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Sunday June 21, 2009

After 2 heavy emotional, albeit outstanding, films to start the day yesterday, it was a welcome relief to have my mood lightened to start this one. Besides the cinema, my other two passions in life are music and sports. So, it really made sense that the combination of the two would appeal to me in a big way. I found that combination in professional figure skating-where artistry and skill are performed to all styles of music. I first found myself naturally drawn in to Olympic competition. Then for years I attended The World Professional Figure Skating Championships outside of D.C. As a result of the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan knee whacking fiasco in 1994, my interest in the sport waned considerably where now I've limited my interest only during the Olympics where it all began. Since I haven't been following the sport closely for years, I'm not clued into the current crop of skaters like I used to be. Would this detract from the next film? As it turns out, no, because "Pop Star On Ice" (*** 1/2-85 minute), a portrait of one of the skating world's more memorable characters, Johnny Weir, doesn't demand familiarity or even a love of the sport. What it successfully does is introduce you to the rigors of what it takes to compete in a sport where individuality can work against you in such a subjective atmosphere of competitive skating. Ironically, Weir's interest in ice-skating began the year I got turned off to it, in 1994 when Oksana Baiul won in Lillehammer. The film is as much about him as it is about his long-term coach Priscilla Hill (which may not be a good thing as you see her play up to the cameras way too often for my liking) and you see the ups and downs the demanding training & competition has on their relationship. But it also gives one a ring-side seat, an up-close-and-personal look into the 3 time U.S. Champion, who is as much an enigma as he is talented. A flamboyant soul who is as much a pop star (hence the title) as athlete, the film is a hoot as you follow his career from its inception through early 2008, both on and off the ice. His best bud Paris is around (the scene of him being "interviewed" by Paris in a bubble bath is typical of his carefree spirit) to offer support and companionship through all the trials and tribulations. We soon see that, despite all the obvious talent, it is constantly being sabotaged by Weir himself-be it a lack of focus, the inability to devote the necessary effort to sufficiently train, or his failure to eliminate all of the outside distractions. Being his own person means being his own worst enemy and next year's Olympics will probably be his last chance to win it. The movie is fast paced and amusingly entertaining and informative for most of its 85 minutes. The film will air on The Sundance Channel on December 28th, followed by a 8-part reality series ("Johnny Be Good") which begins where "Pop Star On Ice" ends and will lead up to the Olympics including a post-Olympic episode.

Next was one of the strangest but also one of the most fascinating works I've ever seen: "The Windmill Movie" (****-80 minutes). Richard P. Rogers was a Harvard professor who made independent & nonfiction films for the Smithsonian Institute and PBS. He also documented his own life for over 25 years with the hope of someday, somehow making sense of his Hampton Waspish upbringing by editing the more than 200 hours of footage to produce a self-portrait. Unfortunately, Rogers succumbed to cancer in 2001 at the age of 57, leaving the enormous editing task to his former student and friend, freshman director Alexander Olch and Roger's wife, noted photographer Susan Meiselas. The film makes no mention of Roger’s accomplishments but instead is a mosaic that focuses on his insecurities, his womanizing, and his dislike for the social class in which he was raised. Add in a history of family mental illness, and extraordinary video of his larger than life mom (you won’t stop thinking that Edith Beale from “Gray Gardens” might be her best friend) and this is one film that will stay with you. Less successful is the inclusion of Roger’s friend Wallace Shawn who acts as an occasional stand-in. However, Olch successfully supplies his own written narration over some of the visuals. Overall, this is a captivating work of a conflicted man that is relentless in portraying him as a success in just about everything except in reconciling his own inner demons. The film has already opened in limited release.

Watching the world premier of "Dancing with the Devil" (***-101 minutes), made by Oscar (1996's "Anne Frank Remembered"), Emmy, and BAFTA award winning director and producer Jon Blair, I kept wondering why some directors would risk their life to bring a story such as this to the big screen. Blair takes us into the favelas of Rio de Janeiro as we observe one of the bloodiest urban conflicts on the planet where constant battles are being waged between the drug lords, who actually control these large slum areas of the city, and the police. Blair somehow gets unmasked drug traffickers to openly talk about the illegal activities they promote and about the police, some of whom are just as corrupt. The police win occasional battles (some of which were filmed by one brave film crew!) but are clearly losing this war. The film mainly focuses on 3 individuals: inspector Leonardo Torres, one of Rio’s drug squad good guys who is determined to clean up the hell around him; drug lord Juarez “SpidermanMendes da Silva who has vowed to quit his position and to ultimately serve God-someday; and, the most intriguing personality, drug trafficker-turned-minister, Pastor Dione “Johnny” dos Santos, who walks unscathed though the violence as he constantly preaches the gospel to these low-lifes, trying fervently to convert them. I felt a little too much time was spent following Pastor Johnny preaching and moralizing to the inhabitants. But, overall, this was an amazing piece of harrowing filmmaking. At the Q&A the director updated the doc stating that several of the drug lords depicted have been killed since the filming ended-including Spiderman who never took that opportunity to lead a more peaceful life.

