Published on March 4th, 2013 | by Greg0
First Time Fest: Mogolian Bling and Dias de Gracia
Over the weekend, we had the privilege of attending a few events at the exciting First Time Festival here in New York City. This is also the inaugural edition of the festival, which we hope to see return, because the idea is definitely sound: providing a platform for filmmakers to show their debut works, and even get theatrical distribution. Combined with screenings of the movies that launched the careers of established filmmakers and even panels for those in the business or who want to break in, the multi-day, multi-location event continues this evening with the closing ceremony, featuring Darren Aronofsky and Martin Scorsese.
The first screening we caught was the non-competition special feature Dias de Gracia (Days of Grace). Director Everardo Gout won the Mexican Academy of Film’s prestigious Ariel Award for Best First Feature, and the film was even nominated for the Camera d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Described as a "thrillingly over-the-top action thriller, filled with violence, drugs, romance, mayhem", we had high hopes for this one, especially when it's compared to City of God and Tropa de Elite. And the initial moments of the film definitely deliver: stylish cinematography, a classic Mexican standoff, and some strong character building with solid casting and acting.
But about halfway through the movie, there is a sharp uppercut amongst the twists and turns, one that left us bewildered. Multiple timelines are hard enough to keep track of, but this isn't an indie time travel movie like Primer (or Spanish film Timecrimes). Instead, Dias de Gracia chronicles the poor choices of a few criminals and cops during three consecutive World Cups. And despite some compelling music and strong performances, the plot doesn't hold together, even with further discussion and examination. Ultimately frustrating, this one could have been a great story about kidnappings and righteous revenge, but gets bogged down trying to be too clever by half.
More moving, and yet no less energetic, was the documentary Mongolian Bling. Working over seven years, and filmed on site in the remote country, it was great to have director Benj Binks on hand for the screening to give us some background on the project. The film itself isn't quite as taut as it could have been- the brief diversions to a family that lives in squalor drive home an unnecessary point about the living conditions. But that matters little thanks to three great primary subjects- hip-hop artists Quiza (the "sell-out") and Gee (the "angry, socially-conscious one") and Gennie (one of the few female rappers in Mongolia).
We learned a little Mongolian history, and heard a lot of great music. The film leads a tour through the capital, Ulanbataar, and the incredible transformation over the last few years. But it's not a macro sort of movie, and never becomes dry or boring. There's no narrator, and no false dramatic tension, no strong message to be pounded in. Instead, you'll giggle at some of the founding groups, like the characters of Black Rose, and raise your eyebrows at one of the last "epic singers", Bayarmagnai, who expresses his certainty that hip-hop originated in Mongolia. Throat singing and traditional instruments add to the sense that music is universal, and you can't help but appreciate that even Kris Kross can change lives.