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TIFF: While at War

Set during the early days of the Spanish Civil War, director Alejandro Amenábar’s While at War/Mientras dure la guerra takes place in Salamanca where celebrated novelist Don Miguel de Unamuno (Karra Elejalde) serves as dean of the local university. Unamuno, known affectionately as Don Miguel, was known as one of the early opposers to the uprising and Generalisimo Franco’s (Santi Prego) dictatorship. Don Miguel meets to discuss the fiery political climate with his trusted friends a protestant priest (Luis Zahera) and college professor (Carlos Serrano-Clark) who soon become victims of the new regime. The highly respected author is safe for the time being but as Franco rises in power, controlled by commander and tyrant Jose Millan-Astray (Eduard Fernandez), Don Miguel flails between the loss of hope and the desire to take a stand. During it all he is haunted by the memory of his dead wife Chanta who appears to him in his dreams. The movie ends with Unamuno’s famous last speech.

Courtesy of TIFF
Courtesy of TIFF

While at War offers a grand production, fine performances but lacked in emotion. The first half felt a little stale and distant. The second half makes up for this makes up for this as Don Miguel loses his friends, develops a bond with his grandson, and repairs his relationship with his daughter. Throughout the film Don Miguel creates origami animals and this ends up being an important plot point at the end. This was a nice touch that added some personality to his character. Elejalde is absolutely brilliant as Don Miguel de Unamuno. He seamlessly transforms himself into his character. I’m a big fan of Alejandro Amenábar’s film The Others (2001) and was excited to see more of his work. The cinematography, costumes and sets are simply glorious and worth watching for that alone. While at War offers a fascinating story I just wish it didn’t hold its audience at a distance.

I can only evaluate While at War as a film and not as a representation of Spain’s military history. I don’t know if there are any inaccuracies in its representations of real life figures. It does offer a clear warning that neutrality is dangerous and we need to appreciate the past if we have any hope of a future.

While at War had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Special Presentations series.

TIFF: Sea Fever

The ocean depths hold many secrets. Marine biologist Siobhán (Hermione Corfield) has devoted her young career to studying the patterns of ocean life in an effort to take the mystery out of the sea. Little does she know that a sea creature awaits her, beyond the scope of anything she has ever studied or could ever know.

Siobhán joins a fishing trawler manned by married couple Freya (Connie Nielsen) and Gerard (Dougray Scott). Fisherman are incredibly superstitious and Siobhán’s red hair is a sign that they’re in for some bad luck. Also on the vessel are a trio of fisherman Sudi (Eli Bouakaze), Johnny (Jack Hickey) and Ciara (Olwen Fouere) as well as fellow scientist Omid (Ardalan Esmaili). Siobhán is quiet, serious and anti-social and the spirited Johnny starts to bring her out of her shell. The bad luck rears its ugly head when a luminous creature that spews a blue slime, latches its tentacles onto the boat. Siobhán, the only one on board equipped for scuba diving, meets the creature face to face. The shipmates soon learn that the creature has wiped out the crew of another trawler and they’re next. One by one the creature exposes its blue slime into open wounds, laying its eggs that explode out of its victims. Will the crew be able to escape in time before the creature infects them all?

Sea Fever feels both classic and brand new. It’s in the same vein of those classic sci-fi thrillers where the creature serves a vessel to help tell a very human story. Writer and director Neasa Hardiman offers a slick and emotionally devastating story. There are so many themes that come bubbling up to the surface. Man versus nature, fear of the unknown, the importance of social bonds, and self-sacrifice for a greater cause.

There are no stereotypes. Everyone is their own character, true to themselves and not a pawn for the sake of the story. Siobhán is a fascinating protagonist and Hermione Corfield does her justice. Studious, smart and emotionally distant, we see her grow over time as she becomes the film’s hero. It’s great to see what a woman director/writer can do with a science fiction story featuring a strong female lead. Sea Fever had me enthralled. I usually don’t go for this genre but I’m glad I took a chance on this film. It’s thrilling in a quiet way. It’s not splashy, doesn’t depend on elaborate action sequences or fancy special effects (although the special effects it does have are pretty slick). Instead it latches on to its characters and won’t let go.

Sea Fever had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Discovery series.

