- The Washington Times - Friday, April 10, 2009

Filmfest DC is back for its 23rd installment, and it has a distinctly Eastern flavor this year: Eastern Europe and the Far East are both highlighted.

Japan has a number of entries, and Thursday’s opening-night gala features “Departures,” the winner for best foreign-language feature at this year’s Academy Awards. Other notable entries from the Land of the Rising Sun include the coming-of-age story “The Witch of the West Is Dead” and “Achilles and the Tortoise.”

Eastern Europe, meanwhile, is well-represented with films such as the black comedy “Tears for Sale” and the hard-hitting “Snow,” the tale of a Bosnian village and the decimation of its male population in the wake of the conflict there.

Screenings will take place throughout the area. For a complete listing of screenings, locations and special guests, head to www.filmfestdc.org.

Some of the festival’s highlights are examined in more depth below. They include:

Bonecrusher, the tale of a dying coal town about six hours southwest of the District, as seen through the eyes of one of its respected elders, Luther “Bonecrusher” Chaffin. The town of Dante, Va., contains a still-active coal mine, and it’s the only real source of income in the ever-dwindling community.

Generations go into and are ruined by the mine. Health problems flare up after years of inhaling black coal dust; on-site accidents cripple unwitting victims; and a sense of ennui is created from the knowledge that the world is passing these men by.

Yet the mine also creates a bond, like the one examined in this film between Bonecrusher and his son, Lucas. There’s a sense of unity and purpose in the town, and the knowledge that no one’s going to look out for them if they don’t look out for each other. It’s a fascinating glimpse at a life few in Washington can imagine being so close to home.

Breaking News, Breaking Down is reminiscent of nothing so much as an episode of “Dateline” — not surprising because the director, Mike Walter, is a veteran television journalist. District natives, in fact, will recognize Mr. Walter from his years at WUSA 9, the local CBS affiliate. His documentary takes a closer look at the mental toll disaster reporting takes on journalists. Inspired by Mr. Walter’s own trouble in dealing with Sept. 11 and the Pentagon attacks (he was an eyewitness), the film examines some of the other hot spots around the country — and the world — that have sent journalists into post-traumatic tailspins, including Hurricane Katrina and the Beslan massacre in North Ossetia, Russia.

Some may have trouble sympathizing with a journalist calling so much attention to the mental disorders brought about on the job. We’re more likely to associate post-traumatic stress disorder with soldiers and others doing traumatic work. What those people fail to realize, though, is the cognitive dissonance that takes hold in journalists who are required professionally to separate their humanity from what they witness and are relaying to a wider audience.

Ashes of American Flags: Wilco Live is produced and directed by Christoph Green and Brendan Canty (drummer for Fugazi, the District’s post-hard-core punk rock band). Following Wilco on its 2008 winter tour — which included a couple of stops at the 9:30 Club in Northwest, featured at the film’s close — the documentary is a superior effort to “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” Sam Jones’ 2002 documentary about the alt-country rock band.

Mr. Canty and Mr. Green focus intensely on the music, directing the piece with a sure hand that suggests the vision of far more experienced filmmakers. “Ashes” really sparks to life whenever the camera comes to rest on guitarist Nels Cline’s furious fingers — it looks as though he’s angry with the guitar as he wails on it.

There’s probably not a lot here for those who aren’t already fond of Wilco and its eclectic brand of rock, but it certainly will be a treat to check out the picture on a big screen with a massive sound system going all-out.

Sonny Bunch

Kei refers to the lovely bird — but a bad omen — that enters Kei’s (Simon Yam) apartment at the beginning of the film and also the Cantonese slang for pickpocket. Kei is the leader of a quartet of thieves who might have met their match in the mysterious Chung Chun-lei (Kelly Lin). This is a tough group of men — they light cigarettes while eating breakfast at the local cafe but the beautiful and seemingly vulnerable Chun-lei takes on each of them in turn, showing these cons how a con is really done.

Images and atmosphere are all in this film, directed by the prolific Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To. You won’t need to read many subtitles, as there is hardly any dialogue. The story is told through the troubled eyes of the thieves and in Fred Avril and Xavier Jamaux’s jazzy score. The music, the quiet and the themes all make this feel like an old-fashioned film, yet bustling and modern Hong Kong is on full display in this strangely charming picture.

Kinoautomat: A Man and His House is the world’s first interactive film, created by Raduz Cincera for the Czechoslovak pavilion at the 1967 World Exposition in Montreal. Filmfest DC is re-creating that experience for the first time in the United States with this special showing. The audience will vote and decide which way the plot will go at a number of crucial junctures in the film. It’s a clever idea and surprising that modern filmmakers have hardly used it, given the popularity of interactive television and video games.

The film itself feels dated, of course, but it’s nonetheless enjoyable as a snapshot of ‘60s slapstick comedy. It opens with Mr. Novak describing the inhabitants of his apartment building as each one rushes out of the burning building. “It’s all my fault,” he says, and we’re transported to earlier in the day, when he arrives home with roses for his wife’s birthday. (“Every wife has a birthday, but one’s own wife seems to have them more often,” he observes.) When a comely, near-naked neighbor is locked out of her apartment and goes to Mr. Novak’s for help — just as his wife arrives home — the plot is set in motion. With a little help from the audience, of course.

An on-screen moderator gives us our options. “What would you do in Mr. Novak’s place? Oh, you are in his place,” she tells us. We first must decide, for example, whether to let that beautiful blonde into the apartment. It seems that no matter how we choose, though, we can’t keep the apartment building from going up in flames.

The film was banned by the Communist Party soon after it was made. Perhaps the party didn’t like democracy in any form, even cinematic.

Kelly Jane Torrance

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