Friday, October 16, 2009

Adam Hartzell: DocFest 2009

Adam Hartzell reports on three features in the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, a.k.a. DocFest, opening tonight at the Roxie. More coverage of the 14-day event is available at sf360, at the Evening Class, and at the SF Bay Guardian website and arts & culture blog. Adam:

I have ambivalent feelings about the use of ridicule in documentaries, such as those of Sascha Baren Cohen, Bill Maher or Michael Moore. As much as I might agree with the political views of these filmmakers, we know that the tactic of ridicule can impede efforts to bring people over to other views. Rather than convince people, ridicule can end up causing the other party to be defensive. And in the form of ridicule, any efforts to educate are received instead as condescension. Yet there are individuals and organizations that are not interested in actually furthering debate or illuminating discussion. They seek to obfuscate, to inject disinformation for the sole purpose of confusing people from knowing the factual information. (I’m looking at you FOX/GOP network!) When facing disinformation campaigns, I find ridicule useful to reduce the power that figure or the organization they speak for might illegitimately have. As much as I might feel Bill Maher often goes overboard, when he mocks Glenn Beck with a fake Beck book release entitled Painting with Poop, Maher is homing in perfectly on the insanity of Beck’s idiotic ideas.

Of the three DVDs I screened for the 8th edition of the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, none were out to ridicule their subjects. They treated each subject with dignity. But if there is any topic that deserves ridicule, it’s the nonsense of the Young Earth Creationists and their efforts to muddy up progress with false claims that the earth is only roughly 6,000 years old.

In this way, I find Todd Gitlin’s The Earth Is Young problematic since it is vulnerable to lending an unwarranted legitimacy to Young Earth Creationism’s fraudulent claims. Real world scientific evidence is stacked against the claims made by Young Earth Creationists in this reel world. They disregard science in order to advocate their pre-ordained beliefs. My concern is that without placing the proselytizing of Young Earth Creationists into context, we risk their views receiving unwarranted respectability. Call me a worrywart, but I’m concerned that by having such scientifically unfounded claims sit there in the democratic vat, the result would lead us towards dormancy on necessary public policy issues, such as our need to address climate change and our need to implement infrastructure changes to address the post-petroleum, post-car future that is soon upon us.

Yet, Gitlin’s documentary is intentionally off-putting, so the approach is not completely problematic since this creeping creepiness throughout the film is the indirect critique that I would rather be more direct. The drone we hear throughout the film, the voice-of-god-like blob cleverly placed amongst the microscopic world of microorganisms, the focus on the mute faces and gesticulating hands, these all add to the overall eerie feel of the documentary underscored by the bizarre claims made by the practitioners. It is this discomforting imprint that stays with me, leaving me not just unimpressed with the proselytizing trying to pass for scientific research, but a bit frightened as well.

For those who like their film-festival experience to overlap thematically, the Young Earth Creationists make an appearance in Joe Winston and Laura Cohen’s film adaptation of Thomas Frank's non-fiction book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? As much as I might disagree with the political views of the Christian Conservatives, I appreciate how the directors refuse to ridicule them here. This allows for a more accurate portrayal rather than the caricatures drawn in some liberal circles. For those who haven’t yet, I suggest reading the book rather than relying on this documentary to inform you. The arguments laid out by Frank regarding how working class conservatives vote against their own economic interests are made more compellingly in the book than the film. But then again, maybe I just have a book-bias when it comes to nonfiction, because there is some action at the end (which I can’t reveal here without spoiling) that underscores Frank’s thesis. What this documentary does do in some ways better than the book is humanize the citizens of an oft-ridiculed state of the union. Plus, since this documentary takes place during the federal midterm election after the publication of Frank’s book, it provides a snapshot of a political shift in Kansas. I don’t think we’re in What’s the Matter with Kansas?’s Kansas anymore, Toto. Kansan Politics have begun to matter a little differently.

The best of the films I caught for this year’s SF DocFest was Patrick Shen’s The Philosopher Kings. Shen focuses his camera on the lives and philosophies of those in what is considered by many as the lowliest of professions, the custodian. Several janitors at several academic institutions are interviewed on their thoughts about their jobs, their futures, life, death, and everything in between. Personal epistemologies are espoused by each of these custodians based on life experience. Shen demonstrates each unique perspective while also drawing life parallels, such as accidents and family histories, along with similar situations specific to janitorial work.

