February 24, 2009

Throngs Gather at DocuDay

For 26 years, IDA has been screening the Academy Award-nominated documentaries on the Saturday before the Oscar-Cast, and this year at the Writers Guild of America Theater, the multitudes came out once again, from 9:30 a.m., for Man on Wire, all the way to midnight, when the credits rolled for Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World. "I think it's wonderful to be able to see the movies that I can't see any place else," exclaimed a theatergoer from Pasadena, who identified herself as Sally. "I never have a chance to see most of the documentaries, and it's really great to have the people who produced them and directed them here to answer questions, and sometimes have people who are involved in the film."

The audience was treated to Q&A appearances from the likes of Pinki and her dad, and the magnanimous Dr. Subodh, from Megan Mylan's Oscar-winning Smile Pinki. "I love to do this," said Dr. Subodh, of his work with children with cleft lips. "It gives me a lot of pleasure and meaning in my life." As for Smile Pinki, Mylan enthused, "Character-driven films are the films I love, and the films I love to make."

From Megan Mylan's Smile Pinki.

Also on hand at DocuDay were students from a video production class at Monrovia High School, who taped every Q&A discussion. "This is a wonderful opportunity because they get to see what a documentary is and the many styles of documentaries," teacher Roxanne Rogers noted. "And to see a day of documentaries? It's very unusual. They're learning tons. At the Oscars Reception the other night they got a taste of it, and they all came back to see all the films. Because we're in a poor community with little access, people haven't seen that many documentaries; I've also assigned them to see Waltz with Bashir in Pasadena. A lot of the students have no cinematic or visual background at all, so I'm trying to build up that repertoire a bit so they have an idea of what they're looking at and why it's significant. It's like a big field trip all week!"

One of the more stirring post-screening conversations was with Steven Okazaki, director/producer of The Conscience of Nhem En, the short doc about a 16-year-old Khmer Rouge soldier during Pol Pot's reign of terror who photographed tens of thousands of Cambodian citizens just before they were executed. "The stories I heard were beyond my comprehension," Okazaki admitted. "It was 30 years ago, but the wounds are so fresh, the fear is so strong. It was like going to Auschwitz just a few years later. The five Khmer Rouge veterans in prison actually live better than the average Cambodian."

From Steven Okazaki's The Conscience of Nhem En.

Sharing the stage with Okazaki were Margaret Hyde and Adam Pertofsky from The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306, in which Reverend Billy Kyles, a witness to Martin Luther King's assassination, reflects on King's life and legacy-and the events surrounding his murder. "I'm 39, the same age as Martin Luther King was when he was killed," Pertofsky noted. "I was just awed at the discipline it took at that age to lead a movement in the face of such hatred."

Scott Hamilton Kennedy took the stage following The Garden, about a movement of farmers in South Central Los Angeles trying to save their community garden from developers. "One of the reasons I'm so happy we got to make the film is there was a lot of press coverage, but it wasn't a story to be told in a sound byte or a three-minute press piece or a news clip," Kennedy noted. "So we needed the 80 minutes of the film to try and get into what really happened." Responding to a question from the audience about what we can do as a people, Kennedy mused, "There's room for cynicism and room for heartbreak, but I still see there's hope that this system of democracy can work. It doesn't end at the voting booths. We can't say, Obama's the one, and it's just going to be some magic carpet ride. We've got to carry some water too, and we've got to check in with him, and this little engine that could called democracy needs to be fine-tuned."

From Scott Hamilton Kennedy's The Garden.

And while DocuDay competed with the likes of the Film Independent Spirit Awards in Santa Monica and the HBO party just a mile away, nominees Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath from The Betrayal and Carl Deal and Tia Lessin from Trouble The Water managed to carve out the time to engage the audience at DocuDay.