Monday, November 9, 2009

2009 San Francisco Documentary Film Festival (DocFest)

The 2009 San Francisco Documentary Film Festival ran from October 16 to 29 at the Roxie. It was not economic for me to purchase a festival pass at Docfest this year. I missed several days due to the Mill Valley Film Festival and the Julien Duvivier retrospective at the PFA. I ended up buying a 10 film voucher for Docfest and by the end of the festival, I regretted that I was not able to see more of the films. The line-up was top quality at this year’s festival. Kudos to the programmers. Also, attendance was quite strong for several of the screenings.

Feature Programs
Between the Folds; (2008) - Official Website
The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virgina; (2009) - Official Website
Cat Ladies; (2009) - Official Website
What’s the Matter with Kansas?; (2009) - Official Website
The Philosopher Kings; (2009) - Official Website
Cropsey; (2009) - Official Website
Vampiro - Angel, Devil, Hero; (2009) - Official Website
The Great Contemporary Art Bubble; (2009)
Pop Star on Ice; (2009) - Official Website


I recommend all the feature films except What’s the Matter with Kansas? which was disjointed. I couldn't figure out what story it was trying to tell. The film takes its title from a 2004 book by Thomas Frank. The book mined the irony of Kansans supporting conservative political candidates despite the belief and some empirical evidence that conservative policies are harming the economy of Kansas. Nominally, that was what the film was also about but I didn't find much in terms of counterfactual evidence. The film did a nice job of chronicling the rise of populism in the early 20th century in Kansas. Most of the film seemed to follow a church congregation as they hitched their financial wagon to an amusement park which eventually folded. There is another subplot following a small farmer who is decided not conservative or at least not a Republican. George Bush get trashed in the film. There was a few eye popping moments. One woman said that 50%(?) of students lose their religious faith while in college. Another family consisting of an amateur gospel singing wife and MD husband invest and lose several hundred thousand dollars in the aforementioned amusement park. Given all the Ponzi schemes of late, I don't find that worthy of a documentary.

What’s the Matter with Kansas? felt like it started with a premise that could not be supported by the film footage.


The 10th program I saw consisted of films from four different countries – UK, Finland, Japan & Russia. The short film program was titled Worldwide Shorts: Snapshots of Life in Five Different Countries. The title was inaccurate for my screening. Originally, a Romanian film called The Flying Shepherd was scheduled but Faye Dearborn announced it was not available for that screening. In its place was a film called The Russian Woman. I believe that was the title. It was about a track walker who seemed to spend most of her work hours tightening lugnuts on railroad ties with a long wrench.

Everyday People
Sweat; Finnish with subtitles
Story of a Businesswoman; Japanese with subtitles
Songs from the Tundra; Russian with subtitles

Other Short Films Preceding Feature Programs
Among the Giants; (2009) - Official Website
Mouse Race; (2009)
The Physics Teacher

Story of a Businesswoman, directed by a SFSU graduate and I believe, UCLA Film School student, stood out among the short films. Chronicling the life of a Japanese businesswoman, the Q&A after the film was fascinating. Subjected to sexism, the businesswoman slowly transforms herself from victim to oppressor. She takes on some of the characteristics that the boorish men exhibit; seemingly unaware of the transformation taking place within her. Director Mikiko Sasaki later revealed that Michiko Nakamura (the subject of the documentary), had cuckolded her husband as seems common among powerful (and would be powerful) businessmen.

Sweat, about a burly competitor in the World Sauna Championships, was a lot of fun. The same could be said about Everyday People. As the opening credits rolled, the film claimed to star Julia Roberts, Tom Jones, Will Smith and a host of other celebrities. I wondered how an independent film could get all these big stars or why they hadn't been sued to remove them from the credits. The films really did feature everyone in the credit...just not the celebrity version. The film was about people who share names with celebrities and how they cope with the coincidence. Lighthearted and full of amusing anecdotes, the film was one of the funniest of the festival which seemed weighted to more serious fare this year.


My favorite film of the festival was Cropsey about a child kidnapper/murderer on Staten Island. The filmmakers (Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio) grew up on Staten Island during the 1980's when a number of children went missing. There were urban legends about an escaped mental patient from nearby Willowbrook Mental Institution. Gerardo Rivera did an exposé on the deplorable conditions at the state-run institution which led to its eventually shuttering. However, the imposing facility remains standing to this day - decaying with the sordid secrets of its past. One such secret is that a former employee, Andre Rand, may have been responsible for the string of abductions and missing persons from the 80's.

