When I cover film festivals, I travel the world via screens. Some would say it is a passive journey, watching an unending procession of scenes unfold, the flickering revelation of cityscapes and characters, always at a remove, but intent on crossing that divide in the hope of coming to a shared understanding of our humanity. That idealistic belief – or some paraphrasing of it – has been the over-arching conception of my experiences going back to my first Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), over a decade ago. I’m still a relative newbie with my Press/Industry credentials, which means there’s still a part of me that cherishes the experience of adding my voice to the collective in support of those narratives passed down to us by filmmakers. My critical hum provides the melodic festival buzz with a little extra volume and color and timbre.
To set the record straight though, that first TIFF, in 2009, wasn’t the first film festival I ever attended. I got caught up in the festival undertow right after graduating from college, where I had enjoyed access to cult & repertory screenings and classes devoted to Hitchcock and the gritty classic films of the 1970s. I was ready for a deep dive.
I wasn’t covering anything back to the early-1990s, when I stumbled across the Philadelphia Film Festival and discovered Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Dekalog, a ten-part dramatic television series of films based on the Ten Commandments, as a relative completist already under Kieslowski’s thrall thanks to The Double Life of Véronique and Three Colors (his three-film series dedicated to the themes and color schemes of the French flag), I couldn’t resist the challenge of attending all ten films as part of my ongoing Kieslowski education, along with any other titles I happened to add along the way. Of course, I have no idea what else I may have watched during that particular year, because I only remember the experience of The Dekalog.
Created for Polish television and set in a housing project as the country begins the arduous transition from communism to democracy, the series loosely wove the Commandments into the narratives, but it wasn’t intended as a theological treatise. The Dekalog, and most importantly Kieslowski himself, refuses to answer questions or provide an updated set of rules for life in the modern world. The setting narrows the focus, fostering the illusory sense of a close-knit community.
The twentysomething version of me saw the housing project as familiar – stripped of the racialized stigma I had grown up around in the late-1970s through the mid-1980s – but Kieslowski had gone further, creating a vision akin to Dante’s purgatory inhabited people on the margins, bodies without value, corralled together, yet able to trickle out invisibly to do the forgotten work. Was that part of what made the Black experience of such a place different, I wondered? Imagining how a similarly minded Black filmmaker, like Charles Burnett, would have fashioned a series of call and responses between protagonists and the Commandments themselves left me with a longing and wanting for the opportunity to see us (Black folks) vested as universal cultural signifiers alongside our human brothers and sisters.
What did I “see” this year during my first Sundance Film Festival when I watched 4 Feet High (Part of the Indie Series section, making it available at any time to pass holders) with its dynamic intersectional integration? Director María Bélen Poncio envisions Argentina as a live action setting that is densely political yet a hedonistic carnival always on the verge of spilling over into heightened animated sensuality. It’s schools and students feel innately open to inclusivity, but there’s also a willingness to not be deterred when certain aspects of social and civil rights do not live up to their expectations.
The lead character, Juana (Marisol Agostina Irigoyen) is a 17-year-old wheelchair user, yet her disability is recognized and, in many cases, factored in as just one element among many that comprises the whole of her. She struggles, as a typical teen, with venturing into a new school, making friends, and finding a place outside her family. All around her, the narrative reflects a fluidity of gender and sexuality reminiscent of Prince’s punk funk manifesto Dirty Mind uprooted and seeded into this new world’s social protest wonderland.
I see in Juana, the same agitation as in my own children who have answered their generation’s righteous and riotous call to arms over Black Lives, sex education and abortion rights as well as multiple conceptions of identity and disability. There is an innate willing to protest, to lay messy siege to privileged spaces. Rallying support – across the human spectrum – is instantaneous thanks to how social media platforms can summon individuals, complete with something chaotic and magical in the gathering.
