‘Arrival’ is the year’s best sci-fi film, bar none


Let’s get one thing clear: It takes nothing away from “Arrival” — as powerful as it is — to note that director Denis Villeneuve and writer Eric Heisserer were working with extraordinary raw material.

“Arrival,” which screened Sept. 21 as part of Fantastic Fest and will open wide in November, is based on “Story of Your Life” by the amazing Ted Chiang. It is perhaps the single best sci-fi novella of the past 25 years.

(Chiang, it should be noted, releases no wine before its time — of his 15 *total* short stories, novelettes and novellas, seven have won a total of 14 awards; dude’s batting average is insane).

Now, that said, “Story of Your Life” is a deeply internal work, and it is a tiny miracle that Villeneuve and Heisserer figured out a way to translate this tale to film in the first place, let alone make it so touching and smart.

It’s a movie about the day the world metaphorically shifted on its axis, but it is mostly the story of one woman.  Like the very best science fiction, “Arrival” is hopeful and a bit implausible and slightly corny and mind-bending and a little bit sad. It fills a where-do-we-go-from-here shaped hole in the heart and manages to be a canny look at the nature of grief and time at the same time.

We first see Lousie Banks (Amy Adams, as good as she gets without having a scene-chewy part) mourning the loss of her daughter, whom we see, in a montage, from her joyful birth to too-early death. Then, we see the aliens arrive — 12 smooth, black ovals, hovering over various points on the globe.

Banks, a brilliant linguist, is brought in by the military (represented by Forest Whitaker) and the CIA (represented by Michael Stuhlbarg) to attempt to communicate with the aliens — massive, seven-legged creatures that humans come to call “heptapods.” Their speech is impenetrable but, working with physicist Ian Donnelley (Jeremy Renner), Banks starts communicating with the heptapods, whose written language may or may not be the key to their presence on Earth.

While Banks holds off the U.S.’s military, the rest of the world (by which I mean the Chinese and Russians, mostly) is starting to freak out at this stuff. Paranoia soon takes over, and suddenly nobody is sharing information with anyone else. The question hangs in the air like one of the alien ships: Do the heptapods mean to do us harm, or are they here for another reason?

Adams gives a tight, measured performance, while Villeneuve,  cinematographer Bradford Young, composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and editor Joe Walker dole out information and color it in knowing ways, building to third act revelations that make for profoundly moving film-making, the sort that demands that you watch it again from the beginning.



“Oldboy” director Park Chan-wook explores crime, sensuality and colonial Korea with “The Handmaiden”

South Korean director Park Chan-wook at the Fantastic Fest film festival at the Alamo Drafthouse-South Lamar in Austin, Tx, on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016. The filmmaker was on hand to introduce his new movie “The Handmaiden.” ALYSSA VIDALES/AMERICAN-STATESMAN
South Korean director Park Chan-wook at the Fantastic Fest film festival at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar on Sept. 22. The filmmaker was on hand to introduce his new movie “The Handmaiden.” ALYSSA VIDALES/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Park Chan-wook paces around the small karaoke room at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar. Given the savagery of the South Korean filmmaker’s increasingly legendary “Oldboy,” one of the gnarliest tales of revenge ever lensed, you’d perhaps think he was pacing “like a caged tiger” or “a man imprisoned” or some such nonsense.

Nope. Just a bad back.

Park, whose “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” Tim League himself has said was a direct influence on starting Fantastic Fest, is in town for the festival with his new film, “The Handmaiden,”  which is based loosely on Welsh author Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel “Fingersmith.” Park and his frequent writing partner Chung Seo-kyung move the story from Victorian England to Japanese-occupied Korea in 1930s.

And yes, some small spoilers follow.

“The Handmaiden” follows a pickpocket named Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) who is ordered by the con man leader of her crew, Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), to get herself hired as a servant to the wealthy heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) so Fujiwara can ingratiate himself with Hideko and steal her wealth.

Instead, Sook-hee and Hideko fall in love. And things get complicated. Extremely, plot-twisty complicated. Three-chapters-from-three-different-perspectives complicated.

