By Leslie C. Halpern
Each April when the Florida Film Festival celebrates independent film, I try to attend a little bit of everything. Maybe a party here, a film forum there. But I always make sure to see as many documentaries as possible. Whether entered in the American Independent Competition or screening with another program, such as food films or the music sidebar, I love to learn about the true lives of unusual people around the world and hear their fascinating stories.
This year, the 25th Annual Florida Film Festival, produced by Enzian Theater and held throughout Central Florida, offers more than 180 feature and short films, in addition to celebrity guests, special events, film forums, and parties. The Festival includes competing films in narrative features and documentary programs, plus special screenings of food films, international films, midnight movies, family programming, and Florida films. A sampling of documentary films appears below.
The Babushkas of Chernobyl
(Screens Sunday, April 10, 7:15 p.m. – 8:40 p.m. at Regal Winter Park Village and Friday, April 15, 1:30 p.m. – 3:20 p.m. at Enzian.)
Directed by Holly Morris and Anne Bogart, this moving documentary explores aged women forced from their homes after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, who have illegally returned to their former residences. They grow their own food in the radioactive soil using contaminated water and air for nourishment. Despite the danger of living in the forbidden exclusion zone, these babushkas would rather die in their homes of radiation poisoning than live safely away from their homeland. Amid the women’s friendly village potlucks, an intriguing subplot involves risk-taking young video gamers who routinely sneak over barbed wire fences to re-enact scenes from the game “Stalker.” These two diverse groups have opposite motives for breaking the law, and provide a fascinating look at real life after a nuclear disaster. Run Time: 72 Minutes. Additional Note: In Ukrainian with English subtitles. 5/5 Stars.
The House is Innocent. A fun-loving couple buys, restores, and remodels a historic house in which several murders were committed. Directed by Nicholas Coles. 12 minutes. Screens with The Babushkas of Chernobyl. 4/5
Romeo Is Bleeding
(Screens Sunday, April 10, 12:00 p.m. – 1:45 p.m. and Thursday, April 14, 3:45 p.m. – 5:45 p.m., both at Regal Winter Park Village.)
This documentary explores how slam poetry, Romeo and Juliet, and an after-school program help bring an impoverished community together to help stop the violence in Richmond, California. Run by teacher Molly Raynor and her former student, Donte Clark, RAW Talent is a slam poetry workshop that aims to heal the Richmond area, which is plagued with gang violence, drugs, teenage pregnancies, and school dropouts. They rework William Shakespeare’s play to directly address the local violence and recruit dozens of students to support their cause. Police reports and gunfire contrast sharply with the laughter and lyricism in this inspiring underdog story. Director: Jason Zeldes. Run Time: 93 minutes. 4/5
We Live This. Four poor black teens dance as subway performers in New York City. Directed by James Burns. 10 minutes. Southeast premiere. Screens with Romeo is Bleeding. 2/5
Man vs. Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler
(Screens Monday, April 11, 9:15 p.m. – 11:05 p.m. at Enzian and Thursday, April 14, 9:30 p.m. – 11:35 p.m. at Regal Winter Park Village.)
This fun documentary combines animation, archival footage, news clippings, and new interviews to tell the story of a likable small-town gamer named Tim McVey, who achieved a billion-point score on the video game Nibbler, back in 1984. In 2008, he learned that someone else claimed to have beaten his record. Dismayed at the possibility of losing his status as the Nibbler champion, he wants to reclaim the title with a new competition, but finds his age and out-of-shape body can’t take the endurance as well as the teenaged version of himself could. Directed by Tim Kinzy and Andrew Seklir, this film has unexpected twists that make viewers care about a man they’ve never met and a little-known game they’ve never heard of. Run Time: 92 Minutes. 4/5 Stars.
Live Fast, Draw Yung. A seven-year-old boy uses rap music to inspire his artwork as his father devotes more and more time to developing a controversial career for his young son. Directed by Anthony Mathile and Stacey Lee. 16 minutes. Florida premiere. Screens with Man vs. Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler. 3/5
Syl Johnson: Any Way the Wind Blows
(Screens Saturday, April 16, 4:15 p.m. – 5:55 p.m. and Sunday, April 17, 12:30 pm. – 2:10 p.m., both at Regal Winter Park Village.)
Chicago R&B singer and guitarist Syl Johnson was a sensation in the 1960s with his hits “Come On Sock It to Me,” “Different Strokes,” and “Is It Because I’m Black.” Yet, despite undeniable talent, record deals, lively stage presence, and a full schedule of touring, Johnson faded to obscurity. Leaving the music business to explore other options for supporting his family, Johnson made an unexpected comeback in recent years through hundreds of rap and hip hop artists sampling his music and being forced (with the threat of lawsuits) to give him the proper credit and compensation. Director Rob Hatch-Miller calls upon RZA, Prince Paul, Peanut Butter Wolf, Jazzy Jay, Jonathan Lethem, Otis Clay, and Syleena Johnson to help share Syl’s true story. Run Time: 84 Minutes. 3/5 Stars.
For a complete list of documentary films or to learn more about the Florida Film Festival, visit the official website.