Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Gimli Film Fest 2019

PART 2 | All the Best International Films

by Festival Director Aaron Zeghers

In Part 1 we discussed some of the incredible guests that GFF is bringing in from all around the World for this year’s Festival!  And in Part 2, we’re going to shift focus to some of the International Feature Films that are also coming from around the world, in what may be the most diverse and truly international film lineup in the history of GFF!  Living in an age when so much focus is being paid to border security and political rhetoric the divides us and them, here and there, Film Festivals have such an important role to play in encouraging empathy and understanding across borders and cultures and peoples.  And so here are some of the International Feature Films you don’t want to miss!

 

MIDNIGHT FAMILY
Still image from Midnight Familydir. Luke Lorentzen

This is easily one of my top picks of the Festival.  Midnight Family is a profound and complex documentary portrait, but also one that I found so much joy in watching. This film follows the Ochoa family, who own and operate an independent for-profit ambulance in Mexico City.  In this morally ambiguous middle-ground between public and private sectors in the Mexican health industry, the Ochoas operate through the night, racing through the streets. The blistering chase scenes of this film – usually races against rival ambulances with a 17-year-old at the wheel – are more reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto than of real life. The more intense and traumatic scenes are contrasted beautifully with the working class reality of Mexico City and of the lives of the Ochoas.  Some laughs with the family, some tough times making ends meet, a shakedown by the cops and always waiting for the calls to come in.

It was incredible to see this film at Sheffied Doc/Fest for two distinct reasons.  First of all, the audience was packed, and riveted.  Gasps, hands over mouths, butts on the edge of their seats and lots of laughs.   Secondly, it was so insightful to hear about the process of making this film from the filmmaker.  This is American filmmaker Luke Lorentzen’s first feature film.  While living in Mexico City, Luke left his apartment one day and found the Ochoa family parked outside – waiting for a call – in front of his apartment building.  He asked to go for a ride.

Luke spent the next three years shooting with the family off an on.  As he says it, “I was learning how to make a film.”  He shot a tonne and edited a lot and even submitted a cut of the film to Sundance 2018 (which was rejected).  He went back and shot more.  In the end, Luke said to the audience in Sheffield, the vast majority of the footage from the final film would be shot in just a few weeks. A great lesson to all filmmakers to persist, as the film was accepted into Sundance 2019 and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize, and would go on to win the top Grand Jury Award at Sheffield Doc/Fest.  Buy tickets here!

 

FOR SAMA
Still Image from For Samedirs. Waad Al-Kateab & Edward Watts

If I was a betting man, I’d bet that For Sama will be nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary later this year.  And if I had any faith in the Academy I would say that it would win.  For Sama is in an autobiographical portrait of filmmaker Waad al-Kateab’s life through the hardships and terrors of the Syrian conflict.  As the conflict escalates to full out war, she falls in love with her friend Hamza, one of several doctors who set up a volunteer hospital to tend the wounded of their neighborhood.  They get married and have a child – Sama.

You might expect For Sama to be the most recent link in the chain of films about war in the Middle East and the harrowing migrant journey to escape it, but it’s more than that.  Sure it’s a story about struggle and war and violence, but as the title suggests the film is more about motherhood than anything else.  Waad struggles daily between staying to help in the country she loves, or fleeing to a safer home to protect her child. This dichotomy is front and centre as she openly proclaims in her narration to her child, “What a life I’ve brought you into.”

My Oscar prediction for this film might seem a little less risky when you learn of the film’s track record, winning awards at Cannes, Hot Docs, South by Southwest, Telluride, and Sheffield among others.  And while it’s a film that can be tough to watch at times, it’s important that those of us living in peacetime and in privilege understand the truth of these violent situations that cause so many to flee across borders. Waad knows the value of what she is doing.  “I keep filming,” she says at one point, “and it gives me a reason to be here.” Buy tickets here!

 

DJON AFRICA
dir. João Miller Guerra & Filipa Reis

In talking with our Senior Film Programmer David Knipe (who was responsible for booking Fiction Feature Films this year), I know that one of his favourite films this year was Djon Africa, a co-production between Portugal, Brazil and the Cape Verde Islands.  The film follows – as David has aptly described him – a “titular slacker-Rastafarian as he journeys to Cape Verde Islands in Africa in search of his familial roots.”  I asked David to say a few words about the film and why he loved it and here’s what he said:

Summer in Manitoba gets hot. Really hot. The sun-drenched days stretch out in, depending on whether you’re a fan of the season or not, languid and lazy ways that envelop you in a blanket of laid-back vibes where time seems to stand still. The musicality of your surroundings really open up in summer: the birds and insects, the street vendors, traffic – both on foot and wheels, the kids in the park – everything seems to come alive during this most abundant time.