Park says he changed the setting for very specific narrative reasons. “It is a story about these two women falling in love,” Park says. “The first hurdle in their relationship is class. The second: the fact that they are deceiving each other. Thirdly, the fact that they are of the same sex. These are the three elements getting in the way of their love.”

In moving the story to Japanese-occupied Korea, Park was able to add a few more elements.

“They are now of different nationalities, two different nations that are opposed to each other, and they have to overcome this animosity as well,” Park says. “I added on top of that the age difference between the two characters. There is more of a gap between the two in the movie than in the novel. In Asian cultures, age difference adds a bit of hierarchy. All of these are hindrances for these characters to achieve love as equals.”

Park adds that the topic of Japanese-occupied Korea is still a delicate one: “Because it’s a touchy subject,” he says, “it’s not properly dealt with in mainstream cinema.”

Then again, it also allowed for Park to introduce the character of Uncle Kouzuki, a Korean collector of rare erotica who is posing as Japanese. Kouzuki lives in a bizarre home (literally one half is a European mansion, the other half is a traditional Japanese house) and is a key figure in the complicated narrative

“Kouzuki is basically a Japanese sympathizer, and his presence is felt throughout the film,” Park says. “Even in the scenes he is not there, because he has designed this house with those philosophies. He is worshiping the Japanese and Western culture filtered by the Japanese that has made it into Korea.”

Explicit but never pornographic, the sexiest scene might be the least conventionally hot, when Sook-hee files down her mistresses tooth while the latter takes a bath.

Park says this was a key scene for him deciding to make the movie. “They were clothed in the book, but I could imagine the sound of the thimble (used to file the tooth) and I could imagine the characters in such proximity that they could hear each other’s breaths and heartbeats,” Park says. “I wanted to see this scene in a film.

“It is such a sensual moment and I wanted to amplify it a bit by moving it to the bath with the steam and the flowers all around. These two women are shy, they will avert their gaze from each other. But it is a scene about that moment when you are taken by somebody. Your heart is beating because you have fallen head over heels for somebody so quickly. It is a moment of emotional tremor.”

“The Handmaiden” will be in theaters in October.


Mike Judge’s ‘Idiocracy’ returning to theaters!

p159395_d_v8_aaMike Judge’s “Idiocracy” returning to theaters for its 10th anniversary, thanks to the Alamo Drafthouse, the Art House Convergence Theaters and local League of Women Voters chapters.

Members of the cast and crew of “Idiocracy” will be live in person at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica at 6:45pm on Oct.4 for a screening of the film and a post-movie conversation.

Concurrent”Idiocracy” screenings will also take place at Alamo Drafthouse locations and Art House Convergence theaters across the country and the post-movie conversation will be live-streamed to those audiences.

For those that can’t make it to an Alamo Drafthouse or Art House Convergence theater, tune into Facebook Live from facebook.com/alamodrafthouse for the post-movie conversation at 8:25 p.m. PST.

Questions will be taken from the live audience in Santa Monica, but also from the live-stream and Facebook Live audiences via Twitter using the hashtag #IdiocracyToday. Mike Judge and star Maya Rudolph will be in attendance.

Also, the Alamo Drafthouse’s merch arm Mondo is creating a licensed “Idiocracy” shirt for the occasion. It will be available on mondotees.com.

A portion of proceeds from merchandise and participating screenings will be donated to local League of Women Voters chapters.

A complete list of participating theaters will be updated at drafthouse.com/idiocracy

Four movies you should see this weekend: “Southwest of Salem,” “White Girl” and more

We have entered the season of all of the movies opening all of the time. Here are four that might very well be worth catching this weekend:

southwestofsalemposter“Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four.” In this striking documentary, Austin director Deborah S. Esquenazi explores the terrifying persecution of Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh, and Anna Vasquez — four Latina lesbians wrongfully convicted of gang-raping two little girls in San Antonio. “Southwest” includes an on-camera recantation by one of the initial victim.  Esquenazi, along with along with attorneys at the Innocence Project, ends up exploring and re-investigating this tragic case. Friday to Tuesday, various times. Alamo South Lamar.

