Thursday, November 6, 2008

Considering Time, Trends and Objectivity in the Context of DocFest and the Mission District

The most striking feature of the 2008 San Francisco Interntional Documentary Film Festival was the length. It ran for three full weeks. When I saw the schedule, I knew I would be in town for the first 20 days of the festival. I naively thought that I could see one film per day and two or three films per day on the weekends.

The films started every 2 hour, 15 minutes. Travel to and from the Roxie is about 45 minutes for me. That knocks out a three hour chunk of time. Travel to and from the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley is about 90 minutes for me. One movie at Berkeley is a four hour commitment.

Obviously, I wanted to see more films at the Roxie than the Shattuck. Furthermore, one film would take three hours but two films would take 5 hours, 15 minutes and I could grab bite between films. Clearly, it was more time effective to see multiple films. I'm not like Jason though. I can't see four or five movies in one day. I get loopy or punch drunk. In general, I limit myself to three films per day but two is my preference.

I ended up seeing 28 programs over the first 16 days of the festival. I missed the last five days of the festival due to choice or travel. Looking at the histogram data of programs viewed over the 16 days -

0 programs - 1 day
1 program - 7 days
2 programs - 7 days
3 programs - 1 day

I saw 26 programs at the Roxie and 2 programs at the Shattuck.

Seeing 1 or 2 films/programs a day doesn't sound too bad but I quickly realized that it translates to 3 to 5 hours per day. As the days went by, I began to weary of the schedule. It felt like I had a second job.

Another idiosyncracy of the schedule was that I seemed that I saw most of the best films in the first week so the second week dragged on. When you see an enjoyable film the time goes quicker.


I read that Fay Dearborn and Bill Banning programmed the festival. I wish I knew which films each one programmed. From the Guardian article, it seems like I enjoyed Fay's selections more. Regardless, I congratulate Fay and Bill for programming a strong lineup at DocFest.

Also, Current TV was the co-sponsor of this year's DocFest. They provided some short films that ran before all the programs (except Bunnyland for some reason). I wish I could get a listing of Current TV shorts that ran before the programs. I can't remember any of the names but a few stood out. Before Bird's Nest, they showed one where a Chinese architechtural student drove around Beijing pointing out buildings with interesting designs. Before Operation Filmmaker, they showed an incredible film about American bloggers/stringers/photojournalist in Baghdad or Beirut. These were captured after encountering an road side bomb and being shot at. All this was captured on video although the quality wasn't great since they were hauling ass out of there. They were captured and even more incredibly, they were released. The third Current TV film I remember was before Disconnected. It was not a documentary per se. It was more of a social satire. A young man is visited by the animated icons of Facebook, Myspace, SecondLife and other social networking websites. He is being harangued about not logging in more often. I remember a great scene where Myspace Founder Tom Anderson appears (like God before Moses) and intones that Myspace was founded on three guiding principles - skanky chicks, crappy bands and I can't remember the third. I do remember laughing hard though.


The aforementioned Jason always seeks out a theme to the festivals he attends. I don't consciously look for themes but I noticed two at this year's DocFest. The first was that the line between documentary filmmaker and subject was blurred beyond the traditionally stated goal of objective distance. There was an obvious emotional bond between the director Nina Davenport and her subject Muthana Mohmed, in Operation Filmmaker. There is one scene where they quarrel like boyfriend/girlfriend. Davenport's objectivity and judgment are questionable in the film.

Similarly, director Kate Churchill and subject Nick Rosen almost seem to be courting each other as Churchill leads Rosen on a 9 month, global search for the transformative secrets of yoga.

Another type of objectivity was lost in several films. Most prominently, I Think We Are Alone Now was highly exploitive of its subjects. One audience member commented to the producer that he thought the protagonists' stories were told in a non-exploitive manner. My mouth was agape at that statement. In response, the producer said that the main criticism of the film was that it exploited its subjects. One subject has Asperger's Syndrome (a form of autism). The other subject is a hermaphrodite or intersexual who spoke as if she was continually drunk or on drugs. Furthermore, she exhibited emotional imbalance & stalking behavior which made me feel like a rubber-necker at a traffic accident.

