Silverdocs 2012 in Brief, Part Two

Yesterday, I posted a link to my Indiewire article on this year’s just-concluded Silverdocs, which included a roundup of ten titles. This post adds nearly a dozen more to wrap up my coverage of the event this year.


No stranger to the advances of Asian fetishists, director Debbie Lum thought she hit the documentary subject jackpot when she met Steven, a sixtysomething San Franciscan who confessed a desire to find a Chinese bride. As he finds success online, meeting Sandy and arranging to fly her from China to marry him, Steven and his bride both grow to depend on Debbie as an increasingly uncomfortable intermediary – a combination translator, marriage counselor, and confidante – forcing her to rethink her assumptions about both of her subjects. Given my general dislike of filmmakers inserting themselves into their docs, I was surprised by how much I actually liked Lum’s presence in the film (though it could still be trimmed, especially in the beginning), but it’s a storytelling necessity, as the director becomes a pivotal figure in her subjects’ lives, and provokes ethical questions around the roles and responsibilities of a documentarian. This, and the fact that both Steven and Sandy emerge as much more surprising and complex characters than both Lum and the audience might anticipate, make for a clever and enjoyable film (pictured above).

Following the slow passing of the torch from father to son, Paul Lacoste’s film spends a year with Sébastien Bras, the heir to his father Michel’s three-Michelin-star restaurant. Eager to make his own mark, Séba quietly develops and refines his new signature dish, even creating a Japanese-specific version for their Tokyo offshoot restaurant, while Michel takes tenuous steps to retire, but never seems entirely able to stay out of the kitchen – a kind of mash-up of EL BULLI and JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI. There’s a warmth evident between the father and son, and it’s undeniable that the food is photographed delectably, but there’s a slowness and general familiarity to the project that ultimately lessens its impact.

Another father/son relationship is the ostensible focus of Ross McElwee’s latest autobiographical documentary. Feeling distanced from twentysomething Adrian, with whom he once enjoyed a much closer and less contentious rapport, Ross attempts to reconnect with the young man he is now – who he views as perhaps hopelessly enmeshed in distracting modern technology – even as he reflects on the young boy who he doted on in home movie footage. Turning inward, Ross considers his own relationship with his father, and with the uncertainty of memory, leading him to revisit decisions the filmmaker made that took him off the path that was seemingly set for him. This journey through memory becomes a literal one as well, as Ross returns to Brittany, where he spent part of his early twenties under the influential tutelage of a wedding photographer and enmeshed in a “very French” affair with a woman named Maud. While it’s hard to fault an autobiographical director for being self-indulgent, especially one as accomplished as McElwee, the move into his own past edges very close, resulting in an almost complete loss of the Adrian focus, and a feeling that the audience is being shown two very different, and only tenuously connected, films.

A father and son also figure in Wojciech Staron’s nuanced study of dislocation and childhood innocence, filmed over a year in which his family relocated from Poland to Argentina. Unlike McElwee’s film, Staron focuses entirely on his son, Jarek, keeping out of the frame to instead offer audiences an exploration of a young boy’s life and singular perspective as he confronts an alien land, culture, and language, as well as the dawning of young romance when he’s befriended by Marcia, the captivating and mature daughter of Polish immigrants. Gloriously lensed, the film has a masterful sense of visual storytelling and perfectly captures Janek’s world.

Ann Fessler’s featurette reveals the shameful practice of enforced adoption that was all-too-common for unwed American women in the 1950s and ’60s. Typically given no options and threatened with familial, social, and educational ostracism or even psychiatric commitment if they resisted, young women were shamed into leaving their homes and communities to live in exile for the duration of their pregnancies, and not welcomed back until they’d given up their newborns to adoption – or, more accurately, as the women in the film relate, until their newborns were forcibly taken from them. Fessler gives voice to these long-silenced women, allowing them to relate their experiences in voiceover, while intriguingly incorporating visuals from educational and other archival films, not showing the women’s faces until the very end of the doc. Though this results in a sense that they stand in for Everywoman, it also prevents the viewer from forging an identificatory bond with the subjects, and imparts an unfortunate survey-like feel – one which perhaps may have been lessened if the project was shorter rather than the unusual length it is now.

Yolanda and Dorey have already faced more heartbreak than most parents – they’ve already lived through the death of their son due to XP, a neurologically debilitating condition characterized by a fatal sensitivity to sunlight, and are facing the caretaking challenges for their daughter – also suffering from XP. This in itself sets off warning bells – XP is so rare that it has an incidence of one in a million – but when Yolanda begins hearing about other families with XP children on the Navajo reservation, she seeks out an explanation, partly because there’s a palliative effect in supporting others going through the same thing she is, and partly to understand why her people are so susceptible. While elders offer more mystical explanations, linked to a dislocation from traditional ways or a disrespect for nature, the truth is found in the tragic past of the Long Walk, when forced relocation of the Navajo by the US government into concentration camp conditions winnowed the population and increased the likelihood of recessive traits surfacing. With a fairly easily understood explanation such as this, as infuriating as it is to learn of the continuing legacy of damage done to Native Americans, directors Maya Stark and Adi Lavy perhaps put too much emphasis on this mystery, but their filmmaking is nevertheless emotionally resonant and impressive. Yolanda and her husband are strong if quiet central figures, able to carry the doc as well as the weight of their personal trials with XP on their shoulders, creating an empathic connection with the viewer.

