PALM SPRINGS FESTIVAL, the final dispatch until next year

Last Updated: January 18, 2023By Tags:

As is ever the case with film festivals, there aren’t enough hours, or days, to see everything, or even everything on my to-watch list. This despite making my way through screening links in the week prior to even setting foot in California.

I tremendously enjoyed my time at the 38th Palm Springs International Film Festival, interviewed some amazing filmmakers and had some singular experiences, including meeting, in passing, Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose “Bardo” was my absolute favorite film of 2022.

Alas, as all things must end, PSIFF is about to close out. I’ve shared with you my time at panel discussions, Q&As and interviews I conducted in connection to the festival. In addition, here are some other films I checked that you should keep on your radar both in the current festival season and as 2023 unfolds.

Director: Scott Hamilton Kennedy

This intriguing documentary reminds us that vaccine hesitancy was around long before covid-19. Scott Hamilton Kennedy, who also serves as the doc’s narrator, takes on the issue of disinformation in medicine specifically, as well as purposeful ignorance in general. In the post-truth world, this is the kind of filmmaking we need to ensure that just because you believe something doesn’t make it so—and it’s not always about you. For as one person observes in “Shot in the Arm,” the importance of the social contract “is to think beyond our immediate desires [and help] other people.”

Directors: Bob Sarles and John Anderson

The blues is America’s gift to the world, and perhaps still not enough recognition has been given to the Black pioneers who founded the artform in the Mississippi Delta in the last century. “Born in Chicago” details the Windy City’s blues scene, including not only the Black musicians who migrated up from the South but also the White artists inspired by them, notably the Paul Butterfield ensemble. We learn how, even as the music scene was changing, the blues was “rescued” in the wake of the Monterey Pop Festival by such luminaries as B.B. King and Muddy Waters. Talking heads include others who continue to play and be recognized today, including Charlie Musclewhite and Elvin Bishop.

Chicago, of course, was home to Chess Records, the house that put out so much music that found its way into the hands of the Rolling Stones—one of the many artists from England who had heard the blues and thought they could somehow “share” it with White kids in America who heretofore wouldn’t listen to such music.

A fine documentary for blues enthusiasts as well as those seeking out a good story about our culture.

“Golden years”


Director: Barbara Kulcsar

Recently retired Swiss couple Alice and Peter (Esther Gemsch and Stefan Kurt) celebrate their new chapter by taking a cruise, but at the last minute agree to take along their recently widowered friend Heinz (Ueli Jäggi). Naturally, shenanigans ensue, but this being a European film, they will neither be sexy in the traditional sense, nor will the emotions and hopes of these senior citizens be played for laughs. Rather what we witness are people on the closing side of life who realize, even at so late a stage, that there’s a “new way” to not only live and love, but to find happiness in the unlikeliest of places.

Capital performances from the two leads, especially Gemsch, who channels Esther’s doubts, fears and inner strength in an absolutely bravura performance that wrings humor from some rather unorthodox sources.

Directors: Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb

“Reading Rainbow” was a treasured cultural touchstone for millions of children, particularly young people of color given the enthusiasm of the show’s longtime host, LeVar Burton, otherwise known for his work on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Directors Thomason and Whitcomb sit down not just with Burton—who still bears a beaming smile discussing both TNG and “Reading Rainbow”—but the many unsung heroes who helped make the show such a success. These include Dean Parisot, who got his start on “Reading Rainbow” before going on to direct “Galaxy Quest” and “Bill & Ted Face the Music.”

But don’t go seeking out “Rainbow” in TV Guide as, much like that publication, the show no longer exists. The show’s former staff get teary recalling how difficult it was to constantly beg for funding from PBS’s backers, culminating in cancellation after twenty-six years on television. The show may be gone, but Burton and everyone involved helped ensure that young people continue to crack the spines of books as they grow up.


Director: Sander Burger

Director Burger told the crowd at PSIFF that everything that happens in “The Judgement” was based on true events. Perhaps that’s why this Dutch film based on a notorious murder case doesn’t wrap up in a traditional sense. Fedja van Huêt stars as the investigative reporter Bas Haan, who is out to unravel this most unusual case that Burger said has continued to captivate the imagination of the Netherlands long after its supposed closure.

Director: Nisha Pahuja

Anjali, a thirteen year-old girl in India, was gang-raped one night after leaving a celebration, and “To Kill a Tiger” sees her large-hearted father, Ranjit, seeking out justice. It won’t be easy as people in his traditional village either blame his daughter for being assaulted or, even more tragically, believe that all will be set to rights if one of her rapists marries her.