The title refers to the urban legend (well known along the Eastern Seaboard) about a maniacal killer hunting Boy Scouts and other campers. The film, like the legend, leave some ambiguity about the identity of the Staten Island Cropsey. Rand was convicted of abducting a young girl in the 80's. Her body was discovered but Rand was not convicted of that crime. As Rand approaches his release date, the DA files new charges against Rand on a decades old missing persons case. Certainly, the circumstantial evidence against Rand is formidable. His unnerving behavior/appearance doesn't help matters. The police, DA and group of parents are convinced of his guilt but the filmmakers uncover inconsistencies in the prosecution's case as well shine a light on some of the biases against Rand.

Ultimately, Rand is convicted of the second crime and will likely spend the rest of his life in prison. The viewer is left to wonder if he was guilty of the crime or perhaps feel he is surely guilty of some heinous crime and this conviction is just as good as any other. In addition to this nagging (or maybe niggling) sense of a miscarriage of the law (but not necessarily justice), the filmmakers bring in a potpourri of side stories - the general sense of inferiority by and towards Staten Islanders, possible connections to Satanist rituals and some disquieting interaction with Rand himself. Indeed, the only criticism I have with the film is that filmmakers seemed involve themselves too much with the story. They were trying to secure an interview with Rand. He seemed to manipulate them for his own means or amusement. I think the film would have been better if they had edited out those scenes.


Cat Ladies also impressed me. It is the story of four women in the Toronto area who have varying number of cats. The woman with the fewest has three; the woman with the most has too many to count. In general, the women's neuroses and anxieties were proportional to the number of cats they owned. In fact, I found that the film somehow managed to reinforce the stereotype while giving a human face to these women. In all four cases, the women were victims of some emotional trauma - one woman was adopted and looked/behaved differently than her family, another was the victim on physical abuse as a child and the woman with the most cats was subjected to anti-German hate crimes in the years immediately after WWII.

The film evoked a lot of sympathy from me. I found myself rooting for these women to abandon the cats so that they could get on with their lives. Invariably, these women were using the cats as an excuse to maintain their dysfunctional lives or to cope with their emotional disorders. Left unstated was what drives some women to cope by accumulating cats as opposed to coping by excessive drug/alcohol consumption, promiscuous behavior, eating disorders, etc.. I also wondered why there are no "cat men" or "dog men."


Vampiro was another film that elicited a strong response from me. The film chronicles a year in the life of Vampiro, a Canadian wrestler named Ian Hodgkinson, that has hit it big in Mexico as a luchador. Actually, he hit it big and by the time we catch him, he is aging and looking for an escape plan. Much like Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, Hodgkinson is trying to hold on to what he has while making the transition to the next phase in his life. Hodgkinson is tailor made for the documentary. In addition to being pro wrestler and wearing the ghoulish makeup, Hodgkinson has a back story that is compelling. Molested by a neighbor as a boy (then molested by the priest his mother sends him to for counseling), estranged from his father until the very day of his death, bodyguard for Milli Vanilli, still in love with his ex-wife, doting father and would-be wrestling impresario. The film careens from dinghy bars with makeshift wrestling rings to arenas in Mexico as Hodgkinson and others recount his life. Funny, sad, uplifting and everything else in between, the film is anchored by the likable Hodgkinson's (although some references are made to his shortcomings). Ian Hodgkinson is the type of person that documentaries are made about.


At the other end of the spectrum are the distasteful White family in The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virgina. Over the top and audacious, this "documentary" follows a clan of misfits and criminals that could have been the inspiration for Deliverance. Among the more outrageous moments were the scenes where the family snorts cocaine at their matriarch's 85th birthday party and when a mother (still in hospital gown) does line of cocaine in her hospital room the day after she gives birth. Another White is interviewed from jail where he is awaiting trial for shooting his mother's boyfriend in the face. It was impossible to keep track of all the siblings and cousins. All the women had deep, raspy voices as if they had Marlboros and Jack Daniels for breakfast, lunch & dinner. I don't know how much of the film was staged or if they were truly as shameless as they appeared on screen. Regardless, under the rubric of "documentary," the Whites were wildly entertaining. A sheriff described it best by saying that the Whites were a product of their culture - isolated, fatalistic and uneducated, they simply passed down, through the generations, an ethos of "live hard before you die" because they know no other way of life.

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