Written by: FFT Webmaster | August 21st, 2009
The 7th AFI SILVERDOCS Documentary Film Festival was one of its best -not so much because it presented a multitude of sure fire hits, but because of its consistency of quality produced documentaries. The 122 selected films from 58 countries (!), from 1,983 entries, plus 12 retrospective docs literally offered something for everyone. Its growing status as one of the most important documentary film festivals on the planet is well earned. Credit new Artistic Director Skye Sitney (moving over from her Programming Director chair after 3 years) and her staff for putting together an incredibly entertaining 8 days-despite the down-turned economy that the festival faced this year.
Albert Maysles (Guggenheim Symposium honoree) & SIVERDOCS and Artistic Dir. Skye Sitney after the screening of Maysles “Salesman”
Artists Jeanne-Claude & Cristo pay tribute to Albert Maysles at the Guggenheim Symposium
Academy Award winning dir. Barbara Kopple introduces Albert Maysles at the Guggenheim Symposium
TOP 5 AT THE 7TH AFI SILVERDOCS
(1) * The Cove
(1) * More Than a Game
(2) Facing Ali
(4) Mugabe and the White Hunter
(5) ** The Windmill Movie
(5) ** Trimpin: The Sound Of Invention
* Tied for 1st Place
** Tied for 5th Place
Winner of the Sterling U.S. Feature Award, this was the East Coast premier of a no holds barred, blood and guts peak into one incredibly dysfunctional family in upper state N.Y. Directed by first-time filmmakers Michael Palmieri, who cut his chops working with cartoonist Gary Trudeau and who directed a multitude of music videos, and Donal Mosher, whose family is the focus of the proceedings, we are introduced to 4 generations of this working-class family. There is mom Dottie who is married to Vietnam Vet Don who clearly suffers from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. Her daughter, Donna, has endured a couple of abusive relationships. Then there are Donna’s 2 daughters: Daneal, a teenager with a baby, Ruby, whose father, Daneal’s ex-husband, is a wife abuser himself; and preteen Desi, whose father is in prison. So it becomes very clear early-on that the Mosher women have trouble picking suitable mates, to say the least. Is this something being passed on generation after generation? Is it a learned behavior? Or, is it just bad luck or lack of choices in their community? Whatever the reason(s), there is room for hope in this quagmire of human dysfunction in the presence of Desi who seems to “get it” and maturely and intelligently comments way beyond her years throughout the film on the craziness around her. As if these characters weren’t enough, we are then introduced to Denise, Don’s estranged sister who, besides being a total loner, is a practicing witch who likes to hang out in a cemetery with her ghost friends! Add in a foster child (!) who is a practicing kleptomaniac, and you would think this was a narrative from a bad grade C movie. Beginning on Halloween (a fitting holiday for these folks) and ending a year later on the same celebration, the film is incredibly intimate-helped immeasurably, I’m certain, by the behind the camera presence of the outsider Mosher (he is never referred to and doesn’t appears on-camera) who somehow escaped the drama encircling this family by leaving & living his life on the West Coast far away from his roots. A powerful account that, sadly, may just be a microcosm of too many such families in America.
The Audience Award winner is director Louie Psihoyos’ terrific documentary which is one of the most important investigative pieces you will ever see. Rolling Stone called it a cross between Flipper & “The Bourne Identity”. I’d say between Flipper and “Mission Impossible” is a closer description of this masterful work. Psihoyos is one of the world’s top photographers who, along with his partner, Jim Clark, founded The Oceanic Preservation Society-dedicated to protecting the oceans. The film deals with the unspeakable Japanese slaughter of dolphins-creatures, who some claim, are as intelligent, if not more so, than humans. Ric O’Barry for 3 years in the ’60’s naively trained the 5 TV Flippers which started the multibillion-dollar aquatic industry. He quit this lucrative job when the #1 Dolphin, Cathy, in a fit of depression, committed suicide in his arms by closing its air hole. Rick then began a life-long crusade to free captive dolphins. We meet him at the film’s start traveling incognito around Taiji, Japan. The Japanese, you see, are onto him, as they are trying to hide from the world their slaughter of thousands of dolphins each year off the coast of Japan while selling the prize catch to aquatic parks for up to $250,000 each. And with the mercury content in dolphins climbing, their human consumption appears to be incredibly dangerous. So what better way for them to make even more money by labeling it as whale meat and selling it to Japanese schools. In pursuit of exposing this insanity to the world, O’Barry recruits a team of aquatic professionals: underwater sound and camera pros, special effects artists from Industrial Light & Magic, marine explorers, and environmental activists-all trying to document the tragedy for the entire world to see. The last half hour of the film will rival any suspenseful action narrative Hollywood could ever produce! And the result will have you on the edge of your seat while you witness one of the greatest crimes man has ever perpetrated against nature. The cinematography and score is as stunning as the horror on screen. The film should elicit a positive proactive response from most everyone who screens this masterpiece. “The Cove” is having a limited release on July 31st by Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate.
