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October 15, 1998 2:00 AM
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IDA's "Doctober" Forecasts Oscar Winners With Awesome Slate

IDA's "Doctober" Forecasts Oscar Winners With Awesome Slate

by Rebecca Sonnenshine




The International Documentary Association's second annual international
documentary film festival
-- dubbed "Doctober 2" -- came to a close last
Thursday evening. Held at the historic -- and cavernous -- State
Theater in Pasadena, the non-competitive festival programmed an eclectic
slate of eleven films ranging in spirit from the sublime ("The Last
Days") to the serene ("Letters Not About Love") to the strange ("Circus
Redickuless").


Designed to showcase some of the best documentary films from around the
world, the festival also offers the filmmakers the invaluable
opportunity to qualify for an Academy Award nomination by giving each
film a full seven-day run. Last year, three films from the IDA festival
managed to land those coveted nominations -- "Ayn Rand: A Sense of
Life
," "Colors Straight Up," and "Still Kicking: The Fabulous Palm
Springs Follies
." Though many of the weekend screenings attracted a
respectable audience, attendance was modest, at best (the large venue
probably overemphasized this fact). Still, many of the filmmakers were
present on Saturday to hold spirited Q&A sessions with members of the
appreciative audiences, and there was a genuine feeling of emotional
involvement on the part of the audience and the festival programmers
during the run of the festival.


The grand, three-tissue weepy, "The Last Days," was easily the most
lavish production at the festival, exquisitely photographed in 35 mm and
brought to you by executive producer Steven Spielberg and the Shoah
Foundation. Directed by James Moll, the film examines the experiences
of five Hungarian Holocaust survivors, people who fell victim to
Hitler's "Final Solution" during the last, grim year of World War II.
Combining harrowing archival footage with present day interviews, the
film manages to be both beautiful and horrifying, a painful yet
ultimately uplifting reminder of the strength of the human spirit. Sure
to be a contender for, if not a recipient of, the Academy Award, the
film has the added prestige of bearing the October Films banner and
should certainly be headed for healthy theatrical distribution.


Another contender for the Oscar is Barbara Sonneborn's "Regret to
Inform
," a delicate, somber, heartfelt exploration of women who were
widowed by the Vietnam War. Twenty years after losing her husband in
the war, Sonneborn, an artist by trade, felt overwhelmingly compelled to
seek out -- and tell the stories of -- other women who had experienced
the same fate. The result is a deeply moving, extraordinarily
compassionate film. Combining archival footage and interviews with both
American and Vietnamese widows, the film is effective, original, and
raw. What it lacks in production value (compared to a film like "The
Last Days") is more than made up for with skillful storytelling.


"In Search of Kundun with Martin Scorsese," produced and directed by
Michael Henry Wilson, was the other "big" documentary, financed by Canal
Plus and the only one featuring people-we've-heard-of. Instead of
settling for a typical "behind-the-scenes" documentary, however, the
filmmakers have created a thoughtful, well-researched companion piece to
the feature film. Martin Scorsese is always an articulate interview,
but the film also profits from the insight of screenwriter Melissa
Mathison ("E.T."), a minor expert on Tibetan culture and history (and
wife of Harrison Ford, himself a figure in the cause for Tibetan
independence), interviews with members of the cast -- all non-actors --
and intimate conversations with the Dalai Lama himself. Most
importantly, the documentary conveys a sense of the importance that
"Kundun" carries as a cultural record of a time, place, and people that
China has all but destroyed.


Falling into a more experimental arena was Vicky Funari's "Paulina,"
which screened at Sundance earlier this year. The film chronicles the
recollections of a Mexican woman who escaped a life of rural abuse and
poverty by seizing her destiny, slowly carving out a difficult but
rewarding life for herself and her daughter. Combining present-day
interviews with recreated narrative sections, the film is ambitious and
engaging, if not entirely successful.


Another film stretching the boundaries of the traditional documentary
form was Jay Rosenblatt's "Human Remains." An examination of the
private lives of the World's Greatest Dictators, Vol. 1, the film
combines archival footage and narrated excerpts from the various
manifestos and articles of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Franco, and Mao
Tse Tung. Bordering on the gimmicky, the film ultimately succeeds in
creating an audacious montage of sound and images that effectively
portray the mundane, twisted, and absurd aspects of the lives of men who
changed the course of human history.


Also injecting a breath of fresh air into the documentary form was Jacki
Ochs' "Letters Not About Love." Based upon written correspondence
between two poets -- one living in the Soviet Union, one living in
Northern California -- this layered work of beauty and literature uses
original and archival footage to compliment the text of the letters,
narrated by Lili Taylor and Victor Nord. Though enormously dense at
times, the film succeeds in merging the meditations on everyday words,
such as "grandmother," "window," and "home," with seemingly disparate
images.


Phillip Glau's "Circus Redickuless" without a doubt took the cake as the
strangest, bawdiest, and funniest participant of the bunch. The
documentary follows a group of rag-tag, punk slackers who decided to
follow their friend, Chicken John, on a "punk rock circus" tour. Things
go from bad to worse as the participants limp through from venue to
venue in rickety, unreliable vans, and, more importantly, with no real
"act." Fighting breaks out among the disillusioned, inebriated, hungry
talent (to use the term loosely), and hilarity ensues. Despite the
unlikely subject matter, the film is engaging, energetic, crass...and a
testament to the filmmaker's storytelling ability.


Rounding out the festival was Sienna McLean's "Still Revolutionaries,"
an interesting but all-too-brief exploration of two women's involvement
in The Black Panther movement; "P.I. Snaps," by Monica Sharf, a
noir-ish, amusing peek into the life of private investigator Dempster
Leech, a former actor who now makes his living investigating the
counterfeit merchandise business, and a series of films produced under
the HBO banner, the commendable "Come Unto Me: The Faces of Guyton"; and
three others, "City at Peace"; "The Personals"; and "Thug Life in D.C."

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