Sunday, May 09, 2021

IFFBoston 2021.02: The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Quiet and A Reckoning in Boston

Is it just me, or is anyone else watching Brian Tamm's intro to these movies, especially the ones labeled "Generic Somerville" or "Generic Brattle", and seeing if they map to where they think the films in question would play during an in-person festival? For instance, I could absolutely see The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Quiet playing the Brattle, while you head back to Somerville for A Reckoning in Boston. Maybe not scheduled for screen #1, but one of the odd-numbered side-screens, at least until a bunch of people with some connection to the production show up and are standing in the rush line, and it eventually moves up.

There'd also be a filmmaker Q&A that results in me having to use the "horrible photography" tag and gets into enough issues for long enough that I eventually have a hard time separating what was part of the film and what wasn't for the review, but not this year. Maybe in 2022.

Anyway, this is getting too late for these two to still be available via the festival site, but I'm A Reckoning in Boston will be on PBS later this year, and hopefully some streaming service or three will pick up The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Quiet. It's odd and slight enough to disappear outside its home territory of Argentina, but as I say in the review, I'm impressed with its attitude toward randomness and chance. We're not wired to handle that particularly well as a species, from imagining gods to personify forces of nature to looking for scapegoats, and I often find the phrase "everything happens for a reason" kind of horrifying when it's meant to give comfort, whether it makes people think there was something they could have done to not deserved misfortune or that some jerk deity is being cruel to toughen you up for later. It's not healthy to think that way, but human brains are pattern-recognition machines, so it's awful hard not to.

Reckoning takes the other side - that there are reasons for the challenges Kafi and Carl face, a system designed to help those already with an advantage (maybe they have what they do "for a reason"), but in a way, that makes it the yin to Dog's yang - some things are random and some are part of a pattern, and being able to distinguish the two and act appropriately is one of the most valuable skills one can have.

El perro que no calla (The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Quiet)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 7 May 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus, AgileTicketing via Roku)

The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Quiet has maybe the strangest mid-film detour I can recall, surprising me as I watched it although I'll bet that two-weeks-ago me put this film on the schedule because the description hinted at it. Even before that, it's a movie that's as amiably eccentric as its title, well worth a look before it finds the most peculiar way it can to tell what could be a fairly conventional story.

The dog, Rita, doesn't seem particularly difficult as the audience meets her, but that's because her person, Sebastian (Daniel Katz) is home; apparently she whines non-stop when he's at work, to the point where the neighbors gather to complain. He tries taking her to work, and though Rita is well-behaved, it's apparently one of those offices afraid that anything out of the ordinary will be a slippery slope to chaos. So he's soon taking a job on a farm, with plenty of room for Rita to run. But that doesn't last, sending Sebas on other stops, until he sees a woman (Julieta Zylberberg) at his mother's wedding, also dancing by herself on the other side of the floor. They connect, and then…

Well, you've got to see what happens next to maybe believe it, but up until then, it's a well-above average guy-looking-for-his-place sort of movie. A big part of why it works so well is that star Daniel Katz plays Sebas remarkably straight-down-the-middle, even in the early scenes where he's sort of playing a straight man against the petty folks who have a problem with his dog. There's something a bit introverted and isolated about him, even when he's happy, but seldom with an abrasive sense of superiority. It's a performance built out of how he carries himself rather than what he does or says (and he doesn't really say a lot), and is especially complemented by Julieta Zylberberg and Valeria Lois, the former often a female reflection while Lois is the sort of confident, well-integrated-into-her-space mother that makes someone like Sebas seem a bit more uncertain.

As generally likable as Sebastian is, filmmaker Ana Katz recognizes that seeing him quietly be somewhat dissatisfied and move on could wear on an audience if drawn out too long, so not only does she keep the film itself short (a tight 73 minutes), but she makes sure that no individual segment ever wears out its welcome, telling a little vignette and then jumping on to the next stop, giving them just enough time to have meaning but to also let them be transitory. The crisp black-and-white photography proves flexible enough to reflect her main character's moods - almost always feeling a little gray and overcast, not at home among the office's harsh fluorescents, finding some quiet warmth in agriculture. There are a few animated segments which feel like how Sebas would process major shifts in addition to probably covering things this small picture doesn't have an effects budget for - though the production gets impressively creative when things take a weird twist in the last act.

