Festival Files: Dallas International 2017, Dispatch #2 – ‘The Void,’ ‘City of Joy,’ ‘Gook’

Growing lines and excited chatter are just par for the course on a Saturday afternoon at the DIFF. Part of the communal fun of such an event is the weaving dialogue between volunteer staff, organizers and ticket holders: “Did you see so and so?” “I’m hoping to get into tonight’s screening.” “You have to see {blank}.” The possibilities and cinematic connections are endless.

With those endless possibilities in mind, I went into Madeleine Gavin’s City of Joy with no advance knowledge in hand. The first documentary I’ve seen at the festival so far, it certainly held up as the perfect type of film to discover at the festival. As a socialist-activist documentary, it’s purposeful. As a plaintive exposure to the horrors and genocide of an entire swath of Congolese women at the hands of soldiers fighting for multi-nationalist controlled mining operations, it’s just heartbreaking.

Deriving its title from the self-proclaimed “leadership center” created by Dr. Mukwege Mukengere, the place is essentially a halfway house for women raped and abused by the marauding hordes of soldiers who use violence and sexual assault as a weapon of terrorism. Their aim is simple. Enter a town and either kill everyone or rape all the women in front of their families so the village is abandoned and left to their mining operations. What Dr. Mukwege and activist Christine Schuler-Deschryver (a magnanimous woman present for a Q&A after the film) have done is try to reconcile a generation of women not only with themselves, but to rebuild their self-worth and give them the inner strength to go out and help others.

The film slowly focuses on several women in the center’s first graduating class, while also spiraling out to examine the larger historical and cultural clash of ideals and political skullduggery that’s led to the violence. Through modest strokes and simply allowing the women and their experiences to speak for themselves,  City of Joy is a redemptive journey through hell and back.

And just when we hope and wonder if brighter days are on the horizon, Schuler-Deschryver lamented the fact that Trump may be about to reverse so many of the steps towards peace that have been established within the last few years through his non renewal of certain agreements with corporations driving the madness for coltan. This off-hand comment made everyone’s heart sink in the theater and prompted people to quickly ask for the website and how they can help. The activism is alive and well.

 

Always a good time, one of the “Midnight Special” presentations included SXSW favorite The Void (pictured at top). Written and directed by Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski, one can’t deny its gross-out effects and seamless monster design, but what I found most affecting beyond all the gore-hound window dressing was its simpler moments, such as the eerie and wordless things that appear towards the beginning of the film.

As local sheriff (Aaron Poole) and a variety of rural townsfolk become holed up in a half-deserted hospital, the “things,”  with their ominous presence and lurking-at-the-seams-movement, spell out a decidedly unnerving vibe. And did I mention they’re dressed from head to toe in white hooded outfits donning a black triangle over their eyes? Yes, that’s eerie.

Unfortunately, this low-fi and disturbing atmosphere is quickly replaced with nightmarish images and buckets of blood that coincide with Hellraiser-like satanic innuendo. My taste in horror films tends to veer with the less-is-more attitude. The Void opts for more-is-more.

 

Next to Jameson Brooks’ Bomb City (detailed in this previous post), the second best find of the festival is Justin Chon’s Gook. Also written by and starring Chon, the film takes place during the momentous 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. As if that coastal, festering city needed any more contention to set off its powder-keg foundation, Gook clearly establishes the inherent racism and violence from the very opening when Eli (Chon) is jumped by Latino gang members as he tries to buy several boxes of shoes for his fledgling store.

Compounding his problems is young Kamillah (a breakout performance by newcomer Simone Baker), an African-American neighborhood kid who routinely hangs around the store despite her brother’s threats against the Asian-American Eli. As the film builds towards the infamous night of riots, Gook is alternatively sweet and knowing about its milieu. Also like Bomb City, it culminates in a shocking act of violence that casts a light on the needless reverberations of pig-headed racism and deep-seated inabilities to accept others despite the color of their skin.

Gook moves effortlessly and looks terrific in its monochrome black and white images, shot by cinematographer Ante Cheng… who is actually still in film school at USC. Harboring all the earmarks of true independent cinema like the ones that can’t be found at Sundance anymore, Gook signals grassroots ambition from a talented set of newcomers and I look forward to whatever they do next.

The Dallas International Film Festival continues through Sunday, April 9.

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