There’s an old joke about acting whose punch line goes, “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” Something similar could be said about the relationship between fiction film and documentary. Audiences are impressed by the big stars, special effects, and deluxe production values of Hollywood blockbusters. But what’s really hard is venturing into a war zone, a wilderness, or just a middle-class household and actually getting a great story on film. When that happens, it’s breathtaking. When it doesn’t—well, there are some examples of that among the 100 or so features and shorts in this year’s edition of the Silverdocs AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival.
Like any other reasonably mainstream film fest, Silverdocs 2006 includes previews of a few films that will soon open commercially, including Wordplay (about crossword puzzles), The Heart of the Game (basketball), and Road to Guantanamo (British Muslims incarcerated for being in the wrong place at the wrong time). More on those as they arrive for full runs. For this guide, the Washington City Paper’s critics surveyed 25 other films—and found that about half of them told a good enough story to be compelling.
We recommend such sober studies as 5 Days, a comprehensive account of the evacuation of Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip; Jesus Camp, a look at summer camp with an agenda that’s both evangelical and political; KZ, a contemplation of the lingering dread surrounding Mauthausen concentration camp; and the self-explanatory Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. Some of this year’s better documentaries, however, are serious considerations of not-so-serious topics, from the live-action role-playing of Darkon to the roller-derbying of Jam to the eccentric extension of a career on the ball field in Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey.
Of course, no Washington-area film festival would be complete without at least a few movies about music. The best ones in Silverdocs include Word.Life: The Hip Hop Project and Air Guitar Nation. The latter culminates in a rock club in Oulu, Finland, by the way—which just goes to show that a great story can lead almost anywhere. —Mark Jenkins
In her book On Photography, Susan Sontag criticized the work of Diane Arbus for its willingness “to suppress, or at least reduce, moral and sensory queasiness.” Wonder what she would have thought about Sally Mann strolling through a field of dead bodies, photographing them in various states of decomposition, and commenting on the lovely orange color of a corpse’s foot. The compositions that emerge have plenty of sensory queasiness, certainly, but hasn’t the moral variety been elided? That question will apparently have to wait for another time: Steven Cantor’s cinematic love letter comes down squarely on the side of the Virginia-born photographer. Controversy, when it erupts, happens offscreen—a gallery abruptly cancels a showing of Mann’s work—and the artist is always the one to interpret it for us. You’d never know from watching this film that even some of Mann’s admirers have qualms about her work—about the aestheticization of her children’s naked bodies, for example, in the family portraits that pushed her into the public consciousness in the early ’90s. But if What Remains lacks an adversarial voice, it at least offers a deeply revealing study of an artist at work. Cantor doesn’t slight the biographical components of Mann’s vision—a remote and complex father, a husband slowly wasting from muscular dystrophy—and every time Mann ducks under the hood of her camera, we see her wrestling her private darkness into something beautiful and troubling.—Louis Bayard
At 5 p.m. Wednesday, June 14.
If you’re one of those hardy optimists who think the blue and red halves of the United States will someday deserve that name again, Jesus Camp is just the movie to kick all the hope out of you. Behold, East Coast liberals, and despair: Young children speaking in tongues. Home-school matriarchs arguing that intelligent design and global warming are, respectively, proven and unproven theories. And, most worrisome, a driven, self-assured children’s educator who announces that “democracy is designed to destroy itself” and that it’s only a matter of time before “Jesus reigns on Earth.” This particular juggernaut, Pastor Becky Fischer, is the driving force behind the Kids on Fire summer camp, an extended revival meeting and recruitment tool for adolescent Christian soldiers. Fischer also happens to be an unabashed camera hog, whether she’s consecrating her AV equipment (“No microphone problems, in Jesus’ name”), condemning underage warlocks (“Had it been in the Old Testament, Harry Potter would have been put to death”), or generally waging evangelical whoopass (“We’ve got to stand up and take back the land”). Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady give Fischer plenty of rope and then watch her hang and unhang herself at every opportunity. (Only days after presiding over a George W. Bush love-in with her young charges, she tells a radio host that politics plays no part in her work.) This is an admirably even-toned film, but by the end you’ll be hard-pressed to distinguish Kids on Fire from another kind of training camp: “How many of you want to be those who have given up their lives for Jesus?” cries one counselor, even as another leads a chant of “This means war! This means war!”—LB
At 7:15 p.m. Wednesday, June 14, and noon Saturday, June 17.
