Phillip Youmans’ “Burning Cane,” starring Wendell Pierce, won the Tribeca Film Festival’s 2019 Founder’s Award for Best Narrative Feature. It’s one of the “Centerpiece Screenings” highlights at the New Orleans Film Festival, which runs Oct. 16 to 23 at various local venues. A 2018 graduate of New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, Youmans obviously wasn’t born when the festival was launched 30 years ago. In those three decades, Louisiana has become a moviemaking hub, and the festival now showcases films made locally and around the globe and is a networking spot for aspiring and experienced filmmakers.
“Burning Cane” screens at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 19 at Orpheum Theater. The opening night film (7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Orpheum) is “Marriage Story,” in which Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver star as a couple struggling through a difficult divorce. Director Kasi Lemmons’ “Harriet,” about Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman, is the closing night film. The festival’s “Spotlight” section features many major fall releases and recent festival winners, including “The Aeronauts,” ”Clemency,” “Jojo Rabbit,” Edward Norton’s “Motherless Brooklyn” and “The Report,” also starring Driver.
The festival’s more than 200 films include Louisiana-made features, programs of short films, documentaries and more. There also are filmmaker panel discussions, film pitching events, parties and more. The festival box office is at the Contemporary Arts Center, and information is available on www.neworleansfilmsociety.org.
The festival includes films from across the globe and on all sorts of subjects. Below are some previews of features and documentaries from Serbia to Cuba and the U.S.
“Havana, From on High”
Venezuelan-born, Canadian filmmaker Pedro Ruiz’s “Havana, From on High” has beautiful views of the skyline of the Cuban capital, looking over a mix of modern and dilapidated buildings and out over the Caribbean. These are the views enjoyed by the city’s rooftop dwellers, many of whom squat in abandoned buildings, including some of the once-opulent hotels of pre-revolutionary Cuba.
Arturo makes a modest living fixing old American- and Russian-made TVs, which must be carted up stairs. Tita raises chickens on her rooftop terrace and rarely goes down to the street. Jose is a former drag performer who no longer lives with his brother, who disapproves of his homosexuality. A 95-year-old woman shares photos of herself as a young revolutionary and talks of meeting Che Guevara.
The only voices in the film are those of the rooftop dwellers, and they describe their daily routines and memories of looking down on the visiting motorcades of a pope and President Barack Obama. Ruiz is interested in what they value and what gives their lives meaning, and the diverse group has much to say. Ruiz weaves their stories into a poetic narrative that runs over panoramas of amber sunsets and colorful images of crumbling Spanish architecture and vintage cars racing along a coastal road. It’s visually stunning, but it’s the perspective of the residents that gives the film its unique view of the world. — WILL COVIELLO
12:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 17 and 3:45 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 22 at CAC.
“Hunting for Hedonia”
Some New Orleanians may be familiar with Robert Heath, the charismatic psychiatrist and former director of Tulane University’s departments of neurology and psychiatry. He was a pioneer in deep brain stimulation (DBS) research and therapies and was interested in the pleasure center of the brain, referred to as “hedonia.” The documentary “Hunting for Hedonia” reviews his career and uses footage of interviews with Heath as it explores contemporary brain stimulation therapies for Parkinson’s disease, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and PTSD and probes where the frontier for such exploration will go medically and ethically. The film notes two areas of research where Heath’s work ventured into areas that once revealed were rejected by public opinion. The documentary is narrated by Tilda Swinton. It can be dry at times, but the line of inquiry about the implications of interventions into the brain, emotion and cognition is fascinating. — WILL COVIELLO
2:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 19 and 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 22 at The Broad Theater.
Aja (Kristina Jovanovic) is a fiery Serbian teenager who thrills to the drama of breaking up with her boyfriend and following him to see how he reacts when she calls him. During a hot summer day, she embarks on a rambling quest as she dodges her mother’s questions and, following a fight with other teens that leaves her injured and angry, tries to put things back in order.
Director Kosta Djordjevic shot the film in 20 long takes on a hand-held camera following on Aja’s heels as she moves through the gritty streets of Belgrade. Her youthful zeal, agitation and unrelenting will give the film its gripping tension. — WILL COVIELLO
8:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 17 and 9 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 23 at The Advocate.
“Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project”
Marion Stokes was a hoarder. She also may have been a genius, argues director Matt Wolf in this documentary about a woman who recorded television broadcasts 24 hours a day for more than 30 years, preserving them all on VHS tapes that were delivered to her Philadelphia apartment in black trash bags.
“She read about 11 newspapers a day and I don’t think she ever threw one out,” says Stokes’ son Mike Metelits, adding that his mother saw preserving media as a “form of activism.” At her death, she had accumulated 70,000 videotapes (each with eight hours of footage) and upwards of 40,000 to 50,000 books, which cluttered several of her properties.
Stokes was a librarian and an African-American intellectual, who was attracted to the Communist Party in the 1950s and nearly moved to Cuba. In the mid-1960s, she became a regular panelist on a Philadelphia public affairs roundtable TV program, where she met John Stokes, a white son of the city’s gentry. It was the second marriage for each (both had children from previous marriages), and the two gradually became each other’s worlds, shutting out family members and describing each other as soulmates.
In 1979, during the Iran hostage crisis, Stokes began taping local television programs around the clock; as cable news was invented, she added more VCRs. Soon her schedule revolved around changing tapes in the machines, adding Post-Its describing the contents. (She was an early advocate for Apple computers and bought Apple stock.)
Wolf includes much of Stokes’ footage in his documentary, but the choices often seem capricious. We see 9/11 unfolding in real time and the election of Barack Obama to the presidency (with no clue how Stokes felt about any of it), but Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures — which received round-the-clock coverage for months — isn’t included. (It’s a particularly strange choice because her stepdaughter is longtime New Orleans journalist Stephanie Stokes, who does not appear in the film with her sisters and stepbrother.)
By the turn of the century, John and Marion Stokes were near-recluses, living in an apartment choked with videotapes and random hoarded objects like diner syrup containers.
Wolf posits that for all her strange ways, Stokes may have been a visionary when it came to collecting media — and doesn’t quite make the case. Moreover, the film feels padded at around 90 minutes and would have been better and brisker as an hourlong documentary.
Stokes’ tapes — all 70,000 — have been turned over to the Internet Archive, a nonprofit that plans to digitize them, make them searchable and post them to the internet. Fittingly, Stokes died in her cluttered apartment while the Sandy Hook shootings were being broadcast on all the TVs in the house — and, just as fittingly, none of those in attendance dared turn them off for fear of Marion’s wrath. — KEVIN ALLMAN
6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 21 at The Advocate.