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Athens International Film & Video Festival 2023: Oliver's Recap

For this year’s 50th Athens International Film + Video Festival, I made it my goal to see one event per day – well, during the first five days of the fest. I ended up seeing one block of short films, two feature films, and two Q&As. AIFVF is an amazing way to discover new, interesting movies that you otherwise wouldn’t have access to in southeastern Ohio, and it is also very accommodating for college students given that tickets are free. Here’s my lowdown on the fest.

Monday – Encore Shorts in Competition

The Limits of Vision, dir. Laura Harrison

I started off the festival with a block of nine short films titled “Encore.” It’s difficult to make a direct connection between all of these shorts, but they were across the board very experimental. Some of them dealt with themes of identity, usually in relation to gender or sexuality, while others were more nostalgic, focusing on a topic relating to the past and attempting to preserve its story through the medium of film.

The short I walked away from feeling the most impressed by was The Limits of Vision, directed by Laura Harrison. The Limits of Vision is an animated short about a housewife named Marcia who starts to obsess over the dirtiness of her home, creating whimsical notions in her head that cause her to spiral out of control. It’s as if Jeanne Dielman did six tabs of acid and then started ranting about the hallucinatory effects of bed-making and the inevitable decay of all life. It also has an animation style reminiscent of Masaaki Yuasa’s Mind Game in that it’s expressive, innovative, and ever-changing.

The film moves at a lightening fast pace, allowing for a great deal of information to be communicated within a small time frame. It creates a thoroughly developed narrative and protagonist within its tight 35-minute runtime. Although ideas centering around the changing gender roles of women in the ‘70s and the decaying effects of being a housewife didn’t introduce me to anything I haven’t seen before, the film’s ambition and wit were more than enough to keep me invested.

Paying Tribute to the History of Steel?,•• dir. Tony Buba

I also really enjoyed Winter 1984 **and Paying Tribute to the History of Steel?**, both documentary shorts directed by Tony Buba about a steel mill that closed in 1982. Winter 1984 documents a man named Amedeo “Pee Wee” Vieri as he walks around, telling stories about the abandoned mill he worked at two years after it shut down. Paying Tribute to the History of Steel? shows a modern-day account of people reconvening at the mill all these years later, remembering and celebrating its legacy. It’s rare that you see factory work depicted in film, but time capsules like these are important.

**Although these short films were listed under those titles on the AIFVF programming website, we were unable to verify them as being the correct titles in Tony Buba's official filmography.

Tuesday – Leilah Weinraub In-Person

On Tuesday, Leilah Weinraub came to Athens to talk about her documentary Shakedown, released in 2022. Shakedown is about a black lesbian strip club in Los Angeles that was shut down in 2004. The film offers a small glimpse into the lives of those who worked in this club and its positive effects on the surrounding community. It’s also notable for having its streaming debut on PornHub, before getting picked up by the Criterion Channel about 2 months later.

Shakedown is an incredibly immersive voyage into a queer underground strip club and an experience I found to be surprisingly beautiful. There seemed to be so much genuine love within the community, a place where people felt sexually liberated and cared for, which is why the sequences of stripping and exotic dancing come across more like acts of compassion than plain old work. There was no patriarchal abuse, just love between women.

Shakedown also had a visual presentation that kept me glued to the screen for the movie’s entirety. Because of technical limitations in the early 2000s, Weinraub shot the movie on a low-quality video camera, giving the film a grainy, digital aesthetic. That, combined with the nighttime shots of LA and the pulsing score by Tim Dewit, made for an experience that was both hypnotizing and visceral.

The Q&A with the director was delightful, and I even managed to ask her two questions about the original music (which I have detailed above) and the unique nature of the film’s distribution. She didn’t give any anecdotes that left me all that shocked or surprised, but she did seem like a really cool and unpretentious person, which makes perfect sense given that Shakedown is also both of those things.

Wednesday – Joyland (2022)

The next day, I caught a screening of Joyland, a film from Pakistan that’s been making quite a splash since it premiered at Cannes last year. The film centers around a man named Haider who struggles to come into his own within his overly traditional family. He then gets a job as an exotic dancer, working on behalf of a Biba, a trans woman. The two are quick to spark a romantic relationship, leading Haider on a path of liberation that turns his life upside down.

There are a lot of moving parts in Joyland, but the devastating interpersonal conflicts are well-outlined thanks to thoughtful writing. The more Haider begins to find himself, the more he distances himself from his wife Mumtaz. It’s tragic because we want Haider to find happiness, yet because of the way this patriarchal society is structured, anyone’s quest for self-realization will be at the expense of other people.

