Karlovy Vary 2011: Docs in Brief, Part Two

I managed to see six other documentaries (or doc hybrids) during my time at Karlovy Vary, beyond the three I wrote about at the end of last week. Other obligations meant that I wasn’t able to focus on documentaries exclusively, so I missed quite a few that were intriguing or that I heard positive reports about, including ARAB ATTRACTION, DETROIT WILD CITY, RAW MATERIAL, and THE MEXICAN SUITCASE. Those I did see included:

Swiss director Nick Brandestini has already scored wins for this portrait of a tiny Death Valley, CA community, picking up awards at Big Sky, DocAviv, and Sonoma. The town of Darwin – named for a prospector, not the evolution theorist, but either is fitting – has historically had an iffy reputation – even during its population peak, it was known mostly for loose women and gun fights. Now, with only 35 residents to its name, and a road sign warning of “no services,” intended to discourage uninvited visitors, it barely has the infrastructure to survive. But survival is on the minds of many of those residents as the film gradually reveals some of their offbeat ideas including belief in the impending end times and paganism. The film balances what might otherwise be too many subjects deftly, allowing their personalities and stories to be fleshed out, with the cumulative effect providing a real sense of the unusual community in which they live. Like another doc currently on the circuit which looks at a similar desert-set enclave, BOMBAY BEACH, music and lensing contribute a great deal to create a striking portrait of outsiders and their environment.

Another film that succeeds in evoking its location in a palpable manner is Czech director Martin Ryšavý’s poetic exploration of a remote Siberian weather station. The film plays with past and present to tell the story of the area – juxtaposing stark but beautiful landscape images with often absurdly funny audio presentations of everyday communiques between former workers – complaints about interpersonal issues, excuses for poor performance, requests to transfer. Covering similar physical terrain as another excellent film that screened in Karlovy Vary, AT THE EDGE OF RUSSIA, Ryšavý’s doc captures the isolated region and the personalities of the people who live and work there.

Continuing the theme of location, the unusual setting for Czech director David Vondráček’s gritty love story is as much a character as his two main subjects. The film is centered around a German evangelical cemetery in Prague which has become a haven for the homeless, including protagonist couple Jan and Jana, who met there. Following them over multiple years, Vondráček charts their daily existence, the conditions in which they live, and their tentative but ultimately haphazard attempts to better their lives – all against the backdrop of the cemetery, overgrown with plantlife and looking generally abandoned – the perfect refuge for individuals who themselves have largely been abandoned by (or have chosen to abandon) society. Jan and Jana’s relationship is not a typical one – while they show affection and concern for one another, the viewer gets a sense that it’s largely a product of circumstance and availability, and also influenced by addictions, making the proceedings at times difficult to watch. Still, despite this, and potential charges that the film might be a bit exploitative, more often that not, it’s an engaging longitudinal portrait of homelessness.

More of an experiment than a full-fledged film, I LOVE YOU interweaves footage from multiple video diaries to present a portrait of young adults in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. While borrowing a page from past video diary projects like Kirby Dick’s CHAIN CAMERA, directors Aleksandr Rastorguyev and Pavel Kostomarov bring a few different twists – they spent over half a year casting the participants and provided the selected with specific direction on what to shoot – conversations about relationships, discussions with friends, arguments with family. Unfortunately, the idea behind the project is more interesting than the execution, which, despite this directorial manipulation, comes off as rather scattered. While the film does convey some measure of this young Russian generation’s experiences, often in a genuine manner, the lack of a central focus makes it tough going.

Speaking of tough going, acclaimed Korean director Kim Ki-duk’s most recent film, his first after an uncharacteristic multi-year hiatus, has split critics since its debut at Cannes, where it shared the Un Certain Regard Ex-æquo award. A documentary/narrative hybrid, the film is focused wholly on Kim, ostensibly explaining the reasons for his departure from filmmaking as the result of anxiety over a potential life-threatening accident on the set of his last film, DREAM. Shooting in likely deliberately ugly DV, Kim is a one-man show – he is the only subject of the film – or, more accurately, subjects, since in addition to filming himself wallowing in self-pity, he also films himself chastising his pitiable self. No matter the self-referential nature of its construction, or its play with documentary aesthetics in service to what becomes more of a fictionalized representation of his true experience, ARIRANG is a self-indulgent, nearly unwatchable mess – an exercise the filmmaker perhaps needed in order to knock himself out of his depression, but not one that should have been foisted upon other viewers.

This year’s Karlovy Vary paid special tribute to director Samuel Fuller. In addition to showing a number of his films, they selected this 1994 documentary by Finnish director Mika Kaurismäki, pairing Fuller with Jim Jarmusch as the pair revisit one of the elder director’s unrealized projects, a would-be 1954 adaptation of an adventure novel set in the Brazilian jungle. I’m always intrigued by the films that were never made, so I was looking forward to this doc. Unfortunately, while some of the background information about Fuller’s original scouting expedition is interesting, the “doc” as a whole is incredibly clunky. There’s an odd ethnographic aspect to the film’s consideration of the Karajá tribe who were filmed by Fuller in 1954 and located again here. Worse than that, Fuller and Jarmusch act out painfully bad dialogue – while Fuller seems gung ho to engage in this conceit, it just sounds incredibly awkward coming out of Jarmusch’s mouth, and is truly groan-inducing, especially the ending in which he decides to stay with the natives and become indoctrinated in the tribe. Ugh.

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Filed under Documentary, Film, Film Festivals, In Brief

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