Preview: 2017 RI International Film Festival “Flickers”

After 21 years, the Rhode Island International Film Festival (RIIFF) “Flickers” had its first unpleasant encounter with the new political climate: Director Kaveh Mazaheri of the 20-minute short Retouch and its filmmaking team are unable to come to screenings in the United States due to visa restrictions against people from Iran. It isn’t a political film: The synopsis is “Maryam’s husband does weightlifting at home. When a weight falls on his throat and puts him near death, Maryam makes a decision.” That’s not necessarily a ground-breakingly original plot, but the film has already collected awards from the Tribeca, the Krakow, the Palm Springs and the Fajr festivals. “The same thing happened to them with Tribeca, too, unfortunately,” because of the first travel ban, explained Shawn Quirk, the program director for RIIFF. “I was really hoping we would have them come because they couldn’t come to Tribeca … but then the new travel ban came through. It’s a shame, it really is.”

Rhode Island International Film Festival (RIIFF) “Flickers” screenings are open to the public and take place in a number of different venues, mostly in Providence but some outside the city, such as the East Greenwich Odeum, from Tuesday, August 8, through Sunday, August 13.

Opening night is “a series of world and US premieres of short films from all over the world” although the line-up is not yet announced because it is “our last big thing that we reveal.” Shawn Quirk, the program director for RIIFF, believes it is the only festival not exclusively devoted to shorts that features shorts as its opening. RIIFF is in a very exclusive club of festivals that qualify toward Academy Award (Oscar) nominations, in its case for three categories: Short Narrative, Short Documentary and Short Animation. Over 30 films whose premiere was at RIIFF went on to Oscar nominations, he said, including the world premiere of Destino, a collaboration between Salvador Dali and Walt Disney Studios. The opening night screening is 7 – 9pm on Tuesday, August 8, at the Providence Performing Arts Center, with doors opening a half-hour earlier and an after party from 9:30 – 11:30pm in the lobby; the afterparty (with open bar) is available to the public for a charge in addition to that for the screening.

Douglas Trumbull will receive a Producer’s Circle Award and participate in the Film Forum at the Providence Biltmore, hosted by Steven Feinberg, executive director of the State of Rhode Island Film and Television Office. Trumbull is responsible for special effects in a number of iconic science-fiction films, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (the first Star Trek film). He also directed Silent Running and Brainstorm.

Times and locations, as well as availability, of screenings are subject to change, so check the RIIFF web site film-festival.org and interactive schedule at riiff.festivalgenius.com/2017/schedule/week.

Highlights:

Man in Red Bandana is a feature documentary about Welles Crowther, a trader caught in the World Trade Towers during the 9/11 attack who is credited with saving at least a dozen other lives. “We’ll have a special Q&A that night. It’s the first documentary that’s ever been voiced over by Gwyneth Paltrow,” Quirk said. It is produced by Rhode Island-based Verdi Productions, known for the Vinny Pazienza biography film Bleed for This.

Screening with Man in Red Bandana will be An Undeniable Voice, a short documentary about Sam Harris, who is among the youngest survivors of the Nazi extermination camps in the Holocaust. Funded by Sharon Stone, it is an interview conducted by her based on Harris’ short self-published book, Sammy: Child Survivor of the Holocaust. Quirk said Stone is expected to attend.

Another world premiere, Circle Up, is by RISD Professor Julie Mallozzi, described as “very uplifting” by Quirk, “a powerful film about how forgiving can really be the only way to move forward in a positive way.” It shows a mother of a murder victim who conducts discussion groups in circles, including helping the murderer understand and come to terms with the enormity of what he has done.

Restraint is a feature thriller with Dana Ashbrook, who is expected to attend the screening. Ashbrook is best known for his role as Bobby Briggs in Twin Peaks – the original 1990-1991 television series, the 1992 film and the 2017 television series. “It’s a dark film, but very well done,” Quirk said.

In its world premiere at RIIFF, feature documentary New Fire is about MIT-derived start-up Transatomic Power trying to develop a commercial Molten Salt Reactor (MSR), one of the competing technologies toward a Generation IV nuclear reactor that would be safe to operate and consume its own waste. Such nuclear technology could enormously reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuel. Many of the Boston-based filmmakers and subjects of the documentary are likely to attend, Quirk said.

Midnighters is a film-noir thriller about a husband and wife driving late at night when they hit somebody, think they’ve killed him, and proceed to figure out how to dispose of the body. It’s a feature-length directorial debut for Julius Ramsay, known for his editing and directing work on The Walking Dead. “It was shot in Rhode Island, the Exeter-West Greenwich area,” Quirk said, so many of the people who worked on it are expected to attend.

Brown University-associated filmmaker Laura Colella has a new 17-minute short film, The Flying Electric, about two women in a boarding house who keep getting interrupted by visitors. Quirk described her “surreal” style as “like a dream” and compared her to Samuel Beckett. Her previous feature, Breakfast with Curtis, earned rave reviews, including from us.

Theatrum Magicum, directed by RISD Professor Marcin Gizycki, is a 24-minute historical fiction film recreating a late 18th century magic lantern show. I highly praised his feature documentary A Magic-Lantern Life when it was screened previously at RIIFF.

