On Tuesday, Americans go to the voting booth to determine what kind of country they want theirs to be. Months of the most polarized, and polarizing, presidential campaign in recent memory have left many of us with battle fatigue and gnawing pangs of cynicism and nausea. To quote Thomas McGuane, in the opening line of his 1973 novel “92 in the Shade”: “Nobody knows, from sea to shining sea, why we are having all this trouble with our republic.”
Our filmmakers might have a clue. And a little distance brings perspective. The American Film Festival just celebrated its seventh annual survey of new (and mostly) independent cinema made in the U.S.A., as assembled for and viewed by eager European audiences in Wroclaw, Poland. Though not without some escapist and experimental tangents, the selections couldn’t help but offer a provocative composite of work that serves as a kind of state of the union address.
“Why can’t Americans give up their guns?” was the first question heard after a screening for Keith Maitland’s “Tower,” the SXSW prizewinner that offers a devastating and compassionate recreation of the 1966 rifle assault by Charles Whitman from the tower at the University of Texas in Austin – America’s first mass shooting. An inheritor of Richard Linklater’s rotoscopic wizardry in “Waking Life,” the film recreates the shooting in animated form, using the real-life testimonies of the survivors to sustain drama on multiple fronts. As news of the tragedy spreads on the radio, gun-toting vigilantes join a few armed civilians already on campus, firing away at the monster in the tower to no end, save added confusion and more bullets in the air.
Yet, in response to the question, executive producer Louis Black (an Austin fixture and a co-founder of SXSW) noted that the film had multiple takeaways. “Ironically, the pro-gun people love this film as well,” he said. Its scenes of private citizens taking arms up against what Donald Trump might call a “bad hombre” represents the NRA’s great fantasy. That didn’t stop 14 people from being killed that afternoon. Nonetheless, as “Tower” arrives in theaters, and Academy Award consideration, a new “campus carry” law has gone into effect in Texas, and as what once was a shocking phenomenon has become an unimaginable part of American daily life.
The issue of gun violence carried through other films, like “Christine” and “Kate Plays Christine,” devoted in radically different ways to the 1974 on-air suicide of a Sarasota, Florida, newscaster named Christine Chubbuck, and “Dark Night,” Tim Sutton’s deadpan observation of multiple characters in the hours preceding a mass-shooting in a movie theater, modeled on a 2012 tragedy at an Aurora, Colo., multiplex showing “The Dark Knight Returns.”
While reluctant to program films whose messages were too on-the-nose, the festival’s artistic director Ula Śniegowska responded to creative form shaping narratives that were, literally, loaded. “I think story of Christine Chubbuck has it all – the pressure on a single woman in media, the weapon accessibility and love of sensation and blood,” she said. “I decided to pick those that were artistically most interesting.”
Often, it seemed the festival was charting that tilt in the zeitgeist that turned old-fashioned Americana – still poking its head up amid the egalitarian horndog jocks of Richard Linklater’s free-spirited “Everybody Wants Some!!” – into Trumplandia. By turns, and with radical shifts in style and form, audiences could witness an erosion of the national spirit, and the desperate measures required to exist while sliding off the social map: the gleeful insurance scammer family in Dean Fleischer-Camp’s cheeky found-footage goof “Fraud”; the big-hearted Eskimo villagers in Gina Abatemarco’s “Kivalina,” struggling to sustain their remote Alaskan fishing village against the threats of climate change, as bureaucracies fail them.
The election could often feel like a looming elephant in the cinema. Poland, after all, has its own Trump to contend with: conservative prime minister Jarosław Kaczyński. “If American people looked at what is happening in Poland, they would see what problems America can face if Trump is elected,” said Woytek Janio, CEO and co-founder of Fixafilm, a post-production and restoration house in Warsaw whose clients have included Andrzej Zulawski, Andrzej Wajda and Angieszka Holland.
