Last week, the New Orleans Film Society wrapped up the 32nd annual New Orleans Film Festival, showcasing a diverse collection of 170 films selected from more than 3,000 entries. This was also the film society’s second festival of the Covid era; however unlike last year, when in-person screenings were moved entirely outdoors, moviegoers at this year’s festival were able to attend in showings at the Broad, the Orpheum, the Pryantia at Canal Place, and AMC Elmwood, as long as they were masked and could show proof of vaccination or test result status. The show, after all, must go on.
Thankfully, in this new landscape of film exhibition, the New Orleans Film Festival was presented virtually once more, through Eventive on-demand showtimes, well past theatrical showings.
The following review revue, featuring two shorts and two features, is my humble highlighting of the virtual presentation selections from the festival. Please do visit the official catalog here for information on these flicks, enjoy the following reviews, and keep local cinema culture thriving.
17 Year Locust
Lafayette native Logan LeBlanc drew from life and relationships for his film 17 Year Locust, which won the #CreateLouisiana French Film Culture grant in 2020. Now at the end of 2021, his directorial debut has been completed, and has left a kind impression on this critic’s heart.
In the movie, Rene, a young black immigrant from Haiti – who primarily speaks French – has moved to the Acadiana region of Louisiana. When introduced, he’s listening to English-speaking lessons while riding the bus and walking down idyllic streets. His home is specifically adorned with an American flag above his bed, though it is revealed in a phone call that he has one of Haiti too, likely still packed up from his initial move. He’s quiet and reserved, but absolutely willing to shed his former heritage for the sake of assimilation, if it’ll help his soon-to-arrive growing family.
Everything about the film is pretty and beautiful, from the setting and photography to the performances and the languages. But, while LeBlanc clearly has affection for the area and its people, and has a mastered eye for what must be focused on to appreciate all of its elements, his writing suffers a bit from some lacking in attention.
17 Year Locust is no tear-jerker, but it does tug on some important strings. Rene is a home health nurse, and one evening is tasked with assisting an elderly Cajun woman who prefers French speech. From here, the two strike up an immediate if perhaps short bond, as the woman’s stories provide Rene an example or two in holding on to what makes us all individuals and members of communities: culture. She goes deep for sure, and Rene follows along with generosity and respect.
The script is tight of course, if muddled here and there. Is this the expense of being a short narrative? Of not having enough time to run? Not at all. For its limited duration, 17 Year Locust does accomplish much with the main action being just two people in conversation, but maybe it’s all a bit too simple. Too standard, at least in those moments. The words on paper rarely match the strength of the actions and movements on-screen, which remain gorgeously rendered.
17 Year Locust, no matter my nitpick, is a positive standout movie for the region, acting as both a cultural bridge of sorts and as a prime sample of the kind of work that should be made here. That deserves to be. 3/5
A house in the bayou. A hurricane coming through. A wounded woman with a jacket of stolen cash. It’s a perfect storm.
Blue Country is a somewhat twisty and turny tale that asks the question, “What would you do?” of its leading duo. Indeed, when a dying thief arrives at your doorstep, bleeding out and carrying hard dollar bills, at the start of a heavy regional storm that’ll keep officials at bay for a while, morals, motives, and money are bound to come up. The film takes on the task of a pure-bred drama, despite the thrilling nature of its conflict. Very much, this isn’t what I would label as an action flick, as it’s more of a tragedy, where life dukes it out with greed, and all around the battle will suffer.
Dependent almost entirely on the performance of Dane Rhodes (Lost Bayou) – who plays a man willing to make the grandest of sacrifices – Blue Country is an eerily calm powder keg, almost living in the eye of a storm, where things go silent, but danger is everywhere. In an incredibly impressive and perfectly composed shot, we see greed and evil wash over a man, lit by candlelight. The storm has taken out the power, and the man goes to bed, playing with a single flame. He attempts to blow it out softly, only to fail. Quickly, he snuffs it directly with his hand, succumbing to the dark, waiting for the day to begin. Waiting for his opportunity. His once-in-a-lifetime chance.
Rhodes is light on his feet even when aggressive. He’s collected and cool, but oh so curious, creeping ever so close off of a perilous edge. And for all of his acting, we’re never without reading his expressions, as the camera is steady when in front of him, but careful not to overexpose him. It’s not purely the Dane Rhodes show, but he is the stellar standout.
