Seeing a movie in the summer usually means forgoing a warm evening outside for the
refrigerated darkness of a theater. But not this year, thanks to the ever-growing
array of outdoor film festivals and movie screenings in the Washington area. Throughout
the summer, catch outdoor movies everywhere from your local town square or park to
the Mall and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
Screen on the Green
When: July 22 and 29, and August 5 and 12
Where: The Mall between Seventh and 12th sts., NW
Theme: See titles online, including E.T. and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Follow @SOTGinDC for updates.
NoMa Summer Screen 2013
When: Wednesdays, July 3 through August 21
Where: Loree Grand Field, Second and L sts., NE
Theme: “Outlaw heroes,” including titles such as The Hunger Games and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Follow @NoMaBID for updates.
Family Film Night at Sursum Corda
When: July 9 and 23, and August 6
Where: Sursum Corda at L and First sts., NW
Theme: “Family-friendly movies,” including Despicable Me and Toy Story 3.
Canal Park Thursday Movies
When: Thursdays, July 11 through August 29
Where: Canal Park at M and Second sts., SE
Theme: “DC Versus Marvel Comics,” including flicks such as The Dark Knight and The Avengers. Follow @CanalParkDC for updates.
The DC Drive-In
When: July 12, 19, and 26, and August 2
Where: Union Market at 1309 5th St., NE
Theme: “Movies about Washington,” including Dr. Strangelove and The American President. A car isn’t required. Follow @UnionMarketDC for updates.
When my father died, it was the first time I’d ever gotten a condolence note. Many times, I’d wondered if I really needed to write to a particular friend or acquaintance after a loved one’s death—maybe I didn’t know the bereaved well or simply couldn’t think of what to say. Too often I did nothing. Having now been on the receiving end, I’ve learned this: When in doubt, send a card (or an e-mail). It’s one of the cheapest and most meaningful gifts a person can give.
Letters to Jackie, the opening-night film of AFI Docs, demonstrates this phenomenon and its corollary during a time of shared grief: the ability of a condolence to offer healing to the writer.
The documentary, directed by Bill Couturié, uses letters written to Jacqueline Kennedy after her husband’s death—the White House received 45,000 alone by the Monday after his Friday assassination—as a vehicle to look back at JFK’s presidency. With the help of voiceovers (by Jessica Chastain, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Betty White, and others), rare film footage and home movies, and creative manipulation of handwriting and typescript, the film draws us into the broken hearts of individuals—not a nation but individuals—offering solace to a woman they felt they knew.
What comes to mind when you think of Branson, Missouri? Grand Ole Opry lite? Bible-belt kitsch? Osmonds? If those are the sum of your thoughts, add “ill-informed preconception.” And the antidote to that is We Always Lie to Strangers.
The quietly absorbing documentary by A.J. Schnack and David Wilson focuses on four music productions in Branson—where, it’s noted, the population is 10,520, the number of annual visitors 7.5 million, the yearly revenue from tourism $2.9 billion, and the number of theater seats 64,507 (more than Broadway).
The Presleys’ Country Jubilee—one of the town’s original shows, dating to 1967—stars patriarch Lloyd Presley and his extended family, including a son married to Branson’s Republican mayor. The Magnificent Variety Show (boasting “300 costume changes”) is the project of a young couple, Tamra and Joe Tinoco, and produced in the Osmonds’ theater. Showstoppers! is an extravaganza on a boat. And the Lennon Brothers are part of a clan that also spawned the easy-listening Lennon Sisters, a quartet discovered by Lawrence Welk in the 1950s and a TV fixture for decades.
At 97, Grace Lee Boggs doesn’t look much like a social activist or someone with an extensive FBI file, but she’s exactly that. Filmmaker Grace Lee’s (no relation, although she came across Boggs while researching a film about women with the same name as her) American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs chronicles Boggs’s life from her childhood as a Chinese immigrant in Rhode Island through her adult life as a Marxist theoretician, black power activist, and philosopher. Boggs’s wit and charisma carry the film—it’s hard not to be charmed by her willingness to do what she believes is right and the matter-of-fact way she recalls accomplishments from the past. “You don’t choose the times you live in,” she says. “But you do choose who you ought to be, and you do choose how you ought to think.”
