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Thanks in large part to the presidential campaign, 2004 was widely proclaimed “the Year of the Documentary.” The form isn’t dwindling in 2005, however, and not merely because of its prominence on public TV and the many cable channels programmed by Discovery, the principal sponsor of the American Film Institute’s third annual Silverdocs festival. This year’s assortment includes several films scheduled to open at local theaters this summer, among them Murderball (at 7:15 p.m. Friday, June 17), a macho, music-video-style account of the U.S. Paralympic rugby team; the energetic The Aristocrats, which offers myriad variations on the same filthy joke; and Grizzly Man (at 7 p.m. Friday, June 17), Werner Herzog’s fascinating study of a well-meaning narcissist who lived (and died) with Alaskan grizzly bears.
The Washington City Paper’s critics were able to preview fewer than 20 of the 89 films (some of them shorts) in this year’s selection, which include selections from 27 countries. In addition to the movies mentioned above (and 930 F Street; see Artifacts, p. 50), we wholeheartedly recommend only seven, most of which are set on the rough side of the tracks. Prostitution Behind the Veil offers a small-scale view of illicit sex and drugs flourishing under Iran’s Islamic rule. The unflinching Romántico follows a mariachi singer from the poverty of Mexico to affluent San Francisco and back again. La Sierra observes teenage boys—and the even younger girls who love them—in a Medellín barrio where pointless gang wars have become integrated into Colombia’s larger political struggle. And Code 33 offers a surprisingly human depiction of a Miami child-murderer.
Other interesting films explore pop culture, though not necessarily American: Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream is a lively, if flawed, analysis of the ’70s phenomenon. The Swenkas shows how some working-class South African men define themselves with natty suits and lots of attitude. And Make It Funky! blends history with dynamic concert footage to capture the enduring appeal of New Orleans music. The last is one of two films that Silverdocs will show outside (and for free), thus demonstrating that documentary filmmaking can lead potential viewers far away from their TV screens. —Mark Jenkins
Silverdocs runs Tuesday, June 14, to Sunday, June 19. Screenings take place at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, and are $9 unless otherwise noted. For more information, call (866) 758-7327 or visit www.silverdocs.com.
From the Margin to the Mainstream
More than 20 years after Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman’s similarly titled book, Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream can’t find much new to say about the phenomenon. But Stuart Samuels’ 86-minute documentary does have the significant advantage of using extensive clips from the major hits of the ’70s late-night circuit. John Waters calls them all “pothead movies,” but despite sharing an audience, they were pretty diverse: El Topo synthesized Luis Buñuel and Sergio Leone; Night of the Living Dead gave gross-out horror a political edge; Reefer Madness was antiquated, campy, and proof that grown-ups just didn’t get it; The Harder They Come did blaxploitation with an exotic location and a captivating new music; and Eraserhead was inexplicable, haunting, and more artful than all of Waters’ films combined. Rosenbaum, Hoberman, and the films’ directors offer commentary along with some of the distributors and exhibitors. (Absent, alas, is the late S. David Levy of the Key Theater.) Everyone agrees that video crippled midnight shows, while the movies’ ironic outlook and shock tactics were absorbed by the mainstream. Come to think of it, you can’t get much more mainstream than this slick, gimmicky documentary, which makes every sequence look like a trailer for itself. —Mark Jenkins
At 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 14, and at 12:45 p.m. Sunday, June 19. The June 14 screening, which includes a postfilm discussion with Samuels and some of his subjects, costs $45.
Learning to Swallow
The title Learning to Swallow is a bit misleading: Swallowing is something that the documentary’s subject, a photographer named Patsy Desmond, likely will never have the chance to do again. Desmond was a whirlwind on the Chicago arts scene in the early ’90s, a party girl whose endless energy won her many friends. Eventually, however, her vitality turned to mania, and one day she attempted suicide by drinking drain cleaner—which didn’t kill her but destroyed her stomach and esophagus, necessitating an abdominal breathing tube. Learning to Swallow chronicles four years of Desmond’s recovery, time spent mostly in nursing homes and hospitals in Clearwater, Fla., Boston, and Chicago. Predictably, through the film’s 89 minutes, Desmond experiences both setbacks and victories. In interviews, her family and friends speak of both the Patsy they knew and the shrunken but still determined woman whose reality has completely changed. Mostly, though, director Danielle Beverly stays focused on Desmond, to the point of sometimes getting a little too intimate: Long stretches begin to feel like a wearying visit with an elderly relative, with a camera forever stuck in front of Desmond as she’s zoned out on drugs and speaking at a snail’s pace. And even when she’s doing better, Desmond tends to seem boring, as her sister helps her dye her hair or she attends to other prosaic tasks. Learning to Swallow may begin as an interesting medical and psychological profile, but it eventually starts to feel like nothing more than a series of home movies. —Tricia Olszewski
At 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 15, and 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 17.
