By Eric Kohn | Indiewire June 23, 2008 at 11:59AM
If there's an aesthetic lesson conveyed by the premieres at AFI Silverdocs this year, it's that cinema verite continues to thrive -- and the classical approach to documentary filmmaking hasn't frayed with age. Not that it had been showing signs of a slow demise, but the ongoing talk of meager box office prospects for the form -- coupled with Herzogian declarations of "ecstatic truth" and projects like "Chicago 10" trying to take the practice in new directions -- suggested a demand for evolution that doesn't actually exist. As it turns out, great stories work when they're told well. That shouldn't come as a surprise, but last year's oft-repeated trend piece about lukewarm box office reception for documentary releases suggested a broken system in need of revitalization.
However, as AFI Silverdocs festival director Patricia Finneran sees it, documentaries don't necessarily have to accommodate changes in one marketplace when others are available. "Theatrical is cyclical," she said in an interview last week. "It's still really important, but in the sense of who matters to independent documentary filmmakers...you have to be clear about where you connect with the most audiences."
Appropriately enough, many of the stronger entries at AFI Silverdocs have already secured future audiences on broadcast or DVD -- and hardly any of the best entries seem destined for oblivion, particularly because they appear accessible in both concept and execution. The two top jury winners, for example, handle topical issues without overreaching in narrational ambition. "The Garden," which won the Sterling US Feature Award, recounts the remarkable struggles of farmers working on large plots of land located in the center of downtown Los Angeles where buildings burned down during the Rodney King riots in 1992.
The utopian ideal of an organic lifestyle arising from the ashes of ethnic backlash takes a dark twist when developers try to vacate the farm and construct warehouses in its place. Scott Hamilton Kennedy directs the undulating account of the immigrant farmers' attempts to save their livelihood with an eye for the story's inherent drama, adopting a constant forward motion to keep the pace in check. The opening minutes of the film set the stage with a virtually wordless depiction of the farm at the start of the day, lyrically establishing the unlikely geographic conditions. The Spanish title for "The Garden" translates as "Earth and Freedom," which pretty much outlines its thematic reach: Two noble values with which any viewer can sympathize.
While "The Garden" takes place in urban Los Angeles, the farm gives it a feeling of displacement; "The English Surgeon," winner of the Sterling World Feature Award (a new category this year), also tackles a combination of two unlikely elements -- in this case, a British brain surgeon in Ukraine. Documentarian Geoffrey Smith builds a gorgeous, utterly moving portrait of Henry Marsh, a proper British gent unafraid to do the dirty work in a country that desperately needs it. Accustomed to providing more bad news than good to the ailing patients he sees on a regular basis -- and helpless when it comes to working within the confines of Ukraine's flailing medical system -- Marsh still manages to save lives, and does so with ferocious dedication and a calculated philosophy.
By solely committing himself to cases where he thinks he can salvage the patient, Marsh becomes a soldier of medical practicality, and the miracles he performs reflect that drive. A major sequence near the end of the film shows, in graphic detail, the frighteningly tense removal of a life-threatening brain tumor. The gruesome details surpass your average "ER" episode, but Smith applies a cinematic eye with the right rhythm of shots and cuts, allowing the scene to unfold as though Marsh were deactivating a bomb on "24." He shows us just enough to keep us watching. "I was very careful about turning it into a film, rather than a document," Smith said after the first Silverdocs screening of the film on Friday.
It's a statement that could serve as a mantra for many of the documentarians at the festival. While the notion of verite as an "accountant's truth" -- per Werner Herzog -- argues that the techniques of early documentarians such as the Maysles brothers and DA Pennebaker don't recognize the potential of the material, such an allegation ignores the way a good subject is often ideally served by focusing on its built-in appeal, rather than bombarding the innate potential with outside observations.
"Mechanical Love," a Silverdocs US premiere that screened earlier this year at Hot Docs, studies the attempts of Japanese Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro to construct remarkably lifelike robots. He constructs a machine called a germoid that uncannily resembles himself, and begins to infuse it with his personality. The professor's reflections on witnessing his own face come to life in an artificial body, which culminate with an attempt to get his young daughter to relate to the germoid as if were her father, give the movie a brooding, almost icily contemplative tone. Director Phie Ambo has essentially made a science fiction film, but only because we live in times where science fiction concepts are slowly becoming a reality. Ambo injects a few eerie notes on the soundtrack to help poeticize the work, but it's the sight of Ambo and his mechanical double together on screen that truly creates a fascinating, if somewhat unsettling, experience.
Other forms of rarified love featured in the latest Silverdocs program function equally well without overplaying the emotion. "Four Wives - One Man" states its topic right in the title and never veers away from it. Nahid Persson observes the home life of an Iranian man and his quartet of spouses, each of whom has her own standpoint on the challenges of living in a packed household. We witness heavy feuding and fleeting loneliness as often as the family manages to saunter along, content enough to live another day.
It's practically a conventional narrative, however, compared to the colorfully strange "Pindorama: The True Story of the Seven Dwarves," which lets viewers spend eighty endearing minutes in the company of seven Brazilian siblings, all dwarves, traveling the road together while running a wildly successful family circus. More observational than structured around any kind of heavy conflict, "Pindorama" recalls the recent festival hit "Circus Rosaire" in that it provides an inside look at the circus lifestyle, proving that the business model is not only viable, but -- at least in certain cases -- beneficial to family life. In "Four Seasons Lodge," journalist Andrew Jacobs observes a handful of German and Polish Holocaust survivors living quiet lives in the Catskills, where they manage to sustain their happiness through communal bonds built out of their harrowing pasts. While not an essential Holocaust documentary, Jacobs' film lands in a class of its own by emphasizing the ability of elderly folks to retain their vitality with a strange sort of cosmically inspiring appreciation for shared experiences. (When the camera happens upon a resident whose concentration camp life included serving as a guinea pig for the experiments of the notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, he recalls with a shrug, "He liked me.")
One of finest testaments to the power of verite, however, comes from a familiar pair: Alan and Susan Raymond, whose seminal 1973 PBS series "An American Family" was an early form of reality television. They've retained an eye for social drama with the instantly engaging "Hard Times at Douglas High," a survey of the various rough lives at Baltimore's Frederick Douglass High School (the film airs on HBO this week). Wrecked by a troubled home life and other dangers of lower class urban living, many of the students barely put any time into their academics -- and, and a result, the school fails to meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Students continually fail on standardized tests and teachers can't figure out how to connect with them, while the Raymonds' camera captures the ongoing conflicts with fascinating details. The politics emerge from the material. "This is a way of maintaining the status quo," laments one faculty member before quitting in disgust. However, in a few cases, students do manage to defy the decrepit system. For its formulation of a problem that speaks for itself, "Hard Times" fits the standard Silverdocs mold. It tells the truth simply by showing it.