Film Review: A Dispatch from the 23rd Annual Boston Underground Film Festival (Part 2 of 2)
By Nicole Veneto
Local film festivals like BUFF are keeping what’s left of the American film industry from turning into a massive IP holder churning out algorithmically generated slop for the masses.
Rounding out the remainder of this year’s Boston Underground Film Festival, the next several features I had the pleasure of watching with an audience of like-minded weirdos at the Brattle Theatre. From hallucinatory folk horror to a high-tension eco-heist, this last slate of films perfectly represents what BUFF is all about, its rich diversity of askew offerings underlining all that underground and independent filmmaking has to offer mass audiences.
On the eve of its national theatrical run, Enys Men (Welsh for “Stone Island”) enjoyed its New England premiere with a packed Brattle audience utterly unprepared for the sights and sounds of a near-impenetrable pastoral nightmare. Vividly shot on Kodak 16 mm, Mark Jenkins’s (Bait) second feature follows an unnamed woman (Mary Woodvine, credited only as The Volunteer) on a desolate Cornish island in 1973 as she goes about her daily routine keeping track of a particular growth of flowers spreading a unique strain of fungi. This is the most straightforward plot synopsis I can hope to offer, because the film itself quickly descends into a lucid night terror of chanting milkmaids, phantom coal miners, and ghosts of the pagan past, which may or may not be there. Enys Men is first and foremost a sensory experience, foregrounding sound and image over the loosest semblance of plot. It’s a fever dream that exploits viewers’ own expectations for loud, explosive scares to keep you on the knife’s edge of sanity. This is folk horror in its most primordial state, a tapestry of sights and sounds approximating a drug-induced hallucination.
Inebriated as I was while watching the film, I can only imagine how dangerously cerebral it is to experience on an acid trip or a prolonged mushroom high. The Kodak film stock gives the film an incredibly saturated look, like a well-preserved ’70s Polaroid, with reds that bleed into your retinas like little Christine’s raincoat in Don’t Look Now (named alongside Wicker Man as Jenkin’s primary inspirations). How Enys Men was made also demands an even greater appreciation for what Jenkins has woven together. In a one-on-one conversation with Skinamarink director Kyle Edward Ball, Jenkins revealed that aside from capturing some establishing wide shots, the production never actually stepped foot on the titular Stone Island — it’s all movie magic done in editing. Even the seemingly abandoned house the Volunteer resides in was in reality situated right next to a busy farm. And yet the entirety of the film is completely dependent on its naturalistic setting and the overwhelming sense of being completely and utterly alone with your own madness. Cultivating that sort of atmosphere is no small feat, and Enys Men has it in spades.
Ushering in Saturday night was visual artist Ann Oran’s debut feature Piaffe, which came highly recommended by WBUR’s Sean Burns as a “a total Nicole movie.” Although it didn’t exactly live up to certified “Nicole-core” status, Piaffe is a deeply weird sexual psychosis in its own right. When her sister Zara (played by nonbinary artist Simon(e) Jaikiriuma Paetau) suffers a nervous breakdown, the reserved Eva (Simone Bucio, The Untamed) is left to finish her job as a foley artist for a dressage themed antidepressant commercial. Tasked with creating a library of horse sounds for the commercial’s producer, Eva dives into completing Zara’s work and undergoes a strange physical metamorphosis that sees her growing a horse’s tail at the base of her spine. Normally this is where films about mysterious skin growths veer into full out body horror territory. Not so in Piaffe. Rather, Eva’s new appendage provides a much-needed confidence, sparking a sexual awakening she explores through various sojourns to Berlin’s pulsing discotheques and a kinky love affair with a fern botanist (Sebastian Rudolph).
Unfortunately, Piaffe is one of those films I appreciate more in theory than in execution. Oran borrows a lot from her contemporaries like Lucile Hadžihalilović and Catherine Breillat, embracing their minimalist yet provocative approach to genre. But Oran can’t quite push her subject matter into the unrelentingly bizarre or shocking territory inhabited by Innocence or Fat Girl. Personally I’d like a movie about a sexually repressed woman suddenly growing a horse’s tail to treat its central conceit with maximum freakiness. Apparently, the restrained tone of it all is more or less Oran’s point. This is a feminine subversion of body horror that sets its sights on reconceiving physical change as a source of pleasure rather than anguish. I suspect a second viewing will be more rewarding — if only to better appreciate the subtlety of Oran’s vision.
Speaking of body horror, next up was 2022 Cannes alumnus Sick of Myself (Syk pike) from Norwegian director Kristoffer Borgli, a satirical cringe comedy about how much white women love faking illness for social clout. Jealous of her boyfriend Thomas’s (Eirik Sæther) rising fame in the contemporary art world, shameless narcissist Signe (Kristine Kujath Thorp) indulges in a version of Munchausen syndrome: she consumes vast amounts of the banned Russian drug Lidexol to give herself skin lesions. It’s a stupidly psychotic thing to do, for sure, but when viral fame and monetizable attention are at stake, people are willing to do all sorts of terrible shit to themselves for the sake of 15 minutes of fame. If you’re a fan of watching terrible people doing terrible things and getting exactly what they bargained for à la It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, then Sick of Myself should scratch the same depraved itch.
