Traverse City Film Festival – Day One

This week Cinema Faith has the honor of reporting from the Traverse City Film Festival with our very own, Ron Steury! Ron will be giving us daily reports from the festival along with reviews of the films he watches. Here is the lowdown from day one. Take it away, Ron…

The Traverse City Film Festival (TCFF) in Michigan is an event my wife, Barb, and I go to every year now. Conceived in 2005 as the brainchild of the unpredictable filmmaker Michael Moore, it was steeped in controversy with the locals in this conservative corner of Michigan being fearful it would be showing only liberal-leaning, “anti-God” and “unpatriotic” films. Nonetheless it was a success by any measure, attracting an unheard of 50,000 admissions in its maiden voyage, where they viewed films that spanned the political spectrum. When I read an article about it, and being that the beautiful resort city of Traverse City is located only 2+ hours from our home, I told Barb “We are going to that next year.”

And we have attended every day of the event from its second year through this, our 11th year. During that time it has grown from 31 films to this year’s 123 feature films and 121 shorts. (No, I will not be reporting on anywhere near that many but I am scheduled to see 24 in five days.)  As time has gone on this event has become an annual get-together for our two daughters and our grandchildren too as TCFF offers films for all ages. Maybe next year some of you regular readers will join us here God willing – that would be incredible. I have made it to the Wisconsin Film Festival in Madison one spring a few years back and, while less expansive in its offerings, it was a great experience too. And perhaps one day before I “cross over the river” I will make it to the mecca, Sundance (naw – I hate to fly).

I had a great day today with five films viewed – two of which were 5* (TCFF rates their films 1-5 stars with 5 being superb.) We had nice temperate weather with showers threatened but none actually making an appearance. Five films is an endurance test but it was worth it. I should note that the theme of this year’s festival is the celebration of women directors. So three of the five feature films today featured women at the helm.


Obit — 2016 (96 mins) USA [Documentary]


This was the best feature of the day for me. Director Vanessa Gould filmed an amazingly fascinating, lighthearted documentary of the work of the writers and editors of “The New York Times” Obituaries section. It talks about how a person’s life is first of all decided to be worthy to be mentioned in the NY Times and then secondly how much space should be used to describe it. If you make the New York Times grade but are a bottom-line celebrity, you get only 600 words. Or, if of more note, 800 or 1200 words all the way up to a full-page, above-the-fold spread like a Michael Jackson or President Reagan. Each obit writer conscientiously but responsibly documents the lives entrusted to them not just with raw facts but with how they impacted the world at large. So a major political figure may share space with a well-known stripper or the inventor of the Slinky. And there is one character who works in the Time’s “morgue” (their amazing collection of articles and clippings on tens of thousands of people) who steals the show. The anxiety they feel as they attempt to meet their deadlines and compete with internet sources makes for an absolutely engrossing film. (The director and NYT Obit Desk Editor Bill McDonald were present for a great Q&A) 5/5 stars


My Internship In Canada — 2015 (108 mins) Canada [Narrative Feature]


Directed by Philippe Falardeau (whose The Good Lie I so admire), this is a political comedy about Canadian parliament member Steve Guibord and his family who face a series of upheavals from his constituents. His wife and daughter seem to end up on the opposite end of every decision he tries to make. Luckily he is joined by a newly arrived Haitian political science student “Sovereign” who provides unexpected insight and wisdom. There are some scenes where one wonders “Why was that included?” but the leads are enormously likeable. It is very funny but also occasionally thought-provoking, and a good antidote to the present US political drama.  4/5 stars In Creole, English, French with subtitles      


Kings of Kallstadt — 2014 (92 mins) USA/Germany [Documentary]


German director Simone Wendel filmed this story of the people in the quaint German village of Kallstadt, home of both Donald Trump’s ancestors as well as those of the Heinz family (headed by John Kerry’s wife Theresa Heinz-Kerry). Featuring lots of footage of the village residents as well as a (before declared) interview with “the Donald”, the documentary produced many smiles and laughs. And the best part is when a large chunk of the Kallstadt populace was invited to tour America in exchange for marching in the New York German parade. But the film really needed to be edited with the movie seeming to go on and on. It could have easily been whittled down to an hour. Director Simone Wendel appeared for a Q&A. 3/5 stars In German with subtitles


