Celebrating First Run/Icarus Films' 25th Anniversary, from Parisian Verite To Brazilian Garbage
by Howard Feinstein
Sundance's House of Docs? Toronto's Hot Docs? Now officially hip, documentaries are gaining more and more converts among aficionados of fiction. For New York City-based First Run/Icarus Films, commitment to docs started long before they were cool. Since 1978, this company has been concentrating on docs that counteract the frequent stereotypes of b-oh-oh-ring and lackluster. Boss Jonathan Miller notes that both content AND form are important factors in determining acquisitions. "And we also like challenging films with a point of view," he says. FRIF distributes such docs to schools, museums, arthouses, and community organizations, and on occasion sells them to television. The company seems to operate in a gray zone between social consciousness and commerce. At the end of the day, of course, business is about staying afloat in a market economy. "We don't have to think we'll make a lot of money with every single film," says Miller. "Not that we don't try."
Now, on the occasion of its 25th anniversary, this unheralded enterprise is finally getting its due. A retrospective of 75 of the 800 titles in its archive is currently taking place at Anthology Film Archives in New York City through July 23. (It started June 26 with two one-week runs, Indian director Anand Patwardhan's extraordinary two-part "War and Peace," from 2002, and British filmmaker Peter Watkins's six-hour "La Commune," named best film of 2000 by the Village Voice's J. Hoberman. Each of the films after July 9 screens one time only. For schedule information, call 212-505-5181, or visit www.anthologyfilmarchives.org).
A large number of films in FRIF's collection are from, or about, the Middle East and Latin America -- no surprise, considering the company's genesis. In mid-1978, the Israeli-born documentarian Ilan Ziv launched Icarus Films in Manhattan. He had on his hands a number of undistributed titles, left over from the first Middle East Film Festival, which he had co-organized. By the end of the year, he was joined by Miller, a veteran of Tricontinental Film Center, at the time the top distributor of New Latin American Cinema. Two years later, Ziv went back to production and Miller became sole owner. He runs FRIF with a staff of six, for the past two-plus years out of Brooklyn -- "the best decision I made in a long time," he says enthusiastically. (Note: The company moniker might be confusing. In 1987, Icarus Films and First Run Features [an indie distributor formed in 1979] joined forces to merge their non-theatrical divisions. The new entity was called First Run/Icarus Films and it operates independently from First Run Features.)
Of the Middle Eastern titles, the most harrowing is "The Hundred Years War: Personal Notes"(1983), made by Ziv himself (whose latest doc, "Human Weapon," is currently playing at Film Forum). Focusing on expansion and refugees, Ziv is heavily critical of Israel's government and military. The country's incursion into southern Lebanon in 1982, under General Ariel Sharon, marked, as one Israeli journalist puts it, "the birth of the fedayeen." Ziv maintains that the Israeli government undertook the operation "to absorb the West Bank and Gaza," which had come under Israeli control after the 1967 war. In fact, he makes the case that ever since independence in 1948, the Israeli government has consciously altered the demographics of the region in order to maintain a Jewish majority. ("The Hundred Years War" has a companion piece in Avi Mograbi's hilarious 1997 "How I Learned To Overcome My Fear and Love Arik Sharon." The Michael Moore-like Mograbi so hounds Sharon on the campaign trail that he is allowed to come along.)
More upbeat is Ebrahim Mokhtari's Iranian doc "Zinat: One Special Day" (2000). Mokhtari documents a day in the life of an outspoken young woman from the Iranian island of Qeshm. Feisty Zinat Daryaie had been the first woman to discard the borgheh, a horrid half-mask that looks like a moustache and beard with hair continuing up along the ridge of the nose. On the "special day," this mother of three and her husband await results of the local council election, in which they are both among the candidates. "Dreams can turn to reality," Zinat says. This dreamer garners the highest number of votes, and makes good on her promise to build a junior high school for girls and an asphalt road over the ubiquitous sand and dust.
