December 1, 1998

The 1998 Windy City International Documentary Festival

Clockwise, left: <em>Juliette of the Herbs, Pop</em> and <em>Mao's New Suit</em>

The 1998 Windy City International Documentary Festival is Chicago's only film/video festival specializing in documen­tary, but the four year-old event has not yet been able to score with Chicago critics despite more visibility on the world's doc circuit.

With more than 200 entries representing 20 countries and an audience counted at 3,000, the volunteer-run festival just might not survive another year. "I can't schedule the next Windy City International Documentary Festival until the finances are in place," stated the fest's stalwart but unpaid director Martha Foster, who covered this year's expenses with entry fees and a $1,500 Illinois Arts Council grant. Columbia College furnishes in-kind support from the College Relations & Development Office, which helps publicize screenings, and a tiny office in the school's Documentary Center. Film Video Department Chair Michael Rabiger has greenlit Foster's plan to put the fest under the auspices of an autonomous not-for-profit organization.

Foster, who also serves as the salaried director of the Silver Images Film Festival in Chicago, feels the Windy City International Documentary Festival could evolve into a new market for nonfiction fare, in light of calls she received this year from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Geographic, Home Box Office, and Arts & Entertainment. Those inquiries inspired her to convene a workshop at this fall's week­ long event titled "Making It in Documentary: From Concept to Broadcast," that featured Gordon Quinn from Kartemquin Films and cable programmers and producers representing Discovery Channel, Learning Channel and Atts & Entertainment. The prospect of cable sales could raise the profile of this IDA­ co-sponsored fest for filmmakers.

Documentaries are already integral parts of Chicago's older, larger and better advertised festivals, like the Chicago International Film Festival, the Chicago Lesbian & Gay International Film Festival, the Chicago Latino Film Festival, Women in the Director's Chair and the Chicago Underground Film Festival. Although local media notice of the Windy City Fest keeps pace with its increasing stature, out-of-town filmmakers should not enter work with an eye toward receiving reviews from Chicago's leading critics. In this year's fest, neither Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune, Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader, nor Ray Pride from New City covered any of the 36 titles screened between September 20th and 27th at three free-admission venues—The Field Museum of Natural History, the City of Chicago's Cultural Center, and Columbia College.

The fest's prize winners—all English-speaking directors—were Joel Meyerowitz, a first-time American filmmaker who portrayed his 87 year­-old father with Alzheimers in Pop, and New Zealander Christopher Walker, who sided with an Ecuador tribe against Texaco Oil in Trinkets and Beads. Australian director Sally Ingleton won ten rolls of 16mm stock donated by Eastman Kodak for Mao's New Suit, a timely sketch of two Chinese fashion entrepreneurs. Jack Ellis, retired prof from Northwestern University's Department of Radio, Television and Film, chaired the jury considering work in the "independent/professional" category, while a separate jury for "student" work honored Stanford University's Nancy Brown for Letter to Maya, the story of an American lesbian couple adopting a Chinese baby.

After viewing 26 of the 36 titles, I'm left with an amorphous impression of overly familiar styles and subjects. To my taste, there's too little risk in a genre that ought to eschew formula much like the flux of reality it mirrors. Must every documentary start with a vintage black & white photo accompanied by acoustic guitar pluckings? At least there's new voice talent—Joe Mantenga, Sir Ian McKellan and Lili Taylor—as Ed Asner and Studs Terkel step down from the pantheon of doc narrators. Ethnography is represented in few entries: a mix of old school like Marsha Berman 's Singsing Tumbuan—and the new reflexive sort as seen in Frances Calvert's Cracks in the Mask and Kathryn Ferguson's The Unholy Tarahumara. Unfortunately, uplifting inspirationals like K.C. Schillhahn's Ronnie's Feet and borderline infomercials like Tish Streeten's Juliette of the Herbs also took up slots, testifying to the enduring utility of those formulas.

