2019 Chattanooga Film Festival
Festival Coverage by Zach Dennis and Reid Ramsey
For four days in April, the 6th annual Chattanooga Film Festival screened 39 feature films (and dozens of shorts) spanning indie horror, documentaries, and cult classics from around the world. Nestled on the Tennessee River, and sporting appearances by Crispin Glover and Joe Bob Briggs, Zach and Reid were able to catch 10 of the features during their time at the fest.
ZACH: This is my second straight year attending the Chattanooga Film Festival, which is a wonderful celebration of cinema in an area that is relatively barren when it comes to independent or arthouse fare. I love that they have found a way to bypass that and create a filmmaking community — not only with presentations of films, but also with live shows from other movie podcasts and even guests who put on special shows. It is really a nice weekend in Chattanooga, and, while my twin brother was unable to join me this time around, I’m glad you made it, Reid. What did you make of CFF?
REID: First, I want to say I’m still bummed I didn’t get to meet your twin brother this year. Maybe he’ll be able to join us next time. As for the festival, this was my first year attending the whole festival rather than just seeing a film or two, and it was a terrific weekend. To watch a whole community descend upon the North Shore of Chattanooga for a weekend of genre and indie movies is quite the sight. The front-loaded schedule actually benefited my weekend schedule. We had some pretty great food, too. And it would be a mistake to not mention the friendly, high energy volunteer crew that made the festival tick. How did this year’s film lineup compare to years past in your eyes?
ZACH: I thought it was pretty solid — on par with what they had last year. I agree with you, that the line-up was relatively top heavy. I caught a lot of my favorites up front. If I had one note for the festival next year, it is that I would love to see some variety in the line-up. It seems to lean heavily on genre flicks, and while I don’t necessarily mind that, I would love to see other arthouse, foreign and independent fare that doesn’t make the trek to Chattanooga during the year making an appearance.
Either way, I had a good time and saw some great films so let’s dig in.
Hail, Satan? (2019) by Penny Lane
ZACH: We kicked off this year’s festival with a film that CFF’s director Chris Dortch referred to as one of the most controversial picks the festival has ever encountered. Luckily, there were no picket lines and we were able to enjoy the film.
Hail, Satan? is hilarious beginning with the title, but this bleeds over into its opening sequence. The Satanic Temple is seeking to make a name for themselves and it begins by holding a rally outside of the Florida Capitol in defense of religious liberty bills that Rick Scott is putting before the state legislature. Garbed with horns and black garments, the group looks (and is) like a publicity stunt in order to gain attention to their real cause – religious plurality in the United States.
As the documentary – directed by Penny Lane – goes on, we learn more about the ultimate goal of this group. Going from performance art to actual political action over the course of the 90 minute runtime, I was interested in how the Satanic Temple shifted into being as much a religious organization as any other. But I also found the way it was able to inspire and form a community to be somewhat charming, and it gets at the heart of why people seek out a religious outlet in the first place.
What did you make of this one, Reid? It was definitely a fun watch and honestly taught me a lot about the origins of religious liberty in the U.S.
REID: If I’m being honest, I was way more into this than I expected. My enjoyment comes from a lot of reasons you already stated, but I did find it to be a compelling documentary about why people seek out religion, even those religions that don’t hold a belief in a deity such as the Satanic Temple. This is one of the funniest movies I’ve seen all year — the group uses more Party City costumes than I expected — and it plays as a pretty complete history of the Satanic Temple up to this point in history. Markedly different from versions of satanism that worship Satan, the Satanic Temple is more of an activist group than anything else.
What I least expected and most appreciated about this documentary was the skeptical approach Penny Lane took to every subject in the film. Not only are the evangelical Americans under intense scrutiny, but also she doesn’t shy away from the corruption and deviation from message also taking place in the Satanic Temple. By the end of the documentary, which is more or less present day, the Temple looks a lot like any other religious organization with all the mess, the governing bodies, and the good and bad Satanists that make up the group.
A surprising feature of this group, to me, was the largely white membership. It does at times feel like an organization founded by white men so they could identify as “other.” Subjects of the documentary even further this notion at times by referring to the minority status they now hold. Maybe this isn’t a bad thing, but it does often come across as cringey.
What do you make of this racial subtext, and what are your other Hail, Satan? Thoughts?
ZACH: The racial subtext is definitely something that should’ve been examined more. Like you said, there is a point in the film where two members of the organization are talking about receiving threats and other acts of hate by people who disagree with them, and while I sympathize with them, the way they present it seems very out-of-touch.
