Taking a closer look at this year's Terrace Charleston Film Festival 

Festivus for the Rest of Us

click to enlarge I Am Not Your Negro is a celebrated documentary based on the unfinished works of James Baldwin

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

I Am Not Your Negro is a celebrated documentary based on the unfinished works of James Baldwin

1984 — not the dystopian George Orwell one but the real one — was a magical time for movies, particularly in the summer. That summer was filled with ghostbusters, gremlins, karate kids, and breakdancers breakin' their way into our hearts. It was a comparatively different film that a younger Paul Brown saw that stuck with him many years later. Stop Making Sense at The Toronto Film Festival. "Amazing," he says.

Though Jonathan Demme's Talking Heads documentary left a strong impression on Brown, just as powerful was the festival itself which also showcased other future cult classics: The Coen Brothers' Blood Simple and Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise. Since then, Brown, Terrace Theater's owner, has attended and participated in over 60 festivals around the world from Iceland to Argentina. He's even had a few films accepted in Cannes and Sundance. His career has given him a perspective that can only come from personal experiences. "Sometimes the bigger the festival does not mean better," he says.

Brown is currently prepping The Terrace for the eighth Charleston Film Festival with hopes he can create similar memories for his patrons. Though small when compared to some of the world's more popular festivals, Brown's endgame is the same: "Growth in numbers is not key ... growth in experience is."

With each year, Brown has sought to make each successive festival best the previous one. He wants to program good movies but also wants to shape events around the films. For example, this year the first film in the line-up, The Zookeeper's Wife, a war-drama set in 1939 Poland, will be followed by guest speaker Dr. Amy Emm, professor of German at The Citadel. Emm will give a talk on "Hollywood and the Holocaust" about the impression one might have of the Holocaust if Hollywood movies were the only source of information.

In addition to that, this year the cast and crew of South Carolina horror filmmaker Tommy Faircloth's Family Possessions will be in attendance during its screenings.

Then, on Fri. March 17, the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture will hold a free screening of Raoul Peck's James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro with special guest Dr. Lessene speaking before the film. Two of this year's shorts on the roster are decidedly Carolina-centric Turtle Hospital — a documentary about the South Carolina Aquarium's turtle rescue efforts — and Second Set of Stairs — about Joseph P. McGill, who sleeps in slave cabins across America.

When asked about the burgeoning Charleston film scene, Brown cites the inclusion of two shorts by filmmakers from the Art Institute Of Charleston and the guidance of director Brad Jayne and the South Carolina Film Commission as reason to be optimistic for the future: "We are always wanting to improve and grow the local film community."

Brown's already setting his mind on next year, saying, "I'll target movies that I know and that are at some other festivals. We screen and watch a lot of films. The year-round relationship The Terrace has with the distributors makes the process more accessible."

In preparation for the upcoming festival, here were a few films that your curmudgeonly critic was able to check out.

Daughters of the Dust

In the midst of a Film Appreciation 101 class-induced haze, I was looking for films that didn't involve my usual comfort zone of car chases, exploding zombies, bodily functions, and female nudity. Somehow, somewhere in between viewings of Jean Luc Goddard's Alphaville, Igmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, and Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, I saw this forgotten 1991 gem. Daughters of the Dust was the antithesis of the usual stuff I had been watching. Though the film garnered praise from critics and festivals alike, it was lost in relative obscurity for the past 25 years until recently when the film's Lowcountry gothic aesthetics were recognized as the inspiration for Beyonce's visual album Lemonade.

Set in 1902, the film follows a multi-generational clan of Gullah-Geechees off the coast of South Carolina. We follow a day in the life of a family, descendants of West African slaves, as they grapple with holding onto their cultural legacy while contemplating a migration that would take them even farther away from their heritage. It, like a Malick film at its most tone-poem-y, feels like a series of hazy recollections. In memories, the words said sometimes carry less weight than the sensation a particular moment created. The comforting sounds of an elder's dialect, the sight of loved ones on the beach and the eerie stillness of the swamps take precedence over the traditional structure of a story. Like the visual album it inspired, Julie Dash's film communicates more as a painting of fractured memories than many linear narratives can.

