Chicago's International Film Festival
By Bill Stamets
Two of Chicago's international film fests—the 30 year-old Chicago International Film Festival and the 16 year-old Chicago Lesbian & Gay International Film festival—presented their annual ration of documentaries last fall. Although neither festival signals any discernible curatorial vision in its documentary picks, both consistently screen a notable spectrum of titles.
Second only to the older San Francisco fest, the 10-day Chicago Lesbian and Gay International Film Festival is run by Chicago Filmmakers, a non-profit cinematheque and co-op. Executive director Brenda Webb spotted one striking trend in nonfiction entries this year. "After dramatic increases year after year in AIDS documentaries, there was a dramatic decrease this time," said Webb. "More and more, it seem s AIDS is woven into the fabric of narrative features."
In a new sign of corporate support, American Airlines furnished airfare for personal appearances by directors at this year's fest. Absolut Vodka helped underwrite the fest's Absolut Film Fund, which awarded the first place documentary award to Debra Chasnoff for It's Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School. Unfortunately, Chasnoff, director of Choosing Children and Deadly Deception, had to cancel her trip. Her feature is a model of intelligent directing. Her show and—tell style of illustration surpasses the didactic tactics of far too many docs—and unsocratic teachers. We simply see educators around the country pioneering this controversial curriculum. The kids get it, even if the school boards don't.
Karen Everett's I Shall Not Be Removed: The Life of Marlon Riggs couldn't match the searing self-revelations Riggs himself achieved in his own documentaries before dying of Aids in 1994. First-person essays like Phillip B. Roth's I Was a Jewish Sex Worker and Barbara Hammer's Tender Fictions revealed little besides their authors' odd senses of humor about themselves.
Charles Lofton personalized Black Power iconography in his six-minute short O Happy Day by embedding Huey Newton's line intimating the "revolutionary" status of homosexuals into a sensual montage of shot-off -the-TV imagery of old Panther footage. Perhaps Lofton was inspired by Riggs' pronouncement in Tongues Untied that "Black men loving Black men is the revolutionary act." Another experimental short, though, trips over its pretension. In a blurb about See For Yourself filmmaker Jerry Tartaglia claimed that this silent 18-minute portrait of a dying friend "is edited to appear as if it's a series of camera 'rushes' or 'film dailies."' This thin sketch failed to support his heavy analogy: "As film editing destroys the rushes, and transforms them into a completed film, so does the process of death transforms life."
As an exercise in reflexivity, Porn Rushes hits its less august mark of documenting the making of "Mess Hall Maneuvers," a gay porn video. William Struzenberg planted his camera a few steps removed from the action for a wry wink at erotic mise-en scene. In Body and Soul, Czech director Wiktor Grodecki undertook a morbidly romantic inquiry into Prague runaways who star in boy porn shot by an off-duty police coroner. Using anatomical segues, Grodecki grotesquely intercut the porn director staging underage sex, with autopsy scenes at his day job. Grodecki was exploitive in another vein, slathering Mahler's fifth symphony and Mozart's Requiem over his own lusciously clinical leers at vulnerable lost boys.
Reflexive work like Peter Jackson's pseudo-documentary Forgotten Silver offered similar challenges at the Chicago International Film Festival, whose elastic schedule hinted at recent board and budget upsets. Having originally announced a run of 18 days, founder and director Michael Kutza pared his fest back to 10 days, then added four more days of screenings at the last minute. Besides long time sponsor American Airlines, Chicago's most glamorous fest boasts the corporate logos of backers such as Mercedes-Benz and Blockbuster.
The Chicago International Film Festival has always screened feature documentaries, but its international jury considers only fiction features. The fest traditionally recruits local juries to review 47 subcategories including documentaries, student films and even fringe genres like "visitor center presentations." Jurors this year included doctypes like Loretta Smith and Cary Stauffacher. In the "History/Biography" section of documentaries, Fabienne Rousso Lenoir's Zahar (Remember), an unremarkable collage of pre Holocaust snapshots lent by survivors, won a Gold Hugo. The Leopard Son from Discovery Channel Pictures earned a Certificate of Merit in the same section. From Miramax came Microcosmos and four non-doc features. This company's "making of ' doc about its recent Basquiat release won a Gold Hugo in the "Arts & Culture" section of documentaries.