“White Girl.” Nobody seems to be able to decide of Elizabeth Wood’s film is a raw and intense look at life on the seedy-side of the street or eye-rolling, tries-to-hard privledge-splitation. Either way, hey, it’s only 88 minutes. It plays for six days at Alamo Ritz.

“Author: The JT Leroy Story.” Speaking of conflicted, was this a not-all-that-big-of-a-deal-hoax or were they conmen? At the Regal Arbor.

“Bridget Jones’ Baby.” Oh, come on, some of you are totally going. At area theaters.


This week’s special screenings: Julio and Marla Quintana’s “The Vessel,” Chantal Akerman and the Austin Revolution Film Festival

the-vessel_poster_01062016“The Vessel.” Back on Sept. 3, our own Ahora Sí wrote about this production by two Austin filmmakers, Julio and Marla, Quintana. (This link is to the version in English.) The film stars noted devout Catholic lefto and Spanish speaker Martin Sheen (born Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estévez, in case you were wondering what President Bartlet’s real name was) as  a Catholic priest in a Latin American town where a tidal wave destroys a local school filled with children. Following the disaster, a local uses pieces of the school to build a strange object that inflames local passions in the community.

Executive produced by Terrence Malick, the movie is opening in both Spanish and English and, as the above story notes, it was not dubbed — it was shot in both. Malick and Sheen first worked together on the immortal “Badlands,” which was both Malick’s first feature and the film that made Sheen famous.  “The Vessel” opens Sept. 16 and plays for at least a week at the Regal Arbor at various times.


“Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four.” In this striking documentary, Austin director Deborah S. Esquenazi explores the terrifying persecution of Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh, and Anna Vasquez — four Latina lesbians wrongfully convicted of gang-raping two little girls in San Antonio. “Southwest” includes an on-camera recantation by one of the initial victim.  Esquenazi, along with along with attorneys at the Innocence Project, ends up exploring and re-investigating this tragic case. Friday to Tuesday, various times. Alamo South Lamar.

“News from Home.” As a transplanted Belgian, Chantal Akerman has always cared about a sense of place. In “News from Home,” Akerman shows us real-time vistas of her adopted home, New York City, while she reads letters from her mother in Belgium. The Friday screening features cinematographer Babette Mangolte in person. 8 to 10 p.m. Friday, 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday. $7-$10. AFS Cinema, 6226 Middle Fiskville Road. austinfilm.org.

“The Camera: Je, La Camera: I.” The look at collaborations between cinematographer Mangolte and director Akerman continues with this self-portrait of Mangolte, an important film artist in her own right. She’ll be present for this special screening. 7 to 9 p.m. Saturday. $7-$10. AFS Cinema, 6226 Middle Fiskville Road. austinfilm.org.

Austin Revolution Film Festival. A group of filmmakers started this fest to create opportunities for indie directors whose movies might not have big stars and bigger budgets. All kinds of flicks will screen,  from shorts to documentaries to music videos and more. 1:30 p.m. Tuesday through 9 p.m. Saturday. $10-$50. Various locations. austinrevolution.com.

"Decalogue 1"
“Decalogue 1”

“Decalogue 1 & 2.” In chapter one, a father and his young son experience the marvel of the personal computer with devastating results. In the next chapter, a doctor’s choice affects the life or death of an unborn child. 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Thursday. $7-$10. AFS Cinema, 6226 Middle Fiskville Road. austinfilm.org.

with Arianna Auber

‘La La Land,’ ‘Wakefield’ will screen at Austin Film Fest; full lineup out now

images“La La Land,” with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, “Trespass Against Us,” starring Michael Fassbender and Brendan Gleeson, “Wakefield,” starring Brian Cranston and Jennifer Garner, and “Nerdland,” an animated feature starring Paul Rudd and Patton Oswalt, are a few of the marquee titles headlining the Austin Film Festival & Screenwriters Conference (AFF), it was announced Wednesday.

