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The Independent Critic

 2012 Heartland Film Festival: A-Z Reviews, Vol. 4 
Awaken the Dragon (86 Mins., Doc Feature)
Awaken the Dragon (86 Mins., Doc Feature)

Directed by: Liz Oakley; OFFICIAL FACEBOOK

In all likelihood, it's a legit observation that if your life has been touched by cancer that you will find yourself deeply moved by Liz Oakley's feature doc Awaken the Dragon. The film is an official selection of the 2012 Heartland Film Festival, and while it won't go home with any critical prizes it should go home with the hearts of quite a few of its viewers. The film is prime Heartland material, an inspirational documentary that examines how one small group of cancer survivors faces their challenges with the "courage and ferocity of an immortal creature." Specifically, we meet a crew who have found their own path to wellness through the Chinese sport of dragon boating.

Awaken the Dragon is more than simply a story of survival - it's a story about celebrating and reclaiming one's life in a way that is extraordinarily beautiful, powerful and energizing. The film has already picked up several festival prizes including Best Feature Documentary at All Sports Los Angeles Film Festival and as an Accolade Competition Winner along with appearances in multiple other festivals along the way.

Director Liz Oakley does an excellent job of weaving together the very real life stories of these survivors with the beauty and wonder of the sport of dragon boat racing. D.P. Ed Bates' camera work is luminous, while Miriam Cutler's original music will stay with you long after the closing credits have rolled and you're still finding yourself reflecting on the words and images from Awaken the Dragon. It wouldn't be surprising to see this film in the running for an Audience Favorite award during its appearance at Indy's Heartland Film Festival.

Besa: The Promise (90 Mins., Doc Feature)

Featuring: Norman H. Gershman, Rexhep Hoxha; Directed by: Rachel Goslins;

Every year, it seems like the Heartland Film Festival manages to surprise me with one feature documentary. This year, Heartland surprised me with this intelligent documentary based upon a story I'm almost guessing few Americans have even heard about. The film is about the "never before told' story of the Muslims of Nazi occupied Albania who saved the lives of thousands of Jews during World War II.

Yeah, you read that right.

During a time when Jews were being betrayed left and right, virtually the entire Muslim community of Albania united to do the right thing. Consider this description from the Heartland Film Festival Film Guide:

"It is witnessed through the modern-day prism of two men joined together in a remarkable and unexpected quest: Norman H. Gershman, a renowned American photographer determined to record the bravery and compassion of the Albanians, and Rexhep Hoxha, an Albanian toy shop owner who sets out to return three precious books to the last surviving member of the Jewish family his Muslim father sheltered sixty years before."

The only concern with the film is that too often it lacks the emotional power of the story it's telling. Too often, it's content to be more like a History Channel documentary than a film telling a story that truly needs to be told. In a world, especially here in the U.S., where Muslims experience so much doubt, fear, discrimination and hatred, this story should feel groundbreaking and maybe even earth-shattering. Instead, it feels like a well done documentary about an incredible story.

The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia (52 Mins., Doc Feature)

Featuring: David Boies, Sir Richard Branson, Gavin Newsom, Charles D. Schwab and others; Directed by: James Redford;  OFFICIAL FACEBOOK

An official selection of the 2012 Heartland Film Festival, The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia fits quite nicely within a pretty incredible block of short docs during this year's festival. The film, which is actually coming up on its broadcast television premiere on 10/29 on Home Box Office. That's actually the perfect venue for the film, a rather insightful 52-minute look at dyslexia through multiple lenses - current young people who are living with it, several super successful celebs who have it and, to balance it all out, those who deal with dyslexia from a more clinical perspective. The end result is a film that is both informative and entertaining. Director James Redford weaves his way through the myths and misconceptions about dyslexia, but he does so in a way that is easily accessible to a wider audience.

Blank Canvas (3 Mins., Doc Short)

Featuring: Kim Thelen and Darcy Vasudev; Directed by: Sarah Berkovich

Director Sarah Berkovich leaves a lasting impact within the short span of three minutes with Blank Canvas, a short documentary about a woman (Kim Thelen) who struggles to deal with body image while undergoing chemotherapy for uterine cancer. Rather than surrender, Thelen becomes bold and creates a truly blank canvas out of her baldness that ends up speaking volumes. This simple and straightforward film is, quite simply, three beautiful and empowering minutes of life-changing cinema.

Blue (3 Mins., High School Competition)

Directed by: Herron High School Team

There's nothing I love more than watching up-and-coming filmmakers, and this three minute film from the Herron High School team as part of Heartland's High School Competition is a terrific initial effort. In the film, you get to follow the story of an orange named blue.

Admit it. It grabbed you. Didn't it?

It holds you, as well. Can you tell it's a high school effort? Sure, but it's an effort by a group of young filmmakers that shows quite a bit of promise amongst the production team. If you get a chance at the 2012 Heartland Film Festival, you should definitely check out the films from the high school competition.


© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic