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Documentaries at the 42nd Annual San Francisco International Film Festival

By Lily Ng

Two older men play guitar on stage, from Wim Wenders' 'Buena Vista Social Club.'

Sometimes, the act of watching films is like going to a place where you've never been and discovering that you feel right at home.

That's what happened to Paul Pena, the star of Adrian and Roko Belic's Genghis Blues. This popular documentary—already mentioned in these pages for its Sundance premiere—won both the Grand Prize for Best Bay Area Documentary and the Audience Award at the recent San Francisco International Film Festival (April 22-May 6). At closing night ceremonies, when Genghis Blues was announced as prizewinner, Roko Belic brought Pena onstage. The blind musician, whose journey to compete in a throatsinging competition is featured in the film, belted out a few throaty tones for the assembly. The audience—of course—went wild.

Actually hearing Pena in person—even if just for a moment—is necessary to fully appreciate the art of throatsinging and its popularity in the former Soviet Republic of Tuva. Pena had taught himself the unique ability of singing two harmonic notes simultaneously while he listened to a Radio Moscow broadcast on his shortwave radio. When he learned that the renowned Tuvan throatsingers would appear in concert at San Francisco's Asian Art Museum, he battled the crowds just to listen to the Tuvans from the museum lobby. Kongar-Ol Ondar, a famous Tuvan throatsinger, surprised all by showing up in the lobby for an impromptu performance. Once Pena had mustered his courage to demonstrate his own throatsinging in front of the master, a friendship-and a film-were born.

The Belic brothers, in search of a film to make, urged Pena to accept Ondar's invitation to compete in Tuva's International Throatsinging Symposium, held every three years. "We didn't know up until the moment we left, what equipment we'd use," Adrian said, who with Roko, shares producing, writing and photography credits. "I guess you could say, we weren't qualified to shoot this thing," he continued, as we meet the rest of the ragtag crew: sound tech Lemon DeGeorge, musicians calling themselves the Friends of Tuva Society, and Bay Area radio DJ Mario Cassetta.

As with most journeys, the quest for one thing becomes a discovery of something else. The visit to Tuva offers Paul Pena some sanctuary from the burden of loneliness that his blindness has given him. He basks in the warmth of his traveling companions and his newfound friends. When events suggest his visit might be cut short, Paul laments about returning home, even composing a song that says, "There should never be anyone happier than rne/And my friends are here with me!" His anguish about returning home is overcome by his awe and wonderment from this new experience, and we're convinced that the love from his new friends can conquer any obstacles he'll face at home.

Although Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum remarked that Genghis Blues "makes up in soul what it lacks in production values" (it was shot on video and transferred to film), the shooting is intimate and patient, letting the characters reveal themselves at their own speed. The Belics' decision to travel light also helped them shoot at a moment's notice with little prep time. Roko's editing brings a spontaneity to the interviews by allowing one character to finish another's sentence, changing the direction of the original thought. This makes for vivacious talking head sequences, while displaying the distinct natures of each character: Paul's delight as well as his despair; Mario's irrepressible charm; and Lemon's jolting realism.

There is that sense of home, too, for the characters of On the Ropes, winner of a Silver Spire in the Golden Gate Awards competition. New York filmmakers Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen follow three boxers of the Bed[ford]-Stuy[vesant] Boxing Center, all of whom treat the gym as their second home, a safe haven from the sketchy neighborhoods outside. There's Tyrene, a feisty young woman on her way to the 1997 Golden Gloves competition. And Noel, a high school-aged boxer, whose mother is a former crack addict, leaving Noel to care for himself and his younger brother. Finally, George who has the best shot of turning pro, having already won a Golden Gloves championship. Tying these three together is Harry the trainer. A rising star in the ring in 1980, until a bout with drugs landed him in Sing Sing for attempted murder Harry served a four-year sentence and lived on the street for another four years before he joined the community at Bed-Stuy.

It was that sense of community within the gym's walls that first attracted filmmaker/editor Burstein, who had been boxing at Bed-Stuy and was familiar with Harry and the others. From the first frame of the film, there is a tremendous warmth about the place—the smell of chalk and dust almost reaches your nostrils. Of the three boxers, we get to know Tyrene best. At 28, she's the legal guardian for her aunt's two daughters, Ebony and Equana, while caring for her uncle, a crack-addict afflicted with AIDS. Her world begins to crumble when she's falsely accused of drug possession with intent to sell. By a cruel twist of fate, both her court appointment and first round at the Golden Gloves competition fall on the same date. Although the evidence—or luck thereof—seems to ensure Tyrene's innocence, the jury brings in a guilty verdict.

I asked Burstein and Morgen if they could have helped Tyrene. Burstein responded that initially they did help Tyrene with her case, but to get her an expensive lawyer would have been a violation, contrary to what Tyrene could actually afford. "We also wanted to show the unfairness of the justice system," Burstein added. Tyrene's five-year sentence seemed a high price to pay to prove such a point.

The problem here—perhaps with documentary films in general—is that no matter how socially responsible a view can come from subjects' stories, the filmmaker always benefits more from making the film than the subjects do from being in it. I have to accept this criticism myself: those who appeared in my video on domestic violence didn't receive the benefits of the project as directly as I did as filmmaker. Listening to Burstein and Morgen talk about the values of their film made me think they were preaching to the choir; and now with one more example of a faulty court system, the choir just has to get louder. How many more Tyrenes will have to be filmed before the situation is bettered? In the end. Harry and Noel and George and Tyrene prove to be fighters not just in the ring but in their lives as well.

