Films seen, and briefly reviewed:
NORTH FROM CALABRIA
THE BLACK POWER MIXTAPE 1967-1975
THE PRUITT-IGOE MYTH
True/False impresses me a little more each year. My third consecutive visit to Columbia, Missouri’s doc film fest was just as satisfying as last year’s even though I have yet to fall in love with any of the films I experienced there – it might take a little time for some of these to settle. Unfortunately, I also left a day earlier than expected, missing out on three of the films I was most looking forward to coming in to the fest.
There are dozens of reasons to love the fest, of course, first and foremost is the fabulous array of docs programmed (39 features, I think). This year there were a handful of “hybrid” docs that explore tensions related to the form – this was emphasized by a panel on the topic – the true/false straddle, if you will. I’m not sure if this was the first year a mockumentary was programmed, but I’m currently sitting with the feeling that it was a nice addition. While I don’t think the fest has any strands per se, there were a couple of locally made docs, which is a testament to the vibrancy of film in this relatively small town. There seems to be a film or three each year that nears experimental work, though I wouldn’t call anything I’ve seen there experimental (and it is quite possible I’ve missed them – maybe last year’s DISORDER? which was a favorite of mine), it is great to see such breadth in programming. Short film (21 this year, if my count is correct) is represented in both curated groups that fill blocks (usually two blocks, it seems) as well as occasionally paired with features. Each year also sees a handful of Secret Screenings that will receive official premiers at future festivals. Of course, there is the Oscar-fodder, crowd-pleasers that pack the 1,200 seat Missouri theatre to the gills, often inspiring appreciative standing ovations. Did I mention that directors, producers, cast, and/or crew are almost always present? They are, and after pretty much every screening there is a little Q & A with them. Sometimes the moderators ruin things a bit with their desire to share the spotlight, and of course, there is always the opportunity for audience members to slow things down with obvious, asinine, or self-promotional comments or questions, but it is always great to get a sense of who it is that made the films.
But wait, there’s more! You wanna get your mind blown by great programming? Each screening is curated with music! Before each show the waiting audience is entertained by musicians local and from corners of the US (34 acts this year). While there are some suspect pairings, none of the bookings will have you question why they are there. Mentioned above, there are also the panels, which I really need to make more time for in future visits, this year’s fest had ten of them programmed throughout the weekend. There are dozens of parties, official and not, that you’ll hear about all weekend. There is creative programming such as the wildly popular Gimmie Truth! (which I have yet to experience) to Campfire Stories (why, oh, why didn’t I go?!!) or this (and last) year’s Speculative Stroll led by Speed Levitch (check the fantastic film THE CRUISE for an idea what this might look like).
The festival’s glue is the highly appreciated volunteers – circa 700 this year they kept repeating. They are ever present and seemingly always positive. Just as awesome though are all the folks taking over the town to eat, sleep, and breathe documentary. Wherever you turn folks are talking about these films. Waiting in line is always an opportunity to hear about what needs to be seen and avoided (it sank in this year that I need to avoid popular opinion in these matters :) – it is also just as likely that you’ll drum up conversation about films and festivals past.
That said, let me share some quick thoughts on the films I caught this year, with hope that I write a bit more thickly about some of them later. Going in to the fest there were two films that I knew I was not going to miss – THE INTERRUPTERS and PROJECT NIM. Just under must-see status I had a fairly large group of titles that I was not going to arrange everything around, but I would hopefully catch: RESURRECT DEAD; FOREIGN PARTS; LA BOCCA DEL LUPO; THE BLACK POWER MIXTAPE 1967-1975; ZIELINSKI; FAKE IT SO REAL; ARMADILLO; YOU ARE ALL CAPTAINS; and, LIFE IN A DAY – of those nine, I caught only three, had I not left early, I would have caught three more. Which means, of the (only) nine films I did catch, four weren’t on my radar going in, and of those four, two of them were my favorites of the fest.