FFT Related: Interview with THE COVE Director Louie Psihoyos
“Mugabe and the White African”
The Sterling World Feature award winner deals with the efforts of the rightful owner of a Zimbabwe farm to not only retain his property, but also, fight for his life in one of the most politically volatile countries in Africa. Mugabe is Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and the white African is 75-year grandfather and landowner, Michael Campbell. In 2000, the dictator put his land reform program in motion which gave him carte blanche to seize white owned farms under the guise as belonging to the people of Zimbabwe-people who, in many instances, have no knowledge or interest in farming. As a result, the country descended into economic disarray with its citizens suffering from famine, illness, and an inability to produce enough food. Despite employing and caring for hundreds of black workers and their families, Mike has endured years of intimidation from the numerous attempts of the government to gain control of his property. In an effort to retain it, with the aid of his son-in-law, Ben Freeth, he attempts to fight for retention by taking his case to the South African Development Community-an impartial International court which is part of the regional African cooperation of countries. Over the course of a year, the family sees repeated postponements and rescheduling and, in between dates, the family is subjected to even more intimidation & violence in an attempt by the government to discourage them from staying and to vacate Campbell’s rightfully owned land. The drama doles out suspense by the bucket loads as each court delay brings increasing tension to the family who are attempting to fight for their rights under a dictator who is determined to destroy them. Directors Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson have put themselves in direct danger while secretly filming the action (the press is banned in Zimbabwe), making the filmic achievement all the more remarkable. The film plays out like a carefully scripted mystery and Andrew’s cinematography is superb making this film well deserving of its award. A truly unforgettable David vs. Goliath story that has worldwide human rights significance involving a fight for justice against one of the most ruthless dictators on the planet.
“Off and Running”
The Writers Guild of American Documentary Screenplay Award winner features Avery Klein-Cloud’s search for her identity, in general, and her birth mother, in particular. This is a wonderful family, coming-of-age portrait of an African-American girl whose adopted parents just happen to be Jewish Lesbians and whose siblings include a mixed- raced brother & a Korean-American toddler. Despite growing up in a loving nurturing household (Avery calls it “the United Nations”), Avery’s search is affecting everything in her life: her studies, her track aspirations, and, more importantly, her relationship with her brother and parents. Director Nicole Opper’s cameras are there to record some of the most intimate moments of Avery’s life. The drama that unfolds is heart wrenching and heart breaking as we watch her deal with emotions that most of us will never imagine or experience. The film is scheduled to be shown on the PBS series P.O.V. in 2010.
The Cinematic Vision Award Winner, this small quiet Korean film by first time director Lee Chung-ryoul, refers to the old partner of an elderly S. Korean rice Farmer, Mr. Lee. And, no, it isn’t Mrs. Lee, his incessantly nagging spouse. The old partner is Mr. Lee’s true companion: his ox. The doc takes us to a remote South Korean village where, using old-fashioned tools to farm their trade, the Lees have managed to raise 9 children. Instead of retiring into the sunset, we see Mr. & Mrs. Lee as they continue to toil on their farm with the aid of the old ox that has been with them for over 30 years. Mr. Lee has refused to use modern pesticides for fear it will harm the ox and even works to feed it natural grass instead of man-made feed. He is determined to see him die so that he can bury the animal himself. Mr. Lee has taken such a liking to his 40 year-old “pet” (they usually don’t last past age 15) that he refuses to sell the animal-to the utter dismay of Mrs. Lee who is constantly bemoaning her fate as a workhorse at this elderly age. In fact, it is her incessant rant over and over that makes the 77 minutes seem a lot longer. You figure out quickly why Mr. Lee is more taken to the ox than to his human partner. However, the doc does take you to a place on earth and a way of life that one would probably never encounter (and for that reason, “Old Partner” gains a half star in my overall rating) while operating at a pace that moves as slowly as that ox-if not slower.
