Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Erica's Dispatch from Silverdocs: Part II (The Films)

Well, now that I've given you my general impressions of the festival, here's a little bit more on what I thought of the film program.

While SILVERDOCS never fails to impress with a combination of local and world premieres of buzz-worthy films, I actually try to make a point of seeing films which just look interesting and less likely to make it into theaters or television. So you won't find me writing about festival faves MAN ON A WIRE, UP THE YANGTZE, or GONZO: THE LIFE AND WORK OF DR. HUNTER S. THOMPSON. Nor will I write about ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD or TROUBLE THE WATER (though you can read my thoughts on them from my Full Frame coverage)

Instead let me start with three smaller films which are still resonating with me nearly a week later:

LOST HOLIDAY was definitely my favorite of the festival. I was intrigued by the premise: a Czech tourist finds a suitcase in Sweden with 22 rolls of undeveloped film. He goes home, develops the film, and discovers snapshots of a group of Asian men posing in front of various idyllic scenes of Europe. He then works with filmmaker Lucie Kralova to track down the men to return the photos to them. Part detective story, part roadtrip, and part a reflection on how far global media has brought us together and yet left us disconnected, LOST HOLIDAY is probably one of the few films I saw which justified being more than 70 minutes long. It also reminds us that a documentary can be a mystery, a comedy, and a social commentary all in one.

Another film which fit in with this theme of post-modern (dis)connection was Danish filmmaker Phie Ambo's MECHANICAL LOVE. I had not intended to see this film when I first went through the program, but was persuaded by a friend I hadn't seen in a while to join him for it. Expecting either a dull film about the latest scientific advances in robotics or a sleazy film about new Japanese sex toys, I was pleasantly surprised when the film focused instead on two very different personal stories which make us question whether technology is bringing us closer together or tearing us further apart. On the one hand, we have a scientist in Japan, building a "geminoid," a robot version of himself, complete with the same build, clothing, and facial expressions and movements. On the other, we have a woman in a nursing home in Germany who finds comfort in "Paro," a therapeutic robot which looks and sounds like a white, furry baby seal. She treats him like a pet, talking to him, stroking him, and even bringing him with her to group activities where his constant squealing annoys the other residents. While the filmmaker unfortunately was not able to attend the screening to discuss the important issues the film raises, the Japan Information Center did send Paro. While I am still dubious about the uses of such a technology beyond therapeutic use with those who are no longer lucid, I did find it strangely intriguing that "he" reacted to an ear scratching touch I use with my dog with the same type of pleasure. At $3,000 a pop, I am not sure Paro will be on the must-have list for Christmas this year, but I suspect some kind of cheap knockoff soon will be.

The third film which really drew me in was SEAVIEW, a meditation on the changing face of Europe, as told through the story of a former holiday resort in Ireland which has become an asylum camp where Nigerians, Congolese, Kurds, and many others are required to stay as they wait to find out if they can stay in Ireland. Having lived in Ireland at a time when it was still a predominantly homogeneous (and innocently racist) society, I was naturally interested in the theme of the film. But it was the style which made the film memorable. Filmmakers Nicky Gogan and Paul Rowley come from a background of doing films for museum installations and SEAVIEW definitely reflects that in its lyrical style. While the film's pace could be off-putting to some, I found the beautiful images of the place all the more powerful set against the voiceover of asylum-seekers, some of whom did not want to be shown on camera.

What puzzled me about this year's SILVERDOCS program is that the programmers opted to celebrate an important anniversary (40 years after 1968) rather than an important moment in time (2008, a year which promises to have one of the most talked-about election seasons since 1968). From the Opening Night film ALL TOGETHER NOW about the creative collaboration between the Beatles and Cirque du Soleil to the all-over-the place REVOLUTION '68 to Charles Guggenheim and the Maysles' brothers respective classics ROBERT KENNEDY REMEMBERED and GIMME SHELTER, and an outdoor screening of another Maysles' film about the Beatles, it was Sixties Redux all week long. Yet, with the exception of Spike Lee's short about the 2000 election, WE WUZ ROBBED, there seemed to be a marked absence of films which directly addressed the U.S. political scene today. A very odd omission in an election year in the most political of cities.