Mumtaz is arguably the most interesting and complex character in the film. She wants to work in a beauty salon but is held back by her family when Haider gets his new job as a dancer. She then gets pregnant with a boy, which is good for her family, but Haider is emotionally unavailable. She is one of the few people who support Haider, yet there is no one in her life to support her.

The most tragic pill to swallow is that no matter how much society rejects Haider due to his sexuality, he will always be a man, giving him inherent advantages over Mumtaz. Mumtaz, unfortunately, is forced to rely on Haider, despite the fact that he is unfit to be a husband. It’s a terrible and even unsolvable predicament, but life is often unforgiving and a film should never shy away from those harsh realities.

Yet Joyland wouldn’t be what it is without the central romance between Haider and Biba. It’s an incredibly transgressive and beautiful relationship, and watching it unfold in its early stages was a delight. Alina Khan is also amazing in the film, bringing a certain power and beauty to Biba that audiences will find irresistible. Of course, she has certain flaws of her own, but so does every other character in the film.

The cinematography is also breathtaking; the camera work feels minimalist and controlled, utilizing primarily slow zoom-ins. The dance scenes are gorgeous and crisp, conveying a sensuality that is exuberated by the dripping sweat that is so attentively captured on the dancer's bodies.

Self-love is inherently selfish in places that systemically enforced gender stereotypes and suppress those who want to properly express themselves, which Joyland perfectly demonstrates. It’s a film that is simultaneously gorgeous and devastating, and it is easily one of the best films of 2023. Make sure to catch this when it hits streaming later in the year.

Thursday – Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (2023)

The second film in the AIFVF’s official competition I got to see was Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. This is an animated film directed by Pierre Földes, adapted from Haruki Murakami’s novel of the same name. The movie takes place shortly after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan and centers around Komaru and Katagiri, two salesmen working in the same office. Komaru is struggling with the fact that his wife, Kyoto, has just left him, while Katagiri has been summoned by a mysterious, human-sized, talking frog to help them save Tokyo from another earthquake.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman will definitely find its own audience. It’s very low-key for an animated film and had a handful of interesting plot points woven through it, as the film focuses on many different stories and characters. Pierre Földes also composed the score for the film, which was noticeably great. It wasn’t a movie that I found myself personally resonating with, but the audience I watched this with was audibly laughing and having a blast, so don’t be afraid to check this out if it seems interesting to you.

Friday – Cecilia Condit In-Person

Possibly in Michigan (1983), dir. Cecilia Condit

I ended the festival with the Cecilia Condit In-Person Q&A, where the director showed what she described as 8 of her “angriest” short films including Possibly in Michigan, her most famous work. Cecilia Condit is known for her works of feminist horror, exploring themes of sexuality and violence usually set in the suburban midwest or other mundane backdrops. In addition to this, her films are very music-centered. Instead of dialogue, the characters in her films usually express themselves through singing and music.

Possibly in Michigan, released in 1983, is potentially my favorite short film of all time, so watching it again in a packed theater was a truly one-of-a-kind experience. For those who don’t know, the 12-minute horror musical revolves around two women who are being stalked by a cannibal. However, these two women prove to be more violent than expected, and the victims soon become the aggressors.

Something that always stands out to me about Possibly in Michigan is how visually dense it is. There are so many different images that assault the viewer at such a rapid pace, yet it’s edited in a way that makes them flow seamlessly. Every image in the film is also important and meaningful, and every time I watch the film I pick up on new details. However, perhaps the most iconic aspect of this film is the music, which is singular, creepy, and surprisingly catchy. If you’ve never heard of it but are interested in checking it out, the film is available on YouTube under Cecilia Condit’s channel.

I've Been Afraid (2020), dir. Cecilia Condit

There were a handful of other shorts that were also great: Suburbs of Eden, released in 1992, revolves around a struggling woman and her abusive husband. It has many feminist themes surrounding violence within this traditional family structure and its unique visual style made the film feel eerie and disturbing. I’ve Been Afraid, released in 2020, tells the stories of various women who have been abused, doing so entirely through music and visuals. The music here felt like Cecila attempting to do hyper pop, which is as amazing and weird as it sounds.

The ensuing Q&A with Condit was easily my highlight of the entire fest. She is one of the most extravagant and odd people I’ve ever heard speak, but each of her words carried power and poignancy. She frequently gave incredibly harrowing anecdotes about her life that left the audience in a constant state of fright-inspired awe. Everyone was quite eager to ask her questions, so the Q&A lasted for about an hour. It was special of AIFVF to bring her to the fest and I felt very lucky to be at that event.



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