CARLA FORTE PHOTO by ALEXEY TARANThis month, The Miami Beach Cinematheque will hold its seventh installment of its Knight Foundation sponsored discussion series called Speaking In Cinema. Usually, the bi-monthly event features a local film critic, an out-of-town film critic and a guest filmmaker (this writer was one of the first guest critics). This time they are bringing together three Miami-based filmmakers for a very special installment of the series, and this is the first in what will be a series of interviews with the three filmmakers, who are all showing films in a retrospective series leading up to their talk. Meet Carla Forte.

Not too long ago, this writer reviewed the Hungarian film White God (White God takes the easy route to schlock over allegory– a film review). The most impressive thing about the movie was how the filmmakers wrangled 200 dogs and sent them marauding through the streets of Budapest. There was another film shown a few months earlier at the Miami International Film Festival that had a similar scene, Forte’s documentary The Holders. In it she explores the fate of many animals left at animal shelters (it’s often not pretty). Forte makes no apologies for the film’s bias toward animal rights. Writing via email, she says, “We need people in shelters who believe in not killing and who can confront the problem with compassion and respect.”

At the end of her film she presents the viewers with a solution that volunteers in Costa Rica have devised: a free range, no-kill shelter. It’s like a Shangri-La for dogs, where hundreds of abandoned dogs run free, receive health care and die natural deaths. The images of something like 700 dogs running down hills and jumping through creeks are stunning. “My friend Carla Lopez, a vegan activist, told me about this amazing place called Territorio de Zaguates,” explains Forte, “which shelters more than 700 hundreds stray dogs in Costa Rica. [Producer] Alexey Taran and I decided to travel to that place and expose this amazing reality happening in the mountains in a Latin American country.”

The place is so impressive, Forte has found a way to incorporate in her upcoming feature film, Ann. “It’s a feature film that narrates the story of Ruben, a man who has decided to abandon his tormented life by taking refuge within his own imagination,” she explains about the still in-progress movie. “His transgender wife Ann, in the face of a deteriorating relationship, attempts to understand Ruben’s idealized world.”

Forte says the film is still in its early stages. “We are launching an indigogo campaign to raise money,” she says. “We’ll be shooting the Feature Film in early 2016 in Miami and Costa Rica.”

Meanwhile, besides The Holders, the Miami Beach Cinematheque will also show an early short by Forte called “Interrupta,” which has been shown at several Latin American festivals as well as in Milan and Berlin. In it you will see her dancing in the shower. Besides being a director, she is also a quite talented modern dancer and choreographer. Dance often figures into her film work. As a choreographer, Forte puts a lot of thought in what dance means in a narrative, cinematic context. “‘Interrupta’ is about impermanence, emotional attachments, family. The characters in the art video are: my dad, my mom and my brother. We live in a world where every day people and things are influencing us and interrupting us. I am writing these lines while I am hearing my dogs barking and my neighbor cutting the grass. We have an everyday routine but suddenly something happens that we did not expect, good or bad, important or not, but it happened.”

There’s another abstract idea in the film, she adds. “I think people know some day we will die, but I think people do not realize that it can happen at any moment.”

When asked what inspires her as a filmmaker, Forte provided a rather poetic answer:

The desire to tell what I think inspires me. Is a path for expression.
Animals, people, the world inspire me. Is a path of exchange.
Silence, water, dance inspire me. Is a path of life.
Love and sadness inspire me. Is a path of feeling.
My family, my friends my dogs inspire me. Is a path of teaching.
Life inspires me. The big path.

Hans Morgenstern

The Miami Beach Cineamtheque begins showing the films by these local filmmakers starting this Friday, Oct. 16. For a detailed schedule, follow this link. It culminates in a discussion with the filmmakers, also including directors Jillian Mayer, Monica Peña, and Filmmaker Magazine Editor in Chief Scott Macaulay. This profile series continues tomorrow with a piece on Jillian Mayer (Jillian Mayer on inspiration from the medium of film and upcoming projects, from a talk show about pets to Kaiju) and then Monica Peña (read her profile here).

You can also read more about these filmmakers and their retrospective in an article in the Miami New Times by jumping over to the alternative weekly’s art and culture blog through the image below:

NT Arts

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

white-god-posterCoupled with several striking film stills taken from the best moments of the movie (just look at the poster), the concept sounds interesting:  In some alternate dimension of contemporary Hungary, owners of mixed-breed dogs are heavily taxed, making these dogs highly undesirable as pets. The kennels are full and the streets are overrun by these “mutts,” as they are derisively referred to by those who hate them. But what happens when these undesirable animals band together in a revolt against those who have abandoned them? With its atonal script and simplistic rationalization that defies genuine logic, White God devolves into melodrama and schlock, betraying any earnest intention for allegory.

