By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
By Claire Lawton
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Anna Merlan
Today, as the DVF enters its 16th year (making it old enough to drive, not old enough to drink, though many of its filmmakers do far more than that), the video camera is not just the commonplace tool of the parent documenting a kid's birthday, but also a weapon of defense; ask Rodney King. It's a device small enough to carry in a coat pocket but big enough to capture the destruction of skyscrapers, the slaughter of tribesmen defending their homeland, the stripping away of personal freedoms--and, yeah, the taking off of clothes, all in the name of art, but of course. Everyone's a documentary filmmaker in 2003; you just don't know it yet. Weiss does, which is why he carries on each year with a festival filled with the peculiar and the breathtaking, the disturbing and the hilarious, the profound and the inexplicable. As always, the only unifying theme in the works being shown at the DVF is that nothing binds them together save for the dedication of the artist and the appreciation of the audience.
There are plenty of make-believe tales, but more documentaries than ever before. Perhaps Weiss believes we need to know more about ourselves now than ever; he's selected documentaries about American terrorists and the disappearance of freedom in bomb-blasted Israel to provide a little context. And he has invited documentary immortal Albert Maysles, for whom everyone alive is a subject waiting to be filmed, to present an award to a newcomer worthy of such praise. And maybe the DVF is more important today than ever before, at a time when people are being suckered into believing what they're seeing is "reality television" instead of dreadful, deceitful fiction. When you need a dose of the good stuff, even if it means looking at bad stuff happening out there, look here.
"The need for serious work is more important now than ever before," Weiss says. "We don't have everything about war and peace, but all these issues are behind most everything we're showing. These are serious times. We had a staff meeting about what if war breaks out during the fest, and we've never had that before." He almost chuckles. "I hope what we show gives context, provides a broader sense about what these things are really about."
Reviews of some festival highlights by Eric Celeste, Zac Crain, John Gonzalez, Patrick Williams and Robert Wilonsky.
Nissim Mossek and Alan Rosenthal serve us the dessert first. Were treated to the sweetest part straightaway as they use re-enactments and old black-and-white footage to detail how Adolf Eichmann--a Nazi monster responsible for the murder of some 5 million Jews during World War II--goes on the run like a petty criminal. We learn how the Israelis hunt him down like a rabid dog, how hes tried, convicted and eventually (not to mention thankfully) hanged. And yet there is little comfort. Where this film deviates from its History Channel feel is in its humanization of a man who was at one time a self-proclaimed dedicated Nazi before, at deaths door, rejecting the views he once embraced. Eichmann is shown to be more common than we would like--a bald, bespectacled man, completely unremarkable in appearance or intellect or background; a poor student who failed as a traveling salesman before becoming Hitlers chief thug. Throughout the film, he is mostly even-tempered--a stark contrast to the jackbooted crazies who defined the Nazi movement. Therein lies the underscored point, and with it a grim realization: The man who orchestrated some of the most ineffable atrocities in world history could have been your neighbor. He is the embodiment of evil without, unfortunately, the proper dressings. Mossek and Rosenthals take on the man is at once enlightening and sobering. March 23, 3:30 p.m., Video Lounge, DMA. (JG)
Hit but mostly miss, unless you find South Park too slick; never did understand why people spend so much time doing so much to say so little. Some funny bits--Extreme Bible Heroes, in which the prophet Elijah gets God to do his dirty work; Monkey Ninjas, which says it all; and Parking, an angry short from the brilliant Bill Plympton--but few worth savoring (though not all were available at press time). And, of course, theres the prerequisite September 11 piece, in which the World Trade Center fades out during a reading of Emily Dickinsons I Reason. Color me unimpressed. March 23, 1:45 p.m., Video Lounge. (RW)
Chelsea Girls with Andy Warhol
