Cinequest 2020: Take Out Girl Review

By: Amanda Guarragi 

“They say innovation was born out of desperation.” 

Take Out Girl is a modern family drama that depicts the life of minorities and low income families living in Los Angeles. Tera Wong (Hedy Wong) is a desperate, twenty-year-old Asian girl, who wants to give her family a better life and help their failing restaurant. To make some extra money, Tera uses her family take out business, as a front for a profitable drug hustle. Her family lives in the projects of Los Angeles, known as the “Low Bottoms” and she plans on moving the restaurant to the suburbs, in order to go clean. Hedy Wong also co-wrote the screenplay with director Hisonni Johnson. Both worked together to create an authentic American film that is rooted in family values and achieving the American Dream.

From the very first moment we lay eyes on Tera, she has a very rigid demeanor. She keeps to herself and started hustling in school. She was a very bright business student and she would trade her notes, textbooks or answers to tests for money. She knew how to conduct herself and it was really refreshing to see that kind of characterization on screen. At first, I thought this is where Tera would be making her money but then she moved on to a different side hustle. As Tera goes on her journey with Kingpin Lalo (Ski Larr) and Hector (J. Teddy Garces) you feel the uneasiness in the air. Due to Tera’s feistiness and headstrong nature, her attitude towards Lalo reassures the audience that everything was going to be okay.

I think the writing is incredibly strong and the story is well executed, to the point where I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. They wrote the tension perfectly and paced out those key moment between Tera and Kingpin Lalo (Ski Larr) who shared great dialogue discussing family. I really enjoyed the soundtrack to this film and the opening credits set the tone for the entire film. $tupid Young and Raja Kumari composed hip hop music that flowed through the scenes. Johnson had some unique shots and directed the film through a lens that was so different and unique, especially in the telling of this story. It’s an important narrative that should only be handled by people who have been close to these situations. Other films lack the brutal honesty that comes with this territory and that’s why voices do matter.

The last half hour of this film, continued to escalate and so much was revealed. The way secrets were uncovered was probably my favourite part of this film. Everything came to a head, the stakes were too high and the connection between Tera’s family restaurant and Lalo was bound to reach a standstill. The tension in this film was perfect. I waited for scenes between, Tera and Lalo because of how strong their chemistry was, which definitely paid off at the end. Take Out Girl is a great family drama that shows the actual state of many low income families in America. It’s eye opening, effective and will keep you on the edge of your seat until the very end.




How Do We Process Grief? An Interview with Director Katrine Philp of “An Elephant in the Room”

By: Amanda Guarragi 

In our lives there are moments that we will remember forever and all of those key moments, shape us into the people we are today. Majority of us tend to stick to the happy memories, in order to outweigh any pain or trauma that we have encountered. Currently, we are all living through the COVID -19 pandemic and people are grieving all over the world. People are paranoid, anxious, scared and are feeling immense loss.

As adults, we understand how everything works. We try to understand the choices the government makes and we adapt to what is happening around us. However, the ones who will be affected by this the most are the children. It is hard to explain any of this to them. Yes they understand to a certain degree, but for kids who are in elementary school and are constantly active, how are they handling any of this? It also raises the question of how children handle the loss of a loved one. What concepts do they understand? How do they even begin to process any of that? Right now there are children grieving the loss of their mother/father, their siblings or their grandparents.

In the middle of March, I watched a documentary called An Elephant in the Room. Katrine Philp directs the documentary feature and it was supposed to premiere at SXSW film festival. An Elephant in the Room focuses on a holistic way of dealing with grief at a centre called “Good Grief” in New Jersey. Philp shares the stories of six children and their companions who have lost their parents. It shows many different approaches in handling grief and acts as a catharsis for everyone involved, including the viewer.