I hate questioning a movie’s logic. I’ve always thought it unfair to judge a film against “real life,” especially a fantasy film like White God. But too often this movie features twists in the plot and tonal inconsistencies that challenge the viewer’s suspension of disbelief, which is so crucial to a viewer’s investment in cinema. In order to specify how this movie stumbles, I might reveal some spoilers, but it’s fair in order to understand why this film fails to deliver and may disappoint some with high expectations.

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White God‘s problems mostly stem from the clumsily written script by director Kornél Mundruczó and co-writers Viktória Petrányi and Kata Wéber. There are stretches in metaphors, from the film’s title to an early scene in a meat factory that shows the gruesome disembowelment of a cow’s carcass. There are also glaring plot holes that will lead many viewers to question simple details. The first of which has to be why a divorced mother would leave her daughter and the child’s mixed-breed dog with her ex-husband and fail to pay the dog’s taxes while she takes off on a three-month research trip. It’s conveniently overlooked plot points like this that appear too often throughout the film that will take the critical mind out of what should have been a better written film.

Thirteen-year-old Lili (Zsófia Psotta) loves her sweet, big dog Hagen (played by Luke and Bodie), but her father Dániel (Sándor Zsótér) can’t stand him. A neighbor, conveniently standing on the stairs of their apartment building as Dániel brings Lili and the dog home, confronts the father about the dog. After the neighbor makes up a lie that the dog bit her, an inspector pays them a visit. Fed up with the inconvenience of Hagen, Dániel takes Lili and her pet for a drive, leaving Hagen far from their home. Hagen, alone, then becomes the focus of the film, and for a nice while one of the film’s most impressive aspects shines: the animals. Hagen befriends an adorable Jack Russell Terrier 7(Marlene) that takes the lead in protecting Hagen from a large pack of dogs and shows him how to survive on the streets. During a section of the film that relies upon the gestures of the animals and the film’s editing above words, Mundruczó establishes a heart-warming dynamic that’s thrilling to watch unfold. The dogs have wonderful character, and when the cameras roam with them, from either way above, revealing their impressive numbers, or down below in the streets of Budapest, viscerally connecting the viewer with their claws and huffing and puffing, the film stands at its strongest. But these moments are too fleeting and hardly add up to a movie. More often than not, it feels like the director is straining to hold together his concept, putting Hagen through the ringer when encountering cartoonish versions of human beings, even putting the pooch in the clutches of a dog fighter who trains him to kill, a skill that Hagen will inevitably twist against humanity.

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Even though the film is at its best in wide shots featuring the dogs running in a pack of well over a hundred canines, I could not help getting over the feeling that I have already seen it done more impressively. When White God premiered in Miami last month at the Miami International Film Festival, there was also a Miami-made documentary called The Holders, whose title refers to people who are all too eager to give up their pets to shelters because they have become inconvenient. At the end of the film, we meet animal lovers in Costa Rica who have gathered and healed up hundreds of strays, herding them in the countryside, as if they were sheep. There was something poetic about the extended, unstaged scenes of the massive pack of dogs rushing through streams and winding their way through trees, but it also resonated in ways that White God falls short. It’s something to see if you get a chance. The film has no distributor, but director Carla Forte says she is submitting the movie to festivals now, so if you want to stay posted about upcoming screenings, “like” the film’s Facebook page (Facebook/TheHolders).

Unlike The Holders‘ finale, White God falls most ruinously apart at the end. Any build up toward an allegorical statement is subverted by the film’s third act when the dogs go on the rampage that a flash-forward at the start of the movie has built up to. What should have been the film’s boldest, most evocative moment,4 deteriorates to simple horror movie schlock featuring cheap effects out of a low-budget ’80s horror movie and a very convenient path of revenge by Hagen. It’s hard to sympathize with the killing machine hell-bent on carving such a convenient path to avenge all who have wronged or tried to wrong him.

White God will insult the intelligence of any adult drawn to the film’s allegory. Every peripheral character who deserves their comeuppance gets their due in gory confrontations with the killer dogs, but so what? Since when is simple, gut-pummeling revenge an answer to any problem? Though Lili finds a way to halt the rampage in a manner that will translate to another heavy-handed metaphor, no one is left alive to learn anything. The dogs certainly are not rising above the mastering of the humans by killing them. The film’s logic is fine for children, but too bad it has to be so violent. Moreover, righteous revenge as blunt solution does nothing to solve the supposed problem of the downtrodden. These dogs simply become ISIS on four legs. Any endearment is lost and the heavy-handed finale falls disappointingly flat in its contrivance. Though, again, it ends in a striking image, it takes more than superficial stunts to make White God work.

