Like everything else, it’s the best and worst times for documentaries. With the Tribeca Film Fest afoot once again, it’s glaringly apparent how much weight docs can have in the cultural marketplace. If you could choose between TFF selections “Beware the Gonzo” and “Spork” or the Elliot Spitzer documentary and “Freakonomics,” which would you choose? The fact that Alex Gibney was chosen to speak at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival opening press conference (where was Eddie Burns this year?) is another sign of nonfiction’s import. Tribeca’s docs are always better than its dramas, and you know, most people say the same thing about Sundance, too.
Nearly five years ago, I attended the kick-off screening for the “Stranger than Fiction” documentary series: of Doug Block’s “51 Birch Street.” The screening was held in one of the smaller venues at the IFC Center upstairs. Earlier this week, I returned to Stranger than Fiction for Block’s follow-up “The Kids Grow Up.” Held in the large auditorium downstairs, filled with a packed audience of documentary notables, and a week after Stranger than Fiction announced its very own bona-fide nonfiction film festival for the fall, it was clear to me — again — how docs have become a central facet of indie film. For further evidence, look at what’s out in theaters. Which are you more excited about: Banksy’s “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” or the half dozen muddled indie dramas out there?
When I first saw “51 Birch Street,” I was surprised at how much the film snuck up on me, emotionally. “It’s impossible to watch “Birch Street” without thinking about one’s own family and relationships,” I wrote. “Perhaps in its convivial construction, first-person telling, and the fact the Doug is such a nice guy, the film has an openness that allows for viewers to enter contemplation about their own lives in a profound way. I’ve often felt that the personal documentary has overstayed its welcome, but “Birch Street” reaffirms my faith in the form.”
I could say the same for Block’s worthy follow-up “The Kids Grows Up.” As Block examines his relationship to his daughter, leaving home to go to college for the first time, he addresses the deeply personal and emotionally fraught experience of watching your baby leave the nest. (And while it’s about a father missing his daughter, it’s also about a cameraman missing his most willing, charismatic subject, the wry 9-year-old performer, to the young adult who wants that camera out of her face.)
And as with “51 Birch Street,” he takes a subject that’s so basic to all of our lives, and yet one that we may never have truly confronted. Certainly, I never thought about what my parents felt when I left home. (It was all about me, of course.) Block is also smart to leave the camera on his subjects. Even though the film is ostensibly autobiographical, he focuses his lens on his daughter, his wife, and everyone else around him, which saves the project from navel-gazing, ultimately making it a profound, and utterly relatable, contemplation of parenthood, aging and youth’s swift passing.