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Docs Without Borders: International Films Highlight AFI Fest

By Sarah Jo Marks

Dorothea Lange shooting her photo series on Ireland's people in the 1950's. From Dierdre Lynch's 'Photos to Send.' Photo courtesy of Dierdre Lynch.

How do filmmakers choose what to document? They choose what moves them, what may bring about change; they explore personal histories, investigate issues—all in the spirit of creating art. The 16th annual AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival (Nov 7 - 17, 2002) provided filmgoers with these stories and brought the filmmakers out to talk about their work, their process and just what drives them to create.

For 10 days hungry moviegoers crammed into the grandest movie hub in Los Angeles—the Arclight Cinema—for screening after screening of films from every corner of the globe. AFI Fest 2002 attracted record numbers to the oldest film festival in Los Angeles.

Documentaries were a highlight. AFI Fest showcased 12 dynamic features in the Documentary Competition as well as a scattering of docs in the foreign showcase, a special screening of DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus' rhythm and blues tribute, Only the Strong Survive, and even a few short experimental pieces. The competition was primarily comprised of the works of first- and second-time filmmakers, as well as US premieres and at least one film from nearly every continent in the world.

Documentaries can get very personal—and in most cases, the more personal the better. Sami Saif's Audience Award-winning Family pulled on the heartstrings on a grand scale with soaring visuals and compelling music. The Denmark-based Saif's quest for his Yemeni roots was by camerawork produced by his girlfriend, Phie Ambo. With just Saif on screen and Ambo to record the events as they unfolded, the two created a warm, open film that captured in Saif's words, "What it is to be alive, what it is to hurt and be frustrated."

Photos to Send took filmmaker Dierdre Lynch on a different journey. She traveled to Ireland to meet the subjects of Life photographer Dorothea Lange's photos from the 1950s. Watching Lynch's first effort is like drinking a warm cup of tea in front of a fire. What made her do it? She had studied photography, had an Irish heritage and, as she reveals, "as soon as I saw the photos, I knew." While her journey started out as an impulsive response, it became obvious to Lynch that she had to make the film and make the discoveries as she went along. These discoveries transfer to film so beautifully you can't help but dream of returning to Ireland ...even if you're not from there.

Sherine Salama's intent to reveal the lives of working-class Palestinians and their ability to simply get on with their lives amidst chaos and warfare all pulls together in her digital video doc A Wedding in Ramallah. This well-crafted story of a traditional wedding in Palestine brings together the elements of Salama's journalism background with great, raw storytelling. When Bassam returns to his native Palestine in search of a "traditional" bride a brief and stilted courtship ensues with a cynical village girl, Mariam. The story follows the two and their extended families as they court, wed and attempt to get Mariam to the United States. With no lack of drama or interesting characters the film picked up the Jury Prize in the documentary competition.

Festival programming is tough. You have to find something for everyone and the doc category can sometimes look a little bleak on the surface. Every now and then, something comes along that transcends that stereotype, and so it was with Angela Christlieb and Stephen Kijak's funky and fun Cinemania. The film opens with the grooviest title sequence of the festival, set to a song by German techno band Stereo Total, and follows five raving cinephiles through the annals of New York 's movie theaters on their quest to see every movie ever made. While focusing on the characters—and they are characters—the film explores the cinephile subculture, detailing its special eating habits, friendships and sex lives...but most at all, its "commitment to cinema."

Shorts of note included Boys/Girls, an experimental look at transgender issues blending documentary with dramatized fiction and the environmentally friendly SUV Taggers, in which two "bad-boy enviro-activists" slap "I'M CHANGING THE CLIMATE" bumper stickers on SUVs in mall parking lots in Southern California.

Over the past three years, the festival has changed noticeably in terms of location, timing and programming. The AFI staff and programmers project a "proud papa" attitude when discussing their festival. When asked about the documentaries, Festival Director Christian Gaines says, "We are all very proud of the documentary section and if there were to be any sort of change, we would only show more documentaries and more films in all categories."

With its calendar position locked between the prestigious Toronto and Sundance Film Festivals, AFI Fest is sure to boom in the coming years, attracting more films, distributors, attendees and hosting even more filmmakers all the while remaining the No. 1 destination for international cinema in Los Angeles.


Sarah Jo Marks is a producer's rep and consultant.