One common theme was filmmakers exploring families, typically their own. Why do some families breed documentary artists? Or, is it any surprise that filmmakers get their best subjects and access from parents, and pursue heartfelt agendas by going home? Lesbian filmmaker Pam Walton documents her struggle to defuse a fifteen year-long estrangement from her frightfully conservative father in Family Values: An American Tragedy, while Anne Makepeace shares her quest for motherhood in Baby it's You. Both films reveal narrative craft and seasoned self­-consciousness by directors alert to the irresistible material of their own lives.

Less skill and insight is found in other family-focused docs like the superficial Occidental Encounters where director Yuri ko Garno Romer wonders: "Would my ancestors approve of my mixing races?" and concludes: "It's ironic that my marriage to a German­ Irish American from Ohio has given me a new appreciation for my Japanese heritage." Denise Iris displays a not-so-charming sarcasm when recording a long visit from her two Romanian grand­ mothers in M&M in New York. A more intriguing portrait of elderly Europeans can be seen in Romeo and Juliet of the Forest, Bostjan Masera's tale of a homeless couple and their sylvan camp.

The prize-winning Pop displays the most thoughtful concep­tion and construction of the fest's first-person works about a film­maker's family. Joel Meyerowitz , a photographer known for his street-shooting and his color landscapes of Cape Cod, teamed up with his filmmaker son Sasha in 1995 to chroni­cle a two-week road trip from Ft. Lauderdale to the Bronx with his 87 year-old dad Hy, whose personality and memory were fading from Alzheimers. This eloquent home movie captures Hy's childlike glad-handing and high-fiving of strangers at Disneyland and other stops, as well as his accidentally surreal rambles from the back­ seat. Phone calls to Hy's wife and occasionally sharp recollections cue Meyerowitz's artful insertion of old home movies and snapshots. In one of the most poignant scenes, Hy awakes from a bad dream in a motel and frets, "I loved everybody but nobody saw me—nobody remembered me but I was there." Joel reassures him , "Your boys saw you, we all saw you." Pop epitomizes the best impulses of filial ritual, cinema vérité diary, and storytelling for the ages.

The fest's other winning entry, Trinkets and Beads, reaches for outrage and delivers a few charged visions of eco-catastrophe. But the film suffers from feverish expose tactics and rhetorical excess. More consistent research and more upfront posture by director Christopher Walker as a player in the nexus of oil imperialists, Christian missionaries and tribal resistance leaders would have helped. The Eastman Award winner, Mao's New Suit, packaged another newsworthy story on the far less bloody frontier of fashion in the new China. "My clothes can change people's lives," boasts Beijing designer Guo Pei. "The right clothes can give them a whole new outlook." Sally Ingleton documents the business savvy of two bratty snobs on the upscale curve of China's vulgar capitalism.

Only a muted hucksterism infuses Juliette of the Herbs, Trish Streeten's new age infomercial for Juliette de Bairacli Levy, author of Herbal Handbook for Dog and Cat, Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable and Herbal Handbook for Everyone. Juliette is an undeniably appealing raconteur. Listen to one cat's instinctive fix for a rattlesnake bite: the wiley Ariel "stood in a stream for three days eating grasses, vomiting them up, and he emerged totally cured." This nicely shot film canonizes Juliette as a humble earth goddess who is worshipped by a new crop of American animal healers.

Similarly celebratory chords are struck in two other fest docs: Dear Dr.: Spencer: Abortion in a Small Town, a paean to a beloved abortion doctor in Ashland, Pennsylvania made by Danielle Julieue of Renfrew and Beth Seltzer, and the The A.C.L.U. by Lawrence R. Holt and Diane Garey. Their numbingly traditional styles are offset by the eye-catching-almost too good-looking-imagery of Greg Samata's Island and Ellen Waters's Aunt Magg & Me. Both of these exquisitely lensed black & white works feature sophisticated design touches to communicate tragic and triumphant contours of the African-American experience. Ellen Walters, a grad student at the University of North Carolina's Dept. of Broadcasting, Cinema and Theatre, shot and cut an elegant ten-minute profile of Ms. Maggie Terry. The 83 year-old subject electrifies this pastoral meditation on fields and family with her closing rendition of "Amazing Grace." Aunt Magg & Me echoes the photographic and poetic sensibilities of the Duke University-sponsored magazine Double Take. Sympathy and style blend beautifully, as Walters's polish embraces Teffy's grit.

