Tuesday, September 25, 2007

2007 DOCFEST—Michael Hawley's Preview of the Line-up

The San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, better known as SF Docfest, launches its sixth and largest edition yet starting this Friday, September 28th. Headquartered exclusively at the Big and Little Roxie Theaters for the first time in its short history, this year's festival boasts a brimming selection of 45 films spread out over 32 programs in 13 days. The breadth of themes and subject matter is so vast, I can't imagine anyone not being able to find something of interest. Based strictly on my own irregular tastes and preoccupations, I had no trouble picking eight selections from the line-up to preview for The Evening Class.

Every festival needs a first-rate film for opening night and Docfest has just such an animal—the West Coast premiere of Rob VanAlkemade's What Would Jesus Buy? The film documents the antics of The Church of Stop Shopping, led by long-time San Francisco actor and performance artist Bill Talen in the guise of Reverend Billy, a preacher hell-bent on saving us all from the Shopocalypse. We merrily follow the Church on a cross country crusade during the 2005 holiday shopping season, beginning in Times Square ("a Stonehenge of logos") on Black Friday and ending with the infiltration of Disneyland's Main Street parade on Christmas Day (Mickey Mouse being the Reverend Billy's "own personal anti-Christ"). Among the en route pit-stops are Wal-Mart's corporate headquarters in Bentonville, AK ("you can't compete against slave labor") and a performance at the Mall of America in Bloomington, MN. This is relentlessly thoughtful, entertaining and hilarious stuff, especially if you consider yourself a member of the choir to whom the reverend is preaching his anti-corporate, anti-globalization, anti-consumerism, anti-dehumanization message of love.

I can also strongly recommend Jeremy Stulberg's Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa, a compelling look at a quasi-collective of societal renegades who inhabit a beautiful, but barren 15-square mile patch of New Mexico desert. Among the dozen or so individuals profiled in the film are Maine, a veteran who suffers from Gulf War Syndrome and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; ex-psychiatric nurse Mama Phyllis; Gecko, a single father who lives in a trailer with his four home-schooled kids (home-schooling consisting of learning to drive cars, shoot guns and make pancakes); and Stan the benevolent pig farmer who takes in runaway kids. We learn how they subsist in such a remote location, often impeded by severe weather conditions. Deliveries from the Food Bank of New Mexico are the main food source, and bathing requires a five-mile hike to the Rio Grande. The local economy, such as it is, is fueled by marijuana (a half-ounce will buy you one solar panel). The weed also helps keep things mellow, with the mesa becoming violent only when the pot runs out and people start drinking. In a place where the only law is to be a good neighbor, serious conflict arrives in this harsh paradise when a group of nearby teen runaways start stealing food supplies. Learning how the mesa dwellers deal with it is just one of many affecting moments you'll find in this portrait of a uniquely American alternative community.

When I first looked at the festival program, the film that really jumped out at me was American Scary, John Hudgen's look at the golden age of TV horror movie hosts. While growing up in New Jersey in the 1950s and 1960s, nothing topped spending a weekend with my monster movie-lovin' granny. We'd bond over the hijinks of John Zacherle broadcasting from his TV studio dungeon in Philadelphia (and then later, New York City). When I moved to the Bay Area in 1975, I immediately became a fan of creepily mild-mannered Bob Wilkins and his KTVU show Creature Features. Both men are profiled in American Scary, along with dozens of other hosts from around the country such as Svenghoulie, Doktor Ghoulfinger and Crematia. A significant chunk of the film is devoted to Ohio, which was apparently some sort of ground zero for the whole phenomenon. Leading the pack was Clevelander Ernie Anderson's beatnik-flavored Ghoulardi (whose son would become filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson).

The documentary does a fine job of examining how the whole thing got started in the early 1950's, when Universal Studios released a 52-film syndicated package of horror classics to local TV stations across the country. The host concept was inspired by radio thrillers and Cryptkeeper comix. And because so many of the movies were dogs, local hosts were brought in to spice up the viewing experience. The concept had a long heyday, but it all pretty much came to an end with the arrival of the TV infomercial. Director Hudgen enlists some fine authoritative voices in the film, including John Bloom (Joe Bob Briggs), Chris Gore (Film Threat) and Joel Hodgson (Mystery Science Theater 3000), as well as those TV hosts who remain among the living. My main complaint with the film is the same one I have with most historical/pop cultural documentaries—that is, too many talking heads and not enough archival material. (I always wonder if the problem is lack of available material or budgetary concerns). I also grew weary of the generic-sounding surf-rock music that permeates the film. That said, you can be pretty sure this will be the only film ever made on the subject, so don't miss it. I can promise that the vintage footage of former B&D cheesecake model Maila Nurmi, better known as Vampira, will be well worth your 10 bucks.