Due to my poverty, inability to budget, and general inertia I didn’t buy a pass until they were sold out (thanks again to most awesome fest insiders for responding to my desperate tweet) leaving me with tickets for films that I would not have chosen as priorities. From this, I had a ticket to BUCK, a film about a horse whisperer. I had no intention of going to this Friday night screening even though I had a ticket, but two strike-outs with the Q earlier in the day made us want to finish out the night in an easy way, with at least some film under our belts. Thankfully, the universe directed us to this quiet little gem. First-time filmmaker Cindy Meehl [the fact that this was female directed also made it easier for us to resign ourselves to this one] helms this quiet character study of once abused boy Buck. While the film is fairly straightforward, and arguably repetitive, its strength comes from a pairing of Meehl’s lovely framing of the excessively charismatic and diminutive Buck with his deeply ethical being. There is nothing particularly outstanding about the film’s form or structure (though, again, there is something just right about Meehl’s framing of Buck), the film’s power comes from Meehl highlighting Buck’s rigorously ethical treatment of the horses (and people) he works with. Not only is there the lesson that our treatment of animals reflects who – and how – we are as people, he suggests that our interaction with the horses – and others – is about seeing ourselves not as separate but as one. I’m a sucker for animal morality films (AU HAZARD BALTHAZAR and UMBERTO D are two of my faves) and BUCK had me crying all film long. Just beautiful.
Similarly, PROJECT NIM leaned on the unethical treatment of chimp protagonist Nim to make a statement about animal rights and animal testing. The buzz out of Sundance only heightened my interest in seeing this story brought to screen by the impressive James Marsh (I’m quite a fan of his MAN ON WIRE and WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP (which also screened at the festival, though I missed it)), but something about this one left me wanting. I had no idea what to expect going in, and was looking forward to a light-hearted film to relax after just seeing THE INTERRUPTERS and BLACK POWER MIXTAPE, instead I quickly realized that this will be a different film as it opens on newborn Nim being stolen from his mother, who we learn also had her previous five babies stolen after birth. It still didn’t sink in until maybe the halfway point that this is meant to be an animal rights film and against animal testing. The film tracks Nim’s movement from person to person (he grew up with only human, no chimp, contact) punctuated by the presence of the film’s villain, Project Nim head, Herb Terrace, who was leading a study on language acquisition in chimps (I should note that Marsh denied the fact that Herb was a villain in a post-screening Q&A session). Perhaps if I had caught NIM before BUCK my opinion on the two might be flipped – they espouse the same ethic of treating humans and animals more humanely. But something about NIM didn’t quite work for me. Perhaps it was the expectations going in, perhaps it was the quirky/precious intros and outros of characters, or perhaps it was the presence of the douchy villain Herb – whatever it was, I left liking, not loving NIM, even though I do love the ideology behind it. I am looking forward to giving this one another chance soon.
Second chances are the name of the game for Steve “HOOP DREAMS” James’ THE INTERRUPTERS. The film is a character study of three “violence interrupters” – former gang members currently working with Chicago’s Cease Fire organization to stop retaliatory violence before it occurs. The film makes clear that former gang members need not be feared and are indeed potentially valuable members of society – arguably more valuable members of society than most – and are worthy of a second chance. The interrupters hope to show other gang members – and non-gang members, for that matter – that they too are worthy of a second chance, and that their instincts to commit violent acts in retaliation will only lead to further pain and sadness, not only for themselves, but for those they love, and those they don’t know. The organization’s director, Gary Slutkin, makes the point that violence is virus-like and does not morally define those it infects. We are shown interrupters kidnapping folks that are ready to get violent, mediating between opposing forces, as well as reflecting on their previous lives and their callings to do tis work. Like NIM, I went into THE INTERRUPTERS with high expectations and was generally pleased with the film, though it has yet to sink in as a great film. Clearly, the work of the interrupters themselves is great and they are all exceptionally charismatic, and the film itself is a quite nice character study of the three. I’m also looking forward to revisiting this one to see if I can firm up my appreciation of the portraits rendered, because I think it was quite good, while shaking the sense that the film was too long. Could such portraits have been made cutting a few scenes? My gut tells me yes. This film is clearly going to be a valuable policy tool in addressing urban violence, I just think it might be more effective if it were tightened a bit. In light of the film’s value, I acknowledge my complaint is petty and, as @conservadora tweeted: "My heart has been broken by the stunningly heartful protagonists in @theinterrupters. They're an inspiration for healing all of humanity."
Healing humanity took on a different form in Swedish director Goran Olsson’s THE BLACK POWER MIXTAPE 1967-1975. The film primarily consists of archival footage Swedish media took in America of (mostly) Black Power activists during the titular 1967-1975. The healing of MIXTAPE is many faceted and notably in the interesting perspective of the movement from a sympathetic perspective. Here, black power leaders are portrayed not as the wild radicals many in the US likely believe, but as the normal(esque), thoughtful, and committed social workers they were. They are shown as willing to use violence against those that use violence against them, sadly, as the film argues, they were unable to effectively fight the more pernicious war against them as flooded drugs and state power. The film’s crisp formal properties ought to be a standard for educational and historical docs. The film begins to feel a bit unwieldy as it takes on a fairly large shift in the movement with a likely controversial thesis, but that is just one of many things I quite liked about it.
