Mill Valley Film Festival Preview, Part 1

Here are three movies that I’ve been able to preview for this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival. I’ve listed them in order of best to worst. There will be more to come.

A- Two Days, One Night

The boss gives his employees a choice: Either Sandra (Marion Cotillard) keeps her job, or everyone else receives a large bonus. Over the weekend, Sandra must visit 16 workers and convince a majority to sacrifice €1,000 for her sake. To make matters worse, Sandra is recovering from severe depression and has become dependent on pills. This latest film from the Dardenne brothers gives us modern capitalism in a nutshell. Workers, who would naturally be allies, are forced to fight over the limited resources available to pay non-management employees. But it never feels like a political tract. It feels like a very real situation, where everyone must make a difficult decision that will inevitably result in moral compromise.

  • Sequoia, Saturday, October 11, 5:4
  • Rafael, Sunday, October 12, 2:00

B+ Clouds of Sils Maria
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A great actress (Juliette Binoche) reluctantly accepts a part in a revival of the play that made her famous, but this time, she’ll be playing a different, older character. To prepare for the role, the actress and her personal assistant (Kristen Stewart) take up residence in a remote house located in an astonishingly beautiful part of the Swiss Alps. As they run lines, they almost unconsciously work through their own complicated relationship, which slightly echoes play’s characters, but not enough (thankfully) to become an allegory. This isn’t quite a two-person film, but Binoche and Stewart truly carry the picture.

  • Sequoia, Friday, October 3, 8:45. Sold out. Rush tickets may be available at showtime.
  • Rafael, Monday, October 6, 1:00.

D Soul of a Banquet
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In his first documentary, the usually reliable Wayne Wang appears to have missed the point. He suggests that his subject, restaurateur Cecilia Chiang, led a fascinating and exciting life. But he gives us little information, and spends most of the picture just showing us food. The biographical first third offers tantalizing hints at Chiang’s history and her importance in the development of Chinese-American cuisine, but Wang doesn’t give us enough information to prove his argument. The following two thirds is just food porn, with close-ups of succulent dishes being prepared, served, and eaten.

  • Rafael,  Sunday, October 5, 5:00. Director Wayne Wang and subject Cecilia Chiang in attendance.
  • Sequoia, Tuesday, October 7, 2:15.

The San Francisco International Film Festival closes with Alex in Venice

This year’s San Francisco International Film Festival ended Thursday night at the Castro with a screening of Chris Messina’s directorial debut, Alex of Venice. It was not a perfect way to end the festival, but it was a good way.

The crowd was surprisingly thin. There was an empty seat next to me, and the row in front of me had one person in it. I recognized Francis Coppola in the audience, and Don Johnson (one of the film’s stars) in the lobby.

The show was supposed to start at 7:00, but it as 7:14 before Executive Director Noah Cowan came onstage and asked us to applaud the staff. “I could not be more imageimpressed by their hard work. I came into this organization less than 10 weeks ago, so what you saw was their hard work, not mine.”

He introduced Director of Programming Rachel Rosen, who said that she: "can’t wait to do it again next year." After some brief praise for the night’s film, Alex of Venice, she introduced actor-turned-director Chris Messina. He talked about being a first-time director, and of working with other first-time directors ("They usually tell you to watch a John Cassavetes film.") He said that, because of his inexperience, everyone involved from the actors to the investors had had to make :a leap of faith." He was glad they did.

The film started at 7:29.

A- Alex in Venice

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The work-vs.-family dynamic comes into full force in this drama set in Venice, California. Alex (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has more than her hands full. She’s an environmental lawyer working very long hours. She has a son and a senile father (Don Johnson) to worry about. Then her husband (Messina) leaves her. Aside from one unbelievably stupid action, Alex of Venice works beautifully. The characters reveal themselves nicely. They’re sweet, funny, and usually very real. The acting is never short of perfect, and this is the sort of story that depends entirely upon the acting.

After the film, five of the filmmakers came onstage for Q&A. They were director/actor Chris Messina, star Mary Elizabeth Winstead, actor Don Johnson, co-writer/actor Katie Nehra, and producer Jamie Patricof.