It isn’t something new to a person of color, someone who identifies as LGBTQ+ or someone who walks their life as Muslim, and it feels like this awkward awakening for the two people in the segment. The reason it caught my attention was that the organization really prides itself on accepting everyone, but it seems to lack any sort of diversity amongst its ranks.
Now, this could be just a snapshot but it was definitely a point to me that could’ve been explored more. But overall, I enjoyed it and it is one I would recommend to anyone to see. The same I could say for our next feature...
Woman at War (2018) by Benedikt Erlingsson
REID: Zach, your Letterboxd review of Woman at War simply and shortly got to the heart of the movie. To quote you, “Shot: First Reformed. Chaser: Woman at War.” Where First Reformed despaired when thinking about the environmental crisis, Woman at War seems to take heart in action. The Icelandic movie follows the middle-aged Halla (Halldóra Geirharosdóttir), who is a character comprised of many parts: an environmentalist, a survivalist, a choir director, a twin, and an aspiring mother of an orphan. We meet Halla as she fires an arrow over a transformer to cut power to the local aluminum factory. After this daring feat and a narrow escape, Halla learns that the adoption application she submitted years ago has finally resulted in a potential Ukrainian orphan for her. She spends much of the movie reconciling her desire to be a mother to this child-in-need with her instinctual need to rail against the human forces tearing apart the environment.
As the local and international law enforcement ramp up their search for Iceland’s environmental terrorist, it becomes harder to imagine Halla’s life with her new daughter coming to fruition. Despite this set-up, Woman at War is by no means a pessimistic film, though. It’s consistently funny and even features magical realism touches like the brass band and choir that follow Halla around in every stage of her adventure. It truly is the chaser to First Reformed’s whiskey and Pepto Bismol. Or is it the Pepto Bismol to First Reformed’s whiskey? I don’t know. I’m getting lost in this metaphor.
Woman at War has enough heart and optimism to buoy even the most depressing of subjects, which to me, begs the question: should we buy into this optimistic and occasionally whimsical approach to environmental reformation or does the movie take its subject too lightly? Or do we actually need both Woman at War and First Reformed to grapple with the weight of this crisis?
ZACH: You make a good point. I could see staunch First Reformed fans, or just climate change activist, finding the film to be too *fluffy* for the subject it is tackling. My theory with the brass band and choir following her was that it was a call from nature – this land she wants to protect. And the fact that it was so absurd bled into this idea that, at its core, Woman at War is very much a fable.
It doesn’t have the cut of First Reformed, but it has its motivation. I would argue that Halla is just as much filled with constipated angst about the current climate situation and the inaction by her national leaders as Rev. Toller is, which is why I would compare the two. Where First Reformed really harnesses that angst, Woman at War takes it into another direction and uses its female lead as a surrogate to make it much more deeply personal.
Avoiding spoilers as much as possible, it doesn’t end on a bitter and ambiguous note as stark as First Reformed, but it is not lacking in frightening imagery. I guess some people would read a lot of the film as overly silly but I found it charming.
What did you make of the final images of the film, Reid?
REID: The final shot is likely what fully sold me on the movie. While having the relatively hopeful tone we’ve discussed, Woman at War’s final moment does not take anything lightly. The ending fully understands the weight of the subject matter and acknowledges the uphill battle that lies ahead, but encourages viewers to choose to do their best to stay afloat. The movie is a true half-glass-full take on the horrors of climate change, and for that reason — and many more — it’s a valuable movie.
I’d like to discuss the movie as a fable since you mentioned that. I like this reading mostly because the morals of the story are purposefully visible from the outset. We even have the magical realism of a fable and some twisty moments that feel pulled from mythology rather than written on the page.
Due to this mythic and instructive nature of the movie, I think it could easily become a North American hit — at least as far as foreign movies can. Magnolia Pictures is distributing Woman at War in the U.S. and as far as I can tell, it just had a limited release. To me, this movie is the type that plays for a riotous ten months at your local art house theater, attracting a large and consistent crowd.
Zach, am I off base? Do you think Woman at War will pick up the audience you and I think it deserves?
ZACH: It depends on how the audience approaches the movie. You don’t want to completely dismiss it as a fable because that runs the risk of negating the power of its messaging. At the same time, I could see people being completely turned off with how wild it gets at times. It’s worth noting that Jodie Foster is set to direct and star in an American remake of the movie, and I’m not sure how it will lend itself to that type of treatment.
