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Film Festival: Movies on race and diaspora explain being 'the other'

Images from St. Louis International Film Festival

This year St. Louis Public Radio is reviewing films from The St. Louis International Film Festival that relate to prominent issues facing our city.

In this installment, St. Louis Public Radio looks at films that offer a multitude of perspectives on race as it affects culture on a local, national and international scale: "Four Way Stop," "Goodbye Theresienstadt," "Finding Bosnia," "My Friend Victoria," "Korla!" and "Aram, Aram."

The death of Michael Brown and subsequent protests projected St. Louis’ racial environment onto the national stage, reinvigorating discussions regarding race in this country. In response, the film festival programmed several films together under the heading Race in America: The Black Experience. Several other films present narratives from diasporas caused by racial conflict or racially motivated genocide.

These reviews are tailored to the STLPR/NPR fan, pairing each movie and its review to a STLPR/NPR show or podcast. Are you a fan of the shared storytelling technique as heard in Storycorps? Do you prefer NPR’s Code Switch initiative? Are you still frustrated by Tell Me More’s cancelation? Scan our reviews to see which of these movies might be for you.

For a full schedule and tickets, go to www.cinemastlouis.org/about-festival.

https://vimeo.com/113031214" target="_blank">Four Way Stop (85 min) | Narrative
Director: Efi da Silva
9:35 p.m. Friday, Nov. 13 | Tivoli Theatre
1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 15 | Webster U/Moore Auditorium

Efie da Silva’s debut film gives the viewer no answers. Rather it’s a slice of life that follows 17-year-old Allen’s attempt to break out of St. Louis poverty. A good student, who dropped out because of his mother’s health problems, he has no support from a drug-addict father. To try to find a better job, he is late or missing from the fast-food one he has. That spiral does not end well.

Is leaving the conventional work path the only way to get enough to help his mother? Nothing is tied neatly together here, but that’s true of the lives portrayed, as they come up against the four-way stops that can be found throughout town. Note: St. Louis Public Radio’s Steve Potter is an actor in this film. — Donna Korando

For fans of: Storycorps, The Takeaway, Codeswitch

Goodbye Thereisenstadt (58 min) | Documentary (Czech Republic/Denmark)
Directors: Carl Otto Dethlefsen & Jonatan Jerichow
12:05 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 15 | Plaza Frontenac Cinema

“I thought I was done with Theresienstadt. But it never leaves you.” — Robert Fischmann

The story of the release of the Scandinavian Jews from the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1945 is a lesser-known part of Holocaust history. “Goodbye Thereisenstadt” tells it through the eyes of six Danish Jews who were arrested as children between the ages of 5 and 17 and lived in the camp in the Czech Republic for a year and a half before the Nazis allowed them to go free.

Like all Holocaust documentaries, “Goodbye Thereisenstadt” is important for the role it serves in preserving the memory of Holocaust survivors. The directors do a good job conveying the truth of Fishmann’s words. But aside from telling a story that most don’t know, it does not break new ground. The film spends a bit too much time on the lead-up to the trip the six take to Thereisenstadt — you find yourself wanting to spend more time with them in the ruins of the old Czech fortress, as they say a farewell to memories that still haunt them decades later. — Rachel Lippmann

For fans of: Storycorps, Fresh Air

My Friend Victoria(95 min) | Narrative (French)
Director: Jean-Paul Civeyrac
4:50 p.m. Friday, Nov. 13 and 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 15 | Plaza Frontenac Cinema

We meet Victoria when she is 8 and first encounters two brothers, Edouard and Thomas Savinet, and follow her into adulthood. Sent to pick her up from school when her aunt falls ill, Edouard completely overlooks Victoria because she, as a black girl, is invisible to him. Later we learn that he’s deeply embarrassed by his mistake because he’s from a white socialist family that loathes “third world suffering and racism.”

Spending one night in the Savinet’s comfortable home shapes Victoria’s desires. Those desires also eventually define what she wants for her two children, Thomas’ mixed race daughter and her son with her darker-skinned husband. And the film plays out in quietly disastrous ways.

Based on a Doris Lessing story, the film moves the characters from London to Paris. The only reason I can think to do this is to accommodate French fetishization of African diasporic cultures. Black American jazz and race films play in the background or on TV sets. And the number of ways to describe black skin (“my caramel crème”) gets irksome.

