Since 2016, the annual Global Cinema Festival of Boston (March 22-24) has presented films from around the world that advocate for the cause of human rights. This year’s program, which takes place at the Studio Cinema, in Belmont, features 11 documentaries. Four of them look at unconventional families in unconventional ways.
They range from three young men in Mexico who must care for their elderly grandmother to an avant-garde Ukrainian artist raising his mentally ill sister’s young daughter; from an indigenous woman in Colombia seeking closure with her dead cousin to a French filmmaker hoping to reconnect with his reclusive mother. The situations and relationships in these films might at first seem alien and strange but all ultimately share the universal family values of empathy, tolerance, forgiveness, and unconditional love.
All those virtues are on display in Erick Stoll and Chase Whiteside’s “América” (screens March 22 at 7 p.m.; a Q&A with Stoll follows), as well as the inevitable friction and strife families undergo. América, 93, lives in a small town in southwest Mexico and needs constant care from her grown grandsons. All three have skills as circus performers — Diego, the sweet-natured middle son, performs as a campy, stilt-walking Elvis at a nightclub in a surreal opening scene — and the eldest son, Rodrigo, also conducts an equally odd meditation class. But they must put their lives on hold to provide for América.
Despite their best intentions, the three are at odds as to how to care for their grandmother — a lovely, vulnerable woman who looks like a nonagenarian Marion Cotillard — and how much they are willing to sacrifice. The filmmakers spent three years with the family and capture with clear-eyed sympathy its strength and limitations and the sometimes-addled benevolence of the title subject.
The situation suggested by the title of Vadym Ilkov’s “My Father Is My Mother’s Brother” (screens March 24 at 1 p.m.) is not as alarming as it might seem at first but is nonetheless unorthodox and complicated. As with “América,” it involves a young person pursuing his dreams who is pressed into caring for a family member.
Tolik lives a bohemian life in a Ukrainian city: painting, composing anguished, avant-garde music (he’s accomplished at both), and performing at clubs. But he must also raise rambunctious and elfin Katya, the daughter of Anya, his mentally ill sister — for whom he also takes responsibility.
His gentleness and melancholy patience contrast with his art, which is subversive and sometimes obscene. Ilkov’s detached, undemonstrative style emphasizes the moments of chilling pathos, such as when Anya insists on telling Katya a fragmented, meandering fairy tale at her birthday party and Katya calls to her “father” to take her away.
In Juan Pablo Polanco César Alejandro Jaimes’s “Lapü” (March 24 at 5 p.m.; a Q&A with the filmmakers follows) a young woman feels responsible for the well-being of a family member — even though that person is dead. Doris, a member of the indigenous Wayuu people of Colombia’s remote La Guajira Desert, has a dream about her cousin. She was Doris’s childhood playmate who moved to another settlement, got married, had a child, and, for unexplained reasons committed suicide. Troubled, Doris consults with her grandmother, who advises her to perform a traditional rite in which she exhumes her cousin’s corpse and washes the remains in order to placate the dead woman’s spirit and achieve reconciliation.
The filmmakers maintain an ethnographic objectivity as they observe the local rituals, which also include an excruciating, almost black-comic sequence in which three men with an ax ineptly try to sacrifice a terrified, tethered bull, and a chilling exorcism performed by a possessed sybil that combines pagan and Christian practices. But they also frame their film in a semi-fictional narrative in which Doris converses casually with the incarnate ghost of her cousin. This combination of the scientific with the fantastic evokes a world in which the borderline between the living and dead, the real with the imagined, is ambiguous and permeable.
The reconciliation in Beniamino Barrese’s “The Disappearance of My Mother” (screens March 24 at 7 p.m.; a Q&A with the filmmaker follows) poses a problem similar to that of Lapü, but in our post-modern, virtual reality.
The filmmaker’s mother, the Italian supermodel turned feminist scholar Benedetta Barzini, has not departed the world of the living but the world of images. At least she’s trying to. Now in her 70s, she decries her past posing for Vogue and other fashion magazines that exploited her beauty to sell needless products to gulled consumers for the profit of soulless corporations. So dismayed is she by a world in which, as she puts it, “everything is delegated to photographs and nothing is left to memory,” that she plans to leave Milan for some unspecified island where she can live without money, belongings, or an identity.
That place sounds a lot like death.
But her son wants to make a documentary about her, hoping that by doing so he can restore their relationship. His mother grudgingly agrees, saying that she prefers to hurt herself rather than him. So Barresse follows her with Oedipal obsessiveness as she goes about her everyday life. She sleeps, puffs on an e-cigarette, teaches a class on feminism, goes to the doctor for some undisclosed ailment, and loses her patience with the camera’s intrusiveness. “The lens is my enemy!” she declares.
But her disgust with her former profession and the celebrity she enjoyed during her youth (which Barresse shows with archival footage) seems less convincing when she hobnobs with old friend Lauren Hutton. She says she still models because “it’s like falling into a ruby mine. I keep doing as long as I can do it. It’s better than movies.” Later Barzini makes an appearance herself on the catwalk in a fashion show, ramrod straight, lithe, radiant, and elegant.
Increasingly it seems like Barzini’s plan to leave it all behind might at least in part be an artificial conceit to structure the film, especially when Barresse shows outtakes of staged scenes, including multiple shots of his mother rowing into the sunset in a dinghy. There is no escape from the world of images, not even in the distant wasteland of the La Guajira Desert.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.