Saturday, November 24, 2012

2012 San Francisco Documentary Film Festival

The 2012 San Francisco Documentary Film Festival ran from November 8 to 21.  Although they screened at the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley, I saw 12 films, all at the Roxie or Little Roxie.  DocFest is run by Jeff Ross & the IndieFest crew (which has a recently redesigned website).

Another Hole in the Head, their "festival of horror, sci-fi, dark fantasy and exploitation cinema" is running from November 28 to December 9 at various venues (primarily the Roxie).  Jeff mentioned that he is moving DocFest to June 2013 which essentially flip flops DocFest with Another Hole in the Head which used to occur in June until this year's move to late November/early December.

Of the 12 programs I watched, 11 were feature films.

The Final Member; directed by Jonah Becker; English and Icelandic with subtitles; (2012)
Fight Life; directed by James Z. Feng; (2012) - Official Website
Downeast; directed by David Redmon & Ashley Sabin; (2012)
Eating Alabama; directed by Andrew Grace; (2012) - Official Website
The Institute; directed by Spencer McCall; (2012) - Official Website
The Standbys; directed by Stephanie Riggs; (2012) - Official Website
Broken Mike; directed by Michael Agostini; (2012)
Danland; directed by Alexandra Berger; (2012) - Official Website
Shooting for Home; directed by Greg Kappy; (2012)
The Challenge of Venice; directed by Michelle Barca & Nicola Pittarello; English and Italian with subtitles; (2012)
Cartoon College; directed Josh Melrod & Tara Wray; (2012) - Official Website

The 12th program I watched was a program called Women Warriors which consisted of three short films.

Natsanat; directed by Cheryl Halpern & Mitchell Stuart; English & Ehtiopian with subtitles; (2012)
Mother Art Tells Her Story; directed by Laura Silagi, Deborah Krall & Suzanne Siegel; (2012) - Official Website
The Gaskettes; directed by Jason House; (2012)

Eating Alabama was preceded by Murder Mouth.  The program listed Take Me to the Water: The Story of Pin Point as playing on the same program as Challenge of Venice but it did not screen.  No explanation was given.  Actually, Challenge of Venice was listed with a 90 minute runtime but was less than an hour so I used the extra time to go to the gym.

Murder Mouth; directed by Madeleine Parry; (2011)


As usual, the films were a mixed bag.  My favorite film was the short film Murder Mouth by Australian Madeleine Parry who looks like a dark-haired Little Orphan Annie.  She looks about 13 years old to me.  Regardless of her age, Ms. Parry begins to question the manner in which the meat she consumes is butchered.

She vows to only eat that which she has butchered herself.  She begins with broccoli because plants can sense stimulation according to the farmer she interviews.  In other words, cutting the stalk of broccoli cause the plant pain.  Parry has no problems cutting the stalk and eating the crucifer (without even washing it if the footage is to be believed).

Next, Parry visit her uncle, an avid fisherman.  She catches a sardine or some small fish and we watch her cut the head off without much trouble and later eat fried fish.  After that, Parry begins to get squeamish.  She visit her grandmother whose chicken soup is legendary.  The old woman praises the virtues of fresh chicken so grandmother and granddaughter go to a chicken ranch (not that kind of chicken ranch) to butcher their meal.  Instead of wringing the neck, Parry takes a hatchet to the bird.  Unfortunately, she doesn't quite get the job done and needs to take at least three whacks to put the bird out of its misery.  The camera focuses on Parry during the ordeal so we don't see what happens to the bird.  Later, Parry is still able to swallow Grandma's chicken soup although with some trepidation.

The pièce de résistance is a lamb that Parry has to take out mafia-style with a small rifle; i.e. one shot to the back of the head.  Here the camera doesn't flinch and we see Parry pull the trigger.  Seconds later the lamb convulses in a grotesque manner; literally death throes.  This is more than Parry can take.  We next see Parry serving her friends and family lamb chops which she is unable to touch.  After the meal, she shows her guests the video of the lamb's death and they shriek in terror.

Murder Mouth is a courageous (if not self-serving) experiment by Parry and made for a fascinating film.  I think if we all had to kill our own meat, we might think differently about our protein heavy diet.  Great film but remind me not to go to one of her dinner parties.


The Institute was my favorite feature length film which chronicled an alternate reality game set around the fictitious Jejune Institute.  Essentially a glorified scavenger hunt which went on for several years in the Bay Area, the Jejune Institute was faux New Age think tank/research institute with actual offices at 560 California in San Francisco.  Attracted by flyers pasted around town, people off the street would visit Jejune's elaborate orientation center and some would get sucked into which cast Jejune founder Octavio Coleman Esq. as the villain and missing teenager Eva Lucien as the linchpin of the conspiracy centered around Coleman.  With props littered around the City and Oakland, faked police tapes and a pirate radio station, the experiment in performance art was elaborate indeed.  

