There was good news and bad news at the eighth edition of one of the most acclaimed film festivals on the planet devoted to the documentary genre. And the good news far out distanced the bad. The economy appears to have finally caught up with the promoters as the highly anticipated opening night festivities for the first time moved from the comely, multi-roomed first floor of the founding sponsor Discovery Communications’ building to the considerably scaled down lobby of the AFI Silver Theater-the home base of the festival.
Gone were the incredibly lavished catered spread, drink, music &the occasional schwag-only to be replaced by simple glasses of champagne. The cramped quarters made most participants yearn for the beautiful backdrop provided to the attendees in the past. That being said, no expense, thankfully, was spared on the overall quality of the films that originated from over 50 countries around the world. The sponsors also provided enough resources to bring in as many directors, producer(s), and subjects of the film (in some cases all of the above) to most of the screenings-all of whom provided provocative, fascinating, and fun Q&A’s. Of the over 100 documentaries screened from 2,162 entries (up 180 from last year), there is no doubt that several will be considered, as in previous years, for Academy Award consideration. Moreover, one could even walk away with the big price, as did last year’s AA winner “The Cove” which had its U.S. Premier at the fest (& won the audience award). Therefore, the economy may have struck this little festival that could in its party pocketbook, but if it’s documentary films at the highest level you’re looking for, then Artistic Director Skye Sitney and her competent crew will assuredly satisfy your search!
TOP 5 AT THE 8TH AFI SILVERDOCS
(1) Bill Cunningham, New York
(2) * Restrepo
(2) * The Tillman Story
(3) Space Tourists
(4) Wo Ai Ni Mommy (I Love You Mommy)
(5) Presumed Guilty
* Tied for 2nd Place (Editors note: These docs. were both in our SUNDANCE2010 Top 10)
“Wo Ai Ni Mommy (I Love You Mommy)” (**** – 76 minutes)
The winner of the Sterling U.S. Feature Award (it also won the award for best documentary feature at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival), the East Coast premier of this heartwarming story is a winner on many levels as it covers the trials and tribulations of transracial international adoption. Foreign adoptions are becoming the more and more prevalent. However, the situation documented here raises some challenging questions. A Long Island Jewish family is about to adopt an 8 year old from China-one of over 70,000 who are brought into the U.S. Fang Sui is already ingrained into Chinese culture and now must totally reverse course when she is uprooted from her Chinese foster home to come live in the U.S. The Sadowsky’s had previously adopted a Chinese girl when she was merely 14 months old. They now have decided to travel to China to obtain an older daughter. This time they must deal with obvious, and not so obvious, language and cultural differences. Will the resulting culture clash be a success? Director Stephanie Wang-Breal (who also serves as the translator that the principals rely on throughout the filming) takes us along for the emotional, and at times humorous, roller coaster trip that all parties experienced during the 18 months of filming. The doc climaxes with a touching and poignant phone call that Faith (Fang’s Americanized name) makes to her foster parents & sister in China. A beautiful and thought-provoking film not only about adoption, but also about love and family. The film premiered on PBS’ P.O.V. series on August 31.
“The Woman With the 5 Elephants” (** 1/2-93 minutes)
The U.S. premier of the Sterling World Feature Award winner is this interminably slow deliberate profile of an 85-year-old translator, Svetlana Geier, who just completed translating Russian novelist Dostoevsky’s 5 classic novels (elephants) into German. We learn about her conflicted life growing up in Kiev, and that she served the German occupiers during WWII by serving as a translator. After the war, the Germans ultimately saved her by allowing her to emigrate to Germany to avoid prosecution as a collaborator. Despite being fully aware of the Nazi atrocities, including the demise of her Jewish friend, she continued to translate Russian into German-including the enormous task of updating the works of the great novelist-even at her advanced age. Director Vadim Jendreyko interweaves her working methodology with a narrative that correlates the philosophy of Dostoevsky with Svetlana’s life’s views & ideology of language-including commentary on her life and work as a translator. The climax of the film covers her return with her granddaughter to her Nazi-occupied Ukrainian homeland after a 60-year hiatus. Although beautifully photographed and intelligently introspective, how this doc won the World Feature Award is completely baffling to me as the tedious task of watching this film would rival reading “Crime and Punishment” in a single sitting.
