“Come to Salem, see the world” is the motto of the Salem Film Fest , an annual showcase of the best of recent documentaries (full disclosure — I’m one of the jurors). This year you can’t go to Salem to see the movies on screen (with the possible exception of some drive-in screenings) but you can still see the world because the festival is going online.
The festival was originally scheduled for the spring but like all other such events was disrupted by COVID-19. Instead this year’s virtual festival takes place July 10-30, at salemfilmfest.com/2020. It’s divided into three separate weeklong installments during which the scheduled films can be rented. Here are some must-sees from each week.
The Good Daughter (2019)
Over the course of three years, Needham-based filmmaker Sally Wu followed the fortunes of Azhe, a Vietnamese woman who agrees to be the mail-order bride of a handicapped man in Taiwan in order to support her destitute family back home. In her adopted country she toils at two jobs to support her Vietnamese dependents, her two children, and her unemployable husband, all while being abused and exploited by her in-laws, who despise her as a foreigner. She is the victim of a system of glorified human trafficking and a patriarchy benefiting the despicable, parasitic, and cowardly. Relentless and infuriating, Wu’s film exposes an extreme example of a universal injustice.
Women in Blue (2020)
So timely that it is a work in progress, Deirdre Fishel’s investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department reveals some of the background leading up to the murder of George Floyd in May and the subsequent movement against police violence it inspired. From 2017-19 Fishel focused on a handful of women who tried to change the MPD from within, beginning with Janeé Harteau, who in 2012 became the first woman in the city’s history to become police chief. Her reforms included training programs and an increase in the number and authority of female officers, changes she hoped would turn around the department’s history of racism, misconduct, and brutality. But after two officer-involved killings, the second resulting in a murder conviction, Harteau was pressured to resign. She was replaced by the first black man to become chief but hope of further progress dimmed when women once again were squeezed out of positions of authority. This is an unflinching study of a complex situation, showing gray areas where often only black and white are seen.
Our Time Machine (2019)
A visionary puppeteer and one of China’s most renowned conceptual artists, Maleonn has for his newest project something personal and urgent. His father, a veteran of Peking opera , has dementia, and his son wants to re-create their relationship with a dreamlike and poignant installation/performance piece called “Papa’s Time Machine.” But his creations are labor intensive and costly, and his father is fading fast. S. Leo Chiang and Yang Sun’s vibrant documentary about this labor of love proves to be a multi-layered metaphor of the interplay of art, memory, loss, and reconciliation, as well as a study of a touching and fraught father-son relationship. Maleonn’s creation itself is fascinating, like a combination of the visions of Terry Gilliam and Jan Švankmajer.
The Rabbi Goes West (2019)
Chaim Bruk, a rabbi from Brooklyn, went west, to Bozeman, Mont., with a dream: Hang a mezuzah on the door of every Jewish household in his adopted state. In so doing he also hoped to win converts to his Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic community. Cambridge filmmakers Gerald Peary and Amy Geller follow him as he adapts to the conservative culture of his adopted state, holding his own on a right-wing talk show and firing a few rounds from an assault rifle at a gun range. Charismatic and driven, he energetically canvasses the state for followers. Some readily embrace him, but others are a little skeptical of his proselytizing. Peary and Geller observe the rabbi’s progress with humor, acuity, and empathy.
Stevenson: Lost and Found (2019)
If you have a favorite New Yorker cartoon there’s a good chance it’s by James Stevenson. He died in 2017, at 87. In the course of his 67-year career he was one of the magazine’s most prolific cartoonists and produced around 80 covers. He also wrote and illustrated scores of children’s books. As first seen in Sally Williams’s wry, probing, and melancholy documentary, the artist seems a dry-witted, genial octogenarian, puttering around his country home, sketchpad in hand, making droll comments about his life. And quite a life it is – somehow he managed to have nine children and earn enough as a struggling artist to make ends meet. His kids recall growing up in an idyllic playland with few rules and lots of fun. But there was a darker side — Stevenson’s drinking and fiery temper, his wife’s early death, and his emergent dementia. But the spark of creativity still burns — at the end of the film Stevenson is developing a musical.
July 24-July 30
The American Dream spans the world, and when it does it takes on strange new forms that reveal truths about our culture and that of those who try to adopt parts of it. Adam James Smith’s documentary is a deadpan, often absurdist look at a replica of Jackson Hole, Wyo., re-created in the mountains outside Beijing as a gated community for the rich seeking refuge from city stress and pollution. It resembles some of those Wild West-reenacting towns like its namesake but . . . a little off. For example, such kitschy American food products as Twinkies are regarded as haute cuisine. But the income disparity on display looks familiar; the film features a young woman scrambling to make ends meet selling this ersatz paradise to the wealthy. A deadpan, tragicomic look at myth, reality, and simulation, it combines Jia Zhangke’s 2004 film “The World” and the ′60s TV series “The Prisoner.”
Mossville: When Great Trees Fall (2019)
Alexander Glustrom’s portrait of the title Louisiana town provides a somber and affecting microcosm of such problems as environmental despoliation, ruthless capitalism, and the marginalization of minorities. Enslaved people founded Mossville as a refuge from Jim Crow and it prospered because of its natural resources, strong community bonds, and rich cultural history. But oil was discovered there, and now 14 petrochemical plants surround it. Some landowners refuse to leave, and an aerial shot of the home of one, a fenced-in plot of green surrounded by desolation, is a grim image of a possible future.
Go to salemfilmfest.com/2020.
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.