The Institute tries to have it both ways - playing it straight as if the Jejune Institute really existed while shifting in mid-film to the creators and producers of the game.  It's not fully satisfying but I had only a passing knowledge of the Jejune Institute so the mythos was welcomed.  I would like to have known more about the "gamers."  The intricacy and scope of the game were awe inspiring and made me wish I had participated.  Of course, the pitch sounded like a cult or multi-level marketing scam so I likely never would have visited 560 California.

“To the dark horses with the spirit to look up and see, a recondite family awaits."


Mike Agostini's Broken Mike was also outstanding.  Agostini was/is a stand-up comic who competed in the 2006 Seattle International Comedy Competition.  The competition consists of multiple rounds of stand-up comedy with judges ranking the participants with lower ranked comics not advancing.  It was unclear why Agostini was filming the event but as the first round (five performances) progresses, it becomes clear that Agostini will not make it to the second round.  

Agostini struggles to "find his voice" and as he adjusts his routines to match the various audience (despite its name, the Seattle International Comedy Competition takes place all over Washington state), he flounders.  Nominally a film about a comedy competition, Broken Mike becomes a voyeuristic look at one man's failure and descent.  Agostini is extremely open about the experience which must have been deeply disappointing.  You don't have to be a fan of stand-up comedy to appreciate Broken Mike.

In fact, I thought none comic routines were particularly funny.  The best bit was one about menstrual synchrony; i.e. the menstrual cycles of women who lived together became synchronized over time.  The comic (whose name I cannot recall) likened it to Bluetooth.


The Standbys was feel good documentary about the life of standbys, understudies and swings in Broadway musicals.  The films follows Ben Crawford, Aléna Watters & Merwin Foard.  During the filming, Crawford & Foard were standbys for Brian d'Arcy James (Shrek the Musical) and Nathan Lane (The Addams Family), respectively.  Watters was a swing for the Harlettes, Bette Midler's backup singers.  Standbys back up the lead actor and do not perform in the show unless the lead is out.  Swings back up several roles.  Watters could have been called on to perform any of the three Harlette roles when she was a swing.  Understudies have a smaller role in the performance but can step in for the lead when the lead is out.  Standbys and swings do not go on stage for most performances and as such, their contributions are easily overlooked and they can question their own worth.

The subject represent a nice cross section.  Foard, who is in his 50s and has been a standby for the longest.  In fact, he has essentially made a career of it.  Blessed with the right temperament for the job, Foard seems to have settled into permanent standby status for the stability it affords him and his family. I'm not sure how much he gets paid but his IBDB entry shows steady work (mostly as standby or understudy) dating back to the early 1980s.  The skills needed to be a good standby are unique in theater.  The standby needs to be constantly prepared to step into role on a moments notice and have thick enough skin to know most in the audience are disappointed that the star is not performing.

Crawford starts the film as James' standby in the title role of Shrek the Musical.  As time passes, James steps down and Crawford is contractually entitled to his choice of a) taking over the role on Broadway or b) getting the role in touring version of the musical.  Crawford chooses the Broadway role and we are introduced to Eric Petersen, Crawford's standby.  In a poignant twist, when it comes time to cast the role Shrek for the tour, Petersen beats out Crawford.  All the things Crawford had been saying about being ready for a starring role was repeated by Petersen so it was hard to feel resentment towards him.  Crawford was very gracious on camera.

Watters landed one of the Harlettes' role but when Midler took her show to Las Vegas, she hired back one of her previous Harlettes which bumped Watters out of the lineup.  Swallowing her pride, Watters accepted the swing role but was eventually let go due to budget cuts.  This painful experience inspired Watters to create a one-woman show which was a success and helped her land on-stage roles.

The Standbys is augmented with talking head interviews with well known stage and screen stars such as David Hyde Pierce, Zach Quinto and Bebe Neuwirth who recount their experience as standbys and understudies.  The Standbys was very entertaining and made me root for the three subjects.

By coincidence, I recently attended ACT's production of Elektra.  Olympia Dukakis' performance in the play has been heavily promoted but on the night I went, an understudy (Omozé Idehenre) played Dukakis' part.  I was disappointed just like some of the theater patrons interviewed in The Standbys.  Seeing what the standbys go through, I will endeavor to be more understanding the next time an understudy, standby or swing fills in.  Reading comments on Goldstar, I see that Dukakis has missed quite a few performance with no explanation.  On the night I went (November 7), there was no announcement or playbill insert regarding her absence.


