Again this year, Denver Film Festival artistic director Brit Withey is offering his must-see picks for each day of the fest — including many flicks that movie lovers might otherwise miss amid the flood of silver-screen goodies. Today he spotlights selections for November 11-13, including The Cinema Travellers, Mifune: The Last Samurai and Obit.
Denver Film Festival artistic director Brit Withey calls The Cinema Travellers "a valentine to cinema." But it's also an ode to a tradition that is on the verge of vanishing forever.
"In India, there are these groups of people who travel from fair to fair, circus to circus, event to event in these big trucks — they kind of look like a taco truck — with a projector in the back," he explains. "When they get there, they set up a tent and show films to people in these small villages. They stream in, pay a little bit, and get to see a film sitting on the ground under a tent."
At this point, though, the projectors tend to be "held together by gum and string and hopes and dreams," Withey goes on, "and they can't get films any longer. So they have to make the transition to digital, which is both funny and sad. They get these new, really wonderful, bright digital projectors, but they don't have the slightest idea how to use them — and there's a good reason. They need to have an Internet connection to make them work, and out in these sparse, countryside places, they usually don't have one."
Not all of these entrepreneurs have surrendered in the face of changing times, Withey reveals. "Some of them are persevering and struggling on and still showing films, but it will never be as quaint as it was in the past, when you could go anywhere with these trucks — just open up the back and show a movie. It's the death of something that's been going on for a hundred years."
"This is for true cinephiles," Withey enthuses about Mifune: The Last Samurai, a documentary focusing on the late actor Toshiro Mifune, who's best known among American audiences as the star of Seven Samurai and other amazing films made by the director Akira Kurosawa.
The film doesn't shatter rules of the genre, Withey acknowledges. "It's a straight biopic. But it's a straight biopic about one of the world's great actors and personalities, and for anybody who loves movies, it will be riveting from start to finish. I didn't know much about Mifune other than the roles that he played or what his personal life was like before seeing it."
For example, Withey continues, "he was a big drinker and he loved cars — and two of the things he liked to do most were drink and drive, which is hilarious and terrifying. There are just all these little tidbits that flesh out the life of somebody most of us know only through his roles on the screen. For anybody who loves film, it's extra-special."
Directed by Vanessa Gould
4:30 p.m. Friday, November 11
7 p.m. Sunday, November 13 Sie FilmCenter
The last film on this year's Denver Film Festival schedule is all about finality, in more ways than one. Obit documents the obituary-writing staffers at the New York Times, who are tasked with writing about final chapters even as their own specialty has become an endangered species.
"A lot of obituary departments at newspapers are going by the wayside," Withey says, "and writing obituaries is a strange job that not many people do any longer. But what they do is actually really life-affirming. There are three things in an obituary that are sad: that a person died at this time and on this date. But the rest of the obituary is a celebration of this person's life — everything they did that was wonderful over the course of their life and why they should be remembered. And this film shows the people who are asked to condense it all down to 500 words and how difficult that can be."
The doc "also addresses the practice of writing obituaries for people while they're still alive — how that's handled and which ones caught them off balance," he continues. "Like when Michael Jackson died and threw the whole department into chaos. It's a peek behind the curtain of a really interesting job."
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.