Friday, November 7, 2008

Final Thoughts on 2008 DocFest

As I previously wrote, Operation Filmmaker was my favorite film from the festival. The film follows Muthana Mohmed, an Iraqi film student. Actor Liev Schreiber (best known as Cotton Weary from Wes Craven’s Scream trilogy) is about to make his directorial debut in Everything is Illuminated. While watching MTV, he sees a short film about a Baghdad film school that was bombed out directed by Muthana. Schreiber is so moved by the film that he decides to hire Muthana to work on Everything is Illuminated. Schreiber sets in motion a tremendous upheaval in Muthana’s life on little more than a whim. It would seem that getting someone out of war-torn Baghdad is a no-brainer but Muthana will show that problems can arise in the most surprising situations. I am reminded of a Muslin or maybe Chinese proverb. It states that if you save someone’s life, you are responsible for that person for the rest of his life.

As a result of miscommunication, culture barriers, personality differences and geopolitics, Muthana trades one life of uncertainty for another. Let me count the ways – Schreiber and the producers of Everything is Illuminated don’t really have a defined job for Muthana so he is thrown from one task to another. Muthana comes from a privileged background so some of the tasks seem beneath him. My impression was that he thought he would do something akin to co-directing the film. Instead, he is making coffee, photocopying and editing the wrap party blooper reel. To be fair, Muthana doesn’t really seem to know what he wants. As the film progresses, Muthana sole desire seems to be to avoid returning to Iraq. He also makes the unpardonable faux pas of stating his admiration of George W. Bush to Hollywood based co-workers.

Everything is Illuminated was filmed near Prague in the Czech Republic. When the film wraps, he scrambles to get his Visa extended. His colleagues are flabbergasted that he has waited until the last minute to obtain a visa. By then, he has worn out his welcome with the crew of Everything is Illuminated. He comes off as opportunistic and lazy as well as strangely passive about his own decisions that have major impacts on his life. Through some luck and help, he gets his visa extended and lands a job on the crew of Doom (starring Dwayne Johnson aka The Rock).

The director of Operation Filmmaker is Nina Davenport who was hired by the producers of Everything is Illuminated to document Muthana’s experience. After the filming ends, Davenport stays in Prague to continue filming Muthana. As I mentioned in the previous post, this is where Davenport begins to enable Muthana’s questionable decisions by giving him money and other aid. In the context of normal existence, Muthana’s behavior is self-serving at best and borderline dishonesty. However, Muthana is receiving repeated messages from his family that under no circumstances is he to return home because it is too dangerous. What is one to do if returning home means death?

Muthana applies for film school in London and is accepted. Having no money, he asks The Rock to donate money for his tuition expenses. To Muthana’s credit, he has an upbeat personality and remains mostly congenial on the sets of Everything is Illuminated and Doom. Through an intermediary, The Rock turns him down. I thought this was very cruel prank to play on Muthana. In reality, The Rock will sponsor Muthana but it seems like he wants it to be a surprise or documented on film.

Muthana’s life continues its trajectory in London with Davenport there to film it all. Muthana is out of money, he isn’t doing so great in film school and he seems to prefer handouts to getting a job. By this point in the journey which must be 2 to 3 years after we first meet Muthana, he is becoming irritable at being followed around by a video camera, never having money and the deteriorating conditions in Iraq. He begins to lash out (even physically) at Davenport. By this point in the film, Davenport has moved beyond enabler and seems to have entered into a dysfunctional codependency with Muthana.

By this point, I was very ambivalent about Muthana. He had behaved in a way that would have frustrated me but I couldn’t bring myself to dislike him. I was always aware that his country was occupied and returning home could mean death. Still, Muthana didn’t seem to make his situation any easier on himself. It seems he didn’t have the life skills to succeed as a result of immaturity or cultural differences. Then again, he was plucked from Baghdad, dropped in Prague without a support system and made his way to London with barely a pound in his pocket. I can’t help but wonder what Muthana is doing now and how often Davenport is in touch with him or still supporting him.


DocFest screened two United Nations Association Film Festival (UNAFF) programs. Two of the worst films from DocFest were UNAFF films. In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a big fan of the UN. I think it is one of the most ineffective organizations in the world. I’m not sure how UNAFF is affiliated with the UN but to put the UN brand in the festival name says something about the festival organizers. Belonging can be summarized as The Idiot’s Guide to An Inconvenient Truth. Like the UN, the film was a dollar short and a day late. I can’t fully criticize the film because I slept through the middle portion.

However bad belonging was, Megalopolis was even worse. Incoherent and lumbering are the adjectives I would use (for the film and the UN). The basic message was that large cities cause poverty and crime. I guess people in rural areas are wealthy and don’t break the law. The film skips around the globe to Japanese Goth girls, a Brazilian whore, Chinese nouveau riche , Los Angeles Sheriff Department employees, a Cairo garbageman, some people in Karachi and many more. This film set the 2008 record for most walkouts. I took a powder enduring over two hours of Megalopolis.

