Crossing borders: Mexican pics shine at Los Angeles Film Festival


The Los Angeles Film Festival (LAFF) caters to almost every taste. You want a Hollywood summer tentpole? Then take in a special screening of Superman reboot Man of Steel. You need your art cinema fix? Check out Hong Sang-soo’s Nobody’s Daughter Haewon. How about a film for the whole family? My Little Pony Equestria Girls will do. If at times the festival feels like a platform for studios and distributors to promote their summer releases, that’s because the most popular screenings tend to be the Galas (e.g., Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, a pretentious exercise in vulgarized Freudianism) and the Summer Showcase of soon-to-be-released movies (e.g., Chilean film Crystal Fairy, an enjoyable satire on drug and cultural tourism starring a high-key Michael Cera). But, with the imprint of Film Independent, the nonprofit behind the Spirit Awards and initiatives that support the independent film scene, LAFF tries to keep modest independent filmmaking at the core of the festival through its Narrative and Documentary competitions.

With the debate over immigration reform gaining urgency across the United States, a pair of Mexican films that explore border towns and border crossings felt timely. In the Narrative competition, José Luis Valle’s Workers examines the class inequities in Mexico with deadpan humor and an assured touch. Rafael is a janitor who has worked for 30 years in a factory of the multinational conglomerate Philips outside of Tijuana, but when he tries to retire and collect his pension, a clerical oversight keeps him in his job indefinitely. Meanwhile, in a seaside villa near Tijuana, housekeeper Lidia has worked for the wealthy mother of a drug dealer for decades. When the mother passes away, her estate is left to her beloved dog that the house staff must pamper. United by a shared tragic past and a similar pattern of injustice, Rafael and Lidia each carry out a form of resistance that pays dividends. Built up from a fragmented accumulation of long takes, consequential details and purposeful ellipses, the film captures both the monotony of these characters’ labor and the dignity they quietly fight for.

Workers begins and ends with a serene image of the barrier demarcating the U.S.-Mexico border stretching out to the sea, and Rodrigo Reyes’ chilling documentary Purgatorio ruptures that image by treating the border as a tortured psychic space. Traveling in a truck with a small crew from Tijuana to Texas, Reyes renders the border towns and landscapes as Hell on Earth, inhabited by people who make sense of their world in biblical terms. For the most part devoid of political context, the film investigates the effects of the divide on everyday people and places. We see an assembly of haunting imagery: a casualty of the drug cartel violence, the euthanizing of a stray dog, a depressed mental asylum, an American Samaritan who aids border crossers, and an American patriot who tries to curb their passage. There are no solutions offered here, just an impressionistic portrait of life in a liminal space. Near the end of the film, one border crosser seeking work in the U.S. attempts to scale the barrier fence made of steel poles that seem impossible to climb. But he finds a horizontal beam where he can pull himself up to the top and jump to the other side. In an instant, the fence and border security are reduced to absurd symbols of geopolitics.

Politics were front and center in another documentary competitor, the Audience Award-winner American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, which traces the life of the Chinese-American civil-rights leader, who became an important figure in the Black Power movement. Director Grace Lee first encountered Boggs in her film The Grace Lee Project, which profiles a number of Asian-Americans who share her common name. Fascinated by Boggs’ worldview, the director set out to understand the activist’s life from her origins as the daughter of a Chinese restaurateur in New York to her political formation in Chicago as she witnessed the inequality and oppression facing the black population. Shaped by Marxism and Malcolm X, Boggs became an organizer in the Black Power movement and a community activist in Detroit. Even in her late 90s, Boggs is a commanding presence on screen with plenty of wisdom to dispense and a fierce intelligence that can quiet any individual bold enough to engage her in a philosophical skirmish. Remarkably, Boggs continues to welcome all visitors into her Detroit home and her presence at the festival screenings revealed a still-lively mind committed to personal revolution.

One of the most popular films at the festival and winner of the Documentary Award, Code Black takes a close-range look at the effects of the U.S. healthcare system with a raw portrait of the Los Angeles County Hospital, “the birthplace of emergency room medicine.” Directed by Ryan McGarry, a doctor who shot the film while in training, the film presents extraordinary access to the chaos of the ER and the hospital staff as they are overwhelmed by treating the city’s uninsured. The documentary’s agenda is clear: The doctors are the heroes battling on the front lines of a broken healthcare system. If the rhetorical points are sometimes ham-handedly made, the depiction of the pressures and logistics of serving an endless stream of patients makes for compelling viewing.

In an industry town, LAFF aims to accommodate the film professionals and Film Independent members that make up a sizeable chunk of the festival audience. Central to the festival’s program are filmmaker conversations, such as a mini-tribute to director Spike Jonze, moderated by his friend and the festival’s guest director, David O. Russell. What transpired was an expansive conversation about Jonze’s career, from his rise in the skateboarding and music-video world to his work in feature films. The director shared stories about working with the late James Gandolfini on Where the Wild Things Are and showed a clip from his touching documentary on the late Maurice Sendak. Jonze also gave the audience a teaser of his new film, Her, about a writer, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who buys an artificial-intelligence operating system in the not-too-distant future. Three clips were shown. The first revealed the writer’s installation on his desktop of Samantha, the A.I. voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Then came a beach scene where Samantha, on a mobile device tucked in the writer’s shirt pocket, composes a piano piece to capture the moment. Finally, we saw a scene aboard a light-rail train gliding over Los Angeles as the writer discusses his failed marriage with Samantha, whose growing self-awareness seems to beguile the writer. In its unfinished form, it’s hard to rate the film, but it looks to be a personal and bittersweet exploration of love and human-machine interactions. Considering that Jonze’s last film took years to complete, let’s hope that this one comes out before its subject matter becomes a reality.