Prostitution Behind the Veil
“I’ve slept with the head of the religious police. He was really rough,” says one of two prostitutes who offer a candid glimpse of Iran’s hidden appetite for sex and drugs in Prostitution Behind the Veil. Fariba and Mina are young, basically single moms—one has a husband who’s serving a 35-year prison sentence—who work Tehran’s highways in their chadors, then come home to care for their kids and smoke heroin. Director Nahid Persson is an Iranian expat who fled to Sweden in 1982 and returned temporarily to make a film that can never been shown in his native country. (It not only includes frank sex talk and drug use but also shows grown women’s hair.) With just a few characters, this doc can’t be a definitive study of prostitution in Iran, but it does reveal how the country’s Islamic law essentially treats all women as hookers: A man who wants a religiously sanctioned new sex partner can take a sighe—a second wife whose marriage may expire in as little as two days. A nervy filmmaker who boldly lies to mullahs and other officious men, Persson has produced a devastating snapshot of vice in a land that professes godly virtue. Shown with Dastar: Defending Sikh Identity, an interesting, if narrow, 13-minute film about the attacks (both physical and bureaucratic) on Sikh-Americans in the New York City area after the 9/11 attacks led some dolts to assume that anyone in a turban is a member of al Qaeda. —MJ
At 5 p.m. Wednesday, June 15.
A nonfiction addendum to such films as City of God and Our Lady of the Assassins, Scott Dalton and Margarita Martinez’s gripping documentary highlights three young residents of a Medellín, Colombia, hillside slum caught in a civil war. When the action begins, in 2003, 22-year-old Edisón is the leader of Bloque Metro, a local gang allied with right-wing paramilitaries. Jesús, who at 19 has already lost a hand, is another Bloque member. Unlike most films about kids with guns in Latin America, this one also pays attention to the girls: The other major character is Cielo, the 17-year-old girlfriend of an imprisoned Bloque member, and we also meet several of the teenagers who have given birth to Edisón’s eight children. The boys sometimes duck the police, but their principal enemies are the members of the competing local gang, who are aligned with the leftist Ejército de Liberación Nacional. The filmmakers return after an absence to learn that the Bloque has joined with another rightist group to defeat the guerrillas, only to begin a new feud with its erstwhile ally. From the opening shot of a young corpse, this is harrowing stuff, made all the more terrible by the apparent pointlessness of the intramural conflicts. —MJ
At 9 p.m. Wednesday, June 15.
Though Romántico’s title suggests dreaminess, it’s really the story of a brutal reality. The 80-minute film follows Carmelo, a mariachi who supports his wife and daughters back in Mexico by playing for meager tips in the restaurants and dives of San Francisco’s Mission District. When his mother falls gravely ill, Carmelo, one of a long line of Mexican troubadours whose songs colorfully evoke life’s joys and sorrows, reluctantly returns to his impoverished hometown. There, he strains to eke out an existence for his family at a fraction of the meager wages he collected in America. Director Mark Becker paints a heartbreaking picture of sacrifice, carefully highlighting moments that bring Carmelo’s plight into vivid focus. We see him play a song of loss at a stranger’s funeral as he ponders his inability to pay for the medical care that could save his mother’s life. We see him give up on his dream of throwing his daughter’s all-important 15th-birthday party, the money for which he has just spent on his mother’s inevitable funeral. But amid the terrible hardship, Romántico deftly underscores the hope that keeps Carmelo going: the battle to rescue his children from the penury that has plagued his own life of joy and sorrow. —Mario Correa
At 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 15, and 4:45 p.m. Thursday, June 16.
If director Neil Abramson is correct, and there are indeed more than 81,000 Bob Smiths living in the United States today, this film raises an all-too-obvious question: Are these really the best ones he could find? A “view of the United States seen through the eyes of a bunch of average Joes,” Bob Smith—U.S.A. follows the lives of seven oddly noncompelling oddballs as they go about their daily business, occasionally offering their insights into religion and the demise of the American Dream. Ranging from the mildly annoying (a born-again clown) to the absolutely bizarre (a graphic artist who dresses up as Satan, complete with red face paint and prosthetic devil horns), the film’s subjects struggle to articulate both who they are and why they do what they do. With the possible exception of the karaoke-singin’ candidate for sheriff who shows off the ventriloquist’s dummies that belonged to his deceased son, Abramson gathers no observations interesting enough to justify his slice-of-the-American-pie conceit. (Case in point: the Nevada City spiritual guru who compares humanity to a tossed salad.) In fact, if the film’s characters have anything in common other than their name, it’s that they’re each the last person you’d want to get stuck in a conversation with at
a party. —Matthew Borlik
At noon Thursday, June 16, and 9:30 p.m. Friday, June 17.