“Marwencol” (*** 1/2-83 minutes)
Marwencol is a WWII Belgian village that exists, not in Europe, but in the mind and extraordinary imagination of Mark Hogancamp. And physically you can find it reconstructed in the backyard of Mark’s home in Kingston, New York where this world is populated by Barbie Dolls & models which look amazingly real. This fascinating winner of the Cinematic Vision Award, is a multiple award winner (including this year’s SWSW Film Festival), and is one of the strangest journeys I have ever experienced in a darken movie theater. Mark is a survivor who, after being attacked by five teenagers outside a local bar, was left with the brain damage malady of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Virtually without health insurance, his therapy consisted of his creation of an imaginary world populated by figurines that were extensions of real people he knew. The stories he weaved were given “life” by his continuously photographing his art. Mixing action with war with time travel (!), he desperately tries to cope with life that is now his reality. Director Malmberg inter-cuts Mark’s narratives involving G.I.’s fighting Nazi’s and their interactions with the “inhabitants” of the village, with Mark’s commentary on his own past and present. Among the revelations is that, prior to the attack, he was an alcoholic lout, whose wife left him. Now, after the beating, he no longer desires alcohol. Discovered by the art world, the shy recluse was asked to display his work in a New York gallery-that he did to somewhat disastrous results. Mark was much more at home with his imagination than facing the gawking art community. A marvelous complementing score by Jay Clarke beautifully complements the action. This is a fascinating look into one man’s psyche and how a tragic event totally changed how a man deals with life to find a new purpose. And I’m certain that this haunting doc will have you pondering what is considered art, as well as the artist’s connection to it, long after you leave Marwencol behind. The film began its limited release in October.
“A Film Unfinished” (*** 1/2 87 minutes)
The Writers Guild of America Documentary Screenplay Award winner started with the discovery of a buried 60-minute silent film found in an East German archive in the 1950’s. The film can was labeled “Warsaw”. It turns out this was yet another propaganda attempt by the Nazi’s to show the world that conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto, where over 400,000 people were deplorably crammed into 3 1/2 square miles, were quite habitable and pleasant. It took Israeli director Yael Hersonski to expertly bring this piece of film to our attention-nearly 70 years after it was shot in May of 1942-a year before the Ghetto was emptied after the uprising in 1943 and the barely surviving inhabitants shipped to their even more gruesome destination. Then, in 1998, a 30-minute outtake reel was discovered which shows how the Germans staged scenes that were used in the original film-while unavoidably shows the dead who lined the sidewalks of the Ghetto. Yael includes a revealing interview with one of the cinematographers, Willy Wist, and was even able to track down five of the Warsaw survivors who emotionally watch the silent haunting footage for the first time-afraid of recognizing people they knew. The editing of the footage by Yael, a former TV editor, is nothing short of superb. The film has been in limited release since August 18.
“Men Who Swim” (***-58 minutes)
The North American premier of 40-year-old filmmaker Dylan Williams’ lighthearted take on his attempt to combat his impending mid-life crises ends up winning this year’s SILVERDOCS Audience Award. Welshman Williams moves to Sweden to live with his Swedish girlfriend, marry, & start a family. No longer able to hold onto dreams of becoming a rock star, and feeling like, excuse the pun, a fish out of water, his new plan is simple & unique: become involved in a men’s synchronized swimming team. However, his simple hobby rises to the next level when he & his comrades decide to compete for the unofficial All Male World Championship in Milan as the Stockholm Art Swim Gents. We see the team training and, on the surface, all appears hopeless when their coach quits after seeing the futility of it all. However, the middle age gents are determined to go all out to try to dethrone the world champion Dutch team-despite the physical and sociological obstacles placed before them. (For example, when one media reporter proclaims this is “a sport for homosexuals”, one of them proudly replies, “Any sport is for homosexuals, and any sport is for heterosexuals.”) A light and humorous look at guys who fervently try to prove that life, indeed, begins after 40-and that, with the proper effort and determination, anything is possible.