Maniac Landscapes

Maniac Landscapes is a hypnotic dream. One could even call it a beautiful nightmare. Windows serve as portals through which ethereal sources of light and energy feed the flowering pants below. These life forms snake toward the light, their buds opening dramatically. Streams and drops of liquid fall from an unseen source. Shades of red, pink, blue and purple are set against an infinite black landscape. In the background we hear ghostly sounds that are indistinguishable and haunting. The scene shifts when a skeleton appears, reconciling life with the concept of death. 

Maniac Landscapes is a 7-1/2 minute short film written, directed, edited and animated by Matthew Wade with sound design by Jacob Kinch. It is co-produced by Wade and Sara Lynch. Their short Eyes at the Specter Glass recently premiered at Slamdance (check out my review here). Wade describes the film with the following synopsis:

“As disembodied cries move through the rooms of a house, their emotional intensity provokes a reanimation of the dead, cosmic shifts, and the manipulations of time and place.”

Inspiration came to Wade from a series of dreams which he then interpreted into this this film. He gives it “a kind of dream logic in its final presentation.” It’s quite a surreal experience, as was Eyes at the Specter Glass and I’m looking forward to more from this innovative filmmaker.

If the events in the film were from my own dream, I’d interpret them as representations of the creative forces within us. The light, the liquid and the sounds are all sources of inspiration and the plants would symbolize the growth of ideas and the formation of our creative endeavors into their final artistic form. The skeleton’s presence would be thematic of how we take from past creations and breathe new life into them.

Maniac Landscapes premiered at the San Francisco Film Festival as part of their Best Animated Short competition line-up. It’s also part of the upcoming Alchemy Film and Arts Festival that takes place in Scotland next month.

SXSW Interview: Amy C. Elliott, director of Salvage

At the recent SXSW Film Festival, I had the pleasure of chatting with the documentary filmmaker Amy C. Elliott. Her latest film Salvage had its world premiere on opening night.  This film follows a group of residents who salvage goods from an open dump in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, one of the most isolated communities in North America. In town with a long history of gold and diamond mining, these salvagers find treasure in their own unique way. You can read my review here.

Raquel Stecher: What inspired you to make your documentary?

Amy C. Elliott: I had always wanted to make a film about a dump. I think it’s interesting what we throw away from an environmental impact level… I also think on a philosophical level, the subjective nature of things is really interesting… the transitory nature of things. I also thought about the idea of a community dump as a watering hole… Who goes there? What do people take out of it? What do people leave? I thought it would be a really interesting look at a community. My beat is about how we’re shaped by where we live.


Raquel Stecher:  How did you find out about the Yellowknife landfill?

Amy C. Elliott: I’m based in New York so I wanted to find a dump closer to me. It’s very important to have a site that you have access to. I looked around and in the states most of them are closed at this point for liability reasons, like it’s just not feasible to let people into a dump like the way I wanted to make movie… Then I did some research, just scouring the internet for any open dumps. I found a column in a newspaper called Tales from the Dump which is written by a guy who ended up becoming one of the protagonists of the film, Walt Humphries. I [thought] if there was a community somewhere that their dump has inspired a weekly newspaper column, I think I need to check it out. It turned out to be in Yellowknife. It was the closest dump of size that was open still to the public [but] it was 7,000 round-trip miles so it was not my first choice.


Raquel Stecher:   How long did you work on this project?

Amy C. Elliott: It was filmed over close ten years. There’s ten years worth of footage in it. I went there over a period of six years regularly, annually for a couple of weeks [at a time].


Raquel Stecher:  What was it like traveling to Yellowknife and did you pick a certain time of year to go?

Amy C. Elliott: It’s only 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle. It’s extremely isolated. At the time, it was literally at the end of the highway. There were no other roads leading out. It was an ice road… I don’t think people realize how isolated it is. I had to take three planes to get there. It’s also stunningly beautiful. It’s one of the best places to see the Northern Lights. [Traveling there] was an obstacle. I would say it was the biggest obstacle.

I went in the Spring because I thought in the height of summer the dump would be a little too much in terms of the smell and the bugs. It gets extremely cold there. Regularly negative 50. It was still snowing [in April]. It was still super cold but it was enough light and it was warm enough that the dump smelled okay. The waste was solid enough that I felt like it was a good time to go but it was [still] not the height of mosquito season.