Equal Means Equal — 2016 (93 mins) USA [Documentary]


Easily the second best movie of the day, this impassioned call for equal rights for 51% of the US population leaves the viewer frustrated and angry at this country’s inaction on this issue. Most of our country’s populace mistakenly believes that women already have equal protection under our US Constitution (clearly shown by court cases to not be the case, and confirmed by the late Justice Scalia who states women are never mentioned in our constitution and they clearly do not have the same constitutional rights as men). The defeat in 1982 (the deadline for passage) of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the constitution due to failing to get passage in 3 of the necessary 38 state legislatures, despite being passed by both houses of Congress, supported by President Reagan, and favored by an overwhelming number of the populace, was a huge blow to correcting this poorly recognized fault in our constitution.

The movie is a very personal project for director Kamala Lopez in the “Michael Moore” style with her steady on-screen presence and interview after interview with (mostly) women from four generations about the disastrous day-in, day-out effects of this inequality for our nation’s women and, especially, children. The movie clearly lays out its points in a damning presentation. The fact that the United States is one of only seven nations in the world to not approve the United Nations CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women) declaration asking for world equal rights for females is embarrassing for “God’s chosen country.” My only criticism was that there were quite a few too many reaction shots from Kamala during the interviews and perhaps too much reliance on statistics which flash on the screen in numbing repetition (and we all know that “figures lie and liars figure” – sometimes.) Still, for a documentary that I thought might be a yawner, it was absolutely riveting. (The director was present for a Q&A and added interesting information on the present split among the feminist community as to how to “rekindle” the ERA movement.) 5/5 stars


I Am Belfast — 2016 (84 mins) UK [Documentary]


Acclaimed filmmaker Mark Cousins (I love his work) presented a very personal and poetic tribute to his Irish hometown of Belfast. Cousins narrates, imagining Belfast as a woman who talks of her past, present and future while transfixing images are on-screen. It is a hypnotizing, moody presentation. Like all “art films” without a clear narrative, it can sometimes be frustratingly obscure, but I left feeling that I knew what Cousins wanted us to see in his visions. I am marking it down due to a grating insertion of two foul-mouthed residents of Belfast that, for me, completely broke the mood of Cousin’s elegiac yet hopeful mosaic. (The director and TCFF President Michael Moore conducted a Q&A session after the film.) 4/5 stars


Shorts for Kids 4+ (Multiple Shorts)


One of my daughters, my son-in-law and two grandchildren attended this and told me that of the 11 shorts that played the outstanding ones were:

Tiny’s New House — (2015) USA [7 mins] — An adolescent girl works to make her goldfish happy resulting in a humorous, enjoyable story.

Daisy Chain — (2015) Australia [5 mins] – A girl faces bullies and finds a path forward. While it may oversimplify conflicts with those who bully, it is a sweet story that sets out what could be possible.

Stems — (2015) UK [3 mins] – Ainslie Henderson shares his love for stop-motion animation puppets.

Taking Flight — (2015) USA [6 mins] – A heartwarming animation short about a boy who spends the day with his grandfather.  We see the boy move from boredom to excitement as his grandfather takes him on a wagon ride of memories and imagination.

Note — Some of these shorts are available on YouTube.


Other Films That I Could Not Schedule


Today TCFF also showed Presenting Princess Shaw (2015). Barb and I had streamed it from Apple-TV a few weeks ago and were a little disappointed. Very “social media” conscious, this is a documentary of a single 39-year-old New Orleans singer/songwriter who is lifted from obscurity to YouTube star. This occurs when, unknown to her, Israeli arranger Ophir Kutiel, who does video mashups, sets one of her songs she uploaded to YouTube to full instrumentalization and re-uploaded it. It is initially interesting but loses steam 2/3 of the way through. Her personal life is a complete mess and one wonders if she will build on her sudden notoriety? The star and producer were to appear, which would have been fun to hear. For those who love modern soulful music and dream of becoming a viral video star. I’d give it 3/5 stars.

The lauded Citizen Kane (1941) was also shown today (in a 75th anniversary tribute) on the huge screen of the beautiful, refurbished State Theater. Orson Welles’ daughter Beatrice appeared after the showing for a Q&A. To be there would have been something.


I anticipate more great films tomorrow.