The 29th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF) wrapped on Nov. 22, 2020, but Cinema St. Louis is providing cinephiles another opportunity to view the event’s award winners in the Best of Fest, which is available virtually from Jan. 22-31, 2021.
A few of SLIFF’s honorees are already or imminently out in the world — “Transhood” is available on HBO Max, and “9to5: The Story of a Movement” premieres on PBS’s “Independent Lens” on Feb. 1 — but Best of Fest reprises the other 19 winners of the festival’s juried and audience-choice awards.
Like 2020’s SLIFF, the Best of Fest is an online-only event and is again presented with our virtual-festival partner, Eventive. Nine features and a program of 10 shorts will be available to stream during all 10 days of the event, and several of the films will once more include recorded Q&As with filmmakers and documentary subjects. Geographic restrictions will apply to some films. All programs will be available in Missouri and Illinois, but some will be accessible throughout the U.S. or world. This information is noted on each listing.
Individual tickets are $15 ($12 for Cinema St. Louis members). A 5-film pass is $65 ($55 for Cinema St. Louis members). Information on films, purchase of tickets/passes, and details on the virtual fest is available on the Cinema St. Louis website: cinemastlouis.org.
Ruthy Pribar, Israel, 2020, 85 min., Hebrew, Narrative
Audience Choice Award for Best Narrative Feature. In her debut feature film, Israeli filmmaker Ruthy Pribar focuses on a pair of Russian immigrants in Israel, candidly exploring the challenges of motherhood and the desires of the differently abled. Asia (Alena Yiv) and Vika (Shira Haas) are more like sisters than mother and daughter. Young mom Asia hides nothing about her work-hard, play-hard lifestyle and expects the same openness and honesty from teenage Vika. But Vika is at an age where privacy and independence are paramount, and she inevitably begins to rebel against her mom’s parenting style. When health issues confine Vika to a wheelchair and her need for romantic experiences and sexual exploration becomes more urgent, Asia realizes she must get out of the way so that her daughter can live her life.
Award-Winning Shorts Program
- Always Coming Back (Noah Readhead & Nate Townsend, U.S., 2020, 9 min., English): Audience Choice Award for Best Documentary Short. Webster Groves rallies around a man with a mental disability to support his greatest passion.
- Augustus (Jon Alston, U.S., 2020, 16 min., English): Essy Award for Best Narrative Short. Augustus, a literate carpenter and family man who is living free as a fugitive slave, is faced with a decision to speak or die when denied the wages he’s earned.
- Black Goat (Yi Tang, Nepal/U.S., 2019, 12 min., Nepali): Best Live Action Short. A new girl at a nunnery has her first period after hearing a late-night ghost story and believes that she has been cursed, requiring her to sacrifice a black goat to avoid further misfortune.
- Colette (Anthony Giacchino, France/Germany/U.S., 2019, 24 min., French & German): Best Documentary Short. Colette Catherine, now 90, revisits the terrors of her childhood, when she fought the Nazis as a member of the French Resistance.
- The Cut (Chloé Cinq-Mars, Canada, 2019, 18 min., French): Best International Short. Emma, who had a C-section, didn’t see her son when he was born, and when she finally meets him, she doesn’t recognize her baby.
- I Want to Make a Film about Women (Karen Pearlman, Australia, 2019, 12 min., English & Russian): Essy Award for Best Documentary Short. A speculative love letter to Russian constructivist women in the 1920s Soviet Union.
- Josiah (Kyle Laursen, U.S., 2019, 20 min., English): Best of Fest Short. A Black actor auditions for a part in a period television series.
- The Mirror (Joel Kohn, Australia, 2020, 22 min., English): Audience Choice Award for Best Narrative Short. When a young girl discovers a mysterious antique mirror in the basement of her ailing grandmother’s house, she opens a window between time that allows her to cross over into Nazi-occupied Poland.
- R.A.S. (Lucas Durkheim, France, 2019, 5 min., French): Best Short Short. For months now, a group of five bored young soldiers have been stuck on a mission in the middle of the Afghan mountains, but the routine is finally broken during a support mission.
- To the Dusty Sea (Héloïse Ferlay, France, 2020, 12 min., French): Best Animated Short. Left alone in the summer, Malo and Zoe try their best to catch their mother’s elusive eye.
Beasts Clawing at Straws
Kim Yong-Hoon, South Korea, 2020, 108 min., Korean, Narrative
Audience Choice TV5MONDE Award for Best International Feature and St. Louis Film Critics Joe Pollack Award for Best Narrative Feature. A wild, fast-paced crime thriller that deftly crosses the Coen Bros. with “The Grifters,” “Beasts Clawing at Straws” is a pitch-black neo-noir. When a cash-stuffed Louis Vuitton bag is left in a sauna, it sends a group of hard-luck lowlifes on a desperate chase for a fortune. Fish-mongering gangsters, a greasy cop, an “innocent” gym cleaner, and a prostitute and her trio of men (wife-beating husband, ruthless boss, and clueless boyfriend) all violently scheme to get their hands on the elusive bag. The film is a beautifully constructed puzzle whose pieces snap perfectly into place with each double-cross.
God Save the Wings
Adam Knapp & Kenneth Linn, Denmark/U.K./U.S., 2020, 102 min., English, Documentary
Audience Choice Leon Award for Best Documentary Feature. “God Save the Wings” offers a rousing, highly entertaining look at the brief history of Wichita’s MISL indoor-soccer franchise, narrated primarily by former Wings player Andy Chapman. The documentary features plenty of deliciously dated archival footage and appears to round up nearly every living person involved in the franchise for an appearance. Made with affection for its subject, with an enthusiastic vibe and penchant for oddball meta-movie flourishes, “God Save the Wings” chronicles the team’s journey through the ’80s, recounting the thrills, wackiness, and flagrant debauchery. St. Louis’ own beloved MISL club, the Steamers, plays a prominent role in the documentary’s narrative, with our boys serving as the thuggish American heavies to the Wings’ more elegant, European style of soccer.