Hans Morgenstern

White God runs 119 minutes, is in Hungarian with English subtitles and is not rated (there’s some serious violence against and by doggies). It opens at the Miami Beach Cinematheque in Miami-Dade County and the Cinema Paradiso – Hollywood in Broward County in our South Florida area. If you live elsewhere and are looking for screening details in your town, visit this page. Magnolia Pictures provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review. It first premiered in Miami at the Miami International Film Festival.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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Risk-taking was the name of the game at the 32nd annual Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival. Festival goers had to take many risks in choosing their tickets, as the programming staff took many risks on young, little known filmmakers. As with any such risk-taking, the results were mixed, and that made for surprise standouts but also some disappointments.

This writer saw 22 feature films and three shorts in all at the festival (not counting the four excellent Orson Welles films I am familiar with that screened as part of a retrospective that remains ongoing; details here). That I only liked nine out of all those films at the festival (and this number includes two shorts) made this one of the less impressive festivals I’ve attended in a long time. It was a shame considering last year I mostly had to decide what film I liked less than others to find any weaknesses.

Almost half of the films I saw at the fest were as a juror for the Jordan Alexander Ressler Screenwriting Award category, which bestows a first-time feature screenwriter with a $5,000 grant. My fellow jurors included Gary Ressler, whose brother the award pays tribute to. Ressler brought his experience with story development at Disney Studios, working on films from Mulan (1998) to The Incredibles (2004). Mitchell Kaplan, knows what makes a good story, as he is the founder of the Miami chain of the independent book stores, Books & Books, also joined us at screenings and in the deliberation room. It was a pleasure judging with them and an honor to have been included on the jury.

Before a few remarks on some of the contenders, which does not reflect the opinions of my fellow jurors, I might as well note the winner of our award, which also stands as a highlight of the film festival: Theeb. Writer/director Naji Abu Nowar and theeb-021co-screenwriter Bassel Ghandour took the prize, which was accepted that night by a very gracious Laith Majali, a producer on the film. The director was unable to attend the award ceremony because he was attending a screening of the film at a village called Shakryieh in the Jordanian protected area of Wadi Rum for some of the Bedouin actors who participated in the filmmaking. For some it would be a first-time film-viewing experience.

As for the quality of the film, it resonated on many levels. The script stood out because it not only told a sensitively intimate story from the perspective of a 10-year-old Bedouin boy, but it insightfully spoke to the tapestry of tribal life and brotherhood in 1916 Arabia as World War I loomed. Beyond that, the film has a timely quality due to the chaos that seems to constantly brew in the post-colonial world of the Middle East, which has caused generations of suffering and injustice. All of this comes across with a patient, delicate hand. Though the film was slowly paced, even drawn out sequences build toward some pay-off, be it an insight on the setting or the character or a shocking twist in the action. As my fellow juror Gary Ressler said, it says so much in so few words. Majali says he hopes the film gets U.S. distribution and sounds positive that a deal is in the works with a notable indie that specializes in world cinema. When the deal is secure, you can expect a more in-depth review for a film that is sure to continue to make waves in the world cinema stage this year.

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There were several awards given that night including two major ones for a film I didn’t like. Here is the full list of winners:

Knight Competition Grand Jury Prize: The Obscure Spring (Mexico)

Knight Competition Grand Jury Award Best Performance: Cecilia Suarez, Jose Maria Yazpik and the entire cast of The Obscure Spring

Knight Competition Grand Jury Award Best Director: Abner Benaim – Invasion (Panama/Argentina)

Knight Documentary Achievement Award: Tea Time (Chile/USA), directed by

Lexus Audience Award for Favorite Feature Film: Kamikazee (Spain)

Lexus Audience Favorite Short Film: Young Lions of Gypsy (Italy/France)

Lexus Ibero-American Opera Prima Competition:  In The Grayscale (Chile)

Jordan Alexander Ressler Screenwriting Award: Theeb (Jordan/Qatar/UAE/UK)

Park Grove Shorts Competition: Young Lions of Gypsy (Italy/France)

Honorable Mentions: A Tree in the Sea (United Arab Emirates) & Alba Baptista for her performance in Miami (Portugal).