OTHER FILMS SCREENED
“As Lilith” (***-78 minutes)
Director Eytan Harris’ touching and powerful documentary gets Day 3 off with a bang! Lilith, an Israeli resident, has decided to cremate her 14-year-old daughter who had just committed suicide. No problem if she was residing in most countries of the world. Unfortunately, she lives in a community, the small town of Zikhron Yaacov, run by the strict Orthodox Jewish organization, Zaka, who believe that the only proper burial for remains are in the ground. The director starts filming only three days after the suicide and, the focus is on Lilith, caring for her teenage son, as she confronts Zaka, and her community, and the media. She is determined to stick to her own beliefs-no matter the consequences. The fact that she does this while totally consumed with grief is both heartbreaking and inspirational. Harris has managed, believe it or not, to inject some dark humor into all of this. For example, after being continuously harassed by the religious elders, who are hell bent on recovering the ashes, she convinces them that they could find them on a nearby beach. We then see Zaka’s inane efforts to recover them. Despite the fact that the production values are somewhat lacking (Harris wrote, shot, directed, & produced the film with minimal money available), he has made a fascinating take on one person’s resilience in the face of overwhelming odds.
“Barbershop Punk” (***-83 minutes)
Robb Topolski is an Everyman software engineer who wanted to legally share some barbershop music off the Internet. Simple enough, yes? Well, not exactly, as it turns out. It seems that, when he started noticing unusual delays in obtaining said files, he did a little investigating and discovered that his service provider, Comcast, was blatantly sabotaging his attempts to download. Not content to let “Big Brother” control his inalienable right to net neutrality (which is, according to Google, “the principle that Internet users should be in control of what content they view and what applications they use on the Internet”), Robb decided to fight back. It turns out that Comcast’s actions were just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what service providers were making available to its customers. As for the “punk” in the title of this world premiere screening, directors Georgia Sugimura Archer & Kristin Armfield have obtained the pointed commentary of Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye, & “OK Go” front man Damian Kulash, among others, that will have you thinking a bit differently about their intelligence quotient. Despite an occasional lapse into techie speak, this is a comprehensive well done film dealing with censorship that is important to all of us in the Internet age.
The after screening panel (from l to r): directors Georgia Sugimura Archer & Kristin Armfield, President of the Writers Guild of America East Michael Winship, Policy Director 0f Future of Music Coalition Michael Bracy, Chief Technologist Open Technology Initiative of The New America Foundation Robb Topolski, and moderator NPR & Marketplace Senior ReporterMarsha Genzer
“Bill Cunningham-New York” (**** 90 minutes)
An extraordinary profile of a man without ego and who absolutely abhors attention. In his opening remarks, director Richard Press stated that it took 10 years to make the film: eight years to convince Bill to be filmed and two years to shoot and edit. This account of the author of New York Times’ aptly named column, “On the Street” & “Evening Hours”, is a gem. Winner of The Audience Award at this year’s Sydney Film Festival and the Best Documentary at The Nantucket Film Festival, this film is a surefire crowd-pleaser, as it chronicles the 81-year-old as he travels around Manhattan on his bicycle constantly clicking his old school 16mm camera at the latest fashions that he encounters. The filmmakers gained unusual access to Bill’s world, including his meager apartment above Carnegie Hall where the space is occupied mostly by his files & a single bed in the corner of the room (the bathroom was down the hall). But mostly we see him in action on the streets as he is interested, not in photographing celebrity, but the clothes they, as well as the common folk, wear. One segment perfectly describes the man: In Paris to accept the Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters for his contribution to the arts, Bill is more interested in snapping away at the arrivals outside the event. When it is time for him to enter the building, he is at first refused entry when the guards do not recognize him. One does not have to be interested in fashion to thoroughly enjoy this brilliant account of a most adorable gentleman whose astonishing work ethic & beautiful moral core are second to none.
(from l to r) Producer Philip Gefter, director Richard Press, & AFI Silver head programmer Todd Hitchcock lead the Q&A
“Freakonomics” (*** – 85 minutes)
This is a film that tries to accomplish the impossible: how do you entertain an audience on the subject of economics? First you take a bestselling non-fiction book that combines pop culture and economics; then you get 6 of the most success and accomplished documentary film maker to contribute; and, finally, by using a barrage of cinematic techniques, VOILA! You have an entertaining and mostly successful take on human behavior, statistics, & analysis. “Freakonomics” vas a 2003 New York Times article turned into a novel by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner that has now sold over 4 million copies. The authors tried to predict people’s intentions & human nature using statistics. The daunting task of converting, what essentially, is a series of articles dealing with non-traditional theories of economics into a feature film is a hit or miss affair-but mostly hits.