It’s a subject that not many people touch upon because of how painful these stories can be, especially if those stories involve a child’s point of view. Philp had her own experience involving her brother and his family. At one point they almost lost her sister-in-law and she saw the trauma her brother and three children went through during that period of time. “She miraculously survived, but it left marks – and I started getting interested in making a film about how children experience grief.” When she began research on her film, she didn’t know that her own father would fall sick and also pass on, “Feeling my own grief while filming the families during their own made complete sense. I fully understood what the families were going through and the challenges they faced.” Sometimes sharing the pain and these stories help people connect more and feel like they aren’t alone in feeling what they are feeling.

When it comes to children processing anything, it’s always interesting to have these discussions with them, touching upon difficult subject matters. How do these children process these emotions? What are they absorbing and how is it affecting them? So how does one even begin to have a conversation with children about grief? Well, Katrine Philp weighs in on her process and how she approached the children during filming,

“Shooting in a sensitive situation with grieving children and their families for this documentary, we had to be fairly discrete. The children were going through some very deep emotions and it was important for me to be close to them, but not to overwhelm them with an extra pressure. Filming children is different than filming adults, especially when they are challenged by sadness. The children are more impulsive and can go from feeling very sad one moment to being happy and playing two minutes later. It was very common and kind of difficult to film. The cinematographer was always chasing the moment. Some days we couldn’t use any of the footage that we shot and other days magic happened and we captured a lot of fantastic scenes. We had to film a lot, be patient, and wait for the moments to appear. Our method in the interviews was to get them started and then not interrupt them and ask a lot of questions. I just wanted it to come naturally from them and in every pause they had, I waited and then they just kept talking. So patience was key.”

The children in the documentary had lost their mother, father or even both and their guardian took care of them. There were moments in the feature, which were extremely emotional because of how the children openly discussed how they were feeling. Thankfully these children were not alone, not only did they have their guardian helping them through this difficult time; they attended counseling at “Good Grief” in New Jersey. “Good Grief CEO, Joe Primo invited us to come and film and after the first day of filming I was sure that there was a film to be discovered at Good Grief. “ Philp and her team were able to connect with the families and they started filming, both at Good Grief and their homes.

The stories of the children were so incredibly moving and to see them talk to other children about their new families or how they are feeling, really put so much into perspective. It made me realize that it’s okay to feel the way you are feeling and still be able to have an open conversation with people who are willing to listen. Philp began to film these children at Good Grief and their stories kind of candidly developed on screen for her, “When you start filming it is often very clear who would be good characters in a film, so instead of looking at their stories, because every one of them is heartbreaking, we started filming the ones that we kept filming, in a life situation like this, not all families are ready to invite a film crew home and we totally respected that.” Philp was also very conscious to choose families that she felt were capable of having her team around, filming on and off during the year.

An Elephant in the Room will take you on an emotional journey with these young children and will make you reminisce on how you processed your own grief. “Good Grief” is an organization that deserves more recognition for what they are doing because they are giving children a safe space to express their pain. Children are affected by everything and need to be guided during difficult times. To all those suffering around the world during this time, please remember your feelings are valid and there are many sources of expression for everyone experiencing any type of loss, trauma or mental anguish. We must work together and help each other overcome tragedy on a global scale at this current time.

How To Save Our Planet Through De-Extinction: An Interview With “We Are As Gods” directors Jason Sussberg and David Alvarado

By: Amanda Guarragi 

The world as we know it, has drastically changed and our planet has slowly deteriorated. There are so many aspects such as, industrialization, deforestation and pollution, which affect Global Warming and our climate is changing more rapidly than ever. It seems as if the vicious cycle of capitalism has made the global population forget about taking care of our planet. Recently I watched a documentary, which was supposed to premiere at SXSW this year, called We Are As Gods. It is an in depth look at Stewart Brand’s life and his interest in de-extinction. This documentary shows the reasons why our planet has been deteriorating and that humans are to blame for the current state we are in.

