LAIFF 2000: Nonfiction in a Narrative Town; Documentaries Continue LA Acclaim
by Thomas White
(indieWIRE/4.21.2000) -- As the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival emerges as a hot venue on the festival circuit, its slate of documentaries has captured the attention of audiences and critics alike. Acclaimed films like "Colors Straight Up," "The Cruise," "Better Living through Circuitry" and "The Lifestyle" made their debuts here, and the Audience Award for Best Feature has gone to documentaries three out of the past four years. "As far as documentaries go, that's the strangest part of LAIFF," says programming director Thomas Ethan Harris. "Here we are in Hollywood, a narrative town, yet when people look back at the history of LAIFF, they will notice very strongly that it is our documentaries that have had a chance to move out the fastest."
Documentaries took three awards this year, including the Audience Award for Best Feature Film for "Bounce: Behind the Velvet Rope." Director/producer Steven Cantor paints a bracing picture of the life of the nightclub bouncer. In its dazzling panoply of shooting formats, "Bounce" is a wild and often violent ride. There are enough hilarious moments in the film to counter the troubling ones, and Cantor pretty much covers the gestalt of bouncing. Like most successful documentaries, "Bounce" manages to introduce viewers to a world we generally take for granted.
"Freestyle," which won the Best Soundtrack award, takes on the culture of hip-hop and, specifically, the art of freestyling, an improvisational form of rap poetry. First-time helmer Kevin Fitzgerald gives hip-hop an historic and cultural context, blending clips of jazz greats, preachers and forerunners like James Brown with highlights from rap's formative years in The Bronx. But mainly "Freestyle" is about an awesome art form to behold, one whose high-octane speechifying can literally leave you speechless.
Also appearing was "W.I.S.O.R.," a sci-fi doc that you probably won't see on NOVA. W.I.S.O.R. is a robot whose mission is to repair the vast, century-old network of steam pipes that keeps New York City alive. Filmmaker Michel Negroponte takes the viewer back and forth in time, juxtaposing archival footage of turn-of-the-century New York with black and white DV vérité of the engineers assigned to W.I.S.O.R. and news feeds of recent pipe eruptions. He draws a striking contrast between two turn-of-the century revolutions in technology, one responding to the other. As it comes into being, W.I.S.O.R. itself takes over the narration, contemplating its role in saving the city. While at times as slow and deliberate as the process it documents, "W.I.S.O.R." never fails to fascinate as a groundbreaking look at the documentary form.
In Amir Bar-Lev's "Fighter," two Jewish survivors of World War II travel to Europe to revisit the most painful places of their lives. As they recall the horrors of concentration camps and labor camps and the anguish over losing their families, Bar-Lev weaves in footage from World War II and the Cold War, as well as clips from Nazi and Communist propaganda films. "Fighter" is a psychic and spiritual journey that celebrates a friendship bonded by the pain of experience.
"Keep the River on your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale," which earned a Special Critics Jury Citation, is a different sort of journey, for both first-time filmmakers David Shapiro and Laurie Gwen Shapiro and their subject, painter/writer/anthropologist Tobias Schneebaum. No less remarkable a travelogue than "Fighter," and no less wrenching, "River" documents Schneebaum's return to the places that changed his life: Papua New Guinea, where he was adopted into an indigenous tribe and assumed their customs and rituals; and Peru, where he visited on a Fulbright and ended up living with, unbeknownst to him, a tribe of cannibals.
As a personal doc about searching for love and commitment, "Always a Bridesmaid" could well be called "Daughter of Sherman's March." Like Ross McElwee in his film, Nina Davenport leavens her angst-ridden quest with a healthy dose of self-deprecating wit. Her day job as a wedding videographer provides the inspiration, as it were, for making the film. She's over 30, with a Peter Pan boyfriend and few other prospects in sight. Spinsterhood looms large for Davenport, and she turns her camera on friends, family, and ex- and current flames and flings for answers. The most insightful observations come from the spinsters she seeks out. A representative from Seventh Art Releasing recently informed indieWIRE they were acquiring the film for theatrical release.
"Amargosa," once short-listed for the Academy Award, profiles the life and unusual career of Marta Becket, a 70-something performing artist who, for three decades, has created and presented her art in a small theater at the edge of Death Valley. She rebuilt the theater herself, even painting an applauding audience on the walls to ensure that someone will see her work. This compelling premise is vintage Beckett -- Samuel Beckett that is -- but writer-director Todd Robinson fails to pick up on it. Instead he presents a frothy hagiography, replete with overwrought narration, sweeping IMAX-like cinematography and music, and the general vibe of yet another Indomitable Human Spirit Story. What is ennobling and interesting about Ms. Becket's story is her quiet, yet fierce, determination to make a unique livelihood out of her solitude. The makers of "Amargosa" have overwhelmed her story in a cacophony of needless exultation.
This year's short docs were in surprisingly short supply. Jonathan Michael's "Babie" takes an offbeat look at his journey to his grandmother's grave. Sadia Shapard's "Reinvention" profiles an elderly, unmarried couple that find love after widow and widowerhood. This film, curiously enough, preceded "W.I.S.O.R." -- perhaps because the man in the film is an inventor -- when it would have been a nice companion piece to "Always a Bridesmaid." Hope Hall's "This is for Betsy Hall," an intriguing paean to her anorexic/bulimic mother, opened for "Amargosa."
For the first time in a while, LAIFF programmed a seminar devoted to documentaries. Moderated by Elizabeth Peters, Executive Director of the Association for Independent Video and Filmmakers, the panel included filmmakers R.J. Cutler ("A Perfect Candidate") and Vince DiPersio ("Death on the Job"), David Haugland of International Documentary Association, Udy Epstein of Seventh Art Releasing and Cleo Wilson of the Playboy Foundation. The panelists discussed a wide range of issues --distribution, funding, marketing, filmmaker etiquette, and maximizing the life of your doc. It was a lot of food for thought for a Sunday morning, and the panel barely got around to addressing the Internet before time ran out.
[Thomas White is the Associate Editor of International Documentary magazine and a freelance writer with credits in The Independent Film & Video Monthly, The Hollywood Reporter and Release Print.]