FESTIVALS: Frame by Frame; HBO's Docs Post 9-11, from the Disabled to the Sexual
by Michael Lee
(indieWIRE/ 10.29.01) -- A couple of weeks ago at the IFP Market, everyone was talking about the changing role of the filmmaker, and especially the documentary filmmaker, in the wake of September 11. The IFP even organized a last-minute panel on this topic, which digressed into a sort of town meeting with people sharing their experiences and traumas and which eventually lead to the determination: documentary makers will make whatever they feel like and can fund. A more relevant question would be, has 9-11 changed what will be funded and broadcast?
Sheila Nevins, head of HBO's documentary division, was on the panel that night and had given the issue a lot of thought. "We can't be sure yet," she said. "But I don't think the way we do things will change much. You can only inoculate against smallpox one by one, cure anthrax one by one. The role of the documentary filmmaker has always been to look at people one by one, one person, one story, so people don't become numbers. And our role doesn't change: to help our viewers understand that the person next door to them, or across the world, is not so different. That every life is worth saving."
Aside from "Taxicab Confessions" and "Fashion Victim: The Killing Of Gianni Versace," the 21 films shown in 70 screenings at this year's 4th Annual HBO Frame by Frame Festival fit Nevins' statement: personal visions with point of views on very small worlds that open up onto the bigger picture.
It's also true that the lineup (which makes the films eligible for Oscar consideration) was changed in the month before the screenings, with films that dealt with death or sex in an 'inappropriate' way pulled as especially sensitive given the downtown Manhattan location of the Frame by Frame's sole forum, The Screening Room, on Canal Street.
According to rookie director Arthur Bradford, HBO has definitely changed the TV schedule too; his "How's Your News?", originally scheduled to air in March, has been moved up to late January. "'How's Your News?' is a feel-good film," he says. "It takes on America without being at all political. They took out some of the films before us that were more directly political, that looked at America in a more charged way."
"How's Your News?", the most looked-forward to, oft-screened, and well-attended film of the festival, was co-Executive Produced (that is to say, financed) by "South Park" creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker along with renowned American indie dealmaker John Pierson. The film follows the adventures of five physically and mentally handicapped people as they travel America in an RV "reporting" the "news" in the everyday lives of the people they meet by sticking a handmike in their face with "How's Your News?" scrawled in marker on the lopsided cardboard shield and asking rudimentary questions like, "How's your news?" (One reporter, silenced by cerebral palsy, simply sits in his wheelchair shaking as passers-by ignore him; another, struck by Downs Syndrome, can only grunt, again managing to stop the politest people.)
"This film has nothing to do with 'South Park,'" Matt Stone told me at the Mingle with the Maker event before running off to play bass in the country-punk band composed of he, Bradford, and five disabled reporter-vocalists. "It's not a comedy in that way. It's totally for real. It's not in any way a Matt-Trey project. We saw a shorter version of the film and liked it and gave Arthur some money. We had absolutely no creative involvement."
But it's impossible to ignore the affinity of "How's Your News?" with the Matt-Trey ethos, taking "South Park" live and removing a little of its aggression, and to give it a Hollywood pitch, is something like "Crumb" meets Maysles, using the subject as a mirror reflecting the "defects" in the world around them far more than any defects in themselves. Bradford is a satirical short story writer whose first book is out from Knopf at the same time as his first filmmaking success.
At first, "How's Your News?" comes off as a crass joke, tasteless and manipulative. But this time, the bad joke starts to crack itself open. As we watch these reporters repeatedly subjected to humiliation, but retaining their mission and good humor, we begin to wonder: is it us, the audience, who is imposing our authority to judge them? "''How's Your News?' goes against the grain of how disabled people have ever been portrayed in the movies," Pierson argues. "We're not told to feel sorry, or happy, for them. They had a great time. They put themselves out there. The film doesn't take a point of view for or against them, and that's what critics might react against."