At the same time, AFF busted out its full lineup, including 20 world premieres, a retrospective series guest programmed by Jason Segel, Paul Feig, Phil Rosenthal, and others. “Wakefield” writer/director Robin Swicord will attend as will “Nerdland” writer Andrew Kevin Walker, the latter of whom wrote “Se7en.”

Producer Frank Marshall (“Indiana Jones,” “Back to the Future”) joins director Ryan Suffern for finding-oscar-posterthe documentary screening of “Finding Oscar,” chronicling the search for two small children who offer the only living evidence that ties the Guatemalan government with the devastating Dos Erres Massacre.

Marshall will also take part in a conversation that explores his journey as a producer, his philosophy on storytelling and his long-time collaborations with Steven Spielberg and other writers and directors.

Other world premieres include “One Night,” an indie-romance with Anna Camp and writer/director Minhal Baig attending, attendance), the Spanish thriller “The Writer’s Burrow,” “The Big Flip—Stories from the Modern Household,” a documentary about families and gender roles and Austin-based comedy “Hot Air.”

AFF also revealed its full Screenwriters Conference schedule, which will take place the first four days of the Festival, October 13-16. The Conference features a roster of prominent screenwriters in film and television, including Jason Segel, Paul Feig, Marta Kauffman, Nancy Meyers, Scott Alexander, Michelle Ashford, Kent Alterman, Carter Bays and many more.

Man alive, that is an awesome poster
Man alive, that is an awesome poster

But let’s not kid ourselves: All some people care about is Jim Jarmusch’s Stooges documentary “Gimme Danger.”

The full Film and Conference schedule can be found at www.austinfilmfestival.com.

Austin Film Festival’s 2016 slate:

Marquee Features

Loving Writer/Director: Jeff Nichols

Crunch Time: Episodes 1-6 Writers: Andrew Disney, Bradley Jackson Director: Andrew Disney

Gimme Danger Director: Jim Jarmusch

 Good Fortune Directors: Josh Tickell, Rebecca Tickell

 La La Land Writer/Director: Damien Chazelle

Lion Writer: Luke Davies Director: Garth Davis

My Scientology Movie Director: John Dower

 Nerdland Writer: Andrew Kevin Walker Director: Chris Prynoski

 The Salesman Writer/Director: Asghar Farhadi

The Thinning Writers: Michael J. Gallagher, Steve Greene Director: Michael J. Gallagher

Trespass Against Us Writer: Alastair Siddons Director:  Adam Smith

 Wakefield Writer/Director: Robin Swicord

Retrospective Programming:

 Happy Gilmore (1996), presented by Tim Herlihy Writers: Tim Herlihy, Adam Sandler Director: Dennis Dugan

The Last Supper (1996), presented by Dan Rosen Writer: Dan Rosen Director: Stacy Title

A Little Princess (1995), presented by Richard LaGravenese and Mark Johnson Writers: Elizabeth Chandler, Richard LaGravenese Director: Alfonso Cuaron

 The Muppets (2011), presented by Jason Segel Writers: Jason Segel, Nicholas Stroller, Jim Henson Director: James Bobin

The Producers (1967), presented by Phil Rosenthal Writer/Director: Mel Brooks

What’s U,p Doc? (1972), presented by Paul Feig Writers: Buck Henry, David Newman, Robert Benton, Peter Bogdanovich

Director: Peter Bogdanovich

Narrative Features

 Blood Stripe Writers: Remy Auberjonois, Kate Nowlin Director: Remy Auberjonois

Boys in the Trees Writer/Director: Nicholas Verso

Chronesthesia Director/Writer: Hayden Weal

 Holding Patterns Writer/Director: Jake Goldberger (World Premiere)

No Retreat Writers: J.D. Singer Nicholas, Zafonte Director: Nicholas Zafonte (World Premiere)

Suburban Cowboy Writer: Ryan Colucci Directors: Ryan Colucci, Dragan Roganovic (World Premiere)

The Tiger Hunter Writers: Sameer Gardezi, Lena Khan Director: Lena Khan


Documentary Features

Berlin Rebel High School Writer/Director: Alexander Kleider (World Premiere)