The line between documentary and exploitation is thin. The subjects agreed to be filmed and if they had editing control, the film would be nothing more than a hagiography. There were times when I felt uncomfortable viewing the emotional wreckage which were these peoples lives. I Think We Are Alone Now crossed the line and I felt ashamed of myself. It was as if I happened upon a vantage point of seeing a neighbor or acquaintance in some private/intimate moment. Rather than turning away, I kept watching because I couldn't help myself. That is how I felt after watching I Think We Are Alone Now. That feeling was intensified because Jeff Turner (the man with Asperger's was sitting two seats away from me). I felt self-conscious laughing at his antics up on the screen. To make matters worse, there was a heckler in the front row that mocked Jeff and Kelly (the intersexual) mercilessly until someone yelled at him to "Shut the fuck up!!"

Elvis in East Peoria, Chasing the Devil and to a lesser extent Over My Dad's Body seemed exploitive; particularly when considering that two of the films were made by family members.

The second trend I saw is not specific to DocFest but has revealed itself over the this year. The formula is to find young people in a fringe sport or activity, follow them to some competition, portray them in a largely positive light and leave the audience with a feel good ending. The first film I can recall that followed this formula was 2nd Verse : The Rebirth of Poetry (kids competing in Poetry Slams) at this year's IndieFest. Then at the SF International Asian American Film Festival, they showed Planet B-Boy (kids competing in Break Dancing tournaments). At this DocFest, they screened Jump! (kids competing in Jump Rope tournaments), Sync or Swim (2004 US Olympic Synchronized Swim Team) and Debate Team (college debate contests). Debate Team and Sync or Swim had more nuance than the other films (mainly due to oversized personalities or personal tragedy) but largely hewed to the formula. I'm too much of a cynic to not think filmmakers are copying each other. I'm certain this particular formula has not reached its saturation point (in terms of number of films following this formula or my enjoyment of these films).


A few other odds and ends.

I do not like the Little Roxie. The seats are not bolted to the ground so I'll lean forward or backward and the chair will rock as if it will tip over. Noise from the lobby filters into the theater. Also, there is a bar next door which shares the wall behind the screen. Sometimes, noise from there can filter over too. Light and noise from the projection can distract me as well.

Attendance seemed hit or miss. The screenings of Bird's Nest, Going on 13, Megalopolis, Come On Down!, Enlighten Up! and Operation Filmmaker were healthy but did not fill up the Big Roxie. I believe there were four people in the screening of Here, Kitty Kitty (Little Roxie) and Bunnyland (Shattuck).

Panhandling in the Mission seems more active as of late. Perhaps that is a consequence of the economy. I keep believing the Mission will gentrify but the 16th and Valencia area hasn't changed much since I started going to the Roxie more than 10 years ago.

Speaking of poetry slams, they seem to have one on Thursday nights in the 16th Street Mission BART southwest Plaza. I'm not sure if it is every Thursday. The difference between the southwest and northeast plazas at that BART station is incredible. They two plaza are catercorner but worlds apart. The SW plaza has bright lights and usually a portable food stand. People are milling about. I've seen rats or large rodents, gang bangers and drug dealers in the NE plaza. It's darker than the SW plaza and kind of scary at night. I wonder why BART doesn't do something about it. They spent a lot of time and money renovating the both plazas a few years ago. The SW plaza is more inviting (as inviting as plaza can be when there are drug addicts and other shady characters lurking). The NE plaza didn't really improve. The only time I take it is when I go the the Victoria Theater. For some reason, the NE escalator from the station level to street level is always going down and the SW escalator is always going up.

There is often some guy(s) with a grill on a pushcart in the SW plaza. I've seen him at various location in the Mission but he was set up several nights outside the Roxie. He sells sausage wrapped in bacon with grilled onions and green peppers. I think that is an English or Irish food tradition. I haven't been brave enough to try one yet. Instead of bacon wrapped sausages, there was a lunch truck selling Nicaraguan food in the SW plaza during most of DocFest's Roxie run. I wonder if it that spot is on a first come basis.

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