IDFA 2012: Docs in Brief, Part Three

Following yesterday’s roundup of several of IDFA’s competition titles, today’s post wraps up my coverage of the 25th edition of the world’s largest documentary festival with a look at a number of films in IDFA’s non-competitive “Reflecting Images” sections.

Appearing in the “Masters” sidebar of “Reflecting Images,” owing to the director’s deservedly acclaimed debut, UP THE YANGTZE, Yung Chang’s new film profiles fanatics who scour the world for exotic fruit. Beyond a curiosity to sample Mother Nature’s varied offerings beyond what can be found at the local supermarket, many of these individuals are also concerned with important questions of biodiversity, as noted in a couple of stories involving the quest for a rare Indonesian mango, or the efforts to reduce our singular dependence on the Cavendish banana monoculture. Other threads operate on a smaller scale, such as actor and fruitophile Bill Pullman’s efforts to galvanize his Hollywood Hills community to develop a fruit orchard. Ultimately, Chang covers too much ground, and makes a few odd choices – his narration at times embraces a kind of fruit erotica, while brief staged sequences of ape people, Chinese emperors, and the like are just unnecessary and over the top – but this lighter project is still a nice palate cleanser after a couple of more challenging works by the director.

Also appearing in “Masters” is the latest film from one of the directors of the moving 1993 Sundance winner SILVERLAKE LIFE: THE VIEW FROM HERE. Peter Friedman explores the often-derided genre of telenovela or soap opera, and its capacity to inspire social change on the local level. Focusing on the work of Dr Miguel Sabido, a pioneer in education through entertainment media, as well as that of his acolytes, Friedman looks at a range of soaps – both on TV and on the radio – that have been used to increase awareness about domestic violence, alcoholism, adult education, HIV, and sexual diversity in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and even in US soaps like THE BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL. While the film as a whole tends toward talking heads and a somewhat academic tone, clips from these often melodramatic series serve to liven things up, and the stories of real-world impact are inspiring about the power of storytelling to motivate change.

A final title in “Masters” comes from a less-familiar director, Maziar Bahari, who has screened several of his previous mid-lengths at past IDFAs. His latest stems from a personal, horrific experience – in the aftermath of the failed 2009 protests in Iran, the filmmaker was arrested, tortured, and coerced into making a public, yet false, confession that he was a Western collaborator and spy. Shamed and angered by the incident, he seeks out others who went through a similar ordeal, going back to the beginning of the Revolution. Bahari reveals their stories, the role of the Iranian media which enables the practice, and questions why the Iranian people stand by, allowing these unbelievable abuses, and unbelieved confessions, to take place as a form of theatre. It’s undeniable that the men’s stories are often intense, but the reportage style employed in the film is incredibly limiting, suited more to television than to festivals or theatres.

The next subsection of “Reflecting Images” is IDFA’s spotlight on films that have had a notable appearances at other events, “Best of Fests.” Manuel von Stürler’s film claimed a spot at Berlin at the beginning of the year, showcasing beautiful wintry cinematography as a grizzled veteran shepherd and a newcomer lead their flock all over the Swiss countryside to fatten them up before slaughter. I appreciate the craft on display in this strictly observational film, but I didn’t respond to it as strongly as I did to its obvious forebear, SWEETGRASS.

Sébastien Lifshitz’s portrait of French gay men and women born between WWI and WWII screened at Cannes this year. Having to hide their sexuality until a time of greater openness and acceptance for LGBT people, Lifshitz’s subjects speak candidly if understandably nostalgically about their struggles. LGBT elders are rarely afforded a space to tell their stories, so even if this too-leisurely paced film is both too French and too much of a survey, it’s still a worthwhile project.

A more modern look at gay life comes in Sara Broos’ portrait of her gay godfather, Sweden’s foremost water color artist, who seeks and may have found love online. The film, which was in Karlovy Vary this Summer, follows the uneasy path toward true love as middle-aged and self-absorbed Lars, faced with the end of a long term relationship and alcohol problems, sets his sights on Junior, a naive but genuine dancer from Brazil. Despite troubles communicating, the men give it a go, with Junior relocating to Sweden, only to face Lars’ uncertainty and doubt. Broos does a good job telling their story succinctly, but it’s difficult to find anything particularly remarkable about the pair or their story that hasn’t played out in other gay and straight versions of online love affair docs.

