Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 11

Okay. Another 5 films back on Sunday, June 10th. This is just a data dump, so really brief descriptions:

ELEPHANT PATH/NJAIA NJOKU: An elephant blind deep in the Dzanga National Park in the Central African Republic. A look at the people to study and protect them, and the social and political unrest that threatens them. A warning, there are pretty sad scenes of the aftermath of killings. Beautifully made movie, and some scenes of natural beauty, but also some scenes that are pretty sobering for early Sunday (what, are most people already sober Sunday mornings?)
Elephants being elephants

THE TREE: A short film preceding the next feature. It's a look at the Christmas and post-Christmas season, from the point of view of a Christmas tree. It's happy for a while, but of course the life of a Christmas tree is short and ends in a chipper.
The tree, in happier times

NORTH POLE, NY: A look at the history and current state of Santa's Workshop, a theme park in the mountains of upstate New York. Once the area was dotted with theme parks, but now this is pretty much the only one left. Times have changed, road trips to quirky destinations just aren't as much of a thing anymore. The digital world has forgotten a lot of the analog pleasures. But this place has survived, as a local institution. We follow its history, including the time con-men bought the park and almost destroyed it, but the town rallied and saved it (sounds like a cheesy movie, but it was completely true.) There's also a genuine love for the place, from the locals who work there and from the fans, many of whom visited many times as kids, and are now taking their own kids there. It's a charming slice of Americana.
Santa Claus waving to the crowd
GETTING OVER: Ray Charnick was a heroin addict. In 1997, his brother Arnie recorded 17 hours of interviews with him, as he was on his deathbed (if I recall correctly, from HIV.) He subsequently passed the tapes on to Ray's son Jason. Who waited, and eventually when he felt the time was right, he watched the tapes. And with the flood of emotions, made this deeply personally documentary. His father was absent nearly all of his life. And we get to witness as he--for all intents and purposes--"meets" his father for the first time. There's anger, frustration, but also a bit of understanding and sympathy. You know, all the frustrations of family and history, times about a million. At times you might wonder who on Earth would want to watch essentially someone else's home movie--and not a home movie of happy times, but a home movie of anger and frustration. The answer is, I would. This is the type of intensely personal documentaries I eat up, even if they don't always have the highest entertainment value. 
Jason Charnick directing and starring in this documentary
THE DAWN WALL: I remember this story from a few years back. A pair of climbers doing a free ascent of the hardest, barest, sheer vertical wall on El Capitan in Yosemite. This is that story, as well as the backstory of Tommy Caldwell. A climbing prodigy, a survivor of a terrorist kidnapping, a guy who killed (spoiler: or so he thought!) his captor, a guy missing the tip of his finger in a home construction accident... Okay, that last one should've ended his professional climbing career.

And in complete digression, this reminds me of Harold Lloyd, famous silent film comedian. Even if you don't know his name, you've seen him hanging from a clock in a very famous picture (below.) Well, it so happens that due to an accident with a prop bomb that turned out not to be a prop, Lloyd was missing the index finger and thumb on his right hand.

Anyway, Tommy, rather than letting a missing fingertip end his career, came back with a vengeance, making record fast runs up El Capitan. Pioneering new routes (any one new route makes you famous, so he did several.) And finally, with a new climbing partner Kevin Jorgeson, they make their ascent up the Dawn Wall. And they totally trigger my acrophobia about 100 times more than the early parts of the movie (which was already kinda triggering me.) Long story short, they make it, the movie's amazing, and I couldn't sleep for a couple of nights because every time I closed my eyes I'd flash back to one of those dizzying views.
Tommy Caldwell, climbing while missing part of a finger
Another incredible climber, who also happens to be missing part of a finger