It was time to go from the brutal world of drug wars into the brutal world of plastic surgery. “Youth Knows No Pain” (***-88 minutes) by award winning director Mitch McCabe, explores our society's obsessiveness with staying youthful while grappling with her own decision to go under the knife. Part of the film focuses on her late father, a noted old school plastic surgeon who tragically died in a car accident in 1998, four years before botox was approved by the FDA and before the explosion of, what is now, the $60 billion anti-aging industry. Much of this coverage includes a lot of home movie footage shot before his death. Part of it also focuses on several personalities she uncovered in her journey to cover a topic that, at times, goes beyond mere vanity issues. Take 50ish Dallas resident, Sherry Mecom. We see her throughout the doc showing off her latest enhancements and corrections, all the while talking so openly that you’ll feel as if you’re a fly on the wall in a shrink’s office. Or Norman Deesing, whose visage has so surgically become the spitting image of Jack Nicholsen that we see him, giving out “his” autograph. Or Houston plastic surgeon Dr. Franklin Rose which includes several scenes with his model daughter Erica-who we learn is not surgically enhanced. Interspersed are animated explanations of several of the surgeries and a brief, but graphic, you-are-there, virtually unwatchable, live hair transplant procedure. She even covers the sham of overly priced cosmetics that make claims that have never been proven. But all of this is used to document her personal uncertainty to finally go for it in the end. This is a light generally amusing take on the topic and, although you probably won’t learn anything new, the ride is certainly worthwhile. The HBO Documentary will air on the network on August 31.

Last up was the east coast premier of “October Country” (*** ½-80 minutes), a no holds barred, blood and guts peak into one incredibly dysfunctional family in upper state N.Y. Directed by first-time filmmakers Michael Palmieri, who cut his chops working with cartoonist Gary Trudeau and who directed a multitude of music videos, and Donal Mosher, whose family is the focus of the proceedings, we are introduced to 4 generations of this working-class family. And what a family it is! There is mom Dottie who is married to Vietnam Vet Don who clearly suffers from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. Her daughter, Donna, has endured a couple of abusive relationships. Then there are Donna’s 2 daughters: Daneal, a teenager with a baby, Ruby, whose father, Daneal’s ex-husband, is a wife abuser himself; and preteen Desi, whose father is in prison. So it becomes very clear early-on that the Mosher women have trouble picking suitable mates, to say the least. Is this something being passed on generation after generation? Is it a learned behavior? Or, is it just bad luck or lack of choices in their community? Whatever the reason(s), there is room for hope in this quagmire of human dysfunction in the presence of Desi who seems to “get it” and maturely and intelligently comments way beyond her years throughout the film on the craziness around her. As if these characters weren’t enough, we are then introduced to Denise, Don’s estranged sister who, besides being a total loner, is a practicing witch who likes to hang out in a cemetery with her ghost friends! Add in a foster child (!) who is a practicing kleptomaniac, and you would think this was a narrative from a bad grade C movie. Beginning on Halloween (a fitting holiday for these folks) and ending a year later on the same celebration, the film is incredibly intimate-helped immeasurably, I’m certain, by the behind the camera presence of the outsider Mosher (he is never referred to and doesn’t appears on-camera) who somehow escaped the drama encircling this family by leaving & living his life on the West Coast far away from his roots. A powerful account that, sadly, may just be a microcosm of too many such families in America.

Johnny "Pop Star on Ice" Weir

Scene from "Pop Star On Ice"

Dirs/Prods David Barba & James Pellerito ("Pop Star On Ice")

Richard P. Rogers-subject of "The Windmill Movie"

Dir./Prod. Jon Blair
("Dancing With the Devil")

Dir. Mitch McCabe
("Youth Knows No Pain")

Dirs./Prods. Donal Mosher &
Michael Palmieri ("October Country")

7th SILVERDOCS-Day 6-Awards & Closing Night film

Saturday June 20, 2009

First up today was a film dealing with a different twist on the Katrina tragedy. There have been several outstanding docs on the subject, the Academy Award nominated Trouble The Water being one that is probably leading the pack. However, rookie director Geralyn Peranoski, who actually fostered a Katrina dog, has made a truly unforgettable and moving examination about the reuniting of the staggering number of pets (over 15,000) that were lost or abandoned (some forced to do so by local authorities) by their New Orleans owners who themselves were struggling to evacuate & survive the hurricane. The East Coast premier of "Mine" (****-83 minutes) investigates this little discussed aspect of the disaster from 3 different perspectives: those who left their pets behind, those nationwide folks and organizations who rescued those pets, and those people across the country who fostered and/or adopted them. It was a massive humanitarian effort when non-residents entered the city to rescue the myriad of animals that were left behind. When the pet owners came back to New Orleans, they, of course wanted to find their pets. However, to achieve that involved an incredible amount of legwork, not to mention luck, from people who mainly devoted their time and energy to reunite pet with owner. The film concentrates on 5 residents whose lives were devastated by Katrina-only to endure further heartbreak trying to locate, then re-obtain, their precious companions. It seems that, in some cases, the pets are actually found, but their new adoptive owners refuse to return them to the original owners-having emotionally bonded to their new pets which they have taken care of, in some cases, for years. I found myself yearning for the reunion, yet, I understand the trauma the new "owners" had to endure if they returned the pets, and the pathos I now felt for them. The incredibly moving Q & A featured one of the subjects of the film, New Orleans resident Jessie Pullins as well as Gerolyn and local producer Erin Essenmacher. Where the prologue related what had happened to Jessie's quest to obtain his beloved dog J.J., Jessie was there to update the story in a big way positive way-to a standing ovation from the audience. The filmmakers are currently working on a distribution deal. Be certain to bring a hanky or two!

