7th SILVERDOCS-Day 8 & Final Thoughts

Monday June 22, 2009

The last day is reserved mainly for screenings of the award winners and those films that were well received by previous audiences over the week. I began the day with The Sterling World Award Winner "Mugabe and the White African" (****-90 minutes). There have been numerous films over the years dealing with genocide and dictatorships in Africa, both fiction and nonfiction, and viewed from many different perspectives. This one deals with the efforts of the rightful owner of a Zimbabwe farm to, not only retain his property, but also, fight for his life in one of the most politically volatile countries in Africa. Mugabe is Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and the white African is 75-year grandfather and landowner, Michael Campbell. In 2000, the dictator put his land reform program in motion which gave him carte blanche to seize white owned farms under the guise as belonging to the people of Zimbabwe-people who, in many instances, have no knowledge or interest in farming. As a result, the country descended into economic disarray with its citizens suffering from famine, illness, and an inability to produce enough food. Despite employing and caring for hundreds of black workers and their families, Mike has endured years of intimidation from the numerous attempts of the government to gain control of his property. In an effort to retain it, with the aid of his son-in-law, Ben Freeth, he attempts to fight for retention by taking his case to the South African Development Community, an impartial International court which is part of the regional African cooperation of countries. Over the course of a year, the family sees repeated postponements and rescheduling and, in between dates, the family is subjected to even more intimidation & violence in an attempt by the government to discourage them from staying and to vacate their rightfully owned land. The drama doles out suspense by the bucket loads as each court delay brings increasing tension to the family who are attempting to fight for their rights under a dictator who is determined to destroy them. Directors Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson, as did Jon Blair, the director of “Dancing With the Devil”, have put themselves in direct danger while secretly filming the action (the press is banned in Zimbabwe), making the filmic achievement all the most remarkable. The film plays out like a carefully scripted mystery and Andrew’s cinematography is superb making this film well deserving of its award. A truly unforgettable David vs. Goliath story that has worldwide human rights significance involving a fight for justice against one of the most ruthless dictators on the planet.

I slipped into the “October Country” repeat screening to catch the Sterling Short Winner, the Danish “12 Notes Down” (*** ½-27 minutes). Director Andreas Koefoed has made an emotional short that concentrates on Jorgis, an accomplished 14 year-old performer in the Copenhagen Royal Chapel Choir, who learns how to deal with a life changing event. You see, his voice is changing and, despite a storied career traveling all over Europe with the choir, he must now come face-to-face with the reality that, by continuing in the choir, he risks permanent damage to his angelic voice. The final moments of him singing in his last performance is heartbreaking and moving as he realizes that it is time to move on from something that has totally defined him in his short existence. As wonderful as this short is, my pick would have been the stunning Special Jury Mention, “Salt”, (see review on SILVERDOCS-Day 4 Below).

Time to take in the Cinematic Vision Award Winner, “Old Partner” (** ½-77 minutes). This small quiet Korean film by first time director Lee Chung-ryoul refers to the old partner of an elderly S. Korean rice Farmer, Mr. Lee. And, no, it isn’t Mrs. Lee, his incessantly nagging spouse. The old partner is Mr. Lee’s true companion: his ox. The doc takes us to a remote South Korean village where, using old-fashioned tools to farm their trade, the Lees have managed to raise 9 children. Instead of retiring into the sunset, we see Mr. & Mrs. Lee as they continue to toil on their farm with the aid of the old ox that has been with them for over 30 years. Mr. Lee has refused to use modern pesticides for fear it will harm the ox and even works to feed it natural grass instead of man-made feed. He is determined to see him die so that he can bury the animal himself. Mr. Lee has taken such a liking to his 40 year-old “pet” (they usually don’t last past age 15) that he refuses to sell the animal to the utter dismay of Mrs. Lee who is constantly bemoaning her fate as a workhorse at this elderly age. In fact, it is her incessant rant over and over that makes the 77 minutes seem a lot longer. You figure out quickly why Mr. Lee is more taken to the ox than to his human partner. However, the doc does take you to a place on earth and a way of life that one would probably never encounter (and for that reason, “Old Partner” gains a half star in my overall rating) while operating at a pace that moves as slowly as that ox-if not slower.

