Monday, June 22, 2009

SilverDocs Wrap-Up

So 17 screenings later and there is much to say about this years SilverDocs. I could compare this with last years or the year before, but really I the consistent quality from year to year speaks volumes about how good a festival it is. Multiple film makers literally gushed about how great SilverDocs is, and you couldn't pick a much nicer venue than the AFI Silver.

Here are some things I noted:

* A little text goes a long way. Act of God was a good documentary about lightning strike and featuring delightful stories with Paul Auster and Fred Frith. But the main section of the film focused on a town in Mexico where a number of children killed in lightning strikes is a bit fuzzy. One screen of text to explain the incident would have gone a long way to clearing it up. My Neighbor My Killer, about public trials held in Rwanda also would have benefited from a bit more text, especially since one of the characters basically enters mid-film.

* There are many ways to approach Africa. I wound up seeing three Africa related docs, My Neighbor My Killer, Good Fortune and Episode 3: Enjoy Poverty. The maker of Volume 3 Renzo Martens was the only one to acknowledge and embrace the false artifice of a documentary targeted for Western audiences. His movie served as a critique of basically everyone, not just Western companies or genocidal killers. And without some context, Episode 3 film is borderline offensive. But beyond it's shock value (Martens tells a family they will always be poor, and travels around Congo with a sign saying "Enjoy Poverty") it spoke most honestly to the fact that no one is above reproach and that as much as people will try, most documentaries won't change the world.

* Celebrities aren't what they used to be. The featured director this year was Albert Maysles, and on of the collections of his shorts that was shown featured some really wonderful and intimate portraits of Brando, Orson Welles, Capote and Cristo with Jean Claude. The Brando short is especially wonderful. Doing a series of unenjoyable interviews to promote a film, he avoids any easy answers and turns many of the questions back on the interviewers. Yet he remains ever so charming through it. The other Maysles screening I saw was Salesmen a funny and sad look at bible salesmen during the '60s first in their native Boston, then in sunny Florida.

* It's tough to get into the mind of a genius but you can get very close. The composer/inventor/visual artist Trimpin is the subject of one of the best documentaries I saw. Originally from the Germany area where they make cuckoo clocks, he now earns his living creating completely original musical things ranging from sound installations in museums to composed works with groups like the Kronos Quartet. There are a few moments in the film where you can see that little bit of a spark emerging. At one point he goes into the kitchen during a meeting with Kronos Quartet and rather then getting a drink of water, he pulls out a number of pots and pans and starts testing their resonance. At another point, he as created a series of complex devices to send sounds through the glass tubes used to make TVs. As he polishes the tubes he gets an amazing tone. He tries move the cloth against the glass again and gets another tone. Then he grabs a violin bow and starts bowing the tube to get a similar effect.

* Competition is everywhere. I saw three "sports" movies, Ella Es El Matdor about two female matadors in Spain, Facing Ali featuring ten fighters telling their stories through their fights with Muhammad Ali, and Splitting Hairs about competitive beard growing. All three were great and afterwards I wanted to go on youtube and watch more of the sports. One thing I do wish was that the film makers had taken a bit more time in the movies just to provide a good long 10 minute sequence of their competition -- two or three rounds with Ali or an extended sequence of the bullfighting. These are sports that just aren't seen that much in popular culture and I think the inherent art would come out even more with one or two longer sequences rather than quick cuts.

And these are the best movies I saw:

#1 - Ella Es El Matador
#2 - The September Issue - A look at the making of the biggest (literally) issue of Vogue
#3 - Facing Ali
#4 - Trimpin: The Sound of Invention
#5 - Time of Their Lives - Three women, two of whom were over 100 years old, still leading full lives in an assisted living facility

[Addendum: I forgot to mention one other really good movie -- A Good Man -- which tells the story of a Australian farmer, his paraplegic wife, and his dreams of opening a brothel to make ends meet. It's a comedy. Really.]

Honorable Mention: Best Worst Movie - A funny little chronicle about the cult of Troll 2


Jstone said...

My advice to documentarians:

Make your film about something. The one short about Chinese White Jade scavengers was terrible. Nothing happened at all. Look we're pointing a camera at some Chinese guys who are poor so when they can't farm they dig in a river for Jade. We don't know if they find any, or anything about them at all, we just wanted to point our camera over there.

NO! Tell me something, anything and maybe its worth the 15 minutes I just spent watching your movie.

David Pratt said...

I had the good fortune to view two very enjoyable documentaries during a Jewish Film Festival at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington a few weeks ago.

The first, "The Beetle", I watched with Mr. Schlafstein. Though at some parts it was obviously staged, it nonetheless tells a sweet story about a man and his love for a beat-up old car. Specifically when this love runs head-on into the disapproval of his pregnant wife.

The second, "Holy Land Hardball" was a very feel-good film about the hardship faced in trying to bring baseball to Israel, and the determination that saw the IBL complete an entire season and fulfill a lot of dreams.

Scotty said...

On the matter of high-concept documentaries, anybody wanna see Transformers with me?

B.Graham said...

I was so incredibly bummed I couldn't participate in the festival, so thanks for wrapping them up for me. That's the downside of working in entertainment, I guess; I can never see anything because I'm always working on something.

and @David: I definitely thought it said "Holy Land, Hardball!", in the manner that Robin might say to Batman.

Jason Heat said...

I thought 'The Beetle' was okay, but I really enjoyed 'Holy Land Hardball' even as a non-sports fan I was totally into it and rooting for the IBL to succeed.

Here's to baseball in Israel.

I was also surprisingly impressed by the quality of films in the festival at the JCC - my favorites being 'The Secrets' and 'Noodle" Both really good films. I reccomend the festival for people next year.

Meg said...

You left out the most important sport movie of the festival: Splitting Hairs. I see no reason why it can't be a legit spectator sport. We watched a match immediately after the showing, in fact.