INSTANT DREAMS: And finally I ended the weekend on this odd, semi-experimental nostalgia piece to Polaroid. With digital photography taking over, in 2008 Polaroid announced it would stop manufacturing instant film cameras. The thing is, in the digital world Polaroid isn't even instant. You have to wait a minute. And you can't just delete the pictures that don't come out well. So it's an interesting bridge from the old film that took time to develop to the maybe too-instant digital world. Anyway, the film bounces from photographer to photographer, and also to a team of scientists, engineers, and inventors who are trying to recreate the Polaroid formula and bring back instant film. A fascinating, surreal experience. Either dream-like, or I was so exhausted that I was snoozing and what I remember was partially, literally dreams.
Pretty, pretty photography
Total Running Time: 433 minutes
My Total Minutes: 483,885

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 10

Okay, it's been good month and a half, I guess I should try to catch up on my blog. Note: the first three shows I wrote up shortly after seeing them. The last two from this post I'm writing much later. With that in mind, let's see if I can catch up.

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A big Saturday to kick off the second weekend of Docfest (again, I missed the first weekend for SilentFest)

The first show started with the short ESPANOMICS, a survey of various Latinas and their challenges coming to the United States and making a living (with hopefully enough left over to send home to their family.) It's about survivors, and the kind of survivors who redouble their efforts to help the next generation have it a little easier.

That was the perfect lead-in to ADIOS AMOR--THE SEARCH FOR MARIA MORENO. It starts out as director Laurie Coyle's story. She was a researcher for a documentary about Cesar Chavez, and kept coming across photographs of this woman organizer with several children beside her. She didn't recognize her, apparently this woman was a leading organizer, but had been mostly written out of history. So she did some digging, interviewed people who identified her as Maria Moreno, who was a leader in the Agricultural Worker's Organizing Committee. She was a pre-cursor to Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, and the reason's she isn't as well remembered (and she wasn't a part of their UFW movement) kind of boils down to internal politics. 

Anyway, after Coyle gets the basics, she is smart to pivot the film from the story of her search to the story of Maria. Her work, how she became something of a travelling spiritual leader after leaving union organizing (she never stopped working to improve people's lives,) her children and grandchildren. And her unfortunate passing in 1989. Much of the last half of the film is told by her children and grandchildren, and gives a beautiful portrait of a mother working to make sure her children didn't go hungry, and along the way decided the best way to do that was to make sure no children go hungry. It's also a fascinating story of how some very important people can still be lost to history, and their lessons lost with them. Thankfully, Maria's story is being recovered.
Maria Moreno, being the leader she was.

Next up was BEAUTIFUL THINGS, really more of an experimental art film than a documentary, it takes us through oil fields, household knick-knacks, big ocean freighters, anechoic chambers, and dumps where trash is burned for energy. With an eerie score and absolutely beautiful cinematography, it takes you on a certain kind of journey. A journey that I'm afraid I wasn't ready for, and definitely wasn't well-rested enough for. Yeah, I snoozed a little in this one. It's actually not a bad movie to catch a few winks in, since you won't miss any of the non-existent plot, and every time you open your eyes you'll be looking at something beautiful. 
Part of the movie that I snoozed through. There were more beautiful scenes, I promise
Then the next show started with a short, CAJUN DEMONOLOGIST. On Friday the 13th, a team of exorcists banish evil spirits from possessed people and haunted houses on the bayou. Needless to say, they don't find anything that can show up on a movie as evidence that demons and evil spirits are real.

That was the lead-in to RODENTS OF UNUSUAL SIZE, the documentary about nutria. Bias alert, I am a Kickstarter backer of the film, and loved seeing my name in the credits. More importantly, I'm very, very proud to be a Kickstarter backer of this awesome film. Nutria are giant 20 lb "swamp rats" and an invasive species. They were originally imported from Argentina in the 30s, as a cheap source of fur to help the local economy. They escaped and grew wild. Turns out with not many predators, the warm, swampy environment was ideal. And it wasn't a problem at first, it just mean all the locals could hunt wild nutria for their fur. Then, in the 80s, animal rights activists' war on fur caused the bottom to drop out of the fur market. It was no longer profitable to hunt nutria. So their population exploded. And they ate all the grassy vegetation--down to the roots. And the lack of those roots holding the soil together contributed to coastal erosion (how do you enjoy those unintended consequences, eco-warriors? The war on fur directly contributed to the erosion of the Louisiana gulf coast!) Now the state of Louisiana has put a bounty on nutria, they'll pay you to kill them. All you need to bring is the tail. Of course, if you want to use all of the animal, their fur is nice, and allegedly they taste like turkey dark meat. They're total vegetarians, so they have very clean, tasty meat. That is, if you can get over the fact that you're essentially eating a giant rat. I could do that, it's just really damn hard to find nutria meat over here.

Anyway, the movie gives you a ton of information, and introduces you to some wonderful people just trying to make a living with what the land gives them. And it's really darn funny and entertaining, too.
Thomas Gonzalez, with his haul. Worth $5 a tail.

Next up was POINT OF NO RETURN, the story of the Solar Impulse fuel-less flight around the world, and the huge team that made it possible. Especially Bertrand Piccard (the Enterprise Captain is allegedly named after one or more of his ancestors) and André Borschberg. It's tense, and emotional times. The plane is extremely fragile, and can only fly in good whether. The Pacific leg was the hardest, both technically and emotionally. They end up making an emergency landing in Japan, and  staying in Hawaii until the spring. Disagreement with the engineers and the adventurers are the central tension in the movie. And the part I was most anticipating--their stop at Moffett Field, where one of my friends who worked for NASA met them. However, that's not in the film, they only show the night landing and the small group there to meet them, not the meet-and-greet the next day with NASA employees. The technology is not practical for commercial flight yet, and a cynic could easily point to the carbon footprint of their support team. But they're not carrying passengers, they're carrying an idea. And an idea can grow and be expanded upon, until it is practical. Here's hoping something like that happens.
Solar Impulse, coming into San Francisco, piloted by Bertrand Piccard

And finally I ended the night with MEXMAN, a movie that starts off about an insanely creative guy and devolves into being about an insane guy. Germán Alonso is a star film student, brash, creative, overflowing with manic ideas. But there are obstacles, both technical and personal, and his big break at a feature film never really pans out. He does some amazing things with puppetry, and that seems like more of a personal creative outlet. But his big vision...well, it goes from how it's hard for him to work with other people, to how hard it is for anyone to work with him. I had thoughts about the confluence of insanity and creativity, but that's not really addressed in the film. Instead, by the end, I got the sense that the documentary crew was just tired of being around him. I know I was. He was, for the record, a little more tolerable during the Q&A.
Germán Alonso, acting crazy. The rest of the film, he wasn't acting
Total Running Time: 428 minutes
My Total Minutes: 483,452

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 9

Two more films on Friday, starting with ROLLER DREAMS, a look at the roller dancing scene on Venice beach from the late 70s all the way up to...whatever it is today. But focusing on the 70s and 80s, when it was good. When it was an oasis of freedom, and a way to have good fun and not get into trouble in the 'hood. A place where you could be yourself, learn some moves, and have a good time with good music. Oh yeah, and it was a black thing. Not the whitewashed version that made it to Hollywood, most famously in XANADU. On Venice beach itself, the stars were people of color, like Mad, the leader of the group. Or Sally Piano, the leading lady. Or Terrell, the kid. Or Superion Duval. Or Crazy Legs Larry Pitts and Buck Wild Jimmy Rich. These were all beautiful, vibrant personalities (a few of them were there for the screening, and the Q&A was awesome!) Unfortunately, with the 90s and gentrification came noise complaints (which were bullshit, it was really "too many black people having fun in public" complaints) and time restrictions. Eventually the cops realized that for the first time in decades, they needed that particular strip of pavement for emergency access to the beach. And their "fair" solution--move to a smaller, more secluded section where nobody will see them. It's ridiculous that something as innocent as roller skating became political, but that's the world we live in. I don't know how to end this on a positive note, because it is really a positive movie. It's just, even in the most positive stories, some parts of the world still suck.
Sally Piano showing off some moves
And then I stuck around for FREAKS AND GEEKS: THE DOCUMENTARY. I might have been the only person in the theater who hasn't seen the TV show, and it didn't really matter (although I want to binge it at my next opportunity...which won't be until after the festival is over.) Directed by Brent Hodge (PISTOL SHRIMPS, Docfest 2016) the documentary is about way more than the cult show that launched the careers of Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, James Franco and Linda Cardellini, Busy Phillips, John Francis Daley, and many more.) It's also about the risk-taking dramedy that would never be on network TV today, and probably shouldn't have been back in 1999. Nowadays, there would be all sorts of other outlets--cable channels, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc.--where a small, daring, quirky show would be a hit. And give some credit to NBC for giving it a shot--after all the other networks turned it down. Also give them plenty of scorn for cancelling it after less than a full season. And, in fact, give the documentary a hell of a lot of credit for interviewing the executive who made that decision. Because it wasn't a critical flop--it was a hit with the credits and a lot of executives really personally liked the show. It's easy to cancel something shitty with bad ratings. It's hard to cancel something that's good--and you know it's good--but it still has shitty ratings. But for the creators Judd Apatow and Paul Feig, success is the best revenge. Especially for Apatow, who has made it something of his own personal vendetta to make sure everyone on that show became a star, just to show NBC execs what they missed.
Great doc, about a show that I guess it's way past time for me to binge