The hits: Oscar winner Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side”, “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”) does an eye-opening segment about how corruption has invaded even the sanctimonious realm of Sumo wrestling. Also, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (“Jesus Camp”) covers the world of education and how the incentive of money will stimulate 9th graders to achieve better grades-as opposed to just good parenting.
The near miss: Eugene Jarecki (“Why We Fight”) does a piece offering the economic theories as to why crime rates sharply dropped in the early ’90s.
The total miss: Morgan Spurlock (“Super Size Me”) does an expose on the socioeconomic pattern of naming children that goes on way too long to make its point.
Putting it all together is Seth Gordon (“The King of Kong”) who creatively melds the pieces while interspersing commentary by the authors. All sorts of techniques and styles are on display to keep it all successfully rolling along at a swift pace. If successful, you can be sure a sequel will be in the offering.
The Magnolia film began limited distribution in October.
Jean Picker Firstenberg, former CEO & Director of the AFI (1980-2007), opens the festival
W. Clark Bunting, President & GM of Discovery Channel, SILVERDOCS found sponsor
Skye Sitney, SILVERDOCS Artistic Director
“Freakonomics” producer Chad Troutwin
“Freakonomics” writers Stephen J. Dubner (l) & Steven Levitt, who also appear in the film
Panel discussion after the film with (l to r) “Freakonomics” producer Chad Troutwine, directors Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady, & Alex Gibney, and moderator Alvin D. Hall, NPR commentator & host of BBC’s “Your Money or Your Life”
“The Invention of Dr. Nakamats” (***1/2-57 minutes)
Director Kaspar Astrup Schroder’s character study of inventor and eccentric Yoshiro Nakamats is a hoot. Thomas Edison had 1,093 patents. Nakamats laughs at that total. He holds the all time record with over 3,000! Best known as the inventor of the floppy disc, CD, DVD, the digital display, and even karaoke, the 79-year-old Nakamats is about to throw himself a birthday party and this quirky, short but sweet documentary follows him over the course of several days leading up to the event. Even though he hit the bulls eye with the floppy disc, you don’t invent over 3,000 patented items and not produce some surefire dudes, such as the spring supported shoe and an aphrodisiac called love jet. However, the most interesting aspect of this hour-long documentary is not the inventions, but the inventor himself. It seems the good doctor has quite a high opinion of himself, no doubt helped along with the knowledge that he lives on Dr. Nakamats square on the corner of Dr. Nakamats Street & Dr. Nakamats Avenue. We hear his philosophy of living such as too much oxygen restricts the brain, or that eating only one meal a day will increase your longevity (he claims he plans on living to 144). Oh, and speaking of those meals, the dude has photographed each one for the last 34 years-with cameras that he claims he can tell are good only by smelling them. You just can’t make this stuff up, folks, and the fact that Nakamats continually contributes by giving monologues to the camera while constantly referring to himself in the 3rd person only adds to the fun. The wonderful score by Silas Hite and Mark Motherbaugh helps make this one hour literally fly by. The doc has been picked up for distribution in the U.S. by Cinetic.
“La Isla-Archives of a Tragedy” (** 1/2-83 minutes)
Uli Stelzner has created an ambitious documentary that details the Guatemalan secret police atrocities but cannot overcome the tediousness of its presentation. Its been nine years after the end of the 36-year civil war that has lasted from 1969-1996. An important discovery has been made after a huge explosion hit Guatemala City: the uncovering, near the prison site of La Isla, of a massive archive detailing the activities of the secret police over a half century. What came to light were the specific details covering the surveillance, torture, & “disappearance” of hundreds of thousands of citizens during the 36 years of war between various right-wing governments, backed by the CIA, against its citizenry. The 80 million documents are meticulously combed through by a group of young local researchers, some of whom actually discover what has happened to their missing family members. As we watch their efforts, Stelzner places voice-overs over the visuals of the working researchers, while, artistically, depicting historical footage on the prison walls above them. However, the relentlessness of the atrocities and their horrific details becomes numbingly monotonous. Although the subject matter is an important historical document, a more concise film would have been more effective, as well as a welcome relief.