I love how 4 Feet High positions disability into a larger cultural context and illustrates how it can seamlessly be integrated into a much more inclusive vision for social and civil equality but does so without a need to be so precious and protective of Juana. Social struggle inherently has an acknowledgement of pain and sacrifice, an embrace of the possible likelihood of emotional and/or physical harm. Supporting Juana, and by extension my children, means appreciating their acceptance of the dangers of engagement and offering solidarity without limits to a full existence. They don’t live, as I did, locked inside their heads, seeing the world as a lopsided dichotomy between white and black. UNITY in their intersectionality makes them fierce and fearless.
My first Toronto International Film Festival was a different affair. A dream trip, to be sure. A combination anniversary/birthday gift that my wife and in-laws cooked up, intent initially on surprising me, until the realization that they couldn’t apply for either a passport or press credentials without my input, so having waited as long as possible, they finally let me in on the plan.
Happily, I prepared for a divided experience. Coverage opportunities during the mornings through mid-afternoons – press screenings and junket interviews – which gave way to late-afternoons and evenings spent with my wife, either attending public screenings (my wife is not the film fanatic that I am, but she was a trooper this first time) or enjoying our first trip together outside the country.
Getting there was a reminder of the ever-present difficulties of escaping racial expectations. We’re an intersectional interracial couple – I’m a Black Southern Catholic and she’s a non-religious cultural Jew from the Bronx – with a strange (made-up hyphenated) last name that belongs to only us. And we were driving up late in the evening with plans to spend the night just across the border in Windsor, which would allow us to arrive in Toronto late-morning the next day.
It goes with saying that we get stopped at the border and told we needed to report to the administrative office for additional questioning. I remember one of the officers asking each of us our names (while holding up and inspecting our brand-new passports) and then asking how we were related. I knew I had a keeper back in the car, having passed this not at all routine situation, when we both admitted to wanting to reply that we were brother and sister, just for laughs. But, of course, what would have likely happened next would not have been the least bit funny.
We made it through and to Toronto and the only film I recall from that year was Precious, Lee Daniels’ second feature directing effort, which would go on to earn six Academy Award nominations and two wins (Geoffrey Fletcher for Adapted Screenplay – a first for an African American in either screenwriting category – and Mo’Nique for Best Supporting Actress). It was a lurid nightmare of neglect and abuse that pumped thick pulsing life blood into Sapphire’s prose from the novel Push.
Thinking back on it now, some part of me wants to force this Daniels square peg into one of Kieslowski’s rounded holes in The Dekalog. It offers race, religion, and familial discord tropes and insinuates pop cultural awareness in a marked departure from Kieslowski’s stark documentary-styled presentation, but it didn’t speak to or for me. It wasn’t my experience of Black life, although the critical process of rewriting my way into its narrative wasn’t as complex as the effort required sometimes for traditional mainstream (and even indie) films where the premium lives were (and had always been) white. Which was fine, because I sensed that TIFF, in the future, would show me more of what I was searching for.
What teenager sees themselves as being at the center of a narrative? That’s not to say teens don’t experience a sense of invincibility, full of youthful vim and vigor. Or that they don’t enjoy being the center of attention within the confines of family dynamics. But the focal point of a story?
When I was a teenager, there was no sense of there being a story at all, just statistics, which some folks wanted to believe told a story. I was slated to be incarcerated, expected to be caught up in the system. I wasn’t assumed to be able to make it out of my twenties alive or without having served time. College was assumed to be for someone, anyone else.
(Now that’s not entirely true, in my case, because I was lucky enough to have caught the attention of teachers and administrators who saw something special, something gifted in me, which they rushed to nurture as a means of assuaging societal guilt or to use me as an example of how one of us could make it out. And I didn’t even have to take part in any kind of battle royale a la Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.)
I thought about how little things have changed while watching Maisie Crow’s Sundance US Documentary Competition feature At the Ready. The film spotlights a recent year at Horizon High School, in El Paso (just 10 miles from the US/Mexico border), which offers a Law Enforcement curriculum, allowing the school to serve as a pipeline for Customs, Border Control, and Homeland Security. A majority of Horizon’s students have direct links across the border, triggering a movement back and forth for both students and their families. The aim is to propagandize and recruit young Mexican American students to spy on and actively police their own communities in the service of a government that does not see or recognize them as full and rightful citizen of the state.