Total Running Time: 154 minutes
My Total Minutes: 483,025

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 8

A night of music docs, which has always been an Indiefest/Docfest thing.

First up was a completely packed screening of GODFATHERS OF HARDCORE. A portrait of a seminal New York hardcore punk band, Agnostic Front. It's full of great archival footage, but the real treat is the modern stuff--interviews really getting to know the guys, and footage of the concerts they still do all the time. Vinnie Stigma is a total live wire. A vibrant, crazy personality who is full of stories from the old days and humorously rail against the gentrification of his neighborhood. The complete opposite is Roger Miret (who was there for the screening) who is a control freak, planning everything, and admits he doesn't know how to relax (and is the subject of a pretty drastic health scare.) The movie takes an engaging and interesting tour through their stage shows, their home lives, and their legacy. Although it's weird to talk about "legacy" when they're still rocking hard today, into their 60's.
Vintage footage of Agnostic Front, who are still rockin' today

Then the next show started with a way-too-long short, SAN FRANCISCO'S FIRST AND ONLY ROCK N' ROLL MOVIE: CRIME 1978. Vintage footage of a shitty local band in the 70s. I was bored, except by the comments of the venue's emcee (we learned afterward that those comments weren't originally between the songs, but at the end of the show, as he was trying to get everyone to leave.) There's a potentially great avant-garde movie to be made just out of the comments from that emcee, you just need to get rid of everything featuring the band (or as they like to advertise, the "banned.")
Crime--ironically dressed as police

And that was the lead-in to the way-too-long feature, ICEPICK TO THE MOON. It starts with the mythical Rev. Dr. Fred Lane, a "stripmine crooner" with dadaist roots. The swinging, jazzy music is the backing for the ridiculous lyrics. And his legend grew in large part due to his record covers, which included fictional covers of his "other" records (in fact, he only released 2.) The first 20-30 minutes of the documentary covers this urban legend aspect--is Fred Lane even real? Then it pretty unceremoniously answers it. His real name is Tim Reed, he lives in Tuscaloosa, he;s a dadaist artist from way back, and he now makes whirligigs and sells them at art fairs. And he's an all-around cool weirdo, as we find in this exhausting film, which takes us to the early days and his equally bizarre dadaist friends, who form the collective Raudelunas and explore pataphysical science. He's a fun guy, the whole group is fun. They just deserved a better documentary, one that was perhaps more judicious in the editing and less repetitive in their desire to use every bit of Fred Lane footage they could possibly find.
Fred Lane, being Fred Lane
Total Running Time: 234 minutes
My Total Minutes: 482,871

