Seeing eighteen movies over five days is an intense experience, and it actually takes a great deal of stamina, physical as well as mental, not to mention some meticulous planning and scheduling. My week at the Provincetown Film Festival was a fun time yet again this year, and I met a bunch of interesting people, including YouTube sensation Chris “Leave Britney alone!” Crocker, Jake Shears’ adorable boyfriend Chris Moukarbel (who directed the new HBO documentary about Chris Crocker), and Mr. Kirby Dick, who’s easily one of my favorite documentary filmmakers of all time. I enjoyed most of the films that I saw enough to write about them, but I’ll focus here on a couple of documentaries and a couple of narrative features from this year’s festival.
David France’s documentary How to Survive a Plague, winner of the award for best directorial debut at this year's festival, is the film that I was most excited to see in the line-up, and it also turned out to be the film that made the greatest impression on me. I already knew about the ACT UP years of the AIDS crisis, having come of age during that era, but I’d previously learned only a little about the intricate details and main figures of the movement. The exploration provided in the film is both particular and vast, presented in a way that’s narratively textured and at times profoundly moving. The film’s climactic moment, in which members of ACT UP poured their loved ones’ ashes onto the lawn of the White House in response to the government’s inaction at the height of the epidemic, is an image that I will never forget.
The best aspect of the film, however, was how it introduced me to a number of important activists whom I wouldn’t have encountered otherwise, particularly the late Bob Rafsky, whose final tirade in the film is incredibly powerful, and one of the key survivors of the film’s title, Peter Staley. Staley was a young bond trader in New York when he was diagnosed with HIV, and he bravely went head-to-head with many people in positions of power, including conservative kingpin Pat Buchanan, in order to save his own life and the lives of his HIV-positive friends. I found him to be the most eloquent speaker in the film; he’s also my new hero. I was honored to meet him at a party at the film festival, and I gave him a big hug to thank him for his outspoken work on behalf of his generation of gay men and my own.
Hard Times: Lost on Long Island is an hour-long HBO documentary that I had been highly anticipating at the festival. I didn't expect it to be artful filmmaking, but I was correct in predicting that it would be the most timely movie that I saw throughout the week. The film’s only screening was also woefully under-attended; I didn’t take a head-count, but there were no more than ten viewers in the audience, including the projectionist. I have to be honest about just how shameful I found that turn-out to be. Of course, people will always buy a ticket to see a meaningless, escapist comedy rather than a film that focuses on our currently bleak socioeconomic realities. New England (particularly Cape Cod) is also a bubble of affluence, so it’s revealing that people would avoid learning more about what the majority of the rest of this country (myself included) is struggling through right now.
The film follows a handful of upper middle-class interview subjects as they cope with the fallout from continued unemployment. While none of the film’s statistics or images were surprising given the harsh economic climate, I was still shocked by several pieces of information. For example, calls to suicide prevention hotlines have more than tripled since the financial crash of 2008. And many employers actually admit to not hiring people who are currently unemployed, preferring to give their open positions to applicants who already have a job. The most chilling images in the film were of foreclosure agents boxing up people’s belongings in foreclosed homes and leaving them sitting abandoned out on the curbside. I thought to myself, if you’re paid to do that for a living, then you’re no longer a human being. Your card has been permanently revoked.
In terms of lighter fare, my favorite narrative feature at the festival was the runaway French hit The Intouchables, which is now playing in theaters and is also the highest-grossing box office smash in any language other than English. That makes perfect sense, since I can’t imagine anyone not thoroughly enjoying this film. From its clever and sleekly stylized flash-forward opening sequence, which tricks the audience into thinking that the movie will be a fast-paced thriller or action flick, it’s clear that The Intouchables won’t be your standard Odd Couple-style buddy comedy.
The movie’s premise is simple. Philippe (François Cluzet, pitch-perfect), a wealthy tetraplegic who’s confined to a motorized wheelchair, unexpectedly hires Driss (the extraordinary Omar Sy), a wise-cracking Senegalese immigrant, to be his caretaker. Driss had only come to interview for the job in order to have his unemployment paperwork authorized, but Philippe knows that he’ll have a much better time hanging out with the no-bullshit Driss, especially in comparison to the other uptight stiffs and slouches who interview for the position.
The pair goes hang-gliding, street racing, and even dances to the fantastic Earth, Wind and Fire-laced soundtrack together. The film’s genuine hilarity is matched by its genuine emotion, the kind that’s better to experience first-hand than simply have described for you in a review. It’s definitely the can’t-miss comedy of the summer, if not the year, in spite of the fact that it’s a fairly formula-based affair overall. (Omar Sy even beat out The Artist’s Jean Dujardin for Best Actor at the César Awards, the French equivalent of the Oscars.)
Coincidentally, my second- favorite narrative feature of the festival was another film from France, but an animated one. Le Tableau (The Painting), directed by Jean-François Laguionie, is a delightful, color-splashed confection of a movie, but a confection with some contemplative (if unpretentious) depth as well. Characters inside a painting in an artist’s studio come alive, tumble out of the painting, and venture into the new worlds of other paintings elsewhere in the studio. While the film works perfectly well for children and young people, it’s equally successful for adults, and its more covert themes are perhaps even better suited to mature mindsets.
Some subtextual implications arise in the naming of the two groups of painted characters in the film: the Allduns and the Sketchies. As their names suggest, the Allduns are figures that the artist has already completed, whereas the Sketchies are half-done cartoons of figures that are yet to be painted. The Allduns are forever causing trouble and lording their superiority over the Sketchies. (Insert your preferred thematic instance of social hegemony here: race, class, etc.).
Yet the film’s overarching allegory is all about creation. The characters who escape their painting are longing to meet the person who painted them, and who left some of them half-done because, as it turns out, the woman he loved had betrayed and left him. In his frustration, he’d slashed and destroyed some of the canvases. A wonderfully complex dialogue with the artist’s self-portrait takes place; he even comments on the nude painting of a reclining woman across the room, “Look at her ... she’s still in love with him.”
This allegorical investigation of time and creation manifests, ultimately, as an allegory of our search for the Creator. Religion is never once invoked throughout the entire film — this is, after all, a children’s text on its surface — but by the final scene, it’s clear that we’ve been heading quietly in that direction all along. One character makes her way out into the sprawling field behind the artist’s studio, at which point the movie blends live action with animation. She finds the old, white-bearded painter working on a study of the landscape. Satisfied at having finally encountered her creator, she ventures, “Now I just want to meet the person who painted you.”
I was sorry to miss Kirby Dick’s latest documentary The Invisible War, a treatise on the very tragic issue of rape in the United States military, and winner of the audience award for best documentary at the festival. I simply couldn’t fit the film into my tight schedule, unfortunately, but I’m glad to know that I’ll have a chance to see it at the cinema when it’s released here in Boston next month. I look forward to viewing the film, despite (and also because of) its rigorous subject matter.