Award winning shorts
Shorts directors (from l to r) Eva Weber (“Steel Homes”), Murray Fredericks (“Salt”-winner of the Short Special Jury Mention), & Fabian Daub (“Left Behind”)
“12 Notes Down”
The Sterling Short Winner by Danish Director Andreas Koefoed is an emotional short that concentrates on Jorgis, an accomplished 14 year-old performer in the Copenhagen Royal Chapel Choir, who learns how to deal with a life changing event. You see, his voice is changing and, despite a storied career traveling all over Europe with the choir, he must now come face-to-face with the reality that, by continuing in the choir, he risks permanent damage to his angelic voice. The final moments of him singing in his last performance is heartbreaking and moving as he realizes that it is time to move on from something that has totally defined him in his short existence. As wonderful as this short is, my pick would have been the stunning Special Jury Mention, “Salt”.
The Short Special Jury Mention went to this stunningly beautifully photographed piece that chronicles renowned Australian photo-artist Murray Fredericks (who also directed along with Michael Angus) on his project to photograph the barren salt flats of Lake Eyre in South Australia. Fredericks has been camping out on the lake 5 weeks at a time for the last 6 years photographing the landscape (which is totally flat in all directions). Using time-lapse photography and breathtaking cinematography, you see Murray grapple with the essence of living in solitude and dealing with the elements (& erratic equipment) while recording a video diary of his experience on one of his excursions. The only contact he made were periodic satellite calls to his family in Sydney. The haunting soundtrack by Aajinta perfectly compliments this journey of mind and spirit. This is an absolutely unforgettable short that profoundly reflects on the beauty of the earth in a very minimal setting. Fredericks was present at the screening and told me that he has had an exhibition of his photographs in Australia but not yet in The States. Hopefully, they will make their way across the pond someday soon!
“More Than a Game”
The 7th annual SILVERDOCS festival kicks off in a big way. Kristopher Belman’s stunning doc compares in every way with what is considered the standard in sports docs, 1994’s “Hoop Dreams”. Belman’s amazing initial effort (he wrote and co-produced it as well) chronicles, over a 9 year time span, the “Fab Five”. These were 5 African-American youths from Akron Ohio, 4 of whom have been playing basketball together since they were 11, who went to great lengths to stay together at any cost to win a championship. For example, when one of them decided to attend the elite St. Vincent-St. Mary school, a predominantly white school, the rest of them passed up going to a closer predominantly black school, so as not to break up their longtime chemistry-to the dismay and scorn of their community. Oh, and one of those players happens to be LeBron James-who went straight to the NBA from that same high school to become one the most famous NBA players on the planet. However, even though most of the media ads will no doubt prominently display James’ mug, don’t be mislead. This is not his story alone. In fact, he was merely one fifth of the equation. It is more a story about their assistant coach, Dru Joyce II, who replaced SVSM’s already successful head coach who suddenly left for greener pastures during their junior year, and who instilled valuable life lessons both on and off the court. Father of little Dru, the diminutive point guard, Dru Sr. would try and right the ship after the head coach’s defection to try and lead the team to a championship. All the while, James was being touted as “The Chosen One” by Sports Illustrated placing him on its front cover (the first high school player ever to achieve that honor) and their games were being nationally televised on ESPN because of it. Belman has created an extraordinary achievement as he and co-screenwriter Brad Hogan have structured this film like a narrative and have successfully made it dramatic enough, despite its known ending, to make it seem fresh and exciting. The score by producer Harvey Mason Jr. is superlative and “today”. “More Than a Game” is scheduled for limited nationwide release by Lionsgate on October 2nd.
