The Reel Deal featuring OPERATION BABYLIFT

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(by Stacey Rynders – November 11, 2009)

The St. Louis International Film Festival is a cultural event to be coveted in the St. Louis metro region. In its 18th year, SLIFF will feature more than 250 films and documentaries from more than 40 countries from Nov. 12 through 22.

As with many film festivals, SLIFF continues to build its prestige and typically brings some Hollywood indie films to the St. Louis market, such as the filmed-in-St. Louis George Clooney picture Up In The Air, the screening of which is already sold out.

But it is the diversity of strong stories, myriad perspectives and range of cinematic styles produced by the less glamorous independent filmmakers, working with much smaller budgets, that are truly the crème de la crème of this festival and a reason to block out dates each November to catch as many film screenings as possible from the jam-packed SLIFF schedule.

It’s impossible to spotlight all of the great entries, but a small preview of this year’s notables includes work from a personal favorite, documentary writer/director Michael Steinberg, who is also director of the Webster Film Series and the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. In 2009, Steinberg makes both his third and fourth SLIFF appearances on two films he co-directed with Thomas Crone, a talented St. Louis journalist prone to bringing cult-favorite character features and news to the region.

Both documentaries, the feature-length Old Dog, New Trick and the short Mama’s Pride, were inspired by 1970s rock artists from St. Louis that received their break during KSHE 95’s “heyday of freeform FM radio.”

“Thomas and I started making one film that was a catchall about the bands that came out of St. Louis in the 1970s,” Steinberg said. “But it wasn’t working. Then we found Steve Scorfina.”

Old Dog, New Trick, which airs Nov. 20 at the Tivoli, is a “fascinating character-driven documentary and interesting story” about Scorfina. Steinberg said. One of the founding members of Pavlov’s Dog and REO Speedwagon, Scorfina has now returned to his R&B roots, playing blues-rock while also dealing antiques.

“Mama’s Pride has a lot of local appeal and still has a life as a band; they are a great band to hear live,” Steinberg said about the accompanying short documentary based on the same 1970s, KSHE rock experience as Old Dog, New Trick. The band Mama’s Pride is still together and playing music.

The screening of Old Dog, New Trick will be followed by a Steve Scorfina and Danny Liston (of Mama’s Pride) concert in the Duck Room at Blueberry Hill, 6504 Delmar Blvd.

Steinberg will also make a personal appearance to interview Joe Berlinger, director of Crude, a cinema vérité documentary about the controversial lawsuit between an Ecuadorian village and oil goliath Chevron. Without the audacity of a Michael Moore documentary, Berlinger takes this gripping underdog story about 30,000 indigenous and colonial rainforest dwellers from Ecuador and chronicles their legal battle with the Chevron powerhouse.

Without any of his own commentary, Berlinger talks to Chevron spokespeople while following the Ecuadorian trial and talking to the victims suffering from the effects of environmental negligence on the part of big oil. The end result is compelling.

Crude, which premiered at Sundance, has earned more than a dozen film-festival honors since its debut. At SLIFF, Berlinger will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Documentary. Crude plays Nov. 15 at the Tivoli and is followed by a question-and-answer segment with Berlinger.

Another popular film in the film festival circuit is Snow (Snijeg). Part of the Bosnian Cinematic Program at SLIFF, Snow is one of two feature films and two documentaries to be spotlighted during the festival. Additionally, director Faruk Sabanovic will hold a free discussion about his films at 3:30 p.m. Nov. 17 at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

Snow is a beautiful portrait of the surviving Muslim women and orphaned children in a remote Slavno village following the war. At the core of this group, quiet and dedicated Alma beckons her strength to unite the group and give them a vision of a more prosperous future. This quiet, inspiring film tugs on the heartstrings without being sappy and soothes with gentle imagery and smooth frame-by-frame movement.

Another war-inspired film, the documentary Operation Babylift, focuses on an orphan “rescue” of more than 2,000 children at the close of the Vietnam War. Now, on the 35th anniversary of the event, director Tammy Nguyen Lee talks to the children who were brought to the United States, adoptive parents and the people who fought to bring these children to America.

“Although this project started off with one vision, we listened and addressed a need in the adoptee community to be heard,” said Lee, who spent five years producing the documentary. “We allowed their stories to unfold, to change, and that changed us. From the overwhelming response, I think we achieved something really special that educates, inspires and helps bring people together.”

Operation Babylift premiered at the Vietnamese International Film Festival, winning the Audience Choice Award. It has gone on with much acclaim to numerous other film festivals and has been greeted with similar enthusiasm.

It is stories like Operation Babylift that bring true gusto to the annual SLIFF. The SLIFF experience is to be measured in degrees of like; there are no bad stories here.

• For a full schedule of events and film screenings, and additional information concerning ticket prices and special events, visit www.CinemaStLouis.org.

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