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SXSW: Being Impossible

Ariel (Lucia Bedoya) is a Venezuelan woman going through an incredibly painful time in her life. Her day job as a dressmaker finds her surrounded by judgmental women in a stifling environment. At night she cares for her dying mother (Maria Elena Duque). The film opens with Ariel having her first sexual encounter, one that leaves her bleeding and in pain for days. With everything else that’s going on, why is her body betraying her?

What Ariel doesn’t know but something the audience learns with hints along the way is that she’s intersex. When Ariel was born, her mother arranged for her to have sexual reassignment surgery to become female.  As the story progresses, Ariel is confused and bewildered. She doesn’t know why she’s physically attracted to the new woman at work, why sex with a man is so incredibly painful and why her mother refuses to let her see another doctor for a second opinion about her pain.

Director Patricia Ortega’s Being Impossible/Yo imposible is a hard pill to swallow. It’s a heavy-handed story that offers little to an audience that will be overwhelmed by the subject matter. The story is set up as a mystery with Ariel finding about her true gender at the end. While this might make sense on paper it doesn’t really work in the film.

I did identify with the character of Ariel because even though I don’t know what it’s like to be intersex, I could relate to the feeling of being betrayed by one’s own body and the repression that comes with being in an a religious environment. Interspersed throughout the movie were interviews with intersex subjects who described their own struggles on camera. I thought these were effective but would have been more so if Ariel’s discovery had happened earlier in the story. I loved the tender love story between Ariel and her female coworker. This was a little kernel of hope in otherwise grim movie.

If you’re interested in the subject matter, I would direct you to another South American film with an intersex protagonist XXY (2007) which I thought was a far better story overall.

Being Impossible had its North American premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their Global series.

SXSW: Qualified

“All I want to do is race cars.”

Janet Guthrie

Adventurous and determined, Janet Guthrie is a trailblazer in the auto racing world. As the first woman to race the Indy 500, she faced an uphill battle to break the gender barrier in the late 1970s. Her career was plagued with setbacks; from mechanical failures, to lack of sponsorship that kept her out of races, to injuries and the biggest of all was the engrained belief that women could not physically be race car drivers.

Guthrie is a fearless woman. At a very young age, she fell in love with flying and didn’t hesitate to jump out of a plane for her first skydive. But realizing that female pilots were banned from both the airline industry and the military, she decided to become an aeronautical engineer instead. This led to her discovery of sports cars, a fascination with their design and her infatuation with the sport. Developing her skills as a driver, Guthrie loved speed and racing took over her life. But was auto racing ready for a woman driver?

“What is this nonsense that women can’t do it?”

Janet Guthrie on women race car drivers

Director Jenna Ricker’s Qualified follows the career of Janet Guthrie and all its ups and downs. And there were a lot of downs. The documentary consists of mostly archival footage of Guthrie’s races and television interviews. Guthrie herself and the various drivers and mechanics speak at length about her qualifying attempts, her races and all the struggles she endured in her career. I found Guthrie’s story both frustrating and awe-inspiring. I was angry at society for holding her back whether it was a sponsor not wanting to risk being associated with a woman driver or other people in the industry believing the sport was too dangerous for women. One pivotal moment show the dilemma of whether to call out “gentleman start your engines” when both Guthrie and the mechanic starting her engine were women.

As a woman who has experienced many career setbacks, I was really motivated by Guthrie’s tenacity. She explored every option, fought for every qualifier and race and only gave up when no options were left for her. If it hadn’t been for her tenacity, she might not have opened the doors necessary to pursue her dream. That’s a powerful message for any woman of any age.

Qualified takes its viewers on an emotional journey. I’m so grateful for Ricker’s film and the opportunity to learn about Guthrie’s story. I’ll have to admit, I choked up a few times. I can’t emphasize how important it is for a woman to have a strong female role model, even if she’s in a completely different field from your own. It can be life changing.

Qualified had its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their Documentary Spotlight series.

SXSW: Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy

“She is a prophet for Mexican food.”

Nick Zuckin

Cookbook author and chef Diana Kennedy is the leading expert on traditional Mexican cooking. For over 60 years, Kennedy has immersed herself in Mexican culture and food, learning and respecting the traditions of one of the most celebrated cuisines. This feisty and unapologetic British woman may be an outsider looking in but because she has lived in rural Mexico, in Zitácuaro, Michoacán, for most of her life and sticks to the tried and true approaches to different dishes and recipes, she’s become what one of her friends calls an “adoptive daughter of Mexico.” 

Director Elizabeth Carroll, in her debut documentary Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy explores the life and work of this outspoken advocate for preserving Mexico’s culinary history. Nothing Fancy is a reference to one of Kennedy’s cookbooks but also speaks to Kennedy’s approach to cooking and to life. There are no variations, twists or updates. She sticks to the old ways. Kennedy is a fascinating subject. She’s scrappy, resourceful, and is a champion for organic gardening and sustainable living. She’s always on the road exploring different parts of her adopted country. Kennedy isn’t afraid to tell you what she thinks in her abrupt and frank manner.