The struggle for that sense of peace one finds at home pervades Divorce Iranian Style, a video collaboration between filmmaker Kim Longinotto and anthropologist Ziba MirHosseini. Using a single camera, at just about the same angle for each scene, the video chronicles the court cases of six women as they seek divorces from their husbands. As the court system favors the husband in divorce proceedings (for example, custody of children usually goes to the father in cases of separation), the film also points to the disparity of legal equality between the sexes.

The Iranian court system, while allowing divorce, encourages couples to remain married, and to seek ways to make their marriage work. Judge Deldar tells one woman, "Look nice for your husband when he comes home." The onus of keeping the marriage together falls on the woman even if she is the one who initiates divorce proceedings.

There is the case of Mariam, who remarried after being granted a divorce. Having lost custody of her eldest daughter to her ex-husband, she is now fighting to keep her younger daughter. 'At least let me keep one," she wails to the judge and her ex-husband. The court secretary, a veteran of 27 years of hearings, suggests to Miriam that her re-marriage has disqualified her from keeping her child: "You're losing your child because of lust." The judge orders Miriam to return on another day when a decision will be handed down.

Masi wants a divorce from her husband because she claims that he cannot father children, legal grounds for divorce in Iran. After stating her case, she is directed to find her file amidst the court records. The custodian of the filing system, unable to locate her file, sends her away, saying that it will take at least 10 days to produce the missing documents.

Despite the Kafka-esque bureaucracy, the women return, time after time, filling out new petitions, pleading, manipulating, to get the desired results. "Women no longer want to accept the status quo," says Ziba Mir-Hosseini. Most in their early 20s, these women represent the current generation who want to go public with their feelings, to talk openly about problems, and to seek their own solutions. "Men don't like the film, but they won't say that directly," Mir-Hosseini continued. "This is not Islam-bashing; divorce is painful, but it's all about being denied the choice." Asked about the film's response elsewhere, she said. "Iranians abroad don't like the film. They think we've portrayed Iran as a backwards culture: Iranians in the Netherlands asked me, 'Why do you show Iranians sitting on the floor?' They need to look at their own orientalism after having lived in the West. I mean, many cultures sit on the floor—especially with those beautiful rugs!... Non-Iranians watch the film and can identify with the women. The film showed at New York's Film Forum for two weeks! We cannot be afraid to challenge the stereotypes and look at our own cultures critically."

Filmmakers Mir-Hosseini and Longinotto negotiated with Iranian authorities for over a year-and-a-half to get the video shot and made. Divorce Iranian Style received this year's Grand Prize for Best Documentary at SFIFF.

The 1999 San Francisco International Film Festival showcased 18 documentaries and several documentary shorts. The following include other notable must-sees:

One Girl Against the Mafia (1998, 56 min.) A mixture of Super 8, diary entries, news footage and video, Marco Amenta's documentary makes all too real the dangers of tampering with the "family business." Along with her sister-in-law Piera Aiello, seventeen year-old Rita Atria decides to collaborate with the authorities after her father and brother are brutally murdered. Although it may seem like the stuff of cinematic lore, the Mafia is alive and well and living in Sicily.

Battu's Bioscope (1998, 58 min.) Polish director Andrzej Fidyk follows Mr. Battu, his spry old colleague Mama, and his assistant Amit as they bring the best of Hollywood to villages that have never before seen a film. True lovers of cinema, the Battu crew themselves become stars as Fidyk focuses his lens on this tender triangular family.

Catholic School (1998, 13 min.) Winner of the Best Bay Area Documentary Short, Catholic School chronicles a day in the life of a class of fourth graders. Reminiscent of the first installment of Michael Apted's 7 Up series, the kids share their thoughts on everything from heaven to marriage. Director Jona Frank's black-and-white stills provide a poignant ending.

Megacities (1998. 90 min.) Michael Glawogger explores the labyrinths beneath the inner cities of New York, Moscow, Mexico City and Bombay. There, the working poor reside, doing any labor that brings income. From scouring Bombay's putrid river bottom for discarded tin, to selling chicken feet broth from a cart in Mexico City, these urban inhabitants eke out a living behind corrugated metal walls, dingy hotel rooms, and sweat-soaked factories.

Beca de Gilas: Rebeca's Story (1998. 20 min.) Pepe Urquijo's video follows Rebeca Armendariz, a young activist who seeks change by trying to enfranchise her community. "I don't have time for college. I have to improve myself and go back and improve my community," says the 21-year old. Shot on video and simply rendered. Rebeca's Story shows one person's response to the onset of California's Prop. 209.

Buena Vista Social Club (1999. 101 min.) Wim Wenders paints Cuba in glorious pastels while chronicling the reunion of the Buena Vista Social Club. the legendary ensemble that includes Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez, Manuel Licea, Ornara Portuondo, Compay Segundo, Orlandito Lopez, and others. Add to the mix slide guitarist Ry Cooder and his son, percussionist Joaquim Cooder, and you get a modern interpretation of music that has its roots in Latino and West African origins.

Amidst the rich offerings of documentary at SFIFF, there was that constant spirit of seeking peace through identity. Admittedly, "home" doesn't have to mean a singular concrete structure, nor the interior sanctity of "as safe as houses." The sense of feeling at home means being able to speak in your own voice, live comfortably in your own skin. As we watch the characters of documentaries fight through the difficulties of physical disability, economic strife, or arcane bureaucracies, struggling to achieve something better, we can only wish for them that they realize their dreams and their quests, that they find home.

Lily NG is a filmmaker working in San Francisco.