Here's what’s worth a look.
I trust this isn’t confusing: There’s the Philadelphia International Film Festival & Market and the Philadelphia Independent Film Festival. Both have similar names, both feature low-budget festival fare from around the world and both happen, mostly, at the same time, namely over the forthcoming weekend.
For the record, the International is smaller, older (in its 35th year) and, unlike the Independent, features nods to film history, complete with tributes to luminaries like Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Cooper and Sidney Lumet. The bulk of the fest, which runs through the 23rd, is new socially conscious cinema, either narratives or documentaries.
It’s become a regular habit of activist documentaries to spoil everyday Western pleasures by exposing the unimaginable acts that bring them to fruition. Which is to say that The Dark Side of Chocolate (Sat., 4:05pm, African American Museum) ruins chocolate. Equipped with both a troublemaking host (albeit a relatively meek one) and a booming, portentous narrator, this Danish production journeys to Ghana and the Ivory Coast to prove, with hidden cameras, that children are among those laboring on cocoa plantations. When confronted with the evidence, execs at the top chocolate factories first offer half-assed horror, then later issue a statement that technically they have no control over the plantations that fuel their product.
The Harvest/La Cosecha (Sat., 5:15pm, African American Museum), meanwhile, ruins produce, which is largely picked by migrant workers and, often, their teenage children. Director U. Roberto Romano spends about a year with three teens and their families, watching as schooling gets interrupted by sudden moves around the U.S., the families forever on the search for work a la Steinbeck’s Joad Family. Vague hope emerges with the revelation that some have grown up to be NASA astronauts and politicians. But most of The Harvest is clear-eyed and grounded, and therefore bleak, painting a claustrophobic portrait of a second Depression where most exist only for work, killing themselves to live.
The Independent, by contrast, is huge: Now in its fifth and most ambitious year, it boasts more than 90 films (granted, many of them shorts) over several venues. And where the International leans hard on bringing in investors and distributors, the Independent imagines itself as more of a place for hobnobbing and connections.
Of the many ways in which “independent cinema” can be defined, there is, of course, American independent narrative cinema. That includes David Spaltro’s Things I Don’t Understand, a perspicacious dramedy with (mostly) sharp (or at least snarky) banter. Molly Ryman plays a death-obsessed Brooklyn grad student doting over a sarcastic young cancer patient, while juggling wacky roommates and potential romance with a studly, mysterious bartender. As our sour lead, Ryman is just shy of obnoxious, though her game performance carries us through the requisite second-half tonal shift as well as the over-length. Still, fun (and funny), at least while it’s fun.
Representing France, A.L.F. has a good joke, and that’s to treat an act of animal liberation (hence the title, which has nothing to do with furry, cat-devouring aliens) like it was a heist. That’s all that’s funny about it: Relentlessly gloomy and humorless as it jumps back and forth between the before and after of their illegal act, the film gets so mired in minutae that our protagonist has to be reminded, at the 11th hour, to break into a fiery monologue, complete with cutaways to dolphins and seals being mutilated. A lecture would have been preferable.
A mere lecture is not what you get in Inside the Perfect Circle: The Odyssey of Joel Thome, a doc on an esteemed (though obscure) conductor and composer who’s spent his career searching for “new sounds” from traditional instruments. When he’s not composing his own, as he says, “very modern music”—droney, dissonant epics, played here by the David Bowie-instigated Scorchio Quartet—he’s arranging Frank Zappa for orchestra. Even at an hour, it gives us the chance to listen and enjoy his work, which aim for, in Thome’s words, “the sounds of all the worlds in the cosmos, simultaneously.”
Philadelphia International Film Festival & Market: Through June 23. philafilm.org; Philadelphia Independent Film Festival: Though June 24. philadelphiaindependentfilmfestival.com