Chicago Docs Make a Statement: Second International Fest Gets Political
by Anthony Kaufman
Home to both a diverse, ethnic population and Kartemquin Films, the team responsible for breaking open the documentary market via their hit "Hoop Dreams," Chicago is an ideal place to host an international documentary showcase. Now in its second year, the Chicago International Documentary Festival (April 1-11), which is hoping to stake a claim to the growing nonfiction market as one of the largest such events in the United States, is hosting nearly 100 films all across the Windy City, weighted heavily with work from Eastern Europe, Russia, and films about Israel and the invasion of Iraq.
"It's fantastic to give these films the exposure they deserve," says CIDF president and executive director Christopher Kamyszew, who is also been running Chicago's Polish Film Festival since 1989. "At most other festivals, the documentaries are in sidebars, but here they are the primary object of interest."
As evidence of the festival's growth in just two years, says Kamyszew, they expect to double last year's attendance, and are already planning several initiatives for the event's third outing, such as workshops with visiting filmmakers, an increased U.S. presence in the selection, Hi-Def exhibition, additional screenings for industry attendees, and for the first time, submission fees. (For this year's edition, they received more than 2400 films that didn't pay a dime).
Opening night at Doc Films (the venerable site of the University of Chicago's film society, founded in 1932 as the Documentary Film Group) featured premieres of "Marina," a portrait of the 13-year-old star of Siddiq Barmak's Golden Globe winner "Osama," and HBO's "Death in Gaza," a documentary about Palestinian children, made all the more intense by the fact that it's director, TV cameraman James Miller, was killed by Israeli soldiers during the making of the movie.
Israel's cycle of violence is also examined in Tom Roberts's "Inside the Mind of the Suicide Bomber" and David Ofek's "No. 17," about the search for the identity of the victim of such an attack, which is one of 16 films competing for the festival's top award, the Chicago Doc Grand Prix and a cash prize of $15,000. An esteemed international jury, composed of Chicago professor and author Michael Rabiger, IDFA Director Ally Derks, Polish filmmaker Andrzej Fidyk, and St. Petersburg Documentary Film Studio Director Viacheslav Telnov, will announce the winners this weekend.
In keeping with current politics, "This Ain't No Heartland," from Austrian filmmaker Andreas Horvath, is the most unabashedly American-bating in the competition. A scathing portrait of ignorant and inebriated Midwesterners and their attitude towards the invasion of Iraq, Horvath photographs parades and picnics, Civil War re-enactments and demolition derbies, and interviews patriotic wackos, paranoid racist drunks, a Republican party official, and inter-cuts them together with the sounds of an evangelical preacher and lyrical shots of empty fields.
"This Ain't No Heartland" is too long and polemical, but in opening his film with Nazi leader Herman Goering's famous quote about how easy it is to drag the people to war ("All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism"), Horvath highlights the dangers of the Bush administration and how plenty of citizens are willing to swallow their propaganda.
A tandem work to current fest fave "The Control Room," Ali Essafi's "Al-Jazeera, Arab Voices" documents nearly the same period and people as Jehane Noujaim's acclaimed film: the days leading to the Iraqi war as seen, experienced and reported by the staff of the famous Arab news network ("if everybody watches CNN," reads a poster on the wall, "what does CNN watch?") While less skillfully conceived as "The Control Room," "Al-Jazeera, Arab Voices" fills in some of the details on Al Jazeera's colorful and articulate cast of characters.
Out of competition, but playing along with "Al Jazeera, Arab Voices" is another companion piece to the Iraqi invasion, "War Feels Like War," which follows journalists who begin in Kuwait before the war (as "SCUD bait," cynically intones commentator P.J. O'Rourke) and who then move into Iraq, confronted with the deaths of their colleagues and inured to the horrors of Iraqi corpses.
Though no longer making headlines, two films from the Balkans highlight the region's post-conflict conditions with a lighter touch. In the humorous, yet penetrating "Whose is This Song?," Bulgarian filmmaker Adela Peeva investigates the origins of a Balkan tune that each country claims as their own. More biting is Serbian director Goran Radovanovic's "Casting: A South East Europe Transition Film," a provocative glimpse into a post-war Belgrade economy that blurs the line between capitalism and prostitution.
Other strong, but wearisome works include Malek Bensmail's "Alienations" a Wiseman-ian look at an Algerian psychiatric ward, where the inhabitants have been seemingly driven mad by their unstable country, and Nina Toussain and Massimo Iannetta's "The Decomposition of the Soul," a poetic tour through a prison once run by East Germany's Secret Police, as re-experienced by some of its captives a la Rithy Panh's "S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine."
One of the competition's most auspicious titles, "Disbelief," which premiered at Sundance, was pulled at the last minute from the festival lineup. Russian authorities sealed off access to the only 35mm print of Andrei Nekrasov's gripping investigation into the bombing of a Moscow building, which points a finger at Putin and the new Russian Secret Service. Nekrasov's documents were also stolen. While Nekrasov got his passport back and the festival had hoped to screen a Beta SP version of "Disbelief," says CIDF Program Director Ray Privett, "the logistical problems we faced -- beyond the print seizure - became extraordinary. It was very difficult to clarify whether the film or any guests would be available."
Still, Russian-watchers had plenty else to see, as Russia was chosen as the festival's spotlight country, including Ineke Smits's "Putin's Mama," Pamela Gordon's edge-of-your-seat thriller "Moscow Siege," and spotlights on U.K. filmmaker Angus Macqueen ("Loving Lenin," "Gulag") and samples from the St. Petersburg Documentary Film Studios (such as Alexander Sokurov's "Sonata for Hitler"). Next year's edition will single out documentaries from China.
Nodding to America's place in the world, the CIDF also screened several works from the U.S.: Goro Toshima's "A Hard Straight," which is both a humanistic portrait of three parolees trying to reintegrate into society and a harsh critique of the justice system that continually fails them; Jane Gray's "Playing House," a compelling look at the fragility of girls too young to be in a Massachusetts boarding school; Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster," which gives viewers an entertaining and intimate ringside seat to the heavy metal band's group therapy sessions, and Hollywood director John Landis' audience favorite about used car salesman "Slasher."
The Chicago Doc Fest will close this weekend with Sundance premiere "Persons of Interest," Alison Maclean ("Jesus' Son") and Tobias Perse's infuriating examination of the affects of John Ashcroft's department of injustice in its straightforward presentation of interviews with Arab and Middle Eastern American families who faced detention or deportation after September 11.
"One mark of these films is how critical they are of this administration," says Kamyszew, joking about a probable tax audit in his future. "But that's the point," he says. "Documentaries can't be confused with television."