8 Fall Festival Films (And A Script Reading) That Explore The Influence Of Family

Phil Demers is the subject of the documentary "Walrus Whisperer." (Courtesy Newburyport Documentary Film Festival)
Phil Demers is the subject of the documentary "Walrus Whisperer." (Courtesy Newburyport Documentary Film Festival)

Whether through forced togetherness or separation, the pandemic has caused significant reassessments of family relationships. No matter if defined by blood or love or proximity, the precariousness of who we keep close and how has suddenly become an inescapable, practically daily dilemma. Several feature-length films playing the Boston area’s fall film festivals challenge or expand the idea of family. Mothering in particular comes into sharp focus.

While not made with COVID-19 in mind, the lens of the pandemic adds new dimension to how these on-screen families manage situations like nurturing a new marriage and baby while geographically separated or introducing a father figure into a mother and son’s tightknit bond. Some films highlight the resourcefulness that results from facing entrenched problems like gun violence and lack of quality child care. In these instances, the whole neighborhood becomes family. In the nine films selected below, not all of what plays out is pretty. The way families react in crisis can be startling and potentially world-changing. Amidst the chaos of our current situation, these films serve as a reminder of family’s formative influence. Nothing can completely sever those ties.

'The Walrus and the Whistleblower'
Newburyport Documentary Film Festival | Sept. 18-24

As a caretaker at MarineLand in Niagara Falls, Canada, Phil Demers didn’t expect Smooshi the walrus to imprint on him. But living in captivity lends itself to animals identifying a human, instead of their own species as their mother. Demers takes the role seriously. Nathalie Bibeau’s documentary follows Demers as he quits MarineLand in protest of the inhumane treatment of animals, takes his #SaveSmooshi fight to Twitter and gets slapped with a defamation lawsuit. “The Walrus and the Whistleblower” pegs Demers as a problematic hero. “I sound like an asshole. I look like an asshole,” he concedes. Even his girlfriend, also a former MarineLand employee, looks askance at his relentless advocacy. Tucked into the obvious storyline are a few surprising plot twists. At one point, Demers candidly asks, “How many people mourn their abusers?” Other critics have called this documentary Canada’s answer to the politicized “Blackfish.” Yet MarineLand’s deterioration is as much about human capriciousness as it is about protests.

Boston Latino International Film Fest | Sept. 23 and Sept. 25

By far the most original and visually stunning of this group (perhaps of anything I’ve seen yet this year), Pablo Larraín’s “Ema” juts between avant garde dance video and psychological horror with unpredictable, asymmetrical storytelling. The premise is that reggaeton dancer Ema (a fierce Mariana Di Girólamo) and her choreographer husband Gastón (a pent up Gael García Bernal) have returned their adopted 10-year-old son due to dangerous behavior. Regretting the decision, Ema plots to get him back with a cadre of female dancers, a version of extended family, who say they’ll break the law for her. What Ema ultimately wants is to bend convention to its breaking point. Scenes, or conversations within scenes, unfold as if backward, jumbling the narrative’s chronology and raising questions about fact and illusion. At one point, I wondered if the entire scenario in which Ema pursues simultaneous affairs with a married couple was a dress rehearsal for one of Gastón’s shows. But the calculating Ema prefers impulse over performance, the street to the stage. Her insistence on both strips Gastón of his influence. Don’t let the unnecessarily didactic ending cloud a vivid story about what it can mean to mother.

'Through the Night'
Boston Latino International Film Fest | Sept. 24

The conflict in “Through The Night” isn’t in the child care provided by Dee’s Tots, it’s in what Deloris “Dee” Hogan calls “the way the world is set up at this point.” She and her husband Patrick Hogan provide 24-hour child care in their home because that’s what people need, especially people working three jobs because no single employer will give enough hours and health insurance. Loira Limbal’s documentary follows a few of those families’ struggles but Dee, or Nunu as she’s called, can’t help but take over as a beacon of all things right about the world. In a time when parents suddenly find themselves appreciating educators and child care providers anew, Dee is someone to celebrate. She has been doing this work for 22 years, and she’s long overdue the recognition. [This film is being co-presented at the festival with Bright Lights Film Series, the Boston Women’s and Roxbury International film festivals and SEIU Local 888.]

'Blanco de Verano (Summer White)'
Boston Latino International Film Fest | Sept. 25 and Sept. 27

There’s something about the claustrophobia of Rodrigo Ruiz Patterson’s film “Blanco de Verano” that resonates during lockdown. It’s told from the point of view of a nearly silent 13-year-old Rodrigo, whose too-close relationship with his mother gets upended by her new boyfriend. The mother is quickly swept into the back seat then out of the car (literally, by the boyfriend teaching Rodrigo to drive). For much of the movie the two “men” suss each other out with a sense of impending doom. Outside of the pandemic, this film might feel a bit threadbare and predictable. But the spare script and pared-down cast read instead like a magic eight ball of movies to come (“ask again later”). Rodrigo never interacts with peers, just the two adults. He’s so trapped he turns a dump into his playground and starts setting things ablaze. Some kids felt uneasy at home before COVID-19; with it comes even fewer escapes. If this movie’s the future, cue depressing music. [This film is being co-presented by the Independent Film Festival of Boston.]

