This week in New York, Kino International got even more love, as both Two Boots Pioneer Theater and BAM wished them a happy 30th birthday. The Museum of the Moving Image gave a thrilling glimpse into nerd sporting with "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters", while the IFC Center held a more somber benefit for "The Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars", followed by a lovely performance by the titular group.
On Saturday night, the Two Boots Pioneer Theater joined the mass of theaters celebrating the 30th anniversary of Kino International with a screening of one of its more obscure repertory titles, Aleksei German's 1982 Soviet film "My Friend Ivan Lapshin". This was a month after the Film Society of Lincoln Center held a two-week tribute series to the renowned distribution company, which got its start by providing theatrical distribution to the Janus Collection's staggering library of canonical European films, and eventual branched out into distributing a wide variety of new work by such directors as Shohei Imamura and Aki Kaurismaeki.
Two Boots programmer Ray Privett modestly stated , "I think it points to the respect and dignity of Kino that major institutions like the Film Society, and minor places like us both hold Kino in such high esteem," before letting Film Society programmer Richard Pena introduce the film.
"I know of no Soviet film that better shows the end of the period of revolutionary idealism and the first clouds of Stalinism that was just beginning to seep into everyday life," said Pena of "Lapshin," the story of a police investigator chasing a group of criminals with ruthless ambivalence, told with a detached immediacy. The film itself was banned in the USSR for three years, before premiering at the 1984 Rotterdam Film Festival and then arriving in the United States courtesy of the Film Society and MoMA's New Directors/New Films festival.
Meanwhile, BAM Cinematek offered its own salute to Kino by hosting a week-long run of a beautiful new print of Wong Kar Wai's 1997 oddity "Fallen Angels", about an angst-ridden hit man, his beautiful 'assistant' (who likes to put on sexy underwear and masturbate without putting out her cigarette), and several random freaks who play as grotesque satires of characters from Wong's "Chungking Express".
BAM curator Florence Almozini discussed their method of honoring Kino by stating, "We didn't want to copy another institution's program so we decided to choose one of their titles and give it a longer run," adding "it's one of the older Wong Kar-Wai titles that actually doesn't screen often and is simply incredible on the big screen." The run also coincides with the film's own 10th anniversary, and the kickoff of BAM's 10-day salute to current Hong Kong cinema, "The New Decade", which begins tonight.
Seth Gordon's Slamdance-winning arcade documentary "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters" could hardly have had a better venue for a premiere than the Museum of the Moving Image, with its prominently featured video games and functioning arcade. The film centers around loveable underachiever Steve Wiebe, a Seattle engineer who works himself out of his post-layoff depression by buying a Donkey Kong machine and obsessively working to break the Kong world record set nearly 20 years earlier by Billy Mitchell, mulleted king of the arcade. Wiebe's unwitting rivalry with Mitchell, as well as his accidental alliance with gaming pariah Mr. Awesome, runs him afoul of Mitchell's myriad disciples, and they infuriatingly set about not only stripping him of his record but attempting to prevent him from ever setting a new one. The audience is gripped by the saga of a good man being victimized by the lamest people on earth- even Wiebe's mildly embarrassed wife cannot help but be appalled by the way these nerds treat him.
At the Q&A which followed the screening, producer Ed Cunningham explained "I wanted this to be a sports movie, and I think that's ultimately what we got - a sports drama." What sets this film apart from other recent documentaries centered around unusual competitions and subcultures ("Spellbound", "Air Guitar Nation") is its extraordinary antagonist Mitchell; the audience doesn't just want to see the nice man win, it wants to see the loser get shamed. Wiebe, for his part, was surprised to discover how strident his opposition was from Mitchell's colleagues. "I didn't understand how much of a group they had formed, and I didn't feel any hostility from them.... I thought they were cheering for me."
"When we were looking at games to discuss, we had Pacman, Ms. Pacman, Centipede- they all have interesting rivalries and legacies, but they all required us to go to Billy," said Gordon. "All roads lead to Billy- he either held the titles or was the expert on all the games." The rivalry between the two is still active: Mitchell, who has not yet seen the film but has been actively denouncing it, recently reclaimed the Donkey Kong title in front of a Mortgage Broker's convention. After the Q&A, audience members got a chance to see Wiebe in action on one of MOMI's Donkey Kong machines. The movie will open in select theaters on Friday.
On Monday night, the IFC Center hosted a benefit screening of Zach Niles and Banker White's music documentary "Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars" to benefit ninemillion.org, a UN campaign for refugee youth. The film is about a group of disparate refugees in Guinea from Sierra Leone's terrifying civil war - in which rebels set about killing and mutilating tens of thousands at random- who set about starting up a musical band to tell their stories. The band relocated back to their damaged country after the end of the civil war in 2002, and has since been making international tours to promote awareness of the catastrophe and the nation's current struggles.
The directors found the Refugee All-Stars when looking for displaced people from the war-torn country. "We knew we wanted to focus on musicians," explained co-director White in the Q&A which followed the film and a special performance of the Refugee All Stars. "We wanted people who had been victims of the war who could tell their own story in their own words ... we met the All-Stars on our first production trip, and saw they weren't just entertainers, they were real community leaders."
Refugee All Star leader Reuben Koroma explained, "The damage that was caused to our country in the decade-long war cannot be easily recovered. Resources and lives were wasted and there was no change. Musically, we are trying to bring a change to our country, which we so desperately need."
When asked how best to help Sierra Leone recover, author and special guest Ishmael Beah ("A Long Way Down") championed Non Governmental Organizations and chided Westerners for any anti-UN feelings. "These are the only organizations that come to our aid when nobody else will help us. In the band's case, it was the UNHRC, in my case it was UNICEF, but in any case the United Nations."
Koroma put it more succinctly, "In Africa, we tend not to trust the politicians, so give money to the NGOs." The film is currently available on Netflix, and the Refugees All-Stars are playing on August 22nd at B.B. King's Blues Club and Grill.
Be sure to check out Monday night's showing of Sebastian Cordoba's "Through Thick and Thin" at the IFC Center, part of Newfest's monthly series. The film concerns the struggles faced by seven LGBT couples who are fighting to stay together despite difficulties from US Immigration, as Americans are unable to marry and bestow citizenship on their loved ones.
Also at the IFC Center is a look at Mumblecore starting Wednesday, with the "New Talkies: Generations DIY" series and the theatrical debut of "Hannah Takes The Stairs," while MoMA salutes prolific French director Claude Chabrol beginning Friday, and BAM features "New Crowned Hope" festival director Peter Sellars on Monday.