At its core, it feels very Nordic and while I could see where an American version would go, it seems more akin to something the Coen Brothers would do rather than Jodie Foster, who has done great work before but is much more reality-based than maybe this material requires.
I wouldn’t take away the absurdity of the band playing or the other surreal elements for a second because, as I said, I think it is in conversation with the land around her. As someone who has read a decent amount on Norse mythology, and how creatures and mythical beasts become one with the land around them, it would make sense that someone who has a quest to save their land would be in communication with it at all times.
We’ve mentioned the band and chorus, but their role seems to be a siren for Halla in her quest. It never is there just to be there — they have a purpose. So to answer your question in a long-winded fashion, it is surprising more audiences didn’t grasp onto this movie but I could also understand the reservations they would have. Their loss, in my opinion.
A Bread Factory, Part 1: For the Sake of Gold and Part 2: Walk with Me A While (2019) by Patrick Wang
ZACH: Kevin Feige can piss off...you can do four hours of movie-watching AND include a break in between. That was kind of my mindset going into A Bread Factory – an epic not only in scale but also in the humanistic portrayal of rural artistic passion.
The first part finds us with Dorothea and Greta – a couple who also run the local arts theater that takes the name from the film’s title. A meeting ground for the creative minds of the small Midwestern town, the building is also home to a school arts program that allows children a window into this world. That is until a new performing art troupe from China – May/Ray – comes to town and completely turns everything upside down. Because of the immediate reaction to this new troupe’s work, the local school board now puts the school funding – a key component towards keeping The Bread Factory afloat – into jeopardy.
For the rest of the runtime, Dorothea and Greta are mulling around town trying to drum up support within the local ranks to help save the theater. This is where writer/director Patrick Wang mines his best material for this film as he takes an almost Altman approach to this small town, weaving a canvas of teenagers with nothing but hope trying to find their purpose to old acting “legends” seeking one outlet after the other to hear their tired tales. The town is as rich and poetic as his lines, and Wang is able to capture it in such verite.
It would seem difficult to sell someone on the concept of sitting down and watching all four hours of this film, but it ended up being a rewarding experience – one that reminded me that the greatest pleasure in watching movies is their abilities to offer an avenue to exude empathy for people you aren’t being given much information about. Unlike a novel, which focuses on inner thoughts, or a play, which is built on the performances, movies require both of those aspects to be presented in a visual sense. You aren’t being handed the thoughts and feelings of these characters, but you sure can feel them. You feel the history, the hours and the passion put into making this theater a haven for this small-town that with one look wouldn’t seem like a cultured center, but allows for the layers to come down and reminds us of the creative spark within most people.
The second part picks up with the fallout of the school board vote that concludes part one, and also finds a more surrealist tone. The theme of gentrification and the changes that come to a small community with the rise in a modern blue-collar collection built through technology is apparent in this second act as there are many moments with these device-obsessed individuals break into truly absurd moments of rhythmic elation that harkens back to any old Hollywood musical.
There is something much for melancholy and undone about the second part. Storylines come and go – not really finding a resolution as much finding a point that will leave the characters somewhere to grow from. This is not a film that finds many completions and that is what makes these people – this community – resonate more.
I have thought a lot about this movie since seeing it (and will probably plunge into all four hours again by the end of the year), but I hope more people will also give it a chance. There is something really revelatory about the way Wang paints this small town trying to hold onto – not the good old days – but this sense of community that seems to have gotten lost in the digital spectrum.
But I don’t get the feeling that’s what you deal with in your next film, huh?
Freaks (2019) by Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein
Reid: One of the most tantalizing images from the weekend, featured both on the poster for Freaks and within the movie, is a close-up of a hand holding a melting ice cream cone. The ice cream has melted so much that it is covering the hand. It’s an early sign that something in this world is off. And oh boy is something off. Freaks opens with an off-kilter music box lullaby as it introduces the young main character Chloe (Lexi Kolker) and her father (Emile Hirsch), who has a mysterious condition causing him to bleed from his eyes. Chloe, driven by a relatable primal instinct to find ice cream, is not allowed outside of their house.
