Five On Life: Documentaries In The 14th Kansas International Film Festival

Oct 10, 2014

Update, Monday, Oct. 13: The jury award in the Social Justice Documentary category was announced on Oct. 13. It went to 120 Days. Audience awards will be announced at the end of the festival on Thursday, Oct. 16.

Immigration, contamination from everyday chemicals, and Christian colleges' struggle with gay students and alumni are among the topical and controversial issues explored in the films up for the Best Documentary Jury Prize in this year’s Kansas International Film Festival.

Now in its fourteenth year overseen by Brian Mossman, the festival brings an impressively eclectic sampling of the latest documentaries, indies and foreign films to the Glenwood Fine Arts from October 10-16.

Over the past several years, KIFF has been the place where Kansas City audiences claimed bragging rights for getting a first peek at eventual Oscar-nominated titles such as Black Swan, 127 Hours, and August: Osage County. Among this year's features already generating award buzz are Whiplash, a Sundance favorite about a talented musician and his tyrannical teacher; Wild, the film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling memoir; and The Imitation Game, with Benedict Cumberbatch playing the real-life World War II code breaker Alan Turing, whose achievement was complicated by his homosexuality.

As one of two jurors in the documentary category, in July I watched the five films selected to compete for the top jury prize, which would earn that title a second viewing during the week of the festival. In mid-September, my fellow juror and I assessed the films’ technical acumen, emotional heft, and potential audience appeal. The films in the running are:

120 Days

Miguel Cortes in '120 Days'
Credit Brad Allgood

Ted Roach's 120 Days spends four months with an undocumented family of four from Mexico who've lived in North Carolina for a decade. Miguel and Maria-Luisa Cortes have created a good life built on working hard, paying taxes, practicing their Catholic faith, and believing in a good education for their two daughters. After the local police pull over the parents' car for what the Corteses suspect is a DWM -- "Driving while Mexican" -- Miguel goes to jail and is quickly embroiled in a legal tussle over his family's status. As an on-screen clock counts down the days and hours before his probable deportation, family members debate their limited options while finding emotional support from sympathetic lawyers, fellow parishioners, and their English as a Second Language teacher. (79 minutes)

The Homestretch

A scene from 'The Homestretch'
Credit Kartemquin Films /Spargel Productions

On any given night there are 3,000 homeless teenagers in Chicago. Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly's The Homestretch focuses on three of them who are united in their resilience and intelligence. Two, a Hispanic male named Roque and an African-American lesbian named Kasey, are Shakespeare fans -- Hamlet for him and Othello for her. The third, Anthony, writes poetry, hopes to complete his GED and wants to reconnect with his son. Though they all reach their respectable yet modest goals, their peers on the sidelines and in the shelters face barriers that look unnavigable. (89 minutes)

The Human Experiment

A scene from 'The Human Experiment'
Credit KTF Films

Sean Penn is the narrator and executive producer of Dan Hardy's The Human Experiment, a lacerating look at how the chemicals in common products such as baby bottles and shampoo seem to be taking a toll on America's health. The film takes back the science from industry lobbyists and public relations firms to link such toxins as bisphenol A (BPA) to increased rates of breast cancer, infertility, and autism. Talking heads make important contributions, but the film humanizes the evidence with moving stories from a cancer survivor, a young couple struggling to conceive, and the activist woman whose brother is severely autistic. (91minutes)

Queers in the Kingdom

Wheaton College visitors contemplate The Billy Graham Center in 'Queers in the Kingdom'
Credit Mark Ledzian

In Markie Hancock's Queers in the Kingdom, viewers meet several alumni of Wheaton College in Illinois who've matured into productive and self-actualized gay men and lesbians. They realized their accomplishments despite the shame and doubt they felt as students at the Christian-based institution, where "pray the gay away" was not-so-subtle advice for those who struggled with their sexual orientation. Dozens of the graduates, including a few in their seventies, dream about, plan and eventually pull off an alternative event at a Wheaton reunion weekend where gay and lesbian alumni and their supportive allies are able to feel the connections that were disallowed and furtive in their formative college days. (74 minutes)

The Syndrome

Kathy and Kevin Hyatt in a scene from 'The Syndrome'
Credit Reset Films

The Syndrome is an eye-opening hybrid of medical drama and courtroom thriller. Director Meryl Goldsmith investigates the increasing legal and scientific skepticism surrounding the diagnosis of Shaken Baby Syndrome, which has resulted in dozens of prison sentences for parents and child care providers. Respected pediatricians and pathologists have begun to discover that autopsies reveal evidence that contradicts testimony by a handful of SBS experts in court. Key to the doctors’ findings: if a baby is vigorously shaken to death, it results in a specific type of neck injury – one that is often not present, even in cases where grieving parents have faced criminal charges. (87 minutes)

Kansas International Film Festival|October 10-16 at the Glenwood Arts, 9575 Metcalf, Overland Park, Kan., 66212|913-642-4404