I was able to slip into The Awards ceremony between films and here were the announced results:
OCTOBER COUNTRY Wins Sterling US Feature Award
MUGABE AND THE WHITE AFRICAN Wins Sterling World Feature Award
12 NOTES DOWN Wins Sterling Short Award
Special Jury Mention went to SALT
Music Documentary Award Goes to RISEUP
Special Jury OMention went to SOUL POWER
OLD PARTNER Wins The Cinematic Vision Award
Writers Guild of America Documentary Screenplay Award to OFF AND RUNNING
ACE Grant Winner is CINEMA CHIMP
Short Audience Award Goes to 12 NOTES DOWN
(Feature Audience Award Goes to THE COVE and was announced Sunday night)

I was really anticipating the next film which took home this year's Sundance Audience Award. If I thought "Mine" was an emotional trip, it was nothing compared to the next film. Director Louie Psihoyos' "The Cove" (****-94 minutes) is not only a terrific documentary, it is one of the most important investigative pieces you will ever see. Rolling Stone called it a cross between Flipper & "The Bourne Identity". I'd say between Flipper and "Mission Impossible" is a closer description of this masterful work. Psihoyos is one of the world's top photographers, working 18 years for National Geographic and shooting covers for the world's top magazines. Along with his partner, Jim Clark, he founded The Oceanic Preservation Society which is dedicated to protecting one of our most precious resources: the oceans. A few years ago, my sis turned me onto an award winning independent film entitled "Lolita: Slave to Entertainment" focusing on the abuse of killer whales at Marine Parks. "The Cove" begins by touching on a similar situation involving creatures that some say are as intelligent, if not more so, than humans: dolphins. We meet Ric O'Barry who for 3 years in the '60's naively trained the 5 TV Flippers which started the multibillion-dollar aquatic industry. He quit this job when the #1 Dolphin, Cathy, in a fit of depression, committed suicide in his arms by closing its air hole. From that point on, Rick began a life-long crusade to free captive dolphins. We meet him at the film's start traveling incognito around Taiji, Japan. The Japanese, you see, are onto him, as they are trying to hide from the world their slaughter of thousands of dolphins each year off the coast of Japan while selling the prize catch to aquatic parks for up to $250,000 each. And with the mercury content in dolphins climbing, their human consumption appears to be incredibly dangerous. So what better way for them to make even more money by labeling it as whale meat and selling it to Japanese schools. In pursuit of exposing this insanity to the world, O'Barry recruits a team of aquatic professionals: underwater sound and camera pros, special effects artists from Industrial Light & Magic, marine explorers, and environmental activists-all trying to document the tragedy for the entire world to see. The last half hour of the film will rival any suspenseful action narrative Hollywood could ever produce! And the result will have you on the edge of your seat while you witness one of the greatest crimes man has ever perpetrated against nature. The cinematography and score is as stunning as the horror on screen. The film should elicit a positive proactive response from most everyone who screens this masterpiece. "The Cove" is having a limited release on July 31st by Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate.

The closing night film was one that particularly hit home to the attending locals: the world premiere of "The Nine Lives of Marion Barry" (** 1/2-78 minutes). The doc by noted directors/producers Dana Flor & Toby Oppenheimer attempts to cover why the 73 year-old controversial political figure, to this day, continues to draw support and garner votes time and time again from the D.C. electorate-despite a career marred by a drug bust (he was given 6 months in jail) & tax evasion conviction. You see his political life rise from being a D.C civil rights activist and defender of the poor (author and journalist Harry Jaffe stated he had the potential to be Martin Luther King Jr.'s successor) to his election as mayor, only to be disgraced, and then elected mayor again. Finally, backed by the majority of the residents of D.C.'s Ward 8, he becomes elected to the City Council in 2004-in a landslide, no less! His 40 year political career is a real head-scratcher to any outsider but makes sense within the context of the political climate in a city with a black majority. The filmmakers, structured the film with numerous flashbacks from the scenes that show him campaigning in 2004. Although the doc is slickly produced and edited, little light is shed on just how this morally corrupt dude has continued to politically exist other than vague references to his own poor Mississippi background and how he might relate to the people who voted for him. Instead this is a rehash (it almost seems as if it was made to put him in the best possible light) of information that is old news for anyone who lives in the area. The panel discussion afterwards was as lame as the film in which the panel (consisting of the filmmakers, Civil Rights activist Lawrence Gyot, activist Dorothy Brizill, NBC DC Channel 4 Newsreporter Tom Sherwood, & NPR news analyst Juan Williams) seemed intent on putting out a positive spin on Mr. Barry and his influence on the D.C. populace (maybe because he was in the audience). When he was finally introduced, Barry received a standing ovation (much different from the reception he received outside prior to the screening when you could hear shouts of "shame, shame!" upon his arrival) and then spoke briefly about the media and the ups and downs of his life. The documentary will be shown on HBO on August 10th.

