Is This What a Documentary Looks Like? Silverdocs 2012
Silverdocs, the largest documentary film festival in the U.S., showcased a striking range of documentaries this year, and of course far more of them than I could ever hope to see. The styles ranged from highly personal to big-picture essay, from meditative to thriller-paced, from celebrity-focused to featuring the people you usually pay no attention to. The commonality? All the ones I saw richly rewarded my attention.
At Work, On Screen
I’m a sucker for films that feature workplaces. The cultures of work, something most of do for most of the day, are a big hole in American movie storytelling. The challenges of working people at work go untold, mostly, in the movies. (Compare this to TV, where there are plenty of workplace programs, and some of it—think of The Wire, or Six Feet Under, or The Office, which are funny, dramatic and insightful all at once.)
At Silverdocs, I loved watching Downeast, A. Sabin and David Redmon’s tracking of the reopening of a closed Maine sardine factory as a lobster processing plant. The locals distrust the new Italian owner (not a local), but they love having a job. The owner wins their attention but struggles with the banks. Betting the Farm tells a similar story of an attempt to set up a milk distributor for Maine’s rural dairy farmers; the film needs a serious haircut, but the bones of the story are great. Drivers Wanted follows a new driver navigating taxi work. Directed by Joshua Z Weinstein and written and edited by Jean Tsien (whose dad was a cab driver), it’s not only a window into the world of the drivers but a commentary on an economy that drives such a wide array of the formerly employed through the front door of the New York taxi business featured in the film. Job creation at the grassroots is full of drama, as well as frustration.
Work and Art
Sometimes work is art, and sometimes it becomes art.
Joe Papp in Five Acts, by Tracie Holder and Karen Thorsen, tells a gripping story of the man who created Shakespeare in the Park and pioneered interracial casting. It’s an inspiring tale of the power of art, and a compelling story of the many levels of politics behind artistic projects, as well as a magnificent all-star parade of leading American actors before they were famous. And the inside story of the life of Joe Papp is its own tale of triumph and tragedy.
Andrew Garrison’s expertly told Trash Dance follows a choreographer’s process as she turns the daily life of trash collectors into a dance performance—and allows both us and the trash collectors to see them and their work differently. The trash collectors first look at her with skeptical reserve, then with the patience you offer to the clueless newbie, and eventually with shared pride. There’s poetry in crane operation, turns out. The film is also an implicit argument for more arts funding, to make the connection between work and artistic expression.
What everyone expects from documentary is a sober discussion of issues; they usually expect that to be pretty boring, and far too often they are not wrong. It can be hard to balance complex issues and compelling narrative. Eugene Jarecki’s multiply award-winning The House I Live In, about the injustices and irrationalities of America’s penal system, takes a familiar, essay-style approach. Although there’s a fig leaf of a personal tale (his African-American nanny’s relatives have been caught in the penal system), the film still marches you through the problems without many surprises. As in the past, though, Jarecki does something more filmmakers should do: he finds conservative interviewees, including here a prison guard, who decry injustice and corruption.
The Revisionaries, about the torqueing of Texas textbooks (which are effectively national standards) toward creationism, makes for compelling watching. Its well-crafted narrative arc follows a textbook board member—a dentist who is passionate about intelligent design—as he politicks his way through the process. Will he succeed? Will scientists and their allies prevail?
Call Me Kuchu, by Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall, is another gripping personal story with a tight narrative arc, this one providing a lens on a horrifying human rights issue. As the Ugandan government attempts to pass anti-gay legislation (a formalization of deeply entrenched prejudice), a gay activist who is a leader of a scrappy gay community, speaks out. What happens next? (You can find out, among other places, at the Center for Social Media’s screening of the film, with the filmmakers present, on October 11.)
Finally, I got to see two modern-day examples of a form that was part of the launching of documentary history: the city symphony. Man with a Movie Camera, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, Manhatta, and Rain were only a few of an effusion of films that took a poetic look at a town (or in the case of Vertov’s film, an entire country). Silverdocs featured two such works. Rill and Turner Ross’ Tchoupitoulas allows us to savor the look and sound of New Orleans as it cranks up for partying, winds down into exhaustion, naps and begins again. It uses as a conceit the notion that three young boys go out on the town, peaking into semi-forbidden corners, and then miss their ferry and must spend the night on the streets. The pacing is languid and reflective, the view loving.
Tokyo Waka is the result of two veteran experimental filmmakers’ stay in Tokyo over several months. Using the ubiquitous Asian crows as a through-line, Kris Samuelson and John Haptas create a hypnotic outsiders’ portrait of a complex city full of unsuspected and sometimes unsuspecting beauty.
So that's what a documentary looks like: many, many different things. Thanks, Silverdocs.
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