Big personalities and big issues dominated the documentaries at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival. Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway's Better This World, the story of two naïve and idealistic young Texans who fall under the spell of a charismatic FBI informant and are prosecuted for domestic terrorism during the 2008 Republican National Convention, earned two Golden Gate Awards, for Documentary Feature and for Bay Area Documentary. The film is as gripping as any fictional drama, with two thoughtful and articulate protagonists.
The drama in Yoav Potash's Investigative Documentary Feature Award winner, Crime After Crime, is even more riveting, as two lawyers struggle for years to free a woman who's spent decades in prison for her involvement in the death of her abusive boyfriend. They suffer setback after setback before a bittersweet triumph that reduced audience members to tears.
Both films, along with Susan Saladoff's Hot Coffee, were the focus of a festival "salon," an in-depth discussion about social justice documentaries moderated by San Francisco State University cinema professor Bill Nichols, who also put the genre into historical context. With the infamous case of a lawsuit against McDonald's for serving too-hot coffee as a jumping-off point, Hot Coffee explores how big business is subverting the criminal justice system, and issues a call to action.
As always, documentaries were among the festival's most interesting and innovative films, and several pushed the boundaries of the documentary form. The Arbor, Clio Barnard's biography of British working-class playwright Andrea Dunbar, who died in 1990 at the age of 29, uses scenes from Dunbar's autobiographical plays, as well as interviews with her family and friends lip-synched by actors, in a technique called "verbatim theater." Barnard filmed in the public housing projects where Dunbar's brief, tragic life played out, often with current residents watching the action. The lip-synching is distancing at first, but after awhile the viewer stops noticing the oddness of the technique, engrossed in the dramas of Dunbar's life, and that of her older daughter.
There's nothing odd about the apparent incongruity in Régis Sauder's Children of The Princess of Cleves. Working class students in a Marseille high school read aloud (and sometimes perform) the words of a 17th century classic French novel, La Princesse de Cleves, as they prepare to take their baccalauréat, a graduation exam. The life of a 15-year old heiress forced to marry a prince in the court of Henri II, and in love with another nobleman, resonates with these teens. The princess has the same problems they do: strife with her parents, frustrated love, duty versus desire. Framed in loving close-up, the students personify the universality of the adolescent experience.
The unconventional structure of Andrei Ujică's The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu is both the strength and weakness of the film. It begins and ends with footage of the defiant Romanian dictator and his wife being interrogated just before their execution in 1989. He refuses to answer, calling the tribunal a "masquerade." Then begins the real masquerade: three hours of propaganda footage from Ceauşescu's official archives, without narration, portraying the 25 years of his iron rule as a socialist paradise filled with triumphal parades, foreign dignitaries and happy workers with a benevolent papa Ceauşescu presiding. The technique lies somewhere between direct cinema and utter tedium, but whether it might be more effective if it were shorter is debatable. The disconnect between manufactured prosperity and stark reality grows more appalling as the film goes on.
Unlike Ujică, who grew up in Romania during Ceauşescu's regime, Serbian director Mila Turajlic was a year old when Yugoslavian dictator Josip Broz Tito died. During her childhood, Tito was still an influence in Yugoslav life, but after the civil wars that divided Yugoslavia in the 1990s, all traces of him were removed. As a film student, she discovered the Belgrade film studio Avala that was still operating but scheduled for demolition. She decided that the studio's demise would make a great metaphor for the collapse of Yugoslavia. In making Cinema Komunisto, Turajlic painstakingly obtained films from collectors, interviewed surviving filmmakers, and put together a lively, funny and poignant homage to a now-vanished cinema that was equal parts propaganda and showmanship. One of her interview subjects was Tito's projectionist, who reveals that the dictator watched one film each day from 1949 to his death in 1980. He was such a fan that he personally chose Richard Burton to play him in Sutjeska (1972), about a battle with the Germans in World War II. "Tito wasn't just a film lover," Turajlic said during the question and answer period after the screening. "He was the storyteller, the grand illusionist."
Some of the most compelling documentaries in the festival took on personalities that were larger-than-life, and presented them without commentary. Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion's The Redemption of General Butt Naked profiles Joshua Milton Blahyi, who terrorized Liberia during the civil wars of the 1990s as the leader of the Butt-Naked Battalion, so named because they went on their murderous rampages naked except for their weapons. He later claimed he had killed 20,000 people. But in the late 1990s, Blahyi says he had a conversion, and now preaches the gospel. He testified before a war crimes commission, but many wonder if the "conversion" was actually a convenience to avoid prosecution. Shrewdly, the filmmakers simply present Blahyi's story, and allow the viewers to judge.
Sampat Pal Devi, the subject of Kim Longinotto's Pink Saris, is also a charismatic leader, an Indian woman of India's untouchable caste, who battles violence and discrimination against women. Herself a victim, she vows, "I won't let the world swallow us." She leads her posse of pink-clad women into villages, mediates family disputes, and fearlessly harangues men who victimize their wives, daughters and sisters. Sampat also supports her estranged husband, a flock of grandchildren and her current partner, a hapless man who's unhappy that she's stirring things up. "Show them you can survive!" she tells an abused woman who's threatening to throw herself under a train.
The powerful personality at the heart of Pierre Thoretton's L'Amour Fou is not superstar fashion designer Yves St. Laurent, but his life partner and business manager, Pierre Berge. The film is a gorgeous and touching look at the life and times of the fashion genius, as Berge prepares to dismantle the life they built together by selling their priceless art collection after the designer's death. It's a life the steady Berge made possible even as the emotionally fragile designer indulged in the excesses of his time.
Eva Mulvad's The Good Life purposely evokes the Maysles Brothers' Grey Gardens, but the Danish mother and daughter living in genteel poverty in a Portuguese resort town lack the goofy charm of the Edies. Stoic mother Matte and her whiny, entitled daughter Anne-Matte soon become tiresome, but the splendid cinematography and the very real issues raised by their plight make the film worthwhile.
Errol Morris returns to his exploration of quirky characters with Tabloid, a bizarre and compulsively watchable tale of American beauty queen Joyce McKinney, who in the 1970s followed her Mormon missionary lover to England and took him captive in an attempt to win him back. The saga captivated the British tabloids, and Morris retells the story from the points of view of McKinney, her accomplices and the tabloid reporters. Apparently McKinney regrets opening up. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Leah Garchik later reported that McKinney arrived at one screening "in a limousine marked with graffiti saying the movie was untrue," and sat in the back yelling "liar." From what we've seen in the film, McKinney's latest exploits are totally in character.
Margarita Landazuri works in TV news in San Francisco and writes for the Turner Classic Movies website and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.