"Mine" Q&A with (from l to r) Jessie Pullins,
dir Gerolyn Pezanoski & prod. Erin Essenmacher

Jessie & J.J. on the big screen

Prod. Goh Young-joe &

Dir. Lee Chung-ryoul accept

the Cinematic Vision Award

for "Old Partner"

Avery Klein-Cloud (subject of "Off and Running")
& dir. Nicole Opper accept theWriters Guild
of America Documentary Screenplay Award

Dir./prod London Van Soest & prod. Jeremy Levine
accept The Witness Award for Good Fortune"

Dir. Louie Psihoyas ("The Cove")

Marion Barry before the screening
of the closing night film
"The Nine Lives of Marion Barry"

Dirs./prods. Toby Oppenheimer & Dana Flor
("The Nine Lives of Marion Barry")

Panel discussion after "The Nine Lives of Marion Barry"
with (from l to r) filmmakers
Toby Oppenheimer &
& Dana Flor, Civil Rights activist Lawrence Gyot,

activist Dorothy Brizill, NBC DC Channel 4 News
reporter Tom Sherwood, & NPR news analyst
Juan Williams

(from l to r)"Off and Running" dir Nicole Opper with
subject of film Avery Klein-Cloud & boyfriend Prince
doing a Q & A after the screening

Marion Barry at the Closing Night after-party outside Jackie's
Restaurant where the go-go band Trouble Funk performed


Friday June 19, 2009

There always seem to be stories in the news about the lengths people take to try and find a cure for an illness when conventional medicine fails. "The Horse Boy" (***-94 minutes), based on Rupert's book, is one of those stories-and the illness is autism. The parents of autistic child Rowin are Rupert and Kristin Isaacson who are an engaging couple, he from Liverpool, she from Texas where the couple met and married. Their 2 1/2 year old son was first diagnosed with the mysterious ailment which the medical community has no consensus as to cause and treatment. They sought out all of the available resources but saw no sustaining progress. Currently he was a social worker who had professionally trained horses while Kristin was a psychology professor. Rupert had also written about the African Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert and he had witnessed several shamanic ceremonies. When he saw how Rowan had calmly taken to Rupert's horses and how much joy he exhibited when riding horseback, he got the idea that maybe a trip to Mongolia to seek out a shaman or 2 might be the key to unlocking the autistic mystery and help cure his now 5- year-old son-something conventional doctor's in the States couldn't accomplish. To his classically schooled wife this idea seemed preposterous. It took a ton of convincing on Rupert's part but off they went with fellow Texan and novice film maker Michel Orion Scott to record the 4-week journey. And what a journey it was! The film shows progress and setbacks everyone encountered along the way and, in the end, there, indeed, seemed to be major changes in Rowin. Questions are raised such as whether these positive changes were due to the spiritual healings of Shaman, the affects of undertaking such incredible journey never experienced by the child, his interactions with children along the way. Combinations of these or other reasons, or were they just imaginary short-term results? Whatever the reason or reasons, the visual and spiritual journey is amazing and well worth the trip. The stunning cinematography is utterly captivating as most viewers will enter a world far removed from their usual habitat & experience. At the Q & A the film maker stated that Rowin is making progress but still suffers from the malady. However, but both parents believe that the trip was life-changing for all involved. The film has been picked up by Zeitgeist Films with a September 11th limited U.S. release date.

Most prison documentaries tend to be on the downer side whether it involves prison conditions, wrongfully accused convicts, rightly accused convicts, whatever. The title of this doc had me intrigued. Who knew that there was a prison rodeo contest held each year in Oklahoma? Not only that, but it included woman competitors?! Welcome to the east coast premiere of "Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo" (*** -90 minutes) where you are introduced to the annual competition (it's been around since the 40's) held at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester where prisoners from 12 facilities compete in the world's only "behind the walls rodeo". Veteran filmmaker Bradley Beesly ("Okie Noodling") focuses on The Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center which is a minimum security women's institution where several women are preparing for the 2007 competition. This is the 2nd year women have been allowed to compete. And, folks, these aren't professionally trained riders, to say the least. The film focuses on several of the female contestants and one male, Danny Liles, who happens to be coming up for parole for the first time in 25 years. There are the requisite profiles of a couple of the women competitors and there is added drama when the best member of the team is not allowed to compete right before the competition after she breaks a prison rule for wearing makeup. For the most part, though, the film is breezy and fun in a "convicts are people too" kind of way, with an appropriate twangy score underlying the action. The film has been picked up by HBO and will be shown by their CINEMAX channel in September.

We go from inside Oklahoma prison walls to the inside walls of the fashion industry with award winning producer/director R.J. Cutler's "The September Issue" (***-90 minutes). This is mainly a portrait of Anna Wintour, the editor of "Vogue", who is one of the most powerful, influential, and elusive figures in the fashion world, as she prepares for the year's most important edition that is literally 9 months in the making. Cutler was given unprecedented access to Wintour and her staff for the doc that allows one to witness what it really takes to produce an issue of high fashion that is hundreds of pages in length and nearly 5 pounds in weight. Wintour is credited for pumping new life in her mag when she opted for putting celebrities on the cover-something unheard of previously. Most people got a glimpse of her earlier this year via a CBS "60 Minutes" feature, but it is this film that allows us to see her in action-a rare event afforded to a film crew. Included are scenes of Wintour at home with her daughter (who wants nothing to do with pursuing a career in the fashion industry). However, the real joy for me was the presence and influence of 14 year "Vogue" creative director and visionary Grace Coddington, who is constantly at odds with Wintour. Each respects the other, yet, there is an underlying tension as to what should ultimately appear in the issue-of which Wintour always has the final say. Grace, a former 60's model and the junior fashion editor of London "Vogue", who survived a horrible automobile crash in her 20's, has as much influence and artistic vision (if not more) as her editor. In the end I was craving to know more and more of the personable and talented Grace instead of the dour Wintour. However, Cutler chose to concentrate mainly on what it took to create the issue that featured Sienna Miller on its cover. A kind of fluff piece that skims the surface of its subject, "The September Issue" does deliver entertainment-I just wanted to know more about the personalities involved-especially Grace. A fabulous discussion and Q & A with Cutler was moderated by Pulitzer Prize-wining fashion writer Robin Givhan. Roadside Attractions is releasing the film in theaters on August 28th.

