FESTIVALS: Form and Content Balanced at DoubleTake
by Rolf Gibbs
(indieWIRE/4.18.2000) -- Despite size and budget limitations, the DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival (April 6-9) is one of a handful of festivals which has made it a priority to secure sponsorship from airlines and hotels to enable all filmmakers (including those with short films) to attend. The result is a wonderful community of filmmakers with time to exchange ideas and resources, and a chance to meet and converse with their audiences.
According to Assistant Festival Director Karen Cirillo, 52 new films and videos were selected for DoubleTake this year, from over 425 entries (up from 305 last year and 107 the first year). Including thematic programming, over 80 films were screened during the four-day festival, with about 40% projected on video.
DoubleTake was concentrated in one area in downtown Durham, with the screenings taking place in three cinemas at the Carolina Theatre. Most of the guests stayed at the Marriott Hotel, which was so close to the theater, they could get from one to the other without going outside. This year's festival coincided with another event taking place at the Marriott: the "First in Flight Cat Show," which was even weirder than its name. The mixture of strange, cat-obsessed people and their even stranger cats was reinforced by the constant smell of pee in the carpeted corridors. One filmmaker said, "Making a documentary about the cat show would be like shooting fish in a barrel." This comment led to a suggestion that perhaps next year a group of filmmakers could make short DV docs during the day, and then screen them at the festival in the evening.
Spending four days watching only documentaries, I found myself once again preoccupied with that recurring question and frequent source of passionate contention: Which is more important in documentary filmmaking, Form or Content?
Considering Oscar-nominated docs of recent years, the Academy sees content, and more precisely, social content, as the main factor in determining documentary quality. As a filmmaker attracted to various genres (fiction, documentary and experimental), I personally tend to place more value on the very thing that separates the documentary film from a book or a magazine article: the use of the cinematic form. But the question is not so easily answered: There were many powerful and brilliant films at DoubleTake, some which relied heavily on characters or content, others which displayed virtuosity in their manipulation of cinematic form, and some which did both.
In the "Content" corner, I saw three very strong films. "The Valley" by Dan Reed takes the audience behind the lines in Kosovo, showing both sides of a deadly and very personal conflict, taking place incongruously on idyllic, sunny farmland; "Me and Isaac Newton," by veteran fiction and doc filmmaker Michael Apted, is, formally speaking, a complete mess. The interviews with five scientists, filled-out with seemingly random imagery and generic visual effects, nevertheless left me with a profound sense of humanity and excitement about what the near future may hold for our generation. As part of the Sheila Nevins Industry Award for her work at HBO, the festival screened Kary Antholis' 1995 film "One Survivor Remembers," which is not much more than a talking head. An old lady tells a story, with some archival footage. . . but what a riveting testament of survival and hope!
Weighing in heavily for "Form" is probably the best documentary I have ever seen: Sergey Dvortsevoy's "Highway," an impeccably executed portrait of a performing circus family as they travel the plains of Kazakhstan in their beaten-up old bus. An hour long, the film consists of only about ten extremely long takes, which are constantly developing to reveal the most subtle details of family life. I was completely transported by the virtuosity and deliberateness of the filmmaking. This is observational documentary at its best.
Another formally compelling film was "A Strange Message from Another Star" by Veli Grano, about an eccentric man who has devoted his life to finding a way to get off this planet. His homemade efforts produced a recipe for rocket fuel that is actually being used to power the space shuttle. Very unusual and creative with its use of cinematography, sound design and editing, the resulting film is an evocative and poetic character study.
Other noteworthy competition features included Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini's "Well-Founded Fear," a brilliantly shot, observational doc that offers a fascinating look inside the INS, and how subjective the process is for giving asylum to persecuted refugees. Jason Kessler's "A Thief among Angels" is an insightful and entertaining account of a book artist's magnum opus -- the handmade creation of a completely new edition of the Bible. "Un Été au Grand Hotel" (A Summer at the Grand Hotel) by J.C. Rose looks at the inside workings of a luxury hotel in Deauville, France. The film is well paced and very subtle in its revelations about the dependency of the hotel's pampered bourgeois guests.
"Juvies" is a disappointing follow-up to Liz Garbus' hugely successful previous effort "The Farm - Angola USA." Staying with a prison theme, focusing this time on the juvenile justice system, "Juvies" is visually flat, and the bad sound recording makes it hard to understand most of what is being said. Another flat entry was "Raise the Dead" by James Rutenback, a ponderous film about one of the last southern traveling tent preachers.
The line-up of short documentaries included Mira Nair's hilarious and thought provoking "The Laughing Club of India"; Sadia Shephard's charming four-minute festival favorite "Reinvention"; and Eva Aridjis' unsettling and humorous observational piece "Taxidermy: The Art of Imitating Life." Two hugely popular shorts, which I did not see, were "Over 36,000 Sold" by Brett Vapnek, and "Look Back, Don't Look Back," a parody of D.A. Pennebaker's 1965 tribute to Bob Dylan, by Randy Bell and Justin Rice.
For DoubleTake, filmmaker Alan Berliner ("Nobody's Business") curated a series of 24 films called "Outside Looking In: Coming of Age Stories" which included fictional, documentary and experimental work. Other thematic programming included "Images of War, Visions of Peace," and "Southern Writers on Film." The festival also teamed up with DocuClub in NYC to give several filmmakers the opportunity to screen Works-in-Progress and garner critical feedback from festival attendees.
After conversations with Jury members, it became clear that their deliberation had also revolved around the eternal question about the merits of Form and Content. This fact was mirrored in their agreement on a winning film: "La Bonne Conduite (Five Stories from Driving School)" is a wonderful mix of both form and content. A simple but strong cinematic concept -- installing cameras in cars, which record both driver and passenger separately -- the film achieves an extraordinarily intimate observation of the relationships between five instructors and their students. What seems at first to be just a humorous idea slowly develops until such profound subjects as death, bereavement, jealousy and racism permeate the Swiss film.
Other winners honored at the awards ceremony barbecue on Sunday afternoon included two world premieres and co-Audience Award winners: Linda Duvoisin "You don't Know What I Got" a portrait of five very different American women, and Edward Rosenstein's "The Gospel According to Mr. Allen" about a Harlem self-help drug abuse center. The Jury Award for Best Short Film went to "but, the day came" by Eugene Richards. On Saturday night, veteran documentarians D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus were honored with a Career Award, Scenes from their 1994 Oscar nominated film "The War Room" were screened, as were sections from their new work-in-progress, "StartUp.com" for which they have teamed up with first-time filmmaker Jehane Noujaim.
Each evening, the festival organized a party. On opening night it was a barbecue by the fountains outside the theatre. On Friday, the Center for Documentary Studies was host to an outdoor shindig, complete with live band and dancing. The Center was also holding an amazing exhibition of Cuban street photographs by Ernesto Bazan: "El Periodo Especial." And on Saturday, when the weather changed for the worse, we were lucky to find ourselves indoors for a delicious meal at the Brightleaf 905 restaurant.
DoubleTake 2000 is a smallish festival, but it has The Largest Festival Passes In History. 6x4