Last weekend was the 15th annual Waterfront Film Festival.  It is, traditionally, a great showcase for independent films and it’s my favorite weekend of the year.  For the first time, the Festival was held in South Haven, Michigan instead of its original home of Saugatuck.  They seem to have handled the transition admirably – you could tell that the volunteers had to hustle to deal with the new setting, but it didn’t translate into inconveniences for festivalgoers.

Actually, I have to say before getting to the reviews that the volunteers who run the festival are amazing – the amount of work that has to go into it is staggering, and anybody you meet is going to be helpful and friendly.  Those guys are great, and they make it a rewarding experience year after year.

I saw a lot of movies while I was there, so I’m breaking up the reviews over a couple of installments.  Some of these movies will be continuing on the festival circuit, some of them may see theatrical release, and some of them are on VOD.  I’ll include website links where available, in case there are any you want to track down.

Bound by Flesh – This documentary tells the story of Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who were minor celebrities in the early 20th Century.  They appeared at carnival “freak shows” before moving on to more legitimate performing troupes (including dancing with a young Bob Hope!) and vaudeville.  Theirs is a fascinating and unique story, populated by a host of bizarre characters.  (My favorite moment was the introduction of “crooked balloon salesman” Meyer Meyers.  Everything about that is great.)  Told through narration, old photos and newsreels, and the testimony of both experts and witnesses (who knew sideshow promoter Ward Hall was still around?), Bound by Flesh is heartbreaking.

Stories of faded stars are always kind of sad to begin with, and in the case of the Hilton sisters, it’s so much worse.  Not only were they abused and neglected by everybody in their early lives (including their mother, who sold them rather than care for them), but the one thing that made them famous also prevented them from leading any kind of a normal life.  Once it wasn’t acceptable to pay a nickel to gawk at genetic abnormalities, there wasn’t a market for Daisy and Violet.  The testimonies from people who knew them late in life are incredibly sad and present a portrait of two Gloria Swansons bound at the hip.

If there’s any larger takeaway from Flesh, it’s the gossip about the sisters’ sex lives.  That’s not something I would have thought happened in the 1920s, but it turns out that inappropriate prurience predates the Internet.  And the movie doesn’t really shy away from describing their wild phase, once they were legally liberated from the balloon salesman.  It’s not graphic, but enough to answer the question lingering in the back of our minds.  But the more interesting aspect is simply the public fascination.  That really doesn’t seem like something the World War I generation would have focused on, but there you go.  And you have to admire that filmmaker Leslie Zemeckis doesn’t attempt to draw any parallels between the genetic fame of these Hilton sisters vs. the other Hilton sisters.

It’s upsetting and depressing, but ultimately fascinating.

Between Us – I have certain biases when it comes to festival movies – I avoid the phrases “coming of age” and “road trip” like the plague, for example.  “Based on the play” is starting to reach that point for me, but there are exceptions.  Like Between Us, which is also in limited theatrical release now.  Starring Taye Diggs, Julia Stiles, Melissa George, and David Harbour, it tells the story of two couples over two nights, years apart.  Switching between the time periods, we see Diggs and Stiles, a struggling artist and social worker, spending the night with their wealthy friends.  Their friends’ marriage is collapsing, and it goes from quiet digs to screaming fights and property damage over the course of the night.  Years later, after the couples have cut ties with one another, George and Harbour show up to reconnect, only now the situation is reversed.

Other than a couple of short flashbacks, we only know the couples from their interactions on those two nights.  There’s a history there, but we have only the vaguest outline of what it might be.  All we know are those two nights out of their lives, and it’s completely absorbing.  It’s the kind of storytelling that makes me incredibly uncomfortable – I don’t like being in those situations where everybody is a bundle of raw nerves and nobody puts any effort into not saying the worst possible thing.  The fact that watching Between Us made me as uncomfortable as seeing this situation in real life is a testament to how well it nails that discomfort that only people trying to hurt one another really feel.

The cast is really strong – Harbour is probably the least known of the four, but he’s excellent as Joel.  Especially in the way he goes from a raging alcoholic to a guy who’s found religion and just wants to make amends.  It’s such good work all around that I’ve even stopped being mad at Melissa George for splitting up Syndey and Vaughn on Alias.  (My grudges are long-lived and unreasonable.)  It avoids so many of the traps that are implicit in the storytelling structure and never drifts into cliche.  It’s not going to make you feel good, but it’s certainly compelling.

Blackfish – It’s long been my contention that you’ll never see a bad documentary at the Waterfront Film Festival.  Yes, they showed March of the Penguins and Man on Wire before they went big, but in my ten years of attending, I’ve never seen a doc that I didn’t like there.  Anything from the financial collapse to Hulk Hogan’s biggest fan – no matter the subject, they show good documentaries.  I didn’t see as many documentaries as I would have liked this year, but Blackfish might be the hit of the festival for me.

Detailing the lives of killer whales in captivity (with an emphasis on Sea World), Blackfish looks at the injuries and deaths of trainers over the years, explores why they happened, and asks why a place like Sea World still puts people in pools with the six-ton mammals.  The most striking thing about it is the people telling the story.  There are interviews with numerous former trainers and even some of the divers who helped catch orcas for water parks.  What you’ll notice right off the bat is that none of this is easy for them to talk about.  The divers in particular have a haunted look about them, fighting back tears the whole time.  These are people with serious regrets.  (Sea World declined to participate, but Blackfish includes testimonies from former trainers who still toe the company line and back every public statement.  Given that it’s a look into a company that blames the victim when people get eaten by whales, it’s remarkably evenhanded.)

Aside from the horrible events, it’s a remarkable look at the bonds formed by whales and their trainers.  There’s a powerful connection, and it’s clear that killer whales are capable of complex emotions and communication.  (One vignette features a mother separated from her calf, and it’s clear that you’re watching a whale grieve.  It’s haunting and sickening.)  There’s some truly beautiful footage of whales in the wild, and even some lovely moments of whales performing for the crowds.  Which I now feel guilty for enjoying, of course.  But when you see a whale grin, it’s pretty hilarious.

The film includes actual footage of trainer incidents.  You never see a person die on camera, but in many cases you see the moments leading up to a fatal attack.  There’s one grueling segment of a trainer being dragged underwater over and over again, and it’s absolutely terrifying.  I was profoundly uncomfortable the whole time, because you never knew when it would go from being footage from a performance to a document of a person’s last moments with both of their arms.  There’s sickening footage of a whale bleeding out during a performance, and you have to wonder how anybody who was there ever slept again.  And a significant portion is given to the story of one particular whale that’s been involved in the deaths of three people but still performs daily and is Sea World’s primary breeding male.

But Blackfish remains grounded in facts.  Autopsy details, eyewitness testimony – it’s a pretty searing indictment of Sea World and its like, but it never goes over into pure emotional backlash.  The people involved are experts, and they know what they’re talking about.  And you end up feeling sorry for the whales that spend their lives in a tank barely larger than they are and for the people who formed bonds with them only to lose their lives in a single moment of irrational behavior.  It makes a compelling argument for ending this sort of performance, releasing the whales to live free and protect the well-meaning trainers who legitimately love their performing partners.

It’s still haunting me days later.  Blackfish deserves to be seen.  You’ll want to cry forever when it’s done, but you’re not going to forget it.

Tomorrow, reviews of Teddy Bears, Twenty Million People, and Syrup.  It gets less upsetting, I promise.

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