 minutes, I dreaded watching the same tired discussion —> chase —> death loop repeat eight times. A movie about the predictability of human behavior is, turns out, predictable. Moreover, it felt interminable, redeemed only by the unintentional comedy that the film slips into the climax, just before returning to the whole “explaining the point out-loud” thing a few more times. Jessica, I know you liked this even less than I did, so is there anything I’ve neglected to complain about here?
JESSICA: Oh man, this film was laughably frustrating. I really think the filmmaker underestimated his audience here. Surely, he would have guessed that we would understand the idea of predestination, I DON’T KNOW maybe the 3rd or 4th time it is explained to us. If you are going to have such a preposterous premise, can you at least give us something interesting to look at? After the iron coffin contraption swallowed up the 3rd generic character, I was ready to throw in the towel. The one thing that I actually enjoyed about this was the scene towards the end where the handsome character is the only one left. He goes into the curtained lair where the coffin has retreated into and finds where the resident scholar has been making the videos. He sees a pile of papers that say, “The Experiment.” It turns out to be a rehashing of everything we’ve seen thus far including going back to the boring dialogue between characters that we’ve had to endure for this long ass run-time. AND THEN, Roy (this handsome character) decides to skip ahead to the last page when you guessed it the page says, “Roy reads this line. Roy reads this line. Roy reads this line,” all the way downnnnnnn the pageeeeeee. Omgggggg. It was insanely hilarious to see him read the line over and over again. Seriously, I think I went insane watching it.
Blindspotting (2018) by Carlos López Estrada
JESSICA: We were both so hyped for this movie when we saw it on the festival schedule. The trailer makes it seem like a buddy comedy mixed with a drama. After watching the film, the trailer was at least able to communicate how this film shifts in tone from thoughtful drama about racial politics to comedic moments between two childhood buddies. It begins with Daveed Diggs’ character Collin as he only has a few days left of parole. We don’t find out what he was in jail for until about half-way through the film. Collin and his lifelong friend Miles (Rafael Casal) work for a moving company in Oakland, California. The humor in the beginning of the film mostly revolves around Collin trying to avoid trouble so he can get through his final days of probation. The conflict magnifies when Collin witnesses a police officer shoot a black man while he is at a stoplight. No other witnesses are present, and through the rest of the film, Collin struggles with what he witnessed.
This film doesn’t quite know what to do with all the themes it is trying to talk about: racial identity, gentrification, gun ownership, racial stereotypes, police brutality are all things that are at least touched on at some point in the film. It is a little too on-the-nose with how it tries to work out these themes within the narrative. I think the real strong point of this film is the relationship between Collin and Miles. I read that Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal are best friends in real life AND they wrote this film together so that chemistry is apparent when you’re watching. Daveed Diggs brings his musical theatre experience from Hamilton to this film as well. There are plenty of scenes that have a very theatrical quality to them and they often feel like they could’ve been plucked right out of Hamilton.
In the climax of the film, Collin points a gun at the antagonist and raps about the trauma he has experienced. His heartbeat during this moment becomes the beat of the rap. It was an exhilarating moment in the film for me. I thought this was the most effective way for Collin’s character to release everything that was building up in him throughout the film. It was unlike anything else I’ve seen in film before and I was sold by the experience. However, I know Andrew wasn’t buying it. What about the climax didn’t work for you?
ANDREW: I think you’ve already touched on most of the positives and negatives here, so I’ll just emphasize how much that climax felt like an out-of-place musical theater scene. I would love for the film to be more of an actual rap musical, which Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq almost was, but it felt more like a work of musical theater in how much it de-prioritizes cinematic style and atmosphere in favor of loud, declarative themes. The whole thing just feels little too brightly lit and stagey for me to feel fully immersed in the world of the film. I thought the themes were handled intelligently and Daveed Diggs did an excellent job bringing the character to life, but the way this story played out and looked on screen just left something to be desired — it’s a bit overwritten and underdesigned. As I said on the podcast, I think it would be stronger if it was more mundane, like Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, or maybe more dazzlingly inscrutable, like the Safdie brothers’ Good Time. As it stands, this feels to me like a timely “issues movie” that lefty cinephiles are going to watch for a sense of education/validation moreso than a visual experience that people will want to return to over time.
BEST OF THE FEST
ANDREW: Although nothing at NFF blew me away, my choice for Best of the Fest has to go to The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales. As I mentioned earlier, this is a film this humble ambitions — it just wants to make you laugh in that goofy way that only classical cartoons can — but it executes what it sets out to do with a level of perfection that I really admire. I hope to see the studio apply this anthology film’s silly approach to a single-narrative feature sometime in the future.
JESSICA: I have to give the Best of the Fest to Blindspotting. It was a truly high energy film that left me feeling invigorated after the screening. I know that it has a lot of issues, but I’d rather a film strive to have a lot going for it thematically than it just not try at all. It was clear that this was a passion project for Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, and I would love to see more from them in the future.
Speaking of friendship--Andrew, this is the second festival that we’ve attended together for Cinematary and I have to say that you are a great friend to have along for festival coverage. You don’t mind my demands to cut films for food breaks and that is truly something worth appreciating.
ANDREW: Absolutely! Although, I am still bitter about missing The Endless at last year’s Knox Horror Fest...but donuts are good, too.