The 2017 Freep Film Festival ended on Sunday with a fascinating group of films in the short subject category. I’m a sucker for short film programs and find myself fascinated with the form because of the challenges and risks posed in tackling big subjects in a condensed time span.
This year, the big subjects included the Flint water crisis, as well as the struggles with, and explorations of identity. First up in the Flint program was a film from a Michigan State University student entitled From Flint: Voices from a Poisoned City. I think most people living in Michigan are aware of the water crisis, but they might not be aware of just how bad things were and still are. From Flint provides a detailed look at the residents who have suffered from the effects of lead poisoning and how the residents themselves are doing everything in their power to help one another after the government has continued to fail them.
The next film, Flint: An American Nightmare, was easily my favorite from the program, as it continued to explore the themes of From Flint, but used Detroit Free Press photographer Ryan Garza’s amazing photography to highlight the ongoing struggles of a city in jeopardy. The residents interviewed in both films are all compelling and have their own take on the crisis. Despite overwhelming odds, every one of them is resolved to take action and to see something done for their city.
I was less interested in the final group of films – a set of shorts within a short entitled Flint is a Place, which mostly focused on Claressa Shields (“T-Rex”) and her sister, Briana. Admittedly, I wasn’t aware of Shields until the documentary about her story came out last year, but it still felt like this series of smaller shorts were beside the point, especially after the two very moving and eye opening documentaries preceded it. Still, the overall program provided an in-depth city that I think many have forgotten, or have simply assumed has “gotten better,” when the reality is that it will take many, many years to repair the damage done to Flint.
The final group of shorts, entitled Connections and Identity, explored a variety of people and subjects, each one of them fascinating in their own right. Palisades caught me off guard, because I’m usually wary of documentaries that mostly rely on talking-head interviews. However, the story of how a couple, John and Julie, fell in love, as told by John, is quite beautiful. I won’t give anything away here, except to say that the moment John realized he was in love with Julie, and the way he told the story, packs an emotional wallop that I was not expecting.
The two other films that I thoroughly enjoyed in this program were Off Season and Denali, the former about Detroit Tiger pitcher Daniel Norris’ off season travels in his 1978 VW van named Shaggy; the latter about Ben Moon and his dog, Denali, and their last day together as told from Denali’s perspective. Off Season was another unexpected gem that highlights the beauty of making one’s own life journey as well as the comfort that can be found in solitude.
Denali was one that I tried to prepare myself emotionally for but failed on every level upon watching it. Yes, I cried, and yes, I love a good man’s best friend movie. Denali is unique because of its storytelling approach. In about eight minutes we hear the story of Ben and Denali narrated by director and co-writer Ben Knight—told from Denali’s imagined thoughts. We learn of Ben’s battle with cancer, their ongoing adventures over the years, and their final, peaceful moments together. It is a beautiful film and (for me) was just the right way to end the festival.
The Freep Film Festival continues to expand every year and the slate of films become even more important and relevant in our current political climate. From Detroit’s story to Flint’s; to the environment and to the stories of human triumph; this film festival is not only relevant, it’s essential.