Some highlights:

  • On how new director Messina got the cast to trust him:
    Nehra: He’s very convincing. When you meet Chris, you see he had a really clear vision of the film…When I wrote this script, I wanted him to play George; he ended up playing George and directing.
    Johnson: He couldn’t see anyone else playing this part and I couldn’t see myself playing it…" With a smile he added "He talked a lot about John Cassavetes"
  • Someone asked if there was much improvisation. Messina: "I loved the script. We said the words, we wanted to say the words." He then explained how they would run the camera as long as they could at the end of a take and improvise non-verbally. "When I was in the editing room I had a lot to cut with."
  • Messina: “For years I made the mistake of telling my family what a great director I would be. Then I discovered that there were a million challenges that I never thought about before.”

After the Q&A, I went to The Chapel for the Festival’s closing party. It was a fine party, but I couldn’t stay long.

A Classic Comedy and a Colombian Thriller: Sunday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

This year’s San Francisco International Film Festival is beginning to wind down. Sunday was the last non-workday of the festival. I attended two events, and hit the jackpot both times.

The Mel Novikoff Award Ceremony and The Lady Eve

More than anyone else, Mel Novikoff helped bring repertory cinema to the Bay Area. The SFIFF’s Mel Novikoff Award honors someone who has helped keep a love of cinema alive. This year, the Award went to critic and historian David Thomson.

imageThomson is such an obvious choice I found myself wondering why it took so long. The author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and many other books, he’s considered by many to be the greatest living film historian. And he’s local, a British subject who’s made his home in the Bay Area.

I like to patronize used bookstores, and I always go right to the Cinema section. Despite their popularity, you rarely see his books there. People must be reluctant to part with them.

After introductions by Rachel Rosen and Sony Classics’ Michael Barker, Jeff Dyer interviewed Thomson. So highlights;

  • Thomson on Novikoff: "I lived around the corner from Mel’s office. Every other morning I would bump into him. He had an electricity, an energy, and grace, quite amazing. He had that buzz that was characteristic of great showman. And he was so much fun to be with."
  • Jeff Dyer described a game using Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary. You read one of the brief, very opinionated biographies, and someone else has to guess who that person is. Dyer played the game with the audience; the winner got a dollar.
  • On the original response to the encyclopedia: "Authors expect the world is waiting to acclaim them." It took six months before anyone bothered to review his book.
  • "I taught a class at Stanford two years ago Very smart kids. But their knowledge of film history was not that good. A lot of people think it began in the late 70s."
  • "Actors are not quite there in the way the rest of us try to be. There’s a terrible temptation to decide you like them and be kind to them."
  • "The movies that interest me the most are about the face."

Next came the Q&A with the audience:

  • I got to ask the first question, and I asked about old films being screened digitally: "I have very mixed feelings. I love film as celluloid. I’ve handled it. I love that part of it."
  • "People went into the dark to see things that were impossible. Places they couldn’t visit….What film has done is show us the world you couldn’t see. The wonderful privilege of voyeurism."
  • "Have the movies made us better? I can’t see it. They have filled our time and diverted us from other things."
  • "The remote allows you to be experimenting. It’s frightening. But it’s staggering."

He then introduced the movie he chose to be screened in his honor, The Lady Eve. "It was released a few weeks before I was born. They weren’t aware of that coincidence. The film is sublimely unaware of the war."

Then they screened the movie.

Thomson made a great choice in picking The Lady Eve. To my mind, it’s the perfect screwball comedy. You’ve got lovable con artists lifting money from wealthy snobs, and you’ve got Barbara Stanwyck at her sexiest, wrapping Henry Fonda around her little finger. We don’t generally associate Fonda with comedy, but he’s wonderful here as the shy and naïve son of a wealthy family–a man who’d rather study snakes in the Amazon than go into his father’s beer business. He’s the perfect mark for Stanwyck’s card shark.

I’ve seen The Lady Eve many times (I own the DVD), but it’s been 30 years or more since I’d seen it theatrically. And yes, that is the way to see it, with hundreds of other people laughing with you.