The initial discomfort some might feel at watching "How's Your News?", Pierson continues, is something you can't feel in a theater. "At home, in isolation," he admits, "it can be a different experience. You have to examine yourself and wonder how to react. In a theater, within a few minutes, you get it along with everyone else."
The sold-out Mingle with the Maker for "How's Your News?" was indeed full of positive energy, followed by a raucous Q&A featuring all of the reporters onstage fielding questions, and climaxing in a quasi-musical performance (made initially uncomfortable since none of the retarded people played any instruments). But the reporters are clearly having a great time with their new film and nouveau punk personas, and their cheer makes it harder to take issue.
"That screening felt so good, the vibe was so amazing," Lisa Heller, HBO's deputy chief of doc programming effused. "I think it took everyone's mind off anything bad they might have been feeling."
There are no plans yet to take the band on the road again for a music documentary that might top "Spinal Tap." But Bradford is developing a weekly series that just might be the next step from "South Park": live action satire without "SP's" more caustic edge. "We haven't announced this publicly anywhere else yet, so I hope you can get it into your article," Bradford told me. "I think the American people are eager for something that is unplanned, unrehearsed, not overproduced. With 'How You're News?' we can critique the commercial media without being boring and really seeming to."
The media show for, by, and about disabled people that DCTV founder and HBO mainstay Jon Alpert has in the works for worldwide satellite distribution will surely be very different from Bradford's. In his deeply personal new film, "Papa," Alpert is much more concerned with capturing the intimate moment. Though his take on his neuropathic octogenarian father feels short and a little light, Papa and Nana's love-filled bickering (in the film AND after, at the packed Mingle with the Maker) had the whole packed screening rolling in the aisles. . . much to the surprise of all the Alperts, who expected more of a tear-jerker. Like with "How's Your News?", don't wait for "Papa" on HBO; if you can find it, see it in a theater.
"Graduating Peter," Gerry Wurzberg's sensitive follow-up to the Academy-Award winning documentary "Educating Peter" is a very different take than "How's Your News?" on the life of a mentally handicapped person. We follow Peter, a young man with Downs' Syndrome, through his puberty, his first romantic relationship, culminating in his successful graduation from a mainstream suburban high school. Wurzberg's portrayal never, for even a single frame, risks the tightrope walk of clownism, and the unobtrusively stunning camerawork by Gary Griffin keeps us fluidly moving through Peter's development without ever questioning the time jumps or the structure of the storytelling. The film manages to take a very aggressive perspective: that with hard work and careful management, a disabled person can lead something like a normal life. A must-see even if you haven't caught the first one.
The pure physical transformation of Tracy, an aquiline effeminate but inarguably male drag queen into Stacey, a sexy blonde she-male with real 34D breasts and a penis is the main attraction of Parris Patton's "Creature." Charming discussions of estrogen intake ("proctitol fills them in down here, gravitol up here, and proctinor all over") and the thin plot of his/her return to California to a begrudgingly accepting white trash family reunion manages to overcome the film's structural shortcomings and the superficiality of most of the peripheral characters (with the exception of one very lovely Latino drag queen and Stacey's formerly gay-bashing gangster father, revealed in the middle of the film, out of nowhere, as the reformed "Al Capone of Winston-Salem, NC"). Also watch for Dave, the otherwise hetero client of Stacey's dominatrix business, who utters probably the best line of the whole festival: "Yeah, just to see a woman with a big cock, that excites me."
Homosexuality gets a very different treatment in Maureen Gosling and Ellen Osborne's "Blossoms Of Fire." Considered by many the best film of all those screened, this beautifully shot examination of a matriarchal Mexican rural society where lesbianism and feminist politics are totally accepted is just the kind of personalized, one-by-one vision of the world outside our borders that Nevins is referring to. It might not save the world, but it will give the more enlightened New Yorker an idea where to spend her next vacation. Arriba!
[Michael Lee is the founder of trafikafilms, a nonprofit company dedicated to helping give a voice through coproduction and training to those with stories to tell but without good access to funding and technology.]