This East Coast premier is from award winning film, novelist, screenwriter and producer, Pete McCormack’s (“Uganda Rising”). This stunning masterpiece chronicles Muhammad Ali’s brilliant career. Using archival footage, and solely the spoken words of 10 of his rivals (there is no superfluous narration), you will undoubtedly obtain a new found understanding and respect for this cultural icon that many consider the greatest heavyweight champion ever. Covering his career from 1963-1980, the personal accounts of such fighters as George Chuvalo, Henry Cooper, George Forman, Joe Frazier, and, even Leon Spinks are equally touching, comical, insightful, and, ultimately inspiring. McCormack has integrated the fight clips and interviews with an editing style that never bores and provides rare insight into Ali “the man”, as well as Ali “the fighter” that will keep you thoroughly entertained throughout. It is truly heartbreaking to see and hear these legendary boxers (the use of subtitles is an absolute necessity as years of fighting have taken quite a toll on these legendary figures). However, their stories and recollections of a man who now suffers the affects of fight-induced Parkinson’s disease (most likely caused by the repeated blows to the back of his neck), will have you enthralled. The film was picked up by Lionsgate who will release it in New York and L.A. on July 10th.
“The Time of Their Lives”
Dir. Jocelyn Commack (“The Time of Their Lives”)
Off to merry ‘ole England for the East Coast premier of Jocelyn Cammack’s charming portrait of 3 verrrry wise old ladies: ex-journalist 101-year-old Rose, ex-sex therapist 102-year-old Hetty, and ex-counselor 87-year-old Alison. The film gives a quiet introspective look into the life philosophy of these 3 ladies residing in the Mary Feilding Guild-a unique North London residential home-which is more like a hotel than a home. Housing less than 30 occupants, this isn’t your usual depressing, invalid-filled nursing home as they don’t accept people with bad mobility problems, regular incontinence, dementia or other mental illness. In this setting you get to follow and hear the ladies expound on a wide range of subjects based on their life experiences and observations. The film moves at a deliberate pace allowing you to take in, not only the surroundings but the wondrous and varied lives of these senior citizens. Although you realize that their days on the planet are limited, you sense their joie de vive their long journey has brought to them. The Chinese say that old people are to be considered treasures. Watching this film, I’d have to concur wholeheartedly.
“No Impact Man”
(l to r) “No Impact Man” dirs. Justin Schein & Laura Gabbert. and Michelle Beavan, wife of the no impact man
NPR national correspondent Daniel Zwerdling moderates the “No Impact Man” after film discussion
This was the East Coast premier of Laura Gabbert & Justin Schein’s humorous, topical film about the family of author Colin Beavan trying an experiment for his next book that few would ever attempt: living in New York for a year without impacting the environment. What does this encompass? How about eliminating these items from your life: electricity, cars, toilet paper, garbage (by creating compost using boxes of worms inside your home)-to name just a few of the things they had to endure in order to make the experiment a success. Beavan’s wife Michelle (who is senior writer for “Business Week”) and 3 year old daughter are along for the ride (the former a tad reluctant at first, the latter has no choice). And as the experiment gained speed, so did Colin’s notoriety as he started appearing on national TV shows to promote his idea to the world. With they succeed? Will his caffeine addicted spouse hold up under the pressure? Will the marriage even survive trying to achieve, what most people will believe is, an insane goal? The movie will answer these and other questions and, in the process, just might have you rethinking your place on the planet and what you can do to protect its fragility. A thoroughly entertaining look at one man’s take on simplifying his life to do his part in changing the world. The Q & A was attended by Michelle along with the 2 film makers and, yes, the marriage did survive and, even though it appeared she was going to crack under the pressure of living out her husband’s dream, she has actually permanently instituted some of the energy saving techniques after the experiment ended-but not the worms! The film was picked up by Oscilloscope Laboratories and it will open in theaters on September 4th.