“Monica and David” (*** 1/2 – 68 minutes)
A touching, uplifting love story between two people who suffer from Down syndrome. The statistics are presented up front: as recently as 1983 only 25% of Down patients live to see 25. However, medical advances & other factors have now increased that number past 60. The Best Documentary Feature winner at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival focuses on two issues: a married couple who are both intellectually challenged and parents’ difficulties caring for such individuals who are trying to seek out their own ‘”independence”. Director Alexandra Codina is also Monica’s cousin that helps gain her nearly unlimited access. As she trains her camera on the couple during their first year of marriage, she avoids going down a maudlin path and merely observes these folks as they deal with the obvious and not so obvious, obstacles. Both Monica & David were raised without the presence of the birth father, who abandoned them at a young age. (An extremely touching scene shows Monica composing a letter to her absentee father, writing, “You broke my heart”. He never responds). Monica’s mom has since remarried and they must move into larger quarters to house and be the proper protectors of the newlyweds. All the while, we see and hear Monica & David voicing their wants for the future, including kids, which, realistically & heartbreakingly, will never happen. This beautifully rendered film will find you laughing and crying while it hammers home how the power of love truly has no boundaries & will conquer all-no matter the circumstances. HBO premiered the documentary in October.
“Presumed Guilty” (**** – 89 minutes)
The east coast premier of this outstanding film which is a devastating look at the Mexican judicial system. What seems like an extended “60 Minute” segment, the doc covers the trial of Tono Zuniga, an innocent street vendor, who was clearly targeted by the police and falsely accused of murdering a gang member he knew nothing about in 2005. Despite gunpowder tests that showed he had no residue and eyewitnesses who testified that he was nowhere near the crime, he was sentenced to 20 years in jail. His ordeal lasted 2 years when directors Roberto Hernandez & Geoffrey Smith (who directed last year’s SILVERDOCS winner, “The English Surgeon”), along with producer Layda Negret, were granted rare approval to record Tono’s second appellate “trial”. Married couple Hernandez and Negret were also lawyers, who became part of the Tono’s legal team after producing a short documentary that freed a man falsely accused of car theft. They were there when Tono was granted a new trial after it was revealed that his lawyer was a fraud who had no legal license. The kicker? The new judge was the original judge. The outrageous accusations and blind justice up and down the Mexican legal system (police are rewarded based on arrest numbers, 80% of defendants never see a judge, &, according to the filmmakers’ survey of over 3000 inmates, their random file samples, and the nonprofit National Center for State Courts, 90% are convicted with no scientific evidence) will have you enraged by the time the lights come up. An extraordinary look into the legal system of a country that is just beyond our borders. The film is scheduled to air on the PBS documentary series P.O.V.
“Restrepo” (****-93 minutes)
War is hell. We’ve all heard that before-but unless you are there dodging bullets, one really never knows, or can fully comprehend, the hellishness of it all. This year’s Sundance Documentary Award winner is a stunning realistic work, filmed over 15 months, which will put you in the middle of the conflict in the most dangerous outpost in Afghanistan, Korangal Valley. Unless you are a participant, watching it will probably be the closest you will ever come to understanding the first line of this review. The title refers to the first casualty in Battle Company: 20-year-old Pfc. Juan S. Restrepo, memorialized by his comrades when they name their outpost after their beloved fallen medic. Co-directors Tim Hetherington (who also photographed) & journalist Sebastian Junger (who penned “The Perfect Storm”) seemingly put you in the path of the bullets as you experience what these brave men, led by Captain Dan Kearney, encountered during their stay in this totally desolate region of the world as they fight the nearly invisible Taliban. Commentary by the soldiers was added in Italy by the filmmakers after their tour was over and helps the viewer crawl into the thoughts and emotions they were experiencing during the conflict. When one of them compares the rush of battle to crack cocaine, you will immediately relate to Staff Sgt. William James from last year’s AA Best Picture, whose rush he got from defusing bombs drove him from the cozy security of his American home back to Iraq. The insanity and futility of war is further driven home when the postscript mentions that we pulled out of Korangal Valley two years after the conclusion of the filming. I especially liked that Hetherington & Junger do not have a political agenda-there is no proselytizing. They merely turn their cameras on to the action and let the audience decide from there. This is “The Hurt Locker” (which, itself, was uncannily realistic) with real bullets. An amazing achievement that will surely be nominated for an Oscar.