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 7

Two more shows on Wednesday, starting with Shorts 2: Women. Hooray for films about kick-ass women!
FEAR US WOMEN: Hanna Bohman, kicking ass by joining up with the YPJ, an all-female Kurdish army. Bonus, ISIS members believe that if a woman kills you, you automatically go to hell.
Hanna Bohman in Syria, killing ISIS
EXIT: Heidi and Sara, kicking ass by leaving the ultra-orthodox community and fighting for women's rights.
The orthodox community Heidi and Sara are exiting from
NELLIE BLY MAKES THE NEWS: Nellie Bly, kicking ass as a muck-racking undercover "stunt" journalist, starting with an exposé on the terrible conditions in a mental asylum, culminating in a race around the world (where she broke Phileas Fogg's fictional record of 80 days...and enjoyed tea with Jules Verne along the way.) From Vanguard award winner Penny Lane (NUTS! and THE PAIN OF OTHERS.)
An overview of Nellie Bly's work.
NO MORE:Two assault survivors, kicking ass by working on Doug Jones' campaign and defeating Roy Moore. Shot entirely on the day of the Alabama Senate special election, as they hustle to get out the vote, then watch tensely as results come in. I forgot how much of the night Moore was ahead until the later precincts came in.
Celebrating Doug Jones' victory (and more importantly, Roy Moore's defeat)


Then the late show started with the short SWEET LOVE. Alvin Bojar lives in a retirement community in Florida. His neighbors don't know that among his many former pursuits, he was a movie producer, and produced a cult soft-core porn comedy called Fongaluli. It's the wild story of a scientist who is trying to make inter-species love work, and the mysterious weed that turns animals into beautiful naked women. Surreal absurdity, as explained by a nice old man.
Alvin Bojar, in his retirement community--waiting.
And finally the feature THE BILL MURRAY STORIES: LIFE LESSONS FROM A MYTHICAL MAN. It seems every few weeks a different Bill Murray story pops up on the Internet. He showed up to a college dorm party and stayed to do the dishes afterward. He joined a kickball game for a while. He photo-bombed a newly wed couple. He sang karaoke, or tended bar, or played tambourine, or anything wacky and cool with regular folks. Director Tommy Avallone starts out a bit incredulous, and the movie starts as an exploration of whether these stories are really true. He meets a lot of people with stories, and they all swear they're true. That's cool. He then sets about trying to interview Bill Murray himself. Interestingly, Bill doesn't have an agent. He has a 1-800 number, that is a semi-carefully guarded secret, and you can call and leave a message. Eventually Bill will read it, but it's very unlikely he'll respond. Instead, he appears to love the spontaneous moments. The "Yes, and..." of his background in improv. There's arguably a zen approach to all of this, and the movie even explores how his movies play with this "live in the moment" philosophy. The film ends up being a portrait of a man who knows how to say "Yes, and..." to life. How to be lost and happy about it, meeting the locals and making--if just for a brief moment--a connection that people will remember and recount for the rest of their lives. Probably a greater gift than any of his movies. And one that we can actually all give each other. We actually don't need Bill Murray to do this.
The Man, the Myth, the all-around pretty good guy
Total Running Time: 186 minutes
My Total Minutes: 482,637

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 6

A couple more films Tuesday night, a night of politics and social justice.

COMPLICIT is the story of migrant workers in China, leaving their impoverished country farms looking for a better life in the factories of the big cities. Instead they find unsafe working conditions, toxic chemicals, leukemia, nervous system damage, and death. But hey, at least we get cheap cell phones, right? Or...at least Apple gets to make more profit on their cell phones, right?

Okay, there wasn't much in this film that I didn't kinda know already. Some of the dirty shenanigans I didn't know all the details, like technically none of Apple's or Samsung's suppliers use the offending toxic chemicals--but of course their subcontractors do (Apple and Samsung, of course, could take responsibility for their entire supply chain, not just the first tier.) Mostly it's putting a human face on the suffering that has a strong impact. But the film does get kind of repetitive (confession, I dozed off for a bit, but was assured by my friends that I didn't miss much. And, for what it's worth, it's not just a Chinese problem, there's exposure to toxic chemicals in the U.S., too. (I happen to know way too much about some E&HS issues at a certain...let's leave it unnamed, but say it's a State University right here in San Francisco)

Most importantly, right after the movie I got right onto my smart phone and Googled ethically sourced cell phones. The top of the list, Fairphone, is so far only available in Europe. But I also found a handy ethical comparison guide that revealed my phone--the Google Pixel--to be the absolute worst. Worse than the iPhone or Samsung. Way to not be evil, Google motherfuckers!
A migrant worker, who didn't get the better life she was looking for

And then the next program started with a short, THE END OF WEED. A meditation from a simple country farmer, about his worries that his simple business won't be able to survive as the big companies move in and turn "growin' weed" into "cannabusiness."