“The Horse Boy”
Dir. Michel Orion Scott (“The Horse Boy”)
This is a story about a couple trying to find a cure for an illness when conventional medicine fails. The parents of autistic child Rowin are Rupert (the film is based on his book) and Kristin Isaacson. Their 2 1/2 year old son is diagnosed with the mysterious ailment which the medical community has no consensus as to cause and treatment. They sought out all of the available resources but saw no sustaining progress. Currently he was a social worker who had professionally trained horses while Kristin was a psychology professor. Rupert had also written about the African Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert and he had witnessed several shamanic ceremonies. When he saw how Rowan had calmly taken to Rupert’s horses and how much joy he exhibited when riding horseback, he got the idea that maybe a trip to Mongolia to seek out a shaman or two might be the key to unlocking the autistic mystery and help cure his now 5- year-old son-something conventional doctor’s in the States couldn’t accomplish. To his classically schooled wife this idea seemed preposterous. It took a ton of convincing on Rupert’s part but off they went with fellow Texan and novice film maker Michel Orion Scott to record the amazing 4-week journey. Questions are raised such as to whether Rowin’s positive changes were due to the spiritual healings of Shaman, the affects of undertaking such incredible journey never experienced by the child, his interactions with children along the way. Combinations of these or other reasons, or were they just imaginary short-term results? The visual and spiritual journey is amazing and well worth the trip. The stunning cinematography is utterly captivating as most viewers will enter a world far removed from their usual habitat & experience. The film has been picked up by Zeitgeist Films with a September 11th limited U.S. release date.
” Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo”
Most prison documentaries tend to be on the downer side whether it involves prison conditions, wrongfully accused convicts, rightly accused convicts, whatever. The title of this doc had me intrigued. Who knew that there was a prison rodeo contest held each year in Oklahoma? Not only that, but it included woman competitors?! Welcome to the East Coast premiere of this unusual doc where you are introduced to the annual competition (it’s been around since the 40’s) held at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester where prisoners from 12 facilities compete in the world’s only “behind the walls rodeo”. Veteran filmmaker Bradley Beesly (“Okie Noodling”) focuses on The Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center which is a minimum security women’s institution where several women are preparing for the 2007 competition. This is the 2nd year women have been allowed to compete. And, folks, these aren’t professionally trained riders, to say the least. The film focuses on several of the female contestants and one male, Danny Liles, who happens to be coming up for parole for the first time in 25 years. There are the requisite profiles of a couple of the women competitors and there is added drama when the best member of the team is not allowed to compete right before the competition after she breaks a prison rule for wearing makeup. For the most part, though, the film is breezy and fun in a “convicts are people too” kind of way, with an appropriate twangy score underlying the action. The film has been picked up by HBO and will be shown by their CINEMAX channel in September.
“The September Issue”
This film by award winning producer/director R.J. Cutler is mainly a portrait of Anna Wintour, the editor of “Vogue”, who is one of the most powerful, influential, and elusive figures in the fashion world, as she prepares for the year’s most important edition that is literally 9 months in the making. Cutler was given unprecedented access to Wintour and her staff for the doc that allows one to witness what it really takes to produce an issue of high fashion that is hundreds of pages in length and nearly 5 pounds in weight. Wintour is credited for pumping new life in her mag when she opted for putting celebrities on the cover-something unheard of previously. Documenting her in action was a rare event afforded to a film crew. However, the real joy for me was the presence and influence of 14 year “Vogue” creative director and visionary Grace Coddington, who is constantly at odds with Wintour. Each respects the other, yet, there is an underlying tension as to what should ultimately appear in the issue-of which Wintour always has the final say. Grace, a former 60’s model and the junior fashion editor of London “Vogue”, who survived a horrible automobile crash in her 20’s, has as much influence and artistic vision (if not more) as her editor. In the end I was craving to know more and more of the personable and talented Grace instead of the dour Wintour. However, Cutler chose to concentrate mainly on what it took to create the issue that featured Sienna Miller on its cover. A kind of fluff piece that skims the surface of its subject, “The September Issue” does deliver entertainment-I just wanted to know more about the personalities involved-especially Grace. Roadside Attractions is releasing the film in theaters on August 28th.