“Ride, Rise, Roar” (*** 1/2-78 minutes)
David Hillman Curtis’ concert documentary on the great David Byrne during his “Music of David Byrne and Brian Eno” 2008/2009 tour, is a fine compliment to one of the greatest concert films ever made: Jonathan Demme’s “Stop Making Sense”. Ironically, that film covered Byrne’s final tour with his old group, The Talking Heads. Using a mixture of black & white (of the rehearsals, & Byne’s recording and discussion of his working with Eno) with color (during the performance), the artistic feel of the movie compliments the artistry of the musician. Byne’s quirkiness and aesthetic sensibilities are emphasized by the three modern dancers Byrne hired to perform around him throughout most of the performances, which were filmed over three separate performances during the tour. Their presence helps give life and movement one would not usually experience in a concert film. The behind-the-scene rehearsals interestingly convey the feel and understanding of the dancers’ interpretations to his music that adds considerable to the visuals. However, in the final analysis, what makes this concert film worth seeing is the music and presence of David Byrne. The 14 songs covers his group and solo career, as well as some cuts from his corroborative album with Brian Eno “Everything that Happens Will Happen Today”. Still relevant after nearly 20 years since the 1991 breakup of the 70’s/80’s super group, David Byrne remains one of the most intriguing artist/musician in the business. Curtis’ use of multiple camera angles and his competent editing and helps provide an enjoyable worthwhile experience-especially for fans of his music.
“Secrets of the Tribe” (** 1/2-96 minutes)
A scathing report on anthropology, which easily could have been called “Anthropologists Gone Bad”. Director Jose Pabila’s first doc in 2003 was the critically acclaimed “Bus 174”. Here he presents a comprehensive look at the influence anthropologists may have had studying the indigenous population of the Yonomami Tribe nestled deep in the Amazon and, until the 1960’s, was untouched by modern civilization. Much evidence is presented that raises moral and ethical questions as various scientists began living amongst the tribe to better understand their culture. An interesting subject that ultimately becomes tedious due to the inordinate amount of time spent with the talking heads throughout the running time. Also, it takes forever setting up the unconscionable goings-on-which included these lovely cast of characters: a French anthropologist, Jacques Lizot, who turned out to be a resident pedophile while turning young native boys into prostitutes; Napoleon Chagnon, who may have caused the death of hundreds of natives by introducing measles into the environment while conducting research for The Atomic Energy Commission; and Kenneth Good, who brought home and married a native girl barely in her teens. Untouched indeed! To its credit, the film doesn’t make judgments-leaving it up to the audience to decide the final verdict-that is, if they are still awake by the end.
“Sons of Perdition (*** 1/2 – 89 minutes)
Prominent in the news was the recent conviction of convicted polygamist and child molester Jeff Wells, head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FDLS). This doc is an intimate look into Joe Broadbent, Sam Brower and Bruce Barlow, three of the teenagers of FDLS members, who saw the sect for what it was and boldly decided to leave their families behind. Facing a lifetime of banishment, their decision was incredibly courageous as they face an uncertain future alone in a world they barely knew. Mormon directors Tyler Measom & Jennilyn’s first film is well crafted as they follow the trails and tribulation of the three lads as they try to find their identity, not to mention a place to live, as they attempt to understand their place away from their families. Along the way, the horrors of the FDLS are expounded, leading credence & credibility to the drastic actions these young boys felt they had to take. A portion of the film shows their efforts to stealthily return home to repeatedly try to convince two of Joe’s sisters & mom (one of which is 14 and about to be married off to a tribe member) to leave. Another portion deals with their association with Jeremy and Sharla Johnson, millionaires who offer lodging & assistance to FDLS runaways. I would have liked more insight into everyone’s motivations & personal history, but, overall, this is a very moving, but ultimately, uplifting look at three extremely brave kids who recognized & escaped from the insanity of the cult. The film was picked up by Oprah and will air on her new cable channel, OWN, sometime in 2011.