It’s easy for us in the West to be horrified, but what is key to keep in mind is that, for so many people in the world, not being believed and victim-blaming remain the natural course of things—right alongside with revanchist notions that hold the collective honor of the village is more important than a young girl’s stolen innocence.

While it’s a fascinating and sad case that goes in unexpected directions, what truly anchors the film are the dignity of both Ranjit, who refuses to see his daughter’s virtue sacrificed on the altar of moving on, and Anjali, who, despite having all rights to bitterness, continues to display a grace and maturity in the face of her ordeal that are both far beyond her years.

Director: Sébastien Lifshitz

“Casa Susanna”

I’m absolutely fascinated by hidden history, and Sébastien Lifshitz has done the world a great service by introducing us to a community of drag queens who could actively be themselves at a retreat in the Catskills in the fifties. Some may find our own time intolerable, but this was back in the days when homosexuality was illegal and transgenderism even punishable. The surviving drag performers who found a haven in upstate New York revisit that mountain sanctuary, with Lifshitz’s camera capturing them relating not just tender memories of their long-lost friends but sharing how their decisions to be themselves came with so many consequences.

Director: Ellie Foumbi

Ellie Foumbi writes and directs this unusual thriller from France that takes many risks with its rather conventional plot. Babetida Sadjo stars as Marie, an African refugee making her living in a French commercial kitchen when she realizes that the new local priest Father Patrick (Souleymane sy Savane) is the same man who tortured her and murdered her family in Africa. Marie takes it upon herself not only to get “Father” Patrick to confess but also to exact her own form of vengeance.

If that sounds like a rather obvious plot, it isn’t, as this is a movie not about the thrill of revenge but the arcs of these two peoples. It also asks such deep philosophical questions about redemption, such as is a person who did horrible things in the past now seeking to do right capable of being forgiven? This is not a revenge drama in the usual sense, although there is plenty of that. But writer-director Foumbi is out for something deeper and more meaningful, as we sympathize with her two leads even when they make spectacularly wrong decisions. Engendering empathy is a rather tricky business in a film like this, but Foumbi, Sadjo and Savane manage to make it work.

Director: Ahsen Nadeem

Ahsen Nadeem’s family fled the Middle East for Ireland, where they were the only Muslim family seemingly on the entire island. With no mosque, they used an electronic device to remind them to pray the requisite five times daily. Now Nadeem is an adult living in Los Angeles and pursuing filmmaking dreams. He is also married to a woman named Dawn, who is not Muslim. About this his parents back in Ireland know nothing, requiring Ahsen to lead a double life pretending to be an observant Muslim dedicated to orthodoxy. (We learn that until a health scare, he was also a drinker.)

Perhaps this is why his autobiographical documentary sees him making several trips to a Buddhist monastery in Japan, where he seeks those oh-so-elusive “answers” as to why he continues to lie to his parents, why he is afraid of dying and if faith is even still important to him.
In Japan he meets a young monk named Ryushin, who was a successful businessman before renouncing the rat race for life in the monastery. The friendship between Ryushin and Nadeem is touching in its genuineness and its exploration of the contradictions that plague us all (Ryushin not only loves heavy metal, he is known to occasionally eat meat and drink alcohol, both strictly forbidden by Buddhism).

The documentary careens towards the spectacularly uncomfortable: Nadeem, if he is to find any peace at all within himself, must accept not only his own choices but the terrible fact that his parents may disown him when he finally comes clean—or his wife may leave him if he continues his two-faced existence.

May the rest of us never face such horrific choices, but if we do, Nadeem and his film remind us that there is indeed life on the other side of such decisions. And love.

“HILMA” (featured image)
Director: Lasse Hallström

Hilma af Klint’s artwork enjoyed quite a retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York in 2019, so it’s shocking to learn that her final wish was that her works be kept secret for 20 years after her death. In “Hilma,” Sweden’s Lasse Hallström directs his own daughter, Tora Hallström, who stars as the young painter as she refines her artistic voice. Hilma falls in with a group of fellow artists who are “spiritists,” meaning they believe that beings from the great beyond can be channeled to help their own art. Tora Hallström walks a tightrope of showing us a person of great abilities but rather poor social skills. For one, she seeks to take credit for the work of her entire group, and all but uses fellow artist Anna (Catherine Chalk), applying both emotional blackmail and sexual control to keep the wealthy Anna funding her lifestyle. These early scenes cut back and forth to a much older Hilma (the great Lena Olin) now struggling to get anyone to take her work seriously—with fiduciary problems ensuing.

It’s an intriguing drama with many layers, and it also instructs us about a little-known chapter of more recent art history.


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