February 1, 1995

Docufest 1995

From Marcel Lozinski's <em>89mm From Europe</em>

Preceded by the "In and Out of the Cold" documentary screening series, the 2nd International Documentary Congress, and the 11th Annual IDA Awards Gala, an exciting month celebrating the documentary came to an end with IDA's DocuFest, the annual all-day showcase of the five IDA Distinguished Documentary Achievement Award winning films and the IDA David L. Wolper Student Award winner. Presented by the IDA and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art at LACMA's Leo S. Bing Theater on October 28, DocuFest featured public screenings of all the documentaries honored at the IDA Awards Gala at Paramount Studios the previous evening. After the last film was shown, outgoing IDA President Mel Stuart led a lively discussion with several of the award-winning filmmakers.

This year's selection was dominated by films that were deeply personal. Some were autobiographical and others historical, but each brought the viewer into the intimate world of the subject at hand.

The day began with Out of My Mind, winner of the IDA David L. Wolper Award. Produced and directed by Katie Cadigan at Stanford University, this engrossing program follows the story of Cadigan's brother as he descends into schizophrenia. The film was actually her brother's idea and extended from the early stages of the illness to his near-complete debilitation. This rare glimpse into mental illness was at once disturbing and inspiring, made so by the filmmaker's sensitive treatment of an intensely difficult, painful, and frightening subject.

DocuFest screened two hours of the four-hour documentary FDR, tracing the life of one of the century's most important figures, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Produced and directed by David Grubin, FDR traces Roosevelt's life through his childhood, his battle with polio, his triumphant rise to the U.S. presidency, and the years of the Great Depression and World War II. Grubin created a distinctly personal portrait of this critical historical figure, following him from the depths of personal desperation to the dizzying heights of achievement. Having previously produced a film on Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), Grubin became intrigued with the man LBJ had once called his "daddy" or inspiration. Film biographies on such well-known subjects as Roosevelt aren't rare, but done well, they serve as a reminder of the personal struggle behind the story of every great man or woman.

Roosevelt, perhaps more than any other important figure of the early- to mid-20th century, symbolized that struggle. FDR led the DocuFest films with a budget of approximately $2 million.

In The Devil Never Sleeps/El Diablo Nunca Duerme, filmmaker Lourdes Portillo brings us on a trip back to her hometown of Chihuahuas, Mexico, in search for the truth behind the death of her beloved Uncle Oscar. This offbeat part autobiography, part murder mystery, and part portrait of a culture was memorable for its use of a wide variety of elements, from Super-8mm home movies to excerpts from telenovelas (Spanish-language soap operas). Portillo's film is a challenge to the viewer, demanding not only his or her undivided attention, but a critical analysis of her reinterpretation of the documentary form.

Crumb is a portrait of underground artist Robert Crumb-best known to the public for his "Keep on Truckin'" cartoon- and his two brothers. Interviews with Crumb, his wife, and his deeply troubled brothers, along with a selection of his work dating back to childhood, create a unique perspective on a man whose dark, often bizarre cartoons reflect a truly unusual life. Director Terry Zwigoff, a friend of Crumb's since the 1970s, had long wished to create a film about the artist and his family. Zwigoff and producer Lynne O'Donnell struggled for nine years to raise the $200,000 necessary to produce the film, rejecting efforts by several funders to eliminate the considerable focus on Crumb's unknown brothers. The resulting film doesn't overlook the important role that his peculiar family played and still plays in his life.

89mm From Europe, produced by Janusz Skalkowski and Wojciech Szczudlo and directed by Marcel Lozinski, symbolizes the great differences between east and west at the border between Poland and the former Soviet Union. Here, tracks in the east are 89mm wider that tracks in the west, and each train crossing the border must have its wheels replaced. Shot in beautiful black and white, the film shows workers who change several thousand wheels every day in a h uge, grimy train shed, the very symbol of the creaking industrial might of the former Soviet Union.

Eternity, produced by Susan MacKinnon and directed by Lawrence Johnston, traces an Australian icon. For 40 years, the word Eternity appeared chalked in stylized script throughout the city of Sydney. At first a mystery and then a story of a dedicated man driven by a tortured past, it became an indelible part of the city's character. Stunning black-and­ white reenactments, produced with a minuscule budget and a minimal crew, bring the story to life while preserving its sense of mystery. This homage to the legendary "Mr. Eternity" reaches beyond his exploits to the continuing legacy of his obsession. Today, commercial products display his trademark signature and keep his legend seemingly eternal.

DocuFest 1995, far more than any previous Docu Fest, held a constant audience for the entire day's marathon program. Many attendees came, not to view a particular film, but to enjoy the entire experience. The 1995 IDA Awards, it seems, were right on the mark.

 

IDA board member Rich Samuels is currently co-producing (with Sven Berkemeier) Chris Nichols: The Googieman, about a man obsessed with preserving 1950s coffee-shop architecture.

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