Dr. Feelgood: Dealer or Healer? Writer: Mark Monroe Director: Eve Marson

The Harvest Run Writers/Directors: Steven Balvanz, Aaron McAdams (World Premiere)

Monogamish Director: Tao Ruspoli

My Life as a Film Writer/Director: Eva Vitija

ProGamer Director: Justin Agnew (World Premiere)

Santoalla Directors: Andrew Becker, Daniel Mehrer


Dark Matters Features

The Cliff Writers: Natxo Lopez, Andres Martorell, Helena Taberna Director: Helena Taberna

 Electric Nostalgia Writer/Director: Jacob Leighton Burns

Found Footage 3D Writer/Director: Steven DeGennaro

Middle Man Writer/Director: Ned Crowley

The Man Who Was Thursday Writer/Director: Balazs Juszt

The Writer’s Burrow Writers: Francisco Conde, Kurro González Director: Kurro González (World Premiere)


Comedy Vanguard Features

5 Doctors Writers: Max Azulay, Matt Porter, Phil Primason Directors: Max Azulay, Matt Porter (World Premiere)

Brave New Jersey Writers: Michael Dowling, Jody Lambert Director: Jody Lambert (World Premiere)

Diani and Devine Meet the Apocalypse Writer/Directors: Etta Devine, Gabriel Diani (World Premiere)

The Golden Rut Writer/Directors: Nick and Josh Holden (World Premiere)

Hot Air Writers: Jeremy M. Goldstein and Derek Sieg Director: Derek Sieg (World Premiere)


Heart of Film Features

 11:55 Writers: Ari Issler, Ben Snyder, Victor Almanzar Directors: Ari Issler, Ben Snyder

 An Acquired Taste Writer/ Director: Vanessa Lemaire

Almost Adults Writer: Adrianna DiLonardo Director: Sarah Rotella

American Wrestler: The Wizard Writer: Brian Rudnick Director: Alex Ranarivelo

The Big Flip—Stories from the Modern Home Front Writer/Director: Izzy Chan (World Premiere)

Chronically Metropolitan Writer: Nicholas Schutt Director: Xavier Manrique

Delinquent Writer/Director: Kieran Valla

Finding Sofia Writer/Director: Nico Casavecchia

Finding Oscar Writers: Frank Marshall, Ryan Suffern Director: Ryan Suffern

Imperfections Writer/Director: David Singer

One Night Writer/Director: Minhal Baig (World Premiere)

Pushing Dead Writer/Director: Tom E. Brown

They Call Us Monsters Director: Ben Lear

 Two Trains Runnin’ Writer: Benjamin Hedin Director: Sam Pollard

The Viagra Chronicles Writer/Director: Chiara Sambuchi North American Premiere

Wrestling Alligators Writers: Udy Epstein, Tchavdar Georgiev, Andrew Shea Director: Andrew Shea

Texas Independent Features

The Big Spoon Writers: Mallory Culbert, Carlyn Hudson Director: Carlyn Hudson (World Premiere)

 Canine Soldiers – The Militarization of Love Director: Nancy Schiesari (World Premiere)

Funniest Director: Katie Pengra, Dustin Svehlak (World Premiere)

Homestate Writers: David Hickey, Blaise Miller Director: David Hickey (World Premiere)

Quaker Oaths Writer/Director: Louisiana Kreutz Cast: Alex Dobrenko, Fede Rangel (World Premiere)

Stories from Abroad Features

The Load Writers: Alan Jonsson Gavicia, Arturo Ruiz Serrano Director: Alan Jonsson Gavicia

Long Live Death Writer: Erol Yesilkaya Director: Sebastian Marka

My Mother’s Wound Writers: Ozan Aciktan, Ozan Guven, Fethi Kantarci, Uygar Sirin, Mehmet Turgut, Funda Çetin Director: Ozan Aciktan


AGLIFF review – ‘Kiki’

Chi Chi Mizrahi and Twiggy Pucci Garcon star in "Kiki"
                                        Chi Chi Mizrahi and Twiggy Pucci Garcon star in “Kiki”

It’s been 25 years since audiences were first introduced to the Ballroom scene in New York City thanks to the iconic documentary “Paris Is Burning” and Madonna’s hit single “Vogue.”

