MVFF37, Day 3 – “Landscapes and Mindscapes”

on the way to school documentary mvff37

Sunday morning in San Rafael started with Weaver’s Coffee, Theresa-and-Joe’s Comfort Food, a frantic last-minute switch out of Eric Decker from my fantasy lineup, and my first screening at the Christopher B. Smith Film Center.  Pascal Plisson’s documentary On the Way to School follows four groups of children from various remote parts of the globe, including Patagonia, the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, Kenya, and the Bay of Bengal, as they navigate a long and treacherous route to school.  For these kids, “knowledge is a conquest,” and while the stories are inspirational and visually stunning, the action in On the Way to School is as staged as Nanook of the North.  Plisson favors jaw-dropping landscapes and manufactured drama, and some of it works, but I wanted insight into the hearts and minds of these students that we don’t get until the end credits.

That was my last MVFF37 theatrical screening until I head back up there tomorrow, as I had to return home and churn out a review of Kill the Messenger under deadline.  I was bummed to miss Abderrahmane Sissaro’s Timbuktu for a second time, first at a pre-festival press screening and again in San Rafael yesterday, but the good news is that the Kill the Messenger review will add a new publication to my byline – the San Antonio Current.  I’m taking over the country, one alternative weekly publication at a time (dead tree media: the wave of the future of the 15th century), so look for that review and a link later this week on E Street Film Society.  Although On the Way to School was my last film of the day, I had pre-screened a couple of other documentaries that played at the festival on Sunday, both of them world premieres.

Like On the Way to School, Gardeners of Eden also uses a gorgeous and forbidding landscape to great effect (Kenya here) but it tells a grislier story, that of the increasingly militaristic ivory poachers who strike on protected lands, and the wildlife trust working to return injured and disturbed elephants to the wild.  Directors Annaliese Brandenburg and Austin Peck include some incredibly powerful and upsetting images of de-tusked elephant carcasses and psychologically devastated baby elephants, so it’s not exactly a pleasant watch, but it makes an effective and passionate case for stronger anti-ivory trade laws that could affect some real change.

Video artist John Sanborn’s deeply personal and playful memoir film ALLoT (A Long List of Things) is more concerned with the landscape of the mind, the spaces between memory and identity, past and present, child and man.  At his 40th high school reunion, Sanborn interviewed his friends and classmates, asking them to compare their fuzzy senses of self back then with their more defined post-high school identities.  Sanborn also appears in confessionals, but his scenes get split into three disembodied talking heads representing his present self, his high school self and some sort of grumpy superego.  If this sounds like classic boomer indulgence, that’s because it is, and yet the film has a lot of fun undercutting itself by superimposing images and inserting sarcastic comments.  However, I was more affected by the straight, talking-head interviews of the classmates than with Sanborn’s own autobiographical whimsy, which feels more and more like an evasion as the film goes on.

Read more of Daniel’s reviews at Dare Daniel and Rotten Tomatoes, and listen to Daniel on the Dare Daniel podcast.

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