Sunday, October 18, 2009

Jason goes to DocFest--Day 2

Four movies to start the first weekend of Docfest. Here we go:

First up was THE DRUMS INSIDE YOUR CHEST, which apparently played to a packed house the night before, but was nearly a private screening for just me today. Probably because the core audience was busy with the Litquake poetry crawl (final day of that, and I didn't even know until it was too late). Anyway, a few years ago a group of performance poets had the idea to take the energy, vibrancy, and humor of performance poetry from the clubs and put it on stage. This is the concert movie of the result. Fundamentally, the goal is to overcome the stereotype of "poetry is boring". In fact, the "concert" footage is very fun. It almost plays like stand-up comedy but with rhythm (and with a goal beyond just making you laugh). The performers riff on the nature of being "deep", imagine alternate worlds where Batman doesn't exist because Bruce Wayne is a poor loser, or give acceptance speeches thanking everything that is and has ever been wrong with their life. The film breaks the performances with short interviews with the poets, but for the most part let's the work speak for itself. And while the poems and poets are quite varied, the one constant is the performances are always entertaining and usually funny. It made me interested in actually seeing one of these performances live. And, incidentally, there was talk of making it part of LitQuake next year. So if that happens, and I remember next year, I may be in luck.

And then, from a surprisingly funny movie I went to a predictably depressing movie. But first the short TAKE MY HAIR. Filmmaker Cat Del Buono has really, really long hair. She has decided to donate her hair to make a wig for Sue, who has has cancer and has lost her hair to chemotherapy. The art both of having long hair and of wig making is playfully explored, until tragedy cuts the process short. Dedicated to her wig maker.

The same themes of tragedy, beauty, and body image are at the heart of FINDING FACE, along with a little tragically non-existent concept
called justice. When Tat Marina was just 16 years old, she was a karaoke video star in Cambodia. The Undersecretary of State Svay Sitha fell in love with her and seduced her, which was bad news since he's married. The "other woman" is always blamed there (rather than the philandering husband), and she was stuck. If she broke of the affair, he threatened both her and her family. If she continued the affair, his wife threatened her. And, in short order, the wife made good on her threat, getting a few thugs together to beat her up and then throw acid on her face (although the movie didn't say, the official website says it was nitric acid). There were a few repercussions, beyond horribly disfiguring her for life. First, her brother returned to Cambodia from America, and took her back to the U.S. with him, where she got the best possible care (but is still badly disfigured). Second, nothing happened to the Undersecretary or his wife. Third, as a result of the publicity and lack of criminal charges, acid attacks in Cambodia increased significantly. The film follows Marina and her brother in the U.S. As she tries to build a new life there, now centered around her son (due to her wishes, nothing is revealed about the father beyond that he's a legal U.S. resident). There are efforts by various organizations (and some very brave victims) to not just get justice for Marina but to end the culture of "revenge mutilations", but there doesn't seem to be much hope on the horizon. The movie is very well made, and emotionally powerful, but very hard to watch.

And then I moved directly to a world of hillbilly-sploitation and outright insanity with THE WILD AND WONDERFUL WHITES OF WEST VIRGINIA. If you ask anyone in Boone County about the White family, they'll either tell you some outrageous story or just won't want to talk about them at all. I don't even know wher to start. The drugs? The murders? The attempted murders? The welfare fraud? Maybe I should start with the tap-dancing. Patriarch XXXX was a mountain tap-dancing star, inventing dance moves only he could do (or so goes the legend). And then he was shot dead. Of the sons he taught to dance, only Jesco survives and carried on the tradition. He was the subject of a PBS Documentary THE DANCING OUTLAW, and often tours with family friend Hank Williams III. The other family members booze up, smoke up, snort crushed Xanax, and generally raise hell (except for one brother who moved away to Minnesota and is a proud hard-working man, despite the minor scrapes with the law in his past). At times the film plays like simple crass hillbilly-sploitation, but it's sort of hard to find much sympathy for a family that takes such obvious pleasure in their notoriety. Sometimes you gotta think they're playing it up for the cameras, like when they turn mama's birthday party into a drug orgy (mama, aka "The Miracle Woman" for all the kids--including orphans--she raised, does not seem amused), or when one snorts crushed pills in her hospital room just after giving birth (she has to go to rehab just to get visitation rights for Child Protective Services). But there are little glimmers of sympathy, like when one of them is shot in the face by his nephew. Okay, that's not sympathetic, but when he says "Part of me knows when he gets out of prison I gotta kill him, but I know I won't 'cuz I love him", well...that's sympathetic for this family. And then there's Jesco--remember he's the successful one--talking on the one hand about loving to get fucked up every night but then philosophizing how the whole family is already dead and just doesn't know it yet. I watched this movie like a car wreck, fascinated, enthralled, and relieved no one I care about is involved. I've never been more thankful that no one from the film was in attendance.

And finally, the night ended with DUST AND ILLUSIONS. I've been going to Burning Man actually longer than I've been going to film festivals (since '98). And I've seen a number of Burning Man documentaries. And so far they've all sucked. Because they've all been 'I went to Burning Man and this is all the cool stuff I did' and none of them look anything like my Burning Man experiences. To believe these movies, everyone is super-cool and we all get along. Maybe I'm a jaded old timer, but I've met lots of attention whores who piss me off out there and I've taken to calling Black Rock City the world's shittiest gated community. And don't even get me started on Center Camp Starbucks. Sometimes I feel like the only one in the whole nudist colony who can see that the emperor has no clothes.

Anyway, that was to set the stage to tell you DUST AND ILLUSIONS is a very different Burning Man documentary. It's not a party film, it's not "spiritual journey", it's a history lesson. It goes back to the first burn 30 years ago on Baker beach, when a few friends got together and built and burnt a wooden man. Director Olivier Bonin traces the origins back not just to the Baker Beach burn but to John Law, Micheal Mikel, and the Cacophony Society (and before that, the Suicide Club), it traces the move to the desert and the wild recklessness there (e.g., the drive-by shooting range). Then the art (sculptor Pepe Ozan is featured) and finally the population pressures that forced it to morph from a survivalist camping/radical freedom event into Black Rock City (fittingly, next year's theme is Metropolis). He mixes in interviews with some of the people who've made BRC pretty awesome--the Flaming Lotus Girls, Adrian of Piss Clear (their complete archives now available as a book). And it takes a critical look at what it's become, covering the split between Larry Harvey and the John Law/Chicken John contingent who formed Borg2. You can draw your own conclusions, and obviously it can't be the same thing with 50,000 people as it was with 100, but is it what it should be and can it be something better?

The next day, thinking about DUST AND ILLUSIONS and the changes I've seen in Burning Man in the past decade, I got what might be a great idea--Olde Towne Black Rock. A small region of the open Playa where people only camp in tents around a modestly sized man who stands on the ground. Maybe we can even bring back the drive-by shooting range with paintballs.
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