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Black Sheep

“The only way I’m going to survive is if I become like them. If I fit in.”

Cornelius Walker

On November 27th, 2000, 10 year old Damilola Taylor, a Nigerian British boy was murdered. Cornelius Walker was the same age and same skin color as Damilola. Walker’s mom feared for her son’s safety and the family moved away from London and into Essex. Unfortunately for Cornelius, he faced relentless racism by white supremacist kids in his new neighborhood and school. When things escalated to violence, Cornelius decided enough was enough. He needed to fit in. Then began his transformation. He changed his clothes, learned how to speak like the locals, straightened his hair, bleached his skin and wore blue contact lenses. The white kids accepted him as one of their own but it came at a great cost. 

Black Sheep is directed by Ed Perkins and distributed by The Guardian. The documentary begs the question: what lengths would you go to fit in? For Cornelius the joy in acceptance came with the shame of how it was achieved. His story is told through an extended interview with Cornelius Walker and reenactments of the scenes performed by Kai Francis Lewis. This is a compelling documentary about a difficult subject. It strips Cornelius’ story down to its basics. This is not about Damilola Taylor or about white supremacy in England. This is simply the story of a young black man struggling with identity due to this tremendous hatred he faced simply because of the color of his skin.

Black Sheep is nominated for a 2019 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject).

Slamdance: We Are Thankful

Joshua Magor’s We Are Thankful is a meta docufiction movie about a young man from the KwaZulu Natal region of South Africa, who aspires to become a professional actor. Siyabonga “Siya” Majola dreams of a career and life outside of his small township of Mphopomeni. When he hears that a director, Joshua Magor, is shooting a film in a nearby town he sets out to meet him. We follow Siya as he navigates thrown his township, borrowing Wi-Fi, getting help writing an e-mail in English, asking locals for funds to help pay for his trip, etc. He finally meets the director who is interested in Siya and his story. Majola and Magor play themselves as they reenact the circumstances that led up to their meeting. Magor was going to film another story but was inspired by Majola’s journey that he decided to make the film about the making of the film instead.

We Are Thankful is an interesting experiment in blending documentary and narrative feature in a self-referential way. It’s only confusing if you think too much about this aspect of the film. Accept it as is and enjoy the journey. Dwelling too much on its existence will take you out of the story.

The cinematography in We Are Thankful is stunning. There are lots of great shots of the township and in one scene the camera lingers on a waterfall allowing the viewer to take in the beauty of the setting. This gave the film a strong sense of place. It’s very much a slice of life kind of movie and a way for the viewer to experience Siya’s world. It’s a quiet film and some might find that off-putting. Not much happens and the pace of the story is rather slow. Settle in, be patient and you just might be rewarded.

We Are Thankful/Siyabonga was part of Slamdance 25 as a Narrative Feature Official Selection.

Slamdance: The Beksinkis: A Sound and Picture Album

When it comes to cursed families, a few names come to mind: the Kennedys, the Grimaldis, the Hemingways, Bruce and Brandon Lee. Now add to that list the Beksinski family. Famous in their home country of Poland, the Beksinski family included: Zdzislaw Beksinski, a celebrated Polish artist known for his macabre paintings and sculptures, his son Tomasz, a well-known radio presenter, movie translator and journalist, and his wife Zofia, the devoted matriarch who created a balance in a household with two very eccentric figures. Tragedy first struck the family in 1988, when Tomasz survived a plane crash which left one person dead and many injured, including himself. The experience left Tomasz, who was already prone to depression, shattered. A decade later, another blow to the family came with the sudden death of Zofia. A year later, on the eve of Y2K, Tomasz committed suicide. His father found his body. The final and most brutal tragedy of the Beksinski’s family story came in 2005 when Zdzislaw was stabbed to death over a dispute with a teenager about a small loan.

“I’ve started to use my camera as a diary, because I’m too lazy to write it.” 

Zdzislaw Beksinski

Needless to say that the story of the Beksinskis ended with great sorrow. When Zdzislaw died, he left behind hours and hours of home video footage. Everything from personal conversations, footage from art shows, family trips, important and mundane moments in the life of the Beksinkski tribe were all recorded. Fascinated by technology, Zdzislaw decided to forego the route of a traditional diary to create a video archive instead. Director Marcin Borchardt spent three years sifting through 300 hours of archival footage and the result was his documentary: The Beksinkis: A Sound and Picture Album. This living scrapbook is a portal into their world. In the era before social media, these recording were not fabricated for public consumption. According to Borchardt, this is what makes Zdzislaw’s footage so authentic. No one is putting on a show. The viewer is drawn into an intimate space where the Beksinskis have have deep conversations, especially about their son’s depression.