The Festival screened The Lady Eve off one of the most film-like DCPs I’ve ever seen. The grain structure was very visible, and there were even some scratches.

Manos Sucias

The 6:45 start time was almost upon us when the SFIFF volunteers finally let the audience into the Kabuki‘s tiny Theater 2. By the time I got into the auditorium, almost all the seats were taken. I got one in the front row, which in this particular auditorium is too close even for me.

But the movie, produced in part by San Francisco Film Society (which also produces this festival), was well worth the wait and the bad seat.

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First-time director Josef Kubota Wladyka uses the thriller formula to examine the society of of rural Colombia, where paramilitary forces and ruthless drug cartels control everything. And yet, somehow, people carry on, loving their families and trying to make the best of things.

Two brothers, barely on speaking terms at first, team up to deliver a very large shipment of cocaine. The coke is contained within a large, old torpedo, and they must tow it, via a small motorboat down river, into the ocean, and up to Panama. The container looks absurd, but it stays underwater and is rarely visible.

Older brother Jacobo (Jarlin Martinez) is stable, but hurting. The warlords killed his wife and son. Younger brother Delio (Cristian Advincula) is full of enthusiasm and hope. He’s only 19, a new father enthusiastically in love with his girlfriend and baby. He’s also an aspiring rapper.

It’s the end of them if they’re caught. But things will be worse if they don’t deliver all of their shipment. In that case, Delio’s family will be killed, as well. The suspense is built into the story, and the last half hour is as harrowing as these things go. The ending is not comforting.

But Manos Sucias does more than hold us in suspense. It shows us how society works in a part of the world rarely visited by outsiders. We see how people live, earn money, and find unique and original ways of transportation.

I’m giving it an A.

Manos Sucias has not yet found an American distributor. But you have two more chances to see it at the festival. It plays tonight (Monday) at 8:30, and Thursday (the last day of the Festival) at 6:00. Both screenings are at the Kabuki.

After Sunday’s screening, Wladyka, producers Elena Greenlee and Márcia Nunes, and cinematographer/co-writer Alan Blanco came up for Q&A. Here are some highlights:

  • How did you ended up shooting a film in Colombia? "I was backpacking in South America. As we were traveling, we were finding hidden beaches and towns under siege. We were told about narco submarines. After that, making a movie about it was always in the back of my mind."
  • On working with the communities: "We had to collaborate with people to get their blessing."
  • Cinematographer Blanco on shooting on a low budget under difficult conditions: "We knew we’d develop material and shoot no matter what…We knew we had to be flexible with weather and such….I don’t recommend shooting on water."
  • On using locations in what’s effectively a warzone: "We had to ask if a location was safe. And safe today didn’t mean safe next week."

Saturday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I managed to get to three San Francisco International Film Festival screenings at the Kabuki yesterday. Let me tell you about it.

B Bauyr (Little Brother)

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This seems to be the year of young boy films at SFIFF. Bauyr is the fourth such movie I’ve seen at this festival so far. It was pretty good, but easily the weakest of the four.

This time, the boy is only eight years old, and he lives in a small town in Kazakhstan. His name is Yerkin, and he’s pretty much deserted. His mother is dead, his father is gone "on a business trip," and his much older brother is studying in the city.

His brother returns for a visit about halfway through the film. He clearly loves Yerkin and does what he can to help him. (He didn’t know about Dad’s disappearance until he arrived.) But his resources are limited and he has to get a good education.

Naturally, Yerkin has learned to be quite resourceful, and much of the film’s pleasure concerns his growing skill and confidence at dealing with the adult world. Writer/director Seric Aprymov adds surreal, comic touches to keep the film entertaining. Consider, for instance, the school principal who never seems to leave the outdoor billiard table.

This is a touching and entertaining film, but not an exceptional one. It will screen again at the Kabuki, on Wednesday, at 9:15.