There’s a very specific point in Muskrat Lovely at which you begin to suspect you’re actually watching a mockumentary: One of the local high-school girls competing for the title of Miss Outdoors in Golden Hill, Md.’s annual National Outdoor Show announces that, for the talent portion of the pageant, she will skin a muskrat onstage. But if one thing is for certain in Amy Nicholson’s quirky documentary, it’s that the girl strutting down the runway in camouflage gear with a dead rodent slung over her shoulder is absolutely serious about her role in the Chesapeake Bay town’s second-most-important event of the year. What’s No. 1? The show’s muskrat-skinning competition, of course—and throughout the course of the film’s 57 minutes, various Dorchester County residents reveal plenty about trapping, cleaning, and cooking the surprisingly cute aquatic creature. Unfortunately, Nicholson’s main focus is the pageant. The director follows the competitors as they unhurriedly prepare for and take to the stage, asking a gaggle of run-of-the-mill questions in the process. (Guess which one these are answers to: “It’s a chance to feel glamorous”; “It’s sort of like a life pursuit”; “If you win, you get to go to a lot of activities and stuff”). By making only a couple of half-hearted attempts to link the two parts of the National Outdoor Show, Muskrat Lovely neither convinces us that a beauty pageant can have any sort of meaningful relationship to muskrat-skinning nor makes us believe that we’re watching the more interesting half of the spectacle.—Matthew Borlik
At 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 14.
Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey
Not so fast, post-curse Red Sox fans: Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey might be about your new favorite team, but it covers a period you might not know—the ’70s, when pitcher Bill “Spaceman” Lee was part of a squad that, in 1978, blew a 14-game division lead to the Yankees. In fact, Brett Rapkin’s 70-minute documentary covers events even longtime Sox supporters might not know. Although we do get some gems from the legendarily eccentric Lee’s heyday—his alleged “cocaine relay races” with teammates; the astronaut suit he wore in Milwaukee to protest air pollution; his apology for calling hothead Sox coach Don Zimmer a gerbil, because it’s actually hamsters that have fat cheeks—the film is actually about the left-hander’s life after his early-’80s exile from Major League Baseball. Barnstorming around the globe for goodwill and old-timers’ games, Lee has shown a remarkable dedication to his sport. Though Rapkin skillfully intercuts some of the zanier images of Lee with his former teammates’ memories of the quirky curveballer, the best stuff here is Lee’s talking about his life post-MLB. Infectiously enthusiastic, he suggests that the Russians’ adoption of baseball could foster world peace and says that Cubans “play baseball for all the right reasons,” not because “they can make some more money and sell some more satellite dishes.” Baseball fans hear about that kind of passion for the game ceaselessly; Spaceman lets them see it without the bombast sports narratives usually demand.—Ian Martinez
At 9 p.m. Wednesday, June 14.
Punk’s Not Dead
Director Susan Dynner’s fast-moving study has enough material for several documentaries—which is what it should have been. The best-developed section is about the 1977–1980 punk bands (mostly British) that are still at it: Stiff Little Fingers, 999, and Social Distortion not only demonstrate how to remain a punk into your 50s but also offer sensible observations on what punk is and what to say to people who would define it more restrictively. Less coherent—but potentially just as enlightening—is the chapter on contemporary commercialism and such young punk chart-toppers as Green Day and Good Charlotte, who are contrasted with purists who would (probably) never sign with a major label. Alas, as history, Punk’s Not Dead will be indecipherable to anyone who doesn’t already know more than the film has time to tell. The opening section is a muddled overview that never defines its terms—by “punk,” the doc seems to mean mostly blitzkrieg bop and such offspring as oi! and hardcore, even though photos of Talking Heads and Blondie flash by. Ian MacKaye is a featured commentator, but Fugazi is mentioned only in passing; the movie periodically focuses on either the U.S. or U.K. scene as if the other didn’t exist; and such myths as Jimmy Carter’s campaign against punk are offered as fact. Dynner covers a lot of ground and clearly did a thorough canvass of the archives, but her film needs less stuff and more insight.—Mark Jenkins
At 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 14.