This film deals with a different twist on the Katrina tragedy. Rookie director Geralyn Peranoski, who actually fostered a Katrina dog, has made a truly unforgettable and moving examination about the reuniting of the staggering number of pets (over 15,000) that were lost or abandoned (some forced to do so by local authorities) by their New Orleans owners who themselves were struggling to evacuate & survive the hurricane. This East Coast premier investigates this little discussed aspect of the disaster from 3 different perspectives: those who left their pets behind, those nationwide folks and organizations who rescued those pets, and those people across the country who fostered and/or adopted them. It was a massive humanitarian effort when non-residents entered the city to rescue the myriad of animals that were left behind. When the pet owners came back to New Orleans, they, of course wanted to find their pets. However, to achieve that involved an incredible amount of legwork, not to mention luck, from people who mainly devoted their time and energy to reunite pet with owner. The film concentrates on 5 residents whose lives were devastated by Katrina-only to endure further heartbreak trying to locate, and then re-obtain, their precious companions. It seems that, in some cases, the pets are actually found, but their new adoptive owners refuse to return them to the original owners-having emotionally bonded to their new pets which they have taken care of, in some cases, for years. I found myself yearning for the reunion, yet, I understand the trauma the new “owners” had to endure if they returned the pets, and the pathos I now felt for them. The filmmakers are currently working on a distribution deal. Be certain to bring a hanky or two!
“The Nine Lives of Marion Barry”
Closing night movie dirs. Dana Fior & Toby Oppenheimer (“The Nine Lives Of Marion Berry”) being interviewed outside the AFI Silver Theater
The World Premiere of the closing night film was one that particularly hit home to the attending locals. The doc by noted directors/producers Dana Flor & Toby Oppenheimer attempts to cover why the 73 year-old controversial political figure, to this day, continues to draw support and garner votes time and time again from the D.C. electorate-despite a career marred by a drug bust (he was given 6 months in jail) & tax evasion conviction. You see his political life rise from being a D.C civil rights activist and defender of the poor (author and journalist Harry Jaffe stated he had the potential to be Martin Luther King Jr.’s successor) to his election as mayor, only to be disgraced, and then elected mayor again. Finally, backed by the majority of the residents of D.C.’s Ward 8, he becomes elected to the City Council in 2004-in a landslide, no less! His 40 year political career is a real head-scratcher to any outsider but makes sense within the context of the political climate in a city with a black majority. The filmmakers, structured the film with numerous flashbacks from the scenes that show him campaigning in 2004. Although the doc is slickly produced and edited, little light is shed on just how this morally corrupt dude has continued to politically exist other than vague references to his own poor Mississippi background and how he might relate to the people who voted for him. Instead this is a rehash (it almost seems as if it was made to put him in the best possible light) of information that is old news for anyone who lives in the area. The documentary premieres on HBO on August 10th.
“Pop Star On Ice”
Dirs/Prods David Barba & James Pellerito (“Pop Star On Ice”)
A portrait of one of the skating world’s more memorable characters, Johnny Weir, this film doesn’t demand familiarity or even a love of the sport. What it successfully does is introduce you to the rigors of what it takes to compete in a sport where individuality can work against you in such a subjective atmosphere of competitive skating. Weir’s interest in ice-skating began in 1994 when Oksana Baiul won in Lillehammer. The film is as much about him as it is about his long-term coach Priscilla Hill (which may not be a good thing as you see her play up to the cameras way too often for my liking) and you see the ups and downs the demanding training & competition has on their relationship. But it also gives one a ring-side seat, an up-close-and-personal look into the 3 time U.S. Champion, who is as much an enigma as he is talented. A flamboyant soul who is as much a pop star (hence the title) as athlete, the film is a hoot as you follow his career from its inception through early 2008, both on and off the ice. His best bud Paris is around (the scene of him being “interviewed” by Paris in a bubble bath is typical of his carefree spirit) to offer support and companionship through all the trials and tribulations. We soon see that, despite all the obvious talent, it is constantly being sabotaged by Weir himself-be it a lack of focus, the inability to devote the necessary effort to sufficiently train, or his failure to eliminate all of the outside distractions. Being his own person means being his own worst enemy and next year’s Olympics will probably be his last chance to win it. The movie is fast paced and amusingly entertaining and informative for most of its 85 minutes. The film will air on The Sundance Channel on December 28th, followed by a 8-part reality series (“Johnny Be Good”) which begins where “Pop Star On Ice” ends and will lead up to the Olympics including a post-Olympic episode.