Raquel Stecher: What was like what was filming the dump like? Part of the fun watching the movie is all the discoveries the salvagers make. Was there anything about the dump that was shocking?

Amy C. Elliott: It was all shocking to me because I never experienced anything quite so unregulated. When I first started shooting there, we were on the open face of the dump. You see people kids, people barefoot, you could just do what you wanted. It was really a free-for-all. I got a tetanus shot before I went and filmed.

In terms of the stuff there… I thought the food was shocking for sure. Some of the most shocking stuff were the new items. like clothes with the tags still on, kid’s toys still in plastic wrapping… you just can’t help but feel like there are people who would need that stuff, would like that stuff, who would benefit from that stuff and it’s just being thrown away.  I never quite got used to it. I thought that there was something really poignant about that.

For me [personally it was] the unopened rolls of film. There were just bags and bags of it. I just wanted to take it and send it to The Rescued Film Project and see what was on those rolls of film. The idea that that would be gone forever was really interesting.


Raquel Stecher: One of the biggest takeaways of the film was how resourcefulness is looked down upon. What are your thoughts on that?

Amy C. Elliott:  It’s that idea of thrift. Even as the old-fashioned virtue of thrift. It seems like something out of Benjamin Franklin days. It’s hard though… Do you really want to rescue and repair a broken DVD player? You can get one for $20 completely new. We’re living in a time where we have such access to cheap things. It’s easier… and time is valuable so is it really worth your time to go rescue. That’s the dilemma of where we are now as the world came to Yellowknife.

Photo from Salvage courtesy of Amy C. Elliott

Raquel Stecher: Was there a point when you were going to stop filming and then you continued when things started changing at Yellowknife?

Amy C. Elliott: I knew I wanted to film at least five years. I was committed to that unless something radical happened like the dump closed.I knew it was going to take a long time… The changes in the town, I could see that coming. I could see that there was something happening at the dump that was mirroring what was happening in the town. As the world became smaller… “the values from down south” as Tony talks about at the end [of the film], the consumerism, the concern with loss prevention and liability, the bureaucrats in the city were becoming more in tune with the rest of the South. It just mirrored what was happening in the dump. I think they’re intertwined intrinsically.

In my films I love exploring how where live shapes us culturally… our behavior is shaped geographically by where we live and that’s becoming rarer and rarer as the world becomes more homogeneous. As there’s a Starbucks on every corner as the world becomes… you can go anywhere now and have the same experience.

Raquel Stecher: How has the SXSW experience been for you?

Amy C. Elliott: Amazing. I love this festival. I think it’s the best. It’s one of the top tier festivals in the world but it’s also offbeat enough and different enough. They play films that you wouldn’t necessarily see it at other festivals. They really curate a different slate and the audiences who come appreciate that. A doc like Salvage is small. It’s not flashy, you do have to have some patience for it. It’s a hard film in some ways. But there’s going to be an audience here. It’s perfect place for an offbeat film like Salvage. I know that I’m going to get an audience that is engaged and wants to see that kind of stuff. I love SXSW.

Raquel Stecher: What do you hope that people will take away from Salvage?

Amy C. Elliott: That’s a two part answer. On a surface level, what I hope people take away is being more mindful of what we buy and [to think] about where it ends up. Do we really buy this next thing? Be mindful of waste. Do we have to know shepherd our products to a slightly better home rather than just throwing them out without thinking about it? The second thing would be to appreciate what’s distinct where you live and where you visit. What is special about a place and why?

Amy C. Elliott is the director of World’s Largest (2010), Wicker Kittens (2014) and Salvage (2019), all of which have premiered at the SXSW Film Festival. You can follow her on Twitter @SalvageMovie and learn more about her photography at her official website. A big thank you to Amy for taking the time out to chat with me about her film!

SXSW 2019: AMA and Festival Recap

As I finalize the last of my SXSW coverage I thought I’d take a moment to recap my experience at the festival. I did an Ask Me Anything call out on Twitter and got some great questions in response.


Karen @TheDarkPages on Twitter: What was it about SXSW that made you want to go?

