Highlights of the 2020 Philadelphia Film Festival

4 minute read
'Coded Bias' observes the effects of white supremacy in digital spaces. (Still courtesy of Together Films.)
'Coded Bias' observes the effects of white supremacy in digital spaces. (Still courtesy of Together Films.)

Like many other celebrated film festivals across the world, the 29th Annual Philadelphia Film Festival has transformed itself into a mostly virtual endeavor for 2020. Marquee screenings will also take place at the Philadelphia Film Society’s Drive-In movie space at the Navy Yard.

While the festival has been a highly anticipated opportunity to see hidden gems that benefit from the visibility of a multi-day celebration like this in years past, it’s disappointing to see that most of the productions being showcased at this year’s film festival are movies with big-name stars that we’ll be able to stream on Netflix or Amazon later this year anyway. Cowboys, Ammonite, Nomadland, and One Night in Miami, all destined for awards-season glory, will be screened at this year’s festival as drive-in offerings only.

Fortunately for those of us who are here for the underpromoted timely tales, true stories, and after-dark treats, there are a few films that don’t scream “Oscar Bait” and look well worth the price of streaming.

40 Years a Prisoner is a timely piece that follows Mike Africa Jr. in his decades-old quest to clear his parents’ names. Mike’s parents were members of Philly-based Black liberation collective MOVE, and his mother, Debbie, was pregnant with him at the time of the raid and bombing in May 1985. In the years since he was born behind bars, Mike has worked tirelessly to piece together the truth of what happened the day the Philadelphia Police Department dropped a bomb on the MOVE house, and to expose the systemic racism that got us there. Director Tommy Oliver’s 40 Years a Prisoner will be available to stream and will be screened for free at the PFS Drive-in (tickets required).

Coded Bias is MIT Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini’s examination of racism in algorithms. Documentary filmmaker Shalini Kantayya follows Joy as she looks at the deeper implications of AI and facial recognition software that fails to see people of color such as herself. The impact of this coded bias is far-reaching and disturbing, from the loss of jobs to denied financial support to even wrongful imprisonment. It’s a powerful rebuke to the notion of “data is destiny” and a call to action for us all to become more vigilant about the effects of white supremacy in digital spaces.

'40 Years a Prisoner' follows Mike Africa Jr.'s decades-long journey to exonerate his parents. (Still courtesy of Philadelphia Film Festival.)
'40 Years a Prisoner' follows Mike Africa Jr.'s decades-long journey to exonerate his parents. (Still courtesy of Philadelphia Film Festival.)

Midnight madness offerings Get the Hell Out and PG (Psycho Goreman) are gore-rific horrorfests with plenty of exploding heads and social commentary disguised as storytelling. The latter looks like a loving tribute to the Tokusatsu productions that gave us the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers in the early 1990s, featuring a grotesque but lovable monster who befriends two children and embraces their hobbies to quash his bloodthirsty tendencies. Get the Hell Out showcases the fallout from a deadly virus known as “idiot rabies” that infects Taiwanese legislators, with bloody comedic results.

Then there’s Beethoven in Beijing, destined to be this year’s underdog crowd pleaser. And for good reason—Jennifer R. Lin and Sharon Mullally’s documentary chronicles China’s love affair with the Philadelphia Orchestra. As the Nixon administration thaws relations between the US and China in the early 1970s, the Chinese become hungry for Western classical music, which they are exposed to through a historic visit from the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1973. Thus begins an extraordinary relationship that lasts decades, and eventually breathes new life into the legendary orchestra as it falls on hard times financially in the early 2010s.

Festival lovers will also want to check out this eclectic collection of cinematic experiences during this year’s Philadelphia Film Festival: The Obituary of Tunde Johnson, Farewell Amor, Mayor, The Dilemma of Desire, Zappa, and Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness.

What, When, Where, and Accessibility:

The 29th Annual Philadelphia Film Festival takes place virtually and via select drive-in movie presentations October 23 to November 2, 2020. For tickets and the full festival program, visit filmadelphia.org.

Image Description 1: A Black woman wears a white mask over her face in front of her computer, which has face detection software on the screen.

Image Description 2: Mike Africa Jr. lies down, wearing casual clothing, in a medium close-up shot with decayed walls in what may be a prison cell.

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