A pass beyond The Factorys velvet rope, Michel Auders documentary (cf. home movie) captures Andy Warhol between fresh celebrity and noxious immortality--meaning, hes just this side of creepy, awkward enough to seem charming and real but distant enough to make you aware of how little there there was to him. Its 1970 and slightly later, and Warhols chatting on the phone with Brigid Berlin (he has no idea hes being recorded till late in the call), visiting with hangers-on at the Whitney (where hes being exhibited for the first time), hanging out with Viva and her newborn daughter Alexandra (whos also Auders kid), spending time with John Lennon and Yoko Ono at their place. Because its all off-the-cuff--this video, from the Electronic Arts Intermix archives, plays like a home movie, if someones smoking a garbage bags worth of dope in your home--Warhols kinda chatty. He and Berlin talk about Valerie Solanas assassination attempt in 1968; you also see how deathly afraid he is of babies, perhaps because he has no idea where they come from. The whole things fun (after a few drinks, better still), but ultimately a celebration of all things empty and all people vapid--you know, like Warhol and his work. Better this than his movies, easily. March 21, 9 p.m., Horchow Auditorium. (RW)
Cul de Sac
Garrett Scott directs this documentary that, on its surface, is about Shawn Nelson, a 35-year-old Army vet from Clairemont, a suburb of San Diego. Oh, and the fact that, in May 1995, he stole a 60-ton tank from a nearby National Guard Armory and Hulk-smashed his way through surface streets and freeways for almost half an hour, before being shot and killed by police. (Which, no offense, is roughly the same premise as Tank, the 1984 James Garner-C. Thomas Howell-Jenilee Harrison vehicle.) But theres much more than that going on in Cul de Sac; Scott merely uses the pilfered tank to open a window into the world of crystal meth addiction. Juxtaposing police footage of Nelsons spree with General Dynamics industrial films, chamber of commerce propaganda and interviews with Nelsons family and friends, Scott slowly reveals his hand. By the end, its clear that Nelson is only a frame hanging around the directors real picture: how the U.S. militarys ill-conceived introduction of methamphetamines to its troops in the Korean War eventually tore apart Clairemont, turning it from a model of postwar tract-house development into little more than crystal meth commune. Bonus: a running subplot involving a 20-foot mine shaft in Nelsons back yard and the iffy prospect that he actually may have discovered gold there. March 22, 12 p.m., Horchow Auditorium. (ZC)
Think of Bill Morrisons film as a beautiful warning, or perhaps as a celebration of times destructive nature; rarely does something so horrific--the decomposition of history--play so wondrously hypnotic. For 70 minutes, in motion so slow its as though the clocks second hand has stopped ticking, we watch decades worth of film suffer decay into dust, which is what happens to nitrate film stock from the moment its dipped into a bath of alcohol and camphor. Most films made before the 60s were captured on nitrate film stock, and sadly thousands and thousands have disappeared despite the best efforts of preservationists; you can stall the march of time, but never cut it off at the pass. Morrison has cut together dozens and dozens of images--a man spinning, camels trudging, volcanoes exploding, geishas walking, boxers punching (against, it seems, a wall of seething decay), butterflies fluttering, lovers embracing--all of which seem to be melting; their images have been overwhelmed by the undulating black-and-white amoebas of rot, or rendered totally unrecognizable altogether. Decasia, which debuted on the Sundance Channel last December and has been written about so often in The New York Times youd think the paper has a piece of it, was scored by Bang on a Cans Michael Gordon, who treats Morrisons film as a work of horror; the music captivates and creeps you out, till at last you succumb to the sheer splendor of such sad scenes (never again will these films be whole). Morrison has preserved (embalmed?) the corpse before it crumbles entirely, and Gordon somehow makes it waltz. March 21, 7:30 p.m., Horchow Auditorium. (RW)
The Films of Martha Colburn