I Am Not Your Negro

Over the past few months, more and more headlines are using variations of the clickbait phrase "(Blank) is the (blank) America needs right now!" The melodramatic phrase was utilized several times over in reviews and info pieces about Raoul Peck's documentary I Am Not Your Negro. What was once a phrase that carried potential weight has been rendered powerless by irritating overuse. If I hadn't already been intrigued by the film's subject, James Baldwin, I may have bypassed the film altogether. Thankfully, I didn't let the weariness get the best of me. Drawing its inspiration from merely 30 pages of his unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, a memoir dedicated to the lives of three friends in the Civil Rights movement — Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. — Peck's Oscar-nominated film applies the words of the essayist and his social critiques to the present. In many of the film's effective moments, Peck merges Baldwin's reflections (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) on subjects such as homosexuality and American violence with scenes from films like In the Heat of the Night and Gus Van Sant's Elephant. Much like Ava Duvernay's 13th, an astounding doc that explored the relationship between racial inequality and mass incarceration, Peck's documentary packs an equally devastating punch.

Sophie and the Rising Sun

With her new film, director Maggie Greenwald revisits the period drama territory she has mined in the past, most notably in the 2000 film about a musicologist starting a new life in the Appalachian mountains, Songcatcher. This time around she transplants us into the fishing village of Salty Creek, S.C., during the fall of 1941. As the story begins, Anne Morrison (Margo Martindale) takes in a brutally beaten Asian man, Grover Ohta (Takashi Yamaguchi), and nurses him back to health. In time, Ohta, a native Californian with a Japanese ancestry, becomes Morrison's gardener and finds himself in a budding relationship with her reclusive neighbor, Sophie Willis (Julianne Nicholson). Being that this is a blossoming 1941 romance, you would be right to wonder how long this relationship will last. As the tensions resulting from the Pearl Harbor attack begin to percolate through the small town, the bond between Willis and Ohta becomes an affair that can only exist in clandestine midnight trysts. The parallels to post 9/11 xenophobia were a bit hard to ignore. While Greenwald's direction lifts the film above the typical trappings of the doomed romance narrative, it's the performances by familiar faces Martindale and Nicholson, most notable for their work in August: Osage County and their respective roles in the hit series The Americans and 2015's Black Mass, that ultimately make the film a success.

Julieta

Throughout his extensive filmography, director Pedro Almodóvar has usually made the female psyche his central focus. In the past, his films have been filled with bleak humor (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), gothic melodrama (The Skin I Live In), and lurid takes on romance (Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down). With his 20th feature film, Julieta, he returns to one of his favorite cinematic sandboxes — examining the strained relationship between mother and child. Adapting from three interconnected short stories from Nobel laureate Alice Munro's 2004 short story collection, Runaway, he follows the title character (Adriana Ugarte and Emma Suarez play the younger and older versions) through various life-changing events over a 30-year span that ultimately lead to her daughter, Anita's (alternately played by Priscilla Delgado and Blanca Pares) quiet abandonment. As the film unfolds over the next hour and a half, we learn why the relationship became so frayed. Julieta's subject matter is strikingly straight-forward for a director who usually fills his output with crazed plastic surgeons, torch singers, or porn. It takes a special kind of director to be able to craft a beautiful puzzle from the mundane lives of its characters.

Jerry Lewis, the Man Behind The Clown

Count me as one of the millions of Americans who always took Jerry Lewis' comedy for granted. My first memory of him was his 1981 comedy, the abysmal Hardly Working and his Labor Day telethon. In this hour-long documentary, we follow Lewis as he takes up the role of entertainer from his father to his popularity as one half of the duo Martin and Lewis with straight-man crooner Dean Martin. While this stuff was interesting enough, the film becomes much more engaging when it explores his life as an artist. Rather than focus on that brief moment when Lewis became a critical darling thanks to his role in The King Of Comedy — a dark satire directed by Martin Scorsese — the film re-frames the dual roles in The Nutty Professor as the work of true skill and highlights Lewis' 1960 directorial debut The Bellboy. I can't lie, my appreciation of Lewis was minimal, but Gregory Munro's documentary gave me a new perspective.

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