The grueling 2004 presidential election seems downright quaint compared with Newark, N.J.’s 2002 mayoral race, as the 80-odd minutes of Street Fight make abundantly evident. Director Marshall Curry’s lopsided doc chronicles the race’s near-immediate loss of civility following Councilman Cory Booker’s decision to challenge four-term incumbent Sharpe James. And yes, race has something to do with it: James, a Newark native whose accomplishments include spearheading the sort of urban redevelopment currently sweeping D.C., is an enormously popular public figure who bristles at Booker’s suggestion that his policies have been less than effective for the city’s poorest residents. In response, the lighter-skinned, Democratic Booker is branded as Jewish, gay, a tool of right-wing Republicans, and, most creatively, a “black Trojan Horse.” The not-so-subtle implication is that, in terms of life experience, Booker is wholly unlike the poor black and Latino constituencies he claims to be representing and whose support James has always enjoyed. Curry obviously sympathizes with Booker, and he attempts to demonstrate James’ ethical shortcomings on several occasions, including a secretly filmed episode involving police tearing down and stomping on his opponent’s campaign posters. Less convincing are apocryphal suggestions that James is threatening pro-Booker businesses and housing-project residents—though that certainly doesn’t stop Curry from trying to make the most of them. Booker eventually loses by a margin of 6 percent, but with both sides currently prepping to square off again in 2006, perhaps we’ll get a Street Rematch. —Chris Hagan
At 5 p.m. Thursday, June 16.
Abel Raises Cain
Jenny Abel, co-director and narrator of Abel Raises Cain, says of her father, “Some people are intrigued by what my dad does. Other people don’t get it. And some people just hate his guts.” If you’re not yet familiar with professional prankster Alan Abel, this film should leave you a confirmed member of one of those three camps. Abel Raises Cain shows its subject and his wife, Jeanne Abel, in the present, recently kicked out of their home and nearly destitute, yet seemingly without a care in the world. Jenny attributes their “happiness and youth” to a life of “freelancing”—basically, getting media attention for fake exploits such as the KKK Symphony Orchestra and SINA, the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (slogan: “A nude horse is a rude horse”). Archival footage shows Alan appearing on talk shows from Merv Griffin’s to Jenny Jones’, often wearing a black hood and always passionately arguing some ridiculous stance while his host, the other guests, and various audience members go nuts with exasperation. (Alan’s most recent project, Citizens Against Breastfeeding, elicits an especially angry response when he explains that the act is tantamount to incest.) Exactly how Alan and Jeanne, who’s often complicit in the gags, ever made a living off these stunts is unclear, as is the point, despite Jenny’s frequent mentions of a
“message.” Near the end, it’s finally said that Alan simply wants to engage his audiences as an artist does and to make them more cautious about believing what they see and hear.
He might not have meant this alternately frustrating and intriguing documentary, but you can’t say he didn’t warn you. —TO
At 9:45 p.m. Thursday, June 16.
Make It Funky!
Near the end of Make it Funky!, Keith Richards declares that “it’s impossible to put your finger on” New Orleans music. True, Richards has problems putting his finger on pretty much anything, but he’s not the only one who can’t pin down the Crescent City sound. In Michael Murphy’s documentary/concert film, legendary drummers, piano players, and soul singers explain how the Spanish, the French, the slaves, the Caribbean immigrants, Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, and countless others influenced the city’s music scene, offering a solid primer on the strange brew that is Southeast Louisiana culture. But it’s probably best not to overanalyze: Make it Funky!’s lively concert footage, which was culled from a massive 2004 show at New Orleans’ Saenger Theatre, is the film’s real treasure. Highlights include trumpet virtuosos Kermit Ruffins, Irvin Mayfield, and Troy Andrews covering Armstrong’s “Skokiaan”; Allen Toussaint and Jon Cleary’s dueling-pianos rendition of Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina”; and guitarist Snooks Eaglin’s bluesy take on Earl King’s “Come On (Let the Good Times Roll).” After absorbing the concert’s best moments, you’ll just want to leave it at what Aaron Neville says: “In New Orleans, you’re born into music and you die into music and there’s music all in between.” —Josh Levin
At 9:30 p.m. Friday, June 17, and 3:15 p.m. Saturday, June 18. Walter Washington and Big Sam’s Funky Nation perform two hours before the June 17 screening, which takes place at Silver Plaza, Ellsworth Drive between Georgia Avenue and Fenton Street, Silver Spring. The concert and film are free.