Living their own version of American scariness are the elderly inhabitants of an East Berlin apartment building in Jessica Feast's Cowboys & Communists. Several years after the fall of The Wall, they found themselves living above White Trash Fast Food, a combination restaurant/bar/tattoo parlor that features live music, Bettie Page look-alike contests and an African-American transvestite who shoots eggs out her ass and does faux-menstrual paintings. The filmmaker, who hails from New Zealand and is also a WTFF waitress, documents firsthand this clash of cultures and battle of wills. At first, one's sympathies lean toward the bar's ex-pat, personal freedom-seeking owners and employees. But as Feast befriends Horst Woitalla, the steadfast retired journalist leading the fight to oust the bar, a different picture emerges. Although he's an abject apologist for the old communist regime (claiming that 70% of East Germans were pro-wall and that Stasi was a necessary evil), I was moved by his discourse on how freedom is a relative thing. Sure, East Germans are now "free"—free to be jobless, hungry and subjugated by the cultural crassness of the West.

From formerly communist East Berlin to the formerly communist Ukraine, Andrei Zagdansky's Orange Winter documents the public battle for the presidency that played out in the streets of Kiev in 2004. After opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko is poisoned (by Agent Orange, it would eventually be discovered), his supporters begin camping out in the city's main square. A highly suspect and fraudulent run-off vote takes place, and government candidate Viktor Yanukovych is crowned winner. Then all hell breaks loose as hundreds of thousands of supporters for both candidates take to the snowy streets. The protests continue until a month later, when the Ukrainian Supreme Court orders a re-vote that produces an entirely different result. Director Zagdansky does an excellent job of laying out the chain of events that produced this peaceful revolution, giving the viewer a strong and immediate "you are there" perspective. I was a bit put off by the film's sonorous narration, and sometimes had difficulty understanding the relevance of frequent cut-aways to an operatic performance of Boris Gudanov, as well as clips from the Aleksandr Dovzhenko film, Earth. Out of all the films I saw for this festival, however, Orange Winter contains what was for me, its most thrilling and uplifting moment. While a bimbo news anchorwoman on state-run TV cheerily announces Yanukovych the run-off winner, the courageous woman simultaneously signing for the hearing impaired gives a different accounting—telling her viewers that the election was completely fraudulent. This was one time when only the deaf got to hear the truth.

Perhaps the most high-profile film in the festival is Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine's anti-Michael Moore doc, Manufacturing Dissent. This has gotten a lot of press since its debut at SXSW, and being a huge fan of the guy, was not something I'd been looking forward to seeing. And now that I've seen it, my admiration remains fundamentally intact. Most of the charges brought against him by the filmmakers are things I can live with—the man is rich, has a massive ego and is a bit of a megalomaniac. While making TV Nation he stayed in nice hotels while his crew stayed in dumps. While editor of the Flint Voice, he never paid his $10 monthly subscription fee to Rock and Roll Confidential. He supported Ralph Nader in 2000. He betrayed Ralph Nader in 2000 (Moore gets blasted either way). The filmmakers also do a lot of whining because Moore (who certainly knew they were making a hit-piece on him) refused to meet with them, made access to his public appearances difficult, and boo-hoo, wouldn't let them plug into his soundboard. Director Melnyk also does the film no favors by narrating it in a chirpy style befitting Entertainment Tonight. Nader, Errol Morris, former Film Comment editor Harlan Jacobson (with perhaps good reason) and author/producer John Pierson ("Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes") all join the chorus of on-screen naysayers. The latter takes the cake for fatuousness, proclaiming that if Gore had won the 2000 election, Moore would have had no more career. He also declares, "Every time something goes really well for Michael Moore on a personal level, on a fame level, on a bank account level, things get worse for the country." Please!

I did appreciate the film for bringing to my attention some of Moore's more legitimately unflattering moments. I was very disappointed to learn that Moore had actually spoken twice to Roger Smith during the making of Roger and Me, and then asked people to flat-out lie about it. The film also nicely debunks the scene in Bowling For Columbine where Moore walks into a bank and walks out with a gun. These things will certainly cause me to see his work with a more critical eye in the future. Irregardless, the man remains a hero to me. Manufacturing Dissent opens with his anti-war outburst at the 2003 Academy Awards. When was the last time an American public figure displayed a bigger set of balls than that?

