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Houston Cinema Arts Festival 2015

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Howdy folks! This year’s Houston Cinema Arts Festival featured an impressive lineup of films and a diverse array of guests, from hip-hop legends Kid ‘N Play to Kidlat Tahimik, “the father of the new Filipino cinema.” For 8 days, venues in and around Houston’s museum district played host to a variety of screenings curated by Houston Cinema Arts Society artistic director, Richard Herskowitz. It was a delightful week and I have much to report.

The HCAF is dedicated to films made by and about visual, performing, and literary artists. For the first time in it’s seven year history, the festival introduced an element of competition. The HCAS collaborated with NASA to present CineSpace, a short film contest featuring shorts made with actual NASA imagery. CineSpace was created to bring awareness to the massive amount of footage available to the public and to encourage people to use it. In all, there were 194 entries from 22 countries and 32 states. The winners got cash prizes and their films were played on the International Space Station. Read more and watch the 16 finalists here.

Photo by Anna Veselova. Courtesy of HCAF.

Another highlight of HCAF ’15 was the House Party 25th anniversary screening and Q&A with Kid ‘N Play at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH). Props to HCAS for recognizing this 90s classic, an iconic hip-hop/high-school film with a lot of heart, written and directed by Reginald Hudlin, based on his 1983 short film of the same name. Besides Christopher “Kid” Reid and Christopher “Play” Martin, Robin Harris, Martin Lawrence, Tisha Campbell, A.J. Johnson, John Witherspoon, and R&B group Full Force are among the deep cast of now familiar faces. The soundtrack is infectious and the dance scenes are still impressive. There was a cool vibe at the screening and it was apparent that people were excited to be there. The Q&A was hosted by DJ Patrick A. Reed and radio personality Madd Hatta. It was funny and insightful. Listen here.

Later in the evening there was a live performance at Cafe Brazil. Kid ‘N Play reenacted the rap battle from the movie and they even did their famous kick dance. For a couple of guys in their fifties, they really haven’t lost a step. Good times. More pics (click to enlarge):

Photos by Anna Veselova. Courtesy of HCAF.

Krisha also played at MFAH and it took me by surprise. I’d heard good things about Trey Edward Shults’ directorial debut, but no amount of SXSW buzz could prepare me for the emotional jolt that I experienced in the screening. As the end credits rolled, I let out a big gasp and looked back to find the entire row behind me covered in tears. Krisha is a tremendously personal film; masterfully made and deeply affecting. Some people aren’t equipped to (or just don’t care to) watch this brand of intense family drama, but those that stick with it will be rewarded with a sensational experience.

Krisha was filmed in 9 days at Trey’s family’s home in Houston and stars his (surprisingly talented) family as much of the cast. His aunt, Krisha Fairchild, fervently plays the title character in a memorable performance worthy of acclaim. The movie puts you in her shoes on Thanksgiving, as she rejoins her family after being away for years. In a touching Q&A after the screening, Krisha revealed that before the shoot, not only did she have her heart broken, she also lost her right index finger while breaking up a dog fight. The pain was channeled into her character. Trey’s mother, Robyn Fairchild, is also convincing, and actor Bill Wise brings the laughs. In the Q&A, they all spoke warmly about the shoot, the collaborative process, and the rehabilitative nature of making a film this deeply personal.

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Before the movie, Trey Edward Shults was presented with the Levantine Cinema Arts Emerging Artist Award by producer Donna Giggliotti. It was well deserved, he assuredly controls and deftly handles every aspect of the film. He wrote, directed, and produced it. The cinematography by Drew Daniels is impeccable, with gorgeously lit closeups and stunning tracking shots including 17 minute and 19 minute takes. Shults learned from Terrence Malick, starting off as an intern on The Tree of Life and working in the camera department on other projects. Brian McOmber’s boisterous score perfectly accents the chaos and drama on screen, taking you inside of Krisha’s psyche.

Krisha won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the SXSW Film Festival and went on to screen at Cannes where it was picked up by A24. It’s set to hit theaters in March 2016. A24 has also signed on to produce Trey’s next picture, It Comes At Night.

