Saturday, April 28, 2012

How Urban Cool Changed Lives — The Julien Dubuque International Film Festival

Why film? Why a festival? Why here?

These are the questions anyone might naturally have when hearing about a film festival. We wonder, Does this have anything to do with me or my life? Does this really affect the way I live, in the place where I live?

Trolling up and down Main Street at the Julien Dubuque International Film Festival (JDIFF), I see the answer right in front of me: a filmmaker from Israel passes a family from Uganda, who pass a local media executive, running into a local pub with a screen under his arm, passing college students come out of that same pub, excitedly discussing the merits of a Australian short film about a telegram man.

Across the street a tour is leaving for a baseball field that is part of a major discussion about the economic development tied to films. Another tour goes over the bridge to learn about the ecosystem of the Mississippi through a film.

Later that evening, everyone will re-converge at a theater to see a silent film accompanied by a live orchestra. Shouts, hoots, hollers, high-fiving, and open laughter from the audience—do we normally experience this kind of esprit-de-corps at a movie? Business leaders, artists, L.A. hangout-types, hometown folks who made good as a major television and movie actors, nonprofit cause marketers, together with regular folk, your friends and neighbors, each enjoying the moment, having fun together like you remember only doing at summer camp.

Urban Cool

This kind of cross-pollination is something normally found only in urban centers. The large city's biggest strength is the expansion of one's horizons by rubbing elbows with all kinds of people, from all kinds of backgrounds, with all kinds of beliefs. Rather than being a threat, this sheer diversity is energizing, edifying, and a whole lot of fun. It opens doors for growth in so many ways: ideas spread, innovation happens, creativity flourishes, and not least, economics improve, as talent pools grow and opportunities for development happen.

But as those of us who have lived in major urban centers such as New York, Boston, or Chicago can attest, there is a downside to the urban experience—financial cost. Even with high incomes, many people simply cannot make ends meet due to the higher cost of living. Therefore many of us have come back "home" as it were, from the coast to the middle. Less of a commute and cheaper groceries help take the life-stress index down out of the red zone.

But we miss the urban experience nevertheless. We miss being able to access arts and culture, eat at a large selection of (healthy) fine restaurants, and we want to walk or bike, not drive, to any and all of the above. Most of all, we miss the meaningfulness of interaction with many different kinds of people.

A film festival reproduces that urban experience, at an affordable cost for the average person. Through easy walking access, it provides the cultural stimulation of the arts, and opens the way for everyone to participate, regardless of means. A truly democratic idea!

Important Ideas

Like democracy, important ideas have always been the treasure of the arts.  Both the ideas expounded in the films, and the interaction between people around those ideas, are expanding to the mind and soul. When a film presents an idea opposite to one's own beliefs or in some way challenging to one's view of the world, what results is a re-examination of ourselves.

Dubuque is a pocket of progressive ideas. It has had an international influx of diverse people in recent years through strategic business development. But just how often do people experience a truly urban atmosphere?

We should be asking: is this festival a key to the long-term economic and social development of Dubuque? How can events like JDIFF be leveraged to encourage both Dubuque natives and new transplants a way to interact and feel at home? This is a large vision and an important idea that needs the arts in order to take root and grow.

Personal Touch

The megaplex movie theater, a staple of the modern suburban sprawl, has nothing personal about it. By contrast, a film festival offers something very much more human. Smaller venues such as downstairs in a tavern foster interaction and discussion with other people before and after the films. You will never see a live musician accompany a film at the AMC. But at the film festival, a person stands up and conducts a group of persons in a concert, and everyone becomes more personally involved. This changes the way one views film, making it a more reflective, memorable, and rewarding thing.

JDIFF's way of telling local stories is real and down-to-earth. Million Spokes, a documentary about Iowa's bike race across the state, RAGBRAI, tells the story of something that makes this region unique. Ghost Players gathers people around the story of the Field of Dreams location and its ongoing local and national impact.

As these local and regional stories are told, they become enfleshed and real for everyone. As we are given an environment for personal engagement with them, we "own" them in a way we had not previously. Not only does this add meaning to our lives, it makes us better human beings, less apt to sit isolated in our houses, more interested in what is happening down the street and even on the other side of the world.

One of the most important personal touches provided by the festival is face-to-face contact with actors, filmmakers, and directors. I saw the documentary Dolphin Boy (reviewed on this blog) with my son. It made a big impression on him that the director was there all the way from Israel. Together with the educational value of the film itself, this raised the quality of the experience up to a higher rung. Another film called Part Time Fabulous (also reviewed here) engendered a discussion with the director about clinical depression. Where else can something like that happen?

