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What I Saw At the Charlotte Film Festival (2023)

April 2, 2024
By Travis Mullis

Wim Wenders might not have the name recognition he once did. Films like Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire have become a part of the film canon, forever immortalized by The Criterion Collection and the British Film Institute, so it’s easy to forget that Wenders is a filmmaker still plying his trade. Maybe that’s why I was surprised to see his new film, Perfect Days, in this year’s lineup of the Charlotte Film Festival. My interest was piqued, and I made sure to reserve tickets. I’m an information hound and usually look up everything I can about a film before I see it. This time I avoided that temptation and went into the screening totally ignorant of the plot or production other than it took place in Japan and was directed by Herr Wenders, and my lack of context heightened the film’s quiet brilliance.

The screening was at 8 pm, and though I got there early, the lobby was jam-packed with festivalgoers and volunteers. The auditorium filled up quickly, and as I always do, I took my seat in the third row, right in the middle. The lights dimmed, the audience hushed, and the screen bathed the room in warm light. Throughout the film, people laughed, whispered and crunched on candy and popcorn as the largely dialogue-free images played out before us. The film was a revelation, a quiet meditation on the small moments of life that feel déjà vu but are really what make us human and relatable. I felt a pang of artistic privilege and discovery as I thought of how lucky all of us were to be sitting in that auditorium watching a new Wim Wenders film, an opportunity that many in America will never have.

Perfect DaysPerfect Days is a perfect reflection of the festival — a film about the appreciation of art and community and its central importance to a well-lived life. It was my favorite of the festival, and based on the reactions of the audience as we slowly filtered out, it was the favorite of many others as well.

This year’s Charlotte Film Festival felt wholly new and fresh. It felt like a victory lap, an artistic triumph and an exciting demonstration of Charlotte’s art scene as it continues to grapple with the label “world-class city.” First, the facts: The festival featured more than 130 films from 30-plus countries, watched by more than 2,000 attendees, a nearly 200% increase over previous years. To me this is proof that as the Independent Picture House becomes more well-known, IPH events like the festival will become staples of the city’s events calendar.

Further proof of the enthusiasm surrounding the festival: I procrastinated in reserving my tickets for Black Barbie, and both opening-night showings sold out. Sobered by this, I quickly reserved my tickets for Thursday evening and decided to make a day of it. I picked as many screenings on Saturday as my eyes and backside could stand.

Thursday night, the auditorium was mostly full for a screening of Unicornios, a Spanish film about a polyamorous young woman named Isa struggling to find her place in a society that seems to both covet and shun her. What I remember most are the sex scenes and the cinematography, both used as an extension of the protagonist’s psychology. The camerawork is mainly close-ups, some of them squeamishly close, but done to mimic the protagonist’s fascination with the small scale, the unseen, the way a patch of skin looks three inches from your face, or what fabric looks like under a telescopic lens. As the film progresses, we enter deeper and deeper into the mind of Isa, until that mind collapses in on itself.

Other than Perfect Days, the highlights from Saturday were the animated shorts and We Will Speak. I’m not usually one for animation, but I forced myself to reserve tickets for something I normally wouldn’t give a second thought to, and I was pleasantly surprised. All types of animation from around the world were on display, and many elicited complex emotions and deep thought. It wasn’t all whimsy and childishness as I had feared.

My great-grandmother was full-blooded Cherokee and lived most of her life in an all-white society far from her ancestral mountain home. My thoughts came back to her more than once as I watched We Will Speak, a documentary about the destruction and rebuilding of the Cherokee language. The physical and emotional toll inflicted upon the Native peoples of this continent by European colonizers is well-documented and should never be forgotten. But what about the toll on the most basic component of culture — the language? As the documentary shows so well, when you take a people’s tongue, you take away their sense of cultural connectivity, their feeling of belonging to a unique and distinct tribe. Most important to the Cherokee, you take away their sacred connection to their ancestors, with whom they can no longer speak. We Will Speak ends on a high note though. Cherokee is now having a renaissance as thousands of young tribal members take up the language, cherish it and pass it on.

If this year’s Charlotte Film Festival is any indication, the arts scene in Charlotte is making a big comeback following the pandemic. The variety and depth of the films on display, their myriad messages and well-crafted productions are a testament to a region bursting with creativity and willing, as the festival implored, to “Discover Different.” I can’t wait to see what next year’s festival will bring to the Independent Picture House.

Travis Mullis is a Charlotte native and freelance writer always on the lookout for a good meal and a good film.

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