The subject of Chairman George might sound underwhelming: a 40-year-old Greek-Canadian guy who likes to perform songs in Chinese. And, well, it is. George Sapounidis, a statistician by day, is filmed at his shows in China, visiting his not-exactly-supportive parents in Canada, and then campaigning to compose and perform a song during the 2008 arrival of the Olympic torch at Beijing. Though his skills as an acoustic guitarist and singer aren’t too shabby, and his audiences are pretty enthusiastic, Sapounidis comes off as a goofy, even delusional man: “I’m a troubadour,” he says. “You cannot overlook what I’ve done in China as a Greek singing in Chinese.” Um, OK. Daniel Cross and Mila Aung-Thwin’s 72-minute documentary is most awkward during Sapounidis’ annoyingly persistent efforts to win over Olympic officials, who go from initially enthusiastic to not so much. (At one point during a brainstorming session, even his writing partner, Asian-fiddle player Jeremy Moyer, looks at Sapounidis like he’s nuts.) A dancing Heineken bottle, boogieing to Christmas tunes during a multiact show in which Sapounidis performs, is hands-down the most engrossing part of the film—as good a sign as any that this diplomacy-pursuing singer-songwriter shouldn’t quit his day job.—Tricia Olszewski
At 1:30 p.m. Thursday, June 15, and 6:15 p.m. Saturday, June 17.
His Big White Self
Bratty British documentarian Nick Broomfield is best known for his studies of American tabloid celebrities, including “Hollywood madam” Heidi Fleiss, alleged Kurt-killer Courtney Love, and serial murderer Aileen Wuornos. Broomfield sometimes returns to his subjects years later, as he did with Wuornos and a monster less known to Americans, South African white-supremacist Eugène Ney Terre’Blanche. Broomfield profiled him in 1991, when apartheid was still in force and some whites hoped that Terre’Blanche’s AWB (an Afrikaans acronym for Afrikaner Resistance Movement) would start a revolution that would preclude majority rule. Despite some bloody early-’90s incidents—well-documented here—the AWB didn’t thwart the end of apartheid. Terre’Blanche retreated to his hometown and eventually went to jail for brutal attacks on two black men. Onscreen as usual, Broomfield updates his earlier film, spending much of his time with Terre’Blanche’s former driver, JP, and the driver’s ex-wife, Anita, chronicling their adjustment to the new South Africa. (Anita has become almost liberal; JP still believes that whites are the only true descendants of Adam.) The director’s principal goal is to arrange an interview with Terre’Blanche, now a published poet and supposedly a changed man. Characteristically, Broomfield hypes this return match, but when it finally happens it proves inconclusive. Although it includes a lot of interesting backstory, His Big White Self fails to answer its most pressing present-day question: whether Terre’Blanche has mellowed or is just faking.—MJ
At 9:30 p.m. Thursday, June 15.
Tim Patten became a roller-derby skater because it made his folks happy: Watching the sport was the only thing his mom and dad liked doing together. Jam follows Patten from 1998 to 2004, as he tries to revive San Francisco’s roller-derby scene. His American Roller Derby League comes both too late and too soon, when the sport’s mainstream popularity is nil and urban hipsters have yet to figure out that they enjoy watching women in tight shorts beat the crap out of each other. Like the pro-wrestling documentary Beyond the Mat, Jam is unsparing in its depiction of the physical toll taken by a job that requires you to destroy yourself in order to bring joy to the crowd. Old-timer Larry Lee, for example, skates for $100 so he can buy Bengay to soothe his aching back. Patten, who was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1983, suffers, too: Fearing that letting go of his dream would allow the disease to take over, he keeps the ARDL going with ever-more-dwindling crowds. There’s a lot of melancholy here, but director Mark Woollen skillfully balances tones and characters, also telling the uplifting story of Karey Marengo, a 40-something roller-derby rookie who straps on a helmet when she’s not taking care of her schizophrenic brother. Just as important, Woollen makes what happens on the track just as compelling as what happens off, giving us footage of players flinging around their worn-out bodies as if their lives depended on it—which, in some cases, they do. For whatever ails you, it seems, there’s no better therapy than kicking someone in the head with a roller skate.—Josh Levin
At 2:30 p.m. Friday, June 16, and 10 p.m. Saturday, June 17.
