Before each screening at the festival there is a short promo for AFI which is celebrating its 50th year. It features its three purposes: to preserve film’s history, to honor those who have achieved high levels of artistry, and to educate. The promo has three brief clips: Robert Altman talking about his vision (preserve), Sidney Poitier receiving his lifetime achievement award (honor), and Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins, an AFI Conservatory alumna, talking about learning to love the story and actors (educate). Three good choices to point out that AFI looks not only at the past and present, but is enabling the future to come into being.
Canada is marking its sesquicentennial this year. It’s fitting in such a year that its official entry for Best Foreign Language Film is Hochelaga, Land of Souls (World Cinema section) from director Francois Girard. The film uses an excavation following a sinkhole opening up during a football game at McGill University to look back at the history of that site, and as such, some of the history of Canada (or at least Quebec). We meet British soldiers and Quebecois revolutionaries, settlers who faced a deadly frontier, explorer Jacques Cartier and the Iroquois civilization that he encountered. Eventually all these come together in an atemporal mystical union of past and present, living and dead. It is a reminder of how much history impacts us, even when we aren’t aware of it. But knowing the history can truly enhance our understanding.
Sweet Country (World Cinema) is Warwick Thornton’s Western set in the Australian Outback. Aboriginal stockman Sam Kelly, works the land for a white preacher. But trouble comes when he kills a white man in self-defense and sets off to escape punishment. It has all the aspects we expect from a Western: a posse, frontier justice, and lots of frontier injustice. Racism is very much at play in this film, and for Americans watching the film, we could very well see our own history (and much of our present) in the story. Look for this to be among my favorites.
Set in rural Zambia, I Am Not a Witch (New Auteurs) is Rungano Nyoni’s feature debut. It tells the story of Shula, a young girl accused by a village of being a witch. She is sent to a camp for witches, where they are tied to long ribbons to prevent them from flying. They are at times put on display for tourists. They are sent out to do farm work. There is exploitation of these women, especially of Shula. I found the story lacking in that we never quite understood who Shula was, or why any of these women would acquiesce to the regimen of the camp.