Karen Allen will participate in a Q&A after her 30-minute short A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud. based on the short story of the same name by Carson McCullers, her directing debut after a long acting career that included notable appearances in the Indiana Jones franchise. The story, which is set in the 1940s, is described on the official website of the film as a “delicate Zen-like passing of wisdom from an older man to a young boy when they meet by chance in the early morning hours at a roadside café in 1947,” although McCullers had more of a passion for the philosophy of Baruch de Spinoza who as a 17th century Jew was not very Zen. The works of McCullers have been so often turned into films that they are more recognizable to most people from cinema: Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) directed by John Huston and starring Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968) that earned Oscar nominations for Alan Arkin and Sondra Locke, and even A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud (1978) itself starring Dana Andrews.

Man from Earth: Holocene is a sequel to The Man from Earth by the same director, Richard Schenkman, and starring the same actor, David Lee Smith, in the lead role. Although the 2007 original won the grand prize for Best Screenplay and first place for Best Feature at RIIFF, and was the last work by science-fiction writer Jerome Bixby (contributor to The Twilight Zone and Star Trek as well as author of what would become Fantastic Voyage), it was made on a minuscule $200,000 budget with almost no promotion, becoming a cult classic entirely through piracy – for which producer Eric D. Wilkinson controversially but sincerely thanked the pirates. Schenkman successfully adapted the 2007 film for the live stage in 2012. In the new film, 14,000-year-old John Oldman finds that something is finally causing him to age and a group of students have discovered his deepest secret, putting him in danger.

Stumped is a documentary about a man in Colorado who contracted a toxic syndrome that requires the amputation of all of his limbs, leading him to make a career change as – I’m not making this up – a “stand-up” comic. Eventually he gets experimental full-arm transplants. “The subject of the documentary was actually my screenwriting professor in college,” Quirk said. “He’ll be here; he’s going to come to the screening.” This will be a Rhode Island premiere; it was previously shown at the Boston Independent Film Festival. “Most of the cast and crew will be coming down” for the screening, Quirk said.

The North American premiere of Scream for Me Sarajevo is about Bruce Dickinson, lead vocalist of heavy metal band Iron Maiden, performing under wartime conditions during the siege of the city, “the longest in modern history,” according to Quirk, “longer than the siege of Stalingrad” during the Second World War. Invited by the UN to give a concert, “they managed to sneak him behind the front line, in a civilian van, and they had about a thousand people come to this concert, and they literally risked their lives to go because there was sniper fire in the street. It’s about the set up of the concert, the concert itself and how that concert completely changed his life.” (Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden is totally unrelated to the Bruce Dickinson of “more cowbell” fame, in case you were wondering.)

A Whale of a Tale is a feature documentary about Japanese fishermen who have earned their living for generations from whaling. “People might view it as a little controversial in that it’s offering a new perspective on something that is controversial, but it’s a very good film,” Quirk said. “It actually offers a balanced and fair perspective.” He said it was a response to The Cove, an Oscar-winning feature documentary that brought international attention to the previously obscure village of Taiji, from the Japanese perspective by a Japanese-American filmmaker, Megumi Sasaki. (Sasaki directed one of my favorite documentaries, Herb and Dorothy, about two ordinary New Yorkers who became among the world’s leading private art collectors.) “It’s more about the conflict between the Westerners and the Japanese, and the schism of culture,” Quirk said.

Patricia Chica came to RIIFF about 10 years ago with her student short film and “every film she’s made, she’s come back. She’s since moved to Montreal and LA, and she’s become very successful in LA. She’s doing short films at least once a year,” Quick said. Her film at RIIFF this year is the 16-minute The Morning After about “sexual identity and fluidity,” he said. Her previous work has included Ceramic Tango, Crimson Dance, La Promesse, Serpents Lullaby and Tricky Treat – in the last a family of pumpkins get together and carve out a human jack-o-lantern. “She’s always pushing the envelope in fun ways,” he said.

High Low Forty from local filmmaker Paddy Quinn is about “two estranged brothers coming together for a road trip,” Quirk said, and a lot of the cast is local also.

From Quebec, the LGBTQ-interest 1:54 is the first feature directed by Yan England, a RIIFF alumnus whose short film Henry opened at RIIFF and went on to an Oscar nomination. This US premiere is a psychological thriller that centers on childhood bullying.

ISIS Hair Salon, directed by Nicholas Coles, is a 5-minute documentary about a woman who in 1995 opened a hair salon and named it after an Egyptian goddess, but now faces unfortunate misunderstandings by people who associate her with the similarly named terrorist group, even targeting her with death threats.

Laura Poitras, who won a Best Documentary Oscar for Citizenfour about Edward Snowden, directed Project X, a short documentary consisting of voice-over readings of leaked classified documents about “Titanpointe,” a tall skyscraper with no windows located in Manhattan and operated by AT&T in collaboration with the National Security Agency (NSA), presumably to intercept communications with the United Nations.

A Nation Holds Its Breath, by RIIFF alumnus Kev Cahill, is about an expectant father torn between watching either his child being born or the most important football match in Irish history.

Paris 1971 features recordings made by Jim Morrison of the Doors before his death, never before heard in a film.

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