In this way, Shen demonstrates the interplay between ‘structure’ and ‘agency’ put forth by Anthony Giddens. As Andrew Hickey notes of Giddens’ work in Hickey’s contribution to iPod and Philosophy: iCon of an ePoch, this is “An interplay that operates as a negotiation between the structural conditions of existence you find yourself in and the desires you have to express a certain identity” (p 124). The agency found within the structures of their profession is quite evident in The Philosopher Kings, from Melinda Augustus of the University of Florida who engages in self study of the butterflies in the building she cleans, to Corby Baker who finds inspiration for his own artwork in the student projects he dusts at Cornish College of Arts in Seattle.

Locals might recognize the UC Berkeley representative, Michael Seals. But many in the film argue that it is likely locals won’t recognize him, since we often make our janitors invisible. As someone who regularly greets and talks with the janitorial staff at my work, I am often disappointed at the levels others engage in to ignore the presence of those who assure our facilities are presentable and work smoothly. Others seem to walk around them as if they are a poorly placed pillar in the middle of the room by some absent-minded architect, looking away from them as if they are not worthy of everyday salutations. The Philosopher Kings gently addresses the injustices of such invisibility. It is an absolute gift of a film that will hopefully leave audiences with a change in perspective, which is the aim of every good philosopher, and of every good documentary.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Adam Hartzell: Mill Valley Film Festival

It's happening again. Like last October, when I noted the proliferation of film festivals descending on town, there are more than a dozen Frisco Bay festivals currently running or set to begin in the next month or so. And that's with the disappearance of two significant horror festivals that have bowed out of the pre-Halloween frenzy this year, Dead Channels and Shock It To Me! Check my top of my sidebar on the right side of this screen to see the list of this season's events.

I wish I could attend all of these and write about them, but it's simply impossible. I do regularly link to other online articles on the festivals on my twitter feed, so be sure to follow me (if you're on twitter) or to regularly check the feed if you're not. I try to keep my tweets useful; if you're finding I'm achieving otherwise or have other suggestions of any kind don't hesitate to send me feedback.

One festival already begun, and running for another week, is the 32nd Mill Valley Film Festival, which has been written about by Michael Hawley and by Susan Gerhard, among others. Sadly, this year I haven't been able to see many of the entries. In fact, I've only seen two features, both prior to the festval's lineup was announced. However, they're both masterpieces that deserve to be seen in 35mm prints on the big screen: Johnny To's buoyant
Sparrow; whether you're a Johnnie To fan or virgin viewer, you have never seen anything quite like in his oeuvre. I wrote a bit about it in January, and it plays tomorrow (Monday) night at the Sequoia Theatre at 9:30 PM. The other is Pierrot le Fou, Jean-Luc Godard's whirlwind of primary color and revolution, which plays the Smith Rafael Film Center Tuesday at 6PM. Programmed as part of an in-person tribute to the legendary Anna Karina that unfortunately had to be postponed until spring due to "non-life-threatening" injuries recently sustained by the actress, the screenings of Pierrot le Fou and of the North American Premiere of her second film as a director, Victoria, this coming Friday, are noteworthy enough even without an international celebrity in attendance.

Though I really haven't explored the MVFF program for myself, Adam Hartzell has previewed five features from Southern Hemisphere nations, and I'm very thankful to him that he has offered up his thoughts on them. Adam:

The Mill Valley Film Festival is upon us again, providing a lovely excuse to venture out for a Punjabi burrito in the town centre of Mill Valley. As usual, the amount of film choices on offer can be a bit overwhelming, so to whittle it down to a manageable few, I decided to take the MVFF’s focus on Australian and New Zealand cinema as an opportunity to finally read the Australia/New Zealand edition from the 24 Frames series on world cinemas. And being that the Tri-Nations rugby series just finished with South Africa the winners, I decided to check out a few South African films, making up my own Tri-Nations film series

Let’s start off with the losers, Australia. Losers of this year’s Tri-Nations rugby, that is, not of the films I screened. Fiona Cochrane’s Four of a Kind was an intriguing film once I let the story ride. Four of a Kind was a reminder of how I expect a film to ‘look’, because, I had to filter out the low quality production values in order to appreciate what the film had to offer in interlocking storylines. The film follows a murder suspect, a detective, a therapist, and a therapist’s friend as they confront one another’s lies and past lives. The film presents dialogue intermixed with enactments of the dialogue, where the viewer is privileged to actions and words that are not mentioned in the dialogue, allowing for nice layering that peels away ever so slowly near the end. All this provides the viewer with the pleasure of trying to guess at how things will end based on the clues dropped throughout. However, utilizing Blues singer Joe Camilleri to chop up each chapter simply didn’t work for me. I understand his lyrics are meant to heighten the plot, but these recording session intermissions provided more of a disruption for me than an enhancement. Also, I must admit that I’m wondering if I’ve developed an a-musicality for certain musical genres. And I’ve never been a Blues man.

