Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Now Showing: My Personal Favorites from This Year’s Alexandria Film Festival

Now Showing: My Personal Favorites from This Year’s Alexandria Film Festival

By Dennis D. McDonald

Updated November 9, 2015.


Cover art by Mark Mandolia. Graphic design by Jeff Frederick.I was fortunate this year to serve on the Alexandria Film Festival’s volunteer Program Committee chaired by Irwin Singer. Having personally reviewed over 50 films the following are my personal favorites of those shown at the festival from November 6-8 either at the AMC Hoffman Theater or the Beatley Central Library in Alexandria, Virginia.

The Alexandria Film Festival’s web site is here: . A downloadable .pdf of the Festival’s 2015 program is here or by clicking on the cover image at the right. Our Facebook page is here.

2015 Festival Awards:

  • Best of Fest Award: Building Magic (see below)
  • Special Jury Award: American Dirtbags (see below)
  • Audience Award: On The Wing
  • Best Foreign Language Film: Uncle and Son (see below)
  • Best Regional Film: The Art of Richard Thompson

My Personal Favorites:

Note that the following are my personal favorites (and opinions) and may not reflect the opinions of the public or the other judges! 


At first I thought I was watching an amateurish attempt to create a hybrid between WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER and PULP FICTION. About halfway through the themes and crisscrossing characters begin to make sense. By the end I had the impression that this is what a morality tale about sex, violence, and drugs would look like were it imagined by the great Zap Comics artist S. Clay Wilson whose drug, sex, and violence infused tales approached the hallucinatory. Definitely recommended for a late night showing but I would also not recommend seeing this while drunk or stoned. What a brilliantly demented film! (Great poster, too, Bob!)

Building Magic (“BEST OF THE FEST” winner)

I did not see this film till the Festival. My notes taken during the film include a series of “How did he do that?” questions. I moderated Kal’s Q&A session and I could tell the audience was amazed, too. Technically, musically, and editing wise, the film is a jewel. What knocks it out of the park is the story and how the director has woven together bits and pieces of a personal story/journey into an engaging narrative unlike any other I’ve seen. Definitely a labor of love about a real “maker.”

Forest Born

Superb representation of what can be done in a short wordless film that concentrates on character, movement, and sound to illustrate a magical sense of transformation. Beautiful photography, appropriately ethereal music. Sound and editing are extremely well done.

The first time I reviewed this on a 55” plasma TV my optic nerves were zapped the photography is so incredible. When I missed its first showing during the Festival I was able to convince the Powers That Be to show it a second time.

If at all possible, SEE THIS ONE ON A BIG SCREEN in high definition with a good surround sound system. Director Josh Peterson and cinematographer Deniz Demirer attended the festival, answered all questions, and Josh showed me the pages in his handwritten notebook where he first outlined the story in 2012.


This documentary follows a 71 year old American, Bill Porter,  to a mountainous area of China. 25 years ago he visited and wrote a book about the solitary monks who live here in the mountains, some in caves. Now he returns to see how the hermits are doing. Some whom he met have died but he finds the area still populated by male and female monks who spend their days in meditation, chanting, and exercise. The camera follows him as he laboriously moves from site to site and talks with different hermits about how they spend their days. The movie is slow and deliberate. Nothing is sudden or sharp. We see the author climb up narrow paths to knock on different doors and ask, “Are you here, Master?”

Everywhere you look you see the mountains, lush vegetation punctuated by craggy rocks, and at the monks’ residences, evidence of their Spartan existence. As the movie progresses we see that, not only does the American know the language, he also has extensively studied and translated Buddhist teachings into English and can carry on conversations with the monks about their own thinking. Some have read his book and that provides him credibility as someone whom they can trust.

Production wise the photography, editing, and soundtrack are beautiful. The mountains are gorgeous and the sounds of insects and birds permeate every scene. Common everyday objects and activities are presented in carefully framed and lit views. But the pacing is slow and deliberate. That will be part of the appeal to the viewer who is curious about these people and why they live as they do; others might be bored. The conversations are not terribly deep but we do occasionally see glimmers of insight into why the hermits cut themselves off from “civilization” like this.

I Am Reva

Communicates in a very palpable fashion the tension and unease faced by undocumented immigrants in a country where there is a constant fear of deportation. Forces you to think about what people go through to better their lives. Very well acted, edited, and photographed. Constant reminders of the middle class comforts we take for granted, yet there is no preaching.


A fun black comedy. Two sisters appear at their late mother’s evil smelling house to clean it up following her death. Mom was a hoarder. The sisters argue while discovering odds and ends that bring back memories of good and bad times. Fortunately, does not veer towards the maudlin. Quirky. One of the few times a line like “Sporks? Who keeps sporks?” makes perfect sense. Two sisters are acted VERY well and show personality differences quite skillfully despite brevity of film.