Raquel: I’ve been wanting to branch out and try new film festivals for a while. The SXSW Film Festival appealed to me in several ways. I loved the focus on indie film. I was also interested in the variety of panels, conferences and exclusive events. Plus there were great opportunities for networking. It seemed to me a very press friendly festival with lots of opportunities for great coverage. I knew this was a place where I could take the next step in building my writing career. The press team was incredibly welcoming and I had some wonderful support from both SXSW and Rotten Tomatoes. I can’t deny that there was some appeal in visiting a city I’d never been to before: Austin, TX!


Jen @JenTCM on Twitter: What kind of festival is it, exactly?

Raquel: I’m still trying to figure that out! SXSW is several festivals combined. My focus was on the film festival side but there is also a Music Festival and an Interactive Festival. There was a trade show, a health & wellness expo and programming around food, technology, politics, TV, etc. There was so much going that it would be impossible not to find something that appealed to you.


Chuck @Chuck7703 on Twitter: How would you rate the accessibility of the film screenings? Have you been able to get in to the majority of films you wanted to see?

Raquel: I only missed out on three films. Two I opted out of to give myself a little break. The other missed film was a miscalculation on my part (time between screenings + distance between venues + afternoon rush hour traffic). Otherwise I got into everything I wanted to because I was willing to get in line early. SXSW is on two big loops and I took the shuttle to get from one loop to the other.

When arranging my schedule I made sure to reference the official map so I could build in travel time and pair screenings by venue whenever possible. Because everything is so spread out over the city, I found it difficult to attend more than 4 events per day. I saw at most 2 films per day and built in some time for writing and to attend other types of events. I spent quite a lot of time at the Austin Convention Center where I could use their facilities, grab a quick meal, access the Carnegie Mellon University Press Suite to do some writing and catch the shuttle.


Jackie @Jaxbra on Twitter: Your first time at SXSW, right? How do you find it compared to other festivals you’ve gone to? I mean, like how it was organized, the venues, panels, etc.

Raquel: This was indeed my first SXSW! Compared to other festivals this one can be overwhelming and difficult to navigate. I was lucky that I got some great advice from SXSW veterans (thanks Alicia, Sterling and Danielle!). That helped immensely. I’m a methodical planner so I created a detailed itinerary which I kept on Google Drive and accessed daily. 

Take a look at the SXSW Shuttle Map . It shows you how spread out all of the locations are. The big movies screen at the Paramount and Stateside once and everything else screens three times at the various other smaller theaters. I only caught one big movie (The Beach Bum) but otherwise I’d have three time slots to chose from for every movie which made planning much easier. And the filmmakers/cast/crew usually show up to multiple screenings so you don’t necessarily have to attend the first one to see a Q&A. The panels and other events were either at the Austin Convention Center or they were held at nearby hotel conference rooms. SXSW made a lot of resources available to attendees including a live shuttle map (you could track the buses on GPS to see how long you’d have to wait), a mobile app with details on all of the events, and other online resources.

Getting into film screenings at SXSW was the most unusual system I have ever come across! There were multiple levels of access.

SXXPress Pass – Every morning at 9 AM CST, Platinum and Film Badge holders could grab available SXXPress Passes for tomorrow’s screenings via the SXSW mobile app. These let you cut the line. You have to be quick to grab these because they went fast and only a handful were made available. I only managed to get two of these and I heard other people say they couldn’t get any. At the venue, a SXSW volunteer would scan the SXXPress Pass on your phone and give you a red ticket. You’d wait in a lobby or in a designated area rather than waiting in line.



Filmmaker’s Ticket – If you’re a member of the press, you could get a filmmaker’s ticket and get in with the SXXPress Pass holders. When I was reaching out to film publicists about coverage, I would ask for a ticket. (Thank you to Alicia Malone for this tip!). I got into quite a lot of films this way but the process was quite awkward. I’d have to meet either the director of the film or the publicist at the venue to get the ticket. It resulted in a lot of texting, e-mailing, searching for head shots and looking at names on badges.


Primary access –For Platinum and Film Badge holders there was a separate line to get in. They were escorted into the theater after SXXPress Pass and Filmmaker’s ticket holders were seated. For this level of access it was important to get in line 45 minutes to an hour early to guarantee entry. Depending on the venue you’d either get in line and have your badge scanned or you’d go up to a group of volunteers, get scanned and then get in line. You’d then be given a queue card. 