Having previously screened at Venice, Michael Singh’s exploration of the changing depiction and perception of Arabs and Muslims in Western media also appears in “Best of Fests.” Tracking historical and sociopolitical developments over the past century, Singh cogently demonstrates how cinematic representations moved from Arabian heroes like Rudolph Valentino’s popular Sheik to Arab desert savages and terrorists, influencing the way Americans and the Western world perceive the Arab world and Islam. The thesis put forth is well-argued and features a copious amount of illustrations from popular culture, but the viewer can’t shake the feeling that s/he’s watching an extended cinema studies lecture presentation rather than a compelling standalone film.

The final subsection of “Reflecting Images” is “Panorama,” devoted to “thought-provoking” films, and this anonymous North Korean entry certainly fits that bill. Cards at the onset of the film announce its supposed origins – North Korean defectors were said to have passed a copy of the film to a translator in Seoul to translate and share it with the world. The contents that follow, hosted on-screen by a disguised North Korean scientist, serve as a lesson to the viewer of Western inequity and immorality, illustrated through an extensive use of archival footage and popular media. Like the previous film, this results in a odd kind of clip show lecture, though in this case, the intent is willfully complicated: Who really made this film, and for what purpose? Is this actually the product of North Korean ideology, or a strange send up of that regime’s skewed sense of freedom? What are Western audiences to do with the legitimate criticisms leveled against them just under the surface of the hysterical excesses on display here? It’s a good thing the film is available in full on YouTube for viewers to judge for themselves, because it would seem there would be no way to distribute it otherwise. It’s definitely worth a look.

Another Panorama title focused on North Korea finds its Korean-Canadian filmmaker following North Korean defectors and the man who arranges for their escape through China. Ann Shin finds a captivating central figure in Dragon, a former refugee turned broker, responsible for arranging the tension-filled transport of defectors to a country that will grant them asylum. Dragon sees himself as a human rights activist, despite taking a fee for his services and coming off as generally shady. The defectors don’t resonate as strongly, but the treacherous trip they take definitely does. Moved from safe house to safe house through China on the way to Laos, and, eventually, Thailand, they are accompanied most of the way by Shin, her camera hidden to avoid suspicion from authorities. The director is to be applauded for risking her own safety to capture this story, but her presence on-camera and through narration at times seems like a storytelling crutch, lending an unfortunate investigative TV news feel. Still, the film offers a rare look at an exceedingly dangerous subject, and deserves to connect with larger audiences.

The atmosphere of Jasna Krajinovic’s film is initially a lot less tense, as twelve-year-old Anton enjoys his Summer vacation at the home he shares with his grandmother outside of Moscow. Even when he takes off for camp, the mood is initially light. Soon enough, the ideology at the heart of the camp is revealed, as Anton and his fellow campers are schooled in the brutality of the Chechens, taught how Islam is a religion of terrorists, shown disturbingly one-sided propaganda, and given training in the usage of weapons by masked special forces instructors. Krajinovic lets the chilling indoctrination of Russia’s youth play out in front of the viewer’s eyes, smartly presenting her verité film without commentary.

Taking a wholly different, and very personal, approach is Janina Pigaht with this investigation into her grandfather’s past. After his passing, the young woman discovered that her beloved grandfather was an SS member during WWII. She can’t reconcile his fascist beliefs and actions with the loving man who taught her brother and her pleasant songs as children, as shown in old home movies. As Pigaht explores his past, she speaks to her father, mother, and brother about their own memories, how they feel about these revelations, what the impact this investigation might have to his legacy, and what the cost would be of not addressing the past openly. While Pigaht’s presence makes sense for this type of film, in the end the project still feels too insular to fully succeed.

In certain ways the UK’s own THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES, Kim Hopkins’ film focuses on a successful York couple who invest all of their savings into buying one of the oldest houses in England with the goal of converting it into a boutique hotel – just before the financial crisis hits. As the loan their bank has promised seems to become less and less certain, Helen and John start to cut corners for the grand plans they have for their 72-room mansion, but they struggle to find banks interested in lending during the Recession. Stuck with a home that’s unsellable in the marketplace, plans for a hotel that can’t be realized, and children who are resentful that their inheritances have likely vanished, Helen gets sucked into an increasingly absurd war with her neighbors about access to the courtyard they share. While there are shortcomings to the film on a technical level, it’s eminently watchable – and, by the surprising end, even the cynical viewer’s schadenfreude might just be replaced by real empathy.