Theyre labeled experimental/avant-garde in the DVF program; yes, and Andre the Giant was big for his age. Dunno what to make of these Super 8 sojourns into freakiness, save that the Baltimore-based Martha Colburn likes tits (empowering, say) and talk (the soundtrack is a clutter of beneath-the-underground punk-rawk feedback and spoken-word backtalk). You might say some of her works animated (Terry Gilliam with Crayolas brandished and vision blurred); you might say its utter friggin nonsense. Me, Id say theres a pervert in the projection booth, which she ought to take as a compliment. March 22, 6 p.m., Video Lounge. (RW)
With the U.S. of A. on the brink of another war, a screening of Coco Schbers documentary couldnt come at a better time, since it puts its audience in an uncomfortable position: with a gun in hand and the enemy in its sights. What would you do? To help make up minds, Schber pulls from various sources, including film and TV clips and interviews with authorities such as the paralyzed tunnel rat. Though his speech is peppered with gook and other slurs, he may be First Kills best voice, a man who volunteered to shimmy through the tiny, dark, rat-infested network of underground passages with the goal to kill as many enemy soldiers as possible. Hes unapologetic about what he did and says he would do it again, but its clear he wishes he never had to make that choice in the first place. Schber also talks at length with Michael Herr, who wrote about the Vietnam War for Esquire and later turned his years of in-the-shit notes into Dispatches, considered by many to be the definitive account of the war and the people who fought it. If war was hell and only hell, Herr says early on in First Kill, I dont think people would pick war. Schber doesnt necessarily agree with that statement--what could it be besides for hell?--but it doesnt pick sides either, letting the audience make up its own mind. March 22, 1 p.m., Video Box, DMA. (ZC)
This Canadian series from Ken Finkleman, a small-screen legend north of the border, is the kind of show American television seldom attempts and always fails at: an anthology series about Big Issues, be they war or celebrity or marriage or even a womans self-image. Its brilliant (if often a bit precious, as Finkleman does whatever he wants because he can and will) and scabrous (if a bit obvious, because most episodes end with a predictable punch line), but always watchable as hell; you should see it if only to lament the fact other countries always do right what we dont do at all (see: BBCs The Office). A brilliant offering is the self-loathing The Award, but the best episode screening at the fest is Celebrity, a damning look at, among other things, celebrity publicists for whom a best friend is a hot star or a resurrected Jesus Christ (says one would-be Lizzie Grubman, He was amazing for all of humanity and were going to be amazing for him), TV networks who would crucify J.C. all over again if he got bad ratings (and he does), fashion mags who turn anyone (even the Son of God) into a bawdy pinup, and the Catholic Church for turning the Savior of Man into a commodity. Funny as hell, mean as hell, watchable as hell. Even if Finkleman is going to hell (after he makes an appearance at the fest). March 22, 5:30 p.m., Horchow Auditorium. (RW)
Tara Neal is a typical 12-year-old girl: She goes shopping at the mall with her friends; she fights with her parents; she coos when a neighborhood boy asks her out. Tara Neal isnt a typical 12-year-old girl: Shes a wrestler in Texas, a damn fine one by some accounts. Its a life that pulls her in very different directions, sometimes at once and almost always without resolution. Through unpolished home video footage, Diane Zander grants us access into an emotionally intemperate and complex world. Were Neals practice partner as she trains for various tournaments. Were in her corner when she wrestles against the opposite sex. Were the ear she bends when she vents about the preconceptions and atavistic expectations of others who think it weird that a girl would want to participate in a boys sport. Were the shoulder she cries on when her lip gets bloodied and her body gets bruised and the pressure of an incredibly tough pursuit begins to weigh her down physically and mentally. We ride shotgun in the car as her father dumps on her and adds to her sorrow. Were there to share her triumph, but mostly were there to absorb her sadness as she learns that wrestling is simply a metaphor for life--the game gets less fun, and far more painful, as the years go by. March 23, 3:15 p.m., TV Diner, DMA. (JG)
Lifetime Guarantee: Phrancs Adventures in Plastic