I beg DocFest to ban UNAFF programs from the festival in the future. I wrote a diatribe on the back of my ballot but there were no volunteers collecting them. Undoubtedly, they had assumed the film was over given mass exodus that occurred throughout the preceding two hours.


When viewing films in a theater, I frequently feel out of step with society (particularly San Francisco society). I felt this quite acutely after viewing Going on 13. The film follows four Bay Area girls from ages 9 to 13. The girls appear to come from lower socioeconomic levels and according to the copy, they were “urban girls of color.” Ariana was African American, Isha was Indian American, Esme was Latina and I guess Rosie was Latina too. I didn’t find their growing pains that painful. None of their families seemed to be hurting too much for money. They all had loving parents (I think Rosie came from a single parent home).

They had issues like any pre-teen. Rosie in particular seemed to be at risk. She was often truant from school and seemed to have trouble socializing. She spent a lot of time in solitude at the library reading dark poems (I think she recited an Emily Dickinson poem). However, she had a very patient mother and is clearly intelligent. Ariana was a tomboy whose father and stepfather were absent. She seemed to have trouble interacting with boys. Esme was overweight. Isha had American sensibilities but strict Indian parents.

The film was poignant but nothing life-changing happened over the course of the four years for the girls. It was entertaining peek into the tribulations of growing up. However, after the film, Esme and Ariana were in the audience and took questions along with directors Dawn Valadez and Kristy Guevara-Flanagan. I think the girls are 17 now. Both seemed more poised and mature which is what you would expect when comparing 17 year olds to 9-13 year olds.

People in the audience kept telling Esme and Ariana that they were inspirational and role models. Both girls said they didn’t feel like role models. I think Esme said “I just grew up.” Out of the mouth of babes… Children are very resilient and given a stable parent, I think most kids turn out fine. We all have our foibles and shortcomings but the act of growing up should not be cause of inspiration.

My criticism of the audience’s questions or nonchalance about growing up should not be interpreted negatively w.r.t. the film. The film provided an entertaining glimpse into four girls’ lives. There were funny moments, sad moments, happy moments, etc. – just like life itself.


Over My Dad’s Body was a fascinating mystery. Director Taliya Finkel’s father claims his brother (her uncle) is a Soviet spy. Shmuel Finkel emigrated from the Ukraine to Israel. His younger brother, Sterik, was in prison at the time. A few years later, Sterik immigrated to Israel also but Shmuel suspects the man claiming to be his brother is an imposter sent by the KGB to spy in Israel. Outlandish claim? Certainly but the KGB was known to do outlandish things. Wouldn’t a man recognize his own brother? Prison can change a man. Maybe there is some validity to Shmuel’s claim. It’s hard to believe him because he is a diagnosed schizophrenic. His ex-wife and three daughters are dubious although Taliya is the least dubious.

The film follows Taliya as she investigates her father’s claims in Israel and Ukraine. Proof is hard to come by in the Byzantine former Soviet state and Shmuel’s mental problem cloud opinions of him in Israel. Shmuel’s death adds a sense of urgency to her investigation. Sterik was the last person to see him alive. The cause of his death is strange. Sterik won’t speak on camera and his face is always blurred out. The capstone is the letter from the Israeli government stating that Shmuel had served his country but for security reasons, they could not disclose specifics.

The film leaves Shmuel’s claims open to interpretation but rather than being unsatisfying, it is in keeping with the man’s life and his family’s own unanswered questions.


Elvis in East Peoria - A petty, insecure woman hooks up with a shady, ex-minister cum Elvis impersonator and their pathetically funny but sad journey starts. The film is filled with Elvis songs so this film will probably not get distributed. Too bad, this was laugh, cry, shake your in disbelief film.

Chasing the Devil - This film was an expose on the ex-Gay movement. What does ex-Gay mean? There are reparative therapy programs to teach gay men to be straight. Some (many?) programs are run by charlatans and Christian fundamentalists. The most successful one (he appeared on Jimmy Kimmel) was a Moonie. One person involuntarily flicks his tongue throughout the film. That is a side effect of long-term use of psychiatric drugs.

Come on Down! - Who knew the lengths people will go to get on The Price is Right? Who knew Bob Barker had a gay following?

Enlighten Up! - This film is all about taking a yoga neophyte and transforming him via yoga. They visited master yogis in the US and India but no two people could explain yoga’s secrets the same way. There is something about “practice, practice, practice.” Also, it’s not what you do, it’s why you do it. I don’t think Nick Rosen understood yoga any better after the film and neither do I. It was fun to watch him try. For record, I am not a yoga practitioner. I think stretching and breathing train your body and mind. In particular, it focuses your mind on the body. By practicing repeatedly, the body movements are no longer fully controlled from the mind but rather from muscle memory. That allows the mind to seek or be receptive to other inputs which is the so-called transformation.

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