C+ Pioneer

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Early in this Norwegian thriller, a professional deep-sea diver—who is also a loving husband and father–tells his brother and diving partner that this will be his last dive. He wants to spend time with his family. Yes, this is another thriller from the cliché playbook. The surviving brother (Aksel Hennie, the star of wonderful Headhunters), is blamed for the fatal accident, and spends the rest of the movie trying to uncover the evil conspiracy. The movie improves considerably in the last act, with a climas that wasn’t at all what I expected. But that wasn’t enough to make it more than an okay thriller.

I caught the last SFIFF screening of Pioneer. But Magnolia has picked it up for an American release, so you’ll have other chances to miss it.

B+ Centerpiece: Palo Alto

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The Centerpiece screening is one of the major events at SFIFF. It’s not always the best film at the festival (in fact, it rarely is), but it’s always a big event.

This year, the film was Gia Coppola’s first feature, Palo Alto. And yes, she’s one of those Coppolas. In fact, grandpa Francis’ winery was one of the night’s corporate sponsorships. Genealogy charts  have always played a big role in film history.

Based on a collection of short stories by James Franco (who also acts in the film), Palo Alto exams a handful of teenagers reaching an emotional boiling point.  Fueled by booze, pot, and raging hormones, they deal poorly with the choices they’re making on their way to adulthood. Drunk driving, random vandalism, inappropriate student-teacher relationships, and other serious mistakes mar these kid’s lives. Yet you really hope they get their acts together. A slick yet compassionate and well-acted drama.

I give Palo Alto a B+.

After the movie, Festival Director of Programming Rachel Rosen led the Q&A with Coppola and one of Palo Alto’s actors, Emma Roberts. Some highlights:

  • What was it like to have the author of the book [Franco] present? "Everyone thought it was strange to have him there. But he’s an experienced director. On those days I got stuck he could help me."
  • Was she influenced by her grandfather’s film, The Outsiders? "Yeah. I love his movies."
  • On the artistic decision to make the nighttime exteriors exceptionally dark: "We were so low budget that we didn’t have any money for lighting."
  • "We didn’t get to shoot in Palo Alto because we were so low budget we couldn’t afford to transport everyone. [The story] could really happen anywhere."
  • On screening rough cuts before finishing the film (what we saw was the finished version): "What was really helpful was doing test screenings. A lot of things changed in an edit. You live so closely to [the film] that it’s nice to have other people’s opinions.

SFIFF: Boyhood and an Evening with Richard Linklater

Last night at the Castro, the San Francisco International Film Festival honored Richard Linklater with their Founder’s Directing Award. The event included a discussion between Linklater and actor Parker Posey, followed by a screening of Linklater’s new film, Boyhood.

When I arrived, more than an hour before the show, the line was already around the block. Once inside, the theater was crowded, and the line for the concession stand snaked around half of the lobby.

Amazingly, considering the crowd, the show started almost on time. Director of Programming Rachel Rosen came on stage and talked briefly about Linklater, pointing out that his first film, Slacker, played at SFIFF. She told the audience that he had founded the Austin Film Society.

Then we got the clip reel–a few minutes of quick scenes from Linklater’s work. These are always fun if kept brief, and this one was.

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Then Posey and Linklater can onstage for the discussion. They worked together on Dazed and Confused more than 20 years ago, and were clearly comfortable with each other. In fact, they seemed so relaxed that it felt more like two old friends goofing off than a real interview. It was entertaining, but pretty light on information.

But the talk did include some gems:

  • "Casting is like love at first site. I have a feeling of what it should be when I write the script, but I don’t know until I see it."
  • On writing Dazed and Confused: "The music came first. I just listened to the music when I wrote it."
  • “That theatrical experience is so special. That can ever die. I don’t care how big your home TV is.”

Then they asked for questions for the audience. Some highlights:

  • On Waking Life: "I wanted you to be confused about if [what you see] is real or not."
  • An "aspiring screenwriter" asked how important it is to watch films on the big screen. “It is important. It’s harder to do now..”
  • He called the Before… series "The accidental trilogy. It was never planned."
  • On the future of cinema: "The industry doesn’t care. People are going to theaters less and less…Films cost so much to market, that studios have to think on terms of how many films we can release."
  • I asked who was more important, the writer or the director (Linklater does both). "If you take yourself seriously as a writer, go with literature or theater. Filmmaking is a collaborative storytelling effort. The director is the guy rubbing the bottle to get the genie out. "

After the Q&A, there was a five-minute intermission. Then the movie started.

