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In Search of a Discovery at the IFP/Los Angeles Film Festival

By Sarah Jo Marks

Tracy Tragos at her father's grave, from her film 'Be Good, Smile Pretty,' which won the Target Documentary Award for Best Documentary Feature. Photo by Kat Tragos.

Technically, there was not much to discover at the 2003 IFP/Los Angeles Film Festival, held in June. For the past couple of years since Independent Feature Project (IFP) took over the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival (LAIFF), it has tried, with some success, to promote the festival as a world-class showcase of independent film. The hope was to put the festival on equal footing with such luminaries as Sundance, Cannes and Toronto. Last year's fest showcased a thought-provoking, fun and wonderfully digestible lineup of new, edgy films, many of which arrived at the festival without distribution, while many of this year's documentaries would later air on the PBS series P.O.V. and Independent Lens.

Ironically, this year's festival boasted the tagline "Make a discovery/Who will be next?" on all of its materials, catalogs and city banners. Of the 13 docs in competition for the Target Documentary Award ($25,000 cash prize), five were presented through ITVS or P.O.V. This is not to undermine the great endeavors of those organizations, but it seems that they made discoveries long before festival-goers had a chance to.

To "make a discovery" as a festival-goer, one would have to be more selective than usual in choosing films. Nonetheless, there were gems to be had—Daniel Gordon's The Game of Their Lives, the story of the 1966 North Korean soccer team, was one, as was Sunset Story, Laura Gabbert's beautifully crafted story of friendship in a downtown LA rest home for political radicals. The central characters, Lucille, 95, and Irja, 81, inspire one to stay young as they march in demonstrations, discuss world news and complain about the food in the dining hall. The film picked up the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature. Hopefully the award will help lead to a theatrical release before the film airs on PBS in 2004.

 My Life with Count Dracula is a sci-fi lover's dream come true. With a playful theremin-laden score by Christopher Hoag, Dustin Lance Black's ode to sci-fi cineaste  Dr. Donald Reed is a warm and vibrant account of his life and his passion for film. Mixing entertaining archival footage and interviews with Reed, the film does justice to his legacy.   

In Be Good, Smile Pretty, Tracy Droz Tragos set out to find a memory of her father, who was killed in the Vietnam War when she was only a few months old. Tragos created a meaningful film for her, her family and the 20,000 Americans whose fathers were killed in that conflict. The film claimed the inaugural Target Documentary Award for Best Documentary Feature. Be Good, Smile Pretty will air November 11 as part of PBS's series Independent Lens.

Lisandro Perez-Rey's Mas alla del mar (Beyond the Sea) is an eye-opening account of the Mariel Boatlift of 1980, when hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled to the US in hopes of making better lives for themselves and their families. Perez-Rey tells the stories of some of those who pursued the American dream over the next two decades.

The festival would not have been complete without its centerpiece premiere—Mayor of Sunset Strip, George Hickenlooper's look at LA DJ and pop music icon Rodney Bingenheimer. This colorful doc takes the viewer behind the scenes to discover what it's like to be rise to fame as a fan and radio disc jockey in Los Angeles. A true Forrest Gump of the '60s and '70s music scenes, Bingenheimer opens his sweet, vulnerable soul to let us in on what he's really about. At press time the film had yet to solidify distribution, but there was something in the works. 

Shorts of note included Foo Foo Dust, Gina Levy and Eric Johnson's account of a drug addicted mother and son in San Francisco, which won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Short Film. Also, a spine-tingling tale of escaping female genital mutilation, Gini Reticker's Asylum, packed a powerful political punch.

Sure, I missed a few of the hot films. But they've since been released by Artisan (Dana Brown's Step Into Liquid) and Palm Pictures (Helen Stickler's Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator), or aired on PBS (Linda Goode Bryant and Laura Poitras' Flag Wars). After all, I was looking for a discovery. The 2003 IFP/Los Angeles Film Festival was a fun festival with great parties, good food and a nice venue to see films. I hope next year brings it back to smaller films-things you can't see anywhere else, until they get discovered. 


Sarah Jo Marks can be reached at