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DOC COLUMN: Fests Bring Out the Docs in March

DOC COLUMN: Fests Bring Out the Docs in March

It wasn’t too many years ago that March was considered a relatively quiet month for North American film festivals, but these days there may not be such a thing as a “quiet” month, given the proliferation of important festivals spread throughout the year. With increasingly high quality programming at these events, even March has its fair share of world premieres and highly anticipated films – and documentaries are no exception. A handful of festivals are already generating buzz on some great new docs, with the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, True/False Film Festival, and SXSW offering some of the most talked about selections this month.

The U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, which launched yesterday and runs through March 4 in Aspen, snagged the world premiere of Jim Pasternak‘s “Certifiably Jonathan“, a current-day profile of the infamous Jonathan Winters, a comic genius known for living on the outer edge of reality. The film, which reveals a truly bipolar Winters, explores not only his comedy but his love of painting, evidenced by the depression he experiences after his favorite painting is stolen – causing him to eventually claim that a witchdoctor has stolen his sense of humor, as he turns to the likes of Robin Williams, Sarah Silverman, and Rob Reiner for help in getting it back.

The fest is also screening Seth Gordon‘s “The King of Kong“, a Slamdance crowd favorite that will be released by Picturehouse this summer, followed next year by New Line‘s remake of the same name – with Gordon retained as director. The scene is set in 1982, as 17-year-old Billy Mitchell sets the world record on Donkey Kong that would last for the next 20 years. Cut to present day as Steve Wiebe, unemployed and bored, sets out to beat Mitchell’s high score, obsessively playing the game each night after his family goes to bed. This begins an odyssey that creates one of the most compelling competition docs in recent memory.

If you miss “Kong” in Aspen, you can catch it at the True/False film festival in Columbia, Missouri, which kicks off today and also runs through March 4. True/False has garnered a reputation for unpredictable programming, favoring the hybrid doc and other projects that often blur the line between fact and fiction. Although the festival eschews the idea of world premieres, they offer many “sneak peeks” as well as works-in-progress. “We’re taking this stand for a number of reasons,” festival Co-Director David Wilson wrote in a recent email to indieWIRE. “But chiefly because we feel like the attention paid to premieres and premiere status is drawing focus away from the films themselves.”

Among these films is a sneak preview of Tamas Bojtor and Sybil Dessau‘s “American Shopper“, one of the most anticipated screenings of the festival. Truly funny and surprisingly touching, the film is the perfect example of a hybrid doc. ” ‘American Shopper’ is a hybrid in the sense it combines documentary techniques with elements found in narrative films,” co-director Dessau told indieWIRE. “Our film began as a sort of social experiment. We wondered what would happen if a seemingly ridiculous new sport was introduced to a community. Would anyone participate? Who would they be and why would they do it?”

Ironically shot right in the town where True/False is held, the film details the rise of a fake sport called “aisling”, a concept created by the film’s co-director Tamas Bokitor after he realized that the average American spends 6,000 hours shopping for groceries in a lifetime, and there was no reason for the experience to be so mundane. Not wanting to appear in the film himself, Bojitor hired actor Jonathan Sawyer to play him as the inventor of the absurd new sport, which involves competitive shopping featuring tricked out grocery carts and ridiculous dance moves. But what unfolds as we see Sawyer pursue his dream of creating the 1st National Aisling Championship is otherwise entirely real, without other actors or any scripting, creating a sense of anticipation that rivals Jeffrey Blitz‘s “Spellbound“.

“I think aisling quickly became a symbol,” Bojitor told indieWIRE. “Many times we do seemingly absurd or questionable things, take risks, because beyond the surface these activities give us a chance for self expression, motivation, entertainment or for some even redemption. We acknowledge that on the surface these activities can look strange, or illogical, but if you look beyond the surface, many times you find a legitimate meaning.” Therein lies the brilliance of this film, since the biggest surprise is watching what happens in the competitors’ lives – as they’re challenged to think creatively and do things they would never otherwise do – awakening a child-like spirit that it seemed had long since faded.

Among other screenings of note at True/False are Brett Morgen‘s “Nimrod Nation“, an upcoming Sundance Channel documentary series about a small Michigan town obsessed with its high school basketball team, and Fergus O’Brien‘s “The Armstrongs“, a BBC series-turned-film which follows the outrageous couple John and Anne Armstrong, who run U-Fit – “one of the largest double-glazing companies in Coventry.”

SXSW, which runs in Austin from March 9 – 18, certainly has its share of documentary world premieres this year, with big buzz building around Rick Caine and Debbie Melnyk‘s “Manufacturing Dissent“, which was just featured in Sunday’s New York Times in a filmmaker profile by John Anderson. The doc follows polarizing director Michael Moore as he tours with the controversial “Fahrenheit 9/11” in 2004. Exposing the politically volatile climate along the way, the documentary seeks to uncover what’s true and what isn’t with a surprisingly objective voice.

Around that same time period, filmmaker Katy Chevigny was shooting “Election Day“, also having its world premiere at SXSW this month. The film follows a group of voters over one day, namely Election Day 2004, from the early morning until well after midnight. Capturing people from all walks of life, including an ex-felon voting for the first time at 50 years old and a factory worker debating gay marriage with his colleagues, audiences get a glimpse of the real life stories that lie underneath the complex electoral process.

A sampling of other highly anticipated world premieres at SXSW include Doug Pray‘s “Big Rig“, a view of modern America seen through the eyes of long-haul truckers, Stephanie Johnes‘ “Doubletime“, an engaging competition doc about jump roping, and Michele Ohayon‘s “Steal A Pencil For Me“, a remarkable love story that follows a couple from their time in a concentration camp all the way to current day, where they are faced with some painful decisions.

[NOTE: The Museum of Modern Art in New York City wraps up its month-long series entitled “Documentary Fortnight Expanded” today and tomorrow with three final screenings – capping off a broad program of 60 new works in documentary film. Tonight’s screening is Luc Vrydaghs‘ “Gas Station Series Part 1“, which examines economic, political, social, and religious issues through the construct of small independent gas stations. Tomorrow’s final two screenings are Avinash Deshpande‘s “The Great Indian School Show“, about a surveillance system in an Indian boarding school, and Mats Bigert and Lars Bergstrom‘s “Last Supper“, an unconventional look at the fascinating ritual of providing a last meal to a death row inmate.]

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