On Thursday morning, I woke up nice and early and made the drive from Brooklyn to Silver Spring, MD to spend a few days taking in the 2007 SilverDocs International Documentary Conference. I was immediately impressed with the organization of the festival; A walk down the block to pick up my badge, my tickets were in perfect order, and the volunteers were happy to point me in the right direction. Silver Spring itself was a bit of a surprise; My memory of the area was based on living in DC from 1995-97, and the downtown area has gone from a traditional suburban environment to what one fellow festival-goer described as a “terrarium,” an environment populated by chain stores and chain restaurants, manufactured public spaces, and a near-complete absence of small, locally owned businesses. Of course, the festival found plenty of fun and funky places nearby to house all of the merriment (The Quarry House and its complimentary tater tots and the must-be-seen-to-be-believed Moose Lodge were highlights), but the jewel in this newly-polished crown is the AFI Silver Theater, a wonderful facility with world-class projection and sound that was filled to capacity the entire weekend. I met up with my programming partner Holly Herrick and got down to the business of taking in films.
The AFI Silver
First up, Esther Robinson’s A Walk Into The Sea, the story of her uncle and Warhol Factory fixture Danny Williams and his unsolved disappearance in the 1960’s. The film was hauntingly beautiful, featuring Robinson’s stunning use of her uncle’s luminous 16mm footage (shot on Warhol’s Bolex) and a fabulous score by Robinson’s husband and collaborator T. Griffin. There have been several ‘corrective’ documentaries in recent years that have re-examined the glamor of the Factory in light of the human toll that was taken by the cult of personality surrounding Warhol himself and what has continually emerged is a portrait of Warhol befitting his nickname; ‘Drella, an amalgamation of Dracula and Cinderella, a creature who can suck you dry, make your dreams come true and let you live forever. But at what cost? The pain inflicted on those who knew and worked with Warhol comes into sharp focus with each new film, and in A Walk Into The Sea, the suffering of Danny Williams’ mother (Robinson’s grandmother) ius expressed in her eternal misgivings about the Factory and Warhol’s process; She is so desperate to reclaim her son from the shadows of Warhol’s monumental contribution to art, she inspires retrospection and sadness at a life that might have been if only a more human, gentle system been in place. It made me wonder about the contradictory nature of Warhol’s conception of artistic freedom; All of the work and the impersonal structure of a manufacturing corporation (with Warhol as founder and CEO) and none of the hard-won responsibility required by workers of these institutions. Add drugs into the mix, and Warhol’s Factory becomes a nightmarish vision of work; Colored lights, noisy music, film and paint replace the soot and sweat of unregulated industrial labor. The outcome for the workers? Not as different as you might think. That the Factory produced beautiful, eternal objects does raise the question of the validity of Warhol’s process and tactics, but as the sad smile on Danny Williams’ face in the film perfectly highlights, their value may never replace the the human cost in the eyes of many.
Next was Mary Lambert’s 14 Women, an engaging (and surprisingly apolitical) look at the 14 women who made up the United States Senate in 2005 (the number is now 16, as the film makes clear in its coda). Lambert juxtaposes the can-do girl power of interviews with pre-teen girls with ‘day-in-the-life’ behind the scenes footage of the Senators and the familial routines which, the movie makes clear, are just like those of every other professional wife and mother. And while there is a great deal of collegiality among the women (the Democrats and Republicans often gather for tea, conversation and caucusing), there is also political work to be done, including campaigning, fund raising, committee work and the actual act of legislating (not to mention entertaining lobbyists, guests and the eternal parade of children on school trips). Lambert has tremendous access to the Senators (she’s the sister of Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln) and the movie feels light and engaging, the charming equivalent of a civics lesson meant to inspire young women to continue the fight for female representation in government. Of course, not every portrait is the same (Hillary Clinton seems to be keeping the filmmaker at arm’s length and Kay Bailey Hutchinson is shown at the Texas Republican Convention spouting all sorts of right-wing nonsense with all the personality of a lettuce), but the movie is winning and a real charmer, especially in front of the politically savvy audience in the DC area.