Co-Directors Jason Sussberg and David Alvarado wanted to shed light on Brand’s ideas of long-term thinking and how people could save the planet. “The idea of doing a feature film on Stewart’s remarkable life and controversial de-extinction project seemed so cinematic, fascinating, and urgent: we’re losing (and have lost) keystone species causing impoverished ecosystem; and humans are to blame.” It educates the viewers about the history of the Earth and the current state humans are living in. They showed that there is a possibility that useful sciences could eventually restore some sort of balance to our deteriorating planet.

The documentary shows the longevity of theories and that it takes one man, to create a hypothesis to counter scientists or environmentalists. I had asked Sussberg and Alvarado about their thoughts on the current state of the world, as we are living through a historical event with global pandemic COVID -19, causing panic and tragedy across the globe.

“It’s hard to answer this question while in the middle of a global pandemic and likely economic depression. It’s bleak and going to get a lot worse, before it gets better. We’ll lose friends and family to the virus, people will feel isolated and depressed, and then the economy is going to be destroyed for a while… Our minds are solely focused on survival in the immediate, but we need to think long-term to maintain civilization. All of the missteps so far (not testing early, not going on severe lockdown sooner, not mobilizing industry to build ventilators and protective equipment) were motivated by short-term thinking—making the markets happy and not grinding capitalism to a screeching halt. By thinking long-term, you make near-term sacrifices, knowing that the outcome will be better in the future—lives will be saved, the healthcare curve will be flattened, economies will rise again, and the overall health of civilization will be prosperous.” – Directors Jason Sussberg and David Alvarado

The title of the film, We Are As Gods is the opening line of The Earth Catalogue that Stewart Brand created in the late 60s. “As the title suggests, “We are as gods.” The second half of Stewart’s quote is “and we might as well get good at it.” Beyond environmentalism and conservation, this concept extends to the current crisis.” Sussberg and Alvarado link it to the current pandemic and how it came about, “Our global civilization created the ingredients for a pandemic to flourish. But our god-like powers (science and technology) will solve this problem. A COVID-19 vaccine is the only solution that will safeguard our civilization from a major contraction in life and prosperity.” It’s a simple quote that can be interpreted in so many ways and can definitely apply to anything.

We Are As Gods shows the future of biotechnology and how we, as a civilization, can move forward. As stated in the documentary, if we bring certain species back it will restore their own ecosystem and create a balance. Sussberg and Alvarado have put their faith in the restoration of these ecosystems and do believe de-extinction can work. This documentary about Stewart Brand’s life holds so much value because of his views on humanity, science and the entire planet.

CIFF Short Film: Alive Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

Alive is written and directed by Jimmy Olsson, which was supposed to premiere at the Cleveland International Film Festival. The short film is about a disabled woman named Viktoria (Eva Johansson), who yearns for intimacy. Her assistant Ida (Madeleine Martin) helps her by making her a Tinder profile, hoping it would raise her spirits.

The concept of the film is something unique and hasn’t really been done before, especially on this level of lighthearted humour and genuine feelings towards those who have impediments of any kind. It’s a story that is so innocent, yet makes an impact because of the characters in the story. Even the relationship between Viktoria and Ida was so natural and sweet, that they do care for each other.

Eva Johansson’s performance was great and I wanted to see another two hours of her living her best life. She brought such light and cleverness to Viktoria and had great chemistry with Martin. It was also relatable because of the previous knowledge we all have about Tinder. Ida being apprehensive about Viktoria getting matches and meeting these men, has to do with the fact that first Tinder dates at someone’s home can be unsafe. Viktoria wants to feel alive and once her faith is restored through Tinder, she has more confidence in herself.

Alive is a lovely film and has such great representation of female friendships as well. It also feels intense at times because of the possibility of something going wrong for Viktoria because of what we know about Tinder. Ida and Viktoria’s friendship is such a force in this short film and the ending is perfect.