Island, a 58-min. portrait of the North Lawndale neighborhood on Chicago's west side, offers another union of a filmmaker's refined technique with an appreciation for graceful survivors. Greg Samata, a graphic designer from Dundee, Illinois, makes his documentary debut by following Saint Agatha's white Father Mike Ivers around his black parish beat. "We think we know each other," Ivers tells the camera. "We don't know each other. The worst thing we do to people is when we say, 'Oh, yeah, I know how you feel,' 'Oh, yeah, I understand."' In smooth tracking shots, Samata circles a spirited rectory card game. Artful typefaces fade in and out for titles. Island attempts its own aesthetic bridges despite social blinders.

Unfortunately, these more intriguing efforts are outnumbered by less sensitive forays like Cuba by Bike, Stig Hartkopf's overly simple travelogue. Our two-wheeled narrator, who props his camcorder on roadsides to shoot himself pedaling past, admits at the start, "All I know about Cuba is that its leader is Fidel Castro—and they make giant cigars." To identify with Cuban citizens and exiles alike, he announces: "I, too, am fleeing, from the cold, material western world. A world so satiated with freedom and well-being it's lost its values. I miss values based on love."

Just as disappointing is The Vanishing Line, a first-person testimonial by San Francisco emergency room physician Maren Mosen, M.D., who is affiliated with Stanford's Center for Biomedical Ethics. "I'll never forget that phone call—the first time I was asked to pronounce someone dead," she narrates. Her style seems derived from medical, industrial and instructional videos in this wide-eyed journey into terra incognito: "I realized I never thought about my own death ." Mosen finds a mentor in a hospice social worker whose wisdom is undercut by the corny magical realist touch of three mythic Fates who spin threads of life and death, wear hardhats at a construction site's fatal accident, and knit destiny in hospital waiting rooms.

For more annoying naïvete there's Apart from My Doll, Lisa Kohn's visit to a New York doll hospital. Her sweetly innocent technique, including a sing-song voice-over, is a clumsy match for the girlish p.o.v. of doll-lovers seeking Frankensteinian resurrection. Death is handled far better in a comparably brief and budget-less exercise by Stanford student Nan Bress, who samples kids' thoughts and atmospheric vistas in Colma, California (Alive in Colma). "All it is is a bunch of dead people and they're already dead so it's not very scary," opines one youngster about his burg's seventeen cemeteries.

A little ghoulishness is preferable to the trite Wheaties box testimony of Ronnie's Feet, an inspirational profile of a Scottish athlete and television director who was born armless after his mother took two tablets of Thalidomide. Director K.C. Schillhan offers non-stop voiceover by rus resourceful subject as we witness endless visual evidence of his day-to-day chores accomplished with deft footwork. The outcome is an upbeat monotone.

More nuance is found in Face First, a laudable and credible first-person account by a Los Angeles Times editor about people coping with facial deformities. Mike Grundmann starts with the legacy of rus own cleft palate, a stigma mostly erased through surgery. "I never shook the belief that my birth defect defined me, that I had gained admittance to society through disguise," he narrates. But his other three subjects—all articulate extroverts with striking anomolies—tell harrowing tales of ostracism. "If you are physically different, you look at things differently," observes Christa, who considered a stint as a standup comic before pursuing pediatrics.

Awarded Most Inspirational Film at the 1998 Canyonlands Film Festival, Face First communicates more than clichés of uplift. This 29-min, film is an omnibus of documentary formulas—person al voice, exotic characters, talking heads, traumatic childhoods, family snapshots, well-told anecdotes, hard-earned wisdom, individuals triumphing over obstacles of prejudice, closing stills of the "cast" with what—they're-doing-today updates, and even an 800 number in the end credits for About Face International. True, there's little original in Face First, but Grundmann demonstrates that all these themes and techniques can still coalesce in a uniquely humane endeavor.

 

BILL STAMETS is a freelance writer and photographer for the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader and other publications. A Super-8 filmmaker; he also is a part-time instructor at Columbia College, teaching film aesthetics, criticism and experimental film.

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