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Sadaf Asgari and Amirreza Ranjbaran are caught up in Iran's medical and legal systems in "Disappearance."

First thing to report about this year’s Lone Star Film Festival: The films are being shown in the top floor of the AMC Palace instead of the bottom floor as in previous years. Try to contain your excitement. In all seriousness, the top does feel less claustrophobic and contributes more to the feel of an event taking place. It also has the auditorium with the biggest capacity, where the big films are being shown.

My duties here at the Weekly have forced me to miss the afternoon screening during the week, and a number of factors caused me to be squeezed out of the opening night selection, The Last Whistle. Therefore, I started by checking out the opening Cine-Más film, La Gran Promesa. Jorge Ramírez Suárez’ drama is an ambitious piece of work with a story stretching from Somalia to Bosnia, as a Mexican war photographer named Sergio (Juan Manuel Bernal) is separated from his family and forced to live on the run for decades while trying to get back to his daughter. I like the scope of this piece and the opening shot, which is a big tracking shot over the African desert as a truck full of photographers pulls up at the site of a massacre while death squads continue the killing in the background. There’s also Sam Trammell from TV’s True Blood as an American ex-convict who’s after Sergio. Despite the trappings, I found the main story material to be the same weepy stuff that anchors smaller-scaled Mexican fare that we see in our multiplexes.

I caught the tail end of a program of dark short films, and the one that jumped out was a dialogue-free Spanish animated film called Cazatalentos, which translates as “Talent Scout,” about a Spanish choreographer forced by his country’s civil war to take refuge in France, where he scrapes a living until he comes across a remarkable flamenco dancer.

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John Psathas’ coming-of-age-in-the-’90s film Bernadette made me laugh out loud a few times, but I found Sam Straley’s romantic hero to be too feckless in his pursuit of a French beauty (Marilyn Bass), while the setup of having the hero and his friends work in a city park reminded me too much of the superior Adventureland. Daniel Luis Ennab and Matt Hoff’s And the Boys Go suffered from a similar lack of sharpness in the writing.

However, I did see the first truly great film in this year’s festival, an Iranian movie called Disappearance. Ali Asgari’s work stars his niece Sadaf Asgari as a woman who spends a wretched night going around to hospitals with her boyfriend (Amirreza Ranjbaran) trying to maneuver around the legal system so she can have a surgery performed on her. (The movie doesn’t say it straight out, but they’re looking for an abortion, which is almost impossible to have via legal means in Iran.) Perhaps this isn’t as hellish as the Romanian abortion film 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, but then, what is? Ali Asgari turns this odyssey into a compelling 89 minutes, with bribes paid, friends called in the wee hours, and an Abbas Kiarostami-like mysterious ending. It’s great to see that the Iranian film industry isn’t dead, despite their government’s best efforts.

I was not aware of the music of Ramón “Chunky” Sánchez before I saw Singing Our Way to Freedom, the documentary portrait of the late Chicano protest musician. The film made me want to learn more. Paul Espinosa’s film has some wobbly moments, but the San Diego-raised Sánchez makes a winning subject guiding us through his life and his role in Cesar Chavez’ pro-union movement in the 1960s. Considered a pocho by born-and-raised Mexicans (he wrote a song with that title), he carved out a place for himself as a proud Mexican-American. The film made me glad to learn about him.

Friday’s program ended with Calvinball, Roy Parker’s black-and-white low-budget romance about three couples who break up and pair off differently after a game of spin the bottle. I found the self-absorbed characters actively annoying, and once again the dialogue wasn’t funny or pointed enough to put these people across. And yes, a book of Calvin and Hobbes comic strips figures in. I’m planning on being at the festival for most of the day during the weekend, so I’ll have one more report for you about my Saturday and Sunday viewing. Stay tuned.

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