Miami Encuentros: The Apostate (Spain/France/Uruguay)

CINEMASLAM

Grand Prize winner: The First Day
Audience Award winner: The First Day
Best Documentary: Romana
Best Drama: The First Day
Best Actor: Juan Jimenez – The First Day
Best Actress: Valentina Jimenez – The First Day
Best Director:  Rita Pereyra – The First Day
Best Technical Achievement:  Timothy Wilcox – Top Shelf

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Reflecting on the films in the Jordan Alexander Ressler Screenwriting Award, there were a few strong contenders in the group, including A Girl at My Door, a film from Korea by first-time feature director July Jung. The film stands as a smart, progressive example of story-telling in dealing with sexual orientation while both offering social commentary while staying true to strong storytelling. Almost as strong was Tour de Force (Hin und weg), a film from Germany by Christian Zübert. The film pulled more tears from an audience than I ever heard. It dealt with a group of friends taking a cross-country bike trip to Belgium. It all seems like a fun time until the organizer of the trip reveals the reason for the trip: he was recently diagnosed with ALS … and assisted suicide is legal in Belgium. In the end, there’s a big reckoning for all involved, as the specter of death invites everyone to reevaluate their lives. It was just too bad that the delivery of this message arrived in a self-conscious sort of classical storytelling tinged with sentimentality.

Another decent film in the mix was Love at First Fight (Les combattants). A quirky humor dominated most of this French movie, as Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs) gradually fell for tough-girl survivalist Madeleine (Adèle Haenel). When he follows her tolove-at-first-fight-f11 basic training, and she caves under pressure, she starts to fall for him. The two characters then tumble into predictable roles, deflating the original dynamic flirtation between these characters that made the film engaging at the start. This sudden shift in Madeleine’s personality also felt disingenuous to her once interesting character.

Many of the other films in this category suffered by unfortunate turns in plotting that unbelievably betrayed characterization, sacrificing any honesty to the story and disrupting the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. That was the problem with Cut Snake, which could not get character dynamics to click with plot. There’s a twist in the drama toward the end of the film that betrays what could have been an interesting love triangle. Meanwhile, the weirdly disjointed horror/family drama Shrew’s Nest was inconsistent about character development throughout. It reached for mystery but stumbled into incredible convoluted revelations. Then there was 3 Beauties. What should have been an insightful satire into the obsession of beauty pageants in Venezuela, tumbled into poorly managed black comedy that grew tiresome fast, as the filmmakers hammered on the same joke over and over again.

Even outside of required viewing, feature film highlights were few in comparison to the disappoints. We also saw Ben’s At Home, a comedy about a young guy who decides to become a shut-in after his girlfriend breaks up with him … until a beautiful delivery girl shows up. It was cute but grew tiresome fast. Everybody Leaves (Todos se van), based on everybody-leaves-021the popular autobiographical book by Cuban writer Wendy Guerra, had some promise. The film’s narrator was a little girl who looked like Mafalda and is at the center of a custody battle in pre-Mariel era Cuba. Colombian director Sergio Cabrera did a great job capturing the atmosphere of the beach life and the complicated dynamics of a family unraveling in communist Cuba. However, the performances were sometimes uneven, and there was something a little too disturbing about the abuse the little girl suffered at the hands of her alcoholic father.

My partner on this blog, Ana Morgenstern, was on her own for Sunstrokes (Las Insoladas), the second film by Argentinian director Gustavo Taretto, which proved to be another disappointment. Here’s what she had to say about it:

Sunstrokes offers a funny look a 1990s Buenos Aires via six girlfriends who sunbathe on the roof of a building. Each of the characters has a quirk, a personality so distinct it almost errs on the side of stereotypical. Flor (Carla Peterson) is the leading lady of the pack. She instigates some of the action and is the stronger character of the group. Kari is a psychology student, she is interested in esoteric themes, like psychoanalysis through colors. Sol (Maricel Álvarez) is relaxed, and early on reveals sunstrokes-51that she likes to make copies of other people’s photos when they are good. Vicky (Violeta Urtizberea) is a hairdresser whose portrayal almost verges on offensive. As the “naive” one of the bunch, she’s the butt of every joke. At one point in the film, she realizes that Ernesto “Che” Guevara is often referred to as “Che” because of his use of Buenos Aires’ slang. Then there’s Vale (Marina Bellati). Afraid of being alone, she goes everywhere with her dog and does not let the other girls speak ill around him. Finally, the newest of the group, Lala (Luisana Lopilato) is the youngest and is also very gullible. She believes in UFOs and does a great manicure.