Films about Latin America are equally powerful. Glenn Silber and Tete Vasconcellos's "El Salvador: Another Vietnam" (1981-83) draws parallels, as the title suggests, between U.S. involvement in civil wars in Vietnam and El Salvador. In both cases, America at first insisted that it was sending no troops, and used the threat of Communism as an excuse when it finally did. The U.S. also sanctioned a scorched earth policy in both countries. (The El Salvadoran rebels, the FMLN, were hardly Communist, yet that did not stop Reagan from sending Green Berets to Honduras to fight them. And this in a country where government soldiers and paramilitary death squads assassinated El Salvador's archbishop at mass, not to mention four American nuns.) The rebels in both countries had to use whatever they could against overwhelming military might: cunning by the Vietnamese, artisanal munitions by the Salvadorans.
In Brazilian filmmaker Jorge Furtado's fast-moving short "Isle of Flowers" (1991), a different kind of hardship affects the populace of the eponymous Brazilian island. Garbage dumps where pigs dine become supermarkets for desperate humans who are allowed to scavenge for a limited time every day -- after the hogs are sated. Furtado makes sure you don't forget the situation, using satire, animation, over-the-top repetition, and sarcasm in an ongoing voiceover.
A playfulness, born of the filmmaker's love for his native country and culture, colors Cuban director Rolando Diaz's "If You Only Understood" (1999). He makes clear from the get-go that he had wanted to make a musical in Havana, "but doesn't have actors or resources." So he decides to make a documentary about auditions and rehearsals for they hypothetical musical about "her." (The Spanish title of the film translates into "If You Understood Me," the "me" being Diaz's favored black and mulatto women of Havana as well as the city itself.) We observe the rigorous dance and singing practice, as well as Diaz's forays into the women's homes -- giving a first-hand glimpse of their extended family's financial hardships. In the spirit of post-revolutionary Cuban cinema, Diaz also does man-on-the-street interviews, which tell us even more about the dire conditions in which ordinary Cubans try to survive. Yet music is both a palliative and a joyous affirmation of life. The film ends with an empty director's chair and Diaz's voice-over telling us he is going to Europe to get money for funding a film. (He has moved to Spain.)
Diaz and countless other docmakers, not to mention French New Wavers like Godard, owe a great debt to the film "Chronicle of a Summer" (1961). French ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin's black-and-white masterpiece gave us the term cinema verite. Rouch and Morin do random street interviews around Paris. For authenticity of response, they use a hand-held camera and mobile synch-sound equipment. They follow up on several of the interviewees: the unobtrusive gear enables them to explore the personal archaeology of each of them.
FRIF distributes several of the fascinating biographical docs from "Cinema of Our Time," an ongoing series of films about contemporary filmmakers produced by French television company Arte. Guy Girard's "Aki Kaurismaki" (2000) is a rare glimpse into the psyche, home, and, of course, famous bar (the Honolulu Bar) of the wry Finnish provocateur. Kaurismaki can't abide the pretense of a smug Finnish journalist. "I'm autistic," Kaurismaki responds to a question about language. "That's why my films have so little dialog." The doc includes clips from his films and takes us to several of the locations. In "Chantal Akerman by Chantal Akerman" (1996), the director reads to the camera her own stream-of-consciousness notes on filmmaking and autobiographical elements in her work. A mesmerizing montage of clips follows.
Don't get the idea that FRIF carries only foreign-language docs and American docs on our own foreign policy. Of the numerous works dealing with domestic issues, the most mind-boggling is Macky Alston's "Family Name" (1997). Alston, who is white, discovers that his ancestors had been one of the largest slave-owning families in North Carolina. He remembers black kids named Alston in grade school. The director, who does push a point by comparing his gayness to slaves' otherness, makes a brilliant decision: He arranges a concert and party for all of the Alstons, black and white, on the family plantation. One black woman named Alston laughs and says, "In slave time, you know everything happened!"
If something in the retrospective seems as if it might rock your boat and you can't see it at Anthology, you can always rent it. That way you shell out the bucks that keep FRIF's coffers just full enough to keep this indispensable enterprise around, hopefully for at least 25 more years.