Monday, October 17, 2011

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 3

And the big first weekend of Docfest is over.

First up, a program of Native American interest, starting with the short SMOKE SONGS. It's a look at the Native American punk rock group Blackfire. A sibling team that mixes traditional Native music with punk. Passionate, angry, political, and funny. The movie gives us the briefest introduction to them, and leaves us (or at least me) wanting more.

And that was the lead in to the feature GRAB. It's a window into a rather unique celebration in the Laguna Pueblo tribe. It's a mix of traditional prayer of thanks and feasting and western influences. In fact, it's born out of their struggle and resistance to forced conversion to Catholicism. On your Saint's Day, you stand on your roof and throw food and water to the crowd below. Originally, of course, it was homegrown food but in modern times with poverty rampant families will shop for cheap food for months in advance. It's really a fascinating tradition, and seems a lot of fun. And the movie builds up to it very well. In fact, perhaps there's a bit too much build up and tradition. I grew frustrated that it kept teasing me with "1 month before the throw", "3 days before the throw",.... Imagine, if you will, a documentary about Christmas that doesn't show a Christmas tree, Santa Claus, presents, or stockings until the end credits. Kind of an odd choice, but it works.

Then the next show was a program of Your Legal Shorts. Three shorts focusing on interesting legal issues:
ARGUING THREE STRIKES: California's "Three Strikes" law is possibly the harshest mandatory sentencing law in the country. Originally passed in response to high profile cases where multiple recidivists committed horrible crimes, it was written and applied so broadly that a guy can be put away for 25 to life for stealing a slice of pizza on a dare. Depending on how cynical/conspiracy minded you are, this is either a horrible case of unintended consequences or a case of horribly unconscionable intended consequences. The movie shows not just the victims/opponents of the law, but the backers of the law, who frankly seem badly out of touch (or afraid of looking weak on crime) when they talk about how fair the system is.

ANGEL FOR HIRE: A look at the tricky legal issues around surrogate mothers. They sign contracts allowing their body to be used in a certain way, and depending on complications (how to you balance the risk to the surrogate mother vs. the risk to the baby?) things can get pretty tricky. The film both explores the history, starting with lawyer Noel Keane who wrote up the first surrogate contract in Dearborn, Michigan. And it shows a modern story with surrogate Angel (hence the title) carrying her second surrogate baby (for the same couple), while dealing with the medical issues involved and with her own family (best moment: how her husband likes to tell strangers, "it's not my baby" and walk away leaving her to explain "it's not mine, either!")

POLICE TAPE: And local journalist/filmmaker Josh Wolf made this movie exploring the videotaping of police. He starts with the Rodney King video as a jumping off point, but also of course explores the Oscar Grant shooting at the Fruitvale BART station. The Oakland PD has recently started issuing small cameras to be worn on the uniform. And Wolf scored a ride-along with one of the first officers to use one. But still, the main question is will the videos be available to the public? Will it really result in improved police behavior or will any video of misbehavior be conveniently "lost"? Okay, the movie isn't quite as sarcastic as my last sentence. It's an important question, and explored in a thoughtful, intelligent manner. And he doesn't just stay in the Bay Area, he explores questions of police videotaping (and even does some of his own taping) around the country. Spoiler alert, did you know it's illegal to videotape a police officer in Illinois?

Next up was a nostalgia program, starting with the short THE DINER. A charming black and white tribute to the St. Francis Fountain and it's loyal patron of several decades, Frank Gonzalez.

And then Docfest went to summer camp with BEAVERBROOK. Director Matthew Callahan was a camper and counselor at Beaverbrook, in the shadow of Cobb Mountain in Lake County, California (local enough that several Beaverbrook alums were at the screening). So he made this movie from a place of affection and sometimes wistful nostalgia for the bygone days, before the skyrocketing cost of insurance ended the practice of letting kids roll around in the mud, do gymnastics on horseback without helmets, and generally get into all sorts of outdoor trouble. In some ways, this film is a little too insider to be widely appreciated (many Beaverbods in the audience were laughing at bits I could tell they appreciated at another level than I did). But it was impossible to watch without thinking of my own times at Boy Scout Camp (Camp Black Mountain in Northwest Washington, and Camp Gorsuch in Alaska), and getting a bit nostalgic about how we used to play out of doors. You know, I don't really know if kids today are lazier and spend more time indoors, I hear that complaint a lot. But I do know that I'm lazier and spend more time indoors, and maybe I should change that (right after I watch a ton more movies). Oh, and I also want to mention how funny it was the Beaverbrook was intentionally rundown, strange, and didn't work quite right (somehow a dug out hole full of water is more charming than an actual natural pond or a professional swimming pool).

Anyway, next up was the social documentary about Filipino kids abandoned by their American Navy fathers, LEFT BY THE SHIP. For Amerasian kids in any other country, they would be granted American citizenship by birthright, but for some unexplained reason (not just unexplained in this movie, but unexplained anywhere), the Philippines was an exception. For those kids, the father has to acknowledge the child is his for it to get citizenship (and good luck if you wait and grow up before trying that). Of course, it's obvious to all their full Filipino classmates that these kids are different, and they won't fit in at home (especially, unfortunately if the father was black). We meet four of these cases, primarily Robert (who writes a blog about the film and the issues it raises) and while they all have compelling stories, I can't help but feel the film could've used more of a narrative or better editing to get their stories across. I felt it was more 'These are some people, they all deal with this same issue in their lives' when it could've/should've been more 'Here is how this situation came about that impacted their lives, this is what they're trying to do to better it, and (most importantly) this is what you can do to help.'

And finally, the night ended with DONOR UNKNOWN, a fascinating and funny look at sperm bank babies finally meeting their father. Donor father, that is, who is pretty far from a "real" father. JoEllen Marsh was a donor baby, and when she became a young adult she wanted to meet her possible donor siblings and maybe even the donor father (really, it starts with interest in the siblings). So she went on the online donor sibling registry, knowing little more than her donor father is Donor 150 of the California Cryobank. Eventually she finds a half-sister in New York, they meet, and the New York Times picks up the story.

Meanwhile, in Venice, California, a van-dwelling, dog-owning, pigeon-owning beach bum named Jeffrey picks up the front page of the New York Times (out of the trash) and sees a headline about two girls who met because they were both fathered by Donor 150. At first he thinks, 'No Way! It's gotta be a different sperm bank!' But sure enough, reading the article he sees "California Cryobank" and realizes those are his offspring. And so while JoEllen is meeting more and more half-siblings, and joking and marveling over shared traits (even down to how they all brush their hair behind their ear in the same way), Jeffrey decides to come out and reveal that he is Donor 150. There are serious issues involved, of course, but possibly due to the personalities involved the story plays out as a fun and funny curiosity. It certainly would've been much different if Donor 150 wanted to remain anonymous while the children were torn up with wondering who he was. But what we end up with isn't a tense drama, but a fun comedy (dramedy, maybe), and that's fine by me.

As an aside, although Jeffrey is a colorful character and fun to watch in a movie, I would be horrified to learn he was my father. But that's just me.

Total running Time: 470 minutes
My Total Minutes: 251,191
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