Some may check out at the last act twist that literally comes out of nowhere, but I must admit to being impressed at just how thoroughly the filmmakers embrace that randomness as a theme. Sebastian might have been on the road to a predictable life had his neighbors not had a problem with his dog, but that sends him in a new direction, as does everything from what happens at the farm to meeting a girl to just helping give a stalled truck a push. But chance is not entirely something that happens to individuals; sometimes it's massive and completely unpredictable, a world-changing event that is absolutely an unfair thing for a screenwriter to drop into a script, but those things happen, arguably with increasing frequency, and they're not always timed to be what starts a story.

Those seeing this movie at a virtual film festival in 2021 don't need to be reminded of that, of course, although I'm curious about just when Ana Katz and her collaborators came up with this idea and shot it, just in terms of whether it's reflecting the world or the world is validating its thesis. Either way, there's insight to its oddity, and even the events before the big one are a fascinating way to treat chance as a real part of our lives beyond just chalking things up to fate or finding them cute and quirky.

Also at eFilmCritic

A Reckoning in Boston

* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 May 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus, AgileTicketing via Roku)

The title of A Reckoning in Boston suggests a confrontation with a somewhat definitive finale, but I don't know that anything has particularly changed in the city. In some ways, filmmaker James Rutenbeck gets caught between scales here, but then, that's where a lot of stories end up, especially when they involve race or poverty - it's not hard to see the large forces at work, but most stories are going to be about surviving them rather than bringing them down.

Filmmaker James Rutenbeck has been in the business for around 30 years, settling in the Boston area, and has taken to teaching "Clemente Courses" in the neighborhood of Dorchester. That's a program designed to give inner-city adults exposure to the humanities that they might not have received before. Two Black students in particular catch his attention - or at least agree to be filmed - in 2015: Kafi Dixon, a bus driver for the MBTA with a growing interest in urban farming, and Carl Chandler, caring for grandson Yadiel while his daughters concentrate on their education.

Kafi's story is the one most clearly entwined with the larger issues Rutenbeck points out early on - she's a state employee facing eviction and also working so that other women in the city can be more self-sufficient, but empty real estate is increasingly previous in Boston, and developers certainly have their eye on the parcel where Kafi has started her first farm. Rutenbeck points out that of the thousands of mortgage loans made as working-class neighborhoods gentrify and the Seaport is just developed out of whole cloth, only a trivial number are going to Black families. She doesn't feel that she's being taken seriously as she talks to people in city offices trying to make her farm official. Rutenbeck's empathy is clear, and though he makes a certain amount of effort to be invisible, he recognizes that this is impossible; having a white man with a camera in the room, even potentially, changes the environment, and he's not shy about expressing anger at how much this is the case.

Carl, meanwhile, is seldom in the middle of confrontations as dramatic as Kafi, which means they spend a little more time focused on his time in class, and the viewer quickly gets an idea of just how sharp he is, at one point spotting a hierarchy in ancient Egyptian art while his classmates are still seeing more surface-level properties. As with Kafi, one quickly gets a sense of much the filmmakers like and respect him, but it also highlights the extent to which one can find brains almost anywhere, but folks like Carl and Kafi don't get the same sort of encouragement when young and don't have the opportunities to climb out of a hole the way white people with just a little more money do.

There are moments when a viewer might suspect that Rutenbeck might have started out making a movie about the Clemente Courses program itself, and how studying philosophy and art can be just as valuable as the job-training programs that often seem more directly practical, if only because it gives one a better understanding of the big picture, as the reading is often used for transitions, and there's talk of economics and the city's racist history around busing. There are plenty of related stories that might be more dramatic, but Rutenbeck makes the choice to center Carl and Kafi whenever possible, making sure that when he includes himself or something more abstract, it's in a way that speaks about them, rather than positioning the teachers as saviors.

Has Boston particularly changed in the six years since production started? It doesn't seem that way; what reckonings have occurred have been more or less at the individual level. Not everybody is necessarily going to have the sort of determination Kafi and Carl show, although it certainly suggests that the right mindset and set of tools can make a big difference.

Also at eFilmCritic

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