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Chester County Press

From my seat: Reflections on the West Chester Film Festival

05/08/2024 06:33PM ● By Caroline Roosevelt

When I made my way up the stairs of the Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center for two afternoon blocks of films at the recent West Chester Film Festival on April 28, I found that I was in the company of other cinephiles, who had gathered to see two installments of short films, in between cocktails and snacks at Mac’s Foxhole Lounge.

The first block started at 1 p.m. and finished at 3:15 p.m., and the next block screened from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., and both included Q&A sessions with the directors and crew of each film. The first block featured nine films from all over the world -- Canada, California, Maine, New York, France, Pennsylvania and New Jersey – and spanned genres that included documentary, animation, drama, comedy, and even a fantasy-experimental film. 

One of the standouts for me, A Good Day Will Come, came from a Canadian-Iranian filmmaker Amir Zargara, who presented a heartbreaking and poignant film that parallels the conflict we see today in the Middle East. In the film, we follow Arash, an up-and-coming wrestler following in his activist fathers’ footsteps. The year is 2018, and Iran is deep in political unrest. He struggles with the urge to use his platform to help his people (a sentiment bestowed upon him by his father), while his coach chides him and recommends that he keep his head down and focus on winning. 

A Good Day Will Come is shot in almost monochromatic fashion and illustrates the disrepair of a country through the dilapidated gym out of which he trains. His family has come to terms with the death of several family members over the years due to their unwelcome activism in a post-revolution Iran. The film provided a jaded perspective on death that may surprise Americans. The banal and anticipated death of another family member at any given point comes to light in the way the characters discuss the deceased, the robotic way the children pass out dates at the funeral services, and the way the mothers hide their own mourning. Just as he had followed his father into a fatal but expected martyrdom, the film ends with his younger brother waiting outside the gym for his first lesson, and presumably, a continuation of a deadly and seemingly futile pattern. 

Other front runners in this selection for me included:

Ah-Ma Burns, by filmmaker Max Kane, who took the audience on a fantastic, and at times funny, journey of a recently widowed grandmother attending her grandson’s Friendsgiving celebration and tries a questionable hallucinogenic tincture foisted upon her by his weird self-proclaimed guru friend. The combination of humor, horror, and abstraction made it one of the most creative films of the afternoon’s line-up.

All the film goers were given ballots and asked to vote for their favorite films in each block. I’m not afraid to share my nomination for a comedy by Nicholas Marchetti entitled You Mourn Weird. One of the only pure comedies (albeit dark) of the block, this film focused on the tense and snippy relationship between two adult sisters hosting their father’s funeral. A short one in comparison to a few others on the list, You Mourn Weird primarily took place in the coat room of the church as an argument over how to handle the guests, their fathers overly styled hair, and their own emotions, escalated until the sounds of bickering pour out into the church. The highlight of this piece were the featured characters - a range of strange guests, and people they did not know, pouring their sympathies on the confused sisters who start to wonder about their father’s secret life. 

The second block included ten films hailing from Italy, Germany, Canada, and the U.S. One of my two standouts included the Italian film Pentaclub by Roberto Strazzarino, which followed the dream of six teenage boys at the height of the Vietnam War as they dream of opening a movie theatre. Reflective of the film Stand By Me, the teenagers in this film provided some of the most intimate and sincere acting of the entire festival. 

The second was Murder & Ice Cream, a raunchy and irreverent film -- reminiscent of Keving Smith’s films like Clerks and Mallrats -- from Pennsylvanian filmmaker Kevin McGrath. This story focused on the unlikely friendship of a hitman and his captive as they travel out to the wooded area meant for his execution. Side quests included running into an ex while handcuffed, following a dream of opening an ice cream shop, and many hilarious yet thoughtful conversations.

The festival included several other components: workshops, networking events, a pop-up horror screening and a Coffee and Cartoons pop-up at Bierhaul Townhouse. Other hosting venues included Hotel Warner, Mayday Cafe, Sidebar, and the Chester County History Center.

One would be remiss to frame the West Chester Film Festival as provincial. While it is hosted right here in our backyard, the title of the festival belies its expansive line up and its international presence since its creation eighteen years ago.