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Third docfest is the Charm

By David Callahan

In its third year, docfest, New York's annual international documentary festival, has truly come into its own.  A whirligig of screenings, Q&A sessions, panel discussions and post-screening receptions, docfest sustains an amazingly high level of anticipation and energy over its six-day duration. 

Crowded with enthusiastic filmgoers, represented filmmakers and – usually -- people who appear in their films, docfest feels something like a documentary Cannes.  This isn't to suggest that it's chaotic or overwhelming; in fact, one can comfortably take in all 16 screening and three non-screening events and still find time between sessions to chat informally with the likes of Ricky Leacock (direct from Paris) and George Stoney (just back from Ireland).

docfest opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, appropriately leading off with the music-themed Saluzzi:Composition For Bandoneon And Three Brothers.  A study of an accordionist who has mastered a uniquely Argentinean style of jazz, Saluzzi eschews the jaunty treatment of such jazz documentaries as Buena Vista Social Club and Wildman Blues, opting instead for a moody, meditative consideration of the man and his music.  Filmmaker Daniel Rosenfeld quietly observes Saluzzi at his work, concentrating not only on the beauty of his compositions and performances, but also on the effort and inspirations behind them. Ponderous and, at times, melancholic, Saluzzi was a challenging, impressive note on which to begin the festival.

Subsequent screenings and events were held at the Directors Guild Theater in Manhattan. Standouts included Scottsboro: An American Tragedy, a conventional but engrossing piece about a nearly forgotten event tha—in its time—rended a nation. To convey the fervor the case generated on both sides of the issue, directors Barak Goodman and Daniel Anker effectively recreate the period in which it took place, evoking the Depression-era South through the recollections of surviving witnesses, archival footage and dramatic recreations.  Goodman and Anker ably demonstrate how such a gross injustice came to pass despite the incontrovertible evidence in the defendants' favor.  But they also demonstrate how the case provoked a greater racial consciousness throughout America, which contributed in part to the emergence of the civil rights movement.  Scottsboro was the recipient of the festival's Audience Award.

For a portrait of an alternative American lifestyle, it's hard to beat One Man, Six Wives And Twenty-Nine Children. The film documents the family life of Tom Green, a polygamous Mormon who's currently being prosecuted in Utah for bigamy and statutory rape (one of his wives was 14 when he married her).  Though a touch sensational, the film is admirably non-judgmental as it allows the clan to make its case for polygamy as a Mormon sanction and for Tom's status as a victim of religious persecution.  And while British filmmaker Jane Treays does not explicitly endorse Green's position, Green does come across as a model husband and father.

An alternative lifestyle was also on view in Benjamin Smoke, which looks at the last days of Benjamin, an AIDS-afflicted punk rock musician. The film observes Benjamin as he idles away the days in his hometown of Cabbagetown, Georgia, chatting at length about aging, illness, homosexuality, music and his dream of performing onstage with Patti Smith.  Like its subject, Benjamin Smoke is discursive, yet coherent, and Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen's deliberate pacing and dream-like imagery brilliantly accentuate the portrait. Unreservedly sympathetic toward a man who, by his own admission, enjoys provoking discomfort in others, the film is riveting, unsettling and very moving.

While the term "vérité" was tossed around quite a bit in anticipation of docfest's closing night guests, the week's truest exemplar of that 
tradition was Marina Goldovskaya's The Prince Is Back.  A wry depiction of a Romanoff descendant who returns to his ancestors' now dilapidated estate, the film patiently trails the "prince," Eugene Meschersky, as he toils arduously, but with humor and unflagging faith, to rebuild a shattered house.  Meschersky, unashamed of his imperial heritage, endures very proletarian hardships as he works to restore his ancestral homestead. Admiring his determination rather than his lineage, Goldovskaya provides a droll look into the strangeness that is post-Soviet Russia.

Labeled a "sci-fi documentary" by maker Michel Negroponte, W.I.S.O.R. is the filmic record of an engineering team's four-year effort to develop and implement the titular robot, a machine that can navigate and make repairs in New York City's subterranean steam pipe system.  It may take a while to warm up to W.I.S.O.R.—a grab bag of visual and aural effects (the robot narrates)—but staying with it has its reward as over time this proudly technophilic film reveals subtle wit and off-beat charm.

docfest's top prize, the Jury Award, went to Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini's Well-Founded Fear, an analysis of Immigration and Naturalization Service asylum process.  Providing a rarefied glimpse into what is normally a confidential procedure, the film is constructed around a series of interviews in which INS agents attempt to gauge the validity of each asylum seeker's claim.  Those who convincingly demonstrate a "well-founded fear" of political or religious persecution in their home countries are permitted entry, while all others are denied.  Confounding expectations of the INS as a heartless bureaucracy, Well Founded Fear humanizes people on both sides of the process.  The film is intelligently balanced and elegantly crafted.

Non-screening programs included a "New Technologies Showcase" which addressed how variant aspect ratios among production formats problematically affect documentary exhibition and distribution, and an afternoon with festival guest Leacock, who, at 78, discussed his life in documentary film, the state of current production and his preference for the latest lightweight digital video equipment.

docfest closed with Cinema Vérité: Defining The Moment, a cursory history of the vérité movement.  But the finale's real treat came after the screening, when Al Maysles, Robert Drew, D.A. Pennebaker, Barbara Kopple, Bill Greaves, Ricky Leacock and other documentary stalwarts gathered together on the DGA stage.  If little developed in way of audience discussion, their presence was enough to bring to mind everything that a documentary can be, and why events like docfest—dedicated exclusively to this manner of filmmaking—are essential to the form's well-being.


David Callahan is the Senior Film/Video Librarian of The New York Public Library's Donnell Media Center.


Distribution info

Daniel Rosenfeld Films
Billinghurst 1451, 9A
Buenos Aires (1429), Argentina
Tel:  +5411 4308 3299
Fax: +5411 4805 4188

Social Media Productions
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Gold Films
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Fax:  310.476.0267

Blackbridge Productions
270 Lafayette St., Ste. 1105
New York, NY  10012
Tel:  212.226.0034
Fax:  212.226.1361

Camerini Robertson Documentary Films
141 West 28th St., Ste. 6B
New York, NY  10001
Tel:  212.594.2522
Fax:  212.594.0101

National Film Board of Canada
3155 Cote de Liesse
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Fax:  514.496.1895
International Distribution:  514.283.9439