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AFI Fest 2014: Award winners 'Güeros,' 'The Midnight Swim' and 'Self Made'

AFI Fest gives both jury and audience awards. I saw three of this year's award winners: "Güeros" (Special Jury Mention for Screening Writing and New Auteurs Audience Award), "The Midnight Swim" (Breakthrough Audience Award) and "Self Made" (New Auteurs Critics Award). Of these, "Güeros" is the most straight-forward and accessible. "The Midnight Swim" has a segment that seems out of place but otherwise achieves an atmosphere of eerie instability. "Self Made" may tax the viewer the most with its absurdist take on the old switcheroo between its two main characters.

Filmed in black and white, "Güeros" begins with three balloons in a bucket. Then we see the title and you might even begin to worry that some annoying audience member has left their cell phone on. This isn't the case; the ringing continues and a baby's crying competes for our attention. Visually we are distracted by the bared breasts of a woman, the mother of the child. The movie isn't about her or the child, but what happens to them sets up the ensuing action. The woman hastily dresses without the benefit of a bra. She takes her crying baby in a stroller out on to the sidewalk and is rushing somewhere when two boys let a water balloon fall. They hit the baby. Even they know what they've done is wrong. The single mother of one of the boys, Tomás (Sebastián Aguirre), can't handle him any more and sends him to stay with his older brother in the city.

This isn't a reunion filled with brotherly love. His older brother Frederico, called Sombra (Tenoch Huerta), leaves Tomás waiting for hours at the bus stop. The boy has to make his own way to the apartment at night and stumbles in the dark, knocking over empty bottles until he finds a place to sleep. In the morning, his brother offers no apology. After all, he only said he "might" pick him up.

Sombra is a college student in Mexico City but for 163 days the students have been on strike. In 1999, the National Autonomous University of Mexico announced that tuition would be increased from 0.09 dollars to about $150 a semester. The strike lasted 292 days. Sombra and his roommate have a lot of time on their hands.

Tomás brings with him a tape that their father used to listen to and Sombra himself becomes captivated by the music of Epigmenio Cruz (Alfonso Charpener), a folk rocker who supposedly once made Bob Dylan cry and who according to recent news reports has been hospitalized in serious condition. The boys eventually find Cruz, but before they find him, the boys are called "güeros." As they drive around searching for Cruz, they meet younger boys who are similar assaults to what Tomás did at the beginning.

"Gueros" refers to people with lighter hair and skin as opposed to the darker haired and skinned moreno or indio. It is not necessarily derogatory, but does point to an old racial, skin-colored based class distinction in Mexico.

"Güeros" won the Best First Feature Award at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival and Best Cinematography (Damian Garcia) and a Special Jury Mention for Best New Narrative Director (Alonso Ruiz Palacios) at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2014.

Sarah Adina Smith wrote and directed her first feature film, "The Midnight Swim." While Alonso Ruiz Palacios wrote and directed a film about three young men, Smith writes about three half-sisters who come together to put their mother's affairs in order.  The mother, Dr. Amelia Brooks (Beth Grant shown in flashbacks), was an ecologist who was deeply drawn to Spirit Lake. The lake is unusually deep and Dr. Brooks disappeared during one of her deep-water dives. Is she dead? Will she stay dead? Don't worry; this doesn't turn into a zombie flick.

As with many blended families, the sisters are not close. June (Lindsay Burdge), a documentary maker,  decides to make this uneasy reunion the source of new material and is constantly filming Annie (Jennifer Lafleur) and Isa (Aleksa Palladino). This is annoying but there are other complications. June once had a crush on Josh (Ross Partridge) and Isa flirts with him.

Yet "The Midnight Swim" isn't a simple dysfunctional family story. Odd things begin to happen. Dead birds show up on the doorstep late at night. The girls remember the local legend about sisters who drowned together in the lake. Seven sisters pulled each other down instead of helping each other out and they became the Pleiades. The sisters talk about about reincarnation how dead souls cross the River of Forgetting before they can be reborn again and when a soul has learned everything there is to learn, the soul then crosses the River of Remembering. They think of their mother's body lost below and her soul perhaps being reborn somewhere.

You might be a bit mystified as to who is whom. The three women playing the sisters look like they could be sisters and they have similar speech and movement patterns. June, though, definitely stands a part. Since childhood she has preferred to eat alone and there's reference to an unspecified psychological problem that resulted in a breakdown of some sort. Like her mother, June is drawn to the lake. Because she is videotaping, we often see her point of view, but just how reliable is she?