Rolling Like a Stone
In 1965, the members of then-popular Swedish bands the Namelosers and the Gonks were at a groupie-filled, dayslong party in Malmö that was also attended by the Rolling Stones. Now they’re all old. That’s pretty much the story of Stefan Berg and Magnus Gertten’s Rolling Like a Stone, which presents home-movie footage from that bacchanal and then gives us interviews with a few of the revelers 40 years later. There’s Tommy Hansson, lead singer of the Namelosers, who is separated from his wife and two daughters and still interested in performing—though with the exception of one reunion show, he doesn’t really have the opportunity. (“Life is different now,” he says sadly.) There’s Brian Jones’ onetime girlfriend, Mona, who didn’t like him enough to leave home and is now a married flight attendant. (“If I had gone to England with Brian back then, my life would have been different.”) And so on. It’s slightly amusing to hear about some of the Stones’ rock-star-isms—the host of the party says that Jones “stayed in my mom’s room, which was perfect since it had a vanity table with lots of mirrors”—but unless you’re an obsessive fan of any of these bands, Rolling Like a Stone is just a lot of uninteresting reminiscing from a few now-domesticated scenesters. Add in the plaintive piano that swells as subjects stare off into the distance, which they often do, and the film officially passes the recent Stoned as the most torturous Rolling Stones–related story ever told.—TO
At 3:30 p.m. Friday, June 16.
Though not the most infamous Nazi concentration camp, Mauthausen is still a harrowing experience for visitors and guides alike. This documentary follows several tour groups through the imprisonment and extermination facility—the title abbreviates the German for “concentration camp”—and gets some unguarded footage of raw reactions, including one teenager on the verge of fainting. The most remarkable characters are the guides, notably a middle-aged obsessive who says that Mauthausen has driven him to pills and booze but he can’t walk away from the place. Escorting tourists through the camp is now an alternative to service in the Austrian military, and four young men taking advantage of that deferment soberly discuss their family histories, including more than one grandpa who was in the SS. Mistaking ponderousness for solemnity, director Rex Bloomstein often holds shots for several beats after a scene ends. He also provides a little too much life-goes-on and those-were-the-days stuff from the folks who live in a nearby town. But when it focuses on the experience of visiting the camp, however, KZ is powerful and distinctive.—MJ
At 5:30 p.m. Friday, June 16.
A scrubby, cactuslike plant that just might keep pudgy Westerners from wanting that last slice of pizza, hoodia grows in the region of southern Africa that has traditionally been home to the San, better known internationally as the Bushmen. So Unilever, an Anglo-Dutch food and home-care company, signed a deal that gives a tiny sliver of the proceeds from its hoodia-derived appetite suppressant to the San. It’s not much money, and disbursing the cash is tricky, because until recently the San had no concept of private property—one reason, presumably, that they lost their ancestral home, which is now part of a South African game park attracting crucial tourist dollars. Their original language is also in decline—it’s deeply odd to hear the one-time hunter-gatherers speaking guttural Afrikaans—quickly following their way of life into extinction. Director Rehad Desai handles this backstory efficiently, but when the director wants to confront Unilever’s alleged greed, the most he can muster is a few unflattering news stories summoned from the Internet. There are some amusing moments, such as the one in which some skeptical San inspect the product that gives the film its name. But overall, Bushman’s Secret seems a rough sketch rather than a definitive treatment.—MJ
At 5:45 p.m. Friday, June 16.
Air Guitar Nation
“It was a joke at first,” says Tapani Launonen, founder of Finland’s Air Guitar World Championships. And unless you’re already familiar with the phenomenon of competitive imaginary-guitar-playing, the opening minutes of Air Guitar Nation might make you think you’re watching a sort of sans-instruments This Is Spin¬al Tap. There’s the training camp, for example, with a circle of students practicing their windmilling, and comments such as “To err is human; to air-guitar, divine.” It doesn’t take long, though, to see that the participants and their significant legion of fans—who call air-guitaring “the last pure art form”—are, in fact, deadly serious. Sure, everyone takes a silly rock ’n’ roll name, and C-Diddy (aka David Jung) wears a red kimono and a giant Hello Kitty strapped to his chest. But when the first American world champion admits, “I have a love of music but not talent to play” and you see him and the rest of the competitors throwing themselves into their performances, you understand: You don’t have to be a real virtuoso to experience real transcendence. Alexandra Lipsitz’s debut film focuses on our country’s first entry into the Finnish finals, in 2003, where the best air guitarists are almost exclusively men. But the gender lopsidedness of this jubilant doc is its only example of imagination failing to triumph over reality.—TO
At 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 16.