That was the lead-in to the feature, MY COUNTRY NO MORE. This explores the oil boom in North Dakota from the point of view of locals--focusing on the Rider family--who are concerned about the refinery that the oil companies want to put right in town, next to the train tracks. Not cool, since they've lived of the land there for their entire lives, and have a strong connection to the landscape. It's a lyrical story of activism, preservation, and land use zoning laws. The oil boom, powered by fracking, has undoubtedly been an economic miracle for North Dakota. But there are multiple layers of importance at play here, and the environmental, social, and possible even existential layers are at odds with the financial benefits of unchecked "progress." This is captured in personal stories and breathtaking, beautiful cinematography.
Kalie Rider, trying to keep an oil refinery out of her neighborhood. In one of about a thousand beautifully composed shots in this film.
Total Running Time: 176 minutes
My Total Minutes: 482,451

Jason his to Docfest--Day 5

I of course missed days 2 through 4 with the silent film extravaganza, but now I'm at Docfest full time until the end. Here's last Monday

I started with COBBY: THE OTHER SIDE OF CUTE. Director Donna McRae makes herself a very personal character in this story, as it starts with her memories of being a lonely single child in Adelaide, Australia, and watching a funny black-and-white chimp show every day after school. Cobby's Hobbies, and it's silly theme song, was her constant friend, and has come back into her memory decades later. She interviews friends who also grew up in Adelaide, and there's a recurring theme of the show being very popular among lonely single children. So she sets off trying to find more about the show, and about its star. Well, although she comes across as hopelessly naive, the movie unsurprisingly exposes a lot of the dark side of animal performers--starting from the moment as babies when their parents are killed and they're raised in captivity. She interviews people who worked on the show, zookeepers, and animal rights activists. Everyone seems to have stories about animals that suffered at the hands of humans. In fact, most of the cute animal entertainers ended up as laboratory animals, suffering even more inhumane treatment. Cobby, however, avoided that. In fact, he's living in the San Francisco Zoo to this day, one of the oldest chimpanzees in captivity. Sure, he doesn't have his freedom--and he wouldn't be able to survive in the wild--but he has the most comfortable captivity possible.
Cobby during his show business days. 
Cobby enjoying his retirement. He seems much happier now. Image courtesy of http://savesfzoochimps.blogspot.com

And then next up was SICKIES MAKING FILMS. Coming from the Silent Film Festival, this was kind of a cool way to transition from old films to today's films. It's an abbreviated history of the films, focusing on the issue of censorship--exclusively censorship in America, and focusing on the last censorship board that existed in Maryland. Of course, that board, led by Mary Avara, was John Waters' infamous nemesis, and one he gleefully mocked in his movies. He's also highly featured in this film, where he's a little more mature and nuanced, and actually speaks with pity for the board. But I was more interested in the earlier history, where there are tidbits about early censorship (actually, going back to Roman times where the "censor" was the one running the census, who determined if individuals were decent enough to be considered Citizens.) Police were initially given powers to enforce local community standards (leading to some films, in some places, being censored for for mocking the police.) Then rulings that censors could only go after obscenity, not political or plot content (you wonder why sexual content get stricter ratings than violence--this is part of it.) Then talkies, and the added complication of censoring words, not just images. Then, of course, the Hays code, eventually replaced with the MPAA rating system. But still, a few censorship boards--especially Maryland's--stuck around way past their point of usefulness (a separate debate of whether they were ever useful is...interesting.) Anyway, it was a fun film, and a great way to bring my mind from the movies of 100 years ago up to today.
Censors censoring. Fuck 'em
Total Running Time: 169 minutes
My Total Minutes: 482,275