Since last week's Doc Talk, which posted near the beginning of the Silverdocs documentary festival, I've seen a lot more titles to report on from my first, lengthy visit to Silver Springs, Maryland. Unfortunately I can't review everything, or even give as much attention to each as I would like, but I will try to highlight most of what I watched, especially the stuff I liked. Additionally, following the festival wrap-up, I take a look at two non-Silverdocs films, one that's opening this week in theaters and one that arrives on DVD.
Festival Report: 2010 AFI Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Festival
As I noted in my previous column, I had to take a break from heavy subject matter, particularly human rights-issue films. So, I avoided the Peacebuilding on Screen program, which partnered the fest with the U.S. Institute of Peace. I may have missed another film as amazing as War Don Don, which was a part of the program, but I just couldn't deal with depressing stories. I did at least attempt La Isla - Archives of a Tragedy, about discovered secret police documents related to disappeared citizens, and recognized some quality filmmaking. My head was just not in it.
I also couldn't bear the downer of a tale presented in Familia, the second film I walked out of due to my preference for "fun" docs. From there, I stumbled into something with relative subject matter -- a struggling Latin American family -- yet Circo is set in a Mexican circus and has a much lighter tone. It's not great, but I love films taking place under the big top, so despite its being perfect reality show fodder, I did enjoy the child performers and behind-the-scenes look at a multi-generational family-operated traveling operation.
Docs about families were common to the fest. In addition to those two, I saw some very subjective works in which filmmakers focused their lens on close relatives (see my review of both The Kids Grow Up and Monica & David here). And there was also the unbelievably scrupulous clan of The Tillman Story (see my review here) and the astonishingly determined group investigating The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan, a soldier who went AWOL during Vietnam.
I didn't see half of what all would qualify, but my favorite of all the docs I caught at the fest is Last Train Home (pictured above), about a divided Chinese family that is shot so gorgeously and objectively that had this not been a documentary-centered event I might not have realized it was a non-fiction film. It is ironic that in my attempt to seek out mostly upbeat works I came away absolutely loving this heartbreaking doc, though I will note that while heavy on drama and the representation of hardship among migrant workers in modern China, new filmmaker Lixin Fan (who previously worked multiple duties on Up the Yangtze) gives a respectfully detached portrayal and isn't heavy-handed. The film opens in limited release this September/October, and I urge you to see it.
One of the ways I avoided anything too heavy was by attending anything described as humorous, satirical, slapstick, etc. I laughed the hardest, often to tears, during The Invention of Dr. Nakamats (pictured above) a fairly short profile on the eponymous Japanese inventor, an odd figure who's like the missing link between Thomas Edison and Ron Popeil -- with maybe a bit of Howard Hughes thrown in. Calling him eccentric would be an understatement. He's the sort of character made to be documented, but the film also works as a look at social customs and manners in Japan. Just don't tell the egocentric Nakamats that the doc is potentially about anything more than just him.
I also laughed a good deal during The Red Chapel, which is basically like Borat for the people of North Korea -- not that they would or could watch it. I'm still pondering its fairness and its actual level of truthfulness (I kept wanting one of the characters to be revealed as a faker), but I also wonder if I'd ever see something with such access to the DPRK. I will definitely be seeing the experimental documentary Goodbye, How Are You? again at some point, if only because its mix of visual puns and subtitled aphorisms makes it difficult to swallow in one sitting. I actually left wanting to learn Serbian just so I could better appreciate all the dark satire in my next viewing.
As for the historical films I took in over the fest, both were fairly sad at times but also about events far enough in the past that their tragedies weren't as unbearable as contemporary-cause docs. Freedom Riders is the latest from Stanley Nelson (Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple), and is another terrific -- albeit a tad too long -- document of an early incident related to the civil rights movement, somewhat like his The Murder of Emmett Till. Making the Boys, a look at the history and legacy of Mart Crowley's groundbreaking homosexual-based play The Boys in the Band, is great for its early bits involving '60s Hollywood and the way it also functions as a history of gay New York in the latter half of the 20th century.
Stay tuned to Cinematical for one final review I have to deliver from Silverdocs, of a "film" like none I've seen before.
In Theaters: Great Directors
Earlier this year screenwriters got their own focus in the doc Tales from the Script. Now the directors get their spotlight. Actually I think all the filmmakers represented in Great Directors are also writers, and many, such as Catherine Breillat and John Sayles talk about that craft. The film is basically just an interwoven series of sit-down interviews with masters of all ages and styles (and a fair mix of men and women), including Bertolucci, Linklater, Varda, Lynch, Loach, Cavani, Frears and Haynes. Additionally the work of Fellini, De Sica, Fassbender, Passolini and other deceased greats is somewhat discussed, usually if brought up as a major influence on one of those interviewed.
I don't know if any of the talks go into material that can't already be found in print interviews or other media, but I'm sure regardless this film will be of interest to many film buffs. Like me, though, you are certain to be turned off by the doc's writer/director, Angela Ismailos, who makes a point to feature plenty of reaction shots of herself during each interview, as well as footage of herself visiting the exterior of the BBC headquarters, Paramount Pictures and other locales while also delivering a self-indulgent voice-over narration. Interestingly enough, she reminded me a lot of Oliver Stone in his new vanity project, the doc South of the Border. Like that film, Great Directors was a disappointment because of its egocentric structure.
On DVD: Please Remove Your Shoes
If you fly a lot, you should check out this revealing documentary about the FAA and TSA and the problems with their operations before and since 9/11. Of course, if you fly a lot, the film will likely make you much more worried about your safety. Whether or not it is a wholly factual film -- the TSA was invited to correct or refute any claims yet declined. But docs like this are always torn apart after the fact -- it is not a very visually stimulating work. In fact it's one of those uncinematic docs where you don't actually need to watch anything on the screen, only listen to the testimonies from its former air marshals and other whistle-blowers. Almost a decade since 9/11, it may seem the film is a bit late-coming, but I guess if all its concerns are still going on then better late than never.