Docfest has added a lot of new venues this year. Sunday I was at the Balboa, and last night I was at the Aquarius in Palo Alto, which is pretty close to my work (the Cinearts Palo Alto Square would be even closer--walking distance even--but this is close enough.) for three movies.
First up was WILLIAM AND THE WINDMILL, the story of William Kamkwamba. William lives in a small village in Malawi. Years back there was a drought and his family couldn't pay for both food and his education, so he was devastated to be pulled out of school. But he educated himself, reading books in the library. And when he came across a book on energy, he got inspired to build his own windmill to provide electricity to his home. It's a charmingly crude contraption that totally works, and got him his own TED talk. The movie sort of picks up from there, as his fame grows and he's invited to share his story all over the world. The focus is on his friend and mentor Tom Rielly, who expresses some White Guilt about the history of white people coming to Africa and "helping" for about a year before they move on to some other cause. So he promises William 7 years of his life, and shepherds him into America, through writing a book, through the book tour and several talks, through his intense 2-year program in the African Leadership Academy, through the work of building a school in his village (powered, of course, by a windmill) and even into enrolling at Dartmouth (that's kind of where the movie ends, although of course there's bound to be more to his story over the years.) Through it all, Tom comes of as a worried but proud paternal figure (the talk about drinking at school is particularly funny and touching,) and William is a charming guy with a wonderful smile who is a little overwhelmed by everything that's happening. He comes of as shy and humble quite a lot (even humble about saying he's humble--if people say he's humble I guess he's humble.) Even when he views an exhibit about him at a science museum, he can only smile and laugh shyly, he can't talk about how he feels. It all makes him even more likable and amazing, and time will only tell how far he can go with changing the world for the better.
Then I saw a short and feature about animals and their unique relationships with humans. First up the 9 minute short PULLING TEETH. John Baker, equestrian dentist, has never sedated a horse to work on its teeth. FYI, that's incredibly unusual. Instead he communicates with them, understands them, works with them. Although I don't recall them using the term "horse whisperer" the similarity is obvious. He's the horse whisperer of dentists, and a really cool guy.
And then the feature, LIFE WITH ALEX. A little birdie told me this is the most amazing thing I've seen in the festival (so far.) Dr. Irene Pepperberg was interested in the studies of animals using language--chimps using sign language, dolphins communicating, etc. But she realized no one was studying birds, and birds (at least parrots) can actually talk! So she bought Alex at a pet store, and over a 30 year study completely changed the way we understand intelligence. He learned his numbers (at least up to 6.) He learned shapes (in terms of Number + "corner," so instead of "triangle" he would say "three corner.") He learned colors (although parrots see in the ultra-violet, so yellow, orange and red he called "orange.") He learned foods like "nut," "wheat," "banana," "cherry," and "banerry." Wait, what's that last one? When trying to teach him "apple" he kept calling it "banerry" which a linguist pointed out was his way of combining the ideas of "banana" and "cherry." That's not the first mind-blowing bit in here--just wait until he demonstrates not only a concept of numbers, but the concept of "none." But this movie isn't just about Alex. It's also about Dr. Pepperberg and her lab, the struggles they've had with funding, with publishing, with getting anyone to take them seriously. There was a time in her research that the whole field of animal communication fell out of favor, and the Clever Hans Effect hypothesis ruled the conventional wisdom. It's also about the birds they added to their studies, Griffin and Wart (full name Arthur, but everyone called him Wart.) And it's about the beautiful relationship between Dr. Pepperberg and Alex. Spoiler Alert (available to anyone with Google): Alex has passed away, and the scene about that is one of the most beautiful and touching things I've ever seen on screen. For more information, check out the Alex Foundation or read The Alex Studies.
Then there was a bit of a break between movies, so I went next door to The Patio for a beer...and a bite to eat...and two more beers.
Then the movie, BILL W. is the story of the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (Ha! See what I did there? I got drunk before watching a movie about AA! No, I guess it's not very funny....) Anyway, the movie is very well done, and was appropriately programmed for both Palo Alto and San Francisco on the date that AA was founded. The film is breezy and fast moving for a 1 hour, 45 minute running length, and uses recordings, pictures, and reenactments to tell his life story pretty exhaustively. And more than anything, it's a very sad story. A story of failure after failure (both in business and in staying sober) with one emphatic success--the twelve principles of AA, which brought together the physical, spiritual (though not specific to any religion) and emotional aspects of treating the disease of alcoholism. But even after that success, there was still more failure. He became the focus of a cult of personality. He could no longer go to meetings as an alcoholic, he had to be there as the founder. Ironically, he was the one person who couldn't be anonymous in AA. Then there were his experiments with using LSD to treat alcoholism (the premise was that he had a religious "flash" that set him on his right path, and LSD could trigger a similar flash in others.) In a way, the two best things that ever happened to AA--and hence to recovering alcoholics--was Bill Wilson (oops, spoiler alert!) founding the organization and Bill Wilson passing away so it could finally be about the anonymous alcoholics instead of about him.
Oh, and I won't get into the episode of Bill asking for whiskey on his deathbed. I'm not sure if the movie got into that, because I kinda dozed off at the end. Maybe that third beer was a bit too much.
Anyway, three more movies tonight, including my most anticipated film, Cullen Hoback's TERMS AND CONDITIONS MAY APPLY.
Total Running Time: 256 minutes
My Total Minutes: 330,041