Wednesday, May 18, 2016

HRAFF - My baby

When you sign up to help program a film festival, you never know exactly how much your own imprint will appear on the final selections.

Sure, films you liked are going to get selected. You'd be quite the useless programmer if you ended up being at odds with everyone on all the selections.

But I didn't know how many films I personally championed would make the final cut.

The best example of that was The Armor of Light, the third film I've made it to as part of this year's HRAFF (Human Rights Arts & Film Festival). I've been calling it "my baby," and I got my "proud papa" moment on Monday night, with my wife sitting next to me.

Abigail Disney's documentary is about an evangelical minister and the mother of a black teenager who was shot to death over a dispute involving the volume of his rap music. The two come together to make unlikely crusaders for gun control -- unlikely because his constituency is comprised of massive defenders of the second amendment, and because as she states so movingly, she never expected she would ever personally be in the position of mourning a slain child. It's a truly profound consideration full of twists, turns and defied expectations. Your average liberal viewers will be naturally unsettled to meet the Reverend Rob Schenck, a one-time anti-abortion activist who used intense rhetoric in pro-life rallies and who currently ministers to Republican politicians in Washington D.C., instinctively believing that he could never adopt a viewpoint that's close to their hearts. Yet his personal examination of the conflict between being pro-life and pro-gun is engaging and poignant. And Lucy McBath's testimony about the loss of her son and her campaign to prevent other parents from being in her position ... well, it's hard to choke back the tears. Not only is the film challenging and invigorating, it also has some of the best cinematography I've ever seen in a documentary.

I gave The Armor of Light five stars on Letterboxd after I watched it in September, and ultimately ranked it 14th out of all the movies I saw in 2015. (I now wish I'd had the courage to rank it in my top ten.) Immediately after my viewing I began talking off the ears of all the other programmers. My viewing partner also liked it a lot, but stopped short of giving it the rating of "Lock" I had confidently bestowed it. So while we jointly loved some films that didn't end up making it, The Armor of Light was really all on me. My enthusiasm put The Armor of Light on a shortlist of highly rated films for other programmers to watch, and soon I had a couple other passionate supporters on my side, including the program coordinator. It ended up being one of the first films offered a slot in the program.

So while I saw other films I was interested in go down to defeat -- in some instances because I knew the festival director didn't particularly care for it -- I always had The Armor of Light in my back pocket as one certain programming victory for me. I wrote the blurb that appeared next to it in the program, and couldn't wait to watch it with an audience.

Which almost didn't happen.

Although I'd told my wife I wanted to take her to this showing not long after the schedule was released, it wasn't until a couple days before that she actually asked my sister-in-law about babysitting on Monday night. I could kind of understand her hesitation. The movie didn't start until 8:45, so it would be a somewhat late night for my sister-in-law. While in some respects it would be an easier night than some of the times she babysits for us, as the kids would already be in pajamas by the time she came over, the fact of the matter was that she wouldn't be getting home until 11:30 or so -- on a school night. I suspect this weighed on my wife's mind as she procrastinated asking her sister.

My sister-in-law was all too happy to oblige -- she's good like that -- but then came the sickness that hit our family, in different ways for each of us. My older son has been sniffling for a couple weeks, and the younger one got sent home early on Thursday when one of his carers informally diagnosed him with hand foot and mouth disease. Whether he really had it or not I'm not sure of, since he seemed perky as hell. But we kept him home on Friday and weren't sure we'd be sending him Monday until Monday morning. Then my wife had been sneezing incessantly since early Sunday morning, and I had a tickle in my throat that I was sure would turn into something more. Needless to say, an 8:45 screening on Monday night was looking doubtful -- especially for my wife, but really, for both of us.

By Monday morning, though, everyone was fine, and we haven't looked back since.

Well, it turned into a lovely evening. My wife and I got down there early enough to have a nice dinner at an Asian fusion restaurant near the cinema, and even each dared to have a drink with dinner, despite the possibility it would cause our eyelids to droop during the movie. I didn't worry so much about myself -- I knew it was engaging enough that I wouldn't doze off, or if I did, it would be okay since I'd already seen it anyway. I worried about my wife, who's slightly less likely than I am to fight off sleep at the movies (in part because she goes a lot less than I do), but falls asleep on the couch at home all the time.

Fortunately, these fears were also unfounded. I could tell my wife was pretty gripped right from the start. There's some very emotional testimony by Lucy McBath not ten minutes into the movie, and I could hear my wife fighting back tears. She also laughed at a few of the film's lighter or more ridiculous moments (Sarah Palin makes an appearance), and scoffed when she was supposed to scoff.

Hers was the only reaction I could really gauge, unfortunately. There were maybe 40 others in the theater -- not the sell-out I was hoping for -- and they too reacted audibly at various junctures. I might have also caught a little weeping here and there too, I don't know. But really extrapolating much from their behavior was impossible.

I don't know exactly what I was expecting. I knew a standing ovation was probably out of the question, since this doesn't really seem to be that kind of festival -- the audience didn't even stand and applaud on opening night, even though that was a really good film and they knew the filmmaker was present.

But I decided it didn't really matter. This was my moment of glory, and nothing was going to sully it for me. I didn't feel inclined to look for a specific response. I already had all the validation I needed, that a little movie I'd unwittingly watched in three different sittings on my laptop at home, in part while putting away laundry, had made it to the big screen as part of a festival on human rights. It felt that in whatever small way, this was my contribution to making the world a better place.

And it was a joy to do something I wished I'd have done in the first place, if I'd had any reason to suspect it would be so great -- watch the whole thing in one uninterrupted sitting.

And yeah, it was pretty obvious that the evening's main draw was the film playing in the other screening room, the third showing of the opening night film, Chasing Asylum. That one looked pretty much sold out.

But I'd like to think that it was our 40 in my screening room who were really having their perspectives, their very minds, expanded.

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