Eddie Alcazar’s Sundance mind-melter Divinity premiered late Saturday evening for the midnight movie crowd, and if any film in the lineup deserved the coveted midnight slot (technically it began at 11:30, but who cares) it’s undoubtedly whatever the fuck Divinity is. Stephen Dorff stars as Jaxxon Pierce, the wealthy son of a scientist (oh look, it’s Quantum Leap’s Scott Bakula!) who invented the Divinity serum, a miracle elixir that grants immortality to those wealthy enough to procure it. Jaxxon’s comfortable life is violently disrupted by the arrival of two otherworldly brothers (Moises Arias and Jason Genao) who take him hostage in his mansion for vague (but clearly revenge-driven) purposes. They tie him to a chair in his living room and pump so much Divinity into Jaxxon’s bloodstream that he mutates into a deformed monster. Elsewhere, a woman named Ziva (Bella Thorne, who weirdly gives the closest thing here to a halfway decent female performance) militantly preaches to a group of waifish girls about … something. These two plot threads eventually intersect with an incredibly eye-rolling development about the nature of the Divinity serum that will probably leave a bad taste in some people’s mouths. This reveal partly explains the relatively polarizing reception the film has received on the festival circuit. But even if Divinity falls short on a narrative level, there’s still so much worth appreciating: the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography by Danny Hiele, the climactic stop-motion fight (better than any Marvel movie), and the prosthetic makeup used for Dorff’s grotesque transformation into a Cronenbergian Hulk that recalls the work of Rob Bottin. Not half bad for a movie I was fading in and out of consciousness during.
The high-profile star (and my favorite entry) of this year’s festival was undoubtedly How to Blow Up a Pipeline, the big screen adaptation of Andreas Malm’s incendiary anarchist manifesto from Cam director Daniel Goldhaber. Slated for wide release from NEON this month, Goldhaber’s latest is an explosive call to action on behalf of impending and current climate disaster. It arrives in the midst of a prolonged ecological crisis: for starters, train derailments are poisoning American cities and hundreds of miles of forestland are burning to the ground every year. The urgency with which Pipeline makes its case can’t be overestimated: scientists have set 2050 as the point of no return, at which time sea levels and temperatures will rise to catastrophically deadly levels. Meanwhile, politicians who aren’t taking checks from fossil fuel lobbyists and uber-polluting corporations sit on their hands and scold people for using plastic straws. Pipeline takes this righteous anger and streamlines it into a new kind of heist film by way of William Friedkin’s Sorcerer and Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, with explosive (no pun intended) results.
Told through tensely cut, intermittent flashbacks detailing every participant’s motives for participating in the sabotage, Pipeline boasts a robust and diverse ensemble cast who are all given the opportunity to shine in their respective roles. Xochitl (a powerhouse Ariela Barer, who also co-wrote the screenplay), the team’s unofficial leader, is reeling from her mother’s sudden death due to a freak heatwave. She is at the end of her rope with ineffective student activism. Her best friend Theo (Sasha Lane, American Honey) is slowly dying of a rare leukemia linked to the refinery town she grew up in, and takes her reluctant partner Alisha (Jayme Lawson) along for the ride. Shawn (Marcus Scribner) is a student documentarian who meets Dwayne (Animal Kingdom’s Jack Weary, at one point sporting an improved crop top), a Texas family man whose property has been forcibly taken by the government for the titular pipeline’s building site, and recruits him to the cause. Driving down to Texas from North Dakota, Michael (an incredible Forrest Goodluck) is a Native American youth who has channeled his frustration with the reservation’s passive political stance into teaching the internet how to make improvised explosives. And then there’s crust-punk rebel Rowan (Kristine Froseth, Sharp Stick) and her ex-rich-kid boyfriend Logan (Lukas Gage, Euphoria), whose motives for involving themselves in the mission unravel in a delightfully subversive way. It’s a Rainbow Coalition of eco-terrorism, and the solidarity that develops between every member of the group despite the different walks of life they hail from is a powerful political statement in and of itself.
Beautifully shot by Cam DP Tehillah De Castro and electrically scored by Gavin Brivik, Pipeline is a cinematic adrenaline rush the likes of which you rarely see outside of independent filmmaking. All this said, there’s an important addendum I’d be remiss not to mention because by the time this dispatch goes up it’ll be the discourse of the day over on Film Twitter. Just as I was finishing writing this piece, I was made aware of a Q&A with Goldhaber at the 2022 TIFF screening of the film where he admits that the production worked with an “Anonymous” higher-up from the Bureau of Counterterrorism as a “technical advisor” on the film. This raises serious questions regarding the ethics and integrity of an “independent” film production, especially when it comes to evaluating movies that boast progressive messages but are elusive about where their funding comes from (and from whom). If Pipeline did, in fact, make a pact with the feds for either technical input or funding, then audiences deserve to know as much. That said, if the goal was to make sure Goldhaber’s film didn’t inspire young people to consider joining an eco-terrorist group to sabotage blood and oil infrastructure, then it didn’t work on me whatsoever.
Closing out, it’s local film festivals like BUFF that are keeping what’s left of the American film industry from becoming a massive IP holder churning out algorithmically generated slop for the masses. As always, stay weird Boston, and see you again in 2024!
Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader. She’s the co-host of the new podcast Marvelous! Or, the Death of Cinema. You can follow her on Letterboxd and Twitter @kuntsuragi as well as on Substack.