BENTONVILLE, Ark.—Among Geena Davis’s goals for the Bentonville Film Festival is the inclusion of lesser-heard voices. The films at this year’s iteration of the festival here in northwest Arkansas certainly align with that dictum.
Among the films I watched l this week was “Waikiki,” a drama about a native Hawaiian woman’s struggles with employment, her boyfriend and family. Writer-director Christopher Kahunahana expertly puts Kea’s (Danielle Zalopany) struggles in the foreground, with director of photography Ryan Miyamoto providing stunning cinematography of “paradise.” “Waikiki” explores that darker side of Eden, and isn’t at all concerned with visitors to the islands but with the people who live there—and who often struggle economically, socially and mentally.
Writer-director Christopher Chambers was in town for a screening of his bracing documentary “A Fire Within,” about three Ethiopian women who have made new lives for themselves in America after their homeland’s ugly pogroms of the seventies. In an incredibly unlikely turn, one of the women, Edgegayehu “Edge” Taye, finds that her torturer, Kelbessa Negewo, is in fact working at the same Atlanta hotel where she is employed. Taye and her fellow refugees go to the authorities, thus commencing an unusual court case in which a judge must decide if events that transpired thousands of miles away in another country can be “tried” in a U.S. court.
Chambers’s previous film was a narrative, so for “A Fire Within” he hired Los Angeles actors—many from the Ethiopian diaspora—to reenact his subjects’ ordeal from their younger days.
“We’ll find whatever archives we can…and use the language of cinema to” bring the story to life via recreations, Chambers said after the screening. “But that’s more ‘authorship’ coming from me. How will I ever know how to use the camera to represent them?”
Accordingly, Chambers, who is White, said he wouldn’t show “A Fire Within” publicly until his subjects approved of how their story had been presented. Accordingly, he continued to edit based on their notes and suggestions.
Chambers related that the Ethiopian community in Los Angeles was keen to be involved as actors and extras in the courtroom scenes. As had happened in real life, the extras all sat behind the actresses portraying the women when they were younger.
One of the actors started crying on set. Chambers, worried he had perhaps pushed her too hard, began apologizing. However, the woman was emotional as she too had been in Ethiopia during the atrocities.
“Now you’re telling my story,” she told Chambers.
In addition to the courthouse recreations filmed in California, Chambers also went back to some of the exact spots in Ethiopia where his subjects experienced the horrors. Due to covid, Chambers hasn’t yet returned to Ethiopia with his film, although he looks forward to doing so.
“In American culture it’s a given that talking about things will make it better,” Chambers said, adding this isn’t the same for Ethiopians, and that it has barely been spoken of even to their children. Chambers said one woman told him she will bring her children to “A Fire Within” to begin dealing with those dark memories.
“The victims never want vengeance,” Chambers said of those who take their persecutors to court.
Also playing this week has been festival circuit darling “The First Step,” about commentator and activist Van Jones’s vow to work with the Trump administration on prison reform. Director Brandon Kramer and his producer and brother, Lance Kramer, live in Washington and have known the CNN mainstay for some years when they pitched him the idea of the documentary.
Brandon and Lance Kramer spoke to me recently during a video call as part of Bentonville Film Festival.
“I sat down with [Jones] soon after Trump was elected,” Brandon recalled. “Van basically said: ‘I’m going to spend the next four years of my life doing everything I can to engage this administration, engage conservatives that are in power on criminal justice reform and on the addiction crisis.’”
Being flies on the walls with their cameras would almost certainly make Jones’s life harder as he tried to negotiate with Republicans and Trump’s own son-in-law, Jared Kushner, but this allowed the Kramers to capture Jones not just in his triumphs but also his heartbreak: being far from his family, being shot down by conservatives, having unkind words shouted at him at the CPAC conclave.
“Getting access to the Trump White House [and] high-profile senators was a really challenging process,” Brandon said, adding that he had to build those relationships one at a time in order to bring his camera into the room. “Slowly but surely [we made] it clear that we’re not here to do a gotcha piece. We’re here to capture the behind-the-scenes fight to get this bill passed.”
“Van said something like ‘My life is dramatic but it’s not cinematic,’” said Lance, adding that Jones wasn’t sure how “people in a room talking” would make for good footage. “We [thought] there’s something in those meetings; there’s history being made in some of those cases.
“It can be boring on the surface, but when you’re in the room, even just a few moments can really be profound.”
Part of “The First Step” sees Jones bringing together people from West Virginia coal country, ground zero for the opioids epidemic, and South Los Angeles, where gang-related homicide remains a terrible problem.
“When people are sharing about loss, it hits a universal core,” said Brandon. “We’re talking about brothers, sisters, children. You kind of throw politics out the door.”
Jones has seen the film several times, and he told the Kramers that even if he were to leave this earth soon, “The First Step” would prove a testament to his mission.
“I’ve sat with him watching with an audience, and it’s not easy for him to see moments where he’s at a really low spot,” Brandon said. “He’s experienced controversy so many times in his life that he’s comfortable with a [certain] level of vulnerability.”
In Bentonville Film Festival’s other offerings, I greatly admired the documentary “Workhorse Queen.” Angela Washko’s film follows Ed Popil of Rochester, New York, who by night performs as the drag character “Mrs. Kasha Davis.” Popil came from a strict religious background, and speaks frankly of becoming estranged for several years from his family after coming out as gay, and also shares harrowing stories of addiction (Mrs. Kasha Davis, based partly on Popil’s own mother, is known for her signature line: “There’s always time for a cocktail.”) Mrs. Kasha Davis, after several tries, was cast on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” and she speaks of how the show’s atmosphere was extremely cutthroat—in contrast to the notion of inclusivity that she and her fellow performers try to foster in real life.
Mrs. Kasha Davis and Washko told me the reception has been positive for “Workhorse Queen.” It’s a lovely documentary, and Popil/Mrs. Kasha Davis is a true American original.
And in one of BFF’s more intriguing chapters, the festival screened the still-unsold pilot for writer/star Stephanie Sanditz’s comedy drama “The High Life.” Based partly on Sanditz’s own life story, the rather funny pilot sees Sanditz’s avatar returning home to Missouri to attend her aunt’s funeral—which, according to her dying wishes, requires her surviving relatives to hike naked at a Buddhist camp to dump out her ashes.
Sanditz’s writing is crisp and often laugh-out-loud funny in that uncomfortable way familiar to watchers of “Arrested Development.” She told me she is hoping to get “The High Life” seen by the right people to get it to series. I wish her luck.