I wrote the following joint review of PROUD CITIZEN and FORT MARIA, two microbudget comedies streaming exclusively at http://www.publiccinema.org through April 8, for the COVID-19/all-streaming version of Cine-File Chicago.
Thomas Southerland’s PROUD CITIZEN / Thomas Southerland and S. Cagney Gentry’s FORT MARIA (US)
Available to stream free at www.publiccinema.org through 4/08.
These two delightful black-and-white microbudget features, each reportedly made for less than $10,000, prove that regional independent filmmaking is alive and well in America. They both star Bulgarian-born poet Katerina Stoykova-Klemer, who probably deserves to be considered a “co-auteur” alongside directors Thomas Southerland and S. Cagney Gentry by virtue of the fact that her dialogue in the films was largely improvised and by the sheer force of her quirky and quietly remarkable screen persona. PROUD CITIZEN (2014, 90 min.) details a week in the life of Krasimira (Stoykova-Klemer), a Bulgarian writer who travels to Lexington, Kentucky to attend the World Premiere of an autobiographical play she wrote about her Communist-era childhood after it wins second place in an international playwriting contest. The fish-out-of-water premise allows Southerland to examine his home state through a foreigner’s eyes as Krasimira interacts with members of the regional theater troupe who are staging the play and attends a patriotic Fourth of July parade; the rich vein of deadpan humor that this scenario opens up is reminiscent of early Jim Jarmusch but Southerland makes the material his own by coaxing impressively naturalistic performances from his mostly non-professional cast so that the film at times feels more like documentary than fiction. FORT MARIA (2018, 85 min.) involves many of the same elements as PROUD CITIZEN but improves upon the earlier movie by applying a more elegant visual style and a more ambitious narrative structure to its subject matter: Maria (Stoykova-Klemer) is an agoraphobic Bulgarian woman living in Kentucky who attempts to assuage the homesickness she feels for the old country by using Google Street View to visit it virtually. The narrative alternates between scenes of Maria talking to her younger neighbor, Clara (Jamie Hickman), who frequently drops in to check on her, and scenes involving Maria’s adopted African-American daughter, Meredith (Meredith Crutcher), who goes to visit her biological aunt, Violet (Joan Brannon), in North Carolina. The expertly musical way that Southerland and Gentry cross-cut between conversations involving all four of these women (two white and two black, at home and at work, in two different states) yields dividends that are sometimes poignant, sometimes humorous and, in the case of one digressive episode about Maria’s ill-fated romance with a co-worker, uproariously funny. MGS