Challenging and tragic, Blue Country aims and ranks high. It’s an easy premise, but not an easily told movie. It’s powerfully creative and staggeringly effective, never once settling for just action. For just good vs evil. Things get murky when cash is involved. Especially in the bayou. 4/5
100 Years From Mississippi
Environments all around us can hold memories, great and painful. For Mamie Kirkland, some places can be more difficult to set foot on than others. In 100 Years From Mississippi, Mamie’s story – stretching from when she was born in 1908 to when she passed in 2019 – is chronicled with a profound voice that must be listened to – one that isn’t afraid of anything, even places of horror.
At the opening of the film, Mamie talks over a montage of a century’s worth of history, from war to poverty to Civil Rights to hatred, coming and going like an ocean current. For her, the more things change, the more they indeed stay the same. The documentary matches Mamie’s story with the flow of time and thought, providing well-paced and well-researched archival footage and photography to detail her experiences. In some moments, when she goes over specific incidents in her hometown, drone footage will come up, hovering around and through the area, with a terrible feeling that just brings sad goosebumps to the surface.
Having been forced to leave Ellisville out of fear of her father being lynched, Mamie lived for a long time up north as an Avon saleswoman – something she continued to do in her later days. She’s incredibly articulate and quick with wit, and it’s an absolute blessing that her son Tarabu was able to document her incredible story at that stage of her life.
The crux of 100 Years From Mississippi is in Mamie’s potential return to Ellisville, to revisit a town that she had to escape in 1915. She’s not scared so much as she’s uncertain that the journey would accomplish anything. Her honesty and her bravery in the face of such emotional trauma, as depicted, are incredibly impactful, and have no peak in sight. Stunning, this trip into history is.
Memories live everywhere, and in the deep south, they live all the more strongly, almost as if they were ghosts. Of course, ghosts aren’t real, but the tension is. When Mamie came back to visit Mississippi, she drove by homes adorned with American and Confederate flags, and some Trump signs too. 100 Years From Mississippi treads into some uncomfortable territory, but it’s more than good that it does. It’s more than good that Mamie does. It’s needed. 5/5
The Laughing Man
Some films hit too close to home, while others strike like a bullet. Zack Godshall’s The Laughing Man is one such movie. Through filmmaking that’s styled like camcorder diaries, there’s this ever-sinking feeling of a past that will be repeating itself too often, and too badly. For sure, this is what happens. It’s not an entirely depressing film, but it does capture the state of health care and poverty in modern times with brutal truth and by simplistic means.
Here, Zack’s friend and often used actor Thomas Williamson is followed over the course of a year or two, as he battles his bipolar disorder and the pressure of living in a world that doesn’t seem to have space for you. Thomas comes off as very doofy and loving, first laughing very hard and for very long, almost in a forced manner. As the film progresses, the intense laughter becomes a new normal, even if abnormal in some ways. Shot primarily by Zack and Thomas, The Laughing Man goes from quirky character piece to family drama to sensitive study of the disabled and the poor, all in a comfortably told flash. There’s nothing rushed, and nothing that feels off-kilter in tone. Director Zack Godshall, while pretty close in relationship to his subject, holds steady and in control as a master craftsman.
Zack posits questions here and there, but gives the interviewees all the time they need to respond or not, sometimes just holding on them for enough time to almost see inside their hearts. Tricks like using audio from phone calls over such static footage bring about sensations of time slowing down in thought, breathing for longer than some can stand. The Laughing Man is not painful to watch, but I believe that it could make for some hard swallows.
Towards the end, after dropping Thomas off at yet another hospital, Zack films the rows upon rows of tents he passes by. It’s a lot to take in, as there could be a plethora of people like Thomas living in such conditions. Still, this is not how Thomas himself would want the story to end. Throughout, we see raw paper diaries he’s written, scribbled with passion, and with some pretty positive notes. An epilogue to the movie of Thomas filming squirrels and speaking on how he views life is but a continuation of those writings of his, only visually. It’s beautiful to view and to let in.
The Laughing Man rivals Big Charity in its depiction of social and health services, perhaps going further by being focused not on one institution, but on one individual. One excitable individual. One vulnerable individual. One of many. 5/5