- The Washington Times - Friday, March 6, 2009

The D.C. Independent Film Festival is back for its 11th year, moving into Union Station’s Phoenix Theatres for this year’s festivities. The festival runs through March 15.

Wednesday’s opening-night festivities featured the North American premiere of “The Day After Peace,” a documentary directed by Jeremy Gilley that focuses on Mr. Gilley’s struggles to bring attention to the United Nations’ World Peace Day, Sept. 21. Replete with star power — Jude Law and Angelina Jolie show up to lend their services — Mr. Gilley’s movie is interesting, if a tad naive.

One might consider it a bad omen, for example, that then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi A. Annan’s announcement of the first World Peace Day celebration was scheduled to take place Sept. 11, 2001. In New York City. Not terribly far from the World Trade Center.

Peace must persist, however!

The animated short that kicked off the night’s activities had an interesting, antithetical point: “Sebastian’s Voodoo” is the tale of a voodoo doll that sacrifices itself to kill the witch doctor who is tormenting his cloth friends. It seems even voodoo dolls realize peace is impossible while someone else wishes you dead.

The short films are a highlight of this year’s festival, which is broken into topics throughout the week. Saturday afternoon’s subject, for example, is “Senior Moments.” The programming block consists of seven shorts — two animated, five live action — with running times between three and 37 minutes. View all seven films for $10; the program starts at 1.

Saturday evening focuses on horror. Beginning at 9:15 p.m., nine shorts carry you through the night and on toward the witching hour. DCIFF is a great place to see movies you haven’t seen anywhere else; the horror block alone contains five world premieres.

An individual highlight the tween set might want to check out is “How to Be,” a movie so popular that the festival added a second screening at 9:15 p.m. Sunday. Why is this movie so popular? Well, it’s the first to star teen heartthrob Robert Pattinson since his breakout performance in the vampire thriller “Twilight.”

The DCIFF offers more than just movies. There are a number of seminars, forums and panels. Some of these, like Saturday’s “Making It in DC” are free to the public. As the festival program explains, you can “meet the people that you need to know to produce films in the region — from union representatives to film commissioners. These are the people that make it all happen.”

Others run $25. Fans of the video-game industry should check out Sunday’s “Gaming and Film — These Worlds Collide!” while those looking for creative advice can attend lectures on “Acting for the Screen” and “Writing for the Screen” on March 14. For a full list of the 117 films and 13 seminars, check out https://dciff.org. — Sonny Bunch

Beyond environment

The best thing about the Environmental Film Festival is that it takes a very broad definition of “environmental.” You won’t just see films about pollution, endangered species and the energy crisis — though all these subjects are represented. With more than just a narrow focus on green activism, the Environmental Film Festival is really a celebration of our planet and the people and places in it.

The festival, now in its 17th year, kicks off Wednesday and runs until March 22 at venues across the District. This year, organizers have programmed an astounding 130 films, mostly documentaries, and invited 72 filmmakers and other guests to attend screenings and special events.

This year’s spotlight is on our oceans, with such films as the breathtaking “Secrets of the Reef” and the local-interest documentary “Who Killed Crassotrea Virginica?” — a look at the decline of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay.

There’s also a focus on filmmaker Werner Herzog, with screenings of 11 environmentally focused films by the German director, including his latest, the Oscar-nominated documentary “Encounters at the End of the World.”

“Encounters” is the theme of many of the films on display. In the French film “Country Profiles: Modern Life,” filmmaker Raymond Depardon visits rural France and finds that time has both moved forward and stood still.

It’s a beautiful film, opening with a sunset drive along a country road to the music of Gabriel Faure. We meet a lot of fascinating people, including a spry 88-year-old sheep farmer and his family, which includes a newcomer. Cecile has just moved from Calais after marrying a younger member of the family she met through a newspaper ad. She seems to be adjusting well to life on the sheep farm: “Wherever I land, I’m never bored. So I fit right in here. Maybe landing in a kind of clan is what’s hardest.” Her young, almost silent daughter seems less sanguine about the move. This film is as much about the people as the land of which they’re the caretakers.

Another French film, although co-produced with the National Film Board of Canada and mostly in English, is “The World According to Monsanto.” French journalist Marie-Monique Robin surfs the Web and the world investigating the controversial corporation that’s one of the biggest drivers of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

This isn’t so much an investigation as a hit job. The doc is incredibly one-sided, with seemingly no one to explain why so many people think GMOs could save agriculture. It also relies on sources with no scientific credentials, such as author-activist Jeremy Rifkin. Still, if you want to learn about this side of the story, the doc certainly delivers, along with some humor now and then. A French farmer getting a demonstration of a Monsanto herbicide tells the rep, “If you see any snails, don’t spray them because they’ll be inedible.”

Science might not be a star of that doc, but it is in “Naturally Obsessed: The Making of a Scientist.” This film follows three doctoral students at Columbia University who are trying to learn about a protein that regulates hunger — with the help of some pickle juice. (You’ll have to watch to find out why that’s important.)

Anyone who ever has thought scientists are a boring lot should check out this film. One of the students, in particular, is quite a card. “All my bridges were burnt. This is my last one,” he says, explaining that he got kicked out of his last lab for being mean and uncooperative. He approached the head of this lab, hoping to be hired, but being blunt: “I’m a loose cannon. … I’m guaranteed to cause you problems. Will you hire me?” Incredibly, the professor does.

Can a film about squalor be uplifting? “Marina of the Zabbaleen” strangely is. This doc looks at Cairo’s Muqqattam garbage-recycling village through the eyes of 7-year-old Marina. The Zabbaleen are the Christian garbage collectors who are a religious minority doing the city’s dirty work. What is so striking about this film is how the children, including that cute Marina, manage to smile amid the smell. One little boy even finds some fun in playing with a dead rat. They seem to find life there easier than do their parents, many of whom came from elsewhere and once knew a better life.

“Of Time and the City” might be the most poetic of the films on offer. Terence Davies, director of films including “The House of Mirth,” has created a glorious love letter, although not without some lecturing, to Liverpool, the city of his birth. He tracks its rises and falls with the help of the moving words of writers such as James Joyce.

This film will reel you in from the beginning, when Mr. Davies himself narrates A.E. Housman’s poem “A Shropshire Lad” in his expressive, distinctive voice. Archival footage helps tell the story, as do Mr. Davies’ own memories. He can go from talking about wrestling to religion in the blink of an eye. (It makes sense in the film — those wrestlers inspired one set of feelings, and his church inspired quite another.)

It’s a very personal film, but not exclusively so. One of the most moving moments comes when we hear the voice of a woman talking about how her mother died, leaving the 14-year-old with a pair of siblings, a 1-year-old and a 4-year-old. “Me dad stayed with us eight weeks and then he got a ship and went away and left us,” she says, immediately adding matter-of-factly, “‘Course, he died after.”

Mr. Davies quotes Felicien de Myrbach, who said, “If Liverpool did not exist, it would have [to] be invented.” Perhaps no one has ever invented it better than this native son.

Information on all the festival’s events and films, many of which are screened free, can be found at https://dcenvironmentalfilmfest.org.

Kelly Jane Torrance

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