LA Film Fest 2015: 15 Films to Watch

15 Film Picks
by Tom Nguyen

The 21st Annual Los Angeles Film Festival (LAFF) opened last night at Regal Cinemas L.A. Live and runs through June 18. Looking at the list of films, I had to do a double take: there are a lot more documentaries and foreign cinema than ever before, my two favorite film genres! The LAFF site says they’ve made a new effort this year to include a “diverse selection of documentary films from around the world; and a smaller round-up of exceptional international films” and festival director Stephanie Allain made it a personal mission to make sure this was the most diverse festival yet: “About 40 percent of the films [at LAFF] are directed by women, and 35 percent by filmmakers of color,” Allain tells NBC News. “That doesn’t just happen…I so believe in this and the difference it makes in the lives of so many artists…We want to be the change we’re looking for. That is our mission.”

I recently attended a talk at CSULA Pan-African American Studies department featuring Selma director, Ava DuVernay, who said it’s absolutely vital to have more diverse perspectives in film-making and it’s heartening to see a big festival like LAFF setting a visible example showcasing films by women and people of color. After the preview are 15 films I want to see with summaries provided by LAFF. There are also free screenings at nearby FIGat7th and Metro Union Station and a free cultural event Guangzhou Traditional Arts Extravaganza hosted by Sister Cities of LA. Find a printable festival schedule here.

SHORTS:

#BlackLifeBlackProtest
Bridging content creation and social justice issues, this curated selection of socially relevant short films precedes a public dialogue among noted artists, activists and educators. In the age of #BlackLivesMatter, mass die-ins and other new forms of activism spreading among millennials and communities of color, #BlackLifeBlackProtest looks at the ways in which film and digital content can be used as an effective tool for social change. The event includes a screening of socially relevant short films exploring themes of police violence, implicit bias, black identity and human rights by some of the most compelling voices in film today, followed by a public dialogue with noted artists, activists and educators.

FEATURES:

Aram Aram
A tragic accident uproots Aram, a 12-year-old Armenian boy, from his idyllic Beirut childhood, sending him to live with his grandfather in Los Angeles. Aram begins a new routine at his grandfather’s humble shoe repair shop and becomes friends with a young Latina from the neighborhood market.  Lured by a gangster’s bravado to unite Armenians against the neighborhood Latino thugs, Aram is drawn into a dangerous urban culture that clashes with his grandfather’s values. Aram struggles to make sense of his new surroundings, his soulful eyes conveying a deep internal conflict between mourning for his old life and forging a new independent identity. Featuring well-known Armenian talent, first time director Christopher Chambers’ moving film portrays the complexities of life within the insular enclave of Little Armenia.
-Christine Davila

Crumbs
After decades of lying dormant, a mothership awakens in the horizon. Resolved to board the ship, an unlikely hero embarks on an otherworldly adventure across a surreal, post-apocalyptic Ethiopian landscape. Pop cultural artifacts of our present society take on new value as oddities floating in space are traded as antiquities in a bizarre storefront. With his directorial debut, Miguel Llansó, a Spanish filmmaker based in Ethiopia, has created a mystical and romantic journey for which there is no destination.
-Samuel Douek

Flocken (Flocking)
For a tight-knit community in a small, Swedish village, life is simple. But the town’s idle routine is disrupted when 14-year-old Jennifer reports a well-liked classmate has sexually assaulted her. The police, judiciary and townspeople all quickly turn against Jennifer and her family and the young woman’s life begins to spiral downwards.  Loosely based on real life events and breathtakingly lensed, BeataGardler’s sophomore feature unfolds with otherworldly ease, examining the frustrating and single-minded nature of small town mob-mentality, finger-pointin, and slut-shaming. Winner of the Crystal Bear at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival, Gardler’s restrained and stripped-down film explores the vicious social blowback that rape victims experience the world over.
-So Yun Um

Seoul Searching
Based on filmmaker Benson Lee’s own experience, Seoul Searching is an homage to the John Hughes teen dramedies of the 80s. The story centers on a group of Korean high school misfits from around the world during the summer of 1986. Teens from the U.S., Mexico, Germany, and UK are forced by their parents to attend a government sponsored “propaganda” camp in Seoul to learn what it means to be Korean, but end up experiencing a wild journey that turns into the most memorable summer of their lives.

The Dark Horse
An inspiring true story based on the life of charismatic and brilliant chess champion, Genesis Potini. His emotionally-charged story is about finding the courage to lead, despite his own struggles – finding purpose and hope in passing on his gift to the children of his community.

DOCUMENTARIES:

American DREAMers (Free screening)
Six youth walk 3,000 miles across America’s heartland, from San Francisco to Washington D.C., risking their freedom by publically exposing their own undocumented status to fight for the DREAM Act and immigrant rights.