Figure Skater Johnny “Pop Star on Ice” Weir
“The Windmill Movie”
This doc is one of the strangest but also one of the most fascinating works I’ve ever seen. Richard P. Rogers was a Harvard professor who made independent & nonfiction films for the Smithsonian Institute and PBS. He also videoed his own life for over 25 years with the hope of someday, somehow making sense of his Hampton Waspish upbringing by editing the more than 200 hours of footage to produce a self-portrait. Unfortunately, Rogers succumbed to cancer in 2001 at the age of 57, leaving the enormous editing task to his former student and friend, freshman director Alexander Olch and Roger’s wife, noted photographer Susan Meiselas. The film makes no mention of Roger’s accomplishments but instead is a mosaic that focuses on his insecurities, his womanizing, and his dislike for the social class in which he was raised. Add in a history of family mental illness, and extraordinary video of his larger than life mom (you won’t stop thinking that Edith Beale from “Gray Gardens” might be her best friend) and this is one film that will stay with you. Less successful is the inclusion of Roger’s friend Wallace Shawn who acts as an occasional stand-in. However, Olch successfully supplies his own written narration over some of the visuals. Overall, this is a captivating work of a conflicted man that is relentless in portraying him as a success in just about everything except in reconciling his own inner demons. The film has already opened in limited release.
“Dancing with the Devil”
Dir./Prod. Jon Blair (“Dancing With the Devil”)
Watching this World Premier, made by Oscar (1996’s “Anne Frank Remembered”), Emmy, and BAFTA award winning director and producer Jon Blair, I kept wondering why some directors would risk their life to bring a story such as this to the big screen. Blair takes us into the favelas of Rio de Janeiro as we observe one of the bloodiest urban conflicts on the planet where constant battles are being waged between the drug lords, who actually control these large slum areas of the city, and the police. Blair somehow gets unmasked drug traffickers to openly talk about the illegal activities they promote and about the police, some of whom are just as corrupt. The police win occasional battles (some of which were filmed by one brave film crew!) but are clearly losing this war. The film mainly focuses on 3 individuals: inspector Leonardo Torres, one of Rio’s drug squad good guys who is determined to clean up the hell around him; drug lord Juarez “Spiderman” Mendes da Silva who has vowed to quit his position and to ultimately serve God-someday; and, the most intriguing personality, drug trafficker-turned-minister, Pastor Dione “Johnny” dos Santos, who walks unscathed though the violence as he constantly preaches the gospel to these low-lifes, trying fervently to convert them. I felt a little too much time was spent following Pastor Johnny preaching and moralizing to the inhabitants. But, overall, this was an amazing piece of harrowing filmmaking.
“ Youth Knows No Pain”
Dir. Mitch McCabe (“Youth Knows No Pain”)
This look into the world of plastic surgery by award winning director Mitch McCabe, explores our society’s obsessiveness with staying youthful while grappling with her own decision to go under the knife. Part of the film focuses on her late father, a noted old school plastic surgeon who tragically died in a car accident in 1998, four years before botox was approved by the FDA and before the explosion of, what is now, the $60 billion anti-aging industry. Much of this coverage includes a lot of home movie footage shot before his death. Part of it also focuses on several personalities she uncovered in her journey to cover a topic that, at times, goes beyond mere vanity issues. Take 50ish Dallas resident, Sherry Mecom. We see her throughout the doc showing off her latest enhancements and corrections, all the while talking so openly that you’ll feel as if you’re a fly on the wall in a shrink’s office. Or Norman Deesing, whose visage has so surgically become the spitting image of Jack Nicholsen that we see him, giving out “his” autograph. Or Houston plastic surgeon Dr. Franklin Rose which includes several scenes with his model daughter Erica-who we learn is not surgically enhanced. Interspersed are animated explanations of several of the surgeries and a brief, but graphic, you-are-there, virtually unwatchable, live hair transplant procedure. She even covers the sham of overly priced cosmetics that make claims that have never been proven. But all of this is used to document her personal uncertainty to finally go for it in the end. This is a light generally amusing take on the topic and, although you probably won’t learn anything new, the ride is certainly worthwhile. The HBO Documentary will air on the network on August 31.