Secondary access – Film wristband wearers would get into a second line that was seated after the group of SXXpress/Filmmaker’s Ticket holders and Primary Access line. There was also a third level of access but this was the biggest gamble and depended greatly on theater capacity and the popularity of the event. If any seats were left, these attendees would pay $15 at the door to get in.


Nikki @NikkiLM4 on Twitter: How does it compare, pace, people, venues, to TCMFF?

Raquel: SXSW is really on a different level than TCMFF. It’s like TCMFF X 12. It takes place over 10 days instead of 3-1/2. The SXSW venues are spread out all over the city, many of the films are shown 3x, the festival takes over the Austin Convention Center as well as several nearby hotels, Rainey Street bars and restaurants are transformed into SXSW installations, 6th street is closed down and is packed with attendees and revelers, etc. SXSW basically takes over Austin. It’s TCMFF on acid!


Karen @TheDarkPages on Twitter: What were your top three favorite things about SXSW?


  1. All screenings were open to the public and featured Q&As with the filmmakers. And I had so much fun photographing the red carpet premiere of The Beach Bum.
  2. Not going hungry. There were so many food options from dining service at the Alamo theaters to the food trucks and restaurants nearby and the eateries inside the convention center. Lots of healthy options too!
  3. Walking the first loop and taking the free shuttle to the second loop. It saved me a lot of money that would have otherwise gone to Lyft rides.


Marci @MarciK on Twitter: Any cool interactions with other critics/bloggers/writers? What has been your favorite non-film related experience at SXSW?

Raquel: I was mostly on my own but I did get to hang out with some friends most notably Sterling @filmlatelist, Robert @812filmreviews and Danielle @DanielleSATM. I chatted with people in line or on the shuttle whenever I could. I had a few negative experiences with some fellow attendees who thought it was okay to talk during the film. I also met a couple film critics who didn’t think I was worth their time and one who poked fun at my inexperience. 

I didn’t have many non-film related experiences. I did love partnering with Kingston Technologies. They were a fantastic sponsor to work with! Carlos and I went to the outskirts of Austin for some amazing Colombian food. It was nice to get away for a bit. And I skipped a screening to see D’Arcey Carden and Henry Winkler at a Twitter Improv event. It was cool to see Janet (The Good Place) and the Fonz (Happy Days) in person!


Vanessa @SuperVeebs on Twitter: What’s one thing about the festival that scared you?

Raquel: I was mostly concerned about my safety. I asked my husband Carlos, who traveled to Austin with me, to come pick me up after my last screening. We’d usually meet up at the Convention Center and walk back to the hotel together. I tried to be in or around groups of festival attendees. If I was by myself, I’d always be cautious and look for protected areas where police were on patrol.


Alejandro @alamofilmguy on Twitter: Any cool restaurants to recommend?

Raquel: I didn’t go to too many restaurants because I was too occupied with the film festival. However I did have amazing culinary experiences at Pelon’s (tacos and cocktails!) and Koriente (Korean food). I was really impressed with what the Alamo Ritz and Alamo Lamar had to offer. Many of my meals were at Alamo film screenings. They had a full menu with appetizers, burgers, sandwiches, pizzas, hot dogs but they also had salads and healthier food options too. I tried to focus on healthy eating throughout my trip to avoid falling asleep during film screenings and to keep my creative juices flowing. I never did get to have barbecue (which wouldn’t have put me right to sleep)! My husband waited in line for 4 hours for Franklin’s BBQ in Austin and said it was worth it.


Erin @MissErinMcGee on Twitter: What was your favorite experience??

Raquel: Getting mentored by Alicia Malone! I was invited to attend a private roundtable mentoring session for female film critics hosted by Alicia. I learned so much from this experience! She shared a lot about her career goals and how she achieved them and gave us amazing advice. She encouraged us to not compete but to instead build each other up. There’s room for all of us. If I had flown to Austin, TX and only been mentored by Alicia Malone and had done nothing else, it would have been worth the trip. That’s how valuable that experience was to me.


Maddy @Maddylovesherc1 on Twitter: Once it’s all finished, I’d like to know what films and events you enjoyed the most here?

Raquel: My top favorite films were as follows:

  1. Sister Aimee
  2. Qualified
  3. Salvage
  4. La Mala Noche
  5. Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy
  6. Days of the Whale
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