Phranc has a secret: The Jewish lesbian folksinger, a hot novelty in the 80s when she was signed to Island and releasing albums such as I Enjoy Being a Girl and Positively Phranc, sells Tupperware. Not only that, but shes so damned good at it shes a Tupperware manager in Los Angeles, where she strums and sells at parties that move plenty plastic; turns out you make a better living keeping veggies store-bought fresh than touring the world with a guitar round your neck. (Hers now bears the sticker This guitar sells, which might make Woody Guthrie a wee bit uncomfortable.) When Phranc tired of life on the road, she settled in L.A. with her partner and their child (who was 3 when this doc was made in 2001) and became a hot commodity in cold storage, and Lisa Udelsons film is as engaging as its subject and subject matter; hell, halfway through I kept wondering how I could get me one of those cheese-grater-cum-measuring cups and started hoping Phranc would show up to sell me one. Phrancly, this might be the most enjoyable philm in the phest (Ill stop); Ill even guarantee it (sorry). March 21, 10:30 p.m., Horchow Auditorium. (RW)
Love & Diane
Reality television doesnt get any more real--it couldnt get less so--than this grim, intimate documentary about one familys struggle to survive the twin evils of poverty and drug addiction. Diane is the single mother of a Brooklyn brood trying to rebuild the family she lost when the state took away her children because of her crack addiction. Love is her 18-year-old, HIV-positive daughter filled with bitter resentment toward her mother, whom Love blames for abandoning her. Add Loves new son Donayaeh to the mix, and Dianes reconstituted family is primed to blow apart. It quickly does, as Loves violent temper, fueled by her resentment toward her mother, leads to a new round of charges of child neglect, this time against Love. Filmmaker Jennifer Dworkin chronicles all of this with an unblinking camera that captures the familys most private moments--moments filled with rage, guilt and the familys often-futile efforts to get off public assistance and build something close to normal lives. Their efforts are frustrated by a child welfare system that, at times, seems designed to stymie the familys efforts to rebuild itself. Youll feel the most sympathy for Donyaeh, however, as you witness him growing from infant to toddler, torn between the foster mother who cares for him and the birth mother desperately trying to bring him back into his clearly dysfunctional family. March 22, 5:30 p.m., TV Diner. (PW)
Made by James Blue, the late Rice professor and founder of the Southwest Alternative Media Project, this account of the August 1963 March on Washington has been as vilified as it has been celebrated--no doubt because it was a film about a protest against the U.S. government made by the U.S. government. Blue--working under the auspices of the United States Information Agency, which made propaganda films to be distributed overseas--gave his film the look of handheld realism; he had cameras on buses and street corners, watching those making signs and sandwiches. But the movie, which runs at 30 minutes, makes it look as though the march was a smooth operation; theres no sign of dissent, no context given to the reasons behind the event that brought 200,000 to D.C. It celebrates the calm of the crowd; drones on with songs of protest sung by Joan Baez and Odetta; neglects all the speakers save Martin Luther King Jr., whose speech is abbreviated and then some. Still, no matter how sanitized the film, senators didnt like shipping abroad a film celebrating protest, no matter how peaceful; they didnt want Americas dirty laundry waving from the flagpole (nor did they like the images of interracial couples marching two by two in front of the Lincoln Memorial). Its a fascinating document, precisely because its an incomplete documentary--history, without the dust. March 22, 4:30 p.m., Horchow Auditorium. (RW)