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Fifty years from nowpeople will still be watching Linklater’s intimate epic. Shot off and on over a period of 12 years, Boyhood allows us to watch young Mason and his family grow up. It isn’t an easy childhood. His parents are divorced, neither of them have much money, Dad is immature and Mom has bad taste in men. But Boyhood avoids the sort of horrible situations that drive most narrative films. It’s all the better for that. By using the same actors over such a long period of time, Linklater creates a far more realistic picture than could be done with aging makeup or switching from a child actor to an adult one. You really feel as if you’re watching these people grow.

I give Boyhood an A.

There was another Q&A after the movie. But by the time the movie ended, it was nearly 11:00, and I had to take BART back to the East Bay. So I had to skip the final part of the evening.

SFIFF: Getting Down and Staying Down at the Castro

Tuesday night I visited the Castro for a special San Francisco International Film Festival event: Thao and the Get Down Stay Down.

SFIFF has a tradition for daring silent movie accompaniment. They bring in a local musician or group, one with a significant following, and have them accompany a silent feature or a collection of shorts. The idea, I suspect, is to attract both silent film lovers and fans of the musician. Hopefully, there is cross-pollination between the two groups.

Sometimes it works beautifully. Other times it’s a disaster. Tuesday night fell in between, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

Before I read the press release about this event, I had never heard of Thao Nguyen, or of her band, The Get Down Stay Down. Having now experienced them in live performance, I can say that the music was fun and infectious, often with an ironic touch. I would describe their music as very good art rock, pushing the envelope without sacrificing the beat. Nguyen sang through much of the performance, although I had trouble making out the lyrics.

And make no mistake about it: This was as much a concert as a screening. Probably more so.

And yet, they weren’t always playing music. Some of the shorts were talkies. Three of these were short comedies starring Nguyen as herself–or at least a vain and insecure comic version of herself. She’s a good comic actress and I enjoyed two of these shorts quite a bit (one wasn’t so good). The other talkies were newsreel segments from the 1930s.

The silent movies they accompanied included two additional newsreel segments, both about women’s beauty, and clearly treated ironically by the band. One showed the "torture" Broadway chorus girls must go through to remain beautiful; it looked about as painful as a moderate massage, and they were smiling. There were a couple of very short, color animated works that functioned as lightshows for the music. And there were two well-known silent shorts.

The first of these was the very strange "The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra." Made in 1928 by Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapich, it takes German expressionism to an outlandish extreme–even though it was made in America. As the title implies, it’s a satire of depersonalization in the Hollywood system. Nguyen’s weird music made a perfect match.

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The program ended with Charlie Chaplin’s "The Pawnshop." Like everything else that Chaplin made during his Mutual period, it’s a small comic gem, filled with remarkable gags and extended routines. They were right to close the show with "The Pawnshop," easily the best picture in the group.

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But here, Nguyen’s music hindered rather than helped. Loud and electronic, it overwhelmed the picture. The drummer did some excellent, perfectly-timed sound effects, but they were often overwhelmed by the loud rock and roll. It was as if Chaplin and Nguyen were fighting over the audience’s attention. Nguyen won.

And yet I still enjoyed "The Pawnshop." And the whole evening. When it was over, the audience called for an encore. After a few minutes, Nguyen came back on stage and thanked us. But she didn’t pick up her guitar.

Saturday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I attended opening night, and managed to get to one movie Friday night, but Saturday was my first full day at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival.

Oddly,  I didn’t see a single feature-length film that day.

But here’s what I did see:

Dolby Labs: The Sound of Movies

In this Master Class at the New People Cinema, Angus McGilpin and John Loose of Dolby Labs discussed the history of sound in movies, then walked us through an audio mix.