Kidlat Tahimik, inspiring Filipino filmmaker and longtime NASA enthusiast, was in town to present three of his films: The Perfumed Nightmare (1977), Who Invented the Yoyo? Who Invented the Moon Buggy? (1982), and Why is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow? (1994). The Perfumed Nightmare played at Aurora Picture Show. The intimate setting was the perfect location for the screening which included a live performance, Q&A, and art installation by Kidlat. He explained that everybody has a duende; a perspective or worldview that is unique to them. His films are personal yet accessible, simple but profound, amateurish yet ahead of their time. They allow you to glimpse into his world and experience his duende.

Kidlat Tahimik didn’t have any formal training as a filmmaker, just a Super 8 camera, a good eye, a keen sense of discovery, and a knack for metaphor and wordplay. The resulting films abide by no rules; they follow no formula. The Perfumed Nightmare is part documentary, part faux autobiography, and part cinematic essay. It features Kidlat as a jitney driver from a small village with only one bridge. He is fascinated with NASA and the allure of Western civilization, often listening to “Voice of America” on his transistor radio. He travels across the bridge, becomes one of the first people from his village to fly in a plane, and visits Paris and New York City. He eventually becomes disillusioned with Western culture but is never judgmental. The film has a great spirit; Kidlat is genuine and likable, and his honest observations hit home without feeling preachy.

 

Why is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow?–widely considered Kidlat Tahimik’s masterpiece–was shown at She Works Flexible, a local art gallery conveniently located next to Cafe Brazil, a chill place to hang, with tasty food and drinks, free wi-fi and a courtyard perfect for receptions and gatherings.

The film is a 3 hour mix of home movie and documentary with social commentary, that spans 14 years in the lives of Kidlat and his eldest son, also Kidlat. (Before Kid ‘N Play there was Kid ‘N Kid.) It takes place during a tumultuous period in the Philippines with excursions to the United States and Japan, among other places. Why is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow? is funny and it has an energetic tone, but it’s also poignant. A menagerie of images are artfully blended together with voice-over narration to create a visual poem and the result is a cinematic scrapbook of the times. Viewers get to ride in Dennis Hopper’s Cadillac (“America is not America without a Cadillac ride”), witness a 2.5 million person rally in Manila, see the destruction caused by a massive volcanic eruption and earthquake, and participate in a successful democratic revolution to overthrow a corrupt dictator. You also see a caring father raising his son and exhibiting grace under fire, always remaining positive and enthusiastic despite whatever’s going on.

Kidlat Tahimik is a diamond in the rough; his films are unique and I feel lucky to have experienced them, especially in such a personal setting. His work is more relevant than ever with the affects of neocolonialism taking a devastating toll on the planet. Someone (ahem, Criterion) oughta put together a proper box set of these wonderful films and release them for public consumption. Both Kidlats participated in a Q&A after the screening, followed by a lovely reception on the patio.

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Kidlat and Kidlat. Photo by Adam Sanders.

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Throughout the week, I caught several HCAF screenings at Sundance Cinemas, including: Carol, Todd Haynes’ exquisite film starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara about two vastly different women having an affair in 1950s New York; Youth, Paulo Sorrento’s deeply contemplative followup to The Great Beauty, starring Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel; Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, a splendid documentary about the gregarious collector and her life which was “all about art and love”; The Kindergarten Teacher, a bizaare Israeli film about a kindergarten teacher who is overly infatuated with one of her students, a young boy who randomly recites beautiful, original poetry; and When I Live My Life Over Again, starring Amber Head and Christopher Walken as a struggling musician and her father, an old crooner itching to make a comeback.

Overall, the programming at this year’s Houston Cinema Arts Festival was exceptional; a terrific blend of old and new, the familiar and the unfamiliar, East and West. Before the fest, I wondered if the use of multiple venues would be inconvenient, but parking was never a problem and I enjoyed the variety of locations. I was able to see most of the films I wanted, but due to overlap there were a few I missed out on. I would’ve loved to have seen Kidlat Tahimik’s Who Invented the Yoyo? Who Invented the Moon Buggy? but I couldn’t pass up a chance to see childhood favorite House Party at the museum with Kid ‘N Play in attendance. C’est la vie. Check out the full schedule here and make plans to attend next year’s festival. Good times!

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Photo courtesy of NASA.

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