During her time in college at Barnard, Boggs came across Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s teachings, and, thus, a philosopher was born. After more schooling, Boggs moved to Chicago, where she came in contact with the civil rights movement for the first time. “I was aware that people were suffering but it was more a statistical thing, and here in Chicago I came in contact with it as a human thing,” she said.
After taking part in the 1941 March on Washington, Boggs eventually moved to Detroit to be closer to the African-American working population—beginning her love affair with the city. There, she met her future husband, James Boggs. Through clips from television appearances and speaking engagements, we get a clear picture of the couple as public speakers, passionately discussing the civil rights movement. In interviews, Boggs recalls her viewpoints of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X’s teachings with clarity (she preferred the latter’s point of view).
A young Syrian girl holds her country’s flag with widestretched arms and sings cheerfully into a camera. Behind her on the sandy Aleppo street, a demonstration takes place—freedom fighters, parents, Free Syrian Army generals and children exist as one here, marching to express a single plea: Get rid of Bashar al-Assad.
Then an explosion occurs. The camera drops. The demonstrators’ voices turn into panicked screams; the girl’s singing stops.
The 15-minute short, Not Anymore, filmed by activist Matthew VanDyke offers a heartbreaking glimpse into daily life in today’s Syria—a country that prior to having a shattered infrastructure, outpouring of refugees, and massive casualties in the height of civil war was a close-knit Middle Eastern destination decorated with historic architecture. “It is beautiful,” says Nour Kelze, a 24-year-old teacher-turned-freedom fighter and a producer of the film, “without that monster.”
The film follows Nour, a fearless and passionate Syrian rebel, as she braces the front lines of a conflict that has taken her job, her friends, and her country’s picturesque landscape. She’s now a war photographer. “Everyone is going to know what’s happening to us,” she says, wearing a hard hat and sneakers in place of her former “fancy dresses and high heels.”
Teenage is a different kind of documentary. It’s not an “issue” picture, trying to explain, investigate, or solve some big controversy. There are no talking heads and no narration by the filmmakers. It isn’t the story of a single person or event. So what exactly is it?
On its surface the film tells the story of the “teenager,” examining the role young people have played in culture, politics, and historical affairs since the advent of the term. Based on the Jon Savage book of the same name, it begins at the turn of the 20th century with the first child labor laws in the US, which freed young people to discover themselves. And so, adolescence was born.
From that launching point, the documentary weaves the tales of four representative teenagers from the first half of the century: the hard-partying Brit who became a cautionary tale, a Hitler Youth member manipulated by a dictator, a rebellious German captivated by overseas music and culture, and a black Boy Scout trying to find his place. They were some of the first true teenagers, and their stories of facing teenage problems are depicted through archival footage and diary readings.
But, the most important facet to the documentary is the mood it creates. Its soundtrack, by Bradford Cox of the indie band Deerhunter, is ethereal and spacey. Informative subtitles don’t pop-up onscreen to explain where a certain piece of footage is from or even who is speaking—the images simply come and go for viewers to make sense of themselves. It all serves to give the film an ambient, dreamlike quality.
One of the greatest strengths of the documentary format is its ability to personalize an issue, to tackle an abstract concept with characters and stories instead of figures and statistics. To many, the forced labor camps of North Korea are one of these issues—we know they exist, we know horrible things happen there, but we’re so far removed from them that their everyday relevance is diminished.
Camp 14—Total Control Zone seeks to change that. It tells the hidden story of one of these prisons, where barbed-wire fences contain lives that know only hard labor, hunger, and complete domination. The political prisoners here receive no pardons, and their sentences never end. The only way out is death, which can come at any time of any day, sometimes simply via the whim of a guard with an itchy trigger finger.
The film centers around a young man named Shin Dong-hyuk. Born in the prison camp, he grew up knowing nothing of the outside world. The idea of “freedom” was inconceivable—his life was built around starvation and fear, orders and beatings. That is, until he escaped at the age of 23 to China and eventually Seoul, South Korea.