Four stories, to be precise, that add up to a moving whole; always knew Greg Pak, a junior high classmate of mine, would make something of himself. The writer-director of Robot Stories, his first feature after several highly decorated shorts, offers up a handful of would-be Twilight Zone episodes with tangible heart, even those in which the main characters are egg-shaped robots standing in for newborns (Robot Baby) or humanoid machines programmed for office work (Robot Love) or omnipresent digitized representations of dead lovers (Clay). In Robot Love, a workaholic mother, warned by her own mother in childhood never to have any kids, struggles to nurture her wee Humpty Dumpty, which exhibits all the characteristics of a real baby (it even urinates graphite); she figures shes merely doomed to repeat the past. In Robot Love, Pak plays a robot whos good at work, programming lesser computers, but bad with real people; his heart, or whatever, beats for a female android in a neighboring office building. Clay closes the film on a downbeat: Sab Shimono plays a sculptor in the near-future who refuses to allow his brain to be scanned for replication, which would allow him to, essentially, live forever; if he cant touch, he insists, he will not truly exist. But the most compelling of the quartet is Robot Fixer, in which a mother repairs her comatose sons discarded collection of Micronaut-like toys; though her daughter insists otherwise, the mother believes that by repairing her grown sons robots, she can repair him. Pak loves the high concept, but keeps it simple; were sucked in not by the conceit, the gimmick, but the emotion behind each tale, and its a remarkable bit of work. Even if I didnt know the guy. March 20, 7:30 p.m., Angelika 8. (RW)
Basically a film version of Stefan Fatsis fascinating book, Word Freak, Scott Petersens documentary tracks a handful of Scrabble pros in Las Vegas as they compete in the 2001 World Scrabble Championships, a three-day, 24-round tourney. Theres the star: Brian Cappelletto, the 1998 champ described by many as the best natural Scrabble player in the world. (Which is not much higher on the list than the best natural Candyland player in the world, but whatever.) Theres the caricature: Marty Gabriel, a social worker who drinks red wine vinegar straight from the bottle and once withheld sex from his wife when she beat him at the game. (After that revelation, Petersen flashes on a headline from The Onion: Area boyfriend keeps bringing up Scrabble victory.) And theres the consummate professional: G.I. Joel Sherman, the 1997 champ with more maladies than a medical textbook and the wardrobe of a gay juggler. Along the way to the tourneys climactic showdown between Cappelletto and Joel Wapnick, Petersen examines the games origins and some of its trivia (Mark Landsbergs 770 is the highest point total in a tournament match; Karl Khoshnaw scored 392 points for his use of caziques, the highest single turn score). What Scrabylon lacks in drama, it makes up for in characters. And by characters, I, of course, mean nerds. March 23, 2:15 p.m., TV Diner. (ZC)
Seeing is Believing: Handicams, Human Rights and The News
Bart Weiss thinks of this as the fests signature piece, and its also its most essential. Its damned near impossible to watch some scenes from Peter Wintonick and Katerina Cizeks documentary about documentary makers; they want you to look and be appalled, terrified. They want us to stare at the grisly remnants--severed body parts, bullet-riddled corpses--of war and poverty and pestilence. They watch the watchers of violence inflicted upon those struggling to hold on to their land, their families and their humanity out of sight and out of mind of the worlds media. Wintonick, maker of Manufacturing Consent, and Cizek celebrate, if thats the right word, those who risk their lives simply by pointing video cameras into the battlefields, which might be a street corner in the former Czech Republic or tribal homelands in the Philippines or crumbling skyscrapers in Manhattan. Still, however much the filmmakers want to prove a cameras as powerful as a gun, they cant; they have the horrific proof on video, the dozens of corpses and carved-up men and women and children whose plights escaped the nightly news. A remarkable movie about the power of video; never again will you aim your video camera at a birthday party without thinking of how others are using it, sometimes just to stay alive. March 22, 7:30 p.m., Horchow Auditorium. (RW)
A favorite on the film-fest circuit for more than a year--and an Oscar-nominated entry in this years documentary category--Jeffrey Blitzs documentary about eight kids who competed in the 1999 National Spelling Bee plays like a Chris Guest film with a heart; its as touching as it is amusing, as unfathomable as it is real. Theres the girl from the Panhandle whose father and mother illegally crossed the Rio Grande for a better life; her dad raises cattle for an elderly white couple who likes Mexicans, since theres some good mixed up in em. There are the children of Indian immigrants for whom being the best speller in the United States is the ultimate goal. Theres Ted Brigham, a