“South of the Border” (** – 78 minutes)
Let me say up front that Oliver Stone is not among my favorite narrative directors. After viewing this train wreck, I am now adding documentary filmmaker to that list. The North American premier of “South of the Border” is a self-indulgent travelogue through Bolivia, Argentina, Paraguay, Ecuador, Brazil and even Cuba, where Stone interviews/hangs out with various heads of states as he slams the propaganda of the Right while presenting a not-so-hidden Leftist agenda. There is absolutely no balance, or historical perspective, here as Stone appears almost giddy as he chews cocoa leaves & kicks a soccer ball with Evo Morales of Bolivia, or accompanies Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez as he walks around kissing children. Much of the running time deals with Chavez and the positives he has brought to his country. But what about the other side of this equation?? And how about some interviews with the common folk which would have brought different perspectives to the script penned by Stone, Tariq Ali, Mark Weisbot. Much of the opposing arguments/points-of-view, e.g., the human rights violations, is curiously absent as we see Stone continuously fawning over his subjects. What is not missing is the overt bashing of Fox News and other, so called, right-wing media outlets. One of the knocks I sometimes hear about documentaries is that sometimes, the agenda of the filmmaker gets in the way of the facts. This is a prime example of what gives documentary films a bad name. It was announced at the screening that the film obtained distribution and would be shown worldwide beginning last June. I couldn’t help think about the poor independent documentary filmmaker who has created a masterpiece, yet doesn’t have the “name” recognition behind him to power his/her film to worldwide prominence or distribution. Sad-because this film deserved to sit on a shelf.
“Space Tourists” (**** – 98 minutes)
Director Christian Frei’s first film was the 2002 Oscar nominated “War Photographer”. This is his fourth film and it is an absolute stunner! Winner of the World Cinema Directing Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the film mainly covers the 2006 Soviet program that allows citizens to put up 20 million to hitch a ride to the International Space Station (now it’s up to 30 mil-in case you were thinking about signing up). In 2006, Iranian-American executive Anousheh Ansari finally fulfilled her lifelong dream of traveling into space and we are along for her glorious ride. The price of the ticket covers half of what it costs for the Soviets to launch into space and, therefore, is a cost effective way to keep the program going for the economically distressed country. The film also covers the folks who track the four booster rockets that land in mostly barren regions of Russia to salvage the valuable metals. Another section of the film deals with the X Prize program that offers 10 million to the first person who successfully puts a rocket in space (Virgin president Sir Richard Branson won the prize in 2008-as if he needs it!). The program now offers 30 million to anyone who lands a vehicle on the moon & is still up for grabs. The documentary is superbly edited and the beautiful photography is breathtaking. And the background score by Jan Garbarek, Edward Artemyev, & Steve Reich is a wonderful complement to the visuals and story. You’ll want to put up the money to venture to the ISS after experiencing one of the finest documentaries I’ve ever seen.
“The Devilles” (*** – 56 minutes)
The east coast premier of a unique love story, “The Devilles” is a fascinating look at a very unusual married suburbanite couple. She is an aging burlesque entertainer who teaches strip tease on the side, he fronts an L.A. punk rock band, and both have been married for 26 years. First time Danish director Nicole Nielson gets straight to the point in this concise doc that is always one breath away from a train wreck of a relationship. Although several of the scenes seem staged for the camera, we are voyeurs as we co-mingle with Teri, Shawn, and their three children during the ups and downs. However, the chemistry & love between the two principals is undeniable and drives the couple to keep it together despite their offbeat lifestyles and infidelities encountered along the way. Just when it appears that a permanent split is inevitable, an effort is made to reunite in the one place that is the perfect site for reconciliation: Las Vegas. All the while, you cannot help rooting for them to work it all out-somehow. A documentary verite that gives an intimate look at what ultimately keeps people together and the effort it takes to have a successful relationship.
“The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan” (*** – 77 minutes)
The world premier of director Henry Cora’s film, executive produced by Danny Glover, is a controversial journey that focuses on the a family’s efforts to get definitive answers as to what happened to the Vietnam Vet since he was last seen over 43 years ago. McKinley may have been captured on the battlefield-or he may have been a deserter. Nolan was a native Texan who was married with child (his son is now over 40 years old), who may have been spotted in 2006 by a retired army sergeant. After he contacted & informed Nolan’s family, & identified McKinley in a photograph, Nolan’s brother initiated a search to determine once and for all if the Vietnam Vet was still alive-and to get answers to those questions that the U.S. Government, inexplicably, has decided not to pursue since 1968. The mystery is further compounded when it is discovered that the missing vet later married a Vietnamese and fathered a child. An adventure ensues that takes the brother into Cambodia & the Khmer Rouge. Meanwhile, his U.S. family refuses to believe that the vet is dead. The film raises more questions than answers and is a bit unfocused. Nonetheless, this is a thorough personal & methodical investigation about the last missing foot soldier from the Vietnam War, which will keep you involved.
