For my final day at the 2019 Newport Beach Film Festival presented by Pacific Sales, I took in a pair of documentaries. But before I get to those movies, I want to thank the festival for providing me with tickets to see the films I saw, and especially thank the hundreds of volunteers without whom the festival would never be possible. And of course, I would encourage people to seek out film festivals near them to attend so you can see the kinds of films that don’t always make it to wider distribution. And when you seek out those festivals, you might consider volunteering to help.
Clean Hands was shot over the course of seven years beginning in 2011. It is a look at a family that at the beginning of the film is surviving by combing through the garbage dump in Managua, Nicaragua. The parents and their four children spend their days looking for whatever they might be able to sell or eat amidst the things that have been thrown out. But an American philanthropist has learned of their situation and to assure that the children can go to school, sets them up in a house and some land to farm. That all sounds like a happy ending, but that is really just the beginning of a story that is not as pleasant as we might expect. After the family moves into the house, we discover that the mother, Blanca, is a bit short tempered and abusive. In time she abandons the family, returning occasionally, and always exclaiming “poor me” in every situation. When we look at the family in 2018, the children have adapted well to school, but the family is still struggling and being supported by the American philanthropist. We meet the woman who is providing the home and money for them early on, but I would have been very interested in hearing more of how she understood this situation and especially if she felt that it was a good outcome. My vote on the Audience Award ballot: Good.
While I was getting my press ticket for What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, I told the volunteer that I couldn’t imagine having a press pass and not wanting to see this doc. Pauline Kael is a seminal film critic who began reviewing films in the 1950s, but really came to prominence when she started reviewing films for The New Yorker in 1968. She was known for a sharp tongue that could cut deeply when she didn’t like a film. She could also praise a film in such a way that it could bring success to films that might have otherwise been overlooked. The film provides an overview of her life, with commentary by her daughter Gina James and other friends and a few enemies. As the events of her life are described, there are often clips from films playing that fit perfectly with those situations. The film also highlighted some of the more interesting comments she made in some of her reviews. The subtitle of the film is key: The Art of Pauline Kael. She certainly had a broad understanding of films, but her reviews were not meant to be an academic study, but a reaction of a viewer—herself. Today anyone (such as me) can review films. This film is a chance to see into the life of someone who elevated criticism to an artform. My vote: Good.