I'd heard of this mythological phenomenon known as discovering a hidden gem at a film festival. It seemed terribly romantic, in theory - the idea of championing a movie from the very beginning, against all odds, putting your reputation on the line. Though I always thought it was the stuff of legend, what with almost nothing being truly unknown these days.
Well, let me tell you: now that I've experienced this particular anomaly, it feels more like a missed connection than an epic love story. Like meeting the perfect man, losing his number and never seeing him again. Never introducing him to your family, showing him off to your friends, enjoying his company whenever you like, making googly eyes at him in front of random strangers.
I fell in love at first sight with a brilliant, near perfect film at this year's Tribeca Film Festival. And now I'm miserable.
I screened Postcards from the Zoo on a whim. I had marked its page in my 2012 Tribeca Film Festival press and industry guide while planning my coverage. Its bookmark is purple - part of my color-coding system, to indicate "not essential." Which means: it didn't fit for a review or interview via any of my freelance outlets, but the premise intrigued me. I remember reading the synopsis - about a girl raised in a zoo, the beautiful images and circumstances of her upbringing, the fact that her world is eventually shattered when she must leave - and I thought it sounded poetic and unique. I was particularly drawn to it because it reminded me of Beasts of the Southern Wild - my favorite movie from this year's Sundance Film Festival (coincidentally, a runaway hit and the festival darling - having been acquired by Fox Searchlight shortly after its world premiere). Beasts was a welcome reprieve from the usual festival fare, and I wistfully wondered if Postcards would be, as well.
To be fair, I had no idea what I was walking into when I entered the Postcards screening. It's always a gamble with relatively unknown movies at festivals. It took me all of five minutes to melt into my seat, acquire a warm, tingly feeling all over my body and become statuesque in my transfixion. Director Edwin's narrative is deliberate, quiet and phenomenally-shot. It achieves a near perfect harmony in its thematic and technical elements. Most notably: Edwin is trusting of his audience. This alone is so refreshing, so rare in a director. He knows we'll connect the dots - he only worries himself with painting the circles, filling them in.
Postcards from the Zoo showcases notes of Sofia Coppola, Ghibli, and even a smidge of Amelie in its lead character Lana (played to endearing and spirited effect by Ladya Cheryl). Lana's world is the Ragunan Zoo - after being abandoned there as a child, she grows up among the tigers, hippos, orangutans, and - her particular favorite - a giraffe. Lana's supporting characters also include fellow employees (her surrogate family), the zoo's visitors, and a wealth of factual information about the animals within Ragunan's walls. Her days are spent in a haze of these elements - and the camera follows them as such, blurring the line between those behind and in front of Ragunan’s enclosures. When Lana meets a mysterious magician, she musters the strength to venture outside of the environ she's known all of her life - and her naivete and innately agreeable nature are tested.
What's most stunning about Postcards from the Zoo is how long it sticks with you. This isn't a film that strives to hit you with any particular emotion - but you'll find yourself running the gamut, enveloped in its narrative for days. This film is whimsical, viciously original, gorgeous, imaginative and utterly without equal. Stumbling upon this movie at a festival - among the quirky, twee rom-com-drams and by-the-numbers action/horror films - is a done diamond-in-the-rough deal.
Alas, I kid you not - after years in the industry, covering countless festivals and seeing hundreds of films - for the first time ever, I second-guessed my love for a movie. As the credits rolled on Edwin's haunting creation, I was awash in violent affection - but I couldn't fathom how no one else had gotten to it first and sung its praises. Had I somehow watched it wrong? Was it a bad movie that struck some invisible chord in me, rendering me biased? Why was it not on any other critic's radar? Why hadn't it made a "what to watch" list? There had been three screenings prior to mine, and I hadn't heard a peep from fellow film writers. Was this masterpiece a mirage?
The simple answer is: no. What's more likely is that -- in the glut of content to consume at Tribeca (which includes documentaries, narratives and shorts -- not to mention big-name opening and closing night films, along with selections that wowed crowds at prior festivals) -- critics had overlooked this unassuming Indonesian charmer altogether. Since that day, a few reviews and write-up’s have trickled in -- but nothing overwhelming. Nothing even remotely indicative of what this film deserves.
Postcards from the Zoo is Tribeca Film Festival's Beasts of the Southern Wild, without any of the fanfare.
Even more incredible: though it had its North American Premiere at Tribeca, it's screened at the Hong Kong, Berlin, Buenos Aires and Copenhagen Film Festivals…and it hasn't won a single award. It has distribution deals in Germany, Austria, Taiwan and South Korea, but North America remains unclaimed. And it's insanely marketable - beyond even the major cities and independent cinema crowds. My screening was filled with young children, teenage girls, middle-aged couples and senior citizens - all of whom adored it.
Just to test my theory (and for personal sanity), I convinced a few fellow writers to attend the movie's final screening at Tribeca. I joined them. When we exited, they looked at me incredulously, and exclaimed, "How is no one talking about this? It's incredible." I felt instantly relieved - and dually frustrated. To know something's worth is to inadvertently have a stake in it.
The idea that I'll never see Postcards from the Zoo again -- that general audiences in the States won't experience the wonder and richness of Lana's world (and Edwin's masterful filmmaking) is borderline inconceivable to me.
So that's why I wrote this declaration. It's a love letter. A message in a bottle, of sorts, and I'm plunking it in the ocean that is the Internet, hoping it lands at a production company, glints in the sun and catches someone's eye. Especially those someones who -- ahem -- may be looking to release a film counterpart to Beasts of the Southern Wild.
This is a big year for Indonesian cinema, what with the wild success of The Raid. Capitalize on it. Give Edwin's movie a watch. I'll make it really easy for you: Edwin's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. He's very nice - and he's expecting your note. If you'd like to go straight to the source, the company that handles all his sales and international distribution deals is called The Match Factory, and their email address is email@example.com.
Is this just One Girl's Opinion? Yep. Am I clearly under the movie's spell? Absolutely. Would I have managed any manner of peace until I'd gotten the word out somehow? No.
And, most important, to those with influence: Is taking a gamble on watching Postcards from the Zoo (a mere 96 minutes of your day) really too much to ask? I'm inclined to say no. I'm pretty sure you'll thank me later.