The Last Great Circus Flyer

This was the biggest surprise of all the films I reviewed for the festival. The topic seems at first to be esoteric — a great trapeze artist succeeds early on in doing something “impossible” and then later retires — but the film itself is an extremely well made and at times amazing combination of family and industry history. It never loses its focus on the performers themselves, especially the main performer, the legendary Miguel Vasquez. Several things are appealing about the film:

  • The focus on family and personality.
  • The interweaving of circus and trapeze history.
  • The amazingly skillful editing.
  • The alternation between seeing the performers as they are now and as they were when young.
  • Timely statements by circus historians about the significance of what we are seeing.
  • The forthright and honest addressing of the real dangers and tragedies that such a dangerous profession involves.
  • The pleasure of watching professionals work so hard at something real and physical that combines artistry, athleticism, and intelligence.


A short, heartfelt, and emotional tale about a female wrestler — Angeles Aranda a.k.a. “Luna Magica” —  trying to make it big in the male dominated Mexican performance wrestling business. At the same time as a single mom she takes care of her little daughter and attempts to recover her son from her estranged husband who, she says, doesn’t feel that a mom in the wrestling business is a good idea. A lot is packed into this — scenes from arena fights, the mom and daughter together in their tiny apartment, exhibition fights in a poor neighborhood, and Angeles commenting about her feelings before going before the crowds. It’s an effective reminder that the people behind the masks and costumes who play out scenes before an audience are people, too.

Offset: Seeing Beauty Through a Brain Injury

L to R: Deb Funk, AFF Executive Committee, Dennis McDonald, AFF Program Committee member, Erin Hall (OFFSET producer), Adam Hall (OFFSET director)Brian Nice, formerly a globe-trotting fashion photographer, is now wheelchair bound having suffered through multiple brain surgeries to remove seizure inducing brain lesions. He cannot walk or feed himself but mentally he’s all there and decides to go on a cross-country road trip with the help of family and friends, taking photographs all the way using a low end film based camera. He talks about his condition as do his mom, dad, friends, and his surgeon.

It’s an inspiring story but not in a disease-of-the-week-special variety. He is stubborn and philosophical about what has happened to him. Especially painful is listening to and watching his mom and dad talk about what has happened. But it’s a pleasure to see a film like this without sugar coating, especially if your family has experienced traumatic medical episodes.

Yes, Brian and his family are fortunate to have the resources to devote to his care and therapy. But what this movie shows is whatever your circumstances, how you choose to address your situation is ultimately up to you.

The photography and editing in this film are superb and show great attention to detail. The audio track is very nicely synchronized with what we’re seeing on screen regardless of who is speaking.

Director/Producer team Adam and Erin Hall graciously visited us at the Festival and answered questions. Thanks, guys!

Safiyah Flies Across the Ocean

A little Egyptian girl lives in a high rise apartment building in an English suburb. She plays all day and keeps asking her mom when her dad will return from Cairo where he went “to help” during the recent revolution but never returned. A neighbor boy with a remote control helicopter befriends her and they hatch a plan to send a letter to her dad via the helicopter. It’s a beautifully made film. Acting, music, and photography are excellent. While it may err somewhat on the maudlin side it is another reminder that war, violence, and revolution always have a human impact, especially when viewed through the eyes of a child.


Short but poignant minimalist documentary showcasing “spontaneous street memorials” in the DC area to victims of violence. Evocative sound, music, editing, and narration enhance an overwhelming sense of sadness about the losses such memorials attempt to acknowledge. A perfect example of how much impact a short film can have. 

Three Lady Tailors

A beautifully produced and sentimental look at the evils of Japanese occupation of Manchuria during the Pacific War. Glorifies Chinese cultural history while showing Japanese acknowledgement of the significance of this history. How this is displayed is what is most interesting about this film: it all centers on clothing and material and how it reflects ancient Chinese culture.

Films like this will ensure that memories of the Manchurian occupation and its cruelties will never be forgotten. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?


Beautifully shot and acted film about the effects of intolerance. A young boy lives with his uncle, a tailor  in a Vietnamese country village. Reacting to the nasty gossip about the uncle the boy leaves to find his dad. Short, beautifully photographed, and emotionally charged. If this does not bring tears to your eyes your heart is tougher than mine. Amazingly, during his Q&A session following its showing director Nguyễn Đình Anh said this was his first film!


Music, acting, and special effects are all top-notch in this short film about gravity and emotion. A father reaches out — literally — to touch his grieving son when gravity suddenly drops. Improbable physics aside (if gravity were to suddenly disappear there would be a hell of a lot more disruption than shown here) this is a very professionally done film that accomplishes much in a short time. I would have dropped the sub-plot with the stranger met at the mother’s death site; its retention might be evidence that a much longer film was contemplated. But there’s more than enough emotion and eye candy to go around here. 

Copyright (c) 2015 by Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D. I’m a Washington DC area management consultant (and film buff). My services include preproposal research and analysis, proposal development and costing, marketing and sales support, project and program management including PMO setup and administration, project work plan development, and resource planning. I’m currently researching big data project management. Reach me by phone at 703-402-7382 or by email at My website is here:

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