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Denver Film Festival Preview: A donkey, the struggle of the Lakota people, and a Japanese film

Lakota Nation Vs. United States
A still from the film Lakota Nation Vs. United States by Jesse Short Bull + Laura Tomasell.

The 45th Denver Film Festival opens Wednesday, Nov. 2 and runs through Sunday, Nov. 13, with a slate of 239 films, counting features and shorts. The festival has returned to an in-person/in-theaters event. Tickets are on sale and KUNC film critic Howie Movshovitz, who teaches film at CU-Denver, has a few suggestions.

With so many movies in the Denver Film Festival, how does a body sift through the schedule? Here are three suggestions, but look around the list of films. As always, I think that pure whim is as good a way to choose what to see as anything else. You just might surprise yourself.

Jerzy Skolimowski is a fine Polish filmmaker with a list of credits that goes back to the early 1960s. He’s one of the writers on Roman Polanski’s first movie Knife in the Water from 1962. His latest picture is called EO, which is the name of the lead character, who happens to be a donkey. EO is the fourth film in the past couple of years to center on a farm animal – Gunda about a pig, aptly-named My Donkey, My Lover and I and Cow about a cow. What’s come from these films are tough visions of human beings because how we treat animals reveals plenty about who we might be.

The movie EO shows how the world might look to this donkey, and the picture is mostly grim. EO the character works hard in a circus and on a farm; he’s beaten for the drunken fun of it by soccer fanatics. On the good side, EO finds affection with a horse on a farm, and with the young woman who rides him in the circus.

Donkeys don’t show much expression, but as the film studies EO’s impassive face, you find yourself thinking about the things EO sees and lives through. He registers events in silence as the world goes about its business. It can be unnerving – and deeply touching.

Another surprise I’ve found so far in the festival is Lakota Nation Vs. United States by Jesse Short Bull and Laura Tomaselli. It’s an exceptional documentary in its information, but also in its rich imagery. The movie traces the dismal history of the struggle between the Lakota Sioux and both the American government and people over The Black Hills of South Dakota, a place of deep meaning for the Lakota. It’s a story of attitudes towards the Earth – exploitation as opposed to reverence and honor. But what I find astonishing is the range of things the picture shows – magnificent shots of the rock formations and the plant life of The Black Hills; old photographs of confrontations and meetings between Lakota people and soldiers or police; over a hundred year-old archival film of actual Lakota people, and clips from old Hollywood movies – and all this material organized around interviews with Lakota officials and historians, crucial language from broken treaties, dancers and poet Layli Long Soldier:

I want to tell you about the Sioux uprising. But I don’t know where to begin. I may jump around, and details will not unfold in chronological order.

But over and over the film returns to the exceptional beauty of The Black Hills, whose name in Lakota translates as “the heart of everything that is.” The movie creates a beautiful mix of voices and ways of telling this story that’s at the same time terribly complicated and terribly simple.

A third suggestion for the Denver Film Festival is Broker, the latest movie from the Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-eda. Broker continues Kore-eda’s long-running concern for children. This time, the film is about adoption. It takes place in South Korea where there are places for mothers to drop off unwanted newborns, and there are brokers who sell those children to prospective parents.

Kore-eda understands moral ambiguity better than most filmmakers. The birth mother has regrets; the baby brokers are not crass thugs; the possible adoptive parents are both generous and self-serving. But the real joy of a Kore-eda film is the visual context where stories play out. He shows a world that’s so intricate and varied, that it makes us see the actual world more clearly than we had before.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.