Dir. Michel Orion Scott
("The Horse Boy")

Prod. Amy Dobson
of the Prison Rodeo")

Dir. R. J. Cutler ("The September Issue") & moderator
Pulitzer Prize- winning fashion writer Robin Givhan


Thursday June 18, 2009

Continuing the festival's honoring of Albert Maysles work is the screening of 2 of his most critically acclaimed docs. The first one, "Salesman" (*** 1/2-91 minutes), was considered a landmark "Direct Cinema" documentary in 1968. The film follows 4 door-to-door bible salesmen (Paul "The Badger" Brennan, Charles "The Gipper" McDevitt, James "The Rabbit" Baker, and Raymond "The Bull" Martos) who, with leads provided by the local church, try to convince their low-income Catholic "targets" to fork over $50 to buy, what they proclaimed, "is still the best seller in the world." No narration is provided-just the voyeuristic images as it follows these 4 on their various rounds in Boston, Chicago, and Miami households. You observe these 4 salesmen trying every means possible to convince these poor soles that their lives wouldn't be the same without it. The sleaziness is emphasized even more as you listen to them in hotel rooms describing the people they encountered. At the same time, you sense their loneliness and despair in doing a job that many have experienced in some form or another-be it the selling end or the receiving end. When I was about 13 years old, my brother-in-law hired me to sell magazines door-to-door with a "free" dictionary" as bait. I did it for a couple of months in the middle of winter and I still remember how depressing it was to walk into a stranger's home and try to do what these guys did for a living year after year. You will be reminded of "Death of a Salesman" or even the great David Mamet's play "Glengarry Glen Ross" as you watch these dudes in action. It is admirable that no judgments are imparted by the Maysles. Their camera merely allows the viewer to make up their mind as to whether this American Dream is really a nightmare. The audience was then treated to a fabulous interview with Albert conducted by Festival Director Skye Sitney followed by a Q & A with the audience. For nearly a half-hour we were treated to an intimate look into the creative process used by the acclaimed filmmaker. Albert revealed that the key to their work is that they really like people and to get very close to their hearts and minds they have to be trusted by their subjects. Also, he likes to think that "it all begins with (their subjects) catching something in our eyes that reveals a kind of fairness and a fondness that is going to develop." Albert also related how they wanted to create the first non-fiction documentary in the vein of Capote's non-fiction novel. The idea for "Salesman" was actually suggested by Truman's editor, Joseph Fox after a lunch meeting with David Maysles. The idea hit home with Albert who had done door-to-door selling Fuller Brushes and encyclopedias while going to college, saying he felt that making a film works best if you have a personal connection to the subject. He recounted that at a screening he noticed an attractive lady crying and he nudged David and said "She's for me". And that was how he met his wife. Also, after 40 years, Albert said he is still friends and is in touch with the 4 Irish bible salesmen, as well as most of his subjects-including filming Yoko's 70th birthday party as a present. Also interesting was that Philip Seymour Hoffman told him that Philip had seen their short "With Love from Truman" many times and told Albert he had a good model on which to follow. During the discussion, he revealed that his latest project involves interviewing pairs of precocious children ages 4-6.

Next it was time to take in one of the 6 short programs, collectively entitled "Lost and Found". The program included the North American premier of the Polish short "Left Behind" (** 1/2-13 minutes). Fabian Daub & Andreas Grafenstein recounted the plight of 2 occupants of a small town in Poland who lost their jobs when the coal mines were closed. In order to survive, they continue to do the only thing they know: surreptitiously mine coal and sell it on the black market. All the while, the local police are continuously trying to stop them. On a much lighter note, the east coast premier of the 3 minute "Pockets" (***) by UK's James Lees, shows Londoners revealing the stuff they have in their, well, pockets. You wouldn't believe what some folks carry around-or, then again, maybe you would. Back to Poland for Academy Award nominated (for 1994's "89 MM FROM EUROPE") Marcel Lozinski's international premier of "Poste Restante" (***-15 minutes) which shows what happens with undeliverable letters such as letters addressed to Santa, God, deceased relatives, etc. Pablo Alvarez-Mesa's U.S. premier of "Presidio Modelo" (***-15 minutes) takes us inside and around the Cuban prison at Isla del Pinos built by Dictator Gerardo Machado in 1926. Famous for housing Fidel Castro, the poetic somber narration overlays the stark visuals of the long-abandoned fortress. UK's Eva Weber's "Steel Homes" (*** 1/2-10 minutes) fixes its gaze upon a cold self-storage facility that contains the warm memories of the stuff belonging to people who rent them. One by one we see those folks open the storage doors and search through boxes of belongings that people "need" to store away and hold on to-items that, in many cases, have no monetary value but are priceless to the people who own them. Finally, the best of the shorts was "Salt" (****-28 minutes) a stunningly beautifully photographed piece that chronicles renowned Australian photo-artist Murray Fredericks (who also directed along with Michael Angus) on his project to photograph the barren salt flats of Lake Eyre in South Australia. Fredericks has been camping out on the lake 5 weeks at a time for the last 6 years photographing the landscape (which is totally flat in all directions). Using time-lapse photography and breathtaking cinematography, you see Murray grapple with the essence of living in solitude and dealing with the elements (& erratic equipment) while recording a video diary of his experience on one of his excursions. The only contact he made were periodic satellite calls to his family in Sydney. The haunting soundtrack by Aajinta perfectly compliments this journey of mind and spirit. This is an absolutely unforgettable short that profoundly reflects on the beauty of the earth in a very minimal setting. Fredericks was present at the screening and told me that he has had an exhibition of his photographs in Australia but not yet in The States. Hopefully, they will make their way across the pond someday soon!