Swedish filmmaker Sara Jordeno co-directed this remarkable documentary over the course of four years along with Twiggy Pucci Garcon, one of the film’s subjects.

For the uninitiated, the world of Ballroom dances in New York is comprised mostly of queer youth of color. Many, especially the trans kids, have been rejected and kicked out by their families. As one of the dancers in the film says, “When you’re one-of-a-kind, you get targeted.”

In this world of drag balls, there are “houses” which are teams and “house mothers” who are the team captains. They are responsible for keeping their houses in line and help to become the parents that many of the kids have never had.

The Kiki scene is an antidote to heteronormative society and while this modern iteration has already been around for about fifteen years, it’s nothing new. You can trace its roots back to the 1920s and 30s balls in Harlem.

This film literally pulsates with the rhythm of the music (from DJ collective Qween Beat) and the spirit of its young subjects. For many, it provides a glimpse into an underground world that they may have had a slight awareness of, but really didn’t understand.

For every kid whose only support system is their Kiki house, there are parents shown who do accept and love their children, who still need the outlet of the Ballroom scene to survive and spend time with other kids who are like them. Of her transgender daughter, one mother simply says, “I accept it. I think she’s sexy, just like me.”

“Kiki” is the best party of the year, but it also manages to shatter preconceived notions about gender, race, and sexuality.


“Kiki” screened as the Closing Night feature at this year’s AGLIFF. It was recently acquired by Sundance Selects/IFC who are expected to release the film next year. 

AGLIFF review – ‘Bright Shadow’

Ana Egge performs in "Bright Shadow"
                                              Ana Egge (lower right) performs in “Bright Shadow”

I suspect that many Austinites are familiar with having a favorite local band or artist who you champion, frequently going out to their live shows and wondering why national success has eluded them. Jesse Lyda’s documentary tells the story of one such artist and one with some Austin success under her belt at that.

The landscape of the music industry has changed immensely since Ana Egge started recording. She left her self-professed “hippie family” behind in New Mexico and headed to Austin to make music. Her 1997 album “River Under The Road” earned her a pair of Austin Music Awards for Best Songwriter and Best Folk Artist, but she got a little spooked by the “potential fame and excitement.”

She left her life in Austin to return to New Mexico for awhile, in part because the people who were approaching her about her music wanted to change her. The goal was often to soften her image to make her appear more “femme” and to translate her sad songs into something more upbeat. These were not compromises that Egge was willing to make.

As time went on, she moved to Brooklyn, got married to her wife Amy, recorded an album with Steve Earle and began the process of starting a family. Her ability to craft songs from intensely personal material even caused a few riffs in her family.

To say that she’s suffered for her art is a touch melodramatic, but it’s hard to say what “could have been” if she had been willing to make some sacrifices in order to gain a larger audience. In the end, it comes down to what your measurement of success really is. For Egge, her ability to stay true to herself and make the music she wants to make is the most important thing.

I often wonder why things click into place for one artist and not another. There’s often no rhyme or reason to it and a lot of it is just plain luck. With absolutely gorgeous vocals that recall Gillian Welch and some truly emotional and heartfelt lyrics, it’s a shame that Egge’s work hasn’t resulted in a larger fanbase. If the stars align, maybe this documentary will finally be what does the trick.

“Bright Shadow” had its Austin premiere at AGLIFF in the Documentary Feature category. It does not currently have U.S. distribution. 

AGLIFF review – ‘Free CeCe!’

Laverne Cox and CeCe McDonald star in "Free CeCe!"
                                        Laverne Cox and CeCe McDonald star in “Free CeCe!”

Director Jacqueline Gares was a showrunner for the long-running LGBT news program “In The Life,” which aired on PBS for twenty years. Before she found out that the show was ending, she had already started work on a segment about CeCe McDonald.

