Filmfest Washington DC

Restricting movie going to whatever is showing at the nearest multiplex is similar to dining out only at McDonald's. This food metaphor implies that better films can be savored as fine cuisine. And that’s precisely what the 29th edition of Filmfest DC offered us with a wide range of films representing cinema from over 30 countries. In this rich spectrum of films at the Washington international film festival, seven films clearly stood out for exploring the themes of compassion and growth in a subtle way. The last three films won SIGNIS Awards.

At 7: LIVING IS EASY WITH EYES CLOSED is about a Spanish, Beatles-obsessed schoolteacher who is on a quest to meet John Lennon in Almeria, 1966. Lennon is acting there in Richard Lester’s 'How I Won the War'. Accompanied by two hitchhiking runaway kids the teacher succeeds in convincing Lennon to print song lyrics on his albums, so his students can take part in his sing along lessons at school. David Trueba’s feel good movie tastes like the strawberries grown in this Spanish region and makes you long for 'Strawberry Fields Forever'.

At 6: THE MONK is director The Maw Naing’s documentary-like debut about a young Burmese monk who has spent his life in a countryside monastery. When his superior gets seriously ill, the young monk must decide whether he will go on living up to the demands of his strict religious education or return to secular life. Simple meditative life among poor villagers or the attraction of the city?

At 5: HENRI HENRI is a feel good comedy, a metaphorical fairy tale and a successful attempt by director Martin Talbot to create a Canadian version of 'Amelie Poulin'. Henri has been raised by nuns in Montreal and is now about to make his entrance into the real world, which he will provide with … light. Light into the lives of the beautiful blind but clairvoyant girl who works at the local porn theatre as well as into the life of the old and disappointed pickle king. No doubt a soul-mate of Belgian Yolande Moreau’s 'Henri' (2013): naïve, agonizingly disarming but oh so heart warming.

At 4: MARGARITA WITH A STRAW is an Indian film about a girl in a wheelchair. Though she suffers from cerebral palsy and has physical problems with everyday activities, she insists on being treated as a normal person. When she moves from Delhi to New York University she falls in love with a blind girl, who introduces her to her own bisexuality. Directed by Shonali Bose and starring Kalki Koechlin (who does not have cerebral palsy), this courageous film deals with the sexual self-discovery of any adolescent, handicapped or not, and ends the girl’s search for identity in a most original way. The two following films received SIGNIS Commendations.

At 3: TODAY, directed by Reza Mirkarimi, uses the same taxi metaphor as for instance 'Taxi' (2015), which brought Iranian director Jafar Panahi the Golden Bear in Berlin. The story of Today unfolds as a taciturn taxi driver assists a pregnant, battered woman to get hospital care, despite considerable risk to himself. The minimalist style of this compelling story, set in modern-day Iran, helps us come to understand the emerging compassion of its main character.

At 2: THE DARK HORSE tells the true story of a New Zealand chess player, Genesis Potini, who, despite his mental illness, plays an inspiring role model for the youngsters of his Maori community, where gang brutality rules the scene. Director James Napier Robertson convincingly succeeds in making us believe the transformation of these minors into Kings and Queens of the game. Actor Cliff Curtis convincingly plays the role of the man who faces his own personal struggle to help these fragile adolescents achieve an enduring sense of their own human dignity.

THE SIGNIS AWARD at Filmfest DC 2015 goes to ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL (foto). This American film directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon provides a coming-of-age story with a twist about an unlikely friendship between two adolescent boys and a girl suffering from leukemia. Exceptional screen writing, incorporating rich allusions to film classics, and unexpected humor, moves beyond genre in relating a deeply human story of compassion and self-discovery.

*SIGNIS Jurors, in addition to Frank Frost, were Karel Deburchgrave from Belgium, Marjorie Suchocki from California, Gregory Friedman and Mary Link Frost from Washington DC.