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Filmfest DC 2011: Films that entertain and bear urgent witness

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Filmfest D.C., Washington’s largest and longest-running international film festival, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. And in many ways, this year’s program reflects both the strengths and weaknesses of a festival that, while reliably acquitting its mission of bringing overlooked foreign films to a faithful and eager audience, can often feel modest to a fault.

Thursday’s opening-night film, “Potiche,” exemplifies the contradiction. The fizzy comedy of proto-feminist manners stars Catherine Deneuve as a 1970s French housewife who comes into her own when she takes over her family’s umbrella factory. With its nod to Deneuve’s transporting breakout performance in the 1964 musical “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” Francois Ozon’s “Potiche” revels in many of the winsome, picturesque pleasures that have often made French films the frosted petits fours of the film world.

Pretty, witty and decidedly un-edgy, “Potiche” is also very safe, a word that can be applied just as easily to Filmfest D.C. at its most reassuring. Films that are likely crowd-pleasers — from the 18th-century German romantic romp “Young Goethe in Love” and the contemporary Romanian sex comedy “Hello! How Are You?” to the assured but hollow Swedish genre exercise “Easy Money” — are indisputably well-made and entertaining, which is, after all, what movies are supposed to be.

But a core sample taken from the more than 70 features at this year’s Filmfest D.C. reveals films of even more significant and timely substance. This year the festival will feature two U.S. premieres: “Scientology: The Truth About a Lie,” Jean-Charles Deniau’s chronicle of L. Ron Hubbard’s organization and former devotees who spent millions of dollars before breaking free.

While “Scientology” doesn’t break any new formal ground, hewing to formulaic stock footage and talking heads, the film nonetheless provides chilling insights into a notoriously difficult world for outsiders to peer into.

Similarly, the ensemble drama “Hawi,” which also makes its American debut, allows viewers a privileged glimpse into an otherwise inaccessible world. Ibrahim El-Batout’s stylish ensemble drama follows a seemingly unrelated cast of characters through Alexandria, Egypt, until their stories begin to intersect. El-Batout, a cinematographer who also acts in the movie, uses a minimum of dialogue in “Hawi,” instead telling the story largely through a series of lush, captivating images of Alexandria’s back corners, belly-dancing clubs and harborside streets. Only gradually does it emerge that some of the movie’s protagonists were recently political prisoners under Hosni Mubarak’s repressive regime.

As vividly as “Hawi” portrays contemporary Egyptian life — and as gorgeously as El-Batout captures a city rarely seen on the big screen — the film seems beamed from an almost distant past in light of the upheavals in that country. A similarly fascinating dialogue with history propels “The Green Wave,” Ali Samadi Ahadi’s exhilarating portrait of Iran during the 2009 protests that erupted after the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Using animation, live action, illustrated blog updates and Twitter feeds, and talking-head interviews, Ahadi creates a vibrant, densely layered visual grammar singularly suited to the exuberance and hope of Iran’s spontaneous democratic movement (many of whose participants were imprisoned, tortured and martyred for their efforts).

Seen through the lens of recent events, “The Green Wave” serves as a somber reminder that, before Tunisia and Tahrir Square, there was Tehran. And its depiction of struggle against nearly immovable forces of injustice bears something in common with “Crime After Crime,” Yoav Potash’s shattering portrait of Deborah Peagler, who in 1983 was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for murdering her abusive boyfriend. (Both films are part of “Justice Matters,” a Filmfest D.C. sidebar focusing on issues of social justice.)

In true-crime style reminiscent of 2006’s “The Trials of Darryl Hunt,” Potash follows Peagler’s pro bono legal team as they fight the Los Angeles district attorney’s office for Peagler’s release under a new law that recognizes mitigating evidence of abuse. Harrowing, moving and inspiring, “Crime After Crime” introduces an unforgettable screen heroine in Peagler, who transcends the forces arrayed against her with uncommon strength and grace

“The Green Wave” and “Crime After Crime” come to Filmfest D.C. by way of Sundance, as does “We Were Here,” David Weissman’s documentary about San Francisco’s gay community as it came to grips with the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s. With moving testimonials, photographs and interviews with survivors, Weissman conveys both grief and courage in the face of an illness whose swiftness and terror come back with breathtaking force.

The film suggests that the AIDS crisis not only decimated the gay community but galvanized and strengthened it as well; it also testifies to the enduring power of memory in forging our most compelling stories. “We Were Here,” it turns out, aptly describes the best of this year’s Filmfest D.C. program, whose strongest films don’t simply entertain but bear fierce moral witness.

Filmfest D.C.

begins Thursday at 7 p.m. with a screening of “Potiche” at the Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. NW. A reception with live music, dancing, food and champagne will follow. Tickets are $40. The festival continues through April 17. Visit www.filmfestdc.org or call 202-234-3456.

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