Picks and previews from this year's Florida Film Festival 

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Once Upon a Crime: The Borrelli-Davis Conspiracy ★★★★☆
“Seven years ago, I set out to tell a story involving crooked cops, a mafia godfather, murder, poisonings, Elvis Presley, prison gang leaders and a coke-addicted newspaper editor,” writer-director Sheldon Wilson tells us. “Who would have thought that that was just the beginning of the story?” OK, so Wilson’s documentary, Once Upon a Crime: The Borrelli-Davis Conspiracy, has virtually nothing to do with Elvis, cocaine or poison, but the facts of the real story are actually more fascinating. Retired New York policeman Mike Borelli and his friend and former cop Bob Davis were falsely accused in 1975 of the murder of a man Borelli worked with. It mattered little that there was no evidence tying them to the crime; they weren’t in the city at the time and Davis didn’t even know the victim. The police simply wanted a conviction. Wilson doesn’t exactly uncover a unique smoking gun to explain the case these 40 years later, but through emotional interviews with most of the participants, non-obtrusive re-enactments and a careful presentation of the facts, he forges an intriguing marriage of solid journalism and thrilling entertainment that’s on par with some of Errol Morris’ best work. Playing before the feature is the documentary short Mr. Gold (★★☆☆☆), which won’t mean much to non-locals but will grab the interest of Orlando residents who have seen the unique sign holder tipping his hat and waving to passersby on Colonial Drive. – CM

Screenings: 9:30 p.m. Saturday, April 11, at Regal Winter Park Village and 3:45 p.m. Friday, April 17, at Regal Winter Park Village

Proud Citizen ★★☆☆☆
It’s quite an accomplishment to make your narrative feature seem like a documentary. So congrats to Proud Citizen for that. But when said film is also lacking in emotional impact, implausibly plotted, badly paced and student-filmy, you’ve got a problem. Writer-director Thom Southerland’s black-and-white drama, which is getting its Southeast premiere at the festival, focuses like a laser on amateur playwright Krasimira Stanimirova (co-writer Katerina Stoykova-Klemer), who travels to Lexington, Kentucky, from her home in Bulgaria after winning second place in an international writing contest, to see her play performed. But when she gets there, she finds that the community theater troupe has little time for her. “I didn’t know traveling would be so lonely,” she says to herself in Bulgarian-language voiceover. “I keep waiting for people to appear and yell ‘surprise’ at me, or at least ‘Welcome to Kentucky, genius playwright.’” She wanders the streets, tours horse farms and befriends a single mom who invites her into her home and, preposterously, gives her complete control over her young child while she spends the night with an old boyfriend. Thanks to a promising premise and an interesting autobiographical, even extemporaneous, feel, Proud Citizen has its heart in the right place as it tries to offer unique commentaries on unmet expectations and cultural differences. But like Krasimira’s American Dream, the film never quite congeals. – CM

Sceenings: 5:15 p.m. Saturday, April 11, at Regal Winter Park Village and 1:15 p.m. Wednesday, April 15, at Enzian Theater

The Search for General Tso ★★★★☆
Be sure you eat before seeing this film, because the sticky-sweet, citrus-pungent, crunchy-fried, orange-and-green indulgence known as General Tso’s chicken is on screen making your mouth water for at least three-quarters of The Search for General Tso’s 71 minutes. Where did this delicious American-Chinese hybrid come from? The filmmakers stand on an American street asking passers-by about the dish; every one knows it, but no one’s heard of General Tso (though they’re happy to advance imaginative theories regarding his person). They repeat the exercise on a street in Shanghai, and everyone’s familiar with the general – a well-known historical Chinese figure – but no one recognizes the dish. (Again with the theories: One woman pokes at the picture and says, “It doesn’t look like chicken. It looks like frog.”) And there you have it: What we think of in America as “Chinese food” is in fact not Chinese in the least, aside from being cooked for us by Chinese people. We aren’t eating Shanghai-style frog; we’re eating dishes created specifically for American palates with American ingredients, presented in a theatrically pleasing “ethnic” fashion. In The Search for General Tso, Ian Cheney and Jennifer 8. Lee trace the history of Chinese immigration to America, the few jobs that were open to the Chinese after the breathtakingly racist Exclusion Act of 1882 was passed, and the device by which regional Chinese associations assiduously disseminated the model of the American Chinese restaurant. Maybe you’ve never wondered why a Chinese restaurant in the middle of Boondock, Utah, has the same name, the same decor, the same scrolly script on a menu offering the same dishes as a Chinese restaurant in Sticksville, Massachusetts, but Cheney and Lee did. And they’ve not only answered that question, but used it as a tidy metonym for racial discrimination and patterns of integration. “I don’t think that General Tso’s chicken is the most popular ethnic dish in the country,” says restaurateur Ed Schoenfeld at the beginning of the film, “only because there’s pizza.” The history of Italian immigration to America parallels that of the Chinese in some ways, as does the history of “Italian” restaurants in America. The fact that this culinary strategy for assimilation seems to be shared by all émigrés proves on a larger stage the adage that the best way to someone’s heart is through the stomach. – Jessica Bryce Young

Screening: 12:30 p.m. Sunday, April 12, Regal Winter Park Village

click to enlarge 'Tomorrow We Disappear'
  • 'Tomorrow We Disappear'

Tomorrow We Disappear ★★★★☆
From the very beginning you know where this is going. An artist colony in New Delhi, India – one that features some of the more remarkable, sometimes utilitarian, hired personalities that bend over backwards to pick up sticks or don comic masks for parties or work the strings of a marionette in order to make events seem otherworldly – is under attack, because the land that they live on in the Kathputli Colony is purchased for development. It’s an odd take on gentrification (usually these stories don’t involve the amount of methodical whimsy shown by the artists in this film), but it’s familiar in its futility. Typical documentary gazes aside, Tomorrow We Disappear brings an artistic flair to its storytelling, and also the pain and grimaces of a generation and a culture being pressed out of its history. The personalities here are magical – as are some of their acts – but the frustration and fear is likewise palpable, which makes for some occasionally saddening asides, especially when it comes to bringing up another generation. The so-called “tinsel slum” will never be the same, but it’s definitely worth the 85 minutes to watch its heart beat. “Are we artists,” one of the subjects of the doc asks, “or are we poor people? We have no idea.” – Billy Manes

Screenings: 11:45 a.m. Sunday, April 12, at Enzian Theater and 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 15, at Regal Winter Park Village

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