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Athens International Film & Video Fest 2023: Josh's Recap

The best thing about living and working in Athens, Ohio, is being able to step out my office door and walk one block to The Athena Cinema. I’ve caught many 5:05 pm screenings without having to leave work early. This charming, longstanding movie house plays host annually to the Athens International Film and Video Festival (AIFVF).


So, for one week, I got to leave work at 5 p.m. and screen at least three films each evening (a lot more when you account for shorts!). I wrote up a ranking of the five feature films I screened. I did not include the excellent works of the filmmakers I got to see in person (Akosua Adoma Owusu, Soda Jerk, and Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin), but keep an eye out for more about these films from the BFBs soon!


5) Quantum Cowboys

If ChatGPT was asked to write a screenplay using pop philosophy in a wild west setting, it might come out something like Quantum Cowboys. A petty thief named Frank (Kiowa Gordon), recently released from jail, and his inexplicably loyal companion Bruno (John Way) travel through the frontier to attempt to find the whereabouts of a beloved musician injured (or killed, they aren’t sure) during Frank’s arrest. Along the way, they are helped by frontier-savvy Linde (Lily Gladstone) and hindered by a couple of drunk time travelers (David Arquette and Frank Mosley).


Hard work was clearly put into the animation; the film is presented in twelve different animation styles that shift constantly throughout to evoke the idea of multiple universes. The problem here is the story and characters. Although a throughline of the many worlds theory and Schrödinger’s cat experiment is intended, it does not contribute much to the story other than the animation and a third act comprising several different versions of the denouement. This one was forgettable, and not only because my screening started at 9:15 p.m. after a long day of work and other screenings.


4) Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

If there was an AIFVF award for Most Batshit Crazy Animated Feature, the winner would be Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. Synopsis: a depressed woman who leaves her stifling dull marriage and her ex-husband tries to cope while a human-sized talking frog enlists the help of a bank employee in stopping an impending earthquake from devastating Tokyo. And that’s the plot! Thematically, these elements combine to an exploration of the meaning (or perhaps meaninglessness) of life. Or something like that.


The character animation is strongly reminiscent of the coloring and outlining of Ralph Bakshi, and it is gorgeous. It perfectly captures the bright lights and antiquated structures of Tokyo with soft colors designed to evoke the humanistic surrealism of the movie’s base country, France. The intrigue gets a little lost in some of the goofier story elements (and I’m not referring to the talking frog).


Apparently, when Komura (the ex-husband) becomes single, he also becomes passionately desired by all the young women of the city. These scenes – including one cringe scene between him and a sixteen-year-old girl (she just rubs his arm, but still, I have no good explanation for why the girl is interested or why Komura allows this) – drew laughter from the audience at my screening and I do not think that kind of laughter is intended by the filmmakers.


3) Everybody Wants to Be Loved

Only positive reviews from here! Alle wollen geliebt werden is a lovely German drama from director/co-writer Katharina Woll. The majority of the film takes place during one day in the life of Ina (Anne Ratte-Polle), a psychotherapist, mother of a teenager, daughter of a narcissist, girlfriend of another narcissist, and all-around stressed-out woman. Her day involves dealing with the pressure of a decision to move to Finland with her boyfriend Reto (Urs Jucker), hiding the decision from her daughter Elli (Lea Drinda), making final arrangements for her domineering mother’s (Ulrike Willenbacher) 70th birthday party later that evening, dealing with a sudden and unexpected health concern, and at some point finding time to go to work. It is an exceptionally well-executed terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, and Ina reacts accordingly.


The script, the direction, and the cast stand out. In dialogue and performance, every character except Ina is their own version of selfish and the family feels genuinely dysfunctional. Ratte-Polle’s Ina is palpably stressed. No one treats her with human dignity – Reto and her mother only manipulate, and Ellie’s ambition is to distance herself from Ina’s motherly advice and restrictions.


The well-written relationships and Ratte-Polle’s subtly emotional performance make Ina seem suffocatingly lonely, despite her familial surroundings. Like a good German beer, Everybody Wants to Be Loved is a simple yet effective combination of the elements and is certainly worth seeking out once it is made available to more audiences (attendees of fests in Minneapolis and Atlanta will get the chance next).


2) De humani corporis fabrica

The visceral images in De humani corporis fabrica (“The Fabric of the Human Body”) have forever scarred my memory. This innovative French documentary gave the audience an up-close-and-personal (emphasis on the “personal”) view of surgery. Directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel (Leviathan [2012]) utilize the tiny cameras surgeons use to survey the inside of the body to capture the horrifying science-fiction-esque reality of the stuff we’re made of.


Connecting these episodic procedures – which include an open-skull neurosurgery, a spinal fusion, prostate removal, something in an exposed penis, and an emergency C-section – is a recurring scene of two women with dementia shuffling around a nursing home, shockingly effective because the filmmakers ensure the audience feels the urgency and significance of whatever is motivating their damaged minds. Personally, I’d like to apply for a robot body whenever science makes them available.


Not being a medical professional and never needing to sit through these kinds of films in class, I was sufficiently disturbed by the surgeries themselves, but I kept my eyes wide open the whole time, transfixed by the horror. Even more surreal is the nonchalance of the surgeons involved in some of the procedures. They joke about the stuff in an (awake) man’s brain looking like cotton candy, angrily complain about hospital administration while performing a delicate procedure on a phallus, and boast that they became good at prostate removal from watching the Masterclass. To them, this is just the experience of being at work. It was fascinating to watch something that a layman like me finds mind-numbingly stressful and serious, but for them is just another day in the office. De humani corporis fabrica is well worth a watch for being an excellent example of a documentary study in perspective.


1) Crows are White

Documentaries take the top two spots on my ranking, and the top spot goes to the film that also won first prize for documentary feature at AIFVF: Crows are White. I do not want to say much about the plot because, more than any of the rest of these, going in blind helped my experience because I enjoyed feeling that I got to know these individuals through the movie.


Crows are White is a first-person documentary in which director Ahsen Nadeem captures his experience of traveling to Japan to seek advice from a world-renown Buddhist monk Kamahori. Kamahori on a vow of silence and a bit too important to spend much time with non-monks, Nadeem befriends a lower-level order member named Ryushin, whose chief job is to illuminate sacred texts. Ryushin is a charming, witty, remarkable person and (in this writer’s opinion) far more worth speaking to than Kamahori (compassionate person though he is) because, despite pursuing devotion to religion, Ryushin is startlingly relatable. Ryushin gets bored with calligraphy and wants to focus on his hobbies, which include Instagram, the latest Apple products, and listening to hard rock and metal music. Now that I’ve introduced the premise, I’m going to leave the rest for you to seek out.


The prevailing theme of Crows are White is the stark contradiction that exists between real-life decisions and religious devotion. Nuanced questions are explored, like whether there can be value, or why value seems to exist, in ancient ethical ideals. Can religion still enrich Ryushin and Nadeem even though it may inhibit their lifestyle choices? Can the negatives be ignored or overcome?

Some audience members will engage with these philosophical dilemmas as I did, but those that are less intrigued will still be captivated by these genuine characters. Ryushin is charismatic, funny, and – there is no other word for it – wise. Nadeem is sincere, desperately seeking answers, and an excellent listener. Putting together this documentary becomes exceptionally personal for him and, in the end, I found myself in tears. If – once it completes its U.S. festival circuit in a couple of weeks – Crows are White is released on Blu-Ray, it’ll have me as a happy patron.


-Josh

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