Crisp formal properties would have helped local filmmaker Chad Friedrichs’ THE PRUITT-IGOE MYTH. Claiming a film on the St Louis Pruitt-Igoe housing project as “a modernist exercise in utopian habitats”, the film delivers little on P-I as modernist or utopian, instead pasting loads of archival footage together in hopes of hitting something. I’ll pause to credit the film (1) as a good idea; (2) for using voices of former residents; and (3) showing us a lot of pretty great archival footage. Unfortunately, what could have been good, or even great, has left me confused about just about every decision made - I'd love to hear from the filmmakers about why certain choices were made.
It was a festival insider that turned me on to FOREIGN PARTS. Though I had been curious about it before hearing the suggestion, I reckoned the recommendation would lead me to gold. Well, I’m not yet sure it did. A fairly ambient piece that seems to want to capture a sense of the junkyard-esque community next to the Mets’ stadium, the film never quite fell into rhythm for me. We get a pretty great portrait of place, including a rough sketch of a few of the people that call the area home. Also pretty great are the handful of interactions folks are having with the filmmakers behind the camera, including probably the best dance scene ever filmed. The Sunday morning screening I attended was maybe two-thirds full and the chapel sadly gushed audience once the credits hit – obscuring the remainder of the film’s audio with credit roll and leaving the filmmaker to a near-empty venue for Q&A (sorry, I also left :( )If I have the opportunity to catch this in the theatre again I will make it happen, I’m looking forward to how this one settles with me.
Not sure what to say about TROLL HUNTER, I think I am happy that True/False included a mockumentary, but I am also (a) curious why, and (b) wondering why this one. As I briefly wrote about before, the trend of doc festivals programming fiction seems to be on the rise. Generously, the move is clearly about continued debate about the genre; less charitably, it is a marketing move to claim a kissing-cousin. I think Ben Godar has a pretty good take on the film:
But once it's clear the film is all invention, I wanted the pacing and beats of a narrative arc. If you don't have the storytelling of narrative and you don't have the "reality" of documentary, what do you have?
While the inclusion of mockumentary is kinda nice and fun, I don’t think this film had much to offer, which got me thinking – is there any mockumentary that has anything to offer a doc fest? Sure the general idea of mockumentary is worthwhile in considering the genre, but what does any specific mockumentary bring? Aside from curating an interesting sidebar, my gut is that the value in including them is probably limited to a bit of a release from dealing with what is otherwise pretty real stuff. I’d love to hear some programmer’s thoughts on this.
Another non-traditional and non-mainstream selection, Marcin Sauter’s NORTH FROM CALABRIA looks at a small Polish town’s annual festival. The rub is that filmmaker Sauter brought along about a dozen performers to instill a different energy into the town - "shaking up the fishbowl" is apparently something one of film-school mentors would say. During a panel on hybrid docs, Sauter described his film as “an attempt to make a film about a place that didn’t exist” – which is what necessitated my going. The film shoots over a month of preparations for the festival, getting a glimpse of all sorts of interactions from culinary classes, including snail hunting, to filmmaking and play rehearsals. During the Q&A session we found out that the townspeople continued putting on plays – something inspired by the instigators. I followed-up with a question of whether this is what he meant by making a film about a place that didn’t exist, while I think some of my question was lost in translation, he replied that the fact that the town continued to pursue theatre was his greatest accomplishment as a documentarian. Anyway, the film was pretty great – one of my two faves of the fest. Can't wait to catch this again, absolutely love the Juenet-like opening of the town with the fantastic score.
Another fave was Jon Foy’s RESURRECT DEAD: THE MYSTERY OF THE TOYNBEE TILES, which plays out as a street art mystery. The film is more about our public urges and lives that conflict with our desires to remain private and the obligations we have to one another despite the perceived logic of our beliefs. Perhaps it was my tiredness, but it seemed like the final twenty-ish minutes of the film lost a little crispness and became a bit expository. Aside that, the film performs a pretty beautiful ethic that we would all be better off taking note of.
For the festival and Uprise bakery/Ragtag complex I could almost see myself living in this little Missouri college town.
I can't wait until next year.