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From Mariachis to Marines to Melvin Van Peebles: A Doc Cornucopia at LAFF

By Darianna Cardilli

Melvin Van Peebles, Paris, 1965, from Joe Angio's 'How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It),' which screened at the 2005 Los Angeles Film Festival. Courtesy of Breakfast at Noho

Swaying palms, oversized sunglasses and Blackberrys galore... You guessed it: I was at the Los Angeles Film Festival, held in June and organized by the newly baptized FIND (Film Independent, formerly IFP West). Audiences were treated to a muscular line-up of over 20 feature docs, many riveting and thought-provoking.

Mark Becker's Romantico is an intimate portrait of a Mexican troubadour returning home to the impoverished border town of Salvatierra, after years of playing love songs for tips in San Francisco 's hip dive bars. Gorgeously shot on film, with luminous, immaculate images, Romntico is a lovingly detailed immigrant tale in reverse, following the struggling mariachi artist as he ekes out a living playing at funerals, weddings and in bars for prostitutes and their clients, and selling ice cream from a pushcart, all the while ambivalent about whether (and how) he should return to the US. Against a backdrop of ballads and lyrics brimming with unrequited love and torment, the film exudes the melancholy, isolation, poverty and sacrifice of the mariachi tradition.

Al Otro Lado (To the Other Side) (Dir.: Natalia Almada; Prods.: Kent Rogowski, Tommaso Fiacchino) looks at the limited choices facing the citizens of Sinaloa, Mexico: drug trafficking, poverty or illegal immigration. Using the mordant lyrics of the corridos (ballads) instead of voiceover results in a musical yet tragic tale of survival in a failing economy--epitomized in the last shot of a border crossing littered with graves.

The Target Documentary Award went to Beth Bird for Everyone Their Grain of Sand, a film about the stalwart Mexican community of Moclavio Rojas, whose inhabitants bravely battle government attempts to evict them in order to make way for industrial development. Banding together, the residents fight government harassment and corruption in order to retain their land and ensure a future for their children. This moving tale neatly encapsulates the effects of globalization on small villages, whose residents are seen as mere cogs in the profit wheel of multinational corporations.

David Zeiger's superb Sir! No Sir! (Prods.: Evangeline Griego, Aaron Zarrow) earned the Audience Award for Best Documentary. The film recounts the rise of the anti-Vietnam War GI movement, the cultural upheaval it caused and how it has been steadily erased--with Hollywood's complicity--from collective memory. Extensively researched, and featuring stirring interviews, previously unseen archival footage, audio recordings, vivid stills and multi-layered effects, Sir! No Sir! combines exceptional artistry and insightful analysis with great storytelling. This is no facile agitprop piece, but a careful dissection of a growing military rebellion that permanently altered American society, but has largely been forgotten.

Though the rigors of boot camp have been filmed before, director Cannan Brumley still manages to give a fresh take to a known drill in his minimalist Ears, Open. Eyeballs, Click. Employing neither voiceover nor interviews, but mere title cards as dividers, the film gives viewers a rare, uninterrupted glimpse into the process of military dehumanization, and wryly questions the adequacy of Marine training.

How To Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) (Prod.: Michael Solomon) tries to capture the essence of the indomitable Melvin Van Peebles--iconoclast, agent provocateur, revolutionary, chameleon, creative genius, marketing mastermind, unrepentant seducer and tireless artist, as well as Air Force pilot, successful bond trader, published French novelist and astronomer. Through interviews with sons, lovers, employers, colleagues and critics, coupled with a superb soundtrack, director Joe Angio unravels the enigma of Van Peebles' complex persona, without ever falling into the trap of hagiography.

If one golden rule for making a good doc is to point your camera at an eccentric and shoot, then Stolen (Dir.: Rebecca Dreyfus; Prod.: Susannah Ludwig) subscribes to it by trailing the bowler-hatted, eye patch-wearing art sleuth Harold Smith in his quest to recover paintings stolen 15 years ago from the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston. What follows is an erratic ride, featuring tearful curators and devastated Vermeer historians, colorful informants, repulsive Boston low-lifes, Scotland Yard detectives and the indefatigable Smith, always chipper despite a skin cancer that is ravaging his face away.

Are we defined by our own name? Are people with the same name similar? That is the question asked by The Grace Lee Project, as the eponymous director tracks many other Grace Lees across the country in search of those who defy the stereotype of being studious, polite, quiet overachievers. On the way Lee encounters a news anchor, a car dealer, a preacher's wife, a lesbian, a Goth artist and, most memorably, an octogenarian ex-Black Panther. With excellent use of animation, The Grace Lee Project is a clever and amusing exploration of Asian-American female identity.

Typically it's computers that crash, not minds. But what if you had to reboot your "system" with a new memory drive--and in the process lost all your autobiographical data? That is exactly what happened to Douglas Bruce, the main character in Unknown White Male (Dir.: Rupert Murray; Prod.: Beadie Finzi) as he suffered an extremely rare case of amnesia. We follow him on a surreal journey as he reacquaints himself with his family, childhood friends and surroundings, engaging the human experience for the first time. With striking, iconic imagery and great editing, this thoughtful film delves into complex philosophical issues of identity, how we are shaped by our memories, and whether starting with tabula rasa would free us from the guilt of past actions. In this case, the spotless mind results not in eternal sunshine, but in many unanswered questions.

There are many ways to make your documentary debut. For Eric Lahey, it entailed living for seven months in The Century Plaza (Prod.: Joey Brenner), a Portland, Oregon-based single-room-occupancy hotel, the last refuge for those disenfranchised from society. Following Rico, a cat and the sole lasting resident of the hotel, we encounter a bizarre array of characters--a Mormon drug addict, a pensive prostitute, a poet in a wheelchair, a pedophile, a misanthrope, an embittered emigré--for whom this dilapidated, noisy, squalid building is home. This remarkable tale never strays into becoming judgmental or promoting a social agenda, but remains an honest and humbling look at where the forgotten reside.

The curious pick of the festival was Before the Flood (Dirs.: Li Yifan, Yan Yu), a three-hour epic tale on the Kafkaesque nightmare of relocating the inhabitants of the 2,000-year-old Chinese village of Fengjie, due to be inundated upon completion of the Tree Gorges Dam. Despite occasional funny vignettes of petty local rivalries and bureaucratic chaos, Before the Flood was about as interesting as a West Hollywood Council meeting on permit parking.

In nine days, LAFF delivered a veritable cornucopia of inspiring and well-crafted films. As I stepped out in the California sunshine, I needed those oversized shades--the future of docs looked very bright indeed.


Darianna Cardilli is a Los Angeles-based documentary filmmaker and editor.