The International Documentary Association’s 16th annual DocuWeeks showcase wraps up this Thursday in NYC and next Thursday, August 30 in LA. Though the event is technically not a film festival, but instead a grouping of individual films under a common banner, each seeking to qualify for an Oscar nomination, I’m briefly covering a number of this year’s films together in this roundup.
Perhaps the most visually cinematic of this year’s selections, Everardo Gonzalez’s film (pictured above) focuses on northeastern Mexico’s Cuates de Australia, a communal ranch that serves as the setting for a lyrical portrait of ranchero life. As signaled by the film’s English language title, that rain-dependent life is not an easy one. Filming over several years, Gonzalez captures the beauty of the dried-up terrain, even as the viewer recognizes the challenges the dry season poses to the families whose survival depends on this land. The film impresses as a verité meditation on the dusty region and its determined people.
WITHOUT A NET
A circus provides a potential means to escape poverty for a number of Brazilian youths in Kelly J Richardson’s featurette. The harsh realities of favela life – drugs, violence, crime – are contrasted with the alternatives provided by a guerrilla circus school organized by a well-meaning activist, who believes the discipline and confidence gained from mastering and performing tumbling, contortion, or trapeze will keep the kids on the straight and narrow. While the film gets its point across, albeit in a fairly conventional manner, with four main subjects plus other peripheral characters, the film feels a bit crowded and scattered for its hour-long running time – an additional 10-15 minutes could have provided some necessary breathing room and context.
THE ANDERSON MONARCHS
Another film that focuses on youth, Eugene Martin’s profile of an African-American girls soccer team in Philadelphia, largely chooses to accentuate the positive. While some of the challenges of inner city living are shown – a funeral of a young woman figures at one point, and the players’ lower socioeconomic status comes up – for the most part, Martin celebrates the team’s remarkable achievements – their impressive winning record, being nominated as “Team of the Year” by Sports Illustrated, meeting Michelle Obama. The team’s coach and couple of players emerge as likeable main subjects, but the lack of a central conflict, combined with an over-reliance on montages and a heavy score, makes the film feel padded and, though pleasant, ultimately slight.
TRIAL BY FIRE: LIVES RE-FORGED
Another inspirational doc, Megan Smith-Harris’ film explores the stories of a diverse range of burn survivors – from veterans to racecar drivers, firefighters to oil refinery workers, and more. Recounting their traumatic experiences, difficult recoveries, and the psychological and physical after effects of the burns, these subjects and their families demonstrate substantial inner strength that forces society to view them beyond their external scars. The film mitigates talking heads with a good use of archival and b-roll, but the sheer number of characters profiled does lend a survey feel, but remains engaging and often touching.
THE MAGIC LIFE
Three men aspire to become successful magicians in Nelson Cheng’s DocuWeeks entry. The youngest, Yang Yang, a seventeen-year-old prodigy, is sponsored by a female magician to travel from his native China to attend magic school; the eldest, thirtysomething Michael, gives up a steady job in New York to move to Los Angeles to take a shot at honing his playing card magic; and mid-twenties Matthew Noah tries to make it by performing magic on the tourist-heavy streets of LA. Unfortunately for Cheng, only the first two subjects are interesting – Matthew seems like an afterthought, and his story goes nowhere – but even their stories aren’t explored with enough depth to make the film feel like more than a harmless diversion.
DIGITAL DHARMA: ONE MAN’S MISSION TO SAVE A CULTURE
As noted by its subtitle, Dafna Yachin’s film is concerned with the efforts of one individual to locate, preserve, and transmit Tibetan writings. That man is E Gene Smith, a Utah Mormon who studied Asian languages in India and Nepal and served with the Library of Congress overseas. Recognizing that Tibetan literature was being lost as the people fled the Chinese occupation, Smith began a personal crusade, recollecting or copying important texts so that they were available to everyone. While its admirable and even astonishing what Smith was able to accomplish – even leading the charge in recent years to digitize – the film as a whole is often repetitive and fails to engage on a broader scale – the impression it leaves is that it would appeal to an exceedingly small niche audience.