Next is the east coast premier of Laura Gabbert & Justin Schein's humorous, topical "No Impact Man" (*** 1/2-92 minutes), about the family of author Colin Beavan trying an experiment for his next book that few would ever attempt: living in New York for a year without impacting the environment. What does this encompass? How about eliminating these items from your life: electricity, cars, toilet paper, garbage (by creating compost using boxes of worms inside your home)-to name just a few of the things they had to endure in order to make the experiment a success. Beavan's wife Michelle (who is senior writer for "Business Week") and 3 year old daughter are along for the ride (the former a tad reluctant at first, the latter has no choice). And as the experiment gained speed, so did Colin's notoriety as he started appearing on national TV shows to promote his idea to the world. With they succeed? Will his caffeine addicted spouse hold up under the pressure? Will the marriage even survive trying to achieve, what most people will believe is, an insane goal? The movie will answer these and other questions and, in the process, just might have you rethinking your place on the planet and what you can do to protect its fragility. A thoroughly entertaining look at one man's take on simplifying his life to do his part in changing the world. The Q & A was attended by Michelle along with the 2 film makers and, yes, the marriage did survive and, even though it appeared she was going to crack under the pressure of living out her husband's dream, she has actually permanently instituted some of the energy saving techniques after the experiment ended-but not the worms! The film was picked up by Oscilloscope Laboratories and it will open in theaters on September 4th.

Later that evening it was time to honor the great Albert Maysles, the recipient of this year's Guggenheim Symposium Award. A filmmaker who has made over 100 documentaries as director of over 35 and cinematographer on 64 (many with his late brother David), this honor is well deserved. And present to pay homage to him are the great artists Cristo & wife Jeanne-Claude, and the honoree of the 1st Guggenheim Symposium, Academy Award winning director Barbara Kopple. Each took the podium to offer insights as to how the honoree has influenced their life and work. Following these tributes was a terrific conversation between Albert and "Entertainment Weekly" film critic Lisa Schwarzbaum followed by the award ceremony.

Albert Maysles & SIVERDOCS dir. Skye Sitney
after the screening of "Salesman"

Shorts directors (from l to r)
Eva Weber ("Steel Homes"),
Murry Fredericks ("Salt") ,
& Fabian Daub ("Left Behind")

NPR national
Daniel Zwerdling
moderates the
"No Impact Man"
afterfilm discussion

(l to r) "No Impact Man" dirs. Justin Schein &
Laura Gabbert. and Michelle Beavan

Artists Jeanne-Claude & Cristo pay tribute to
Albert Maysles at the Guggenheim Symposium

Academy Award winning dir. Barbara Kopple
introduces Albert Maysles at the Guggenheim

Guggenheim Symposium honoree Abert Maysles
with moderator"Entertainment Weekly"

film critic Lisa Schwarzbaum


Wednesday June 17, 2009

First up is Part II of the Maysles shorts. The program today is vastly different from yesterday's which focused on Albert's early introduction to the medium. The 4 films today deal with his association with celebrity figures of the 60's and 70's. "Meet Marlon Brando" (1965) is an utterly fascinating look into the psyche of one of cinema's giants. The Maysles trained their camera on Brando while Marlon was giving interviews to TV reporters to promote his latest film ("Morituri"). We get to see all of his varied personalities-mainly depending on the sex and attractiveness of the interviewer. Never has Brando seemed so charming as he constantly flirts with the pretty lady reporters-diverting every question thrown at him about the movie. We see him playfully kid around with a male reporter-each trying to comically top each other while, again, talking about anything but the reason they were there. We also see a serious somber side to Brando. In fact, it seems he had an uncanny knack for reacting differently depending on the personality of the questioner. This is a rare peek at a legend and a wonderful opportunity to observe him in such a manner-so up close and so personal. One could easily see why Brando dripped with charisma-and it is all wonderfully caught on film by the heart and soul camera held by the Maysles! The only negative was that I wanted to see much more than the 29 minutes the brothers presented!! Next up was a celebrity who, at the time, was at the top of his game. "With Love From Truman" (1966-29 minutes) was shot while Capote was giving an interview with "Newsweek" Magazine right after the publication of his best seller "In Cold Blood". This was another terrific glimpse at a literary giant in a "You Are There" style. A good portion of the film focuses on why he chose the subject and how he created, as he calls it, the first "non-fiction novel". And you'll see his mere curiosity in the young killers turn into something more the longer he talks about them (anyone who saw the recent hit "Capote" knows what I'm referring to). However, interspersed with all the heaviness is a keen sense of humor that he displays about his work and life. Again, another rare piece of art created by the master filmmakers. The brothers travel abroad in 1966 to shoot "Orson Welles in Spain" (10 minutes). The least satisfying of the shorts, we observe the great Welles pontificate on a variety of subjects including the cinema, filmmaking, and bullfighting while pitching for a film about the latter. Lastly was 1973's AA nominated "Christo's Valley Curtain" (28 minutes) that observes the construction of the temporary work of art by the famed Bulgarian: nine tons of orange nylon polymide fabric, stretching 1/4 mile and suspended from 4 steel cables, 365 feet above Rifle Gap, Colorado. The project in and of itself was fascinating enough; but even more so was how the Maysles beautifully captured the transformation of indifferent hired workers into thrilled participants by the conclusion of the project. I felt like standing and cheering myself when the last string was pulled that unfurled the massive sheet between 2 mountains! After watching the film, one could see why Cristo is considered one of the most unique art visionaries the world has ever seen.

