- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 9, 2016


There’s still so much more to see at Santa Barbara International Film Festival as the fest heads into its final stretch this week, and the festival programmers have done an especially adept job at selecting works that are about places and by filmmakers from far beyond the U.S. borders and across all genres.

Even more amazing, many of these films focus on women.

As with the other entrants I have seen, this year’s crop is especially strong in the documentary category, with several more films highlighting niche cultures and bringing to the fore amazing stories, once again showcasing the power of movies to transport us to places and people from afar.


“Soy Cubana” from Jeremy Ungar and Ivaylo Getov is a 16-minute doc about Vocal Vidas, a quartet of Cuban women who share music — mostly a cappella — around their country and with the world. At a time when Havana and Washington are re-establishing relations, this film provides a face that Americans and world citizens can examine as just one part of a culture known to so few for a half-century.


From Sweden comes an eerie horror/mystery set at a girls school, “Alena,” directed by Daniel di Grado. As with most ghost stories, a past sin haunts the present as the titular young lady (Amalia Holm) is both tormented by her adolescent peers while enduring nightmarish visions of a shadowy figure from her past.

Themes of sin and redemption, budding sexuality and the difficult journey from childhood to adulthood permeate this atmospheric film, whose images hold up even without the Swedish helpfully translated into English, which held true in my own screener. (I believe it was Roger Ebert who once said a good film can still be understood with the sound off.)


“Crossing Bhutan” from director Ben Henretig tracks an expedition of Westerners who seek to walk across the country of Bhutan, nestled among India and Nepal among the Himalayans. Incredibly, the country’s proudest product and export, we are told in the film, is “Gross National Happiness.”

Magnificently photographed, Mr. Henretig follows the intrepid sojourners as they hike, bike and otherwise trek across the mountainous, remote country, interacting with locals and politicians alike — somehow all of them smiling and content. Is it the land’s Buddhist culture or perhaps that the Internet has only recently arrived? Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay joins the odyssey for a bike sprint, waxing philosophical on the importance of being outdoors and being, well, content.

The star of the show, unquestionably, is the photography by Larkin Donley and Mr. Henretig, which absolutely must be experienced on as large a screen as possible.


“Free to Laugh” from director Lara Everly is a 16-minute doc that follows female ex-convicts reintegrating back into society through the improbably potent power of comedy. Most of them come from poor, unhealthy backgrounds; most of them have the same tortured narratives of abuse and hard luck. But behind the mic, in a supportive, understanding atmosphere, the women find the humor in life — even in such difficult circumstances as reintegrating back into society, sobriety and tentatively reconnecting with estranged families and children.

My comedy teacher Bobbie Oliver once said “find the funny.” “Free to Laugh,” in its title alone, shows that laughter itself is the key to any prison, whether it be constructed of concrete or psychological walls.

An amazing short.

“Free to Laugh” will be screening Wednesday at Metro 2 at 2:20 p.m. and Thursday at Metro 1 at 2 p.m.

• Eric Althoff can be reached at twt@washingtontimes.com.

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