Djon Africa is a film that is deeply attuned to the particular rhythms of summer. The film itself seems drunk on its own supply, the local alcoholic delicacy grogue, that steers Djon off target on many an occasion. It is a film with a fully-realized sense of place, even though its central character is suffering from a lack of self and searching for his true place in the world. Summer, like Djon and Djon, may have a destination in mind, but are in no particular rush to get there. The old adage “it’s about the journey, not the destination” rings especially true here. Djon Africa understands that summer is a paradoxical period of stasis and mobility; that we can feel constantly on-the-move and yet simultaneously sit spinning our wheels, and that’s OK, because the people we meet along the way and the experiences we share with them are worth more than a thousand goals accomplished, races won, life-changing realizations made.

I can see how all of this would sound uninspiring or, dare I say, even boring, but in these two directors’ capable hands, and with the magnetic geniality of Djon himself, the film plays like a breezy afternoon spent getting all warm and fuzzy in the backyard with some good friends and drinks – a fitting selection for Gimli, indeed. But don’t be fooled: this is a film very much about something deeper – our need to belong somewhere; to connect with some group of people; for our lives to mean something in the end. It is a film containing big ideas, it would just rather you, like Djon, find your own way around them.

-David Knipe, Senior Film Programmer

Buy tickets here!

 

IN MY BLOOD IT RUNS
dir. Maya Newell

In My Blood it Runs is an Australian-made documentary that confronts Australia’s colonialist history and present day ramifications, through the eyes of ten-year-old Dujuan, a young Indigenous boy.  Of course Australia’s racial colonialist history is but a stone’s throw away from our own here in Canada, and GFF was really excited to include this moving portrait in our Indigenous Film Series this year.  Our Documentary Feature Film programmer Vivian Belik had a special affinity for the film, and when I asked her about it this is what she said:

In My Blood It Runs was one of the first films I checked out at Hot Docs and it stayed with me throughout a week of more than 25 documentaries. The main character Dujuan is absolutely captivating. He’s smart and articulate for a 10-year-old boy but is also at risk of being sent to juvenile detention. This observational doc draws you in from the very beginning and is a fascinating look at Indigenous-settler relations on the other side of the ocean.”

-Vivian Belik, Documentary Film Programmer

Buy tickets here!

 

DIAMANTINO
dirs. Gabriel Abrantes & Daniel Schmidt

Perhaps one of the most fun and memorable films at this year’s Gimli Film Festival is Diamantino.  The film is an unforgettably surreal odyssey that follows the world’s premiere soccer player Diamantino as he looses his magic touch, sending him spiraling down a rabbit hole of love, betrayal, international espionage, genetic modification, the refugee crisis and a global network of neo-fascists.  If this sounds a little whacked out, that’s because it is – and in all the best ways!  Diamantino is a loveable idiot that you can’t help but rooting for, despite his bumbling ineptitude and extreme case of naïveté.  It’s also a film that is full of bewildering surprises that come hurtling at you, like a soccer ball to the head that leaves you seeing stars.  Just when you think you have it figured out, the film turns a corner and a whole new subset of characters and strange happenings unfold.  Above and beyond the sheer lunacy though, is an intelligent and timely social criticism going on within the film.  But these political tones don’t overshadow the comedic zest and dreamlike plot that set this film apart in a league of it’s own at this year’s Gimli Film Fest. Buy tickets here!

 

WHEN THE STORM FADES
dir. Sean Devlin

When the Storm Fades is one of two films at GFF 2019 that were shot in the Philippines (also check out Nervous Translation).  But I’m cheating a bit by including this film here, as it really is a Canadian film that was short in the Philippines.  The film – which plays out as a comedic drama – is set around the real-life Pablo family, as they struggle to rebuild after Hurrican Yolanda and come to terms with all that they have lost.  The film was made by filmmaker Sean Devlin, who is also a comedian, activist, creator of ShitHarperDid.com and a collaborator of the Yes Men (who also produced this film along with Naomi Klein).

Devlin’s activist tendencies are clear in the film, which is centered around the devastation brought upon the Pablo family as a direct result of climate change.  It also follows a pair of hilariously bumbling Canadian voluntourists, who have arrived to “help out” during post-Hurricane rebuilding but spend more time snapping selfies and hanging out. The vast majority of the film was improvised, and Canadian actors Aaron Read and Kayla Lorette are impeccable in their roles, allowing a Canadian audience to laugh along (effectively laughing at ourselves) while still maintaining enough poise to tackle these weighty issues of climate change and white saviourhood sincerely. The Pablos – on the other hand – are not actors at all.  They are a real family whose livelihoods were destroyed when the hurricane hit Tacloban, Leyte Island – the same island where Devlin’s mother grew up.  Devlin met them when working on a doc project there shortly after the hurricane and as he says, “I met the family and fell in love with them, which made me want to get to know them better and find ways to share their story in a way that would benefit them tangibly.”

And tangibly benefit the Pablos this film did. Half of the money crowdfunded to create the film and half of the profits have been donated directly to the Pablo family, to help them get resettled.  In this way, Devlin has created a film that is not only a hybrid of drama and documentary, but also a hybrid of filmmaking and activism.  This groundbreaking achievement in filmmaking is not to be missed at the Gimli Film Festival.  Buy tickets here!