The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief
There’s apparently no better way to relax after a long day in the adult-entertainment industry than spending all your freshly earned cash at the club next door. Or at least that’s the contention of Jake Clennell’s documentary, which examines the Japanese subculture of “host clubs,” where, with enough money, women looking for a good time can buy the company of the most attractive, charming, and attentive young men in Osaka. Through interviews with the Rakkyo Club’s 22-year-old owner, Issei, his staff, and his clientele, the film breaks down the addictive nature of relationships that can cost the women the equivalent of several thousand dollars a night and earn the men tens of thousands a month. In one scene, Issei tries to convince a long-term customer who has “awakened from her dream” to continue seeing him despite his unwillingness to commit. As soon as she’s gone, he confesses, “Out of all my clients, she’s the one I can’t stand the most”—an admission immediately followed by one of her own: She visits too many other host clubs to count. More disturbing than the emotional and financial consequences of host relationships, however, are the physical costs: Issei concedes that he and his drink-chugging co-workers repeatedly force themselves to throw up to the point of puking blood, and the film reveals that many of Issei’s cash-strapped customers have turned to prostituting themselves at neighboring “cabaret clubs” in the vain hope of earning enough money to buy their way into his heart forever. Clennell assembles these revelations with a minimum of fuss and nary a trace of melodrama, offering a fascinating and heartbreaking look behind the neon.—MB
At 8 p.m. Friday, June 16.
Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?
But who really wants Mr. Smith back in Washington anyway? In his James Stewart incarnation, wasn’t he pretty much an easily deceived stooge who had to be set wise by his secretary? The Capra-corny associations of its title notwithstanding, Frank Popper’s nicely observed political parable really is about a Mr. Smith—Jeff Smith, to be exact, a 30-year-old part-time professor with a big-time dream: to win the congressional seat of outgoing Missouri Democrat Dick Gephardt. It’s such a crazy idea that even his own family begs him to reconsider. The job has been all but earmarked for Russ Carnahan, son of the late governor, and Smith, in addition to being virtually unknown, is “short, looks like he’s 12, and sounds like he’s castrated.” And this from his own communications director—who, at 25, is the oldest staffer on the campaign. On the plus side, Smith is a good guy and a happy warrior. Thanks to an unceasing barrage of cold calls, door-poundings, and yard signs—not to mention a crew of volunteers still floating on fumes of Howard Dean—the underdog actually makes a run on Carnahan. Mr. Smith plays at times like an ex post facto campaign ad. But it captures the scuzzy, pizza-and-cold-coffee glamour of campaigning and leaves even a political pessimist with the slender hope that this Stuart Smalley sound-alike could make it to Congress—even if it is overrun by GOP goon squads.—LB
At 9:45 p.m. Friday, June 16.
The Voyage of the Women of Zartale
Anyone who knows the word “Taliban” can understand why a foreign documentary crew wouldn’t want to spend too much time—or travel too widely—in Afghanistan. So it’s no surprise that this French film seems to tarry only briefly at a remote medical clinic and takes but one excursion to the village where some of the patients live. In the process, director Claude Mourieras captures a few discussions that crystallize rural Afghan attitudes toward medicine, religion, and the status of women: “Prayer before medication,” insists the mother-in-law of a woman with tuberculosis. “She spoke like a man,” marvels a guy after a chador-clad voter-registration worker delivers a spiel about the upcoming elections. Such revealing glimmers can’t carry a film, however. Crafting a narrative requires more than bookending the events with shots of people arriving and leaving, and the director’s refusal to provide any context is just another example of perverse cinéma vérité purism. If the filmmakers couldn’t bring themselves to reveal what brought them to the clinic, they could have at least asked one of the foreign health workers they encountered to offer some of her own observations.—MJ
At 1 p.m. Saturday, June 17.
