Ten to watch at the Little Rock Film Fest 

Films not to miss.

'Blood Brother'
Directed by Steve Hoover

This film opens with nighttime footage of a young American man persuading a grandfather, whose friends are loudly objecting, to abandon a temple ritual and transport his sick grandchild to a hospital on the back of his motorcycle. Forced to stop at a train crossing, the young man, Rocky Braat, looks back and sees the grandfather unwrap the girl from her blanket. Her head flops back, her body is limp. She's died on back of the bike. Braat, mourning and ostracized by the superstitious Indian community where he works in a hostel for children with HIV, weeps and wonders if he has the guts to stay in India. Braat, who has left home and traveled to Chennai (Madras) to find something "real" in life, finds a harsh, but loving reality among the ailing children, who adore him and call him Rocky-anna (which roughly translates to "Rocky-big brother"). Braat embraces these alienated children that others — including filmmaker and Braat's best friend Steve Hoover, Hoover confesses — are afraid to touch because of their virus. He engages in horseplay with them, teaches them English, puts them to bed, and watches some of them die from infections their immune systems can't fight. Returning to India for Rocky's wedding to an Indian woman ("I am marrying India," Rocky says), the filmmaker records the near-death of Surya, the little boy Rocky calls his sidekick because he seldom leaves Rocky's side. Surya's skin and lips are sloughing off, and his beautiful brown eyes are glued shut; his chance of survival is 10 percent. Watching Braat care for him is devastating; Surya, unlike so many others beats the odds ... this go-round. This child, who seems sturdy enough when we first meet him, illustrates how tenuous life is for these children and the kind of hardships Rocky-anna chooses to endure in exchange for their love. 3 p.m. Thursday at 610 Main, 2:15 p.m. Friday at Heifer International. Hoover will participate in a post-screening Q&A each day. LNP.

'After Tiller'
Directed by Martha Shane and Lana Wilson

You won't see the anti-choice members of the Arkansas legislature at this movie about the doctors who, despite the murder of their colleague Dr. George Tiller, continue to risk their lives to offer late-term — after 25 weeks — abortions. So they won't hear pregnant women talk about the fetal anomalies that mean, for example, that the bones of one fetus are breaking in the womb and if the child survives it will live but a brief time in agony. Or the woman who decides that because her fetus would not be a viable child, the kindest choice would be to let him go, instead of bearing him and having to take him off a ventilator. Or the father who says that allowing the baby to endure a brief life of pain creates as much guilt as ending his life before the pain can begin. Or the 14-year-old who wants to die. Or the return visits of the women to express gratitude toward the doctors. They won't hear the attorney general of Nebraska call an abortion doctor who once practiced there, whose horse barn, with 25 horses locked in their stalls, was torched by an anti-choice group, a "sick individual." Or the recollections of the doctors — most of them past 70 — of the women they treated during their medical residencies pre-Roe v. Wade who suffered and died after back-alley abortions. Or the doctors themselves who can't justify some of the abortions wanted and suggest adoption. These four doctors — that's it, there are now just four — aren't monsters "executing babies" as the Fox News anchor declares but men and women who are caring for their patients' mental and physical health and their unviable unborn. 5:45 p.m. Thursday and Friday at the Historic Arkansas Museum. Directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson will participate in post-screening Q&As. LNP.

'The Kill Team'
Directed by Dan Krauss

"There are no good men left here," Army Spec. Adam Winfield wrote his father while deployed in Afghanistan in 2010. Winfield was part of an infantry platoon that became known as the "Kill Team" after reports surfaced of soldiers killing innocent and unarmed civilians for sport, mutilating their bodies and taking hokey pictures with the corpses. Winfield, with help from his former-Marine father back in the states, tried to blow the whistle on the soldiers, but the Army was unresponsive. Dan Krauss' documentary examines the war crimes two years later from the perspective of the soldiers involved. Krauss employs a straightforward style — talking-head interviews, photos and videos from combat, verite scenes of Winfield and his family in pre-trial — but the result is more chilling than a horror movie. The blunt, matter-of-fact approach mimics the cadence of the young, macho soldiers-turned-murderers. One says he thought of the song "Danger Zone" from "Top Gun" during his first firefight ("This is really cool"); another describes early discussion of planting weapons on innocent victims ("Hey dude, I've got a couple extra grenades that aren't being tracked"). Krauss does an expert job exploring the epic boredom of warfare for these amped-up American kids trained to kill. "You can't shoot somebody because of this reason, you can't do it because of that reason," says one soldier, who wasn't charged with a crime. "It was nothing like what everybody hyped it to be. Part of that's probably why" — and here he smirks, and it is utterly haunting — "things happened." The documentary focuses most closely on Winfield, an eager young private so slight of build that he had to drink a gallon of water before his physical to barely make the necessary weight when he enlisted as a teenager out of high school. When platoon mates threatened to kill him, Winfield went silent, and one of the film's questions is how culpable he was. While the drama surrounds what the Army trial will find, the real question is for Winfield himself, who has been rendered a ghost, so riddled with anxiety, guilt and fear that he can barely get through each sentence. "The Kill Team" is one of the most terrifying depictions of war you'll ever see. These are neither heroes nor monsters, but boys with guns far from home. When they say "whatever," it would sound familiar if it wasn't alongside "look at these dead guys." That's the horror: not what might happen to you in battle, but what you might become. 8:15 p.m. Thursday at Historic Arkansas Museum, 2 p.m. at The Rep. Director Dan Krauss participates in post-screening Q&As. DR.