I follow the weakest film I screened this week with one of the strongest. Director Peter Esmonde’s fascinating portrait of a sonic inventor and artist extraordinaire: “Trimpin: The Sound of Invention” (****-77 minutes). Trimpin (he doesn’t go by any other name), born in 1951, grew up in Germany’s Black Forest where he was exposed to sounds of his region’s cuckoo clocks and coin-operated musical instruments found in numerous establishments around town. His interest in playing brass instruments as a youth was sabotaged by an allergy condition, but his creative expression was boosted when he immersed himself in “The Harpers Electricity Book for Boys” which introduced him to analog electronics that taught him how to create electronic gadgets from scratch. He has now become a renowned 21st century artist with his installations appearing in museums around the world. And what are these installations? Why, some of the most magical and fun sound works comprising everyday objects-a lot of which were retrieved from junk yards. Trimpin the man is almost as intriguing as his creations. Here is a guy who refuses to have a cell phone, website, or manager, and he's shunned gallery representation while abhorring recorded music and loud speakers! His sounds of preference are all acoustical. And the visuals are as stimulating as the varied sounds he produces. Take the electric guitar installation in Seattle's (his home base) Experience Music Project, a 60-foot tower sculpture of automated self-playing guitars; or a machine that uses tiny hammers to beat inside wooden clogs-which he set up and displayed in The Silver's lobby during the festival (see photos below). Everything he creates starts with an idea and then he goes for it, not knowing if it will work in the end-which for the most part always does. After the requisite background on this multimedia artist, the remainder of the film focused on his experimental project involving the talented string group Kronos Quartet (who did the score for "Requiem for a Dream"). Known for their experimental interpretations of all musical styles from classical to rock (their take on Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" is a perfect example of their talent and reach), it seems the corroboration with Trimpin would be a perfect marriage. We see bits and pieces of their ever changing practice sessions which, in no way, prepare you for the actual performance. In fact, no one could predict the success or failure of the performance, part of which involves the use of toy instruments! The build-up is suspenseful and the actual concert is, well, as successful as the artist of the title. By the end, you will have a smile on your face that you'll swear you could hear. At the Q & A, Peter mentioned that the film will be reshown in the Washington Area at The National Gallery of Art as it makes its way on the festival circuit. A fabulous expose on an amazing artistic genius of our time.

SILVERDOCS is also known for its free outdoor screenings held in the Silver Plaza around the corner from the theater and part of the outstanding retail complex created in downtown Silver Spring. This year's entry was the outstanding 1989 Academy Award winning film about the Apollo program and its astronauts, "For All Mankind", which was presented outside last Friday. Tonight, they showed it inside and followed it with an amazing panel discussion moderated by Washington Post columnist, Joel Achenbach which included the command module pilot of the last Apollo mission (Apollo 16), Ken Mattingly, as well as two Shuttle pilots, Tom Jones and Frank Culbertson. Add in director Al Reinert and you had a session-to-be-remembered by the audience lucky enough to be there. Among the interesting information imparted, Ken mentioned that for all the technology it took to get to the moon, there was more computer power is his watch than on the Apollo and that everyone involved took incredible risks to pull it off. In referring to what he saw outside the command module as it circled the moon, he said that despite the incredible look of the film, nothing could compare or capture what it really looked like. When Joel asked Al to talk about the music in the film, the director said he was surprised to find out that most of the astronauts in the Apollo program brought their own music on cassettes and that portions of the film utilized the actual music they chose to accompany them on their journey. The most compelling part of the discussion was when Frank described what happen on 9/11. He was on the ISS about a month into the mission when he was told by mission control that "they weren't having a very good day down here on earth". As they approached and traveled over Maine that could see smoke 400 miles south over Manhattan. He then mentioned seeing a billowing black column of smoke and realized that it was the collapse of the 2nd tower. On the 2nd pass, which took about 90 minutes, they were closer to D.C. and could see emergency vehicles and a hole in the Pentagon. What was amazing to him was that he happened to be reading Tom Clancy's "The Sum of All Fears" on board at the time and was quite struck by the irony of it all. As for whether or not they should be trying to send man to Mars, Tom stated it was certainly doable in about 25 years because the NASA budget this year is about 18.7 billion dollars-which is only one fortieth of this year's stimulus bill. With small yearly increases in the budget, it could be quite feasible to accomplish this feat down the road.