Off to merry 'ole England for the east coast premier of Jocelyn Cammack's charming portrait of 3 verrrry wise old ladies: ex-journalist 101-year-old Rose, ex-sex therapist 102-year-old Hetty, and ex-counselor 87-year-old Alison. "The Time of Their Lives" (***-70 minutes) gives a quiet introspective look into the life philosophy of 3 ladies residing in the Mary Feilding Guild-a unique North London residential home-which is more like a hotel than a home. Housing less than 30 occupants, this isn't your usual depressing, invalid-filled nursing home as they don't accept people with bad mobility problems, regular incontinence, dementia or other mental illness. In this setting you get to follow and hear the ladies expound on a wide range of subjects based on their life experiences and observations. The film moves at a deliberate pace allowing you to take in, not only the surroundings but the wondrous and varied lives of these senior citizens. Although you realize that their days on the planet are limited, you sense their joie de vive their long journey has brought to them. The Chinese say that old people are to be considered treasures. Watching this film, I'd have to concur wholeheartedly.
Dir. Jocelyn Commack
("The Time of Their Lives")

Closing night movie dirs. Dana Fior &
Toby Oppenheimer ("The Nine Lives Of
Marion Berry") being interviewed
outside the AFI Silver Theater


Tuesday, June 16 2009

Each year SILVERDOCS honors a filmmaker who has made a significant contribution to documentary film making. Named in honor of the 4-time Academy Award winning director who produced over 100 documentaries, the Charles Guggenheim Symposium this year honors Albert Maysles.

In support of the Symposium scheduled for Thursday night, the festival is presenting a compendium of Albert's works throughout the week (his brother and long time partner David died in 1987). Kicking off the 2nd day is the first of 2 Maysles shorts programs which includes his earliest foray into the genre and which give a glimpse into the genius that would produce such ground breaking landmark films such as "Salesman" (1968), "Gimme Shelter" (1970), and the 1976 Academy Award winner, "Grey Gardens".

Albert first became interested in documentaries when he decided to travel to Russia in 1955 to film in mental hospitals. "Psychiatry In Russia" (14 minutes), which focused on the health care system in Russia, was a natural subject as he had a graduate degree in psychology and was teaching it at Boston University. However, the 14 minute short spurred him on to switch careers. "Russia Close-up" (1957-3 minutes) was another Russia based film in which he turned his camera on to the people and places he encountered during a cross-country motor scooter ride through the Soviet Union. He and David were hired by NBC to do a piece for their news program "Update" that showcased Anastasia Stevens, an American dancer performing in the Bolshoi Ballet. "Anastasia" (1962-8 minutes) was noted for taking place during the height of the Cold War and was produced by noted screenwriter Bo Goldman. Next up was "IBM: A Self Portrait" (1964). This 35 minute piece gives a fascinating early look into the company that is one of today's giants. The program ended with one of their earliest forays into the world of celebrity with "Cut Piece" (8 minutes) a curious 1965 short shot in New York's Carnegie Hall which documents a Yoko Ono abstract piece. Audience members, one by one, walk on stage and confront a sitting Ono and, with scissors in hand, proceed to cut off a piece of her clothing.

Next up was the wonderful family, coming-of-age portrait of an African-American girl whose adopted parents just happen to be Jewish Lesbians and whose siblings included a mixed- raced brother & a Korean-American toddler. "Off and Running" (*** 1/2-75 minutes) features Avery Klein-Cloud's search for her identity, in general, and her birth mother, in particular. Despite growing up in a loving nurturing household (Avery calls it "the United Nations"), Avery's search is affecting everything in her life: her studies, her track aspirations, and, more importantly, her relationship with her brother and parents. Director Nicole Opper's cameras are there to record some of the most intimate moments of Avery's life. The drama that unfolds is heart wrenching and heart breaking as we watch her deal with emotions that most of us will never imagine or experience. The film is scheduled to be shown on the PBS series P.O.V. in 2010.

One of the festival's special programs was, indeed, a very special event. It would have been more so had the scheduled appearance of Muhammad Ali come to fruition. Unfortunately, Ali was a late minute scratch. However, the east coast premier of "Facing Ali" (****-98 minutes) didn't disappoint. Award winning film, novelist, screenwriter and producer, Pete McCormack's ("Uganda Rising") stunning masterpiece chronicles Ali's brilliant career. Using archival footage, and solely the spoken words of 10 of his rivals (there is no superfluous narration), you will undoubtedly obtain a new found understanding and respect for this cultural icon that many consider the greatest heavyweight champion ever. Covering his career from 1963-1980, the personal accounts of such fighters as George Chuvalo, Henry Cooper, George Forman, Joe Frazier, and, even Leon Spinks are equally touching, comical, insightful, and, ultimately inspiring. McCormack has integrated the fight clips and interviews with an editing style that never bores and provides rare insight into Ali "the man", as well as Ali "the fighter" that will keep you thoroughly entertained throughout. It is truly heartbreaking to see and hear these legendary boxers (the use of subtitles is an absolute necessity as years of fighting have taken quite a toll on these legendary figures). However, their stories and recollections of a man who now suffers the affects of fight-induced Parkinson's disease (most likely caused by the repeated blows to the back of his neck), will have you enthralled. The fascinating after film discussion, moderated by USAToday sportswriter David DuPree, included Pete and producer Derik Murray. Ali has always been the director's idol and doing the film was a natural subject for him to tackle. When asked which boxer was the hardest to track down, without hesitation, he said Leon Spinks, who, after becoming homeless just over a decade after winning the championship title and bouncing around the country after that, he found him living in Columbus, Nebraska. The film was picked up by Lionsgate who will release it in New York and L.A. on July 10th. Hopefully, the positive buzz that it is sure to generate will cause the distributor to ultimately release it nationwide shortly thereafter.