'Ain't in It for My Health'
Directed By Jacob Hatley

"Ain't in It for My Health," Jacob Hatley's excellent film about the late, great Arkansas musician and actor Levon Helm, isn't a typical documentary profile. There's a bit of archival footage, but most of it takes place closer to the present, during the nearly three years Hatley shadowed Helm. It covers what might be called the beginning of Helm's late comeback, following his recovery from throat cancer, when "Dirt Farmer," his first album in 25 years, was released and the "Midnight Ramble" concerts at his Woodstock farm were in full swing. But most of all, as Hatley said in an interview, "it's a hangout movie."

Hatley originally came to Woodstock in 2007 to film a short film/music video starring Helm, and found that, as much as he liked the material he got for that project (eventually released as "Only Halfway Home" and worth seeking out on YouTube), the bits he captured between takes — of "Levon hanging out with a couple of sweet corn farmers who lived down the road from him, sitting around talking politics" — were his best material. So he decided to stick around to shoot a longer film. Neither Helm nor Hatley was interested in, as Hatley said, "an A&E-style biography." They wanted something more organic. But that took time.

"There'd be weeks go by and we wouldn't shoot anything. We wouldn't see him. Or nothing was happening. Or it wasn't clicking. There were periods where he didn't feel up for being in front of a camera."

Initially, Hatley would leave when things got slow to work on other projects, but then he'd hear about things he missed and regret being away. He ultimately decided he was going to stay in Woodstock until he got what he needed for the film. When his money ran out and he couldn't afford to rent, he and crew members moved into Helm's barn.

"Levon loved, loved having people over. He built that place so it could be a gathering place. For musicians and people to hang out after work. I don't think Levon would've minded if we didn't film for six months and we were just hanging out."

Just like with the short film, the best moments in "Ain't in It for My Health," came from casual conversations.

"When you make a documentary about Levon Helm," Hatley wrote on The Huffington Post, "you root for things not to happen. You root against plot, conflict, inciting incidents, obstacles, and dramatic questions. Basically, you root against anything that could undermine the following shooting conditions: It's late and you're sitting around Levon's kitchen table. It has a hazy glow about it. Crew and cast have slept until at least 11 a.m. that morning. Nothing is scheduled for the next day. Your mind is limber. So Levon just starts talking."

What's he talk about? Anything and everything — the venomous spur hidden on the foot of a duck-billed platypus. His favorite Sam Peckinpah movie. "Losing seasons" in California from all the sunshine, sushi bars and Hawaiian weed. The "soft, cool dirt" under the porch of his family's farm home in Turkey Scratch where he played as a child. His anger at The Band being recognized for a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award only after the death of fellow bandmates Rick Danko and Richard Manuel ("It's engineered by the suits, a goddamn sales gimmick," he says).

"Ain't in It for My Health" captures other moments of Helm's bitterness over how The Band fell apart and how its legacy has been handled. (The film's title comes from Helm's response to Robbie Robertson, who suggested The Band break up because the road was taking a toll on band members' health.)

Mostly, though, it's a portrait of a warm, gregarious man with a gift for telling stories and singing songs. It's filmed almost entirely in Woodstock, but Helm's Phillips County roots always show. 8:30 p.m. Thursday at The Rep. LM.

