Heartland Film Festival Report #1
Emily Wheeler reports from the Heartland Film Festival, where she saw films ranging from biographical dramas to documentaries.
We’re deep into the fall festival season, and while I considered jetting off to a new city, I realized there was no need. The Heartland Film Festival is right in my backyard, bringing features, shorts, and panels to Indianapolis, Indiana. For three straight years it’s made Moviemaker Magazine’s list of 50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee, and its dedication to supporting women and local filmmakers made it a no-brainer to attend.
Little Pink House (Courtney Moorehead Balaker)
Writer and director Courtney Moorehead Balaker didn’t choose an easy story for her first feature, taking on the complex legal issue of eminent domain and managing to bring an honest, affecting perspective to the lingering problem.
Little Pink House dramatizes the real life story of Susette Kelo, who found herself thrown into the issue of eminent domain when her home was marked for demolition by the city of New London, Connecticut. The idea of the government taking your property for any purpose is contentious, but when the reasoning behind the seizure is cold, hard economic development, as it was for Kelo, it becomes especially fraught.
Kelo filed suit against the city in a case that would eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court, but Balaker did not make the legal battle the focus of her film. Instead, Little Pink House smartly stays a character study, allowing audiences an infuriating glimpse at what it’s like when your property and your private life get swept up in government affairs.
Really, it’s hard to get far into discussing this film without bringing up the plethora of character actors that are able to tap into the nuances of this situation. Callum Keith Rennie as Kelo’s supportive boyfriend hints at the difficulty of being an anchor during uncertain times, while Jeanne Tripplehorn grounds the forces coming after Kelo’s home in political maneuverings that aren’t entirely malicious. But they and the rest of the cast hover around Catherine Keener in the central role, who couldn’t be better as the reluctant face of the battle.
Keener’s Kelo is a woman trying to rebuild after a failed marriage, who lovingly fixes up a modest house on the river and aspires only to everyday successes. She’s a downplayed hero, one with the kind of cracks and weariness that Keener so excels at portraying. The familiarity of this sort of person is what makes the film work; she could be anyone, anywhere, and that makes the terrible situation feel close to everyone’s home.
Where Little Pink House stumbles is in its conveyance of the larger issue. The legalese shown is light and repetitive, and there’s a sense that the various court rulings have been glossed over in favor of appeals to the heart. That makes Little Pink House more one-sided than it might intend, but considering that it comes in clearly backing Kelo, this doesn’t detract from its intended message.
Intent to Destroy (Joe Berlinger)
The Armenian Genocide is getting some much-needed attention this year thanks to a pair of films made in conjunction with each other: the dramatic rendering of The Promise (our review here) and the documentary Intent to Destroy. Haven’t heard of the Armenian Genocide? Don’t worry, you’re in good company, because the denial of this 100-year-old event is so wrapped up in geopolitical maneuvering that it’s long been taboo to even use the term genocide.
The paucity of information on the subject is what makes both The Promise and Intent to Destroy so unique. Many people don’t know that 1.5 million Armenians were killed by the Ottoman Empire (the precursor to the Republic of Turkey) during World War I, and even less know of the despicable lessons taken from the extermination. The Promise was the first mainstream American film to depict the event, and when documentarian extraordinaire Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost Trilogy, Brother’s Keeper) was approached to make a factual version, Berlinger jumped at the opportunity to use the production of The Promise to fill out his film.
And so Intent to Destroy is a hybrid of documentary styles, one part talking heads with archival material and one part fly-on-the-wall production footage. The effectiveness of this blend is jaw-dropping, at once allowing him to move through vast amounts of historical information and to create a bridge to our modern outlook on the event.
What’s striking, when walking away from the film, is how raw the whole thing feels. If the intent of the movie is to invoke action, as I think it is, then it succeeds with flying colors. It’s hard not to talk about what you’ve seen, to pass on the dreadful discovery to everyone you know, and in some small way to push against the silence that descended as soon as the genocide was over.
In that way, Intent to Destroy succeeds where The Promise failed. You can feel dispassionate about a contrived romance that sucks attention away from the horrors, even when it’s portrayed by top actors like Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac, but you can’t turn away from the succinct power of Bale comforting a child actor who’s simply reenacting events. Not when Berlinger has shown you the real children, heard their stories of pain and suffering, and seen the whole thing get swept under the rug. There’s humanity in remembering, and at this point, Intent to Destroy is one of the only films doing it right.
One Thousand Ropes (Tusi Tamasese)
As New Zealand’s submission for the Oscar Foreign Language category, One Thousand Ropes promised to be a challenging film (we got a warning that’s not typical fare for the Heartland Film Festival), and while it provides a fascinating point of view, it is too rooted in a culture that’s not fully explained to be widely accessible.
Taking place in a Samoan immigrant community, the film follows a baker/midwife as he quietly contends with his past failings and the changing times. That is, until his pregnant daughter shows up with a bloodied face and the demons that had been lurking are pushed to the forefront.
