Going to festivals often results in a bit of emotional whiplash. My Saturday viewing at AFIFest 2020 Presented by Audi is an example of that. From stories about executions to animated folklore to the angst of a recovering addict heavy metal drummer who suddenly loses his hearing. It is a day of very strong reactions.
The Iranian film There Is No Evil won the Golden Bear for Best Film and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the Berlin Film Festival. Director Mohammed Rasoulof has recently been sentenced to prison and banned from making films in Iran. This is a series of vignettes that eventually ask the question “What kind of animal could execute someone?” We meet a family man doing his daily routines. We see a soldier who struggles with having the job of executing a criminal. We meet another soldier on his way to celebrate his girlfriend’s birthday who finds the house in mourning. We see a young woman who has come back to Iran to visit her uncle and aunt, only to discover an amazing secret.
The beautiful cinematography and the excellent stories show us a very human view of these people who all in some way are touched by capital punishment. The stories evolve to our discovery of a twist we probably didn’t expect. At the heart of the film is the question of what kind of effect capital punishment has on those who must carry it out. A powerful film that is very deserving of the accolades it has garnered.
The film I most anticipated coming into the festival was Wolfwalkers, directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart. This is the third animated film based in Irish folklore from Cartoon Saloon. Like the previous films, Secret of the Kells and Song of the Sea, the hand animation is beautiful, drawing on the art history of the time period being portrayed. The story involves a young girl, Robyn Goodfellow, sent to Ireland with her hunter father. Her father is tasked with ridding the woods of wolves. Robyn wants to hunt with him, but her father forbids it. She doesn’t mind. In the woods, she comes across another young girl, Mebh, who has more lupine than human behavior. Mebh is a wolfwalker, she is a human when awake, but when asleep, her spirit takes the body of a wolf. She also has magical healing powers. Her mother, the head wolfwalker, has been asleep for a long time.
As Robyn tries to help Mebh, she discovers that because of a bite from Mebh, Robin is now a wolfwalker as well. Meanwhile Robin’s father and the Lord Protector are trying to wipe out the wolf pack. The folkloric stories that Cartoon Saloon has brought us all have an environmental message in that our efforts to conquer the natural world has had a terrible price. Like those who created such tales, we need to live more in harmony with the world around us.
In Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal, we encounter a man who seems to lose everything in his life, but may indeed find true peace. Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is a heavy metal drummer who plays with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). When he suddenly loses most of his hearing, he wants to push forward with cochlear implants, but the cost is prohibitive, and as a recovering addict, he is struggling. He reluctantly joins a community of deaf recovering addicts. He rebels against his deafness, but slowly begins to fit in with others with hearing impairments. When he sells all he has for his surgery, he may be back into addiction behavior (addiction to hearing or past life?).
Through it all the leader of the deaf community tries to get him to stop trying to fix things (mostly his deafness). He urges him to try to just sit—to find stillness. He tells Ruben that moments of stillness are the “place of the Kingdom of God.” I should point out that this is an emotionally exhausting story. I don’t mean that to discourage anyone from seeing it. That emotional involvement in the story should be a key goal of all filmmakers. Darius Marder, in his first feature narrative film manages to summon our emotions for Ruben’s search for happiness and life.
I should also comment on a short that I’ve seen. Shorts are always an important part of AFIFest. In A 1984 Period Piece in Present Day from Sean Glass, we meet a couple who check into a somewhat spooky motel for the night. There they watch an old episode of “Creepshow”. It is one that the man remembers fondly, but when looked at from the present day, there are serious issues with it. Has the show become outdated, have we grown as a culture, or is it just as spooky to consider as it was then?