hulking and quiet boy whose dad teaches special education students; April DeGideo, who has worn out dozens of dictionaries in her quest for letter-perfect glory; Ashley White, the girl from the inner city who imagines her humdrum life as a movie. Each child here is an outsider in his or her everyday existence, but a star on the Washington, D.C., stage upon which some 250 kids competed three years ago; Blitz acutely makes the point that these boys and girls are special, not different. When it gets to the competition, in its second half, the film sweats and cries with tension; you want them all to go home with the trophy, but instead watch as, one by one, theyre escorted off the stage to the sound of a ringing bell. Who knew--the best film you will see all year is a documentary about a spelling bee. March 23, 3:30 p.m., Horchow Auditorium. (RW)
Uncommon Sense: The Art and Imagination of Nancy Willard
Michael Mayhews charming short film about the Newbery Award-winning author of childrens books--Nancy Willard, a lecturer at Vassar, is also a poet and essayist--sets out to explain the whimsy and wonder found in such beloved titles as A Visit to William Blakes Inn and The Magic Cornfield. What Mayhew discovers is a brilliant, sweet eccentric who lives with a husband and dozens of friends fabricated from tin cans, wire, strings, paints and other found objects; Willard, inspired by her mother to decorate and make beautiful what others believed unsightly, makes tangible the fairy tales and fictions roiling around in her skull. Makes you wonder if shed be willing to adopt someone in their mid-30s. March 21, 9:15 p.m., Video Lounge. (RW)
The Unknown Forest
A well-meaning but ultimately mush-headed paean to the Great Trinity Forest, which lies just south of downtown along the river and which is the largest urban bottomland hardwood forest in the nation (whatever thats worth). Local naturalists sing the forests praises while decrying any attempt by the guvment to clear deadwood or build trails. Meanwhile, the more sensible experts point out that although there are several scenic spots in the forest, most of it is ragweed and assorted other natural crap. (The nature-lovers also fail to point out that its a favorite spot for hookers to give off-road blowjobs.) Leeson seemingly stays objective about the debate as to what to do with the forest, but the narration that frames this debate is so over-the-top bad poetry that it clearly gives away the filmmakers biases. Whats worse, the narration constantly refers to the forest as a she. For example: She [the forest] is as perfect in winter as any forest in the world; also: So, surrounded by humankind, she stays apart. And that doesnt address the annoying techno-Indian chant music that plays throughout. Leesons photographs on his Web site (www.fieldandforest.com) do a better job of praising nature than this documentary. March 22, 8:30 p.m., Horchow Auditorium. (EC)
Less straight-out commentary than video mash-up, Pacific Film Archive video curator Steve Seids 46-minute compilation is a hoot, if not quite a revelation; surely you already knew Hollywood whored itself out to mega corporations shilling their product, didnt you? Seid scoops out the guts of some 70 films and leaves behind the scraps selling stuff: Starbucks coffee (Youve Got Mail), Fed Ex (Cast Away), Reeses Pieces (E.T.), 7 Up (Moonraker), Pepsi (Cobra), Coke (Superman II), Nike (What Women Want) and everything else ever made, sold or bought (Minority Report and Josie and the Pussycats, the latter of which was pedestrian product-placement satire to begin with). Thats for starters (you also get plenty of Nell, tons of I Am Sam and surprising amounts of Stanley Kubrick), and though the compilation is rather artlessly made--sometimes scenes seamlessly blend into each other, but more often it feels a bit too random and jumbled--its nonetheless interesting to watch films revealed for what they are: expensive advertisements built around shoddy product (Minority Report took in some $25 mil for placement of product). Seid lets his bookends, moments from Putney Swope and They Live (!), do his heavy lifting; they provide the scabrous and smart comments on brainwashing. Hes just happy to put a smile on our face, as we grin in knowing recognition of the selling power of star power. Dont be surprised, though, if you leave the theater wanting Tom Cruise to overnight a case of beer to Tom Hanks at a Target. March 23, 2:45 p.m., Video Lounge. (RW)
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