The last two documentaries I previewed, while certainly not without interest, proved to be somewhat disappointing given my interest in the subject matter. Bob Ray's Hell On Wheels meticulously details the setting-up of a modern day women's roller derby league in Austin, TX. We sit in on a lot of meetings filled with pettiness and infighting, watch the girls train and get injured, and witness setbacks and financial calamities. Unfortunately, none of the film's subjects possess the kind of outsized personalities and oversized egos that might have given the film some oomph. They do come up with some great team names, however, like the Hell Marys and the Putas del Fuego. Far more compelling was the roller derby documentary JAM, which won the audience award at last year's SXSW and screened here in the Bay Area at this year's Frameline.

Noelle Stout's thematically unfocussed, but nicely shot Luchando, seems to fancy itself as some sort of exposé of the gay Cuban sex trade. The word "luchando" literally means "fighting" in Spanish, but in Cuba it's also synonymous with having sex for money—as in fighting to get ahead or fighting to survive. The problem is that none of Stout's subjects seem to be fighting for anything—they just seem too unmotivated to try and do anything else. A case in point is 19-year-old "pinguero" (i.e. straight trade) Yuris, who has already fathered four children by different mothers and his greatest ambition is to father six more. We watch as he visits and squabbles with the various mothers, which is a tiresome as it sounds. There's also irascible 34-year-old Masciel, aka "La Gorda", an obese, alcoholic lesbian who has sex with men for kicks and money. She does have an interesting personality, however, and it's one of the film's few saving graces. The film finally manages to achieve some poignancy in the end credits, when we learn that Yuris has been sentenced to one year's hard labor for being a menace to society, and Masciel's girlfriend Yalisis has been sent to a re-education camp. For what it's worth, anyone seeing this film out of a purely prurient interest is bound to be disappointed. There's a very brief shot of lay-about Manuel, the film's real eye candy, taking a shower, and a very lengthy, very grainy scene of Masciel rubbing her breasts while an equally corpulent customer masturbates on the bed below her.

These are only a few of the 45 documentaries on offer at this year's festival. If these eight don't sound like your kind of thing, have a look at the schedule and I'm sure you'll find something that is. There are several more films I hope to see during the festival, which were not available to preview: Esther Robinson's A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory about Andy's lover/fellow filmmaker; Bruce Schmiechen's Every Beat of My Heart: The Johnny Otis Story about the Bay Area R&B star; and Alex Gibney's Tribeca award-winning Taxi to the Dark Side.


Bob Turnbull said...

Hi Michael,

Definitely some interesting docs you've described. I'm curious to see a bunch of them.

I have already seen one of them though. "Manufacturing Dissent" was shown at Hot Docs in April and I attended a screening of it where the filmmakers were present (I too, was somewhat reluctant...). I found that they presented a better "case" in their Q&A than they did in the film itself (which I scribbled some thoughts on here)

I don't think Moore knew they were putting together a "hit-piece" on him - at least not initially anyway. The filmmakers stated that they were fans of his going into the project and really wanted to talk with him for a more positive piece.

I do agree with the rest of what you mentioned though - the discussion of his methods is interesting, but the discussion of Moore himself is not. It's hardly surprising that he's egotistical and that just isn't relevant to his films. However, I do have a problem with Moore setting himself and his films up for easy dismissal - I find his points (many of which I certainly agree with) get overshadowed by techniques that, well, I'm not sure he really needs. I thought both "Roger & Me" and "Bowling For Columbine" were terrifically entertaining films that raised really good questions. But since then, I've felt there to be far too many ad hominem attacks - he sometimes becomes just another pundit yelling from his podium to the converted...

Which I thought was one of the more interesting qiuestions "Manufacturing Dissent" raised. When making a documentary, do you want to preach to your choir or get a discussion going?

I've heard "Sicko" is solid though.

John Hudgens said...

Thanks for the kind words about "American Scary" - I wish we could have included more vintage footage, but we constantly ran up against stuff that either did not exist anymore, was degraded past the point of usefulness, or the owners refused to even return our requests for footage... it's the old story - we eventually made the movie with what we had, not what what we wanted... but we still appreciate the recommendation! :)

BTW, I'll be in town for the Saturday screening, and local hosts John Stanley and Doktor Goulfinger will be attending that one as well...

John Hudgens
Director, "American Scary"

Anonymous said...

Bob, thanks for coming by and sharing your thoughts on Manufacturing Dissent. I won't be attending the screening here, so it was helpful to be able to read your comments from the Hot Docs Q&A.

John, thanks for clarifying what I already suspected was the case regarding the shortage of archival footage in American Scary. It's a fine film anyway, and I hope yesterday's screening went well for you.