Throughout the film the sextet of gal-pals talk about life and decide to work together towards a common goal: to travel to Cuba next summer — all while being featured in tiny bikinis. Each of the side conversations is mundane and motivated to expose the world of women as a vacuous and idle world, void of depth and pathos but filled with easy laughs and lots of skin. The film also draws inspiration from its era, so cassette tapes and tape recorders along with giant cellphones are featured prominently, also for superficial comic effect. In all, the film is a one-dimensional cartoon that almost verges in the misogynistic.”

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Ana did like Wild Tales, though, another film from Argentina. It opened the festival to uproarious laughter that filled the Olympia theater for much of the night. That film will be opening at several theaters in Miami this Friday, including the art houses O Cinema and the Coral Gables Art Cinema. A review is coming soon. Another film that premiered at the festival and coming to local screens very soon is Felix and Meira. It impressed the both of us and tells the story of the emotional wandering of a Hasidic Jewish wife for a secular man who can’t help but flirt with her. Canadian directors François Delisle and Maxime Giroux keep their approach low-key to the benefit of what could have been an overly quirky situation comedy. With the help of strong actors including a former Hasidic Jew who left that life to become an actor (Luzer Twersky) who plays the cuckold husband, the film stood as a highlight of MIFF 32.

The most consistent category for exciting, entertaining and thoughtful work came out the documentary portion of the festival. There were some big hype titles like Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck and Wim Wenders’ return to the MIFF with Salt of the Earth, a film he co-directed with Juliano Ribeiro Salgado on the photography of his father, Sebastião Salgado. But the most thrilling documentary I saw was The Record Man, the-record-man-061-1024x576a film that looked at the life of Henry K. Stone, founder of Hialeah’s TK Records, which is best known for having produced some of the most popular Disco hits of the ’70s. Now, I never liked disco that much. However, the film swept me off my feet, and I was absolutely delighted by the storytelling behind songs like “Ring My Bell,” “Rock Me Baby” and “Get Down Tonight.” That Stone saw past race and color to support songs he felt had quality spoke to his purist approach to his business, and the film paints an affectionate portrait of the so-called “record man” that will win anyone over to the genre because it so genuinely celebrates music and the passion of those behind it.

Another smaller documentary that celebrated a different kind of artist was Architecture of Color, which focused on Rio de Janeiro artist Beatriz Milhazes. Like Record Man, it featured talking heads and a straight-forward approach. However, like Record Man, the film never loses its focus on emphasizing the art. As Record Man is at its best when it highlights the songs, Architecture of Color is at its most interesting when we are watching Milhazes create. Architecture of Color screened with another notable documentary, the 11-minute short “Papa Machete,” which was made by local filmmakers director Jonathan David Kane and producer/writer Jason Fitzroy Jeffers. It’s a film I have happily covered extensively for “Miami New Times” only because it is so good (read the articles here).

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I saw only one other locally-made documentary of note, The Holders. It certainly highlighted an important issue: the throw-away treatment of many pets in the Miami-Dade County area. Director Carla Forte provides an array of voices, from those working in public animal shelters to veterinarians to passionate, sometimes zealous animal rights activists. Most interesting, however, are the titular “holders,” who are ambivalent pet-owners prepared to give up their pets to certain euthanasia at animal shelters because the pet has become an inconvenience. The camera almost never identifies them but shoots them vérité style, from the shoulders down, at the shelter, as they nonchalantly give excuses as to why they can no longer “hold” them (too sick, the family’s moving, the dog pisses the carpet, etc.). It’s compelling stuff, which is unfortunately what made the film’s righteous tone, including an overly-sentimental voice-over featuring poetry that spoke of the intelligence and soul of animals, feel so heavy-handed. Still, those who think owning a pet might be “fun” should watch this documentary because, indeed, they are taking in another family member and all the responsibility that comes with such a decision.

There were other films we covered already on Independent Ethos. Check those out, including interviews and reviews, by following the Miami International Film Festival tag. It was a memorable festival, and I really feel humbled by executive director Jaie Laplante’s faith in my opinion to be granted an influence on blessing one of this year’s films with an award. Meeting fellow film lovers, filmmakers and film critics from out-of-town was also a great highlight. Tis an important part of the festival experience, and that stands as a great highlight of this year’s festival too. We attended several parties and had many intelligent conversations and some fun times. I only hope for more movies to love next year.

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Hans Morgenstern

(All images courtesy of Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival. Text copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)