Cinema without politics is like junk food. That's proven yet again by the nutritiously fulfilling LA Film Festival, which is taking place June 13-23 in downtown Los Angeles.
This year, the festival is presenting films by two giants who emerged out of 1960s European leftist cinema and are still making movies that matter: Italian director Marco Bellocchio and Greco-French helmer Costa-Gavras.
Sure to be a festival attention-getter is Bellocchio's "Dormant Beauty," starring Isabelle Huppert in a feature about the right to die. Bellocchio rocketed to fame in 1965 with "Fists in the Pocket" and 1967's "China is Near," which daringly dealt with Maoist subject matter.
In 1969, Costa-Gavras' unforgettably gripping masterpiece "Z" -- about the assassination of Greece's peace candidate and the Greek colonels' coup -- not only won a Cannes jury prize and Oscars for editing and Best Foreign Film, but was one of the rare subtitled movies ever nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.
French director Costa-Gavras at LAFF's "An Evening with Costa-Gavras." Photo by Ed Rampell.
The LA Film Festival honored him by presenting "An Evening with Costa-Gavras," which Festival Artistic Director David Ansen introduced by saying: "'Z' not only changed the world, it changed cinema itself." A montage was screened with clips from Costa classics, such as 1970's anti-Stalinist "The Confession" about a Czech dissident; 1972's Uruguay-set urban guerrilla warfare and anti-CIA saga "State of Siege"; and 1982's "Missing" about Gen. Pinochet's mass murder after the Chile coup, for which both Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek received Oscar nominations.
In a curious bit of "casting," Costa was then interviewed live in front of the sold-out Regal Cinemas theater by Mark Boal, who not only won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for "The Hurt Locker," but was also nominated for the pro-CIA, pro-torture agitprop "Zero Dark Thirty." At the beginning of the Q&A, Costa seemed to jab Boal by telling the screenwriter/producer: "You are a political filmmaker." But Boal and Costa were generally courteous, even cordial, although Boal -- literally half his European counterpart's age -- seemed dismissive of state subsidy for the arts, whereas Costa is currently President of Cinémathèque Française, that renowned bastion of film culture. Boal apparently doesn't consider the special treatment he and "Zero" director Kathryn Bigelow received from the CIA for their Bin Laden manhunt movie to be state support of the arts.
Right vs. Left: Mark Boal, screenwriter/producer of the pro-CIA propaganda pic "Zero Dark Thirty," interrogates French leftist director Costa-Gavras during LAFF's "An Evening with Costa-Gavras." Photo by Ed Rampell.
The U.S. premiere of Costa's latest film followed questions from the packed audience. "Capital" is a thriller about wheeling-dealing in the world of high finance, a sort of fictionalization of Charles Ferguson's Oscar-winning 2010 documentary "Inside Job" crossed with Karl Marx. Full of sharp dialogue and an even sharper critique of capitalism, the well-directed movie moves along at a brisk pace with a great soundtrack, revealing that the 80-year-old filmmaker is at the top of his game.
The festival's other progressive pictures include the documentary "American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs," about the Chinese-American woman whom Angela Davis declares onscreen to have "made more of a contribution to Black people than most Blacks." The ninety-seven-year-old subject of the biopic attended the screenings in a wheelchair and participated in Q&As. As Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky put it, "There's no grey hair in [her] soul."
There's no grey hair in her soul: Grace Lee Boggs makes a personal appearance at the LAFF screening of the biopic about her, "American Revolutionary." Photo by Ed Rampell.
Every decade or so, a pivotal film comes along that redefines America's indigenous people. In 1989, there was the deliciously defiant "Powwow Highway," followed by 1998's "Smoke Signals," based on Sherman Alexie's fiction. Alexie has an associate producer credit for the latest member of this select cinematic "tribe," "Winter in the Blood," which co-stars Gary Farmer, the great aboriginal actor who also appeared in the two other seminal movies. Andrew and Alex Smith's Montana shot and set adaptation of James Welch's novel provides a poignant, powerful portrait of America's troubled Natives.
During a Q&A, this reviewer asked if the movie's crucial dialogue was shouted by a Native character in a drunken rage: "This is our land! This is our land!" "Winter" co-star Casey Camp-Horinek, who has appeared in movies such as "Geronimo," raised a clenched fist and said, "You got it!" Then, she put her hands beside her mouth and asked: "Are you listening, Obama?"
"Our Nixon" is a compilation film by Penny Lane about the man who was U.S. President. The documentary is largely composed of and culled from 500 hours of never-before-publicly-seen Super 8 home movies shot by three Nixon aides that were seized by the FBI during the Watergate investigation. Lane has sculpted out of this forgotten footage an eye-opening insider's glimpse of the only President to resign from office, and of his Administration.
The documentary's most jaw-dropping moment takes place not behind closed doors in the Oval Office but in the White House's East Room on January 28, 1972. Nixon -- presiding over a dinner marking the fiftieth anniversary of Reader's Digest -- introduced the decidedly unhip Ray Conniff Singers by defiantly snarling: "And if the music is square, it's because I like it square." But then, one of the singers did something cool enough to give Nixon indigestion. Canadian alto Carole Feraci pulled a Medea Benjamin, holding up a banner saying, "Stop the Killing" and proclaiming to the astonished crowd that included aviator Charles Lindbergh, astronaut Frank Borman and Alice Roosevelt Longworth: "President Nixon, stop bombing human beings. ... You go to church on Sundays and pray to Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ were here tonight, you would not dare to drop another bomb." As the bandleader tried to snatch Feraci's banner, the thirty-year-old held onto it and added: "Bless the Berrigans and bless Daniel Ellsberg." "Our Nixon" is a pointed reminder about the U.S. surveillance state run amok as America grapples with another presidential snooping scandal.
Other highlights of the LA Film Festival include "My Stolen Revolution," a documentary about Iran. There is also Jacob Kornbluth's doc "Inequality For All," which features ex-Secretary of Labor Robert Reich holding forth on America's growing income gap. One of the festival's twelve Black-themed films is "Fruitvale Station," Ryan Coogler's Sundance-winning dramatization of the 2009 police shooting of Oscar Grant at a Bay Area train station.
There are some truly tasty treats at the LA Film Festival. (For more information, go to www.LAFilmfest.com.
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based journalist who writes regularly for The Progressive and is the author of Progressive Hollywood, A People's Film History of the United States.