The choices offered present something more insidious than a simple clash of values or a desire for a better life. There is an existential crisis being foisted on these students, one that America has always found the ways and means to weigh down generations of marginalized people, especially the youngest and most vulnerable.
I watch the scenes of students at Horizon – practicing exercises in their school building after hours where they coordinate incursions into people’s homes, targeting folks in similar situations, seeking an opportunity for a better life, but staring down the barrel of guns, at badges and the faces of officers who look like them, as if that somehow makes everything alright – and I can’t help but see this as exploitative. Is this really the image America wants to present – a police state where we’re convinced it is our duty to target members of our own communities in order to please The Man?
In my mind, I transition from At the Ready to the Apple TV+ documentary Boys State, another feature examining students getting involved in governmental processes, but at least in that case, it felt like all of the participants understood and appreciated the nature of politics. As cynical as I am, I can see how a non-white male student might imagine a path for themselves where they could enter the fray and hope to make a difference. At the Ready, despite its best efforts to present an objective perspective, couldn’t break down my stubborn resistance to the idea that there is no way to truly help people when you’re breaking down their doors and pointing guns at them. That may be what some of us want from law and order, but my eyes see a different truth in that, which may not ever prove to be right.
What was it like, during that first truly international journey to Cincinnati’s sister city, Munich for their festival? By that time, I had covered less than a dozen film festivals and the far more intriguing concern was traveling abroad for the first time. More than crossing a border, I was preparing to live completely outside myself. I was fascinated by the idea of being a Black man in Europe and recognizing, for the first time in my life, that my Blackness was separate from being American. I wasn’t unencumbered by race, but I didn’t truly understand what that meant. I could be seen as African or an immigrant, that is until I opened my mouth.
Beyond the screenings, what I remember is a steady stream of World Cup matches. Before I left the States, I had started tuning in, watching and comparing the game, as an American would, to basketball or American football, especially the playoffs, with their heightened and fiercely loyal fan bases. I could recognize the familiar fun, but I wasn’t ready for the global scale. Forget our trivial designations of “World Champions” from the NBA, the NFL, or MLB, when anyone talks about the World Cup, that “World” is the real deal.
It made sense to me then, for the first time what I wanted to convey when I defined myself as Black. That term, starting with the capitalization of its first letter, encompasses ancestral Blackness (legacy) and a union in the now of this particular group of people of color, which does not need to be limited by national origin, hairstyle, or any other outside criteria. We are Black, like We are the World.
Within a few days, I had settled into a typical festival routine – press only screenings early in the day, hoofing my way between several venues while relying less and less on maps, finding precious moments between screenings and stuffing myself with quick street food treats to knock out blog posts and reviews – and discovered a freedom to explore. Munich invited me to play hooky, to indulge in life offscreen.
The beer gardens overflowing with people watching and cheering for their national teams or favorite players demanded attention, which compelled me to leave my computer and notes back in my room, along with my fears about not knowing any German. Nearly everyone spoke English and Spanish and French and of course German, while I was isolated in having only one language to communicate in. I wished for the ability to eavesdrop in other languages, to hear comments about me from those in my company and being in position to surprise them with on-point replies.
I watched films during that festival, exploring my Otherness in startling ways. For instance, I will never forget how Quantum Love / A Chance Encounter (Ein Augenblick Liebe) tickled my fancy. I sat down for the screening, assuming it would be like any other, until a minute or so in I realize that I’m watching a French film with non-English subtitles about the quantum physics of infidelity with a narrative that spins creatively without completely jumping off its track and it engaged me effortlessly without a need to understand the dialogue.
I listened, I suppose, hoping that I would process a word or phrase from French or German on my own, for a fleeting victory. Before long, I listened with more than my ears. My eyes picked up the physical cues, the unspoken language, much more universal than we ever imagine, because we ignore what we express through our bodies. This is another way that we fail to see each other.