While "Güeros" was in black and white and the actions were clear even in the dark, "The Midnight Swim" is in color but some of the actions are murky as the waters that Amelia and June wish to explore. The shifts between June's documentary and the separate narrative flow are seamless, but the sudden transition into a musical interlude is not.

"Self Made," like "The Midnight Swim," focuses on women and embraces the mysteries of the mind. It is a comedy played straight where the Ikea-like company, Etaca, and a border crossing connect two women. Some people might find this movie artistically pretentious.

Written and directed by Shira Geffen, the movie first focuses in on a light-skinned short-haired conceptual artist Michal (Sarah Adler). Her day begins with a bang when her double bed breaks, leaving her with a bruised head and a damaged memory. She forgets her goals and intentions. She forgets that her husband is going abroad. He's taking the new computer and leaving his to be fixed. We soon learn that he's been surfing porn and pornographers are pretty sophisticated in infesting computers with popups that can't be exited. That makes Michal's order for a new bed problematic.

The truck comes with her bed and the subtitles tell us the truck advertises: Etaca: Not a Chair. This message will change as we see different trucks: "Self Made Dreams" and "Happiness Comes in Small Packages."

Nadine (Samira Saraya) works at the Etaca. We first think she is pregnant, but she's just stuffed a balloon under her tunic. She's not quite right in the head, but as far as we know, she was born that way. With her head injury, Michal and Nadine are now on equal intellectual grounds.

Michal seems mystified by all the people in her life who expect her to be obtuse. She's an artist who wants to have her uterus surgically removed and made into a purse for high-minded reasons. Nadine gathers things that other people don't want--usually screws which she drops like bread crumbs so she can find her way home. The original title of the movie is "Screw" and not just because of Nadine's obsession. Michal calls in a complaint to Etaca. A screw was missing from her bed set. The supervisor assures her that the responsible party will be fired. That person is Nadine.

Michal might have easily forgotten about the incident except that while she's being interviewed by a crew of pretentious art writers from Germany, she sees the missing screw and is compelled to correct her mistake. Another mistake leads to her being detained in the same place with Nadine and they switch places.

Part of the deadpan humor is in how no one seems to notice the difference between the light-skinned short-haired Michal and the raven black long-haired dark-skinned Nadine. Are women really so interchangeable? If you think you know where this movie is going, you'll likely be wrong.

The movie began a bit slow for me and I'm not particularly fond of conceptual artists, but if you're in the right mood, Geffen does have an interesting take on the problems between the Arabs and the Jews in Israel and doesn't tie things up in a simplistic cheery bow.

"Self Made" (Boreg) was nominated by the Israeli Film Academy for Best Cinematography (Ziv Berkovich) and Best Art Direction (Arad Sawat). At Cannes, the movie was nominated for the Critics Week Grand Prize. The movie won a Hagglag Award for Best Editing (Nili Feller), a Pirchi Family Award for Best Screenplay (Shira Geffen) at the Jerusalem Film Festival.

With over 100 movies to see in eight days and two three-hour lines I did wait in, I was unable to view other award winners, but Ben Kenigsberg has already described "The Tribe" which was The Critics' Week winner at Cannes as well as "Red Army" and "Self Made."

The complete list of AFI winners are:

New Auteurs Critics Award: "Self-Made" (Boreg). Directed by Shira Geffen. Israel. In Hebrew, Arabic, German and French with English subtitles.

VIZIO Visionary Special Jury Award: "The Tribe" (Plemya).

Special Jury Mention for Screenwriting: "Güeros" by Alonso Ruizpalacios, Gibran Portela. Mexico.

Special Jury Mention for Cinematography: "Violet" by Nicolas Karakatsanis. Netherlands and Belgium.

Grand Jury Prize for Live Action Short: "Buffalo Juggalos" by Scott Cummings.

Grand Jury Prize for Animated Short: "Yearbook" by Bernardo Britto.

Special Jury Prize for Collection: David O'Reilly for "Children's Song, NDA and Wrong Number."

Special Jury Prize for Breakthrough Filmmaker: Joe Callander for "Gary Has an AIDS Scare."

Special Jury Prize for Vision: Kevin Jerome Everson for "Sound That."

Special Jury Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Direction: Morgan Knibbe for "Shipwreck."

World Cinema Audience Award: "Red Army" directed by Gabe Polsky. USA, Russia.

New Auteurs Audience Award: "Güeros" directed by Alonso Ruizpalacios. Mexico.

American Independents Audience Award: "10,000 KM" directed by Carlos Marques-Marcet. Spain, USA.

Breakthrough Audience Award: "The Midnight Swim" directed by Sarah Adina Smith. USA.

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