Hamptons 2011: Docs in Brief

The Hamptons International Film Festival wrapped up its 19th edition yesterday, with awards announced at a ceremony the previous evening. Because of scheduling issues, it had been quite a few years since I’d been able to attend the festival, but I was happy to make it this year for a couple of nights. The fest has an easy-going feel while still remaining true to its upscale setting, especially with regard to its party locations. Even if the weather in October doesn’t match that of the summer season, just being in East Hampton feels like a welcome getaway from the city. While in town, I managed to see most of the docs I had hoped to, though I sadly had to leave PARADISE LOST 3: PURGATORY early to catch the jitney back into the city – for that reason, I’ll hold off writing about it until I see the epilogue. That said, my thoughts on seven other films:

It seems appropriate to start with the fest’s Golden Starfish Award Documentary Competition winner, director Fellipe Barbosa’s first feature doc (pictured above) after a couple of well-received narrative shorts that screened at Sundance and elsewhere. Barbosa explained that while living in NYC as a film student, he met the subject of his film, a fellow Brazilian, and repeatedly asked if he could make a film about her, fascinated by her ability to talk her way into the most glamorous parties in the NY nightlife. She refused until he told her he was leaving the city to go back to Brazil. With the aid of his DP, Barbosa trailed the fascinating woman to star-studded movie premieres and other exclusive parties where everyone seemed to know her, but Laura set conditions on what he could film – specifically, her apartment is off-limits. It’s clear why from the opening of the film, footage Laura herself shot showing a room stuffed with so many things that she has trouble opening the door. Barbosa grows curious, and starts to push back against his subject’s wishes – he speaks to her catty neighbor and with one of her boyfriends, angering Laura. While Barbosa appears on camera occasionally, and is directly referenced multiple times by Laura, he doesn’t fully emerge as a character, somewhat lessening the impact his “betrayal” could have for the audience. While I generally have problems with directors being in their films unnecessarily, in this case, I would have liked to have seen more. Still, the beautifully shot film sticks with you – Laura is portrayed as a fascinating but flawed figure, and it brings up provocative questions around the subject/director relationship. After the first screening at the fest, audience members reported spotting Laura in the audience in disguise, as her relationship with Barbosa was strained. Later, like TABLOID’s Joyce McKinney at DOC NYC last year, Laura unexpectedly showed up at the second screening to confront Barbosa publicly – which I was sorry to miss.

Jerzy Sladkowski brings a remarkable sense of drama to his portrait of life in a small Russian town. Centered on Valentina, a young single mother who often dumps her young son on Tatiana, her long-suffering mother. While the latter works as a ticket taker on the bus, her daughter is employed by the local vodka factory – dreary, repetitive work for both. The melancholia of their situation is ever-present – fellow workers in the factory complain about their problems with men, but don’t seem to have any hope that there’s more out there, preferring to gossip and drink. Valentina, though, reaches her breaking point, and dreams of escape. Meanwhile Tatiana attempts to reconnect with someone from her past to have a second chance at happiness. But for one woman to realize her goal, the other can’t. Sladkowski captures such poignant moments of bleakness and rawness that one is tempted to suspect that this can’t all be real. The way the story unfolds, and the striking verité approach, lends the film an almost kitchen sink drama feel that makes it compulsively watchable.

Continuing the focus on women, Gaylen Ross and Rebecca Nelson present a portrait of a talented actress’ devastating battle with memory loss. Caris Corfman had a successful stage and TV acting career until a brain tumor brought it all to an end. While the tumor was benign, operations to remove it also cost the woman her short-term memory, and affected her pituitary gland as well. With her weight increasing, and unable to memorize lines, she became almost a completely different person. While she could never hope to return to acting full-time, she is encouraged by old friends to help deal with the depression caused by her situation by creating a one-woman show based in part on old monologues, memories, and thoughts about her present life. Cues from index cards will help her stay on track, and she’s ready for a return to the stage, which she takes to naturally. Caris is an immensely likeable subject – while the audience feels for her, they don’t pity her. She shows a strength and warmth that makes you root for her, and which centers the film not on what she has lost of the past but on what she can accomplish in the present.

Performance and dreams are at the heart of Bess Kargman’s feature debut, which follows six young ballet dancers as they train and compete in the prestigious Youth America Grand Prix. I’ll admit that the film was not high on my must-see list at Toronto, where it debuted last month. I often find that filmmakers making competition docs tend to stick to a by now tired and predictable formula that ultimately doesn’t elevate their film beyond the status of a guilty pleasure. I’ll happily admit that I too quickly prejudged Kargman’s film – the range of characters she found moves it outside the typical confines of competition docs. The six talented dancers featured here may all be competing in the same larger event, but their different ages and genders mean they are not dancing head-to-head. As a result, the viewer is focused fully on the individuals and their stories, not on who will beat whom – less a competition doc and more a series of behind-the-scenes portraits. It helps the film immensely that Kargman found a great, diverse group of young people who display a commitment and drive to succeed that seems far beyond their ages. When the results are announced, and with scholarships and dance company positions on the line, there’s a palpable sense that so much is at stake for these young people and their parents: their dreams and their very futures.

Photographer Alec Soth is on the search for a dream of escape in Arnaud Uyttenhove and Laure Flammarion’s intriguing road movie. Soth is followed around the country as he works on a project entitled “How to Disappear in America,” capturing individuals who have chosen to live largely outside of traditional society, often completely alone. He seeks hermits, survivalists, misanthropes, and other recluses, photographing them, or their domiciles, as representations of the desire to run away from it all. Even as Soth explores their unusual and at times unsettling retreats, he muses on his own childhood fantasy of a cave hideout. Perhaps even more striking than some of the creative dwellings seen in the film is the paradoxical sense that, despite their self-imposed isolation, many of Soth’s subjects are very much craving human interaction. Featuring beautiful cinematography to complement Soth’s own captivating images, Uyttenhove and Flammarion’s film is at the same time both quiet and revelatory.

Quiet and revelatory are words that also describe Britta Wauer’s understated but moving study of the breathtaking Weissensee Jewish cemetery in Berlin. Having visited the site last year, I was curious to see how it translated on screen. Wauer successfully captures the sense of peace and history that permeates the site, which remarkably survived the Nazi era. Full of greenery and in a secluded area away from the energy of the city, Weissensee resembles something of a national preserve. The film relates the site’s history and its importance to Berlin’s Jewish community before WWII, while also profiling a number of individuals whose lives intersect with the historic cemetery, creating a multi-perspectival view of a singular space.

I actually saw Frank Piasecki Poulsen’s investigative doc back at True/False, but haven’t had a chance to write about it yet. Recognizing the ubiquity of cell phones in all corners of the world, he makes these his focus in an attempt to track down the human cost of modern technology. Using a Nokia phone himself, he sets out to find out how and where its component parts are gathered, concerned about the use of so-called “blood minerals” that contribute to destabilization and lack of development. He traces Nokia minerals to the Congo, where a bloody war has raged for over 15 years, funded in part by mining. In addition, he investigates the dangerous conditions faced by the miners themselves. After he risks his life to get footage showing the impact on human lives enabled by cell phone companies, he must then navigate the bureaucracy of the corporate world to get his message across to Nokia. The result is a harrowing, provocative, and at times frustratingly absurdist work of activist filmmaking.

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Filed under Documentary, Film, Film Festivals, In Brief

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