Can You Dig This
South Central Los Angeles is on the brink of a revolution. Self-proclaimed “gangster gardener” Ron Finley has called on people to put their hands in the soil, planting gardens to restore the neighborhood and transform the community in the process. 
Delila Vallot’s debut documentary film follows new gardeners over a growing season. From an outspoken nine-year-old girl, to a recently released inmate living in a halfway house, each person has a unique motivation for gardening. Finley stresses the importance of planting food in one of the largest food deserts in the United States and gives a voice to the greater urban gardening movement. As a native Angeleno, Vallot’s vision is wonderfully intimate, exploring the individual changes each gardener cultivates.
-Stephanie Owens

Incorruptible
In the spring of 2011 Senegal plunged into crisis when President Abdoulaye Wade changed the constitution to allow himself a third term in office. A battle ensued between the incumbent president, opposition candidate Macky Sall and the Y’en A Marre, an artist-led youth movement determined to fight for their nation’s longstanding democratic ideals. Award-winning documentarian Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s newest film fearlessly captures a strikingly corporal resistance with a camera that unwaveringly stands alongside the protesters through broken barriers and the threat of tear gas. It’s a momentous time for the youth as they claim an influential role in shaping Senegal’s future and work to stay united by their ideals, indeed, incorruptible.
 -Stephanie Owens

In A Perfect World
Entering adulthood, Chase begins to feel the impact of his father’s inconsistent presence in his life. Curious about how boys negotiate the absence of their fathers and the kinds of relationships they forge with their mothers, Chase’s mother turns the camera on him. Daphne McWilliams’ directorial debut takes an astounding risk by grounding her sociological inquiry in the most vulnerable of all subjects: her teenage son, Chase. Revelatory, intimate interviews in this breakout documentary are structured with such grace and skill, they carry a transcendent universal perspective.
-Roya Rastegar

In Football We Trust
In Football We Trust is an insightful, eye-opening and moving documentary exploring in rich detail the remarkable story behind the Polynesian Pipeline to the NFL. To understand this phenomenon, one must appreciate the individuals and cultures behind the headlines, their unique diaspora to the United States and the role of the Mormon Church in facilitating their immigration. A contemporary American story, In Football We Trust transports viewers deep inside the tightly-knit and complex Polynesian community in Salt Lake City, Utah. With unparalleled access and shot over a four-year time period, the film intimately portrays four young Polynesian men striving to overcome gang violence and near poverty through the promise of American football. Viewed as the “salvation” for their families, these young men reveal the culture clash they experience as they transform out of their adolescence and into the high stakes world of collegiate recruiting, pursuing the dream of continuing their community’s legacy of producing NFL stars. Their stories carry the majority of the narrative, while archival footage and interviews with current and former NFL players (including Troy Polamalu, Haloti Ngata, Star Lotulelei and Vai Sikahema) are interwoven to provide a contextual background.

No Mas Bebes
In 1960s and 70s Los Angeles, Mexican immigrant women allege they were coercively sterilized without their consent at LAC + USC Medical Center. Archival footage of the booming Chicano rights movement is juxtaposed with interviews in a long abandoned hospital. Interwoven are opinions from both sides of the landmark case Madrigal v. Quilligan. The women who brought the case to trial are represented by a young and fearless lawyer, Antonia Hernandez. Academy Award®-nominated director Renee Tajima-Peña (Who Killed Vincent Chin) saved this important case from becoming a forgotten footnote, facilitating a measure of closure and raising a timely topic amid the ongoing battles over reproductive rights and discriminatory practices.
-Christine Davila

Oriented
In a place and time where conflict dictates everyday life, three gay Palestinian-Israelis offer an intimate glimpse of their lives as the personal is relentlessly made political. Working against media misrepresentations of being oppressed by Palestinian communities, and struggling against the occupation from the “inside,” these young people are neither sell-outs nor in need of saving. 
 
Inspired by post-colonial theorist Edward Said’s theories of Orientalism, first-time British filmmaker Jake Witzenfeld carefully crafts a fly-on-the-wall portrait of three friends navigating the possibilities of life and love in contemporary Tel Aviv.
-Roya Rastegar

Sweet Micky for President
The film follows Pras Michel, Grammy award-winning rapper and founder of the hip-hop group The Fugees, as he returns to his homeland of Haiti post-earthquake and finds a corrupt government in paralysis. With no experience or money, Pras passionately mobilizes a presidential campaign for the unlikeliest of candidates: Michel Martelly, aka “Sweet Micky”, Haiti’s most popular and most outlandish pop star.
 
The idealistic and politically inexperienced pair set out against a corrupt government, civil unrest, and a fixed election system to change the course of Haitian history. When Pras’ former bandmate—superstar Wyclef Jean—also enters the presidential race, their chances seem further doomed and the story takes on the wild twists of celebrity drama.

The Babushkas of Chernobyl
For nearly 30 years a community of unlikely heroines have lived in Chernobyl’s post-nuclear disaster “dead zone.” Stylish and stubborn, these fascinating women have survived, and even thrived, on some of the most toxic land on Earth. They are the last survivors of a community who refused to leave their ancestral homes after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. But the babushkas aren’t the only risk-takers: scientists, bureaucrats and even young men called “Stalkers” (who break in illegally to pursue their video game-inspired fantasies) explore the dystopian Zone and seek out its radioactive grandmas. First-time filmmakers Anne Bogart and Holly Morris’ portrait of a community tells a remarkable tale about the pull of home, the healing power of shaping one’s own destiny and the subjective nature of risk.
-Lee Jameson

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