The Seat Of Power: Senators Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Arkansas) address the crowd at the 14 Women party at Ceviche on Thursday night.
After some party hopping, it was off to bed and up again on Friday. Some screenings here and some meetings there, and I got back to the theater in time to catch Alex Gibney’s Taxi To The Darkside , which was, like many of the films that have recently tracked the incompetence and sophistry of the
Cheney Bush Administration’s war In Iraq, was a tremendously frustrating experience. I absolutely believe in the power of cinema to transform lives, and particularly in the power of documentary films to uncover truths not otherwise seen, but the laundry list of abuses of power and the criminal dismissal of the Geneva Conventions by bureaucrats writing sterile “white paper” justifications of the untouchable master’s wishes, well, I found the film neither surprising or all that informative. Instead, it is absolutely infuriating; Not as a work of art (it is a brilliant and amazingly cinematic summation of the crimes being committed in our name), but as a record of silence on behalf of the American people. The film tracks the case involving the murder of a young Afghani Taxi driver by US Forces, and follows the spiraling vacuum of common sense, leadership and standards of freedom and decency all the way through to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. I asked Gibney, in light of the disgusting ‘ticking time bomb scenario’ unfurled by Brit Hume at the recent Republican Presidential Debate, why there was little sense of outrage in America, and he had no insights into the void either.
Up early on Saturday for a screening of Forever, Heddy Honigmann’s brilliantly witty and humane portrait of the Pére-Lachaise cemetery and the people who visit the graves of its most famous inhabitants. There are meditative moments early on as Honingmann’s camera explores the surfaces of the grave markers and statuary that make up this famous burial ground, but once she meets a young woman at the gave of Frederic Chopin and follows her home, the film becomes less about the Pére-Lachaise and more about the enduring power of art to transform lives and inspire devotion. Nowhere was this more evident than Honigmann’s third stop at the grave of Marcel Proust, where she meets an illustrator whose life-long relationship with À la recherche du temps perdu inspires him to create a comic book adaptation of Proust’s beloved novel. There are also loving portraits of the denizens of the Pére-Lachaise who seem to have adopted the graves of their favorite artists and who maintain them with an endless stream of 1.5-liter water bottles and flowers, and a must-see conversation with a young embalmer who talks of his inspiration at both the grave of Modigliani and while working on the corpse of a young woman. Honingmann’s humanism is the key to her overwhelming success here, and the film was certainly one of my favorite at the festival.
Amy King asked me to pinch-hit on the Film Festival Programmers Panel, which was an enjoyable conversation with my colleagues that ran out of time before we could get to a Q&A (cést la vie). We’ll see if the podcast makes it on the website… That evening, I took in my final screening of the fest; Albert Maysles, Antonio Ferrera and Matthew Prinzing’s look at Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Central Park installation The Gates. Frankly, I adored the movie, despite the feeling that it was a little slight and not really loving The Gates when they were up. But individual taste is irrelevant and that is the point; An absolute warts-and-all love letter to New York City, The Gates shows the people of New York City as an unclassifiable community of diverse people that not only take their city seriously, but are willing to open their hearts to collective experience. For all of its flowing fabric, what The Gates really brought to New York City was a chance to come together in Central Park, a place that everyone loves, and be New Yorkers together. The movie itself follows Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s 1979 attempt to get the City to permit the project (it failed under the weight of ridiculous arguments against ‘defacing the perfection of the park’) through to the last days of the installation itself, and the second half of the movie, when Christo and Jeanne-Claude step aside and The Gates project is in full swing, reminded me of a late-1970’s/early 1980’s Woody Allen film, when you simply fall in love with New York City is all of its rich splendor (and the wonderful jazzy soundtrack for the film, although very un-Maysles like, certainly contributes to the Woody Allen feel). Ultimately, though, what The Gates represented was a triumph of large-hearted humanism and art over not only the conservative objections of literal-minded critics, but the post-9/11 malaise that still materializes now and again here in New York. And frankly, who doesn’t like to see art save the day?