The trend toward right-wing nationalism in Europe is one thing, but there also is palpable unease about the impact of a Trump presidency on Poland. “There is general concern among many people,” Janio said. “We fear a global war, we fear that Trump will try to ally with Putin, which means that we may lose Baltic countries to Russia as well as Ukraine, Belarus and maybe even Poland will be attacked by Russians. We fear destabilization of the U.S. military and therefore the balance of world’s forces. We also fear an economic crash when Trump fucks up the U.S. economy. ”
The anxious vibe extended to the annual U.S. in Progress section of the festival, in which winning applicants are invited to show work-in-progress cuts of their new films, and are matched with in-kind grants from Polish companies for various post-production services. The lineup included tense family dramas laden with dark secrets (“The Inheritance,” from Laura Davis and Jessica Kaye; “La Barracuda,” from Julia Halperin and Jason Cortlund) and ethnographic immersions (“Untitled Hasidic Film,” from Joshua Z. Weinstein), but also handily amplified the restive mood. “An American in Texas,” Anthony Pedone’s ensemble drama about punk-rock kids dreaming of escape from a nowhere factory town as the Gulf War heats up in 1990, is a protest anthem against the military-industrial complex, among other things, with a vision of underclass limbo that feels shockingly of-the-moment.
“Savage Youth,” the USiP entry from director Michael Curtis Johnson, swaps punk hooligans for horror-rap hooligans, and is both stylized and understated in its slow-burn towards a brutal true-crime episode drawn from events in the filmmaker’s hometown of Joliet, Ill. Will Brittain, unrecognizable from the hick he plays in Linklater’s collegiate comedy earlier this year, is Jason, a tough-tender loser with Eminem-like aspirations and a profound cluelessness he shares with his two friends, who spend their days free-styling with comic braggadocio and getting high. Through the miracle of the Internet, he meets Elena (Grace Victoria Cox), a prototypical “good girl” with artistic skills who falls for him. The story is juxtaposed with that of Gabe, an ambitious African-American college kid (Tequan Richmond) who drops out to become a successful drug dealer. Inevitably, and almost effortlessly, the two stories collide amid broken hearts, jealously, and way too many drugs.
Johnson also screened his current festival title and feature debut “Hunky Dory,” about a Los Angeles drag queen (co-writer Tomas Pais) who suddenly has his 11-year-old son on his hands. The glam-rock theme played well, and the film won one of two audience awards. “Maybe they were David Bowie fans,” said Johnson, whose film premiered at Slamdance and has played both LGBT and mainstream festivals. Although the lead character’s bisexuality isn’t a source for dramatic tension, it still led to a topical question: If Trump is elected, someone asked, ‘Did I feel the culture would be as accepting of LGBT people?’” he recalled. “I don’t think Trump is going to win, so I didn’t delve into specifics.”
Johnson’s characters don’t feel too far removed from the hip-hopping urchins jamming econo in Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey,” the exultant quasi-musical about a young woman’s self-discovery as she flees her crappy town and joins a nomadic wild-child crew selling magazine subscriptions … to people in other crappy towns. Except that Arnold’s tone is rhapsodic, and not a little anthropological – witness the stars-and-bars bikini flaunted by the crew’s ringleader, Krystal (Riley Keough), just for starters – as she glances in the rearview at Robert Frank’s “The Americans” and Harmony Korine’s “Gummo” and “Spring Breakers.” America, in the eyes of this Englishwoman, is ever a place of wonder and possibility. Even a Wal-Mart parking lot can be a site of life-changing potential.
This is, after all, the most exotic land in the world, according to Werner Herzog, whose Wisconsin trailer-park classic “Stroszek” was part of an imaginative sidebar of American films made by Europeans, supplemented by mini-retrospectives of similar work by Wim Wenders and special guest Agnes Varda, including a restored and rarely seen “Love Lions (… and Lies).”
A Singaporean raised in Australia who divides his time between the U.S. and Europe, Daniel Grove explores another, extreme facet of the American experience in “The Loner,” which also screened at AFF, after previously contending as a U.S. in Progress title. The film, set in the Iranian immigrant community of Los Angeles, is a luridly pulsing noir-like saga of a former child soldier in the Iran-Iraq War who now is an enforcer for Iranian mob. Expressionistic color and Lynchian derangement lend neon grandeur to the story’s mythic structure, an American dream painted in the hues of the Iranian flag.
“It’s very interesting to show movies here about the immigrant process,” said Grove, suggesting that it might feel rather alien here. “Poland which has one-percent immigration and that percentage is Russian, Lithuanian, Estonian, Swedish and one German guy.”
But “The Loner” does have an image with which its audience could immediately connect. “I asked my friend, who was at the screening, what were they laughing at?’” Grove said. “And she goes, ‘They loved the Putin shirt’ worn by a Russian mobster. It was Putin fucking a unicorn.”