Monday, October 12, 2020

Reverend's Preview: SDIFF 2020: Virtual But Not Silent


We can add this month's San Diego International Film Festival (SDIFF) to the ever-growing list of events that have had to largely go the streaming route this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Uniquely though, the fest will still be providing opportunities for film fans to gather together in safe, socially-distanced ways at its first-ever "Virtual Village."

This re-imagined, COVID-appropriate 2020 San Diego International Film Festival will take place October 15th-18th. As the region’s premier film festival and one of the leading stops on the independent film circuit, film lovers can enjoy 114 features, documentaries and short films online in the Virtual Village and on the big screen at the Festival Drive-In Movies at Westfield UTC. Full details as well as the complete movie lineup may be accessed at the SDIFF website.

According to Tonya Mantooth, the fest's CEO/Artistic Director: “The leadership of the San Diego International Film Festival has embraced the challenges to create a new footprint that will not only serve for this year’s festival but also expand our capabilities for the long term. This commitment to re-imagining the festival is vitally important to fulfilling our mission of presenting films that create conversation in an increasingly complex and divided world.”

SDIFF is presented by the non-profit San Diego Film Foundation, which is dedicated to creating empathy through the medium of motion pictures. The foundation leverages these important conversations via partnerships with the San Diego County Office of Education and the San Diego Unified School District, using cinematic storytelling to help educate future leaders on key issues affecting our communities and world. Their newest partnership is with the UC San Diego Extension to create a Social Impact Film Channel on the UCTV platform, which will support the "17 Sustainable Development Goals to Transform Our World" set by the United Nations. The festival will curate films from around the globe to help further understanding of these UN goals as well as inspire conversations and, most importantly, action.

"This year, we are creating space in our Virtual Village for panels around some films that examine important conversations we want to have," Mantooth revealed. "We have programmed some impactful and timely documentaries about the Civil Rights Movement. We are thrilled that Leon Clark, General Manager of Channel 10, will moderate a discussion on those documentaries for us, examining history and where we find ourselves as a country today." This sounds especially important in preparation for the upcoming US presidential election. Also to be screened are films that explore the issues of developmental disabilities, homelessness, prejudice, pollution of the world’s rivers, animal and environmental extinction, sustainability, sex trafficking and more.

Other topics to be covered are LGBTQ lives and the military, with one standout documentary incorporating both. Surviving the Silence relates a little-known story that took place years before the US Armed Forces' failed "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy, which allowed LGBTQ soldiers to serve so long as they kept their sexual orientation under wraps. Colonel Patsy Thompson was forced to expel Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer of the US Army for being a lesbian. However, the way that Thompson – a closeted lesbian herself – presided over the discharge hearing eventually led to Cammermeyer’s re-instatement via federal court and the undoing of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

Cammermeyer’s memoir, Serving in Silence, was adapted as a 1995 television movie produced by Barbra Streisand and starring Glenn Close, but Thompson’s own story remained a secret. In Cindy L. Abel's new documentary, Thompson and her wife, Barbara Brass, candidly share how they wrestled with heart-wrenching choices that included hiding their relationship and struggling to protect their love while preserving Patsy's military career. They emerged to become vibrant activists later in life, with Thompson coming out to her family and the public at the age of 80. As she states in the film, she has learned "the freedom that comes with living your truth."

Prior to Surviving the Silence, Abel directed and produced the award-winning Breaking Through, a documentary in which openly-LGBTQ elected officials share their stories of self-doubt and triumph over multiple barriers. Her earlier film reveals a deeply personal, rarely seen side of both politicians and LGBTQ people. She was named “Best Filmmaker” by The Georgia Voice in 2019 and has served as National Co-Chair of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, Vice-Chair of the Atlanta Film Festival, and Vice President of Communications of Women in Film & Television Atlanta.

Speaking about the inspiration behind her new documentary, Abel said "the first thing I fell in love with was (Thompson and Brass's) love story; I was fascinated that here were these women who had been together for 30 years and for much of that time had to pretend that they were not together." Abel sensitively examines each woman's personal background, which includes the fact that Brass is the Jewish daughter of two Holocaust survivors.

The highlight of Surviving the Silence is its climactic reunion of Thompson and Cammermeyer. The pair had not met since the fateful military trial in 1992. Both women admirably express their appreciation for each other 28 years later and continue to fulfill the Army motto of "duty, honor, country." This movie is a must-see.

Another LGBTQ-interest entry in this year's SDIFF is the provocative thriller, Through the Glass Darkly. A year after their daughter disappears, same-sex partners Charlie (Robyn Lively) and Angela (Bethany Anne Lind) continue to grow apart in the small town of Elrod, Georgia. When another girl goes missing, Charlie becomes convinced that the cases are connected and teams up with Amy (Shanola Hampton), a pushy reporter. This unlikely duo draws suspicion and contempt from local law enforcement but will stop at nothing to expose the town’s darkest and most devastating secrets.

Despite the current, necessary restrictions, SDIFF is taking a bold approach to what a film festival can look like in the COVID era. As Fest CEO Mantooth stated, "Film has the power to shift our perspective and allow us to look at topics through someone else’s lens. We look forward to doing a lot of that this year.”

Reviews by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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