I Am You
Sonia Nassery Cole, Afghanistan, 2020, 89 min., Dari, English & Turkish, Narrative
Interfaith Award for Best Narrative Feature. “I Am You” offers an insider’s look at the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan and the tragedy of its refugees. After the loss of his father at the hands of ISIS, young Masoud leaves the world he once knew to embark on a perilous journey to safety. Embarking on a perilous migration from Afghanistan into the unknown, he vows to honor his late father’s memory by securing a safe future for his mother and sister. As he and his family flee the country they once called home, he is accompanied by his best friend, an aged Muslim warrior, and a pregnant doctor. Inspired by the stories of the world’s many refugees, the film provides an evocative, empathetic study of our current refugee crisis.
A Place to Breathe
Michelle Grace Steinberg, U.S., 2020, 87 min., Central Khmer, English, French, Spanish & Swahili, Documentary
Interfaith Award for Best Documentary. A work of timely urgency, director Michelle Grace Steinberg’s “A Place to Breathe” toggles between immigrant and refugee communities in two cities — Lowell, Mass., and Oakland, Calif. — to illustrate their varied struggles to assimilate, preserve cultural identity, and, most prominently, heal from the traumas that sent them to the U.S., all assisted by determined healthcare and social workers. A series of small, intimate interactions illustrate how these challenges play out person to person, family to family, rather than in congressional shouting or mass protests. Interviews offer context, and animation is briefly used to portray past-life events in other lands that began in happiness before they turned horrific, but the film keeps the focus mostly narrowed on two families, with outside voices amplifying their experiences. At a time when some U.S. political leaders persist in demonizing the “other,” Steinberg provides a patient immersion in the quiet effort to revive lives whose dreams were momentarily extinguished and then are slowly brought back to life.
The Road Up
Greg Jacobs & Jon Siskel, U.S., 2020, 94 min., English, Documentary
Spotlight on Inspiration Documentary Competition Winner. “The Road Up” follows four Chicagoans on the daunting journey from rock bottom to stable employment. Their lifeline: Mr. Jesse, a charismatic mentor with Cara, a nonprofit that helps the chronically unemployed find long-term jobs. Mr. Jesse’s own troubled past — which is eventually revealed — compels him to help his “students” find hope in the face of homelessness, addiction, incarceration, and trauma. The participants in the program are required to go through a month-long “boot camp” called Transformations, and the film records lengthy stretches of these sessions, with Mr. Jesse putting his charges through some serious emotional changes, forcing them to acknowledge and examine their own self-sabotaging behaviors and learn ways to change them. Filmmakers Jon Siskel and Greg Jacobs’ “Louder Than a Bomb” won SLIFF’s Audience Award as Best Documentary in 2010, and “The Road Up” proves a similarly powerful and inspirational work.
Niav Conty, U.S., 2020, 104 min., English, Narrative
New Filmmakers Forum Emerging Director Award (The Bobbie). “Small Time” takes an empathetic and at times darkly humorous look at life, faith, and childhood. Though just a kid, Emma navigates a dysfunctional adult world of relentless addiction, stubborn patriotism, dogmatic faith, and the pervasive sexualization of young girls. Her challenge is to emerge with a sense of self. It can be brutal enough just growing up a girl, but when you add poverty, addiction, and God to the mix, it’s no wonder that Emma doesn’t know how to make friends. With a gun in her bag and fairy prayers on her tongue, she and her cat bravely go where too many girls have gone before. But are innocence and hope enough to save the day?
Shatara Michelle Ford, U.S., 2020, 82 min., English, Narrative
Essy Award for Best Narrative Feature. “Test Pattern,” the gripping and powerful first feature by Shatara Michelle Ford, chronicles a young Black woman’s attempts to get help from an uncaring system after an assault. An interracial couple’s supportive relationship is put to the test after the woman (Brittany S. Hall, HBO’s “Ballers”) is sexually assaulted and her boyfriend (Will Brill, “The OA,” “Not Fade Away”) must drive her from hospital to hospital around Austin in search of a rape kit. Part psychological horror movie and part realistic drama, “Test Pattern” is set against the backdrop of our national discussions about an inequitable health system, #MeToo, and race relations. Director Ford was raised in St. Louis.
Alex Winter, U.S., 2020, 129 min., English, Documentary
Essy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Far from a typical music doc, “Zappa” is a multifaceted narrative that brings a complex artist to vibrant life, providing a nuanced look at visionary iconoclast Frank Zappa and the environment that formed him. A simultaneously intimate and expansive look into the iconic musician’s innovative career, the film had unfettered access to the Zappa family trust and its vast trove of archival footage. Exploring the private life behind a musical career that never shied away from the political turbulence of its time, “Zappa” features revealing interviews with Frank’s widow, the late Gail Zappa, and such collaborators as Mike Keneally, Ian Underwood, Steve Vai, Pamela Des Barres, Bunk Gardner, David Harrington, Scott Thunes, Ruth Underwood, and Ray White. “Zappa” is directed by former St. Louisan Alex Winter — a Cinema St. Louis Award honoree in 2015 — who recently returned to acting in “Bill and Ted Face the Music” but who has spent the last decade helming a string of impressive documentaries, including “Downloaded,” “Deep Web,” “The Panama Papers,” and “Showbiz Kids.”
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.