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Double Exposure Film Festival: Elena

Elena is a 20-something social worker living in the Dominican Republic. She’s the daughter of a Haitian sugar cane worker and is struggling to get her government issued ID so she can continue her work. An ID would allow her to vote, give her more rights as a citizen and open up educational and career opportunities for her. But there is a deep-seated animosity that Dominicans feel towards Haitian immigrants. It’s one that is deeply entrenched into the history of the Hispaniola and is not changing anytime soon.

Directed by Michèle Stephenson, Elena is a moving short documentary about the strife between Haitians and Dominicans as told the story of one woman. I’m half Dominican and have studied the history of my mother’s homeland over the years. Anyone who has read Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones or knows anything about Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo’s  government imposed massacre of Haitian immigrants will know that this has been a longstanding problem on the island. For others, Elena will serve as a gentle and worthwhile introduction to this ongoing conflict. Stephenson chose a great subject for this poignant documentary. I was thoroughly invested in Elena’s story and by the end felt I like I made a new friend.

Elena was part of the 2021 Double Exposure Film Festival.

Double Exposure FIlm Festival: Unrelinquished

Directed by Amina Waheed, Unrelinquished investigates how a lax justice system allows for perpetrators of domestic violence to carry otherwise illegal weapons. In 2018,  22 year Jazmine Willock was found dead in her Tucson, Arizona home. She was the victim of a murder-suicide enacted by her abusive boyfriend. Jazmine is one of many domestic violence victims that die by armed abusers. Waheed’s short documentary examines Jazmine’s case and how others like her are caught in a system that doesn’t fully protect them. The film includes conversations with Jazmine’s mother and sister, a spotlight on another similar case and breaks down the flaws in the justice system. In a time when Gabby Petito’s murde,  and the domestic violence that led to it, has caught national attention, Unrelinquished serves an important role in shedding light on how the system continues to fail these women.

Trigger warning: this film includes crime scene photos, descriptions of domestic violence and audio of Jazmine recounting her boyfriend’s abuse to the police.

Unrelinquished was part of the 2021 Double Exposure Film Festival’s Short Cuts program.

Double Exposure Film Festival: United States vs. Reality Winner

An eye-opening documentary reveals just what went down with the FBI’s treatment and the eventual incarceration of whistleblower Reality Winner.

In 2016, upon discovering crucial information regarding Russian interference with the United States presidential election, Reality Winner leaked confidential documents from her work at the NSA to journalists at The Intercept. What followed was a media showdown, an FBI investigation and a complicated trial. Reality Winner became the eighth whistleblower to be prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917 and was soon sentenced to 5+ years in Federal prison. The document she leaked is now public information but at the time of her trial the classified documents couldn’t even be discussed.

Directed by Sonia Kennebeck, United States vs. Reality Winner illuminates the real tension between the public’s right to know crucial information that affects them and the government’s stronghold on that information. It paints a portrait of Reality Winner, someone who believed in exposing the truth but became the pawn in a very dangerous game and paid the price. Throughout the film there are interviews with other whistleblowers, including Edward Snowden, journalists, friends and family, including her mother and sister. It also includes declassified audio of the FBI’s interrogation of Reality Winner, which was released in February 2021  under the Freedom for Information Act.

United States vs. Reality Winner was the opening night film at the 2021 Double Exposure Film Festival.

Woodstock Film Festival: Adopting Audrey (formerly Porcupine)

“Once everyone learns everything about me, I gotta keep moving. Why do I do that?”

Audrey

For the past two years, Audrey (Jena Malone) has lived in 4 different places and had 7 different jobs. She recently got fired from her collection agency gig, is overdue on rent and the electricity to her apartment has just been cut off. And to make matters worse, her father is ill and her mother refuses to speak to her. Audrey spends a lot of her time watching videos on YouTube and one night comes upon an ad for adult adoption in which seniors who either don’t have children of their own or want to have a younger adult in their lives will adopt through this service.

With no other prospects, Audrey gives this a shot. After many interview sessions she goes through a trial run with middle-aged couple Sunny (Emily Kuroda) and Otto (Robert Hunger-Buhler). Otto, a hard-nosed and strictly-by-the-book kind of guy, is reluctant at first but then warms up to Audrey. The two work on rebuilding his treehouse, with Otto giving Audrey guidance and Audrey relying on DIY YouTube videos to learn the skills to complete the task. As the they bond, Audrey finds herself in a tough situation and tries to decide how to move forward.

Directed by M. Cahill and based on a true story, Porcupine is a sweet film about the struggle to find one’s own place in the world. Audrey is a complex and nuanced character whose motivations are pure and not rooted in any selfishness or greed. Jena Malone is one of my favorite actresses and she shines in this role. Malone and Robert Hunger-Buhler play well off each other as the story’s two central characters. The film has a strong failure-to-launch theme, quirky characters and does a lot to explore complex family dynamics. Heartfelt, engrossing and thoroughly enjoyable.

Porcupine had its world premiere at the 2021 Woodstock Film Festival.

Note to add: Porcupine is now titled Adopting Audrey. The film will be releasing in theaters and on digital and VOD on August 26th, 2022.

Woodstock Film Festival: My Dead Dad

“Sometimes what a man wants to do and what he’s able to do are two different things.”

Lucas (Pedro Correa) was just hit with some devastating news. His dad Augusto (Ricardo Molina) is dead. Lucas has had a strained relationship with his father and its been 10 years since he’s seen him. So it came as a surprise when his dad left him a Los Angeles apartment building as an inheritance. Lucas leaves his mom and loser friends in Reno to make his way to LA. His plan is to quickly sell the joint, collect the money and go back to Reno. However, he finds himself more and more invested in the building and its tenants. Lucas gets tough love from the building’s supervisor Frank (Raymond Cruz) and has to be wary of his uncle (Steven Bauer) who is a little too eager to help Lucas sell the building. Lucas falls for Sophie (Courtney Dietz) who happens to be in a relationship with ne’er-do-well Gavin (Simon Rex). What Lucas didn’t expect was that in LA he’d find himself on a journey of discovery where he learns more about himself and his dead dad than he ever thought he would.

Co-written by Pedro Correa and Fabio Frey, My Dead Dad is a deeply empathetic coming-of-age story.  We become invested in Lucas’ journey as he pieces together a new narrative about his dad. The film weaves in home video style footage of Lucas’ dad and an audio recording that really makes the “dead dad” a fully realized character. I enjoyed the fish-out-of-water theme as well as how the main character grows and evolves throughout the story. There is a motley crew of supporting characters, all quirky and interesting in their own way. 

Throughout the film there are shots of LA, particularly tent cities, which offers a subtle nod to LA’s homeless situation. Correa is founder of Hollywood for Homeless, which according to Never Norm Films’ website their mission is to “collect excess wardrobe and snacks from film and TV sets, shop for bulk necessities, package them with care, and deliver them directly to those who need it in the streets of LA.”

“I hope it gives our audience a sense of catharsis, the way it did for us, and the courage to revisit memories they have buried away.”

Director Fabio Frey

My Dead Dad had its world premiere at the 2021 Woodstock Film Festival. Visit the film’s official website for more information.

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