“Trimpin: The Sound of Invention”
This is director Peter Esmonde’s fascinating portrait of a sonic inventor and artist extraordinaire: Trimpin (who doesn’t go by any other name). Born in 1951 & raised in Germany’s Black Forest, he was exposed to sounds of his region’s cuckoo clocks and coin-operated musical instruments found in numerous establishments around town. His interest in playing brass instruments as a youth was sabotaged by an allergy condition, but his creative expression was boosted when he immersed himself in an analog electronics manual that taught him how to create electronic gadgets from scratch. Now a renowned 21st century artist with his installations appearing in museums around the world, Trimpin’s creations are some of the most magical and fun sound works comprising everyday objects-a lot of which were retrieved from junk yards. Trimpin the man is almost as intriguing as his creations as he refuses to have a cell phone, website, or manager; and he’s shunned gallery representation while abhorring recorded music and loud speakers! His sounds of preference are all acoustical. And the visuals are as stimulating as the varied sounds he produces such as the electric guitar installation in Seattle’s (his home base) Experience Music Project, a 60-foot tower sculpture of automated self-playing guitars; or a machine that uses tiny hammers to beat inside wooden clogs. After the requisite background on this multimedia artist, the remainder of the film focused on his experimental project involving the talented string group Kronos Quartet. Known for their experimental interpretations of all musical styles from classical to rock, it seems the corroboration with Trimpin would be a perfect marriage. We see bits and pieces of their ever changing practice sessions which, in no way, prepare you for the actual performance. In fact, no one could predict the success or failure of the performance, part of which involves the use of toy instruments! The build-up is suspenseful and the actual concert is, well, as successful as the artist of the title. By the end, you will have a smile on your face that you’ll swear you could hear. A fabulous expose on an amazing artistic genius of our time.
“Best Worst Movie”
The title is referring to a wonderful piece of incredibly awful filmmaking from 1992 entitled “Troll 2. From the writing to the production to the acting to the . . . well, you name it, it’s awful. This documentary puts the focus on, not so much the film, but what it has become: a cult phenomenon. As it turns out, “Troll 2” has nothing at all to do with the original forgettable 1986 “Troll” starring Michael Moriarty. This one is about a family who happens upon vegetarian goblins in the town of Nilbog (that’s GOBLIN spelled backwards) who turn humans into edible vegetables. What’s even more amusing is that there isn’t even a troll in sight in “Troll 2”, which has been labeled the “Citizen Kane” of bad movies and has been voted the worst movie ever made by IMDB users. Seventeen years later, we see that this extremely low budgeted film with no name actors from Utah has gained such notoriety that there are now parties and sold-out screenings in major markets around the country. Director Michael Paul Stephenson played the family’s 10-year-old son in T2 and his documentary examines the film’s growing popularity as well as his quest to locate the original leads. George Hardy, who plays the father of the family is now a dentist in Alabama who is tickled pink that he’s becoming famous-although not in the way he originally intended. A totally charming dude the good doctor is now traveling around the country to screenings where fans treat him like a rock star. The incredibly naïve Italian director, Claudio Fragrasso, and his wife (who wrote the T2 screenplay) actually believes its new found popularity is due to the fact that people are finally recognizing its true artistic brilliance. The film loses some of its steam about ¾’s of the way through, but overall, this is a compelling look at how an obscure terribly made film can somehow find an appreciative audience-for all the wrong reasons; or maybe for all the right ones-depending on your perspective. Hollywood has yet to figure out the sure-fire formula for success. Sometimes top stars and top money equal disaster (can you say “Ishtar”?). And sometimes a disaster can become a cult hit. This film entertainingly documents that process.
Article and Photos by Jay Berg (http://www.jayberg.blogspot.com/)