Springtime in Nashville means warmer walks on the greenways, balmy back porch evenings, and – of course – the start of the Nashville Sounds baseball season. But for Music City cinephiles, April brings amped-up anticipation for the now-10-days-long Nashville Film Festival. This is the first year the fest will be held at the Regal Hollywood 27 theaters, and while the change of venue will affect the overall feel of the event, the lineup of documentary and narrative features looks predictably strong. For me the festival is a rite of spring, and every year I anticipate writing this preview of the fest flicks that explore the kinds of issues we illuminate year round in the pages of The Contributor: poverty, homelessness, chemical dependency, vulnerable marginalized communities and the power of art to heal individuals and communities.
The Nashville Film Festival runs April 20-27 at Regal Hollywood Stadium 27 & RPX. Tickets are on sale now: https://nashvillefilmfestival.org.
Chasing Evel: The Robbie Knievel Story
Professional daredevil Robbie Knievel has a lot in common with his famous father, motorcycle stunt pioneer Evel Knievel: Robbie’s an even more talented cyclist than the old man, and he bridged the gap between his father’s first famous mega-jumps and the X Games culture we know today. Robbie’s also an alcoholic like his dad, and while his stunts on Fox TV in the 1990s brought massive ratings, Robbie’s now in his mid-50s living in an RV, drifting through the deserts of the American Southwest like a “modern gypsy.” Chasing Evel revs the throttle on the glory, fame, riches, violence, abuse and egos in the Knievel saga. But it’s ultimately a story about family, fathers, sons and the terrifying risks that come with forgiveness and redemption.
Before 1992, hip hop was a $600 million musical genre. After 1992, black urban beats and rhymes became mainstream music everywhere in America, morphing into a $10 billion industry. In 1992, Dr. Dre released his debut solo album The Chronic. The record introduced talents like Snoop Dogg, Warren G and Nate Dogg. It also combined funk samples, synthesizers and female background vocals to create a new subgenre: G Funk. This documentary takes viewers into the Long Beach, Calif., neighborhoods where Snoop, Nate, Warren and Dre first met and it follows them into the clubs, house parties and studios where their music was invented. G Funk also illuminates the drug and gang cultures on both the West and East Coasts in the 1990s, and it shows how the rise of G Funk led to the fall of two of hip hop’s brightest stars.
Finding Kim is an eye-opening journey through one transexual’s physical transformation from a woman’s body to a man’s. While transsexuality is more accepted than ever, a quick dive on Google will reveal scientists, psychologists, politicians and religious leaders who all offer conflicting views about the connections between biological sex and gender. It’s a controversial subject and Finding Kim doesn’t do much to clear that controversy – I could see people on either side of the transsexuality debate finding plenty of support for either argument here. Finding Kim’s real strength is its specific spotlighting of Kim’s physical transformation – including some not-for-the-squeamish surgery scenes. I learned a lot watching this documentary, and you will too.
The Road Movie
When’s the last time you went on a real YouTube binge? If you’re like me, the videos of the 2013 meteor explosion over the Urals city of Chelyabinsk had you scrolling and streaming for hours. Tons of videos of the beautiful and terrifying event were captured by regular Russian citizens via their dashboard cameras, and the only thing weirder than the meteor was the ubiquity of dashcams in Russia. Filmmaker Dmitry Kalashnikov’s The Road Movie is a feature length edit of Russian dashcam videos found on YouTube and other sites. The cameras capture tons of hilarious and harrowing car wrecks, scary storms, disturbed pedestrians, breathtaking landscapes and city sidewalks all set to the profane and profound chatter of hundreds of drivers and their passengers. This is a movie that seems like a gimmick, but it’s much more than that – it’s an unmistakably 21st century portrait of a place full of history and a people full of humanity.
According to Google, the Italian word “spettacolo” translates to the English word “show.” As the title of filmmaker Jeff Malmberg’s new documentary, Spetacollo might more specifically be thought of as “a play,” and even more specifically as the annual theatrical productions that have been staged in a tiny Italian village for the last 50 years. After centuries of poverty, illiteracy and war, a community of poor farming families turned their piazza into a stage and began casting themselves in their productions.
After putting on a couple of Italian costume classics, they started creating their own plays about their actual lives and the challenges they face. Spetacollo captures an anarchic experiment in mass art therapy and it’s a wondrous, art affirming beauty of a film. Those who’ve seen Malmberg’s deep and delightful Marwencol know that the director has a flair for capturing the healing capacities of creative work, and he’s done it again with this one.
The great thing about Swim Team is that the movie never forgets to be a sports documentary about the New Jersey Hammerheads high school swim team and three teenage boys who are coming of age one exploding flip turn at a time. It also happens to be a movie about growing up – and going for Special Olympics gold – while on the autism spectrum. The other star of this movie is the New Jersey community that surrounds and supports the boys and their families, and insists on their participation rather than pushing the boys to the sidelines. New Jersey has the highest rate of autism in the United States, and director Lara Stolman’s debut offers a great example about how you can best capture the lives of people with disabilities by capturing them as people first.
Birdboy: The Forgotten Children (pictured in cover photo)
Back in May of 2012 you might have caught an award-winning animated short from Spain when it screened at the Frist Center as part of their Unexpected Tales film series. Birdboy takes place in a remote woods where a village of small mice, rabbits and other cuddly creatures live, work and go to school. An industrial catastrophe gives Birdboy a not-so-happy-ending, and this new cartoon feature picks up with the characters several years later as angsty adolescents navigating into their post-Apocalyptic futures. Filmmakers Alberto Vazquez and Pedro Rivero make beautiful movies that are also deeply sad and genuinely frightening – this one’s a little bit like The Secret of Nimh meets Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. This stuff is too sardonic and macabre to be recommended for most children, but if you love gorgeous animation that’s not afraid of deep dark themes and subjects, don’t miss this one at the fest.
Did you ever see the Twilight Zone episode where the WWII American soldier suddenly becomes a Japanese soldier who must come to grips with being the very kind of person he’s bent on killing? The Migrumpies by Arman T. Riahi is a funny, irreverent, yet illuminating take on immigrants, racism, stereotypes and status. It’s got its own ways of turning the tables on our limited expectations and beliefs about ourselves and others. Benny and Marko are well-to-do young men who pretend to be petty criminals and hard-nosed migrants so that they can land roles as the stars in a documentary TV series about life in an ethnically diverse suburb of Vienna. The pair play their parts so well that they end up seeing the lives of immigrants up close – and even discovering stories of their own. For Americans living in Trumpland it’s a particularly timely story, but it’s also too busy being funny to bother preaching.
The Meanest Man in Texas
According to Wikipedia, Clyde Thompson was “an American prisoner turned chaplain.” In another life Thompson also earned the label “The Meanest Man in Texas.” That moniker is the name of a new biopic about Thompson directed by Justin Ward. Thompson was convicted of several murders and was a serial escape-attempt- er. This would be a lot harder to tell if he hadn’t made a shocking turnaround after landing in solitary confinement in an old prison morgue with three life sentences to his name at the kind of rock bottom that most can’t imagine. The Meanest Man in Texas is one of those movies that’s hard to believe, but it’s all true.