The New Doc Crop: Surveying the Standouts at Three April Festivals
by Jonny Leahan
When it comes to documentary film festivals, April has evolved into a key month, featuring some important festivals around the globe, among them the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in the United States, Hot Docs in Canada, and the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival in Greece. Since its launch in 1998, the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival has been one of these, and seems to outdo itself every year. Centered around the historic Carolina Theater in Durham, North Carolina, the festival is removed enough from the big cities to allow for a laser focus on non-fiction filmmaking, while still providing enough culture and youthful energy to make for a truly enjoyable time.
With 55 features in competition at Full Frame, in its relatively short April 7-10 run (kicking off tonight), it’s hard to say what audiences are looking forward to most, but there are a handful of world premieres that seem to have a heightened buzz surrounding them. Among these is Dani Menkin‘s “39 Pounds of Love,” which follows the fascinating life of Ami, a man born with a rare form of muscular dystrophy that caused his doctor to predict he wouldn’t live past the age of six. Now 34 years old, and weighing only 39 pounds, Ami has stunned everyone by surviving, even though he can’t move any part of his body — except for one finger. What starts out as an attempt to document his extraordinary life as a 3D animator in Israel becomes a quest to track down and confront the American doctor who predicted his early demise.
Another highly anticipated debut at Full Frame is Holly Paige Joyner‘s “Pack Strap Swallow,” which enters the tragic world of the women’s prison in Quito, Ecuador. Many of the inmates are there because they were caught smuggling drugs, either by packing them, strapping them to their bodies, or swallowing them. There are even European and American women, some who got involved in crimes unwittingly, who tell of their struggle to survive behind bars for years in this real life version of “Midnight Express.” The film’s U.S. pay TV rights were recently acquired by Sundance Channel.
In another kind of struggle entirely, Marshall Curry‘s “Street Fight” documents a heated political battle in Newark, New Jersey. In 2001, City Councilman Cory Booker challenged incumbent Mayor Sharpe James for leadership of one of Jersey’s toughest cities. “Street Fight” follows the contentious race from start to finish, exposing the complicated connections between identity politics and electoral politics in modern American life. This flat-out barroom brawl of a race is the perfect microcosm for campaigns at the highest level, exposing just how dirty politics can get.
Also wrapping up April 10 is the ten-day Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, which is considered Greece’s top event of its kind. In its 7th year, the festival is again focusing on “Images of the 21st Century,” featuring 125 films in over a dozen special sections. Standouts include Austrian Director Hubert Sauper‘s “Darwin’s Nightmare” and Bulgarian Director Andrey Paounov‘s “Georgi and the Butterflies.”
In “Darwin’s Nightmare,” a strange 1960’s Africa is revealed, where a new animal was introduced into Lake Victoria during a scientific experiment. The predatory Nile Perch destroyed nearly all the indigenous species of fish, but the new fish reproduced so quickly that it’s sold in seafood markets around the world to this day. The huge industry that has built up around it has become tangled in arms sales, and the area has mutated into a bizarre culture of World Bank agents, homeless children, Tanzanian prostitutes and Russian pilots.
Perhaps equally as strange is “Georgi and the Butterflies,” which recounts the story of Dr. Georgi Lulchev, a man with a singular vision. The good doctor is not only a psychiatrist and neurologist, but also the Director of the Home for Psychologically Challenged Men. His dream is to create a farm on the grounds of the compound where patients can raise things like ostriches, snails, and soybeans. In a country where 80 percent of the people are poor, Georgi tries all manner of methods to raise funds for his projects, and even in the face of failure he’s unrelentingly enthusiastic.
Later this month, the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival takes Toronto by storm for its 12th year, running April 22 – May 1. Many of the 100+ films featured in the festival are world premieres, and although there isn’t space to cover all the gems here, a small selection of the more anticipated docs include “The Cross and Bones,” “Homemade Hillbilly Jam,” and “Malfunkshun.”
In “The Cross and Bones,” Canadian director Paul Carrière explores the origin of life as seen by the residents of Drumheller, Alberta, home to the richest dinosaur graveyard in the world. The bones buried here prove that dinosaurs roamed the area millions of years ago, but a group of local Christians aren’t buying that theory. As hometown pastor and real estate agent D’Arcy Browning puts on an elaborate Passion Play (including lepers), paleontologist Paul Johnson dismisses them as he continues to unearth evidence of evolution. In the middle of it all, a gang of bikers rolls into town to party for the weekend, adding a third ring to this already absurd circus.
In another curious look at rural life, this time in the Ozarks, director Rick Minnich (“Heaven on Earth”) explores the lives of mountain musicians in “Homemade Hillbilly Jam.” Focusing on the Bilyeu family, the film follows a brother, his sister and their cousins as they form the band Big Smith. Armed with only a guitar, a mandolin, a bass fiddle and a washboard, they create music true to their roots while bringing the house down around them. As their music evolves, so does their audience, but they never forsake their hillbilly DNA on this rich journey through a cultural legacy.
In another highly anticipated music documentary, Scot Barbour‘s “Malfunkshun” serves as a love letter to obscure musician Andrew Wood. As the charismatic lead singer of Mother Love Bone, Wood was a huge influence on the Seattle music scene, but died of an overdose in 1990, just before the band’s debut album was to be released. Band members Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament went on to form Pearl Jam, but Barbour makes sure that Wood’s story is not forgotten – told here with captivating home movies, unreleased songs, and heartfelt interviews with family and friends.