Genocide survivors on road bikes. Ben Affleck as a CIA operative. A priest waging peace with gang members. Dustin Hoffman behind the camera for the first time. Inner-city kids battling in chess strategy.
Such are the diverse players in the drama that is the 34th annual Aspen FilmFest, running from Oct. 2 to Oct. 7.
The six days of screenings include big Hollywood features with Oscar buzz and astounding documentaries telling stranger-than-fiction tales from a smattering of American and world cultures.
This year’s lineup of films tackles a wide swath of social issues and historical events, in both feature films and in documentaries. That’s no coincidence, say festival organizers.
“We’ve tried to work in a sense of social engagement,” says Aspen Film program director George Eldred.
Movies like “G-Dog,” by Academy Award winner Frieda Lee Mock, which follows the Jesuit priest who founded Homeboy Industries, a groundbreaking gang intervention and rehab program in Los Angeles, tell stories that challenge us to consider the nature of right, wrong and redemption.
The film’s subject, Father Greg Boyle, will be in attendance at Thursday screening for a question and answer session with the audience — a well-loved tradition at the festival that continues this year with filmmakers and experts all week long.
Acclaimed new documentaries in the lineup include “Brooklyn Castle,” the 2012 SXSW Film Festival Documentary Spotlight Award Winner that delves into the world of competitive chess among students in the New York underclass (Oct. 5 and 6); “Besa: The Promise,” which unearths the story of how Albanian Muslims saved thousands of Jews from death during World War II (Oct. 7); and “Rising From Ashes,” following the formation of Team Rwanda cycling team (Oct. 7, reviewed below).
The strength of documentaries today owes, in part, to the accessibility of digital filming and editing technology, and to the success of filmmakers like Errol Morris and Michael Moore. In that vein comes “Big Boys Gone Bananas!*,” in which Swedish filmmakers battle Dole food company as it attempts to silence them.
“There’s this whole generation of filmmakers who have emerged in the wake of Michael Moore’s activist style,” Eldred says.
The strong documentary field at this year’s festival is complimented by highly anticipated features.
“Of course, we also try to entertain,” Eldred says.
The feature films include “Quartet,” Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, a comedy about opera singers (Oct. 6); “The Sapphires,” depicting an aboriginal girl group singing Motown hits and battling prejudice in 1960s Australia (Oct. 2); and “A Late Quartet,” a Christopher Walken-Philip Seymour Hoffman classical music drama.
“Argo,” Ben Affleck’s film on the true life covert operation to save Americans in the 1979 Iran hostage crisis closes the festival on Oct. 7.
This year, festival organizers also selected a handful of new French films: the comedy “My Worst Nightmare,” from director Anne Fontaine (Oct. 3 and 6); “The Day I Saw Your Heart,” starring “Inglorious Bastards” actress Melanie Laurent (Oct. 4 and 5); and widely acclaimed “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (Oct. 5 and 7, reviewed below).
Film fest tickets range from $10 to $20 and the full schedule is online at www.aspenfilm.org .
A few of our staff’s favorites — and not so favorites — from early screenings are highlighted below.
Time Out Staff Pick
“Rising From Ashes”
Most of Adrien Niyonshuti’s family died in the April 1994 genocide in Rwanda, but the young bicyclist this summer gave the African nation something else for the world to remember about his homeland, as he raced a mountain bike in the 2012 Olympics.
Narrated by Forest Whitaker, this incredible documentary film by T.C. Johnstone follows Niyonshuti and a group of athletically gifted countrymen over several years as they learn to ride bikes, then begin racing competitively, and eventually reach the world stage.
“For the April month when I ride bikes, sometimes I get headaches because I remember a lot of things from my family for genocide,” Niyonshuti says in the film.
The young men are trained by Jock Boyer, the first American to finish the Tour de France. Boyer travels to Rwanda in 2006, just out of prison and attempting to put his life back on track.
He and the young Rwandans speak powerfully about the healing power of biking and the therapeutic effects of intense competition. Boyer and the team grow tighter as a group, as their racing skills improve to impossible heights.
— Andrew Travers
Time Out Staff Review
“Once in a Lullaby”
Oct. 3 & 6
"Once in a Lullaby" starts simply enough, just after a flamboyant chorus teacher at an inner-city school films his students’ performance, posts the video on YouTube, and unexpectedly gets millions of views.
A media storm ensues. The problem is, all that happens before the movie even starts. By the time viewers meet the children, they’ve already met Matt Damon and Kylie Minogue. The select children who are actually talented already show signs of arrogance and over-confidence that comes with sudden fame.
With the kids already Internet stars, the movie operates under the assumption that performing at the Oscars will be life-changing for them, and therefore it sets up the event as the climax of the movie.
It opens with Anne Hathaway telling the children that they will be singing in the final scene of the Oscars. About 90 minutes later, the chorus finally graces the stage singing a 45-second snippet of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Viewers are suppose to be in awe. The moment — like most of this documentary — feels artificial and forced, attempting to extract a meaning that isn’t there.
— Dorothy M. Atkins
Time Out Staff Pick
“The Snows of Kilimanjaro”
Oct. 5 & 7
This quietly told and powerful tale out of working-class France may make you reconsider your ideas of justice.
Based loosely on the Victor Hugo poem, “How Good Are the Poor,” not on the Hemingway short story that shares its name, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is among the most incisive Great Recession stories to hit the big screen.
It follows a middle-aged Marseilles union organizer, Michel, who allows himself to be laid off and randomly chooses 19 other dock workers, when the company demands downsizing. His “early retirement” is to begin with a trip to Kilimanjaro with his wife. But then the couple is robbed, and the fallout from the incident cuts to the core of their blue collar values.
Jean-Pierre Darroussin is subtle yet striking as Michel, his conscience struggling between thirsting for revenge against his assailants and sympathizing with the robbers. Are they victims of a society with an uneven economic playing field? Did he fail these men as a labor organizer and invite the attack? Did he lose his own ideals somewhere along the way?
The film’s answers are complex and far more thoughtful than the “99 percent” versus the “1 percent” debate we’ve seen stateside.
— Andrew Travers
Time Out Staff Review
“The World Before Her”
Oct. 4 & 5
As a young woman in India today, would you want to learn to smile pretty and walk a runway in a bathing suit, or train to fight, kill and die for your faith?
Those two divergent paths are the subject of this tightly woven, dramatically told story of modern India from director Nisha Pahuja.
“The World Before Her” follows ambitious and beautiful young women training to compete in the Miss India pageant, jockeying for modeling careers. In contemporary India, still very much a patriarchal society, the beauty industry is among the few paths for independence and success for women.
The film simultaneously goes inside the training camp at Durga Vahini, a women’s sect of the Hindu fundamentalist movement.
“I hate Gandhi,” one young woman says as she explains her passion for the fundamentalist cause.
The film, which won Best Documentary earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival, juxtaposes these two divergent outlets for girls in a compelling film. But as the film progresses, we find the two are not so different after all in the way they both empower and use young women.
— Andrew Travers