June 1, 2000

Docs Spring Eternal From LAIFF Launching Pad

<em>Amargosa</em> profiles the life and unusual career of Marta Becket, a 70-something performing artist who, for three decades, has created and presented her art in a small theater at the edge of Death Valley.

Not only is the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival emerging as a hot venue on the festival circuit, but its slate of documentaries has captured the attention of audiences and critics alike. Acclaimed films like Colors Straight Up, The Cruise, Better Living through Circuitry and The Lifestyle made their debuts here, and the Audience Award for Best Feature has gone to documentaries three out of the past four years.

"As far as documentaries go, that's the strangest part of LAIFF," says programming director Thomas Ethan Harris. "Here we are in Hollywood, a narrative town, yet when people look back at the history of LAIFF, they will notice very strongly that it is our documentaries that have had a chance to move out the lastest."

Harris has positioned the festival well over the past three years. and he is confident that LAIFF can more than hold its own among the majors. "lf Toronto is the big fall festival and Sundance is the big winter festival for North America, then I think LAIFF represents the springtime slate of filmwork," he continues "We are a little more bent to the newest motion pictures we can find. While I do adopt motion pictures from Sundance, I think its my responsibility, leading a fairly renowned festival, to allow some other voices to come out and not just repeat the programming of Toronto and Sundance."

A total of 4-50 docs were submitted for LAIFF 2000, of which seven feature-length and two shorts were screened. Documentaries took three awards this year, including the Audience Award tbr Best Feature Film for Bounce: Behind the Velvet Rope. Director/producer Steven Cantor paints a bracing picture of the life of the nightclub bouncer. In its dazzling panoply of shooting formats, Bounce is a wild and often violent ride. There are enough hilarious moments in the film to counter the troubling ones, and Cantor pretty much covers the gestalt of bouncing. Like most successful documentaries, Bounce manages to introduce viewers to a world we generally take for granted.

Freestyle, which won the Best Soundtrack award, takes on the culture of hip hop and, specifically, the art of freestyling, an improvisational form of rap poetry. First-time helmer Kevin Fitzgerals gives hip hop an historic and cultural context, blending clips of jazz greats, preachers and forerunners like James Brown with highlights from rap's formative years in the Bronx. But mainly, Freestyle is about an awesome art to behold, one whose high-octane speechfying can literally leave you speechless.

W.I.S.O.R. is a sci-fi doc, one you probably won't see on NOVA. W.I.S.O.R. is a robot whose mission is to repair the vast, century-old network of steam pipes that keeps New York City alive. Filmmaker Michel Negroponte takes the viewer back and forth in time, juxtaposing archival footage of turn-of-the-century New York with black-and-white DV vérité of the engineers assigned to W.I.S.O.R. and news feeds of recent pipe eruptions. Giving the film these multiple looks, he draws a striking contrast between two turn-ot'-the century revolutions in technology, one responding to the other. As it comes intro being, W.I.S.O.R. itself—or himself—takes over the narration, contemplating his role in saving the city. While at times as slow and deliberate as the process it documents, W.I.S.O.R. never fails to fascinate as a groundbreaking look at the documentary form.

ln Amir Bar-Lev's Fighter, two Jewish survivors of World War II travel to Europe to revisit the most painful places of their lives. As they recall the horrors of concentration camps and labor camps and the anguish over losing their families, Bar-Lev weaves in footage from World War II and the Cold War, as well as clips from Nazi and Communist propaganda films. Fighter is a psychic and spiritual journey that celebrates a friendship bonded by the pain of experience.

Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale, which earned a Special Critics Jury Citation, is a different sort of journey, for both first-time filmmakers David Shapiro and Laurie Gwen Shapiro and their subject, painter/writer/anthropologist Tobias Schneebaum. No less remarkable a travelogue than Fighter, and no less wrenching, River documents Schneebaum's return to the two places that changed his life. First is West Papua in Indonesia, where he was adopted into an indigenous tribe and assumed its customs and rituals. Second is Peru, where he visited on a Fulbright and ended up living with—unbeknownst to him—a tribe of cannibals. The return to Peru is physically and emotionally painful for Schneebaum, but in the end, he finds inner peace.