Danland explores the always fascinating world of pornography.  Fascinating may be too strong a word but the insular nature of the business and outrageous behavior has always drawn my looking at a car accident.  The eponymous subject is Dan Leal (aka Porno Dan), an amateur porn impresario.  Confirming all the stereotypes about people in the porn industry, we watch as Dan, a man-child in his 30s with a self-acknowledged sex addiction and less mentioned alcohol problem, navigates through life.  The main relationship in the film is between Dan and a woman whose I can't remember.  She is not in the porn industry.  She is a law school student and brings her own issues to the relationship.  Dan seems to have a strained relationship with his mother whereas this woman had something in her past which led her to anorexia and bulimia and now seeming binge drinking.  That this woman could even be admitted to law school is sobering.  Lacking in attractive qualities, I wonder what Dan saw in the woman except perhaps she wasn't in porn.

Of course, Dan is no great catch either.  Hiding his loneliness and vulnerability behind his aging frat boy facade, Dan is pathetic.  College educated and purportedly a top salesman at a Fortune 500 company, Dan gave it all up to make amateur gangbang videos in his Beltway home and wash sex toys in his kitchen sink.

It was hard to feel empathy or sympathy for Dan as he lies to himself, those around him and the audience.  The film ends with Dan hurriedly marrying an ex-porn actress.  The wedding is so last-minute that the bride doesn't have a dress.  After the wedding, they rush off; leaving their guests at the quickie wedding chapel in a Las Vegas hotel.  What's the rush, Dan, his bride and another actress are making a threesome video on his wedding night.

The filmmaker barely conceals her antipathy towards her subject but her questions and editing leave no doubt about her attitude.  In one memorable scene, Dan begins having sex with a porn actress and enlist Danland's director Alexandra Berger to film the scene so we get a shot of Berger filming Leal having sex and there is a "what the hell am I doing her?" look on Berger's face which may as well have been a proxy for the audience.

No matter what your station in life, I recommend seeing Danland because it will make you feel better about your own life in comparison.  It's a dirty little film about a dirty little man in denial.  The porn industry and the internet revolution simply allow Dan to wallow in an ultimately self-destructive lifestyle.  Danland is pornographic in the sense that there is very little redeeming value in watching Dan's life but I couldn't turn away.


The Gaskettes was a fun little film about an all girl moped crew in Los Angeles.  They even have matching jackets.  I can't really say much about it except it was fun to watch these girls tool around LA. Although the film doesn't have an official website, the Gaskettes have a blog.

The Challenge of Venice covered the always fascinating topic of Venice, Italy.  Built on small island in a lagoon, the city is prone to frequent flooding and is in need of major infrastructure repair.  The largest construction project in Europe is currently MOSE Project (Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico).  Rhyming with Jose (as in San Jose), MOSE consists of four mobile gates placed at the inlets into the lagoon.  When flooding is imminent, the gates can be raised to stop the flow of water into the lagoon.  Although the topic was fascinating, The Challenge of Venice had the look and feel of a cut rate History Channel doc, right down to the narrator with the RP dialect to add some gravitas to the film.  Glossing over the history, architecture and MOSE Project, I was left wanting more.  Given the abbreviated runtime, I wonder if we saw a version edited down to fit within a 90 minute television slot.


Everything else I was lukewarm to cold about.

Downeast was a compelling film about a guy trying to open up a lobster processing plant in Maine.  Co-mingling his personal funds with the company's funds, he seemed doomed from the start.  However, the didn't explain why the bank froze his bank account which ultimately led to the closure of his company.  There was something shady about everyone and their motivations in the film.

The Final Member is about a guy in Iceland who runs a Phallogical Museum.  He is missing one specimen - a human penis.  If that isn't odd enough, he comes into contact with a Texas man who wants to donate his penis (he named it Elmo) to the museum...before he dies.  This guy from Texas is certifiable.  In addition to his willingness to amputate Elmo, he get Elmo tattooed and sends photos of Elmo in various costumes to the director of the Phallogical Museum.  The film was so bizarre I lost interest; half-way convinced I was watching a hoax or fauxmentary.

I wanted to like Shooting for Home about a Florida basketball player's struggle in life and Eating Alabama about a couple who wanted to return to their grandparents' agrarian lifestyle, but my attention flagged for both films.  Similarly, despite enjoying MMA bouts, I couldn't keep my interest up for Fight Life.

Cartoon CollegeNatsanat and Mother Art Tells Her Story never captured my interest although I would like to learn more about the Ethiopian female rebels in 1970s and 80s whose stories are told in Natsanat which means freedom in Amharic.

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