They started off talking about the primal importance of sound to the human experience. "It’s fundamental to how we experience the world. We hear sounds before we understand them."

They covered the evolution  of sound with clips from eight different space movies made at very different times: "Trip to the Moon" (1902), Flash Gordon (1935), Forbidden Planet (1956), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Star Wars (AKA, A New Hope, 1977), Apollo 13 (1995), and Gravity (2013).

Unfortunately, that part of the presentation was marred with errors. They stated that Forbidden Planet was originally in mono, and 2001 in two-track stereo. They were both released in formats that would e called surround today–Forbidden Planet in four-track stereo, and 2001 In six-track.

They then screened Silent. a very short cartoon made by Monbot Studios for Dolby. I’d seen it before on Youtube, but it was much better on the big screen. Starring an animated Buster Keaton and clearly inspired by Sherlock Jr., it celebrates cinema’s technical evolution. It’s a fun two and half minutes.

After the movie, they walked us through the creation of the film’s audio, allowing us to hear how different types of effects, plus music, layer into each other.

The presentation ended with a brief Q&A. One audience member asked how much dialog these days is recorded after the film is shot. Loose guessed about 60%, which is more than I expected. 

Agnès Varda: From Here to There

Only last year did I really discover, and fall in love with, the work of Agnès Varda. I’ve discussed her early work here and there. So I was very willing to devote most of the afternoon to her 2011 documentary miniseries, Agnès Varda: From Here to There.

The concept is simple: Varda travels the world, visiting old friends and making new ones. But this is more than a 225-minute home movie. The friends she visits include renowned and unknown (but still talented) painters, sculptors, and filmmakers. She uses her considerable photographic skills (like Kubrick, she was a photographer before she became a filmmaker) to show us amazing paintings, statues, and works of kinetic art in the best light. She films 102-year-old auteur Manoel de Oliveira doing a jaunty Chaplin imitation, and reconnects with fishermen she turned into actors almost 60 years ago in her first film, La Pointe Courte. She re-examines a photo of strangers she took at the beach long ago, and directs a little movie about what they might be doing.

And all the while, her upbeat, impish curiosity and joy at life itself shine through. At one point, a journalist comes to interview Varda. Soon, she’s the one being interviewed.

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I enjoyed the experience quite a bit, but I suspect I would have enjoyed it even more as it was meant to be seen: On television, in five 45-minute episodes. In one sitting with a single, five-minute intermission, it was grueling.

I give it a B+.

If you have the time and stamina, Agnès Varda: From Here to There will play again on Monday, April 28 at the New People Cinema (which is where I saw it) at 12:30. Then it will move across the Bay and screen at the Pacific Film Archive Sunday, May 4 at 1:30.

Shorts 1

I closed the evening with a collection of short subjects. It contained two documentaries, two comedies, one drama, and a dance film.

This was my first time in the Kabuki since last year’s festival. Guest what! Auditoriums 3 and 4 are now adults only–no matter what’s showing. They sell alcohol in that part of the multiplex.

My favorite short was the comedy "So You’ve Grown Attached," by Kate Tsang. It looks at the plight of a young girl’s imaginary friend, who’s terrified that she will outgrow him. Luckily, he gets emotional support from his understand (and very fuzzy) boss in the imaginary friend organization. Very touching and funny.

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I also enjoyed the beautiful "Barn Dance" and the other comedy, "Angels," which is very much a celebration of San Francisco. I found the documentary "Santa Cruz del Islote" fascinating as it explored a tiny and very-much inhabited island 50 miles off the coast of Colombia. I thought I was going to hate the one drama on the program, "The Birds’ Blessing," because I could see the ending a mile away. Fortunately, it didn’t end the way I expected.

In fact, the only short I didn’t like was the other documentary, "Re:Awakenings," about a medical breakthrough in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It did little more than make you look at severely-disabled anonymous people.

After the pictures, several of the filmmakers came up for Q&A. Someone asked Tsang how she came up with the idea for "So You’ve Grown Attached." "It was autobiographical. I was aware that my friends had imaginary friends and I wanted one of my own."

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