'Los Hermanos (The Brothers)'
GlobeDocs Film Festival | Oct. 1-12

With a family full of musicians, Ilmar and Aldo Lopez-Gavilán’s father says his sons were “practically condemned” to follow suit. Ilmar left Cuba for the United States as a teen, seeking the best competition he could find, while Aldo, eight years younger, chose to stay home. In “Los Hermanos,” co-directors Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider go on a mini-tour with Ilmar and Aldo, who are accomplished musicians on the violin and piano respectively. The film includes a stop at Rockport’s Shalin Liu Performance Center. For some, six months without live music will be reason enough to see these two gifted musicians reunite across borders to perform publicly for the first time. (Not that movies can entirely fill that void.) Others will be taken with their story of bridging a geographic and cultural divide that opens briefly, then closes again. “Los Hermanos” offers a bright take on the endurance of family despite the policies of the day. [This film is co-presented with the Boston Latino International Film Festival.]

'Meu Nome é Bagdá (My Name is Baghdad)'
Boston Women’s Film Festival | Oct. 8-18

Caru Alves de Souza’s “My Name is Baghdad” serves up more joy than nearly any of the other titles here combined. That joy comes from a lot of goofing around with family, or friends of all generations who act like family, while fending off sexist and homophobic jerks. Teen skater Baghdad keeps her hair short and clothes baggy. She would rather poke fun at women’s magazines than try to fit their mold. She’s still putting together the pieces of who she is in relation to a world that won’t take her as is, even within the supposedly “alterno” but still machismo-dominated subculture of skating. It takes a chance meetup with some other girl skaters for Baghdad to face down some of her toughest demons. Fluid hand-held shots feel as if Baghdad shot them herself (she often carries a camera). Plus, she and her friends skate like real kids learning new tricks. It takes practice and a really great soundtrack.

'The End of Love'
Boston Jewish Film Festival | Nov. 4-15

Beware, Keren Ben Rafael’s “The End of Love” captures the absurdity of trying to maintain a new marriage over a screen. Though Julie and Yuval decide to make her native country, France, their home, he returns to Israel out of frustration for not being able to work as a war photographer. With a pandemic-lens realism that serves as both a weakness and strength, the film is shot from the point of view of their devices as they try to stay connected. Julie works and cares for their infant son Lenny by herself. Paralyzed by the distance, Yuval makes unhelpful suggestions and gets easily jealous. As their communication breaks down, they become increasingly suspicious of each other and the fundamentals of their life choices. Julie reaches out to her flaky mom without success. (“Technology is so funny,” she says to Julie. “We’re together but we’re not.”) Yuval gets a brief taste of what it means to truly participate in child care and the movie hangs on the question of whether or not it’s enough to bring them back together.

'They Ain't Ready for Me'
Boston Jewish Film Festival | Nov. 4-15

When Tamar Manasseh points and says, “I like you. What’s your name? Are you on Facebook?” it’s like being anointed family. This woman has presence. Fed up with gun violence, four years ago she took up residence on a corner lot in Chicago to let the neighborhood know someone cares if they live or die. She’s still there. Brad Rothschild’s documentary “They Ain’t Ready for Me” tells the story of her block sitting (or hugging, as her t-shirts suggest) and the adults and kids who started showing up to be part of MASK (Mothers And Men Against Senseless Killing), too. Manasseh’s no-nonsense approach involves sitting kids down to tell the truth about whether they started some drama. She credits her work to her Jewish faith, something she knows confuses people, since she jokes that she’s a Jew and Black. “And don’t forget I’m also really, really pretty. That’s also a strand.” The film takes an unexpected right turn when Manasseh and her mom take a trip to North Carolina to see where her ancestors are buried. In some ways, it’s a different film altogether. But after seeing her on the block, it connects. The way she processes Confederate memorials, what her ancestors experienced, and her freedom to get on a plane and fly away is profound. An older man keeps telling her she should run for office. That may be where the title comes from (unless the “ain’t ready” is on the rest of us). Rest assured, she’s well on her way.

'Jagunfly' (Script Reading)
Roxbury International Film Festival | Oct. 2

A new feature of this year’s Roxbury International Film Festival showcases scenes by local screenwriters and playwrights as performed by local actors. Huntington Theatre fellow and filmmaker John Oluwole ADEkoje originally wrote “Jagunfly” as a play. When asked for work in response to COVID-19, he kept the characters — a young man and his parents — but transformed into a film script set in a sci-fi dreamscape. ADEkoje says it’s “The Matrix” meets “Mad Max.” “There’s action and philosophy all mixed together.” In the real world, the young man gets shot by a cop, then gets propelled into an underworld where powerful women try to help him return home by fulfilling certain tasks. ADEkoje says the story relies on recalling and reshaping old memories and is in the early stages of production. Scenes by writers Tato Mwosa, Crosby Tatum and others will also be featured; the writers will be on hand to answer questions. [Roxbury International Film Festival Lunch Hour Daily Script Reads take place daily at noon, Sept. 30-Oct 4. The festival streams Sept. 30 through Oct. 5.]


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Erin Trahan Film Writer
Erin Trahan writes about film for WBUR.



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