McDonald, a trans woman of color, was arrested in June 2011 after an altercation in Minneapolis where a group of white people started making racist, homophobic, and transphobic remarks to her and her friends outside of a bar. The incident escalated fairly quickly and one of the white men ended up stabbed to death with a pair of scissors pulled from McDonald’s purse.

Trans women of color are disproportionately targets of violence and current statistics only give us an estimated figure because many trans women, like McDonald, are misgendered by the police and news media. In this particular incident, all initial headlines and news articles referred to her as a male suspect. “Free CeCe!” chronicles McDonald’s imprisonment and the fight to prove that she killed the man in self-defense. Trans actress and activist Laverne Cox got involved in the story back in the fall of 2013 and she is heavily featured in the documentary conducting interviews and fighting against the standard practice of sending trans women to men’s prisons only to languish in solitary confinement.

Trans actress and activist Laverne Cox got involved in the story back in the fall of 2013 and she is heavily featured in the documentary conducting interviews and fighting against the standard practice of sending trans women to men’s prisons only to languish in solitary confinement. This is something that extended past this project as Ms. Cox took on the topic of solitary imprisonment in the most recent season of “Orange Is The New Black.”

Even though this film deals with the very heavy topics of racism, transphobia, and the prison industrial complex, it maintains an uplifting vibe thanks to the strength and grace that McDonald has on display at nearly all times.

Despite the fact that the court system essentially told her that her life was not as important as the straight, white male who attacked her, she maintains positivity and works on bettering herself and changing the system for others. Her visibility in this documentary has the power to do just.

“Free CeCe!” screened in the Documentary Competition category of this year’s AGLIFF. It does not currently have U.S. distribution. 

AGLIFF review – ‘Political Animals’

Christine Kehoe, Carole Migden, Sheila Kuehl, and Jackie Goldberg star in "Political Animals."
        Christine Kehoe, Carole Migden, Sheila Kuehl, and Jackie Goldberg star in “Political Animals.”

“This is personal. There is no definition of family that does not include my family.”  

When you think about California politics, the color blue springs to mind. It is one of the most progressive states in the nation and often stands out as a Democratic stronghold. Of course, it hasn’t always been that way. The phenomenal new documentary from Jonah Markowitz introduces us to some of the women who came along, got involved, and shaped the future of gay rights across the state and beyond its borders.

Despite the work of activists and politicians like Harvey Milk in California, LGBT rights in the state were barely discussed until the late-1990s. After Governor Pete Wilson vetoed a gay rights bill in 1991, acts of civil disobedience began to inspire a new generation of people ready to fight for change. Without any gay politicians representing California’s gay residents, it was easier to sweep those controversial issues under the rug for the overwhelmingly straight white men serving the state.

Sheila Kuehl was a civil rights attorney and law professor who had some notoriety for starring in the television show “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” back in the ’60s. In 1994, she became the first openly gay person to be elected to the California legislature. It took her three attempts to get a bill passed in the state to protect LGBT children from bullying at school. It didn’t pass until in 1999.

By that time, Sheila had a little extra help on the floor thanks to Carole Migden. A longtime activist who had worked with Harvey Milk, she joined the state assembly in 1996. Jackie Goldberg and Christine Kehoe followed in 2000 and, with four out lesbians working in the state legislature, they were able to dedicate their voices to passing meaningful civil rights protections for the LGBT community. Faced with open hostility from some of the most conservative members that they served with, these four pioneering women focused on knocking down claims of a “radical gay agenda” by explaining how fundamental equal rights belong to everybody.

“Political Animals” is filled with actual footage of debates on the state assembly floor. Some of the comments made are still shocking and it’s hard to realize that it’s only our not-that-distant past that brought about basic protections and the freedom to love whoever you choose. California was ahead of the curve of most states on domestic partnerships and, ultimately, gay marriage. This is an essential historical document that proves it never could’ve happened without these passionate women and their willingness to fight.

“Political Animals” screened as the Centerpiece Film of AGLIFF this year. The film does not yet have U.S. distribution.