Encouraging Greater Diversity in Cinema: Highlights of the Bentonville Film Festival

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“Inclusion” is more than the mission statement of the Bentonville Film Festival; it’s practically a mantra. From the moment I stepped foot into a shuttle bound for the small Arkansas town for which the fest is named, I heard the word over and over from friendly shuttle drivers to beaming presenters and giddy filmmakers. The festival co-founded by Academy Award-winning actress Geena Davis and Inclusion Companies CEO Trevor Drinkwater aims to encourage greater diversity in cinema by screening films made about and/or by marginalized groups. In its fifth year, that means a line-up that includes a female-focused re-imagining of “Hamlet,” a coming-of-age musical about a Pakistani teen obsessed with the music of Bruce Springsteen, and a slice-of-life drama about a Latina trans woman trying to make it in New York City. 

As I prepared my screening schedule for BFF, I quickly realized what an unusual festival this is. There are no Opening Night or Closing Night films. Rather than a big premiere to kick things off with a bang, public screenings began with little fanfare at 10am on a Wednesday. There are no Midnighters to keep the movie-buzz going into the wee hours. And by Saturday afternoon, the screenings have petered out completely. Instead of a star-studded final film for a Saturday night, the focus shifted to the awards ceremony held at a mid-sized concert hall. Premieres don’t seem to be of much importance here, as the BFF website doesn’t even mention if any of its films are world, US, or even state debuts. So, when choosing what I’d see for the fest, I went with some titles that picked up buzz elsewhere, and a couple of curious wild cards. Below are the highlights.

The Daisy Ridley-fronted “Ophelia” (pictured at top) and the Gurinder Chadha-helmed “Blinded By The Light” both made their debuts at Sundance. And both offer a new spin on a familiar story. In the first, screenwriter Semi Chellas and director Claire McCarthy provide an arguably feminist spin on “Hamlet,” re-conceiving it as a story centered on Ophelia, who is less mad than mad like a fox! Classic scenes of Shakespeare are given new context through a wild backstory that includes a mysterious witch, a clever scheme to fool the king, and plenty of girl power. But for all it gives its titular heroine to do, “Ophelia” offers her little dimension; the film’s emotions are shallower than her pivotal pond.

More successful is Chadha’s “Blinded by the Light,” which feels like a companion-piece to her heralded coming-of-age narrative “Bend It Like Beckham.” Inspired by the memoir of journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, this crowd-pleasing musical follows a first-generation Pakistani teen as he struggles to find his identity in Thatcher’s Britain. On the streets, Javed (Viveik Kalra) is harassed by neo-Nazi bullies. At school, he’s so shy he’s basically invisible. At home, his dreams of being a writer are scoffed at by his frustrated father who wants Javed to get his head out of the clouds. But when Javed puts on his headphones, the music of The Boss transports him a world where he can choose his path and stand out, instead of keeping his head down. With a charismatic cast and a feel-good narrative, it’s easy to fall into the swing of “Blinded By The Light.” But it’s the spirited and vaguely surreal musical numbers that make this wonderful film really sing. 

Real-life proved an inspiration for my favorites of the fest, be it in a cheeky family-dramedy, a bitingly dark comedy, or a tender but traumatic drama. 

Chinese-American writer/director Emily Ting channeled her life story through a poppy Instagram filter for “Go Back To China.” YouTube star Anna Akana headlines as L.A. fashionista Sasha Li, whose swanky lifestyle is threatened when her estranged father revokes her trust fund. To get it back, she must spend one year in China working under her father in the family’s toy factory. In a post-screening Q&A, Ting explained how the film explores her own experience with the culture clash of being a Chinese-American in China. She also shared how her family was not only an inspiration for Sasha’s, but also was crucial to the filmmaking. Her father allowed Ting to shoot on location in his actual toy factory and comically posh mansion, details that swiftly establishes the world of the Li family. Unfortunately, the family drama aspect ultimately bogs down the fish-out-of-water fun with soppy sentimentality. Still, “Go Back To China” is undeniably darling, and Akana’s easy charisma and sharp comic timing suggest she’s a star on the rise. 

A less cheerful fish-out-of-water tale is set on the icy roads and in the dingy hotel rooms of Minnesota. “International Falls” centers on Dee (Rachael Harris), a small-town wife and mother who dreams of being a stand-up comic. She gets an unlikely mentor in Tim (Rob Huebel), a touring comic on the brink of giving up. Screenwriter Thomas Ward’s experiences as a stand-up proved the base of Tim’s weary worldview, and director Amber McGinnis encouraged him to imagine what that world might look like from Dee’s perspective. Their collaboration created a romance that’s as fragile and fascinating as it is messed up. And Harris and Huebel prove a perfect pairing. With the brusque humor and aching vulnerability, they construct a comedy so cutting it had this critic cackling in the dark. 

At the Bentonville Film Festival, I saw stars give fresh spins to classic characters, party girls get to work, and comedians get serious. I laughed, cried, gasped, and sang along. But of all the moments I experienced in these Arkansas theaters, it’s a pivotal one of “The Garden Left Behind” that hit me the hardest. 

Gay Latino filmmaker Flavio Alves spent years learning about the violence that trans women of color face, even in liberal hubs like New York City. He interviewed an array of trans people. Then, he channeled what he’d heard into “The Garden Left Behind,” a narrative film in which all the trans characters are played by trans actors. The captivating Carlie Guevara stars as Tina, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who drives a cab to support her loving grandmother. But funds get tight as Tina begins the complicated and costly process of transitioning. Audiences follow her through therapy sessions and medical check-ups, but also on dates with her skittish boyfriend, dinner with her grandma, or on girls’ night with her friends (the vivacious Tamara M. Williams and radiantly warm Ivana Black). 

This intimate drama’s A-plot is a simple story of a woman facing struggles like an unreliable beau, a loving but confounded family, and financial stability. But all the while, Alves shrewdly brews a B-plot that reminds his audience of the transphobic abuse and all-too-real threat of violence that can barrel into the lives of women like Tina. This leads to a finale that is as haunting as it is humane, and makes for a film that’s raw, challenging, and unforgettable. 

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