What better way to wrap up a week’s worth of wonderful documentaries then with “Best Worst Movie” (*** ½-93 minutes). And what best worst movie is the title referring to? A wonderful piece of incredibly awful filmmaking from 1992 entitled “Troll 2” (which the festival actually screened as a double bill earlier in the week with some of the original cast members present for the Q& A). From the writing to the production to the acting to the . . . well, you name it, it’s awful. What makes this documentary worth seeing is the focus it puts, not so much on the film, but what it has become: a cult phenomenon that is starting to rival the cult status reserved for such “masterpieces” as “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” or “Pink Flamingos”. Most people would probably think that most sequels suck. So what’s new? As it turns out, “Troll 2” has nothing at all to do with the original forgettable 1986 “Troll” starring Michael Moriarty. This one is about a family who happens upon vegetarian goblins in the town of Nilbog (hey folks: that’s GOBLIN spelled backwards) who turn humans into edible vegetables. And there’s that witch who uses an ear of corn to seduce her prey. What’s even more amusing is that there isn’t even a troll in sight in “Troll 2”! That should set everyone up for a film that has been labeled the “Citizen Kane” of bad movies and has been voted the worst movie ever made by IMDB users. Seventeen years later, we see that this extremely low budgeted film with no name actors from Utah (one serious actress has refused to include T2 in her resume or participate in the documentary) has gained such notoriety that there are now parties and sold-out screenings in major markets around the country. BWM rookie director Michael Paul Stephenson played the family’s 10-year-old son in T2 and his documentary examines the film’s growing popularity as well as his quest to locate the original leads. George Hardy, who plays the father of the family, has thankfully given up his desire to make it in Hollywood to get a day job that pays: he’s now a dentist in Alabama, who is tickled pink that he’s becoming famous-although not in the way he originally intended. A totally charming dude (one of his fans is his ex-wife!), the good doctor is now traveling around the country to screenings where fans treat him like a rock star. And then you meet the incredibly na├»ve Italian director, Claudio Fragrasso, and his wife (who wrote the T2 screenplay), who actually believes its new found popularity is due to the fact that people are finally recognizing its true artistic brilliance. We see Claudio attending a screening infuriated that the audience is laughing when it shouldn’t and not laughing when they should. He clearly just doesn’t get it. And we get to meet several of the cast members, including a now homeless dude who confesses, not surprisingly, that he was stoned during the entire production. The film loses some of its steam about ¾’s of the way through, but overall, this is a compelling look at how an obscure terribly made film can somehow find an appreciative audience-for all the wrong reasons; or maybe for all the right ones-depending on your perspective. Hollywood has yet to figure out the sure-fire formula for success. Sometimes top stars and top money equal disaster (can you say “Ishtar”?). And sometimes a disaster can become a cult hit. This film documents that process and it is quite a hoot to behold!

Final Thoughts

For me, this was clearly one of the strongest SILVERDOCS yet and for those of you who scoff when the word "documentary" is mentioned, take my word that you are missing out on one of the best genres the cinema has to offer! Anyone who reads my takes below on the 21 feature films and 16 shorts I screened and reviewed in this BLOG, not to mention the yearly Guggenheim Symposium that honors a leading documentary filmmaker complete with retrospectives, conferences, special events, and a free outdoor screening, has got to conclude that what this leading festival offers year and year is truly remarkable and totally entertaining and thought provoking. Consider the fact I traveled the world in 8 days visiting such locales as Russia, New York, France, California, England, Florida, Massachusetts, Poland, Cuba, Australia, Mongolia, Oklahoma (o.k., it was at a prison), Louisiana, Japan, D.C., Brazil, New Orleans, Zimbabwe, Denmark, Korea, and even outer space: without ever leaving my seat! And I explored a vast array of human interest topics including prize fighting, family dysfunction and diversity, corporate history, Russian psychiatry, the arts, Hollywood legends, fashion industry, prison rodeos, autism, Hurricane Katrina, Japanese murderous assault on dolphins, D.C. politics, figure skating, drug wars in Rio, plastic surgery, human rights in Zimbabwe, quiet living in the hills of South Korean-just to name a few. And each are covered with story telling and professionalism that are equal to the best mainstream narratives that Hollywood has to offer. Not to mention the fascinating Q & A's with the filmmakers and, in some instances, the subjects of the documentaries. Mucho kudos to Skye Sitney who did a phenomenal job in her first year as Artistic Director (after 3 years as Programming Director) and her staff for screening and bringing such outstanding docs to Silver Spring for the past 8 days. Where else can you be in the presence of filmmaking legends, astronauts, columnists, & even a world class professional athlete all in one location? So if this sounds appealing to you in any way, be certain to circle the 2nd week of June on next year's calendar and regularly visit http://www.siverdocs.com/ to get the latest news and info on what has become one of the leading documentary film festivals on the planet!

Michael Campbell, the white African in "Mugabe and the White African"

Jorgis, subject of the winning short "12 Notes Down"

Mr. Lee and his "Old Partner"

Peter Esmonde, director of "Trimpin: The Sound of Invention"

Trimpin working on his musical clog installation in his lab

Trimpin's installation in the AFI Silver lobby

"For All Mankind" after film panel discussion (from l to r): director Al Reinert, shuttle astronauts Tom Jones & Frank Culbertson, Apollo 16 command modulepilot Ken Mattingly, and panel moderator Washington Post columnist Joel Achenbach

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