Arts, Column

Taxali: SBIFF Elevates the Power of Film, From Nature Doc to Low-Budget Masterpiece

Continuing the tradition of promoting new cinema in the heart of awards season, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) returned to the city to showcase upward of 200 films over the course of 10 days. The festival, which held mostly virtual events in 2021, lived up to its reputation as one of the best film festivals in North America. 

SBIFF continues to offer cinema over a wide spectrum of genres, style, and content, and the 2022 festival was no exception. It is through festivals such as SBIFF where audiences can find a diverse set of films and filmmakers, seeking to expand their usual taste and explore more that cinema throughout the world has to offer. Through The Heights, I witnessed the wide array of films on display as I viewed a nature documentary and films from around the world. 

Starting as early as 8 a.m. and going until well after the sunset, a day at SBIFF means attending screening after screening after screening. Many of the featured movies are available to audiences for the first time. I had the opportunity to watch three films from three different countries during my one and a half days at the festival. 

The Bastard King, an Austrian, French, and German co-produced documentary, kicked off my time at the festival. The film follows two rival lion clans and a cub born from a relationship between lions from each clan. The cub’s one yellow eye and one blue one signify the taboo that surrounds his identity as the offspring of lions from the warring groups. 

The filmmakers follow the cub and his mother as they live ostracized from both clans, forced to hunt for each other and adapt to life in the savannah. Director Owen Prümm shakes up the regular expectations for a nature documentary, utilizing a dark filter for most of the daytime shots while also relying on David Oyelowo’s first-person narration. Oyelowo gives audiences insight into the cub’s thoughts and emotions. 

The final result is a confusing and annoying viewing experience, where the choice to tell the story through the cub’s eyes takes all of the magic out of what could have come from a film on the kings of the jungle. The film fails to draw the audience in with its dull visuals of the savannah. The cub’s tacky, overdramatic lines about hunting techniques and complaining about the difficulties of life without a clan also miss the mark. 

The Bastard King fails to deliver on mesmerizing visuals or engaging narration, instead presenting a boring and limited reflection of how lions live in their natural habitat. The use of abrasive EDM as the score also doesn’t help the experience. 

In an attempt to try something that strays from the traditional nature doc template, the film proves that the recipe followed by Planet Earth and National Geographic does not need to be changed. 

The second screening I attended was The Righteous, a beautifully shot black-and-white Canadian film with a minimal budget and superb cast. 

The film introduces viewers to former priest Frederic (Henry Czerny) and his wife Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk) as the couple is coping with the death of their young adopted daughter. Living in rural Newfoundland, Frederic is frightened when a suspicious man with an injured leg, played by Mark O’Brien, pleads for help in the middle of the night. 

Written and directed by O’Brien, an actor in works such as Perry Mason and Marriage Story, the film explores the religious discourse between the two characters who are particularly knowledgeable about the complexities of theology. But after the first 20 minutes, it enters the realm of the supernatural as it attempts to answer big questions regarding sin, guilt, repentance, and the desire for salvation after a life of regret. 

O’Brien pushes his actors to deliver their best performances, especially from Czerny, whose eyebrows communicate all of the emotion painted on his character’s face. The black-and-white cinematography is also top-notch, showcasing trees rustling in the wind or Frederic doing yard work outside, giving viewers a sense of the bleak environment that surrounds the mourning couple during the Newfoundland winter. 

Despite its strengths, The Righteous fails to communicate clear rules of what elements of the film are real versus supernatural, even toying with the idea of some events occurring in dreams and others in reality. There are many muddled answers to the important questions of who, what, and when, and the result is a hodgepodge of scenes. 

Together, the scenes create a pretty solid film that ebbs and flows. Moments of high tension and engaging discussions between characters are followed with scenes that make little sense and fail to be grounded in the general direction of the film. Perhaps repeated viewings are necessary to give it further appreciation.

Directly after the screening of The Righteous, I watched a Hungarian feature titled Wild Roots. It follows a simple story of Tibi, played by Gusztáv Dietz, a stoic, hot-headed bouncer at a Budapest nightclub who is struggling to make ends meet, sleeping on the couch at his brother’s home. 

Enormous in stature and foul-mouthed with a shaved head, Tibi is frustrated with his current situation but is willing to knock anyone down that tries to pick him up. In his mind, he is a strong man who needs to figure out how to better his life for himself. He also has a tendency to eat as quickly and unpleasantly as possible as Dietz makes him more beast than human. 

We discover early on that Tibi has a daughter named Niki (Zorka Horváth), who lives with grandparents who forbid her from contacting her father. Niki is mischievous, willing to be as much of an adult as she can to get what she wants, even at only 12 years old.

As the audience learns more about what caused Tibi and Niki to live apart, the film turns from an examination of a broken character into a heartwarming and uplifting father-daughter story that explores how two characters can rekindle their relationship and deal with complicated pasts. Tibi begins waiting for Niki every day after school, taking her on adventure after adventure in Budapest, serving as his own attempt to figure out how to be a good parent. 

Filled with these slice-of-life scenes, it’s the authenticity and heart that oozes out of Wild Roots that makes the film a fantastic watch and writer and director Hajni Kis a name to look out for. 

Featured Graphic by Liz Schwab / Heights Editor

March 27, 2022