As is often the case at U.S. film festivals, the documentary competition can present some of a festival's strongest works. A number of acclaimed new non-fiction films are having their U.S. premiere at AFI Fest 2006, alongside a selection of world premieres. From the Toronto International Film Festival (and the recent London Film Festival) is British director Lucy Walker's "Blindsight," which had festgoers buzzing about its moving chronicle of a group of Tibetan blind children's quest to climb Mt. Everest. In all, there are eleven films screening in the festival's International Documentary Competition.
"Blindsight" is Walker's second effort following 2002's "The Devil's Playground," which profiled a group of Amish teens. In "Blindsight," Walker follows German ex-pat Sabriye Tenberken, founder of the Braille Without Borders school for the blind in the Tibetan capital, Llasa. American Erik Weihenmayer, who is the first blind man to climb Mt. Everest, visits the school, and helps organize a climb with a half-dozen students, many of whom have faced discrimination and ridicule in their country, where blindness is stigmatized and considered a curse due to bad karma from a past life.
"We thought [the film] would be a great document not only of the [climb] but also for Braille Without Borders," said Weihenmayer following a screening of the film at AFI Fest this week. The school has done much to lessen the society's negativity towards blind people, but discrimination still exists. "When I first came to Tibet, [the blind] were treated as outcasts and seen as punished," added Tenberken about the country where one in 70 is blind. "But Tibetans are overcoming their prejudice. People now follow students into [the school's] courtyard and see the children laughing and running and speaking three languages, so they see it's not a punishment."
While the climb presented obvious challenges for the blind students, capturing their journey on film was also a logistical feat. "It was very challenging," said Walker about the project. "You feel very aware of your human frailties. [There is] so much coming at you and you have to be on your feet in order to capture all the shots." Walker described how she lost her waterproof shot list down a crevice in the ice, which prompted a rescue at one point in the trip. "It was my brain," said Walker at the Q & A. "There was no room for error. You couldn't just get a new camera if one broke, or if a cameraman got sick, you couldn't just find another one."
Another doc from this year's Toronto fest is AJ Schnack's "Kurt Cobain About a Son," also having its U.S. premiere at AFI Fest. As indieWIRE doc columnist Jonny Leahan reported during the festival, Schnack, "takes a fresh approach to non-fiction storytelling, turning the idea of the traditional music doc on its head." The film uses Cobain's own words and images of three Washington State cities that were important to Cobain - Aberdeen, Olympia, and Seattle. The filmmaker told indieWIRE, "I guess it's most unconventional by the fact that we don't use any archival video or Nirvana music. Although there is music from bands that influence him, like Queen and The Melvins, David Bowie, R.E.M. and Iggy Pop, [there are] barely any photos of Kurt." As Leahan wrote in indieWIRE, "Instead, Schnack relies on his exclusive access to a box of audio interview tapes from author Michael Azerrad, which were originally used for Azerrad's book 'Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana'."
The horrors of genocide are on display in two AFI Fest competition docs, Carla Garapedian's "Screamers" about the rock band System of a Down and their battle to preserve the memory of the Armenian genocide, as well as J.B. Rutagarama's "Back Home," the personal story of the filmmaker's own family's genocide tragedies in Rwanda.
Rutagarama's film offers a poignant look at his own struggle, including the sometimes painful moments of his life as the son of a Tutsi mother and a Hutu father. His mom joined him for the emotional screening, seeing the film for the first time at AFI Fest and watching her own story on screen, including her son's return to Rwanda in search of lost family. The film is screening in the AFI Fest's new 20/20 program, connecting filmmakers from around the world and, with the support of a number of national organizations, promoting cultural understanding and developing an international tour that will also include events at universities and other institutions.
Pablo Aravena's U.S. premiere of "Next: A Primer on Urban Painting," produced in part by Agnes B's Love Streams Productions, delivers an international look at graffiti art in many cities across the globe, surveying a world of urban artwork in New York, Sao Paolo, Tokyo, Paris and many other destinations. Notable is a well-done electronic, downtempo film score.
Also screening in the international documentary competition are the world premiere's David Stenn's "Girl 27," Sedika Mojadidi's "Motherland Afghanistan," Jakov and Dominik Sedlar's "Searching for Orson," the U.S. premieres of Mark Verkerk's "Buddha's Little Children," Mohammed Naqvi's "Shame," and Marcin Sauter's "The Traveling Cinema."
[AFI Fest continues though Sunday night in Los Angeles. Check out indieWIRE's coverage in a special indieWIRE.com section.]