"Off and Running" Dir. Nicole Opper

"Facing Ali" post film discussion with
(from l to r) USAToday sportswriter
David DuPree, dir. Peter McCormack,
& producer Derik Murray

7th SILVERDOCS-Day 1-Opening Night

Monday June 15, 2009

Time for my favorite festival, the AFI SILVERDOCS Documentary Film Fest. And, being the sports nut that I am, I'm really looking forward to the opening night as the U.S. premier of "More Than a Game" (****-102 minutes) kicks off the 7th annual festival in a big way.

"Hoop Dreams" (1994) is not only considered one of the best spor
ts documentary of all time, in some circles it is argued that it may be one of the greatest docs. Steve James' personal and emotional account of 2 teens, William Gates & Arthur Agee, from Chicago's inner city, resonates on many levels. James followed both talented basketball players for 5 years as each was eying a future in the NBA.

I may be going way out on a limb, but Kristopher Belman's stunning doc compares in every way with what is considered the standard in sports docs. Belman's amazing initial effort (he wrote and co-produced it as well) chronicles, over a 9 year time span, the "Fab Five". These were 5 African-American youths from Akron Ohio, 4 of whom have been playing basketball together since they were 11, who went to great lengths to stay together at any cost to win a championship. For example, when one of them decided to attend the elite St. Vincent-St. Mary school, a predominantly white school, the rest of them passed up going to a closer predominantly black school, so as not to break up their longtime chemistry-to the dismay and scorn of their community. Oh, and one of those players happens to be LeBron James-who went straight to the NBA from that same high school to become one the most famous NBA players on the planet.

However, even though most of the media ads will no doubt prominently display James' mug, don't be mislead. This is not his story alone. In fact, he was merely one fifth of the equation. It is more a story about their assistant coach, Dru Joyce II, who replaced SVSM's already successful head coach who suddenly left for greener pastures during their junior year, and who instilled valuable life lessons both on and off the court. Father of little Dru, the diminutive point guard, Dru Sr. would try and right the ship after the head coach's defection to try and lead the team to a championship. All the while, James was being touted as "The Chosen One" by Sports Illustrated placing him on its front cover (the first high school player ever to achieve that honor) and their games were being nationally televised on ESPN because of it.

Belman has created an extraordinary achievement as he and co-screenwriter Brad Hogan have structured this film like a narrative and have successfully made it dramatic enough, despite its known ending, to make it seem fresh and exciting. The score by producer Harvey Mason Jr. is superlative and "today".

The best compliment I can give to it was by 2 ladies sitting next to me. Prior to the screening, they gave me the impression they didn't know a basketball from a marble and I don't have to tell you they had never heard of LeBron. After the screening they turned to me and exclaimed "Wow! What a film!!"

The post screening discussion was as outstanding as the film. The sold-out audience (the 3 AFI Silver theaters and the Round House Theater next door were all filled to capacity) was treated to a terrific interview hosted by NPR's "All Things Considered" host Michelle Norris. Present were producer and music director Harvey Mason Jr., Director Belman, all 5 of the Fab Five, and coach Dru Joyce. Of course the audience was buzzing when LeBron graced the stage, but the comments by the other players were equal to the task.

Belman revealed that the full length feature sprung from his 13 minute college project and his decision to continue following the team ended up being a stroke of great luck. Producer Mason said he corroborated with Belman on the music. LeBron, who was raised predominantly by his mom, said that his house was like a "Chuckie Cheese for kids" with the constant visitation of his friends. And huge Sian Cotton said watching it with an audience was a thrill and admitted he started to cry a one point. The audience laughed when he commented that the film was so suspenseful that even he wasn't sure how it was going to turn out in the end. When each was asked by Michelle to make a comment to the young people who want to be the best that they can be, the soft spoken LeBron, who was the last to speak, imparted wisdom from the perspective of a superstar that perfectly wrapped up the half hour dialogue.

The after party, as it has been since 2003, was held in the beautiful Discovery Communications headquarters. The catered food was geared to the theme of the night, complete with gourmet hot dogs and bags of peanuts and popcorn, and wonderful musical entertainment was provided by D.C. rappers, Tabi Bonney and Wale.

"More Than a Game" is scheduled for limited nationwide release by Lionsgate on October 2nd. P
ut it on your calendar!

The Douglass High School Band performs for the
opening night audience

Bob Gazelle , AFI President & CEO
opens the festival

David Zaslav, President & CEO of Discovery

Skye Sitney, SILVERDOCS Artistic Director

Align Center

Post film panel discussion with (from l to r)
producer Harvey Mason Jr, director
Kristopher Belman, LeBron James,
Dru James III, Willie McGee,
coach Dru James II, Sian Cotton, &
Romeo Travis

Panel moderator Michelle Norris,
host of NPR's "All Things Considered"

LeBron James

At the Opening Night after party
at the Discover Communication

D.C. rappers Tabi Bonney and Wale
perform in Discovery's outdoor gardens