“The Tillman Story” (**** – 94 minutes)
Director Amir Bar-Lev is three for three. His first 2 docs, 2001’s “Fighter” & 2007’s “My Kid Could Paint that, were critic favs. This superb film will no doubt add to his glowing portfolio. In 2004, U.S. Army Spc. Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan. This death was splattered across the newspapers because Pat had left a lucrative career as a pro football player for the Arizona Cardinals to voluntary serve his country. After the events of 9/11, he found that it would be more meaningful to battle the enemy overseas than his opponent on the gridiron. However, this tragic story doesn’t end there. The media made him a martyr and used the incident as a propaganda tool as they took this patriotic story and ran with it-something Pat would have abhorred & never approved-if he had his say. However, a secret was being held back. He did not die at the hands of the enemy when three of his army buds were shooting at him. As if that wasn’t enough, the government was investigating this without informing his family. Big mistake. Mom and dad were not the type to take this information, or lack of information, lying down. And the lengths they went to uncover yet another cover up by the U.S. military and the upper echelons of our government are both heartbreaking and awe inspiring. Bar-lev intersperses all of this with a touching emotional portrait of Pat that fully documents what a beautiful soul he was in real life and what a tremendous loss he was to everyone who knew him. Beautifully rendered and magnificently edited, this doc will bring about equal amounts of tears and outrage. The film opened nationwide in August.
“Waiting For “‘Superman'” (*** 1/2 – 102 minutes)
The East Coast premier of Davis Guggenheim’s thorough look at the U.S education system is a real eye-opener. The director of “An Inconvenient Truth” tackles the subject with a combination of humor and hard-cold facts that will have every parent in the audience look twice at the failures of our current school system. Hopefully, the documentary will spurn them into action-instead, as educational reformer Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem’s Children Zone noted, of waiting for it to change on its own. (He is interviewed early on where he refers to watching George Reeves as “Superman” on TV as a young boy growing up in the South Bronx where he was “waiting for Superman” to swoop down and “save” him.) A portion of the film focuses on the efforts of a young inexperienced D.C. school chancellor, Michelle Rhee who recognized the problem. We see her failed efforts to fight the union to rid the system of bad, ineffective teachers who are paid, not on merit, but on longevity. It is clear who is suffering from this archaic protection of tenure-and it is not the teachers. When it becomes obvious as to which institutions (charter schools) hold the most promise, the doc points out the fact that public lotteries are the only “fair” way to determine who can and cannot attend. This game of chance is heartbreaking as the film focuses on a couple of bright, deserving children who must possibly forsake their future educational prospects at the whims of lady luck. Davis’ interesting use of animation and statistics, as well as the outstanding production values, help keeps the interest up for a documentary that zeros in on the crisis facing a system that is so integral to the future prospects of our young-as well as our planet. The limited theatrical release of “Waiting for ‘Superman'” began on September 24.
2010 Guggenheim Symposium honoring Frederick Wiseman (****)
The Charles Guggenheim Symposium began in 2003 to honor pioneers in the art of documentary filmmaking. This year’s recipient is the legendary Frederick Wiseman whose career spans four decades superbly documenting American life. After an entertaining retrospective, the audience was treated to a sneak preview of his upcoming film “Boxing Gym” which began a limited release on October 22. Adroitly moderating the discussion was Charles’ son, Davis Guggenheim, whose movie “Waiting for Superman” played at SILVERDOCS and is reviewed above.
Davis Guggenheim (l) moderates the symposium honoring Frederick Wiseman
The Award Winners:
WO AI MI MOMMY (I LOVE YOU MOMMY) Wins Sterling US Feature Award
Special Jury Mentions went to THE KIDS GROW UP and MY PERESTROIKA
THE WOMAN WITH THE 5 ELEPHANTS Wins Sterling World Feature Award
Special Jury Mention went to STEAM OF LIFE
THIS CHAIR IS NOT ME Wins Sterling Short Award
Special Jury Mentions went to BETWEEN DREAMS and THE POODLE TRAINER
MARWENCOL Wins The Cinematic Vision Award
The WITNESS Award Goes to BUDRUS
Writers Guild of America Documentary Screenplay Award to A FILM UNFINISHED
(Note: This is a partial list.
The Audience Award for a feature goes to MEN WHO SWIM directed by Dylan Williams.
The Audience Award for a short went to BYE BYE NOW directed by Aideen O’Sullivan and Ross Whitaker