I saw characters in love, their fears, glances pregnant with interior information, waiting to be acknowledged. I gained newfound respect for actors who inhabit their characters so fully, becoming these people down to their mannerisms with rich and distinct differentiation from who they are outside these filmed narratives.
Was that how I was in Munich, a different Black man, a different American than the person I am?
How much of telling our stories truly just an act of delusion, when writing becomes rewriting and editing until the truth morphs into something we no longer recognize as our own experience?
As a film critic heading into a third decade on the beat, I’ve come to recognize the idea that a look at my collected work amounts in some meaningful way to autobiography. Part of my intention, as a break down narratives and remix current cultural acknowledgements into the work, is an act of sharing how and why I fit into the stories (both fiction and non) of these filmmakers I engage with. I am revealing and recognizing reflections of myself.
It is akin to WEB Du Bois’ theory of double consciousness – the Black struggle of “seeing” ourselves through the eyes of a society whose vision is fitted with a lens of contempt yet somehow still compelled to embrace the ideal of who we are – but there is a powerful shift in terms of taking control of the vision. As a critic (embracing a newfound position as a storyteller and artist), my rewriting of the films I see, by actively creating a place for myself in these presented filmed narratives and the discussions of them, matters. I can transform white mainstream stories into something closer to that idealized notion of what we mean when we talk about being universal (American).
I confronted the inevitable abuse of this rewriting in writer-director Sam Hobkinson’s Sundance World Cinema Documentary feature Misha and the Wolves, which investigates the veracity of a Holocaust survivor’s story.
Through her memoir, we learn that Misha Defonseca was a child of seven, with no knowledge of her parents beyond their first names. She first told her survival story in a synagogue as an adult with friends listening, friends who knew nothing of her experiences; of how she ended up with a foster family in Belgium that treated her poorly and how she created a deception which kept her alive. She decided, at seven, to walk to Germany to find her parents, although she knew nothing more than their first names. Single-minded focus, young Misha took in the horrors of decimated cities and survived by living in the forests alone. In the woods, she escaped from the war, found a sense of safety among the animals and the ecosystem.
When she finally documented her experience on paper in the mid-to-late 1990s, her time living with and among wolves attracted attention from the publishing world and Hollywood, landing a spot of Oprah’s Book Club. As the spotlight intensifies, Misha retreats for seemingly no reason, going so far as to file a lawsuit against her publisher, which heads to court in 2001.
The publisher, a small press caught up in what should have been a game-changing moment for their business, began to question if somehow, they had done the wrong thing. Was the publisher exploiting a Holocaust survivor? Who was Misha? What and how much of her past did she know? Soon, the publisher starts writing a memoir of working to capture Misha’s memoir. A genealogist joins the publisher’s case. Another Holocaust survivor in Belgium is enlisted to aid the discovery of Misha’s truth (publisher’s perspective). And in all of these overlapping and overlayed investigations, a new Misha comes into focus, upending expectations and potentially shattering Misha’s own idea of who she was.
Misha and the Wolves spends most of its runtime caught up in the process of storytelling, collecting details and facts from different perspectives, which in turn, lead to the revelation of new layers covering up a fundamental truth. Hobkinson explores how everyone tells their stories, but at the end of the film, we never come to appreciate why – at the center of it all – Misha rewrote her own tale. Is she a victim or villain for having created her grand fiction?
And what about those of us forced to rewrite ourselves into cultural narratives where we haven’t (and sadly still don’t) exist in meaningfully diverse ways? We may be in better positions to tell stories that showcase the multitudes of experiences embodies in our Blackness, but I dare say I won’t give up the critical act and art of recreating and rewriting these worlds I visit on my journeys across screens.
I will always want (and need) to see…me.
Note: This is the second in a series of long-form pieces based on my 2021 “Truth & Reconciliation” project. These essays and a soon-to-debut podcast (Critical Reflections) would not be possible without the support of ArtsWave, the City of Cincinnati, Duke Energy, Greater Cincinnati Foundation, Fifth Third Bank and the Arts Vibrancy Recovery Fund.