The 18th RiverRun Film Festival

April 25, 2016

by Jason Gorber

North Carolina, USA: in a bitter year where Bruce Springsteen cancels shows and Michael Moore pulls out his films in protest of draconian anti-LGBT laws, it’s nice to know the RiverRun film festival was there to provide a dose of sanity—and, of course, cinema.


Now in its 18th year, the festival has encouraged a diverse selection drawn from around the region and from some of the more prominent festivals around the world. A number of films at TIFF last September found a home for a local audience, and with venues including an arthouse multiplex and the local prestigious art school, it’s a fine place to catch some world-class cinema.

I had the privilege this year of attending as part of the documentary feature jury, and the selection presented to us included some extraordinary works. Joined by representatives from PBS, HBO and a local graduate student, the four of us participated in a genial, respectful debate about the merits of the given films.

A standout for me, and a favourite from Sundance, was Kristen Johnson’s Cameraperson. Ostensibly a series of trims from other films that the cinematographer shot over the last quarter century, the film provides a unique insight into both the technical and creative processes of documentary filmmaking. Combined, the disparate elements create a wonderous synergy, each story blending into one another shaped by the various subjects, film stocks and locales—while buttressing the other with a prevailing sense of discovery and wonder. It’s an exceptional documentary, one that challenges expectations and balancing between experimentation and conventional narrative, doing so in a way that’s particularly salient for fans of non-fiction. The jury gave it a very well-deserved special mention.

A still from “Cameraperson.”

We granted another effective film a prize for its humanitarian scope, finding Geeta Gandbhir and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers particularly moving. At times heart-wrenching, the film follows a group of female police officers from Bangladesh who are sent for a year-long mission to post-quake Haiti. Exploring notions of sacrifice, identity, and the globalization of security concerns, the film traces its subjects with particular sensitivity, eliciting reactions surprising and uncomfortable. The circumstances of these women—serving as peace officers in an increasingly conservative Muslim country, coming to terms with family responsibility, dealing with outrage and hostility from the local community they’re sent to help—provides a rich tableau for these stories to unfold.

Other films like Keith Maitland’s Tower about the famous shooting at the University of Texas provides a visually interesting if somewhat flawed take on the story. The film’s mix of animation, recreation and talking-head interviews is compelling, and while the jury was ambivalent about it, the film was selected for RiverRun’s audience award. Another work that was strongly considered was Hedi Brandenberug and Matthew Orzel’s When Two Worlds Collide, a piercing, intense documentary about the conflict between indigenous activists and law enforcement in the Peruvian Amazon. Far more than a single-sided advocacy doc, the film’s sophisticated narrative and remarkable access makes it one of the finer political and real-time historical films of the year.

The film that had us all in agreement was one that on paper could easily have been a dreary, formless mess. Yet Mike Plunkett’s extraordinary Salero, tracing the work of a salt gatherer who collects grains of the mineral by shovel and pickaxe in what feels to be an ancient, almost biblical practice. His world is being changed by the discovery of the world’s largest deposit of lithium below the salt bed, and as modernity creeps into his locale the subjects of the film find their livelihoods and dreams being shifted by the change. Far more than simply a meandering look at the situation, Plunkett’s work manages to bring us deeply into the lives of these intensely cinematic characters, witnessing their struggles and successes with equal parts wonder and awe. With sublime photography and a real sense of discovery of a place right on the edge of an explosion of change, the film was a unanimous pick for both best film and best direction.

salero image
A still from “Salero.”

Having pre-screened the films ahead of arrival meant more time to explore some of the other selections. I had a chance once again to watch Ingrid Veninger’s He Hated Pigeons. This is a departure of sorts for the iconoclastic Toronto native, providing a quiet, contemplative film that relies far more on static shots and moments of silence to do its heavy lifting. What’s particularly engaging is that Ingrid has mandated the film is only to be played as a live event, with the score performed in front of the audience. When I saw it at Whistler, fellow TFCA-er Chris Knight called “a happening,” with each showing providing a unique experience. Veninger mandates that the first six minutes be left to only the sounds of the desert and dialogue of the film, where after that the musicans are free to score however they feel fit.

At Whistler the film was paired with a local rock band that used drums, guitars and keys to create an ambient, effective blend between image and music. At RiverRun, local avant-garde musicans took flute and saxophone to create a more cacophonous, ragged sound, the thumping of pads against the metal instruments adding percussive elements. The film remains extremely strong and engaging regardless of musical choice, but it’s quite an experience to see just how much the timbre of instrumentation and sensitivity of musicians changes ones experience of apprehending the work. Additionally, its theme of queer love also played very different in a state coming to terms with tolerance, making its inclusion into this year’s slate that much more fitting.

he hated pigeons
A still from “He Hated Pigeons.”

Finally, I had the pleasure of catching up with a film by Maris Curran that premiered in the discovery section of TIFF. Five Nights In Maine is Curran’s debut, and she has assembled a rock-star cast with Oscar nominees David Oyelowo and Rosie Perez acting with two-time Oscar-winner Diane Weist. The film depicts the loss of a man’s wife and his handling of grief in conjunction with the meeting of his mother-in-law, set within the tree-strewn streets of rural Maine. The film’s tone beautifully shifts between the tragic and the comic, and its story unfolds with far more subtlety and grace than is often demonstrated by these type of works.

Bright sunny days and a fantastic selection of films: there was much to love about my time down south, and I appreciated contributing to this bastion of aesthetic sanity within a state undertaking some appallingly regressive political discourse.