Film Festivals are Important: Why Iram Parveen Bilal’s “I’ll Meet You There” Deserves to be Seen

Photos Courtesy of Parveen Shah Productions

By: Amanda Guarragi 

In light of recent events, the COVID – 19 pandemic has raised some questions about the Entertainment industry and how it will function moving forward. The first big hit the industry took was SXSW being cancelled, while other film festivals like Tribeca and Cannes have been postponed. SXSW is known to select a diverse slate of films, as they provide an opportunity for global professionals at entry level to participate, network, and advance their careers. The loss of SXSW is a major setback for independent filmmakers, who wanted a distributor to pick up their film in order to have a larger platform to showcase these diverse stories.

One film in particular, I’ll Meet You There, written and directed by Iram Parveen Bilal, has been in the works for a decade and it was slated in the Narrative Feature Competition category at SXSW this year. Bilal has waited for her premiere date for a very long time, “So I finally was like yeah I should make it. I wanted to make it. It was just very difficult, people were not really interested to fund a film like this, it was too small, too niche. They just said no one cares to see the story. The film is a post 9/11 family drama, following the lives of a Muslim-American family, as they explore new truths about their present, past and future.

all of them

Faran Tahir, Iram Parveen Bilal, Nikita Tewani and Qavi Khan in I’ll Meet You There

It’s a film that transcends generations, which shows the contrast between a westernized world and the connectivity to religion. Bilal wanted to show the complexities of the everyday Muslim – American and how generations can learn to co-exist, while having their own individual beliefs and ideals. In the film, Dua (Nikita Tewani) is a dancer like her late mother and her grandfather; Baba (Qavi Khan) who came to visit from Pakistan. He makes her question her passion for dance in the name of religion. It’s two different mindsets, having important conversations about past ideologies and adapting to a new world.

It’s a constant battle between assimilation and pride of your roots. And one is to say what are your roots? If you’re born here, is that your roots? Our culture has become very confusing, is it the colour of your skin that defines what culture you should celebrate or is it where you are living or is it a combination? – Iram Parveen Bilal

The film also shows the difficulty police officer’s face when being an immigrant in the American police force and they have to investigate their own community. Bilal wanted to incorporate this storyline in her film because of the lasting image in her head of an Orthodox Muslim as a police officer, after 9/11. “People were just like, there were hate crimes on the street, how is this guy, what is his life like? This was a very dilute version of something like that I mean to be honest, if I was better at doing police procedurals I would have made the whole film just about that. She wanted to make this more than a coming of age story, she wanted to focus on each individual in the family and then bring them together to see how they operate as a unit.

These stories deserve to be seen on a global scale and not having that one platform, like a film festival to showcase it, is damaging to the creator and everyone who worked on the film. Some films, such as this one have taken years to produce and the joy of seeing the film on the big screen has been stripped away, for the time being. The discourse that has come out of this cancellation, is if film festivals should even exist in a location, when the age of streaming makes these films much more accessible.

It’s just unrealistic to assume that when this pandemic subsides, people will not attend festivals or movie theatres. There is so much joy when experiencing a film as a community and going to the cinema is always going to be considered an outing. Movie theatres will never close indefinitely because people want to go out and experience films as a group. Film festivals are special for that very reason because you have hundreds of thousands of people, who love movies, that continuously go support these filmmakers and this industry.


Writer & Director Iram Parveen Bilal on set of I’ll Meet You There 

Independent films are the ones that need the help in order to be showcased globally, so to be able to watch these films and promote them for these filmmakers is something we should all be doing. There’s so much joy and excitement when premiering your film at a festival, “Honestly I think the rewarding moment is really to be able to share it with audiences. I cannot wait, to be in the theatre and doing that for this film. That’s kind of what Im pushing for is to get it out there. Bilal wants to share this film with audiences because of how special this feature is. All immigrants are trying to find a sense of community, in a place that is systemically set in their ways. The film breaks barriers and it’s definitely one that should be seen by all.