Community Cause

Images have the power to move us to action. They also have the ability to gather a community around a cause larger than itself. This was accomplished magnificently by the film, Moving On. Together, a very large group from Dubuque were transported to Uganda and shown what people are like in that part of the world. We each felt the unforgettable emotion of joy at seeing women improve their lives through a bead-making enterprise started by an ordinary couple.

View Moving On
Poverty can seem like a faraway thing, until it takes on a human face. A film like Moving On can mobilize a community to help people by involving everyone in the immediacy and emotion of their story. Even better is seeing it screened in the context of a festival, where people are already gathered around open sharing of ideas and having fun together. If we can see working on poverty as rewarding each of us with a deeper connection to each other, maybe we will take the steps needed to move toward a more healthy and prosperous world.

Each of us has a deep need to become involved with something larger than ourselves, to get caught up in a higher purpose. In order to meet that deep spiritual need, we need a way of rallying around causes. Moving On can help accomplish just that, by linking the power of film to concrete action, harnessing the incredible power of people with a shared vision working together to see it realized.

Light as a Feather:
Local artist Gene Tully's original design for the JDIFF awards
Let me not forget—the awards! The opening night's ceremony was not something anyone will forget. I heard many refer to it as a seminal event, like nothing else they had seen in Dubuque. The filmmakers and international attendees also praised it as being among the best in film festivals. Not bad for the first year. 

The selection of films, the recruitment and coordination of sponsors, the public relations and marketing, the sequencing of events for good flow and "user experience" all were in the high ranks. This is a promising thing for film, for Dubuque, and for all rising artists looking to the future.
JDIFF Directors Christopher Kulovitz and Michael Coty.
The organizational challenges of a festival of this scale are legion.
So why film? In short, it changes lives. Film creates community, by giving us important ideas, gathering people into a diverse and interactive group, giving them a cause, and helping them be happier. Why a festival? As one writer has put it, "God blesses what is truly festive and celebrative." 

Why here? Because this is Dubuque. We are urban explorers with a personal touch, and we can touch the world by caring about film. 

Photos by Ronald and Jennifer Tigges

Monday, April 23, 2012

Just Get Up! — Part Time Fabulous, at the Julien Dubuque Int'l Film Festival

"JUST GET UP!" Is brute shouting going to help? We know in our gut that it won't. 


DEMAND ON VIEWER: Moderate-High (mature/difficult theme)
OVERALL: Highly Recommended

Part Time Fabulous Trailer

Director Alethea Root's film is a penetrating, honest, and hopeful exploration of clinical depression. This is a solid, well-told story that feels like looking into a neighbor's window, and yet has a poetic rhythm that moves very deeply and stays with the viewer long afterward.

One cannot find any hope or cure of depression with a superficial, artificial, or surfacy treatment of it. And that is the challenge for anyone who loves a depressed person, because the level of commitment and empathy and calm discipline required will not come easy and may just as likely destroy a relationship.

Mel (Jules Bruff) is a charming, beautiful, intelligent woman, with many obvious prospects for love and happiness in life. As is always the case with depression, subjectively it does not seem that way to her. Ms. Bruff gives a very vulnerable portrayal of the fragility we all feel when interviewing or auditioning (she practices saying "Unique New York" over and over in the car in a futile effort to improve herself at the last minute). Mel has post-vacation blues, post-audition blues, post-father-figure-problem blues. These are things everyone goes through, so it is tempting to brush off depression with well-meaning advice and overly chirpy questions.

As anyone with any exposure to depression knows the real problem is at root genetic. But rather than stop at making this clinical distinction, the film goes on to explore Mel's character flaws, if not as causes of her depression, then certainly as blocks to recovering from it. 

For example, Mel promises to take medication, go running, or get up in the morning. But she seems trapped in a loop where she simply cannot follow through. This drives Don (Bjørn Johnson) mad, understandably. Even her choice of Don, with his own (borderline?) addictive behaviors, is a mirroring and a projection of a self that Mel will have to move beyond if she is to recover. 

Eventually Mel is able to call forth within herself what is required to change. But what was the trigger? How did Mel click on, after the preceding series of excruciating events? The film leaves the viewer to ponder this question.

A seminal moment in the film comes when Dr. Carr (Blake Robbins) asks Mel, "Is worry love?" She is shocked by the question and realizes she has never really distinguished between the two. Dr. Carr represents a cleaner and more lucid world for her. We are left with the impression, though unresolved, that Mel will find herself with him or someone quite like him.

Another highly effective device is the use of real-life interviews with people who are themselves clinically depressed. This broadens the scope and impact of the film, and makes it almost feel like a documentary. A risky thing to try as it might have made the narrative choppy, but it seems to work well here.