Shin’s story unfolds slowly, as the initial mysteries of how he came to be born in the camp, what happened to his family, and his ultimate escape are revealed piece by piece. Flashbacks to his youth are portrayed through haunting animations—they’re sparse, static, and colorless but for the splash of the blood-red flags fluttering on the execution grounds.
You could be forgiven for thinking the Macarena isn’t exactly the cornerstone of cultural assimilation, but for teens at New York City’s International High School at Lafayette, the dance is indicative of the essence of American culture.
In I Learn America, filmmakers Gitte Peng and Jean-Michel Dissard follow a group of adolescent immigrants through high school, as they grapple with everything from civics homework to soccer practice to self-discovery. But the film’s main focus is how the students experience their introduction to a new society’s norms. In interview after interview, they recount personal anecdotes and struggles to the point where the movie starts to resemble an episode of MTV’s True Life.
Filmmaker Tom Berninger hasn’t amounted to much in life, and he knows it. A pudgy, Chris Farley-esque, shaggy-haired misfit whose hobbies include listening to heavy metal and making mini slasher movies, Tom catches a break when his older brother, Matt, lead singer of indie band the National, invites him to come along on the group’s world tour to “help out.”
Tom, who up until that point has been living in the basement of his parents’ Cincinnati home, takes this as an opportunity to make a documentary, and the awkwardness that ensues is frequently cringe-inducing but also charming, endearing, and relatable to anyone who’s ever had a sibling they just can’t quite live up to. To no one’s surprise, the best parts of the footage quickly become those based around Tom, the bumbling, beer-swilling, often-buzzed “director,” who asks such remedial questions of the hipster band members that they all need a beat before they realize he’s actually serious. (One example: Tom asks his brother if he ever “gets tired onstage” and, in a moment that veers into Spinal Tap territory, asks the band’s drummer, “How many drugs, and what kinds of drugs, have you done?”)
Initially, Tom thinks he’s signed up for a sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll party tour, but when he discovers the sedate Brooklyn-based band is way more into sipping wine than slamming Jack Daniels, he’s disappointed, to say the least. So he keeps getting in trouble, screwing up little tasks, and drinking too much of the band’s booze, all the while turning the camera on himself to capture just how bad he is at all of this “work” stuff. It’s almost enough to make viewer suspect the whole thing’s a Joaquin Phoenix-esque hoax. At one point, Tom complains to Matt about being picked on by his boss, the tour manager, who repeatedly tells Tom to put down the camera and get his job done. “It’s like they think the only reason I’m here is because I’m your brother!” says Tom. To which Matt responds bluntly, “The only reason you’re here is that you are my brother.” It’s a slap in the face, but obviously one in a lifelong string of misplaced expectations and comparisons. Through the rough-cut footage of the concerts, it quickly becomes clear that Matt, nine years Tom’s senior, is a naturally gifted star. He’s dramatic, cool, dynamic, a quintessential lead singer. As for Tom? He’s a roadie—on a good day.
The shootings at Columbine High School. Wes Craven’s Scream movies. These are the all-too-familiar cultural touchstones referenced by the teen killers in the utterly chilling beginning of Lost for Life, a world premiere directed by Joshua Rofé. The documentary, which examines the question of whether it should be legal for juveniles to be sentenced to life without parole, begins with 16-year-olds Brian and Torey plotting to kill a classmate—seemingly just for kicks. Rofé reenacts the crime through photographs and actual video shot by the two boys both before and after the murder. It’s shocking and horrific, and makes the film’s goal of garnering sympathy for murderers seem well-nigh impossible.
But Rofé does an admirable job. Many of the convicted juveniles he interviews were abused as children; one, who spent more than 20 years in prison, was involved in a gang from a very young age. In one scene, photographs are shown of a young boy with his mother and stepfather as the man that boy became describes how he killed them; later, as he recounts the emotional and physical abuse he suffered at their hands, the same photographs are shown, imbued with a new air of menace. Among the questions raised: What does it say about America that when innocence is corrupted and the system fails to help children who need it, they’re forced to pay with their whole lives? Should children not be given a chance at redemption?