'These Birds Walk'
Directed by Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq

When filmmakers Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq set out to make a documentary about the elusive Abdul Sattar Edhi, the humanitarian who runs the largest social welfare organization in Pakistan, he demurred, telling them, "If you want to find me, you will find me among the people." So Mullick and Tariq sought stories among the Edhi Foundation's work with the poor. The film is largely centered on an Edhi shelter for runaways and abandoned boys (outside is a crib with a sign which reads: "Leave them in the carriage. Don't kill children."). We meet Asad, an ambulance driver whose main jobs appear to be picking up and returning runaways and transferring bodies for burials provided by the charity. "It's easier to transport dead bodies than to take these kids home," he says. The film follows Asad as well as Omar, a puckish and world-weary 10-year-old runaway. Omar and the other boys veer between bravado and longing. Many were beaten or neglected at home, yet they feel unmoored without their families. They are obsessed with escape but have nowhere to go. The gorgeous film is more tone poem than traditional documentary, though Mullick and Tariq have the documentarian's knack for unflinching observation — the portrayal of childhood is startlingly intimate. The camerawork feels immersed in the lives of the children, lurching between aching boredom and bursts of excitement or anger or fear. We see the boys at play and in prayer, roughhousing one moment and deep in metaphysical chatter the next. ("I've asked nothing from God," Omar tells another boy. "I only asked from my parents.") They weep openly, sometimes comforting each other and sometimes slapping each other on the head. It would have been easy for Mullick and Tariq to make a social-message movie about poverty in Pakistan, but they're after something deeper. "These Birds Walk" is a near masterpiece: a mediation on loneliness and home, and a portrait of a place infused with the hope of transcendence and escape. "This country is such," Asad says, "that everybody runs after a prayer." 7 p.m. Friday at Heifer International (open to the public), 11 a.m. Sunday at 610 Main. Directors Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq will participate in post-screening Q&As. DR.

Directed by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason

"Bridegroom" starts as a love story, veers through tragedy, and winds up as a profile of the particularly heartless bureaucratic limbo that many gays and lesbians find themselves in when they lose the long-term partner they would have married — should have married — had they not lived in a world where political and religious posturing keeps LGBT people from the protections of legal matrimony. The documentary is the story of Tom Bridegroom and Shane Crone, two young men from flyover country who met and fell in love after they both moved to California. While Shane's parents were accepting and loving when he came out as gay, Tom's were anything but, threatening him with hellfire and damnation while insisting he needed psychiatric help. Though Tom found a new family with Shane, promising to marry him when gays were allowed to be legally wed, all that came to a crushing end when Tom fell from a roof during a photo shoot in May 2011 and later died. Though Tom's parents had basically disowned their son by then, Shane found himself shut out of Tom's hospital room because he wasn't "family." With Tom's parents calling all the legal shots, Shane was helpless to watch as Tom's body was carted off for burial in the state he'd fled, with Shane warned away from the service and funeral under threat of violence. A powerful piece of documentary, "Bridegroom" is really two films in one. The first is a film about how falling in love is just as innocent and sappy for gays as it is for straights, a necessary lesson in an age when a significant portion of the American public still sees homosexuality as something deviant, twisted and overly sexualized. The second and more important piece is the object lesson of just how many rights LGBT people lose, legally, because they aren't able to say "I do." The thought of being barred from the bedside of the person I love was enough to bring me to tears as I watched "Bridegroom," and should be enough to give even the harshest homophobe pause if only they will take off their ideological blinders and see the truth: Marriage isn't about politics, it's about love. 8:30 p.m. Friday at The Rep, 11 a.m. Sunday at Argenta Community Theater. Director Linda Bloodworth-Thomason will participate in a post-screening Q&A. DK.

'12 O'Clock Boys'
Directed by Lotfy Nathan

Dirt bikes and four-wheelers roar down the streets of West Baltimore, as young men pop wheelies and engage in all manner of artistic daredevilry. The large crews swarming the lanes — in vehicles illegal to drive on the roads — are known as "12 o'clock boys" for their ability to thrust their bikes up vertically to a nearly 90-degree angle, the front tire pointing toward 12 o'clock. It's a thrilling spectacle, but also dangerous both to the riders and to pedestrians and vehicles. For Pug, a pint-sized streetwise 13-year-old boy with a hard-knock life and a dearth of male role models, the riders are glorious. The police see them as a public nuisance; Pug sees them as free and fearless heroes. Documentarian Lotfy Nathan explores this unique subculture through Pug's eyes, following him over the course of three years as he aspires to become a 12 o'clock boy. Nathan captures stunning shots of the riders in action, often in dreamy slow-motion but more compellingly in chaotic live action as they avert disaster and the cops (or don't). Police policy is not to chase them, instead attempting to follow them with the assistance of helicopters. The imagery — young black men yelling "5-0" and running as sirens blare and choppers roar above — inevitably evokes cinematic scenes of the drug war (yes, including "The Wire"). One could almost view it as a healthy outlet ("the right way to do the wrong shit" as one biker puts it) if not for the fatalities and injuries, not to mention the risk of arrest. The riders' stunts are undeniably beautiful escapism, but it's all a little heartbreaking too: even boys at play spark an endless war with police. Nathan manages to thread this needle — the film both glorifies the bikers and doesn't shy away from the troubling implications of this lifestyle for Pug. For all the mayhem on the roads, Pug is the engine that revs the film, an unforgettable, acid-tongued aficionado of the 12 o'clock boys. Over the course of the film, we watch this smart and charming boy harden in adolescence, and his obsession with the daredevils begins to seem less about wonder and more about nihilism. "I've been on this earth a decade, and a couple years," Pug says. "So what that makes me? I'm a grown-ass man." The film's tragic undercurrent is that Pug's boast is not so. 4 p.m. Saturday at 610 Main, 11 a.m. Sunday at The Rep. Director Lotfy Nathan will participate in a post-screening Q&A at 610 Main; he'll be joined by Pug at The Rep. DR.

'Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer'
Directed by Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorov

I love folks with the desire to make over their worlds through art instead of violence, even in the face of almost certain failure. The belief that change can be brought about through peaceful means takes a lot more bravery than believing only in the gun, and we get just that sort of bravery in spades in the documentary "Pussy Riot." The documentary introduces Western audiences to Russia's Pussy Riot music collective, a feminist movement of young women who mask themselves in colorful balaclavas and play angry, impromptu, politically-charged punk concerts in high-profile places, screaming for women's rights, gay and lesbian rights and plain ol' human rights while decrying the regime of Vladimir Putin. While that was bound to get some attention in Russia, the story went international in February 2012, when five members of the collective stormed the altar of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior during services and tried to play an anti-religious punk song called "God Shit." Three members, Nadia Tolokonnikova, Masha Alyokhina and Katia Samutsevich, were arrested and charged with hooliganism and religious hatred. As seen in the documentary, the record of their trial, conviction and eventual imprisonment brings to mind some of the worst show-trials of the Soviet era, even as Russia is supposedly leaping forward into a new, democratic age. While watching Vladimir Putin smirk and condescend over the vulgarity of the word "pussy" as three young women face years at hard labor in Siberia for singing a song is enough to make you want to punch him right in his boiled-potato face, seeing Orthodox Church leaders proudly call the three women witches under the influence of Satan and bemoan the fact that they can't simply be burned at the stake is enough to chill the blood. 8:30 p.m. Saturday at the Argenta Community Theater, 4 p.m. Sunday at Historic Arkansas Museum. Directors Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorov will participate in a post-screening Q&A. DK.

'Zero Charisma'
Directed by Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews

This one's for the nerds. Those who're mildly fluent in nerd-ese might get a kick out of it, too. But if seven-sided dice and the Millennium Falcon mean nothing to you, a good bit of the movie may feel like watching a foreign film without subtitles. Sam Eidson, who looks like a real-life version of The Comic Book Store Guy from "The Simpsons," stars as Scott Weidemeier, game master of the greatest role-playing game of all time. That Scott, presumably in his 30s, has never had a girlfriend, lives with his grandmother and works at a restaurant called Donut Taco Palace II, doesn't bother him as long as RPG is in full swing. But when one of his regular players unexpectedly quits the game, and a sort of hipster nerd named Miles replaces him, Scott's world is thrown into disarray. Eidson, a longtime fixture in the Austin film scene, lends an impressive physicality to his character's ever-present virginal rage. There's much Hulk-smashing and Comic Book Store Guy-style caustic lecturing. We've seen these sorts of cinematic characters for years, but always played for comic relief. There's plenty of humor in "Zero Charisma," but ultimately it delivers an unblinking portrait of alienation and obsession. 6 p.m. Friday at Cornerstone Pub, 8:30 p.m. Saturday at Historic Arkansas Museum. Directors Katie Graham and Andrew Matthew will participate in post-screening Q&As. LM.

'Don Jon'
Directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Of course Joseph Gordon-Levitt is directing. His career has thus far been a successful mix of blockbusters ("The Dark Knight Rises," "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra") and headier fare ("Mysterious Skin," "Lincoln"). Helming a movie was the next logical step towards inheriting the "serious film star who everyone likes" mantle from George Clooney/Matt Damon/Brad Pitt. An advance screener wasn't available, but "Don Jon" (shortened from the original title "Don Jon's Addiction") has gotten a positive response from the festival circuit (Sundance, SXSW, Berlin), and the premise and cast are certainly, um ... promising? It stars Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore and Tony Danza. Gordon-Levitt plays Jon, a muscle-bound horndog who's obsessed with porn and Scarlett Johansson's character, whose notions of love and relationships come from romantic comedies. Moore plays another love interest, and Danza plays Jon's tank-top-wearing dad. Gordon-Levitt explained his conceit to the Huffington Post: "I thought the idea of a guy, who watches too much pornography, and a young woman, who watches too many romantic Hollywood movies, was a hilarious way to ask the question: How do the different kinds of media we consume impact our lives and our love lives?" 9 p.m. Sunday at The Rep. LM.



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