As a personal doc about searching for love and commitment, Always a Bridesmaid could well be called "Daughter of Sherman's March." Like Ross McElwee in his film, Bridesmaid director Nina Davenport leavens her angst-ridden quest with a healthy dose of self-deprecating wit. Her day job as a wedding videographer provides the inspiration, as it were, for making the film. She's over 30, with a Peter Pan boyfriend and few other prospects in sight. Spinsterhood looms large for Davenport, and she turns her camera on friends, family and ex- and current flames and flings for answers. The most insightful observations come from the spinsters she seeks out, purportedly for reassurance but ultimately for wisdom. At the end of the film, Davenport is floating in a canoe, her once ambivalent boyfriend at the paddle, showing signs of coming around to commitment just as surely as he negotiates their vessel.

Amargosa profiles the life and unusual career of Marta Becket, a 70-something performing artist who, for three decades, has created and presented her art in a small theater at the edge of Death Valley. She rebuilt the theater herself, even painting an applauding audience on the walls to ensure that someone will see her work. This compelling premise is vintage Beckett—Samuel Beckett, that is—but director/writer Todd Robinson fails to pick up on it. Instead he presents a frothy hagiography, replete with overwrought narration, sweeping IMAX-like cinematography and music, and the general vibe of yet another Indomitable Human Spirit Story. What is ennobling and interesting about Ms. Becket's story is her quiet, yet fierce, determination to make a unique livelihood out of her solitude. The makers of Amargosa have overwhelmed her story in a cacophony of exultation.

The short docs this year were in surprisingly short supply. Jonathan Michael's Babie, which preceded Fighter, takes an off beat look at his journey to his grandmother's grave. Sadia Shapard's Reinvention profiles an elderly, unmarried couple who had love after widow—and widowerhood. This film, curiously enough, preceded W.I.S.O.R.—perhaps because the man in the film is an inventor—when it would have been a nice companion piece to Always a Bridesmaid. Hope Hall's This is for Betsy Hall, an intriguing paean to her anorexic/bulimic mother, opened for Amargosa.

One of the narrative features in the festival, Seed, incorporates documentary sensibilities to push its story forward. Director Bobby Sheehan chose to do away with a script and have a fictional character interact with real people, without betraying that he was fiction. The character is such a blank slate, however, devoid of faith, hope, desires and passions, that the interactions become exasperating confessionals or therapy sessions. The people he talks to can only pity him and offer their insights on love, death and faith. Sheehan's objective, while intriguing, would need to work with someone as real-seeming as the people with whom he tries to connect. The faux documentary is an emerging genre that warrants an inquiry, perhaps in these pages, but Seed just doesn't bear fruit.

For the first time in a while, LAIFF programmed a seminar devoted to documentaries. It was a long time coming for the attendees. When moderator Elizabeth Peters, Executive Director of the Association for Independent Film and Video, opened the morning by asking the audience how many had secured distribution for their films, no one raised a hand. The panel also included filmmakers R.J. Cutler and Vince DiPersio, IDA President David Haugland, Udy Epstein of Seventh Art Releasing and Cleo Wilson of the Playboy Foundation. The panelists discussed a wide range of issues (distribution, funding, marketing, film maker etiquette, maximizing the life of the documentary) and advised the audience members to educate themselves about where they would want their film to go and how they would maximize their audience, as well as how to find allies to help. The panelists also suggested submitting rough cuts or trailers to supplement written treatments. It was a lot of valuable food for thought for a Sunday morning, and the panel barely got around to addressing the Internet before time ran out.


Thomas White is the Associate Editor of International Documentary.