The title of Fernand Melgar’s film refers to one of two options offered to undocumented immigrants in his native Switzerland who are summarily arrested and detained for up to two years before facing deportation: they can opt for a regular, commercial flight back to their countries of origin, or a less pleasant return in which they’re treated more like the prisoners they essentially become while in detention. With a minimum of explanatory cards, Melgar places the viewer in a detention center near Geneva, and reveals a number of men who face the very real possibility that the lives they’ve built for themselves and their families, in many cases, over several years, are about to come to an end, as well as the staff who seem genuine in their efforts to help their charges. As a whole, given its observational approach, the film feels slightly overlong, but there’s an astonishing level of candor on display – it’s hard to imagine getting the same kind of access in an American setting – and opens up the question of immigration to serious reflection.

John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson’s city poem on Tokyo offers introspection of a different sort, presenting the bustling metropolis primarily through the relationship between its residents and the preponderance of crows that provide a source of comfort for some and serve as a nuisance for others. When the film is focused on the crows, it’s the most interesting, with stories of the bright birds adapting to life in the city by learning how to use tools, from manipulating tree branches in order to forage for insects, to strategically using cars to crush nutshells. Sequences exploring cultural peculiarities, such as a restaurant with waitresses dressed as sexy maids, or a store catering to obsessive anime fans, seem entirely unrelated, or very thinly connected to some idea about (over)consumption, weakening what’s otherwise an interesting essay film.

Neil Berkeley’s portrait of contemporary artist Wayne White, known for his brashness in a field that often takes itself too seriously, has won a lot of fans on the festival circuit to date. A smalltown Tennessee boy who found success behind-the-scenes as one of the creators of PEE-WEE’S PLAYHOUSE, he more recently became a hot commodity through his “word” paintings, spicing up prosaic found vintage art of pastoral landscapes by painting disjunctive and sarcastic words on them. Although I loved the PLAYHOUSE puppets he engineered, his repetitive and often puerile paintings leave me cold, as does his personality – it might make him stand out from his artworld peers, but I wasn’t charmed, and as a result, the film just doesn’t resonate for me, but I acknowledge a lot of other viewers find it very entertaining.

A personality I responded to much more strongly is the subject of Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s biopic, her grandmother-in-law, one of the most influential tastemakers of the previous century. At Harper’s Bazaar and later Vogue, Diana Vreeland dictated fashion and glamour to readers for decades, a powerhouse who hobnobbed with the rich and famous and set the style trends for the modern woman. Immordino Vreeland, with co-directors Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt and Frederic Tcheng, bring viewers through DV’s storied life, aided by interviews with family, admirers, and former colleagues, as well as archival footage, including a surprisingly limited amount of filmed interviews with the late maven herself. Perhaps for this reason, the filmmakers made the unusual but not always successful, decision to structure the film loosely around re-enacted audio recordings of a conversation between DV and the interviewer for her memoirs, George Plimpton (himself the subject of an excellent biography at Silverdocs this year). Beyond failing to capture either of their distinctive voices, there’s a clear sense of artificiality around this conceit that often distracted from what was being said. Despite this, Vreeland led a charmed life, and there’s a sense of joy to the film that captures it with respect.

Directors Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson bring a similar level of admiration to their subject, Bob Fass, who carved out a notable space for himself in late-night radio in the 1960s and ’70s on Pacifica’s WBAI out of New York City. Making a strong argument that radio, moreso than any other medium, was the catalyst for community creation and organizing in a pre-social media era, the film explores how Fass’ titular free-form program proved in many ways the voice of the revolution generation. Smartly utilizing excerpts from Fass’ unfathomably large archive of radio broadcasts, the filmmakers give a palpable sense of the anarchic freedom of his time and of his influence – from organizing an all-night gathering at JFK and reporting on police brutality at a follow-up event at Grand Central, to mobilizing listeners to clean up the East Village during a garbage strike or exposing them to some of the most important musicians of the day for the first time. Where the project sometimes loses its way is determining how much it is about Fass and how much about WBAI – much time is spent on changes to the station that ultimately resulted in Fass’ ouster, but this isn’t carried to a wholly satisfying resolution. His later return to the station is handled in an anticlimatic manner, with WBAI weakening into factions based around identity politics given shortshrift. As a result, the film’s strength and cohesiveness resides in the past, whereas more could have been made of the need in the present for the kind of creativity and engagement Fass inspired in decades past. Still, there’s a great deal here that is fascinating and well-worth the audience’s attention.



Filed under Documentary, Film, Film Festivals, In Brief, Recommendations

2 responses to “Silverdocs 2012 in Brief, Part Two

  1. Pingback: Critical Acclaim for ‘Special Flight’ – Available for Streaming Through July 31 | POV Films Blog | PBS

  2. Pingback: Critical Acclaim for ‘Special Flight’ – Available for Streaming Through July 31 | POV Films Blog | POV Blog | PBS

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