The Story of an American Anthem
“Women go crazy when you play it,” a musician says of “The Orange Blossom Special,” the bluegrass song celebrated in this 73-minute film. If you’re not partial to fiddles and hootenannies, you may find that statement a bit hard to believe. Yet, sure enough, Bestor Cram’s documentary shows cowgirls and -boys (and others) whoopin’ it up whenever the opening notes of Ervin T. Rouse’s deliriously uptempo tribute to a New York–to–Florida passenger train are played. It’s fun to watch performers from Charlie Daniels to Johnny Cash tackle the difficult song, which requires a virtuosic touch and lighting speed on the fiddle (or, as Cash performed it, the harmonica). But the history and present regard for the 1939 composition aren’t enough to sustain a feature-length documentary. The Special soon veers into an appreciation of Bill Monroe and a rather obvious discussion of the fiddle’s importance to bluegrass, and by the last quarter of the film, commentary about the song’s contentious origin—another musician claims to share credit with Rouse—starts to become repetitious. For bluegrass fans, it will probably all be diverting enough, but everyone else would have been better served if Cram had kept The Special on track. —TO
At 4:30 p.m. Saturday, June 18.
Patton Oswalt wants people to follow comedians as if they were musicians: hooting when they perform poorly, cheering when they do well, and, most important, actually paying attention to their careers. Oswalt and compatriots Brian Posehn, Zach Galifianakis, and Maria Bamford perform at indie-rock venues on the cheap to proselytize for alternative stand-up comedy—something more confessional and authentic than the schtick you get at the Ha Ha Hut. Though Oswalt is a funny guy, it’s hard to see the argument that his material on, say, gay retarded people is in any way groundbreaking. Galifianakis is the funniest and the weirdest of the lot: He plays the piano very slowly during his act and occasionally performs as Nathaniel Buckner, a comedian from 1778 who says, “Thank ye, thank ye, good to be hither.” He’s also the only one in this 103-minute doc who ever alludes to the dark side of life on the road (though Bamford casually mentions that she takes Prozac). Mostly, director Michael Blieden makes The Comedians of Comedy pure sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows. As the comics praise each other to the nines and laugh at each other’s jokes, it’s clear that it was much more fun to be there than to watch the filmic record. As the movie winds down, Oswalt raises a glass: “This tour has been way too fun and way too easy, and I’ve been so relaxed and happy,” he says. “I think…you’ve ruined my shot at stardom.” Amen. —JL
At 5:30 p.m. Saturday, June 18.
To my mind, James Dean never uncovered anything about screen acting that Brando and Clift hadn’t already found. Where his admirers see fumbling honesty, I see a bag of Method tics. (For truly honest work, you have to look to Dean’s co-stars: Julie Harris in East of Eden, Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause.) I stand ready, of course, to be corrected, but nothing in James Dean: Forever Young, Michael J. Sheridan’s exceedingly routine biographical clip job, could change (or even ruffle) my opinion of the legendary actor. For reasons surpassing understanding, Sheridan has avoided interviewing any of Dean’s still-living intimates—Martin Landau, for example, or Elizabeth Taylor or Ursula Andress—in favor of doggedly setting off on the road of chronology. The result is a documentary that spends most of its time running kinescopes of its subject’s early TV dramas and says nothing about the Dean mystique we haven’t already heard in a dozen fresher settings. Indeed, the film’s only useful function is to remind us how ridiculously many photos were snapped of Dean in his short life. He had, yes, the narcissist’s habit of befriending photographers, but maybe he also understood that, like fellow icon Marilyn Monroe, he was most evocative in stasis. You can watch whole sequences in his movies in which he never once meets another actor’s eye. In the camera lens, Dean found the one gaze he could hold.
At 7 p.m. Saturday, June 18, followed by a discussion with Sheridan, Dean photographer Dennis Stock, and others. $25.