In the film we mostly hear from Kennedy herself but Mexican chefs, including one of my favorites Pati Jinich, and other experts also chime in on Kennedy’s legacy. My favorite scene shows present day Kennedy making guacamole with spliced in archival footage from decades earlier of her making the exact same recipe. Kennedy is a free spirit who does not change and is true to what she believes in. 

Perhaps the only flaw of the film, which the director hinted at during a screening of this documentary at SXSW, is that the relationships Kennedy has with people in the film isn’t explained. In one case, she is very close to another chef and there is a lovely scene where they have their portrait taken together. But we really don’t find out much about who she is and how they bonded.

Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy is a charming documentary that allows its subject’s vibrant personality shine through. It also serves as one way we can ensure Kennedy’s contributions to preserving Mexican food culture is appreciated for decades to come.

Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy had its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their Documentary Feature Competition.

SXSW: Days of the Whale

Cristina (Laura Tobón) and her boyfriend Simon (David Escallón) are two street artists living in Medellin, Colombia. They collaborate on their graffiti art, live in a commune with other artists and rescue a stray dog. Cristina is a free spirit and lacks any interest in University life spends most of her time wandering the streets, making art and hanging out with Simon. Her family life is tense and divided. She lives with her father (Christian Tappan) and his new bride and her mother (Margarita Restrepo) has fled Medellin in fear for her life. When a local gang spray paints the threatening message “snitches get stitches””/“los sapos mueren por la boca”, Cristina and Simon decide to paint over it with the image of the whale. Will this act of defiance put their lives at risk?

Days of the Whale/Los dias de la ballena was written, directed and produced by Colombian filmmaker Catalina Arroyave Restrepo. This is an auspicious start to what I hope is a long and fruitful career. Arroyave studied communication and film in Colombia, Argentina and Cuba and brings a new and fresh perspective to Latinoamérica cinema. 

It’s important to step out of our own bubbles and explore the world around us. Days of the Whale offers viewers an insight into life in Medellin, Colombia through the perspectives of two young free-spirited artists. I love how Arroyave’s film drives home the symbolism of the whale. We see a whale trapped in a canal and as the film progresses the city kills the whale in stages. Cristina decides on a whale as the image to draw over the gang’s threatening message. Her reasoning is that they travel, take care of their young and its her mother’s favorite animal. The whale is symbolic of freedom, specifically creative freedom and being free from the fear that can stifle artistic expression. It can also symbolize being true to yourself and freedom to live your life, as Cristina and Simon do in spite of the oppression from local gang members.

Days of the Whale is a promising debut from a fresh new voice. It explores art as both expression and defiance and shines a spotlight on one of the lesser known urban communities of South America. It also features a fantastic soundtrack with a mix of Colombian hip hop and Cuban salsa.

Days of the Whale had its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their Global series.

For Cine Suffragette, I interviewed Catalina Arroyave Restrepo. Check out the interview in Spanish here and English-language version here!

Update June 2020: Days of the Whale will have a virtual theatrical release on July 24th.

SXSW: Tread

In 2004, Marv Heemeyer drove his bulldozer through Granby, Colorado destroying building after building. He carefully selected his targets. These were the townspeople whom he felt had been the cause of many injustices against his beloved muffler shop. Marv’s bulldozer was no ordinary machine. He’d modified it to function like a military tank and created an impenetrable seal armed with it cameras and semi-automatic rifles. He was on a suicide mission. Before that fateful day in June, Marv recorded his suicide note with incredible detail about his motivations behind. The rampage lasted for over 2 hours and no matter how many attempts by the local police force made to thwart his efforts the fact is that they couldn’t. A simple miscalculation was his undoing. Ultimately no one was killed in the incident, except for Marv, but it took years for his victims to recover from the loss. The event made national headlines before it was eclipsed by President Ronald Reagan’s death the next day. 

Director Paul Solet’s Tread is a compelling and slick documentary about this little known event. It explores Marv’s motivations for the rampage and features many interviews with his targets and also his girlfriend at the time. His family refused to speak on record for the project. Solet also recreates many key scenes with actors. The rampage itself is a thrilling reenactment done with very little CGI. The filmmaking crew created their own version of the modified bulldozer for those scenes.

I have mixed feelings about the film. Visually its stunning but perhaps a bit too slick. I usually don’t care for reenactments but these were tastefully done. I thought the film overall was a bit too polished with some fancy drone shots and slow motion action sequences that felt unnecessary. I did however appreciate the archival footage as well as Marv’s audio recording which juxtaposed with all the interviews made it feel very balanced. With that said, I was rooting for Marv the whole time. I’m not sure if that speaks more to my own feelings or to how Marv was portrayed in the doc.

In the end, Tread was for me a thrilling revenge story that probably should have been something else entirely.

Tread had its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their Documentary Spotlight series.

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