Second place at this year’s Tri-Nations was New Zealand. And both NZ films on offer for this year’s MVFF focus on the Antipodes are enjoyable pieces. Sima Urale’s Apron Strings follows two families. One family consists of two estranged Sikh-New Zealander sisters and the son of one who seeks to find his roots while reconciling his mother and his aunt. The second family are Pakeha (European) New Zealanders, a mother anxious about the changing demographics of her neighborhood and a thirty-something son whose gambling addiction forestalls any attempts to get a proper job and a home of his own. I had first heard about this film from an interview with Urale on Radio National New Zealand. That interview had intrigued me to see this film and I was happy MVFF provided such an opportunity. Although there are better immigration narratives, Apron Strings is still a delightful addition to the genre.

Armagen Ballantyne’s The Strength of Water is definitely the strongest of the five screeners I watched. Wonderfully paced, this film follows the tragedy that erupts when a familiar stranger enters this Maori seaside village and particularly how one young brother grieves through his personal loss. The desperation of a limited economy and limited options highlights what is often ignored in order to propel plots along. And in refusing to deny economic reality, the story becomes much more than just a psychological portrait of a grieving youngster. The Strength of Water is an example of a prime reason I am motivated to attend film festivals, to find out about a gem you had never heard of and are likely to never get a chance to see again.

Yet I get the feeling I’ll get a chance to see Anthony Fabian’s film Skin again. Representing the winners of this year’s Tri-Nations, South Africa, Skin seems made for Oscar bidding. (Most of it is in English, disqualifying it from the foreign-language film entry, so the Oscar efforts will need to be spent in other categories.) Actress Sophie Okonedo of Hotel Rwanda and The Secret Life of Bees plays Sandra Laing, a real-life individual of black phenotypes born of parents of white phenotypes.

For those who need a genetics refresher, phenotypes represent the physical expression of genes, such as red hair, black skin, etc. As for how a child that looks black could come from white parents, the film allows the audience to sit with this confusion initially to allow for suspicions of possible infidelity. However, the genetic reality is presented in a court case. If there are genes of black phenotypes in a family’s genetic tree, these phenotypes could express themselves later down the line of the family tree even if the black child is of parents who present white phenotypes.

Unwilling to accept their daughter looking black, and more so unwilling to confront the racism of South African apartheid and lose their white privilege, her father (played by Sam Neill) campaigns to have his daughter classified as white in South African courts. The disturbing absurdity of this all comes to the hilt in a brief scene at the beginning when we witness young Sandra and her father joyfully celebrate a court decision. However, regardless of Sandra’s legal claims to white privilege, her actual treatment by whites leaves her isolated. After returning home from high school, she finds herself curious about a black delivery man and drawn to the community out of which her father so desperately tried to keep her. Although an interesting story that needs to be told, Skin doesn’t seem like a film that will stay with me as long as The Strength of Water will. Skin wears thin on my eyes like a film vying for an Oscar that I’ve seen before, whereas The Strength of Water is confident in its own skin, impressing me at its own pace, in its own patient structure.

Yet Skin is better than the other South African film on option, Jann Turner’s White Wedding. And disappointingly, White Wedding is the film South Africa has actually submitted for Best Foreign Language Film. It’s not the kind of film that seems to win in that category. White Wedding is just a film that wants to have a little fun along the way to a too easily resolved ending. I don’t have a problem with such films at all. I like a little harmless fun too. But this isn’t the kind of grand film to which we often award prestigious prizes.

A South African road movie, the film follows the groom Elvis as he runs into trouble travelling from Johannesburg via Durban to his wedding in Cape Town. His bride, Ayanda, is tempted in his delay (and his often being out of cell phone range) by the return of a financially successful former beau. Along the way Elvis and his best man find an Irish woman who has stowed herself away in their truck. And later they find themselves stranded in a village full of Afrikaner redneck stereotypes to add further tensions. All these tensions need to be resolved by the end of this road trip. My interest in this film was to watch a film from elsewhere to see how that elsewhere is experienced (or better yet, dramatized) by those who live there. This experience is another reason why I attend film festivals. It allows me to watch another country’s successful mainstream films (White Wedding had a run of eleven consecutive weeks across South Africa), not just the art films.

The five screeners I watched represent the various motivations audiences might have fulfilled by a film festival such as MVFF. Whether you’re looking for the film that slowly grows on you (The Strength of Water), the plot-weaving tapestry (Four of a Kind), the film that doesn’t require all the characters to be white (Apron Strings, The Strength of Water, Skin, and White Wedding), or the Oscar contender (Skin and White Wedding), the Mill Valley Film Festival’s got your preference.