Early on audience members will suspect that Chloe has been kidnapped by her father due to the primitive and restrictive environment in which he keeps her. The doors are heavily bolted, the dirty rooms feel more like those of squatters than those of a loving father and daughter, and time outside of the house stands still in a suspiciously painterly way. Chloe’s impulses — realized by a wonderful performance from Kolker — are refreshingly youthful. Curious and with a imaginative inner-life, Chloe longs for ice cream, a mother, and a sister who loves her. She often imagines being with these people in vibrant, realistic ways. Our perception of this world quickly changes, though, when Chloe finally breaks free from the house and makes it to the ice cream truck on the corner run by friendly neighborhood ice cream slinger Mr. Snowcone (Bruce Dern).
As someone who normally does not care much about spoilers, in this case, it’s beneficial to know nothing about the plot other than what I’ve already said. Suffice it to say, that Freaks is one of the most ambitious indie films I’ve seen in years. Whether it entirely works for you or not, the scope is undeniable. For me, other than being a little long, doling out information slowly, and indulging violence enacted by children — one of my pet peeves — the movie is really good. Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein, a directing duo whose only other feature film credit is the recent live-action Kim Possible, bring a genre movie that is surprisingly intricate and ambitious, and while it doesn’t always work, the ambition is admirable. Hollywood could use an ounce of this duo’s ambition.
Memphis ‘69 (2019) by Joe LaMattina
ZACH: So I jumped on this one to kill some time, and boy, was it the letdown of the festival for me. In short, director Joe LaMattina has gathered hours of footage of the 1969 Memphis Country Blues Festival and, well, for the next 70-plus minutes, we sit and experience a variety of acts that played there.
I didn’t hate the music – quite the opposite in fact – but as a movie, this was drastically lacking any direction. It felt like LaMattina was able to use this footage and wanted to do so in any way, shape or fashion. It also has these signifiers at the beginning that relate the venue to being used by the Ku Klux Klan for their rallies that doesn’t go anywhere; not to mention, the fact that Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed in Memphis just a year before.
It seems to desire to play on this juxtaposition between race and the universality of music, but it didn’t get anywhere near doing that. What did you make of it?
REID: You’re spot on, in my opinion. Memphis ‘69 is occasionally exciting from a discovery viewpoint, as any recovered film exercise is. It has essentially no voice, though. I understand not wanting to complicate older footage and the desire to show things as they are rather than a modern spin on this same footage. But in the end, it really is just act after act of good blues music against the familiar backdrop the Levitt Shell Amphitheater in Memphis.
As for the strangely evoked conversation on race, more than anything the documentary pointing that out just reflects a common truth about Memphis and largely the U.S. Across the country, the same stages that showcase progressive legends also showcase hate. Without any footage from the mentioned KKK rally, the comment has no bite and mostly rings empty.
You and I both had the chance to watch the Oscar nominated short film A Night at the Garden which used footage from a Nazi rally held at Madison Square Garden in 1939. The seven minutes of that movie has more cutting commentary on its events than does Memphis ‘69.
At the end of the day, Memphis ‘69 is valuable to those who want to rediscover some lovely blues from this specific setting and doesn’t hold a lot of weight outside of that.
In Fabric (2019) by Peter Strickland
ZACH: I’ll admit upfront that I wasn’t as big a champion of Strickland’s last feature, The Duke of Burgandy, as many others were. While I appreciated the ambiance of the entire film, it never really took hold of me as much as I wanted it to. I felt somewhat of the same while watching In Fabric, which I enjoyed more than Burgandy but still shows my distance from Strickland as a director.
The film follows a deadly dress in what feels like this demonic output of placing Phantom Thread and Suspiria together into one product. At first, we follow Sheila, a divorced mother of a probably too old to be in the house young man, who buys the dress during the store’s sale period in hopes that it will aid in her quest to move on after separating from her husband.
Unfortunate close call after another, the dress moves from Sheila and finds its way to Reg as part of a stag party. Eventually, it also is worn by his fiance, Babs, and the same pattern is followed again.
Strickland does a wonderful job of luring you in, constantly playing with the audiences expectations and offering the strange, vulgar images one would expect from him as you learn more about these mysterious store owners. But I continue to just feel a distance from his work.
Maybe it is because he loves to lead you on and on without really a desire to give you that satisfying release you’re conditioned to have from a thriller or horror movie. I guess that’s the whole point — his movies are about coming to the cusp of giving you the release you expect before pulling the rug out from under your feet.
I must have a mileage with that concept then because while parts of In Fabric were effective — I can’t say I loved the whole. It never felt like it developed the shop owner coven outside of just giving us vague visuals of what they were doing in order to make the dress, and the inner-workings of their cult seems to be much more interesting than the day-to-day activities of the dress’ victims.