Anyone who’s seen the much-e-mailed clip of the “Lightning bolt! Lightning bolt!” kid might think he understands live-action role-playing (or “LARPing”): a beyond-geeky mashup of Dungeons & Dragons and Civil War re-enactments. Andrew Neel and Luke Meyer’s film sets out to disprove that perception—especially the “beyond-geeky” part. Their subjects are real people with jobs, families, and, yes, lives outside the game. The co-directors spent nearly three years following a group of Baltimore-area LARPers who meet every other weekend at parks and campsites to further the exploits of their alter egos through a combination of acting, political strategy, and full-contact battles with foam-padded weaponry. Each of the participants has his own reasons for spending so much time with the Darkon Wargaming Club: Andrew (aka Shapwin of Laconia) laments the suckiness of our modern age, saying, “Everything that was once noble and good in this world is gone and is replaced with Wal-Mart.” Danny (aka Trivius the Nomad) gains the self-confidence he lacks in reality: “I can act like I’m not Danny. I like Danny, but sometimes Danny doesn’t have the balls to do what Danny needs to do.” The filmmakers made a surprising technical choice for a doc, depicting the gamers’ real-world lives with traditional one-on-one interviews while using Steadicams and crane shots to lend a slickly cinematic quality to their in-character interactions. It’s an effective device to represent immersion in a fictional world, but the film’s biggest success is showing how that world isn’t as unreal as it seems: Andrew and Danny’s passion, Darkon suggests, is just an amped-up version of the role-playing we all do in our daily lives.—Jason Powell
At 2:15 p.m. Saturday, June 17.
The Breast Cancer Diaries
“I take a lot of pictures now.” That’s one of the small yet meaningful changes in the life of Ann Murray Paige, a Maine television journalist who was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 38 and decided to keep a video diary of her treatment. A wife and mother of two toddlers, Paige ruminates on everything from her mastectomy—she had both breasts removed and opted not to have reconstructive surgery—and hair loss to the ordeal of chemotherapy and the effect of it all on her tremendously supportive husband and kids. (Her older child’s ability to grasp the situation and cheer on his mom, even while admitting that the lessened attention he now gets makes him sad, is particularly amazing.) Paige maintains a sense of humor throughout the ordeal, though the consistently compelling film’s one significant flaw is that the yuks often veer toward corniness. (At one point, the post-chemo Paige compares herself to Yul Brynner.) Naturally, though, most of the footage director Linda Pattillo shows us is devastating. Paige claims that she’s always been something of a health nut, but she admits that her illness has given her a new perspective on restrictions of all kinds. It really makes no difference if, say, her kids want to make a mess of themselves by adding purple sand to their inflatable pool: “Where did following the rules get me today?”—TO
At 2:30 p.m. Saturday, June 17.
Danielson: A Family Movie (Or, Make a Joyful Noise Here)
As documented in the twice-subtitled Danielson: A Family Movie (Or, Make a Joyful Noise Here), the bizarre rise of the Danielson Famile promises to befuddle conservative Christians and secular-humanist hipsters alike. These arty siblings from southern New Jersey have preached a musical gospel of Christian love in various incarnations for more than a decade, but their weird music (lots of yelping) and wacky costumes (a hollow tree!) have left many wondering whether it’s all some kind of put-on. Director JL Aronson does little to clear up this confusion by combining unrevealing tour footage and stiff, scripted voice-overs from various Famile members. Even when the group’s visionary/leader, Daniel Smith, is left bandless after his brothers and sisters move on to college and families of their own, the director only hints at the creative frustration and crisis of faith that must be consuming the man. Interviews with Smith’s own father, footage of an older radio DJ dispensing with the media’s treatment of Danielson as a novelty act, and suggestions of Smith’s envy of Danielson-sideman-turned-indie-superstar Sufjan Stevens provide fascinating peeks, but only peeks, into the complexities of Famile faith. Fans take note: The music sounds as good as ever, and the screening will be followed by a rare performance by the reunited group.—Justin Moyer
At 5 p.m. Saturday, June 17. $15.