One of the appeals, surely, of CSI and its progeny is the notion that crimes can be solved by letting beautiful people pore over petri dishes in hushed rooms. One of the appeals of Code 33 is the lie it gives to such airy fictions. Fernando Bosch and Elio “Chills” Tamayo, the real-life Miami police detectives shown hunting down a serial rapist in Little Havana, have packed away more than their share of flan and fried plantains, and you probably wouldn’t want to smell the inside of their car. The only “technology” they have at their call is an iffy sketch of the rapist and cotton swabs for collecting saliva samples. It’s the movie’s contention that, at the end of the day, these grunts are the ones who keep evil at bay while their superiors posture and preen. Filmmakers David Beilinson, Michael Galinsky, Suki Hawley, and Zachary Werner were given virtually unrestricted access to the cops on the case, and while they affect a cinéma vérité detachment, their warm depiction of Bosch’s family life—as well as their unflattering take on the police’s media antagonists—shows they’re embedded journalists in the truest sense. Code 33 slackens and tautens according to the investigation’s progress and becomes riveting only with the apprehension of the rapist, who’s not the hollow-eyed monster we might have expected but a tiny man weeping in a stairwell. A Honduran version of Peter Lorre’s child-killer in M, he’s more terrified than anyone else by what he’s capable of.—LB
At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 18.
Sort of the Paris Is Burning of heterosexual South Africans, this documentary observes a few working-class men who engage in “swanking”—competing to see who has the flashiest suit and accessories and who can display them with the most aplomb. The principal characters are Mr. Dangerous, a middle-aged construction worker who tends to win the contests—sometimes with the help of magic herbs—and his protégé, Sabelo, a young man facing two major milestones: his father’s death and his wedding. Jeppe Rønde’s film doesn’t reach very far, and it can be too glibly ironic. (If such soundtrack selections as Roy Rogers’ “Happy Trails” are relevant, the movie doesn’t indicate how.) Yet the swenkas, their outfits, and their attitudes are consistently engaging, the resonant on-screen narrator is commanding, and the wide-screen images are beautifully composed. The Swenkas could be deeper, but its surface is pretty compelling. —MJ
At 9:30 p.m. Saturday, June 18.
From beginning to end, The Aristocrats is pure filth—though if, say, incest, bestiality, and shit-eating don’t offend you, funnier filth you won’t find anywhere else. Paul Provenza’s documentary about a classic dirty joke sounds like an exercise in repetition: A huge lineup of comics, everyone from Rip Taylor and Phyllis Diller to Jon Stewart and Sarah Silverman, take turns telling a bit whose setup and punch line stay the same but whose middle is ad-libbed. It can be short or it can be epic—legend has it that one comedian once rode the joke for two hours—and the only rule is the dirtier, the better. With Provenza’s quick cuts and his participants’ endless creativity, The Aristocrats is a nonstop gas, 86 minutes spent with the funniest people around—and no matter who your favorite is, chances are he’ll show up here. Don Rickles? Check. Drew Carey? Yep. Even the Smothers Brothers—kids, ask your parents—make an appearance, though when Tom tells the joke, Dick says he doesn’t get it. And just when you think The Aristocrats can’t shock you any more, it does: Some of the foulest ad-libbing comes not from Trey Parker or Andy Dick but from a blue-again Bob Saget. When a movie can give you renewed respect for Mr. Full House, you know it’s good.—TO
At 10 p.m. Saturday, June 18.
Off to War
“The Taliban? Fuck them!” shouts a grinning, drunk adolescent at a party celebrating the call-up of several of his pals. “Osama Bin Laden can suck a dick!” Perhaps not the most well-articulated expression of War on Terror–era patriotism, but at least the kid knows the actual enemy isn’t in Iraq—which is more than can be said for some of the other young members of the 39th Brigade of the Arkansas National Guard, the subject of this doc by brothers Brent and Craig Renaud. Following a handful of the 57 Clarksville, Ark., National Guardsmen called into active service through their last few days at home, six months of combat training, and deployment overseas, the film offers a candid look at the various emotional and financial tolls war takes on small-town America. Naturally, there’s no shortage of bright-faced young recruits or teary-eyed parents denouncing the government policies responsible for sending their children to Iraq even as they proudly wave miniature American flags. Nor, of course, of the crushed dreams and broken homes left in the wake of combat. What Off to War does lack, however, is a subject able to express his confusion, fear, or sense of duty in a way that doesn’t sound every bit as trite and premeditated as a Bush-administration press conference. “It’ll be all right,” an 18-year-old soldier unconvincingly tells his pregnant 15-year-old wife before he gets shipped off to camp. It turns out he’s right, sorta: He eventually gets discharged for having a history of alcohol abuse, paranoia, and suicidal tendencies. When he’s finally reunited with his family, the only words he can find to say are “I’m glad I’m home.” —MB
At 2:45 p.m. Sunday, June 19.