I was able to catch the last 2 days of the 10-day festival but still managed to see a great cross-section of festival movies. While Denver does not attract as massive of a crowd of industry folk, every film I saw had a full house of patrons, and there is interest here akin to the higher-profile festivals. Here are my thoughts on each one, as well as a bit on when their planned release is.

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White Shadow (Germany)

Director: Noaz Deshe

Writers: Noaz Deshe, James Masson

Stars: Hamisi Bazili, Salum Abdallah, Riziki Ally

This is a festival thoroughbred, having already played at Venice and Sundance already, to name a few. A vérité style depiction of Alias, a young albino growing up in the outskirts of an unnamed city in Tanzania. The primary conflict is that as an albino, Alias is the prey of witch doctors, who cut up albinos and use them for outlandish potions and mysticism. His journey shows us all sorts of elements of a world that is completely foreign to us, but remains wholly individual and never tries to be the definitive “Africa story” that would be an easy route to take. Because of the film’s looser style, it requires extra attention from the viewer and doesn’t have a clear through line, but is compelling because of how otherworldly it feels. There isn’t a big takeaway or call to action, but the film’s expose cannot help but leave a mark. There are a few incredible sequences, including a betting scene and a sequence where the protagonists are digging through e-waste looking for salvageable electronics, but the collective whole still feels looser than it needs to be, and the stylistic elements of the film are not employed often enough to be the focus of the movie. White Shadow will most likely not be playing in US theaters anytime soon due to a depiction of animal cruelty that probably wasn’t fake (although is rather tame compared to any day at a US meat factory). However, as a festival film, it is intriguing and unlike anything else you will see, and for that alone it may be worth your time.

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Wrenched  (USA)

Director: MI Lincoln

Stars: Edward Abbey, Dave Foreman, Peg Millet

A small-scale environmental documentary with a big message, director ML Lincoln’s Wrenched is about the writer and radical conservationist Edward Abbey and how his message and legacy carried on after his death. Abbey is known for writing Desert Solitare and The Monkey Wrench Gang, both classic books for anyone who cares about wilderness and ecology, but also did some “night work” as he called it, involving tearing down billboards, destroying bulldozers, and other behavior all with the intention of stopping the destruction of the natural world. While neither are required reading, knowing the material will make the film that much more enjoyable, especially Monkey Wrench Gang, which turned out to be much less fiction than one would believe. The documentary has a great deal of archival footage which makes it easy to see the movement and get excited about what is going on, and the film chronicles from the 1970’s until present day but never feels like too broad of a scale to cover.

One of the key elements of Abbey’s work that made it so successful was that he made being an environmentalist fun and something that people should want to do instead of a chore or obligation. There is something truly special about the wilderness and its unfortunate that fewer people with each passing generation will have access to it, a message the film will not let you forget. There is no definitive villain shown here either: it is the mass corporations building dams and mines that permanently scar the natural world. It is hard not to see this movie and be moved to action, and Lincoln does a great job of inspiring young people today rather than seeing it as a lost cause. Edward Abbey had a spirit that continues to leave a legacy, and despite being labeled an “ecoterrorist,” his principles are about respecting the natural world and realizing how imperative it is for our long term survival, something often overlooked. Wrenched is not meant to be provocative, none of what has happened should be shocking, but is actually meant to be moving and entertaining, at which it succeeds. The film is still making the festival rounds so may not see distribution until next year, but if you are interested in learning more, check out the website and you may even be able to request a screening! http://wrenched-themovie.com/

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Two Days One Night (Deux Jours, Une Nuit) (Belgium)

Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne

Writers: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne

Stars: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Pili Groyne

Lastly Belguim’s official submission to the Academy Awards, Two Days One Night, which also screened at AFI Film Festival. The film centers around Sandra (Marion Cotillard), a married mother who is overworking to make ends meet, but has just been fired from her job. Her foreman has agreed she can get her job back if the majority of her co-workers vote yes to her return. But, there’s a catch: if she gets her job back, all of her 16 co-workers will lose their bonus. From there, the film is a depiction of Sandra’s journey of visiting all of her co-workers asking them to vote in her favor. What sounds simple enough turns out to be a fascinating display of the human spirit and the insidious affects money has on anyone who is working to make end’s meet. Every one of her co-workers has a different response to this Hobson’s choice that she presents them with, and the story builds extremely well throughout. What makes the film so effective is the style that is employed. Rather than favoring conventional coverage, with a mixture of close-ups and cuts between dialogue, every interaction Sandra has is an uninterrupted take, and the result is stunning. There is no flashy shot that draws attention to this effect – in fact, as a regular film viewer it would be easy to overlook this directing feat. There is no clear reason as to why this technique is used, but because it is so effective at drawing the viewer in, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that when you strip the film down, it is about authenticity and human experience, and Cotillard brings that to the fullest. It is not an ostentatious showcase of acting range, so, unfortunately, she might be overlooked come awards season, but instead she is on point at displaying the emotional exhaustion of a person in her state. This is as relatable of a film as they come, and touches on experiences that everyone has had at some point. Without a doubt, this is one of the finest dramas of the year. Two Days One Night played at Cannes and Toronto earlier this year, and will get a limited release on December 24th.