New Zealand director Peter Jackson, whose features include Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners, recruited Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein to make a cameo in Forgotten Silver, where he parodied himself extolling the unexpectedly exhumed masterwork of one Colin McKenzie. Jackson fabricated this film pioneer and credited him with inventing color, sound, tracking shots and the close-up. New Zealand viewers of the initial television broadcast reportedly fell for this in-joke on New Zealand's Inferiority complex about its standing in cinematic annals.
Another reflexive feature, Hans-Christoph Blumenberg's One More Kiss and He is Dead, may have overdone its self-conscious style. Screened in the international competition, this ironic biopic on the German Jewish director Reinhold Schunzel recycled the same actors playing different roles in this actual figure's life. Meanwhile, italian director Aurelio Grimaldi crafted his Nerulio as an indirect docudrama about the late poet, novelist and director, Pier Paolo Pasolini. All the details about his countryman rang true, but Grimaldi chose to leave his subject unnamed.
More straight forward fare included To Speak the Unspeakable: The Message of Elie Wiesel, winner of the festival's Getz World Peace Medal. Judit Elek, a survivor of the Budapest ghetto, portrayed Auschwitz survivor and author Elie Wiesel on a visit to Sighet, the Transylvanian village he was deported from in 1944. Elek began with Wiesel's speech dedicating the U.S. Holocaust Museum and ended with him receiving a Nobel Prize. Both segments were shot and cut amateurishly; the homecoming scenes were merely awkward. Archival footage is used with predictable poignancy. The best passages mixed William Hurt reading Wiesel's writings over passing scenery.
A more engaging portrait appeared in the Dutch doc Helicopter String Quartet. Karlheinz Stockhausen, a renowned experimental composer with a spiritual bent, turned down com missions for string quartets until he had a dream of four musicians playing in the sky. Director Frank Scheffer documented a quartet of musicians and a quartet of helicopter pilots rehearsing this peculiar conceit. The versatile high velocity camera style paral leled Stockhausen's atonal vision. Unfortunately, the airborne 18 1/2 minute composition, mixed by the composer on a huge console, was not presented in its entirety.
Another portrait of an artist at work is Wrapped Reichstag. Wolfram and Jorg Daniel Hissen missed an easy target in this uninspired documentary about Christo wrapping Germany's most loaded hunk of architecture under a million square feet of shimmering fabric. In a fleeting moment of allegory, we see a technician testing its flammability by hurling a Molotov cocktail. The Reichstag symbolic legacy is skipped over, and the choice of politicians' quotes does no justice to the project's controversy. The purely formal qualities of this massive ephemeral installation were inexcusably underplayed.
Big illusions were also the subject of Trinity and Beyond. Special effects whiz Peter Kuran (whose credits range from Star Wars to Courage Under Fire) looked at the 331 atmospheric atomic bomb tests between 1945 and 1963 and saw state-of-the a government-funded special effects. For his debut documentary, dedicated to the Air Force's 1352nd Motion Picture Squadron, Kuran spliced together archival footage of countless apocalyptic spectacles. Too bad he delivered mind-blowing Biblically scaled pillars of fire in a format that's more likely to delight thermonuclear engineers than incite awe in civilians. Artlessly edited, the booms and blasts never transcended a text book megaton look. In a misguided gesture of post-Cold War redeployment, the Moscow Symphony Orchestra launched military fanfares on the score.
Chicago's two international film fests supplement the occasional documentary screenings during the rest of the year at the Music Box, a first-run art house, and two non-profit venues, the Film Center and Chicago Filmmakers. Despite the unquestionable commitment of organizers and audiences to documentaries, neither the eclectic Chicago International Film Festival nor the more topically focused Chicago Lesbian & Gay International Film Festival does more than bring in timely batches of work. Doc directors who enter these competitive fests can count on reaching sizable Chicago audiences. But, for better or worse, the screenings probably won't be framed by a distinctly documentary curator.
BILL STAMETS is a Chicago freelance writer. Portions of this article appeared previously in the Chicago Sun-Times.