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North Bend Film Festival: Ninjababy & Skinner 1929

Once a year, fans of strange and quirky cinema descend upon North Bend, Washington for the North Bend Film Festival, held at the North Bend Theatre. Known for being the place where Twin Peaks was filmed, the festival seeks to harness the energy noticed by David Lynch to hold a festival with appeal for the progressive Pacific Northwest crowd. I was able to screen a feature and a short. Read on for reviews of both!

Ninjababy [Norwegian], directed by Yngvild Sve Flikke, distributed by TrustNordisk

Everytime I watch a movie about a woman who gets pregnant unexpectedly, I end up in tears by the end. The sight of a mother giving birth and beholding her newly born child for the first time never fails to provoke an emotional reaction -- even when the story is about a mother who doesn't want to keep the baby. I remember sobbing audibly during the movie Roma when Cleo gives birth to a stillborn child. Even though she doesn't want a baby, she still mourns at its passing and can't help but check on it with her eyes. No matter how unwilling the vessel, a woman can't help forging some kind of bond with the child growing in her body. Ninjababy explores this bond and the many forms it can take with a style that adopts comic book techniques into the storytelling.

Based on a graphic novel Fallteknikk, written and illustrated by Inga Sӕtre, Ninjababy tells the story of Rakel (Kristine Kujath Thorp), an imaginative and artistic woman with many dreams but not much motivation to carry them out. She parties and sleeps around with no apparent source of income. The discovery of her pregnancy sets Rakel in a tailspin, and she navigates what to do with this new discovery. The reveal that she's over six months pregnant further complicates the matter, removing the option for an abortion. What's more -- the changed timeline means that the father-to-be is her frequent hookup, a man she calls Dick Jesus (Arthur Berning) rather than the nerdy, sweet Aikido teacher she calls Aikido-Mos (Nader Khademi) that she paired with one evening because he smelled like butter. Now Rakel must decide what to do with the baby before the impending due date.

A very pregnant woman sits on a chair being questioned
Kristine Kujath Thorp as RAKEL in NINJABABY

The style of Ninjababy combines live-action with animated touches. This blends naturally with the story because Rakel loves to draw sketches of the things on her mind. It's how she works through problems. The story takes her drawings and animates them. Sometimes these drawings are projected directly onto the screen; other times, the sketches appear on top of the live action, giving hints to Rakel's true state of mind. When Rakel feels strong emotions, they reveal through a similar animation. Warm and fuzzy feelings appear as blinking stars. Sad emotions fall like rain. Also, the nicknames she gives to each of her lovers helps her keep them at a distance, like a character in a book. Dick Jesus is a well-endowed man with a beard; Aikido-Mos has black bushy hair and teaches Aikido. And the baby growing in her womb becomes Ninjababy, who snuck in her uterus, staying quiet and hidden for months. These names help her keep distance -- for a time.

In the first part of the story, Rakel thinks of Ninjababy as a thing of inconvenience. She wants to get rid of the child and go back to the life she had. But Rakel begins to understand she's not as uninvested as she originally thought. She doesn't want to be a mom but still wants to know the baby is safe. The plot thickens when her drawings of Ninjababy begin to talk to her (voiced by Herman Tømmeraas), adding another opinion to the mix. This clever device allows Rakel to work through her doubts and guilt about leaving the child stranded. The more Ninjababy talks to her, the closer they become. Ninjababy is no longer just a drawing on the page. Rakel undergoes a similar arc to many of her nicknamed friends, as each of them becomes more a part of her life. The distance breaks down, and Rakel finds love and acceptance from her chosen family, even through this difficult time.

The story certainly takes the viewer on an emotional journey, with laugh-out-loud moments, as well as tender or sad scenes. Stories like Ninjababy live in the "heartwarming but not sappy" portion of the Venn diagram. What arises is a portrait of a flawed, but very relatable, woman. Many viewers will see themselves or someone they love in her affect. She makes many poor choices, but we root for her, and especially for her tentative future with Aikido-Mos.

The accidental pregnancy trope has been around since the 1960s, but most male-directed films end in a traditional happily-ever-after, with the couple working things out and raising the child together (like Judd Apatows's Knocked Up). Now with more female directors receiving the opportunity to sit in the ringleader's chair, there is room for a wider spectrum of stories about accidental pregnancy.

Release info: Showing at the North Bend Film Festival 

Final score: 3.5 out of 5

Skinner 1929, directed by Aaron Blanton, 15 minutes

Skinner 1929 recalls found footage films like The Blair Witch Project, going one step further by removing the action one level and contextualizing the format for the podcast era. Viewers are left to wonder how much of what they are seeing is real. And online searches reveals little about the story's roots. As the short opens, we learn that what we are about to watch is a recorded live stream on an obscure online channel called Pacific Legacies, dedicated to sharing local history from the Pacific Northwest area, a perfect tie-in to the location of the North Bend Film Festival. We hear the voices of Greg Skinner and Susan Wylde, two people podcasting together on a stormy evening. Greg has just found a 16 mm film canister that has been stuck in his nightstand drawer and decides to make the film the center of tonight's podcast. We watch along with Greg and Susan, and stick with them as they struggle with power outages, grainy film footage that skips, and strange noises heard at the door.

A black-and-white photo of a group of people
A photo still from SKINNER 1929

The filmstrip starts normally enough, with people filming pretty scenery, picnic lunches, and people just being silly or having fun in the town of Florence. Like the picnic Laura and Donna of Twin Peaks take with dear old James, the story begins with a dalliance. Soon enough though, the images seem to be telling a more sinister tale, one that sparks fear in the voices of Greg and Susan, and therefore us. What happened in Florence so long ago. Are these images real or skits played out for fun?

The disturbing visuals play second fiddle to the amazing sound design, which implements multiple layers of noise. Background music used to establish ambience for the historical podcast plays in the background, under the voices of Greg and Susan. Then there's the sound effects that tell us what's happening in the room with the two hosts. The sounds of the film skipping or slowing down lend a chilling effect, as well. What's more, we have no visuals of the room in which Greg and Susan sit, and this limitation heightens the impact of the sensory storytelling. In one moment Greg and Susan step away to check on their car alarms, and a vision shows that they never see, giving viewers a clue.

Skinner 1929 seems perfect for viewers who like a mystery to solve. It recalls radio dramas of the midcentury period -- something to watch on a dark and stormy night. Fans of folk horror will go crazy for this one and want more information about the roots of the story director Aaron Blanton tells.

Release info: Showing at the North Bend Film Festival

Final score: 3.5 out of 5