Ponderous is the best word to describe a film that doesn’t attempt to challenge its own satire of the bourgeois family at its center. — Kimberly Springer

For fans of: A Prairie Home Companion

https://vimeo.com/134660931" target="_blank">Finding Bosnia (90 min) | Documentary (Bosnia)
Directors: Adrian Hopffgarten & Ivana Horvat
7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 13 | Saint Louis U./Center for Global Citizenship
4:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14 | Missouri History Museum

The personal narrative documentary “Finding Bosnia” is a charming story of self-discovery for director Ivana Horvat, a Bosnian refugee who grew up in Portland, isolated from countrymen other than her parents. Horvat’s journey to find and share a narrative with other Bosnians is a captivating look at what growing up removed from your history and family can mean for the formation of personal and cultural identity.

That’s a topic especially prescient today as thousands of Syrian refugees flee their war-torn region. And it's a topic St. Louis' Bosnian community would have much to say about.

Although lacking in some of the finer aspects of technical filmmaking, this first effort is a documentary full of heart. The film takes an oft over-mythologized place of war, focusing particularly on Sarajevo, and reintroduces it as a vibrant, bright country filled with change-makers reimagining the country for the better.

It doesn’t shy away from the pitfalls of that reimagining either. A line from a Bosnian man in the first few minutes of the film says it all: “Few people have heard about us. When they hear about us, they always think of wars and negative things like that. No one knows it is actually nice here.” — Kelly Moffitt

For fans of: To the Best of Our Knowledge (possibly: the now-lapsed Tell Me More with Michele Martin)

https://vimeo.com/124007617" target="_blank">Korla!(77 min) | Documentary
Director: John Turner
1:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 15 | The Stage at KDHX

Korla Pandit, The Godfather of Exotica music, was Prince before His Purple Badness was a twinkle in his parents’ eye. This doc sets out to learn how Korla maintained an air of both authenticity and mystery in 1950s Hollywood.

Korla entertained audiences for 50 minutes every weekday afternoon. One music historian claims, “He was unknowable.” You’ll understand that sense of unknowability within a few minutes of watching clips from his TV show. You cannot look away from Korla’s riveting eyes. And the story of how a black man from Columbia, Mo., passed himself off as a incongruously turbaned Hindu (who don’t wear turbans) is equally captivating.

The filmmakers take us on a welcome, but short, detour into Korla’s past. This character — and he was, in fact, initially a character — emerged from the talent and ingenuity of a young, black boy. As one of Korla’s relatives notes, Columbia at that time was known as “Little Dixie.” With cursory knowledge about Jim Crow and segregation in the South, the doc only scratches the surface of how Korla Pandit persevered. After being dethroned by a flashy organist upstart called Liberace. Korla managed to have a career well into the 1980s. — Kimberly Springer

For fans of Code Switch and this article on Korla Pandit, “How Turbans Helped Some Blacks Go Incognito In The Jim Crow Era”

Aram, Aram(85 min) | Narrative
Director: Christopher Chambers
6:45 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14 | Tivoli Theatre

There’s nothing inherently original about the old-world vs. new-world theming of “Aram, Aram,” but there is something utterly compelling about a slivered glimpse into the underrepresented lives and culture of Los Angeles’ Armenian community. Pre-teen Aram, strikingly played by John Roohinian, relocates to Los Angeles to live with his sweet but out-of-touch grandfather after his parents are killed in a car accident in Beirut. Left in a vulnerable void, Aram strives to find acceptance within one of “Little Armenia’s” most notorious gangs.

This quiet and pensive slice of the Armenian diaspora is no Kardashian fairytale. The film spirals from sunny shots of grandson and grandfather bonding over the care and keeping of birds and intricacies of immigrant entrepreneurship down into a tense and dark chase scene that will leave viewers breathless for redemption. This film drags at some points, choosing to focus either on little Aram’s happy nostalgia or the imminent of danger of his new friends, instead of heading into the possibly more poignant realm of the grief fueling the entire story forward. — Kelly Moffitt

For fans of: On Being

Susan Hegger comes to St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon as the politics and issues editor, a position she has held at the Beacon since it started in 2008.
Donna Korando started work in journalism at SIU’s Daily Egyptian in 1968. In between Carbondale and St. Louis Public Radio, she taught high school in Manitowoc, Wis., and worked at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the copy editor and letters editor for the editorial page from 1973-77. As an editorial writer from 1977-87, she covered Illinois and city politics, education, agriculture, family issues and sub-Saharan Africa. When she was editor of the Commentary Page from 1987-2003, the page won several awards from the Association of Opinion Page Editors. From 2003-07, she headed the features copy desk.
Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.
Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.