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AFI Hosts a Freedom Fest

By Darianna Cardilli

Two-year-old Kim Han-mi looks on in agony as her mother is wrestled to the ground by Chinese guards at the Japanese consulate in Shenyang, China. From 'Seoul Train.' Courtesy of Incite Productions

The 18th edition of the Los Angeles-based AFI Fest, which ran last November in conjunction with its new partner, American Film Market, offered viewers an eclectic mix of engaging films from around the world. Culling from over 850 submissions for the documentary category alone, the programmers showcased fresh and varied talent. The prevailing theme among documentaries was that of freedom: political freedom, freedom of religion, freedom of artistic expression, freedom from incarceration, freedom from oppressive regimes, freedom from pharmaceutical treatment, freedom from economic duress.

Not surprisingly, in a US presidential election year, many of the documentaries had a political bent. Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein's The Take (the winner of the Jury Prize) was a moving account of a repossession of an Argentina-based factory by its unemployed workers. At times heart-breaking and tense, cut to a melancholic and languorous tango score, the film delves into the complex issue of Argentina's financial collapse and the tortuous legal battles of expropriated business—all played against the background of the country's presidential elections. The filmmakers crafted an uplifting tale of the power of grassroots movements and working-class cooperation.

The Audience Award went to Wash Westmoreland's Gay Republicans (prod.: Anne Clements), executive-produced by the prolific duo Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey. This humorous exploration of the schisms arising among Log Cabin Republicans ruffled quite a few feathers among audience members, especially coming so closely on the heels of the US election, but it was a sensitive and well handled analysis of what it means to fall under this political oxymoron.

Surprisingly ignored by the awards was The Big Question, a stunningly beautiful exploration of faith among the actors, extras, crew and advisors on the set of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Made by two of that film's actors, Francesco Cabras and Alberto Molinari, in the downtime between takes, the result is a gorgeously photographed, beautifully edited and truly mesmerizingly poetic discourse on the meaning of faith and belief. Juxtaposing complex responses by the international and multi-religious cast—delivered in full costume and make-up-with those of the simple townspeople of Matera, Italy, Cabras and Molinari crafted a lyrical and meditative film on the varied perception of the divine.

Pedro Carvajal's The Art and Crimes of Ron English is an engaging, colorful and amusing portrait of the countercultural guerrilla billboard artist and activist Ron English. Combining great artistic skill and unique irony, English leaves few corporate symbols unscathed. And for viewers aspiring to such lofty levels of agitprop, the doc also includes helpful advice in the form of "Four Steps to Billboard Liberation."

Czech Dream chronicles the large-scale scam engineered by two film students, Vit Klusak and Filip Remunda, to dupe the Czech public into attending the opening of a non-existent supermarket. Though engrossing and occasionally comical, the film is more of an extended candid-camera trick than a documentary. The filmmakers' motives remain unclear: Was their aim to prove how consumerist values have taken root in a previously communist country, or to show how gullible the Czechs are? Interesting mainly for the mammoth scope of the stunt (the directors go to extensive lengths to carry out this hoax), the morality of the directors is questionable, for they seem to delight in playing with people's dreams and emotions. Ultimately, the film is a mean-spirited practical joke on the Czech nation.

Georg Misch's Calling Hedy Lamarr (prods.: Gunter Hanfgarn, Ralph Wieser, Anthony Loder) examined the brilliant, technical mind of the legendary German actress Hedy Lamarr, once known as "the most beautiful girl in the world." Using the novel device of a phone conversation between the different interviewees, the film charts the journey by Hedy's son, Anthony, to uncover the mother he never really knew. Managing to be ingenious as well as hilarious and moving, the documentary reveals a complex, multi-faceted woman who touched many people differently.

Christopher Browne's A League of Ordinary Gentlemen (prods.: Wilhelmus Bryan, Alex H. Browne) attempts to do for bowling what Spellbound did for spelling bees. With an intriguing cast of characters and a nail-biting finale, Browne follows players on the tour, recording their setbacks and disappointments and the riveting drama of the competition.

A Special Jury Prize was awarded to The Other Side of AIDS (dir./prod.: Robin Scovill; prod.: Eric E. Paulson), a controversial doc that tackles the medical establishment's previously unchallenged views on the treatment of AIDS. Airing the alternative, largely unknown no-drug approach on how to deal with the disease casts a fresh light on a subject. Both scientists and survivors (in seemingly perfect health, having refused over-aggressive medications) debate the inaccuracy of HIV testing and whether it should be used as an indicator at all.

In Seoul Train, filmmakers Jim Butterworth, Aaron Lubarsky and Lisa Sleeth document the harrowing journey and struggle for freedom of a group of North Korean refugees, whose unsuccessful attempts to seek asylum in China result in not only dashed dreams of freedom, but possible torture and execution once repatriated. Seoul Train is an unsettling foray into the constant struggle to escape human rights violations too often ignored by Western countries.

According to Senior Programmer Shaz Bennett, what distinguishes AFI Fest from other festivals are the one-on-one business meetings between festival filmmakers and industry executives offered by the Kodak CONNECT program, as well as the festival's truly international participation. "Our festival is so international and we run concurrently to the AFM, so we try to be the host to the international community when they're in the film capital of the world," says Bennett. In the span of a mere ten days, I was transported to Argentina, Tanzania, Benin, Germany, Cuba, Italy and the Czech Republic—all from the comfort of a chair in the theater. 


Darianna Cardilli is a Los Angeles-based documentary filmmaker and editor. She can be reached at