So why the title, "Part Time Fabulous"? We are all in some sense double-mask people. We have one persona at home and another in public, one mask with our lover or spouse, another with our boss. So in some sense we by nature are bound to be part-time. Perhaps the lack of acceptance of this reality is also part of the culprit behind depression, as our production and success-oriented culture teach us neither to respect our own limits nor be empathetic about someone else's.

Part Time Fabulous is a full time joy to watch. It is a work of art, and was a highlight of the Julien Dubuque International Film Festival.  Here's to its continued success, and to the courageous people suffering from depression who stand to be helped by this remarkable film.

A Lyrical Rebirth — Dolphin Boy, at the Julien Dubuque International Film Festival

Healing, love, and hope are the operative words. Nowhere else have I seen such a powerful proof that we can heal, even from the worst conditions, if we are collectively open to the miraculous power of nature, and that we can choose to respond to violence not with anger and revenge but with healing, love and peace.


DEMAND ON VIEWER: HIGH. Subtitles and intense emotional themes.
OVERALL: Highly Recommended

Opens NYC April 27, 2012

Made with an earthy and next-door, relatable feel (even with subtitles) Dolphin Boy is a symbolic and lyrical account of healing and recovery of a boy's humanity through contact with dolphins, and the recovery of himself through the love of his family and friends. 

The boy Morad's unfocused eyes betray his devastating condition. He is the victim of horrible violence, after which he is hospitalized and treated, but with no result. For weeks his family hovers, watching him switch between his vacant, muttering state into attacking his sister and other unmanageable behavior. He has gone into a rare psychological dissassociation, and it seems to be irrecoverable.

His doctor decides, as a last resort, to send him to dolphin therapy. The decision is remarkable in its foresight, all the more so for a western audience not familiar with integrative medicine or alternative therapy.

He spends weeks, which turn into months and then years, with the dolphins, finally coming back to himself in a fascinating and memorable process of interacting with the animals and slowly being coaxed back by the new human family.

I have rarely experienced the incredible range of emotions and themes brought forward by this film:

1. Father-Son. There is first of all a tender Father-Son love story here that will soften the most callous heart.

A parent's worst fear is to lose a child, and much of the drama in this story stems from that nearly universal human emotion.I viewed it with my 8-year-old son (who I am proud to say was willing to try to keep up with reading the subtitles, a testament to him but also to the film's educational potential for schools).
Watching the father kneel to pray near the dolphins for his son, with my own son sitting next to me, was an experience I will not forget. It also made me think of my own father, watching him tenderly cradle his adult son's head in his hands around the fire.

2. Grief. Another aspect of the film is the grief ritual. A group of males beat drums and even sing as a way of dealing with grief of losing a son, friend, member of the village. We do not have such rituals in America (with the exception of churches and funerals). Perhaps this is a clue to some of our societal ills. The grief ritual continues in a sort of dance-like way with the dolphins throughout the story, showing how beautifully aware the body can be even when the mind has been in some sense lost.

3. Rebirth. There is a also a Mother-Son narrative here, in that Morad refuses to acknowledge his mother, because any connection to his native family will bring back memories of the trauma. He views the dolphins as his new family, as though he has gone through a kind of rebirth. When asked whether he would like to go home, he says no. His mother's willingness to allow this process to work itself through is heroic. As a result, Morad is allowed completely to traverse the death-resurrection cycle necessary to become fully himself.

4. Connection to animals. Animals are conscious, sentient, and loving beings in the story, able not only to interact with humans but to choose them, elect them specially. Menken and Nir skillfully weave a parallel about the family horses, for which the daily regimen of care helps Morad's father through the difficult time, and about which the father and sister have a touching remembrance of Morad's ability to communicate with the horses, getting them to whip their tails up and swat the sister. Animal contact runs deep in the family, a gift that ends up saving them!

5. Nonviolent resolution of conflict is finally a political and social message of the film, but without being ideological or didactic. Simply by seeing the story of this family, feeling the injustice and grief at senseless bullying and its catastrophic result, we are brought to see the people as examples in a personalized and local version of something that we can each aspire to: a global effort to end violence through love and harmony with nature. If this sounds saccharine, the film's remarkable practicality and patient attention to detail grounds these values in the dirt—and water—of everyday suffering.

Narrative storytelling through documentary is a difficult and demanding art form. Sometimes it takes years—in this case four—to bring a story to proper conclusion. Menkin and Nir do it in way that seems effortless. Sometimes the captioning seemed a bit second-rate from a typeface-design perspective, but perhaps this was done intentionally, in order not to have an overly glossy production value. 

This film has my vote for best in show at the Julien Dubuque International Film Festival, and we look forward to its release in New York and beyond. The world needs to travel a bit with Morad, and learn a new and natural way to heal and be reborn.