Margreth Olin’s film looks at the plight of teenage asylum seekers in Norway. The filmmaker shares the experiences of a number of boys living in a temporary residence center, fearful of their uncertain fates when the cold Norwegian system deports them to their countries of origin when they come of age. Her main subjects are Goli, a Kurdish teen who manages to illegally make his way as far back as Greece after being deported back to Turkey at the beginning of the film; and brothers Hassan and Hussein, the latter having suffered severe emotional and physical trauma in their native Afghanistan. Olin’s bookended narration and occasional comments attempt to draw links between Norway’s asylum policies, xenophobia, and the terrorist attacks of July 2011 – not altogether successfully.

The title of Holly Hardman’s film immediately signals its topic – evangelical Christians and their belief that we are living in the end times. Centering her exploration of this unusual world in post-Katrina Louisiana – the frequent hurricanes “evidence” that the apocalypse is imminent – Hardman follows a number of subjects dedicated to praising the Lord and convincing sinners to become born again – before it’s too late. Main subjects include Lance, a Jesus look-a-like prone to wheeling a giant cross around the city; Mitsi, who has embraced Jesus after a particularly troubled past; her teenage son Aaron, a Christian singer who expresses scary enthusiasm that his girlfriend and he literally spend hours just talking about God; and her eldest son, Ryan, who is in the military and struggling with his faith, despite the presence of his devout wife. While there have been other documentaries about evangelicals and apocalypticism, Hardman does her project a great favor by localizing it in often disaster-stricken Louisiana, where religious fervor seems strangely out of place against the backdrop of drunken Mardi Gras revelry in New Orleans. Where she lets the project down, however, is in a surfeit of characters. Many come off as one-note, and their screentime could have been used to flesh out more intriguing figures like Mitsi or Ryan.

The same criticism doesn’t apply to Carlos Klein’s project – the only real characters in this film about filmmaking are the director and his would-be mentor, Victor Kossakovsky, the director of ¡VIVAN LAS ANTIPODAS!. Assisting the master filmmaker with location scouting in Patagonia for his ambitious project, the younger director turns his own camera on Kossakovsky, engaging at times in a debate about documentary filmmaking, while at other moments capturing the very particular – and sometimes surprisingly emotional – elder filmmaker as he directs a shot, constructs an atmosphere, or works with his composer. Viewers are likely to take issue with the opinionated Kossakovsky and his proclamations – which range from “don’t film if you want to say something” to “Story is important for documentary, but perception is even more important” – but at the same time, they may take issue with Klein’s more personal approach, as noted in his occasional voice-over. Still, whatever side the audience might take, they will witness a film that captures a passionate artist and his deliberate creative process.

Seyed Reza Razavi’s film, following an Iranian author as she tries to research the slaughter of demonstrators by the Shah’s army before the Revolution, on the other hand, isn’t quite so successful, though it too seeks to peel back aspects of the creative process. In her research, author Narges Abyar locates an old documentary about the incident, and becomes intrigued by one of its subjects, a witness who appears to be a film projectionist. Razavi follows her around Tehran as she first tracks down that film’s director, and, eventually, with his help, the projectionist. Though the latter denies that he was in the film, the pushy Abyar eventually succeeds in wearing him down. The film feels remarkably padded – Abyar’s quest is not particular interesting on a cinematic level (accompanying her as she gets the original film’s director’s phone number from the film archive is not the stuff of riveting documentary) and should have picked up, at most, when the projectionist was located. Perhaps it’s a cultural difference, but I also can’t shake the feeling that scenes are either re-enacted or wholly fictional – Razavi has an inordinately easy time filming characters who I can’t imagine would all be open to appearing on camera without notice. There’s something to the last section of the film, when the projectionist shows Abyar old films of his booth, and talks about his sense of guilt that he didn’t help the people he witnessed massacred, but it’s a long time coming in this misfire of a documentary.


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

2 responses to “IDFA 2012: Docs in Brief, Part Three

  1. Thanks for your insightful comments about the films of IDFA I was there for 8 days and only got to see 51 films. You filled in some gaps and I appreciate it. I have just written an essay looking at the themes that emerged for me after seeing said 51 films. Any suggestion as to who might be interested in publishing a reasonably long essay on this years IDFA films?

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