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    In Focus

    Four to watch at the Salem Film Fest

    “Ramen Heads”
    Gunpowder & Sky
    “Ramen Heads”

    The seaport of Salem was once a gateway to the world. 

    Now it’s the documentary-focused Salem Film Fest that takes on that role, with this year’s program running Thursday through March 29, presenting 31 full-length docs, 44 shorts, one virtual reality production, and one video installation. All of the festival’s offerings provide a window onto people and places unknown — some of which are right here in our country. 

    Full disclosure: I’m on the festival jury. The following four features are a few of my personal favorites.

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    Bing Liu’s debut documentary “Minding the Gap” (screens Thursday at 8 p.m. at the CinemaSalem and Saturday at 4:30 p.m. at Endicott College’s Rose Performance Hall; the filmmaker will appear at both screenings) starts as a deceptively upbeat portrait of himself and his two pals, who are acrobatic, fun-loving teenage skateboarders. They negotiate the challenging obstacles on the streets and sidewalks of their hometown of Rockford, Ill., with a breathtaking skill that no doubt annoys the pedestrians in their path.

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    But Liu, who will appear at both local screenings, has greater ambitions for his film. He plays with the genre conventions, underscoring the artifices by alluding to them. “What kind of film are we doing now?” one of his pals asks. “The kind where we pretend you’re not here or the other kind?” He also has a broader agenda in mind. Rockford is revealed as a city in dire economic decline suffering from unemployment, addiction, alcoholism, and domestic violence — woes that gravely affect Liu and his friends. With unassuming skill and style, Liu combines the personal, aesthetic, and political into one integrated work of art.

    For those who associate ramen with that high-sodium instant kind you buy in a packet, Koki Shigeno’s “Ramen Heads” (March 25 at 11:30 a.m. at the Peabody Essex Museum’s Morse Auditorium) will be revelatory. According to the voice-over narrator, eating a perfect ramen, the Japanese noodle dish consisting of broth, noodles, and other ingredients, is “a feeling like the warm, glowing memory of a lover.” 

    The chefs featured in the film certainly take it that seriously. Like Osamu Tomita, Japan’s four-time reigning ramen champion, a jovial fanatic who tends his big bubbling pots with a Zen-like intensity. Though sometimes it’s best not to examine the ingredients too closely: “This is a pig’s head,” he notes while stirring the broth with an oar-sized ladle. 

    Shigeno provides an enlightening history of the dish, which had been a cheap staple for laborers in the hard times after World War II and has since evolved into a popular gustatory fad. The classical music on the soundtrack and the florid narration seem to satirize the obsession — one chef is described as providing “a touch of northern melancholy to his epic ramen drama.” Sublime or not, the consensus from chefs and diners both is that it’s a food best slurped to be fully enjoyed.

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    Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Craig Mitchell is no softie. At the beginning of Mark Hayes’s “Skid Row Marathon” (March 26 at 6 p.m. at CinemaSalem) he is seen sentencing an offender to 71 years to life. Deciding the fate of others in this way is a responsibility that weighs heavily on him. To seek release, he runs marathons.

    An ex-convict whom Mitchell had sentenced to prison suggested he visit the Midnight Mission, a place where addicts and other lost souls from skid row try to put their lives back together. Inspired by the place, Mitchell came up with a program to train Mission residents to run marathons and take those who qualify to international events to compete.   

    Hayes follows Mitchell as he rouses his team at dawn to run through the city streets. He focuses on a handful of runners — a longtime alcoholic with a dream of attending the San Francisco Conservatory of Music; a young woman who wants to make a life for herself and her child; an immigrant from Senegal whose substance abuse ruined his academic promise; a painter who battles feelings of unworthiness; and a former gang member who brings flowers to the gravesite of the teenager he murdered decades ago. Not all make it to the finish line, but their determination and Mitchell’s melancholy faith will move you. 

    Like Judge Mitchell in “Skid Row Marathon,” the subject of Kaspar Astrup Schröder’s “Waiting for the Sun” (March 24 at 3:10 p.m. at Morse Auditorium) wanted to do more for those caught up in the criminal justice system she worked for. A former corrections officer in China, Grandma Zhang founded the Sun Village orphanage, a facility that provides a home and education for children whose parents have been arrested, imprisoned, or executed. 

    At the beginning of the film she is rushing to meet with new candidates, three children whose father was found guilty of murdering his girlfriend’s niece and will likely face the death penalty. Schroeder follows their progress and that of others as they adjust to the orphanage’s strict but supportive regimen with hopes of eventually finding a trade or getting into a university.  

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    Not all is sunny in Sun Village. A teenage girl is spied abusing some of the younger children entrusted to her care. And some of the stories are especially heartbreaking, like that of elfin, 6-year-old Strawberry, who was rescued from human traffickers as an infant and whose usual cheerful outlook darkens when her friends are visited by their parents. But in the 20 years of its existence, Grandma Zhang’s home for these innocent victims of justice has given more than 6,000 kids love, hope, and the foundation for a new life.

    Additional information at salemfilmfest.com/2018/.  

    Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.