The East End Film Festival was held in London, England from 3-8 July 2012
The East End Film Festival is definitely different from any other film festival I’ve attended. First of all, the screenings are scattered in over five different theaters rather than having all the films in one spot. There aren’t any red carpet premieres, but the wide-eyed directors and cast members attend with humble low shoulders as they quietly answer questions about their first features. There’s this sense of community that I’ve never experienced in most international-status film festivals that makes me feel like I’m not just a journalist at work.
Although organization might be something on their “needs improvement” list (mostly since the parties were almost impossible to locate), the films screened here explore subjects that you rarely find on the big screen. It’s refreshing to see something that didn’t go through a marketing plan, although we might want to question why some subjects need documentaries made about them. Here’s my response to what this year’s round of young filmmakers like to call movies with meaning.
“Arena: Amy Winehouse – The Day She Came to Dingle” (Maurice Linnane, 2012)
Running time: 60 minutes
It’s no surprise that the opening film for this musically inclined festival was a tribute to the late Amy Winehouse. It takes us to a time when Winehouse is on the brink of fame, when she’s still excited to talk during interviews, when her heart leaps out of her lungs and her passion for music is apparent in her every breath.
She tells us that when she broke up with her boyfriend she would listen to “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” by The Shangri-Las with a bottle of Jack Daniels and lie there until she passed out. She had plans to write another album over Christmas, after watching her holiday classics, BAD SANTA, ELF and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.
It’s a little unfortunate that the entire film only reveals one perspective on Winehouse, and it gets a little repetitive after we’ve seen the same performance of “Back to Black” about five times without any swanky effects. See it if you want to hear her belt her heart out one last time, but stay away if you’re looking for more.
“Art Will Save the World” (Niall McCann, 2012)
Running time: 60 minutes
After the popular infatuation with the adolescent Justin Bieber, I guess there might be a desire to create a documentary about a kid who doesn’t want to be famous. How can one’s persistent dedication to failure result in legendary success? Looking at the life of the British rock star Luke Haines, “Art Will Save the World” reveals that the irony of achieving the goal of not working is the huge amount of work you have to put into it. Is it just me, or has this topic already been covered in relation to David Bowie?
We follow an unreliable narrator who is too miserable to take without a grain of salt. Luke Haines tells us that “the artist is always right” and deliberately sabotages any possible meaning in his songs just to single himself out from the mainstream “Britpop” scene. His nonconformist attitude causes him to write about child murder, ’70s terrorism, and punk. It boggles the mind whether anyone can find more unpopular topics on the planet. “I’m used to disappointment,” he says.
Haines did hit the pop charts, go on tour, publish a book, and do some stupid things that led to his downfall, then comeback, then retirement. But beyond that, this film is basically following around a loser who was never cool in high school and fiercely resents popular culture because of it. If it included more of a discussion about the nature of art, this might have been a movie to watch. But alas, it’s just as much crap as the nonsense Haines would sing about in that awful Baader Meinhof track.
“Fray” (Geoff Ryan, 2012)
Running time: 96 minutes
Staying far away from the typical American war-hero movie, in “Fray,” director Geoff Ryan wants to explore how present day veterans deal with normal civilian life after returning from such a traumatic experience. It’s easy to get away from the explosions on a battlefield to a forest in Oregon, but it’ll take more than fancy scenery to keep the kids interested in a washed-out veteran who can’t even get a job as a security guard.
There needed to be more content or a better storyline to make this movie a success. Instead it feels like an awkward documentary on a character that no one really knows much about. I’m sure that real veterans will find truth in the story, how they lose opportunities after coming home, how they’re isolated and misunderstood mostly because of those G.I. Joe type movies and stories. But this story was equally misunderstood because there wasn’t enough insight. I think for FRAY to have been successful, the filmmakers would have had to decide whether the protagonist really wanted to join the civilian world or whether he was forced into it and was destined to become even more of an outcast. This ambivalence (along with some shaky camerawork) makes this film quite a headache.
I’m not expecting Nicholas Sparks’ work in the love story, but there isn’t enough substance in their relationship for her desperate behavior. I’m confused at whether or not the girl is just as lonely with her miserable life that she finds solace with this anguished hero, or if she is simply infatuated with a hard, strong man who won’t let her in. It might have been better if it had been a younger sister or grandmother figure that just desperately wanted to see this ex-Marine find some peace in his meaningless life. Either that or some FATAL ATTRACTION-type situation, which was definitely the case with the beefy leading actor Ryan Kaplan’s bare chest hanging out throughout most of the movie.
“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” (Alison Klayman, 2012)
Running time: 91 minutes
Director Alison Klayman basically won the jackpot in what every journalist fantasizes about: unlimited access to her interview subject. She freely explores Ai Weiwei’s life, focusing on his active fight for freedom in China. The real magic in this film is in its accidental success. It’s only fitting that Klayman would throw out basically every conventional attribute of a documentary film to accommodate her deliriously comedic subject.
There’s nothing more powerful than an artist who has something to say. Every step he takes, from filling out the names of all the dead children the government has hidden, to reporting an assault by a policeman, is publicly displayed online for anyone to follow. It’s mind-boggling to find out that Weiwei was mysteriously detained for eighty-one days and was forced into silence after creating such a buzz against the Chinese government. When “Teacher Ai” fans all over the world come together to speak out, we realize how far he has reached.
This film is made for the twenty-something-year-old tricksters who just want to make some noise. Whether you’ve made a diary out of your camera or you tweet every other minute, there’s no escaping the amazing reach one individual in China can have across the world through blogging and Twitter. Beyond the “middle finger” shots and mini-documentaries, there is some serious food porn that will make you hungry for Chinese take-out at the end of the film.
“The Last Elvis” (“El Último Elvis”) (Armando Bo, 2012)
Running time: 90 minutes; in Spanish w/English subtitles
“The Last Elvis” is definitely one of the darker selections of the festival. Who would expect a psychological thriller from a real-life Elvis impersonator? John McInerny plays Carlos Gutierrez, an impersonator in Buenos Aires who channels the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll in all aspects of his life. He names his daughter Lisa Marie and calls his wife Priscilla (her real name is Alejandra). He’s a deadbeat who parties with other full-costume impersonators of rock stars, such as Gene Simmons and John Lennon. McInerny sure knows how to sing like Elvis, and the white outfit is just classic.
But this isn’t a musical. Carlos gets a reality check when his wife gets put into a hospital as the result of a car accident. He’s forced to take back the job he walked out on and support their daughter. There’s a moment when it seems that he’s going to let the soul of Elvis go and resume life as Carlos: husband, father, and not-a-rock-star. But what makes this film so fantastic is the protagonist’s grand failure.
Director Armando Bo accurately targets the current obsession on pop culture without using grand gestures or employing a dystopian other world. Instead, he mentally challenges the audience to question whether Carlos truly believes he is the reincarnation of Elvis or just passionately wishes he was. I think the most insightful part of the film is the idea that Carlos will be forever unhappy if he doesn’t live his life as Elvis, no matter how great being Carlos seems to be. He embraces the wounded pop star in all aspects of his life in a completely modern way that has never been explored before, and the results are terrifying.