As a runner-up for the coveted audience award at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, “Starbuck” represents just the sort of hidden gem of the festival circuit that Filmfest D.C., at its best, regularly plucks out of obscurity to share to its fiercely loyal and enthusiastic audience.
Filmfest D.C. this year includes a fair share of buzzy movies, including Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s police procedural “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” Jose Padilha’s pulpy Brazilian crime thriller “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within” and the gently affecting “Monsieur Lazhar” — also from Canada — about an Algerian elementary school teacher navigating geographic and emotional boundaries with his Montreal students. (“Monsieur Lazhar” opens in Washington on April 27.)
But the joys of Filmfest D.C. — as of any good festival — are to be found in films without notable provenance or big names attached, which viewers may stumble into unawares but from which they emerge moved, delighted, entertained or, with luck, all three.
For example, fans of Iranian cinema may have already circled “Goodbye,” Mohammad Rasoulof’s searing drama about a woman trying to leave Tehran; but they’ll also want to see “Facing Mirrors,” Negar Azarbayjani’s impressive debut about two women from wildly different backgrounds who are engaged in their own subtle subversions of repressive Iranian law.
Admirers of Frank Langella won’t want to miss “Robot & Frank,” a futuristic comedy in which the actor plays an aging jewel thief who develops a complicated relationship with his caretaker robot. But for a gently amusing meditation on aging, they’ll be just as charmed by “The Salt of Life,” in which writer-director Gianni Di Gregorio (“Mid-August Lunch”) also stars as an Italian retiree making a final grand gesture against the dying of the light.
And for a suitably elegiac bookend to Di Gregorio’s wryly observant chamber piece, filmgoers need look no further than “Found Memories,” Julia Murat’s contemplative portrait of an elderly community of townsfolk in rural Brazil that gains extraordinary poetry and meaning as it threads the audience through its daily rituals.
With its images of crumbling walls, broken-down churches and sagging edifices, “Found Memories” displays equal amounts of love and respect for its architectural subjects and its human ones. That sense of reverence and loss also pervades “Unfinished Spaces,” an extraordinary documentary about Havana’s ambitious, partially finished School of the Arts, which Fidel Castro commissioned shortly after the 1959 Cuban revolution, but which has been fitfully embraced and abandoned over the ensuing decades.
“Unfinished Spaces” is included within Filmfest D.C.’s “Caribbean Journeys” program, but it also epitomizes the kind of revealing, visually lush documentaries that so often prove to be the highlights of a festival. Although not as visually elegant, Emad Burnat’s “5 Broken Cameras” pays suitably jarring visual homage to his experience as a Palestinian living in the West Bank town of Bil’in, where nonviolent protests against the Israeli separation wall have been greeted with tear gas, bullets and arrests.
Most of the events of “5 Broken Cameras” were concluded by 2010, but Burnat’s reflections on the Arab-Israeli dispute possess a fierce sense of urgency. Then there are the films that, although made last year, arrive with eerie prescience. For pure newsiness and provocation, Lea Pool’s “Pink Ribbons, Inc.” qualifies as genuine must-see viewing at Filmfest D.C. As a lucid investigation into the Susan G. Komen Foundation and other breast cancer philanthropy and marketing outfits, Pool’s 2011 film is both astonishingly predictive and deeply unsettling.
Equally timely is “The Island President,” Jon Shenk’s compelling and surprisingly picturesque portrait of Mohamed Nasheed, who in 2008 became the first democratically elected president of the Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean. Although Shenk’s film focuses on Nasheed’s efforts to stem climate change (his country is the nation most endangered by rising sea levels), Nasheed left office in February in the midst of what he insisted was a coup.
“The Island President,” which opens April 20 in Washington, was completed too early to address the political issues that currently bedevil Nasheed. But Shenk’s film offers a vivid context for understanding the agenda Nasheed is trying to pursue, even while he seeks to reestablish democracy in his country. As one of the best films on offer at Filmfest D.C., “The Island President” takes viewers on a journey to a new world, and expands the one we already know.
through April 22, with films showing at venues throughout Washington. For tickets and program information, visit www.filmfestdc.org or call 202-234-3456. General admission is $11 unless otherwise noted.