“I’m finished. I’m a wreck. I’m no good for anything any more.”

Tomasz Beksinski

Borchardt’s documentary offers a compelling portrait of a creative and tortured family. It reminded me of Sophie Fiennes’ documentary Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami which is entirely comprised of home video. However, I found Borchardt’s approach a lot more engaging. It does require some patience of the viewer to sit through stitched footage to make sense of what we’re being shown. The upside to this documentary is that while there is no real context provided, Zdzislaw narrated a lot of his footage so we hear the story of the Beksinksis through his words.

The Beksinskis: A Sound and Picture Album had it’s US premiere at Slamdance 25.

Slamdance: Memphis ’69

“But the music prevailed…”

Directed by Joe LaMattina, Memphis ’69 is a new documentary that serves as a time capsule for the 1969 Memphis Birthday Blues Festival held on the 150th anniversary of the city’s founding. Made up almost entirely of archival footage from the three day festival, a few title cards at the beginning give the film some context. The festival ran from 1965 to 1969 during a time of much racial strife in the city. It was one year after the Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and the KKK held a rally in the city concurrent with the event.

The folk and blues revival of the 1960s helped launch new stars of the genre but also allowed for the rediscovery of older blues performers. A wide range of blues, folk, country and even gospel musicians performed on stage for a motley crew of attendees. The attendance fluctuated throughout the three days but it never put a damper on the spirits of the musicians who played their hearts out. 

Memphis ’69 takes viewers on a time travel trip to this one-of-a-kind blues festival. It lingers over many of the performances and also captures the spirit of the time. All of the performers featured in the documentary are long gone and this film now serves as a tribute to them.

Performers featured in Memphis ’69 include:

  • Rufus Thomas
  • Bukka White
  • Nathan Beauregard (106 year old, blind performer)
  • Sleepy John Estes
  • Yank Rachell
  • Jo Ann Kelly
  • “Backwards” Sam Firk
  • Son Thomas
  • Lum Guffin
  • Rev. Robert Wilkins & Family
  • John Fahey
  • Sid Selvidge
  • Molloch
  • John D. Loudermilk
  • Furry Lewis
  • Piano Red
  • Jefferson Street Jug Band
  • The Insect Trust
  • Johnny Winter
  • The Salem Harmonizers
  • Mississippi Fred McDowell

Memphis ’69 was screened at Slamdance 25 and is nominated for a Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary Feature.

Slamdance: Boni Bonita

Boni Bonita, directed by Daniel Barosa, is a Brazilian-Argentine film, mostly in Portuguese, about a rebellious young woman and an aging musician. The story takes place over nine years, starting in 2007 and ending in 2016, and follows Beatriz (Ailin Salas) as she struggles with the loss of her mother, her complicated relationship with her father, self-harm and the musician who seems just out of her reach. Rogerio (Caco Ciocler), has his own struggles. He lives in the shadow of his grandfather’s musical success and has casual rendezvous with women as a way to avoid something more meaningful. Over the years Beatriz and Rogerio reunite at Rogerio’s summer home. The film explores what it means to come of age and also to go through a mid-life crisis.

The title is a reference to a song by classic Argentine singer Alberto Cortez. Rogerio plays the song for Beatriz and often calls her “Bonita”. Filmed over three years, Boni Bonita was shot in 16mm, super 16mm and digital. An inventive technique that gives the film a grainy, fuzzy appearance, as though we were watching filtered memories. According to the director Barosa, the story is based on his own experiences of the indie music scene of Sao Paolo Brazil.

I couldn’t engage with Boni Bonita no matter how hard I tried. I enjoyed the mixed media style and Ailin Salas’ performance in particular. The characters and the story didn’t draw me in and I couldn’t help but feel disconnected.

Boni Bonita is distributed by Nimboo’s Films and had its premiere at Slamdance 25 as part of the Narrative Feature Competition. It’s the only film from Latin America at the festival. Boni Bonita was a finalist for the Guioes, selected for the French Workshop Eave on Demand and a finalist for best original screenplay at the Havana Film Festival among other honors.

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