FESTIVALS: Los Angeles Fests' Truths: Death, Music and Cuba are Documentary Highlights
by Fiona Ng
(indieWIRE/ 05.02.01) -- The festival is over and the ballots are in. But unlike previous years (four out of five, actually) at the Los Angeles Film Festival, the annual fest's coveted Audience Award did not go to a documentary.
But that doesn't necessarily mean that the docs were not good (or the features were better). On the contrary, of the 11 feature-length documentaries on its slate -- including seven world premieres, one West Coast premiere and one North American premiere -- most of them were solid, with two, "The Young and the Dead" (which has been picked up by HBO for broadcast in the fall) and "Scratch" (being distributed theatrically later this year through Palm Pictures), being the most outstanding.
Sure, this year's selection might lack the wacky eccentricity of something like "The Cruise" of a couple years back, and that nothing has yet to top last year's "Keep the River on your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale" on the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction scale. But this year, the LAFF's got hip-hop, dead people in Hollywood and a Cuban tale amongst other truths.
If death, as a concept, has always concerned itself with profundity and depth, then documentarians Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's "The Young and the Dead" is certainly of the cheaper -- though very entertaining -- variety. The doc follows one Tyler Cassidy, a handsome millionaire from the Midwest who overhauled the bankrupt Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery into what Cassidy and his team call "the definitive archive of human memories" where the memory of the dead is preserved, and, if need be, recreated. The idea is downright hokey, if not eerily fascistic. And at times, one wonders if Cassidy is really just the philosopher he appears to be, or if he is just a really darn good businessman. Perhaps both.
Since its restructuring under the young entrepreneur, the cemetery has taken to creating mini-documentaries on the deceased as part of the funeral service (available on cemetery ground and on the Internet at all times). Of course, it is only a matter of time before Warholian notions are evoked to explain the urge for Cassidy to want to offer such services, or the need for people to actually want to use them. But as Cassidy tells it, the mini-documentary is merely the outer most layer of his vast vision, for he is aiming for no less than the total preservation of the deceased -- maybe not the body so much as the more intangible, like DNA samples, memories and personality. Call it cloning the dead.
With his second full-length documentary, "Hype!" documentarian Doug Pray turned his attention to hip-hop's DJ culture and came up with Sundance premiere "Scratch," a dynamic look at the emergence of the "turntablist" and the art of vinyl scratching that are integral to the hip-hop movement. Tightly woven and thoroughly researched, the film goes through the history of hip-hop to the present day, putting into focus not only the gradual development of the musical art form, but hip-hop culture as a whole.
Writer-director Roger Hyde's "Queen of the Whole Wide World" chronicles the staging of the 2000 drag queen beauty contest of the same name, an annual event that has been raising money for people with AIDS and HIV for the past 11 years. Conceived as a send-up of the Miss Universe contest, the all-out gala (including swimsuit, evening gown and talent show segments) pitches queens against queens for the title crown. But of course, what's being lampooned is the whole concept of the Beauty Pageant itself, where its decorum, packaged humanity and, at its core, the performance of hyper-femininity -- basic run of the mill stuff where drag is concerned -- are all parodied (or perhaps more appropriately, travestied).
Miss France -- the night's deserving winner -- may have sported the evening's most fabulous gown in the form of a 15-foot plus Eiffel Tower. Miss Mexico was the most liberal in capitalizing on stereotypes, but nothing was as funny (or as offensive) than seeing a contestant entering as Miss Saudi Arabia (covered up from head-to-toe), though she only placed sixth. The real treat was the actual screening, where most of the contest finalists -- Miss Russia, Miss Mexico, Miss Ireland (out-of-drag), Miss Antarctica and Miss France -- were on hand, in drag and at the film's world premiere at the LAFF, every bit as catty and marvelous-looking as they were on the screen.
Probing and thoughtful, Juan Carlos Zadivar's "90 Miles" is a personal memoir that retraces the events leading up to May 1980, when thousands of Cubans political refugees fled the communist regime for the shores of Miami, Florida through a massive boatlift. The documentarian --13 years old and an avowed revolutionary at the time -- and his family were part of the move. The doc offers a rare glimpse into Cuba, a country as mythologized to U.S. folks as the United States is to the rest of the world. Mainly though, the film is about how the Zadivar family make do thereafter. For the young Zadivar, it was about gradually shedding communist ideologies to embrace Mickey Mouse and all-you-can-eat ice cream. And for his father, it was to embrace the American Dream only to get let down.
The title of filmmaker Jay Corcoran's "Undetectable: The New Face of AIDS" refers to the recent AIDS multi-drug treatment, commonly known as "cocktail," which has the ability to suppress the disease to the point of it being undetectable in many cases. But undetectable does not mean "cured" or even "curable," and that is the awareness Corcoran is trying to raise with the project. The documentary follows six Boston residents, each from a different ethnic and economic background, in their daily emotional and physical struggle with the treatment. It takes a much-needed look at the reality of AIDS today, a problem that is as severe as when the epidemic broke out 20 years ago.
Acquired by Sundance Channel mid-festival, Marina Zenovich's "Who Is Bernard Tapie?" could be described as a "Citizen Kane" of the nonfiction format. Here, the elusive newspaper magnate is replaced by the equally elusive Frenchman Bernard Tapie, a real-life multi-hyphenate whose transformations range from that of a government minister, a soccer team owner, a business tycoon to a fallen national hero, an ex-con and an actor. And instead of an inquisitive newspaper reporter, there's Zenovich, a documentarian who spent most of her time in and out of France figuring out who Bernard Tapie really is while trying to arrange an interview with him. Zenovich's singular obsession notwithstanding, the documentary remains the most engaging when the filmmaker herself stayed clear off the screen, allowing the people she interviewed to give their own interpretation of the self-made man.
An emblematic moment happened somewhere in Caveh Zahedi's doc "In the Bathtub of the World" where the San Francisco-based filmmaker was shown responding to a comment from a presumably irate audience member after the screening of another one of Zahedi's films at the Yo-Yo-a-Go-Go fest in Olympia, Washington. You can't exactly hear the spectator's remark, but tellingly, the filmmaker responded, rather earnestly: "So you think the film is vain and narcissistic. Do you mean that in the pejorative sense?"
Heavy in pretense and light on ideas, the doc assumes the form of "personal diary" (or "art," as the filmmaker once noted) where Zahedi videotapes himself for a few minutes a day everyday (or almost everyday) for a whole year. What you end up getting is something of a cross between bad home videos and unbridled free association. Sure, Zahedi might be playing with the conventions of autobiography and documentary and might go as far as exposing the kind of selectivity involved in the making of a documentary -- but that's being generous. The incessant tedium perhaps does serve one purpose -- proving that a moment is not really moment until it is committed on video, or film. Yes, "Bathtub" is narcissistic and vain. And yes, in the pejorative sense.
[Fiona Ng lives and writes in Los Angeles.]