The 7th annual Bentonville Film Festival took place in August of 2021 in Bentonville, Arkansas, which I was able to attend virtually. The festival is chaired by Academy Award winning actress Gina Davis and seeks to “champion inclusion in all forms of media'' (as stated on their website). The festival and the organization focus on amplifying the voices of storytellers who might otherwise be underrepresented, i.e., women, non-binary, LGBTQIA+, BIPOC and people with disabilities.
The winner of the Best Narrative Feature at this year’s festival was 7 DAYS, which had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival and I was able to include it in my coverage there. The other big winner at the Bentonville festival was KILI BIG, a documentary film by director Ida Jogla. This documentary tells the thrilling story of a group of plus-sized women who take on Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania, the highest mountain in Africa and the highest single free-standing mountain in the world. The film is a tour de force of footage from the climb and interviews with the brave women who are set to change the stereotypes often associated with plus-sized people. The courage that these women exhibit in not only deciding to embark on such a daunting feat, but also facing their own body image and their body’s limitations is fascinating and extremely relatable. Director Ida Jogla said in the virtual interview after the screening that her inspiration for making the film was to show everyday acts of courage and give these women a platform to tell their stories. The grace and sensitivity in which she handles the subject matter of plus-sized women, who are often judged and told they can't do certain things by our society, is beautiful and heart-warming. She captures not only their endurance on the mountain, but also the fortitude with which they live their lives every day. The women share their vulnerabilities quite candidly and let the camera see moments of complete heartbreak, which demonstrates the amount of trust they felt toward the director and crew. Each woman has a different reason for going on this journey and they each have unique relationships to their bodies, but their bond with each other throughout this experience is what makes these women so powerful. The sisterhood that shines on screen is enviable and the love and support these women have for each other is inspiring. The Bentonville Film Festival has the motto “If you can see it you can be it” and that perfectly encompasses this film.
The winner of the Short Film Narrative Award went to AMERICANIZED, written and directed by Erica Eng. This film is a story of a young girl from Oakland torn between the world of hip-hop and her Chinese-American roots. She doesn't quite fit in on her basketball team and she also doesn't fit in with the Asian kids at school who think her style and her demeanor is just ‘Americanized’ and not to be taken seriously. As she searches for her identity, she is forced to make bold choices about friendship, allegiance and her cultural roots and face the consequences of her actions. The camera moves around her with a kind of kinetic energy that fits the vibe of uncertainty as she tries to navigate her world. Well-acted and beautifully shot, the story is timely and familiar and is inspired by Erica Eng’s own experiences growing up.
The Jury at the festival also gave an honorable mention to the documentary YOUTH VS. GOV, directed by Christi Cooper. This feature documentary tells the remarkable story of a group of twenty-one plaintiffs, most of whom aren't even old enough to vote, who are suing the US Government for knowingly contributing to the climate crisis. It follows the progression of Juliana vs United States, a court case first filed in 2015. The case states that the U.S. government has violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional right to life, liberty, personal safety and property by willfully contributing to the climate crisis of our planet. The goal of this suit is not about money, it’s about making the government take responsibility for their actions and forcing them to put systems in place that will protect our planet and create a sustainable future for all generations. Since the 1970s each and every American president - yes, even the ones we liked - has contributed to the climate crisis by supporting systems and businesses that are actively harming our planet. Before the world was talking about Greta Thurnberg, these young voices sought to be heard and decided to do it on the biggest stage possible. Throughout the film we get to know the plaintiffs and hear their stories and what inspired them to join the case. Kelsey Juliana, for whom the case was named, was inspired by her parents, who were activists themselves and fought to protect the Ancient Forests. She sees climate change as the biggest threat her generation will ever face and seeks to take action to make real change. Kelsey and the other twenty kids are well-spoken, intelligent, adorable and extremely determined in their mission, even when they face challenges and setbacks. Their insatiable drive to keep fighting is inspiring and has inspired youths all over the world to make their voices heard and hold their own governments accountable as well.