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Power Trips and Veiled Appearances: A Critical Look at the Provocative Docs in the San Francisco International Film Festival

By Tom Powers

From José Padilha's 'Ônibus 174 (Bus 174).' Courtesy of San Francisco International Film Festival.

Birds in flight and birds in fights. Public power battles in India and Soviet Georgia. American women on welfare and American girls in jail. This spring's 46th annual San Francisco International Film Festival showcased two dozen documentaries shot in more than a dozen countries. The films raised old ethical dilemmas, new aesthetic issues and eternal funding problems.

Ever since Nanook struggled with the walrus there has been a question about whether documentary filmmakers should intervene to help their subjects. Iranian director Rakhshan Bani-Etemad ultimately chose to help the subject of her film. Our Times follows a rather hapless, twice-divorced single mother (and self-announced candidate for president) as she searches for a place to live in Tehran. After witnessing the woman's repeated frustrations, the film crew finally loans her the money to secure housing. Filmed during Iran's 2001 presidential election, Our Times would make excellent viewing for any US foreign policy maker interested in the possibilities for political discourse in Iran. On the other hand, it might be better to keep the saber rattlers away from Thierry Michel's Iran, Veiled Appearances. In gorgeously composed long takes, Michel records the fanatical religious devotion of the country's Shiite faithful and the alienation of Iran's privileged youth, but he ignores the less extreme realities of everyday life that define the Iranians as a people rather than a problem.

Paul Devlin found a great character to anchor Power Trip, his engrossing examination of an American power company's venture into the former Soviet Republic of Georgia (where just about everybody steals electricity). Pony-tailed Piers Lewis brings a swashbuckling delight to his job as the company's strategic projects director. But Devlin doesn't reveal (except in post-screening interviews and Q&A sessions) that he and Lewis are old college friends, and that he made the self-funded Power Trip at Lewis' instigation. Shouldn't we hold our documentary filmmakers to the same standard of full disclosure—within the body of the work itself—that we apply to print journalists?

Like Devlin, British filmmaker Franny Armstrong plunged into a complicated dispute over electrical power in a foreign country. Armstrong said she made Drowned Out, her film about villagers in India fighting the construction of the giant Narmada River Dam project, with "no commission, no Hindi, little experience, many diseases." In seeking funding for the film, she found that European television companies would back her only if she agreed to shift her focus from the indigenous people whose homes were being flooded to the novelist Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things), a vocal opponent of the dam. Armstrong declined, although Roy eventually became a character in the film.

Privileged access to a subject has long been a touchstone for documentary filmmakers. Liz Garbus's girlhood, shot at a Maryland juvenile correctional facility, makes one question whether gaining access to the American penal system is as impressive a feat as it used to be. Shot over three years but trimmed to a tidy 80 minutes, girlhood exhibits the slickness of a film targeted for cable TV. Overall it seems less a cry for compassion than an inducement to compassion fatigue. The most memorable line comes from a girl who stabbed a friend to death when she was 11. "Am I supposed to beat myself up over it?" she asks. In contrast, Jennifer Dworkin's Love and Diane, an intimate look at a family on welfare, is long (two-and-a-half hours) and rough around the edges, but it's sustained by the integrity of the relationship between the filmmaker and her subjects. Dworkin consistently demonstrates the patience to let the most painful scenes play themselves out. The film is slated to air on P.O.V. in 2004.

Anne Makepeace landed that rarest of sinecures for a documentary filmmaker, a commissioned project with little interference from the funder (the American Masters series on PBS). Robert Capa: In Love and War makes skillful use of archival materials, but an early sequence on the photographer's life in Berlin includes unattributed footage that looks surprisingly familiar. Only in the end credits is it revealed that the shots were lifted from Joris Ivens's Rain and Walter Ruttman's Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. Have we reached the point where even the classics of the documentary genre are fungible elements to be diced and spliced at will?

Jacques Perrin's Winged Migration looks gorgeous but feels contrived. In creating mini-stories (a flock of quail threatened by an approaching threshing machine, penned geese watching their mates fly free overhead), the film sometimes feels like an old Disney nature film. By contrast, Polish filmmaker Krystian Matysek's With Beak and Claw fails both in its creation of narratives—the anticipated bird battles don't have much punch—and its visual appeal, which was greatly diminished when the film was projected in fuzzy video at the festival. With Beak and Claw was shot on 16mm, so the birders in the audience could at least anticipate a higher quality image when it is released on DVD.

Festival programmer Linda Blackaby described José Padilha's Onibus 174 (Bus 174) as being "like an onion—it just keeps unfolding." The story of a failed robbery that turned into a bus hijacking, the film moves from on-the-spot news coverage (the inept Rio de Janeiro police neglected to cordon off the area around the bus) to a deeper analysis of the brutal lives of Brazil's street kids. As one of the hijacker's friends says, "We are nothing if someone doesn't look at us." Bus 174 has perhaps the most dynamic opening shot of any film in the festival, a very long take that moves from close-up abstraction (of ocean waves) to a flyover panorama of the city. The message to documentary filmmakers: if you are going to rent a helicopter, get your money's worth.

The Weather Underground, by Sam Green and Bill Siegel, took the festival's top prize, the Golden Gate Award for Best Documentary. Green spent two years in the editing room creating a context that would explain the emergence of home-grown American terrorists in the late 1960s. The film evokes the Vietnam War through fast, brutal clips; it details the rise of the Black Panthers and the left's shift away from nonviolence; and it outlines a hallucinatory trajectory from Altamont, Charles Manson and My Lai to Ronald Reagan's presidency and Jane Fonda's workout tapes. "I grew up in the '80s, and that was a pretty bleak time," Green told the San Francisco audience. "I was always curious about how the '60s became the '80s—that didn't make sense to me."  The film opened in New York last month and is touring to other cities, via Shadow Distribution, this summer.

Jon Shenk and Megan Mylan's The Lost Boys of Sudan won the Golden Gate Award for Best Bay Area Documentary. The film's young refugees learn some hard lessons upon their arrival in the United States: Boys don't hold hands, you have to struggle to get an education, you aren't supposed to drive home after flunking your driver's license exam, and America is still plagued by racial divisions. "We knew that one of the main themes of the film would be a discussion of race," said Shenk. "One very common question in the [refugee] camp was, ‘Is it true that all black men in America are in prison?' Through the films that they see, the music that they hear, the stories that they hear, that is going to be a genuine concern for someone coming to America."

In the range and quality of its documentaries, San Francisco remains one of the top American festivals. What it needs to consider next is adding a lively forum for discussing the issues those documentaries raise.


Tom Powers is a Pasadena-based writer and editor.