Saturday, October 17, 2009

Jason goes to DocFest--Opening Night

The third leg of the SFIndie trifecta (Indiefest, HoleHead, and Docfest) started last night. I've only once did a clean sweep (all movies in all 3 festivals. I did it in 2007, and fell one movie short in 2008.) Docfest has been my week link, and as I've already pointed out it's impossible this year. As it turns out, what with other commitments I'll end up missing about 7 films this year. But I'll keep you posted on the ones I do see, starting...now!

Opening the Festival (in the little Roxie) was the war photographer story SHOOTING ROBERT KING. It opens in 1993 with Robert King outside of Sarajevo covering the civil war that split Yugoslavia apart. It's his first work (free-lance) and he doesn't know how to survive in a war zone. His photographs are overexposed and blurry. He doesn't even know the political leaders behind the various factions (or even the factions. Colleagues have to explain there's a difference between Croatians and Serbian Croats). Cut forward to 2007, in the woods of Tennessee. King is deer hunting and talking about how naive and idealistic he used to be. At first glimpse, he doesn't seem to have gained any competence--he can't even setup an automatically unfolding deer blind. The movie cuts across 14 years, going back and forth between young, stupid Robert King in Sarajevo and older King in Tennessee. In Sarajevo he learns a bit about survival (don't wear white shirts, etc.) and gets his first break--photographing French UN soldiers procuring prostitutes with cigarettes (his photograph made the front page of the Guardian).

About a half hour in, the 2007 Tennessee Robert King is talking about his self-destructive temperament and how that probably drew him to war zones and made him so good at what he did. I had the laugh, because so far the movie hadn't shown him as very successful or even competent. Only then does it flash to Chechnya, where he was one of the only photographers who stayed when they kicked the press out. Suddenly he is really good (helps to be the only one there). The movie then takes us on a whirlwind career spanning Chechnya, Rwanda, Iraq, etc. and juxtaposing war with drunken party photos from the time he lived in Russia. A prime opportunity is missed in Iraq when they only brush on the topic of embedded journalists. King was embedded, and had to stay in camp shooting shit (literally) while the troops went to investigate IED attacks. Perhaps that could be an entire second movie. But what is in the movie is the story of a young, self-destructive man who found a way to make a living in an extreme proffession. And the bond between his fellow war journalists (many of whom thought he'd never make it and now give him great respect) is palpable. Probably nothing short of actual soldiering matches or exceeds it.

Then I stayed in the Little Roxie (well, I went and had a quick beer at Dalva, then went back to the Little Roxie for the energy doc HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM. By interviewing tons of oil executives, environmentalists, scientists, etc. the film gives a good look at the history of energy (i.e., oil) in the U.S. and the future (i.e., alternatives). The stories of the history--rise and fall of U.S. oil--was the second most interesting part of the movie. We often hear (sorry, I'm not old enough to have lived it) of the gas crisis of 1973, and the deals Nixon cut to get us through it. Ford, interestingly enough, comes off pretty well at least in terms of talking the talk. Carter likewise talked a big game, but failed to deliver. The big surprise (to me) was how Reagan brought oil prices way down (basically by strong-arming the region and cutting back room deals) and the repercussions. This didn't just lower the price of gas. Because the Soviet Union was such a huge oil exporter, the price drop crippled their economy and (in part) won the Cold War. But it also crippled nearly all the domestic oil companies. It was no longer worth it to explore either new oil fields or alternative energies. But this was the time of "Dallas" on TV, so no one sympathized with the evil oil men, even if--as one executive claims--the layoffs in the oil sector in the 80's dwarfed the layoffs in Detroit today.

The other interesting point is that every oil exec talked about alternative energy as the only hope for the future. Not of the planet, but of their businesses. It's sometimes hard to tell if their serious of just "green-washing" (there's a great scene on a private jet when some executives laugh about how Sierra Club activism is helping keep prices artificially high, and that's good for everyone). But they are in the business of being in business, and the film makes a compelling case that oil is unsustainable as a business in the U.S. as well as unsustainable for the global environment. Now the only question is what will replace it? Solar, wind (an eyesore to some, but there's an amusing scene with Joanne Herring talking about how she finds the windmills beautiful like ballerinas), even algae that creates oil much faster than rotting dinosaurs do. And with the likes of T. Boone Pickens making serious investments in renewable energy, I'm reasonably optimistic.

I guess the biggest surprise is how reasonable, charming, and not-at-all villainous these businessmen appear. I don't know if I should feel dirty being charmed by an oil executive, but given that they have the power, capital, expertise, and seeming desire to build the renewable energy industry, it seems like we should make friends with them. After all, they're going to be taking some of the biggest risks--the film dubs them the new wildcats--and some technologies are bound to fail and some of them will lose everything.

And that was a pretty nice opening of DocFest 2009.
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