Friday, October 17, 2008

Adam Hartzell: Melody Gilbert at DocFest

More festivals keep coming to Frisco Bay. Latest to be announced is 3rd i's San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival, expanded to four days (November 13-16) with Indian Subcontinental-related films of just about every imaginable type: including silent classic (1929's a Throw of Dice), Bollywood crowd-pleaser (Om Shanti Om), Shakespeare adaptation (Maqbool), sleeper Oscar contender (Slumdog Millionaire), and Pakistani zombie movie (Hell's Ground). The only thing that seems to be missing is, oh, maybe an animated feature based on the Ramayana- and another festival the same weekend's got that. The San Francisco Film Society's third annual Animation Festival opens November 13th with Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues, which has previously played locally only in an unfinished version. The weekend at the Embarcadero includes dozens of animated shorts and features from around the world.

Well, with that jam-packed paragraph out of the way, what I'm really here to do is introduce a piece by my good friend Adam Hartzell on the films of Melody Gilbert, whose documentaries are being featured at IndieFest's annual documentary showcase, opening tonight at the Roxie cinema. Her films will be shown there October 24-26, and will be accompanied by an in-person chat on the afternoon of October 25th. Here's Adam:

The San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, which begins this weekend, is featuring the director of two films that had a tremendous effect on me when I saw them at previous SF DocFests. The director is Melody Gilbert and the two films are Whole and A Life Without Pain, part of a retrospective of Gilbert’s work at this year’s festival. Whole is a film about a tiny demographic – people who strongly desire the loss of a limb, a condition I was first introduced to through a captivating essay in The Atlantic Monthly. Gilbert documents the dreams and fears and humanity of people, disparagingly called 'amputee wannabes', who struggle with an obsession truly bizarre to the majority of us. Their obsession to have a leg or arm removed is so intense, some go to such extreme efforts as placing their leg in dry ice or laying a leg along railroad tracks in order to bring their desires to fruition. The title's obvious irony is that these individuals will not feel 'whole' until part of their body has been removed. The topic is striking on its own, but considering the idiosyncratic and disconcerting desires of her subjects, the fact that Gilbert is able to craft empathic connections between the audience and her subjects more than justifies Gilbert receiving the SF DocFest’s inaugural Someone To Watch award. Rather than take the easy comedic route with this topic that a lesser documentary would, Gilbert challenges our weathered cynicism, provincial worldviews, and hardened morals to connect with populations difficult to engage, while reserving judgment as the responsibility of the viewer and those viewed.

Gilbert’s A Life Without Pain takes us into another irony, the agony of being someone who cannot experience physical pain, and how the trials of such lives touch those who love them. Gilbert follows three children with congenital anesthesia, a condition where the body does not feel physical pain, and explores how these children and their families cope with such a unique condition. Gilbert quickly introduces us to the severe adjustments these kids and families need to make. One child must wear goggles to avoid further damaging her retinas from having no pain cues to stop her from scratching. A Norwegian girl’s adventurous nature requires bi-weekly check-ups with the doctor since her body won’t announce a broken bone through pain. And a German girl shares how school bullies have literally taken her on as a personal punching bag. Even if she feels no physical pain, emotional pain persists. Much could be metaphor-ed about the painful pain-free existence of these children, but Gilbert always keeps us grounded in the actual real lives of the children, refusing to let the metaphors replace the human beings. (The Elephant Man could have just as likely screamed "I am not a metaphor!") And since these are documentaries made with television in mind, Gilbert also refuses the pity or 'supercrip' narratives that the TV medium too often demands, by instead having the children and families in A Life Without Pain well anchored in their agency. (I don’t know if Gilbert is influenced by Martin F. Norden’s excellent critique of disabled characters in film, The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies, but you can tell that I sure am.)

Based on my positive receptions of Whole and A Life Without Pain, the film I am most anxious to see at this year’s SF DocFest is Gilbert’s Urban Explorers: Into the Darkness. Similar to my motivation to check out Whole, I am excited to see Urban Explorers after reading about 'Urban Archaeology' in an issue of my favorite magazine, Spacing, a Canadian publication focusing on public space issues. I anticipate that we will witness city spelunkers diving into sewer tunnels or Urbana Joneses venturing into factory buildings vacated by dead-beat corporations to see what abandoned artifacts and forgotten histories might be found in such modern day pyramids. These urban archaeologists are part of a larger movement of collectives, e.g., Guerilla Gardeners, Critical Mass, and Parkour Traceurs, embracing public space while also challenging the boundaries of what is public or private as a form of resistance in a time when so much of our public space is being usurped by economically-restrictive private institutions. I am curious if Gilbert will explore these public space issues, bringing up how these urban excursions allow for a more intimate connection with our cities and by extension our fellow citizens. I don’t know if Gilbert will address those topics, but considering how much her previous documentaries have stayed with me when I first watched them at past SF DocFests, I’m sure I will have a repeat performance of experience at this year’s SF DocFest.

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