I’ll be curious to hear more from others once this goes wide.
Sadistic Intentions (2019) by Eric Pennycoff
REID: Sadistic Intentions is a bit of an odd beast. I went into the movie expecting one of the slasher thrills of the festival, and that is by no means what it is. It’s clear from early in the movie that director Eric Pennycoff will fill us in on the sadistic nature slowly. He does so with grimy close-ups of a hand tightening a guitar string around a finger until the circulation is cut-off and then repeating this process. It can be hard to stomach. Aside from these mysterious moments though, the movie itself feels much more romantic comedy than horror at the beginning.
Jeremy has been invited to Michael’s house for band practice and to “have some fun.” Taylor has been invited by Michael to buy weed from a new supplier he met. Taylor and Jeremy show up to no evidence of Michael’s being there and begin to hit it off. Their diverging personalities — Jeremy is an introspective metal-head, Taylor is more of an outgoing hippie — pit the two at odds for a while. But as the night wears on and Michael is nowhere to be found, their frustration turns to isolated flirtation.
When Pennycoff flips the script into horror as Michael’s flamboyant sadist emerges from the shadows, the movie becomes more what I originally expected. Which, to be honest, is unfortunate. I really enjoyed Taylor and Jeremy’s Before Sunrise-esque chemistry. The two are lovingly quiet performers at their best, and they meshed well together.
Sadistic Intentions is a movie made of two parts, each enjoyable in their own way, that never quite coalesce into a greater whole.
Modest Heroes (2019) by Yoshiyuki Momose, Akihiko Yamashita and Hiromasa Yonebayashi
ZACH: Our closing film for the festival was a series of shorts from Studio Ponoc, which features a number of Studio Ghibli transplants who moved on due to the up-and-down nature of that company’s future. For those who have seen a Ghibli film, you may relate to the first short we saw, which seems to carry that same fantasy and whimsy that made the studio famous but I’m sure the other ones threw others off.
The first short, titled Kanini & Kanino, follows these siblings who live in the water of a river, and are separated from their father when he is thrown into a swirling gush out of nowhere. The second, titled Life Ain’t Gonna Lose, follows a young boy with a terrible egg allergy and the difficulties it causes he and his family as he tries to just live normally. The final one, titled Invisible, follows an unseen man as he goes about his day and tries to find any sort of interaction with those around him.
To me, while I wasn’t in love with any feature, I found it to be a wonderful exposition in exploring the different realms of animation. Ghibli does the same thing with their shorts, and this break from the uniform style has elicited some rather surreal and arresting results.
I may have more to say, but I know you weren’t as high on the three shorts as I was so what was there anything that you took from them as a positive?
REID: My indifference to Modest Heroes as a whole comes mostly from my inability to connect to any of the stories themselves. While the animation was often inspired and daring, I also didn’t feel that the shorts really went together all that well. Kanini & Kanino was fun, Invisible had interesting design, and the only one that engaged me emotionally was Life Ain’t Gonna Lose.
It’s hard to pinpoint where these shorts went awry for me, but I think overall I just didn’t find them as engaging as I hoped I would. Maybe it’s a symptom of this structure that the films are often produced for other reasons, either to further animation or experiment with a new form. I did, though, find myself more removed and cynical watching Modest Heroes than I usually am with this type of movie.
ZACH: That’s too bad. I would agree that they weren’t the most engaging shorts I’ve seen, but I will affirm the creativity that is displayed through the animation. It’s worth catching if people find a way to.
Best of the Fest
Zach’s Pick: A Bread Factory, Part 1: For the Sake of Gold and Part 2: Walk with Me A While
Honestly, I would have to go with the two parts of A Bread Factory. They have been stuck in my mind ever since leaving the theater, and while I would place Woman at War and Hail, Satan? after them, it is a clear pick for me. They seem so foreign to what the rest of the festival was playing, and I’m thankful CFF went for it and showed them. The crowd carried over between both, and were invested, and they are two films that could end up on my best of the year list.
Reid’s Pick: Woman at War
While Hail, Satan? and Freaks were both pleasant surprises, my pick of the festival has to be Woman at War. It’s an urgent film that finds the time to be funny and thrilling. And, held together by the performance of the festival for me, Woman at War will hopefully only gather importance and bring together a passionate audience as time goes on. If the movie plays anywhere near you, it’s a must-see.