Word.Life: The Hip Hop Project
If the makers of Word.Life: The Hip Hop Project know that their film shares its title with Brooklyn rapper O.C.’s debut album, they never let on. But that record, a beacon of positivity amid the gangsta posturing of the mid-’90s, is an appropriate touchstone for Matt Ruskin and Scott K. Rosenberg’s 88-minute documentary. The movie follows Chris “Kazi” Rolle, who went from an abandoned child in the Bahamas to a homeless hustler in New York to head of the nonprofit Hip Hop Project, designed to help disadvantaged kids express themselves by allowing them to write, record, and produce their own hip-hop album. Following the program over a four-year period, the film also spends time with each of these budding MCs and knob-twiddlers. Christopher “Cannon” Mapp has to deal with his mother’s multiple sclerosis and his own waning interest in completing high school; Diana “Princess” Lemon has a recently incarcerated father and still carries the emotional effects of the abortion she had as a young teenager. The kids’ talent is undeniable, though in the beginning, their lyrics mostly ape the manufactured gangsta-isms they hear in the mainstream. But soon they learn to kick complex, socially aware rhymes that never sound preachy or pessimistic. Remarkably, Word.Life doesn’t, either. It rarely allows uplift to trump the realities of its subjects’ lives, and Ruskin and Rosenberg render even the inevitable reunion between Rolle and his mother as believably awkward.—JP
At 5:45 p.m. Saturday, June 17.
21 Up America
This documentary project is modeled on the British one whose latest installment, 49 Up, is also included in Silverdocs. Every seven years, a cross-section of subjects first interviewed at 7 is re-interviewed to pinpoint individual developments and reveal societal trends. Director Christopher Quinn explicitly re-creates at least one moment from the original, but he needn’t work so hard to show the link between exceedingly rich American 7-year-olds and their British equivalents: They’re both intolerable. The geographic scope is narrow—most participants are from Chicago or New York—but the vocational range fairly broad. At 21, the subjects include a book publicist, a law student, a pet-store clerk, a U.S. Coast Guardsman, a prison inmate, a marine-biology student, a death-metal guitarist, a college jock, a DJ and self-styled flâneur, and a medical student who’s also a dot-com CEO. Most of these pursuits come as no great surprise, and the people engaged in them don’t seem to have given them much thought. Many of these kids explicitly disavow the notion that they’re adults, and it’s true that, for most people, 21 is still quite young to have deviated from the expected path or to reflect deeply on life. If memory serves, the British Up didn’t become all that interesting until 28.—MJ
At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 17.
Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple
When cult leader Jim Jones forced 909 followers to drink poison in 1978, it was hardly an undocumented story. At a nearby airstrip, some of his thugs had just attacked a group of visitors, including newsmen and California Rep. Leo Ryan, who was killed. In the media, footage of that assault was quickly followed by images of the bodies lying in Jones’ jungle compound. So what’s most impressive about Stanley Nelson’s first-rate Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple is how well it conjures the first half of Jones’ story, reaching back to his impoverished childhood in a small Indiana town. The son of an alcoholic, Jones found release in hurting animals and Pentecostal preaching, a split between abuse and uplift that would continue as he became increasingly powerful and unhinged. Jones ran a racially integrated church in the early ’50s and later relocated to more liberal California, where his base remained working-class African-Americans but expanded to include white hippies and leftists. He extolled socialism and warned that the United States was moving toward fascism, yet his tactics—including sleep deprivation and the sexual initiation of young recruits—were similar to those attributed to the right-wing Rev. Sun Myung Moon. Nelson has assembled a wealth of historical footage, which he supplements with poignant interviews with ex-members and cult survivors. If Jonestown doesn’t fully explain Jones’ allure, it comes about as close as any posthumous account could.—MJ
At 7:45 p.m. Saturday, June 17.
Founded in Minneapolis, the Black Label Bicycle Club requires its members to subscribe to a fierce anti-consumerist ethos. They eschew gasoline, dumpster dive, and scavenge junkyards for parts to build “tall-bikes,” pedal-powered monsters whose double-height frames put riders at eye-level with mounted cops. They also host “bike kills,” pyrotechnic block parties that are a combination of Burning Man and Fight Club. The highlight of the event is the joust, in which two combatants on tall-bikes try to knock each other off with giant Q-tips and often end up in spectacularly painful collisions. In B.I.K.E., co-directors Jacob Septimus and Anthony Howard infiltrate this subculture as they follow Howard’s increasingly desperate attempts to join the Brooklyn chapter of Black Label. Rebuffed repeatedly, Howard starts the “white-label” Happy Fuck Clown Club, hoping to exact revenge in the joust competition of an upcoming bike kill. Though the filmmakers raise thoughtful questions about the life cycle of a counterculture movement, it’s unsettling to watch Howard, who has a couple of acting credits, become the central character—not only because he acts like such an asshole, but also because, well, he might be acting. For their part, the Brooklyn Black Labelers reveal themselves as mostly upper-middle-class art-student types: When the club travels to Minneapolis to meet with the Black Label founders, a Range Rover and a Mercedes station wagon lead the caravan. As Howard’s straitlaced, academic father observes, the club seems like “a post hoc rationalization for going out and having a good time.” In other words: Adults having childlike fun is cool. Adults destroying themselves through childish antics are L.A.M.E.—Huan Hsu
At 10:15 p.m. Saturday, June 17.
With seven separate camera crews ensuring a wide sweep, director Yoav Shamir documents the August 2005 campaign to evict recalcitrant Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip. Despite high emotions and fervent religious justifications, no one was seriously injured during the controversial action: The settlers used only passive resistance, going limp as soldiers carried them from houses, schools, and synagogues, thus offering the ironic spectacle of Gandhian tactics used in support of, rather than in defiance, of empire. “It was all a performance,” explains the narrator. If divergent opinions are offered in the film, they were inscrutable from the screening copy provided by Silverdocs: It had an English-language voice-over but no subtitles. To judge primarily by the images, however, 5 Days seems comprehensive. Shamir’s crews had extraordinary access, and the final result is a tutorial in editing.—MJ
At 10:30 p.m. Saturday, June 17.
Love Me Do
At the beginning of Love Me Do, a philosopher points out that Plato, believing that every living person is half of a once-whole soul, claimed that love is a punishment from the gods. Although some folks might not buy the former, most anyone who’s been in a relationship—especially one that’s made it to the break-up stage—will find it difficult to argue with the latter. Despite the pessimistic start to this exploration of love, however, Christiane Voss and Katja Dringenberg’s film actually goes easy on parted paramours. The few people who are interviewed about their unsuccessful relationships seem pretty far removed from the split—there are no tears or suggestions of torch-carrying, just a bit of melancholy mixed in with some even-keeled recounting of why the separations happened. Most of the subjects even manage smiles afterward, as the directors theatrically train the camera on each of them at the end of the film. But the focus is on happy couples and their stories: young just-marrieds who’ve tattooed each other’s names on their arms; a pair nearing their golden anniversary who say that despite some rocky periods, they always knew they belonged together. It’s all sweet enough, though there are only two truly surprising parts of the story: (1) a mathematician who’s presented as some sort of love expert and (2) some dude acting out classic romantic pairings with freaky-looking rubber squeak toys. Neither one is likely to be the kind of revelation you were hoping for from this movie, but it is pretty funny to see Rubber Faust noisily and enthusiastically bouncing off his prone Rubber Gretchen.—TO
At 12:30 p.m. Sunday, June 18.
Walking to Werner
In 1974, Werner Herzog walked from Munich to Paris, convinced that the pilgrimage would somehow save the life of German film critic and historian Lotte Eisner, who was in a Paris hospital after suffering a stroke. This journey, documented not in a film but in a slender book, is the sort of high-romantic gesture that befits Herzog—but few others. For example, Walking to Werner director Linas Phillips, who tramped from Seattle to Los Angeles in hopes of impressing—and thus meeting—his role model. Despite his 1,200-mile testament, Phillips just isn’t a very interesting guy: He’s self-indulgent, a little whiny, and better supplied with technology than ideas. Fortunately, he’s accompanied by Herzog’s audio remarks (mostly from the Fitzcarraldo DVD commentary) and encounters some lively characters along the way. Paced by electric-guitar doodles and a few selections from the Lou Reed songbook (one sung by Phillips’ producer), the filmmaker trudges along the coast, stopping to chat with a repentant killer, a survivor of a family massacre, and a man who hiked his way out of suicidal intentions. These tales are all handled skillfully, suggesting that Phillips would do better to explore other people’s obsessions than to document his own.—MJ
At 6:30 p.m. Sunday, June 18. CP