Truly moving pictures

Ecumenical jurist finds Heartland Film Festival inspiring

November 3, 2010

The front entrance of a movie theater with the words "IMAX" in blue.

The site of the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis. —Photo by Ed McNulty

INDIANAPOLIS

The Heartland Film Festival is now history, but the films displayed at Indianapolis will linger in my memory for a long time, and hopefully move beyond the festival circuit onto our theater and TV screens.

The almost 30 films that I have seen thus far live up to their logo: "Truly Moving Pictures." Many of the films deal with spiritual and religious themes

The winner of this year's Audience Award, Paradise Regained, is a film about a young woman emerging from the hard shell of fundamentalism to discover from a kinder minister than her former one that God is not just the harsh judge of humanity but is far more — its merciful lover.

Jeffrey L. Sparks, president and C.E.O. of Heartland, pointed out that many of the films at the festival dealt with spiritual, even religious, themes because these were an important part of the human condition.

Out of respect for the festival's diverse audience, he said, no film that sought to proselytize was accepted, but that films depicting a struggle for faith and human dignity were an important part of Heartland.

In addition to those described in my first PNS dispatch, here are some films worth looking out for, a few this year, and most in 2011:

Conviction — which has already opened in theaters — stars Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, and Minnie Driver, Melissa Leo, Juliette Lewis, and Peter Gallagher. When Kenny Waters (Rockwell) is wrongfully convicted of murder, his devoted sister (Swank) earns her G.E.D., completes college, and enters law school, solely for the purpose of being able to prove his innocence. Along the way she loses her husband and the desire of their two sons to live with her, but aided by a fellow student and then lawyer (Driver), she forges ahead in what seems like an impossible cause.

Waste Land is Lucy Walker's documentary about Brazilian-American artist Vic Muniz, who returns to his native Brazil to engage the "catadores", or trash pickers, at the world's largest trash dump and creates art out of the refuse. The parallel between beauty emerging from both the dump and the discarded human beings there will strike people of faith as very biblical.

Main Street stars Orlando Bloom, Colin Firth, Patricia Clarkson, Ellen Burstyn, and Amber Tamblyn. This is a tale about several lives that are brought together in a declining North Carolina town when a stranger rents an old tobacco warehouse to store some mysterious containers. Events take a turn that none of them foresee, changing their lives forever.

Alabama Moon is the story of a young boy raised by his survivalist father in the deep woods because of the man’s fear and loathing of modern society. As the father is dying from an infected wound, he instructs the boy to go to Alaska The boy finds that other factors, including loneliness, the harsh arm of the law, and the kindness of strangers lead to a different outcome.

Among Us is a Swedish film about a well-off couple whose world is shattered when their only son is hit by a car and languishes in a coma at a hospital. The doctors hold out little hope for the boy's future. When a mysterious stranger offers to help, the mother is puzzled but hopeful, whereas the skeptical father resists, even turning hostile to the man’s kind acts. The film stars Michael Nyqvist, star of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire, in a very different, role.

Black, White and Blues, directed by Mario Van Peebles and aptly named, tells the story of Jefferson Bailey, a talented white blues musician so bruised by his past that his career is derailed by alcohol abuse. Then a mysterious, gigantic black man (played by Michael Clarke Duncan of The Green Mile) shows up with the news that Bailey has an inheritance from his grandfather to claim back in Mississippi, and the unlikely pair takes to the road.

Freedom Riders, winner of Heartland's Best Documentary Award, is a two-hour compilation of news reel footage, archival photos, and current interviews — supported by numerous freedom songs of the period — that chronicles the first attempt by college students to break the color barrier on busses and bus stations in the South in 1961. Many viewers will be surprised to learn that John and Robert Kennedy were not willing supporters of the riders, and that Martin Luther King, Jr. turned down their invitation to join them. The film focuses on the courage of the young women and men in the face of such hatred and violence.

Learning from the Light: The Vision of I. M. Pei for me was cinematically one of the most beautiful of the films, the camera enabling us to accompany the world famous architect on his journey through Spain, Tunisia, and Cairo as he studied Islam and sought to understand its essence. He had been invited to design the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, and knew that he must understand that faith in order to relate the building to its physical and cultural surroundings. The film is now available on DVD.

Obselidia is the story of a quirky young man who believes that he is the last of the door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen and so decides to write a compendium of obsolete objects. Although he uses a computer at the library where he works, he insists on using an old portable typewriter at his home, which is filled with gadgets made obsolete by the onrush of technological changes. He meets a young woman and the pair journey to the desert to visit the hermit scientist who has predicted that most of humanity would die out by 2100. Their experiences there lead them to re-evaluate their lives and value the beauty of the moment.

Pilada — which means both "naked" and "soccer" — records the journeys of a male and a female soccer lover who, after playing well at college, still harbor dreams of playing professionally. Their odyssey takes them to Brazil, Bolivia, Kenya, Italy, France, Iran, China, Japan, and many other nations, as they discover that a shared love of the game connects them with people of many cultures and religions. Their experience in Iran, when the woman’s participation in a game has repercussions with the government, for them and their friends, is especially moving.

Raspberry Magic is the story of an adolescent girl whose parents separate when the father loses his job due to downsizing. The daughter hopes that her science fair project, centering on an experiment dealing with cultivating raspberries, will help solve their family problems. She learns that love applies both to plants and to family relationships.

Rust — written and directed by Corbin Bernsen (L.A. Law), is the tale of a priest (played by Bernsen) so near the brink of losing his faith that he lays aside his collar to return to his hometown, where his father still deeply resents his leaving home years earlier when his mother died. When he investigates the mysterious deaths of members of a farm family of which his mentally-challenged friend is accused, he discovers through the sacrifices made by two people close to him how to carry on in a world seemingly out of control.

Summer Eleven is a family film about four 11-year-old girls spending most of their time together during the summer leading up to middle school. Although anxious about this, their other concerns are far weightier: one girl and her little brother live in a car when her mother loses her job and house; another has a soldier brother who comes back from Iraq in a wheelchair; the prettiest of worries about getting her first movie part in Hollywood; and the fourth longs to hear from her father, who is estranged from her mother. Adam Arkin plays the compassionate manager of the child actress.

One of the benefits of film festivals is seeing and hearing from the filmmakers themselves. Most screenings were followed by question-and-answer sessions. The session following Freedom Riders included one of the persons shown in the film.

Audience Awards were announced on the closing evening of the festival, Oct. 23:

  • Best dramatic feature — Ways to Live Forever, about two brave boys raising questions about life and death as they wage a losing battle against leukemia;
  • Best Documentary — For Once in My Life, about a group of mentally- and physically-challenged persons who dream of  making music; and
  • Best Short — The Butterfly Circus, about a limbless man in a carnival side show.  

All the films mentioned in this story assert and celebrate the dignity and human worth of their subjects, making these "truly moving pictures."

Edward McNulty is a film reviewer for "Presbyterians Today," a regular contributor to Presbyterian News Service and editor of the online journal "Visual Parables." He served on the ecumenical jury for this year's Heartland Film Festival.

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