What’s clear about One Thousand Ropes is that it understands its main character deeply and is content to linger on the nuanced forces working against him. Character pieces like this can be profoundly moving, but Ropes doesn’t do enough to fill in cultural outsiders on all the expectations and microaggressions being directed towards our beleaguered protagonist. Watching it is sort of like getting half of an instruction manual, and you feel as if you are skimming the surface of a very beautiful film.
And I mean that it is quite literally a beautiful film, with shot compositions that are haunting and reflective of the main character’s tumultuous inner state. Because he is a man of few words, visual motifs are relied upon to convey everything from temptations to regrets, most notably through careful attention to what his hands are and aren’t doing. Because of this it does benefit from being seen in a theater, where the quiet, moody film can wash over you.
In many ways, watching Ropes reminded me of my encounters with Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Cemetery of Splendor both have imagery that has stuck with me, but they quickly lose me thanks to leisurely meditations I don’t really understand. Ropes is in much the same style, and while that isn’t necessarily a fault of the film, it does restrict its audience to those already familiar with its themes. Anyone coming in with little understanding of Samoan culture is likely to feel left out.
Resistance is Life (Apo W. Bazidi)
In the busy genre of wartime documentaries, every filmmaker has to find a unique angle to capture the audience’s attention. Director Apo W. Bazidi was lucky enough to have one approach him when a young girl walked up to his camera and asked if he would like to interview her. This charming moment stayed in the completed film, and so Resistance is Life was given a small, spunky heart.
Little Evlin, along with her family and most of her community, were pushed out of northern Syria by ISIS, and it was while they were biding time in a Turkish refugee camp that the chance encounter with Bazidi occurred. He then began to follow the family as they put together a temporary life and cheered on resistance fighters in the nearby border city of Kobane.
The city would end up being a turning point in the battle against ISIS, and so Resistance is Life is very much a right place, right time sort of documentary. It gives audiences a taste of wartime hardships while still offering a much-needed silver lining. However, Bazidi doesn’t give the film a strong enough focus to lift it above the myriad of similar stories coming out of the area, so while it’s adequately pleasurable, it doesn’t do enough to really stand out.
What’s particularly noticeable when watching the film is the prolonged absence of Elvin about halfway through the movie. The first act is almost entirely about her and her family recounting their journey to the camp and following their day-to-day life, and this section includes striking examples of how children are affected by atrocities forced upon them.
But then the film detours into following the fighters in Kobane, which is an understandable impulse since it allows Bazidi to highlight the large amount of women leading the resistance effort. The problem is that he doesn’t establish a strong enough connection between these women and Evlin, so the shifts between them don’t feel cohesive.
In the end, Resistance is Life succeeds in spite of itself, having found enough interesting moments with the women in Kobane and with Evlin’s family to be satisfactory, but there’s a distinct feeling that details were left out that could’ve elevated it above the masses.
Heaven’s Floor (Lori Stoll)
The feel-good film gets cold in Heaven’s Floor, as writer/director Lori Stoll dramatizes her real life encounter with an Inuit community in the Canadian arctic.
Bringing this story to the screen must’ve required quite a bit of bravery from Stoll and her family, who aren’t always portrayed in the best light. The stand-in for Lori, a photographer named Julia, can be impulsive and stubborn, which is precisely what gets her embedded in a complicated relationship with a young Inuit girl named Malaya.
But it’s these rough edges that make Heaven’s Floor avoid the many pitfalls it skirts around. The white savior trope threatens to overtake the film until Julia’s husband calls her out for it (the character doesn’t use the term, but he might as well), and the potential for exoticism is tempered by highlighting the upsides and downsides of living in a remote Inuit community.
Still, Stoll does take advantage of the area’s natural beauty. The film was shot on location, and while that brought a series of equipment problems (subzero temperatures will do that), it also allowed for some breathtaking shots of a snowy environment few people get to see in person. Stoll is a photographer by trade, and her experience with shot compositions shines through and makes this a wonderful film to see on the big screen.
Where the film falters slightly is with building smooth character arcs, and Julia in particular taking some leaps that seemed unsupported by her past behavior. These are largely covered by the great cast, most crucially by Clea DuVall in the lead role. She navigates her character’s rapidly shifting priorities with ease, and in moments where she gets to play off the great Toby Huss (I see the Carnivàle reunion there), the film finally gets to the nuances under the surface.
But Heaven’s Floor isn’t interested in going too deep, as it appears content to bring up the nasty stuff and quickly drown it in a tub of ice cream. Its aim is to be as approachable and pleasing as possible, and while that may disappoint some, you can’t blame the film for accomplishing its goals. Heaven’s Floor is an enjoyable if slightly disposable good time, and it has the good sense to be efficient about its pleasures.
Heartland Film Festival
That wraps up my first weekend at the Heartland Film Festival! Check back for more of my takes on the films playing this wonderful festival.
Are you interested in seeing any of these films? Or have you been lucky enough to see them already? Let us know in the comments!
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