Come to think of it, I probably should mention something more about Spike Lee who was honored by the festival at their Guggenheim Symposium. Usually I love his fiction and non-fiction films, even when they aim beyond what is capable of being contained in a single film. Usually I love him, even when his schtick has him bordering on a caricature of himself. But he was a man of few words that night -- frustratingly so, and not effectively moderated -- so I don't see the point in wasting too many words of my own on a summary of his disengagement from the audience. Besides, A.J. Schnack has already done so so much more eloquently than I ever could.

Other films I saw came back to that same theme again and again: who are we and can we connect to others? CORRIDOR 8 took us on a roadtrip down the Balkan version of Route 66, a failed promise to connect Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania (Good luck with that). HEADWIND was about the spread of satellite dishes across Iran, holding the promise of news, culture, and maybe just a little titillation from the West. I saw an amazing shorts program which addressed everything from the shared joy of two Irish smokers to aging Hungarian sisters whose bond could not be broken by time or men to the close relationship between two outsiders, albeit one a man, the other a sheep. I wish I had more time to go to the other Shorts Programs since SILVERDOCS has traditionally excelled at the genre (and I am also losing my patience for features which have extended themselves to be that ideal {"festival," "theatrical" or "TV" length when they are not necessarily best served by being so long).

THE ENGLISH SURGEON was the film everybody was buzzing about the whole week. Though the film also addresses issues of globalization and human connection as it follows a British brain surgeon on a mission to perform surgery in Ukraine, I simply never warmed up to the main character or understood why he does what he does. That said, the film does offer a unique window into the doctor-patient relationship and how that transcends borders. While the scene in the film everyone will likely remember involved a brain surgery done with the patient awake, the one which I will most remember is when the surgeon's Ukrainian counterpart struggles to tell one young and vibrant patient that she has an inoperable condition which she is unlikely to survive more than five years. Though it was not my personal favorite, I cannot fault the jury for giving the film the festival's Sterling World Feature Award.

And finally, I should say something about AMERICAN TEEN. Although I selected most of my films as ones which I thought might be unlikely to be seen again anywhere near me, I simply had to see AMERICAN TEEN with an audience and filmmaker Q&A so that I could better understand all the fuss over it. It has gotten kudos from many as a "modern-day BREAKFAST CLUB," an inside look at 21st century teen angst, and the likely breakout non-fiction hit of the summer. From others, especially some documentary filmmakers, the film raises ethical questions into how certain scenes were edited and directed and how much the presence of the cameras impacted the characters' actions. It has been decried in some circles as being no better than the SoCal docu-soap-reality shows of MTV. But you know what? I don't understand the fuss. The film was neither here nor there for me. The post-screening discussion with the film's producer and one of its "stars" (Hannah, who is probably the character in the film who is the least stereotyped) was probably more interesting than the film itself, if only to dispel the myth about scenes being recreated. But the film is ultimately forgettable. Then again, maybe that's what my generation's parents said about THE BREAKFAST CLUB. It remains to be seen if the film will resonate with teens when it gets its theatrical release in the coming weeks. Actually my friend Ethan Lincoln (who is neither a filmmaker nor someone who spent his teen years in the U.S.) probably summed up the film best in his blog.


Audience Award: HERB AND DOROTHY (Feature), THE TAILOR (Short)
Sterling US Feature Award: THE GARDEN (Special Jury Mention: TROUBLE THE WATER)
Sterling World Feature Award: THE ENGLISH SURGEON (Special Jury Mention: THE RED RACE )
Music Documentary Award: THROW DOWN YOUR HEART
Cinematic Vision Award: THE ORDER OF MYTHS
Writers Guild of America Documentary Screenplay Award: FORBIDDEN LIE$

Coming next: the final installment of my Silverdocs trilogy: a Conference Wrap-Up.

No comments: