June 1, 1999

Doubletake Documentary Film Festival 1999

Clockwise, top-left: <em>A Letter Without Words; Strong at the Broken Places; City of Peace; Dutch Harbor, Where the Sea Breaks Its Back</em>

The DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival, held April 8-11 in Durham, North Carolina, managed in its second year to present the documentary in a humanist tradition. Associated with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, it has grown a lot since the inaugural weekend event a year ago. It's a day longer, with more submissions (now up to about 300), and double the number of festival passes (now 450). Major documentary filmmakers, including D.A. Pennebaker, Albert Maysles, Lee Grant and George Stoney, along with many other producers, sat on panels, spoke after films and mixed at parties. Audiences, which sold out only four of the shows for the 80 films in the downtown Durham complex, were a curious and receptive mix of university types, professional folk and local film enthusiasts.

The festival is still struggling for its definition. It wavers between being workshop and showcase, regional and national, grassroots- or media-oriented. It was surprising, given the festival's focus on documentary as humanist endeavor, that only occasional effort had been made to connect with targeted constituencies. Nonetheless, it provided an all-too-rare meeting place for people who come to documentary for its power to "represent the unrepresented."

The festival showed a mix of old and new, in several curated programs as well as a competitive strand. Retrospective programming is laudable. More and more work from the past is easily available to watch, but we need help finding the reasons to return to it and connections to make to it. "Documentary as Witness: Great Films of the 20th Century" was, however, often as frustrating as it was thought-provoking. Museum of Modem Art chief curator Mary Lea Bandy duly assembled a predictable list, familiar to most undergraduate teachers. The more controversial choices, however, sadly lacked a discussion context, A Hard Day's Night was and is a pivotal event in film editing and the granddaddy of MTV, but is it a documentary? Yes, Man with a Movie Camera is great, but why did audiences reject it soundly when it debuted in the Soviet Union, and how do we measure its impact today? Is it important that Humphrey Jennings set his own fires in the classic Battle of Britain doc Fires Were Started? Why is a scripted, fictional feature, Shoeshine, on the list? There were many conversations waiting to happen in this rich historical trove.

In "A World without Limits," the festival featured films on disability issues, linking them to the 10th Special Olympics to be held in North Carolina later (June 26-July 4). Along with some well-established choices (Educating Peter, When Billy Broke His Head...and Other Tales of Wonder), the series also featured the 1998 The Living Museum, by Academy Award winner (for the also shown Breathing Lessons) Jessica Yu, the film, on HBO in July, takes us inside an art workshop and museum run for the mentally ill. The art director, Janoz Martin, is the genial conductor of a symphony of personalities and artistic efforts. The film nicely challenges neat categories of madness and artistry, without collapsing them.

Regional work was hard to sight. "North Carolina Classics" featured few North Carolinian filmmakers. Instead, films that featured the slate in some way were chosen—for instance, Berkeley-based Les Blank's Sprout Wings and Fly, from the early 1980s. Viewers coming to discover unheralded regional talent were left to view the short advertising and commercial films made by a North Carolina photographer, H. Lee Waters, in the 1930s. George Stoney, a North Carolina native whose How the Myth Was Made and Uprising of '34 were both shown, also served as a panelist and a juror for the competition. "I was pleased to see high quality films, and when there were discussions, they were interesting," he said. "But only four out of the 40-some films the jurors saw even had Southern settings, and only two were from people even located in the South."

The films in competition covered a wide range of topics, styles and distribution means, mixing lesser-knowns with a clutch of Sundance winners and cable documentaries. On the Holocaust, Lisa Gossels's memoir fim, The Children of Chabannes, recalled a French orphanage that sheltered Jewish children, including her father, during World War II. Gossels manages to balance intimate storytelling with complex history. To portray the rise of fascism in Europe from her family's viewpoint, Lisa Lewenz in A Letter Without Words uses the home movies left to her by her grandmother, who had stashed them in her suitcase on her light from Germany in 1938.

Fotoamator, which tied with Return with Honor for the Jury Award, is a stunning, shocking exploration of the meaning of the photographic image. The Polish film, by Dariusz Jablonski, uses the color photographs of the Nazi's chief accountant for the Lodz ghetto, in combination with black-and-white footage from the same street corners today; one fades to the other disconcertingly. The accountant's whining letters to the company producing the then experimental color film are juxtaposed with the bureaucratic documents systemizing deprivation and death, and with the devastating testimony of a Jewish doctor who helped to run the ghetto, and who still lives the agony of who-shall-die decisions. The film makes expert use of absence—who is not on the streets now; what was not shown in the almost-touristic photos that the Nazi accountant took; the ghastly pauses in the doctor's testimony. The Lodz ghetto, an unimaginable place, emerges almost holographically in the imagination, in the spaces between the conflicting images and words.

Among films about sports, the small and heartbreaking In My Corner (chosen for this year's lineup on PBS's P.O.V.) by Ricki Stern, about a community boxing center in the South Bronx, and the audience award-winner Matti Ke Lal-Fils de la Terre, a 20 min. short by Elisabeth Leuvrey, about an aged former wrestler in India who cares for street orphans, contrast with the larger than-life Hitman Hart, Paul Jay's profile of a professional wrestler ("Nobody ever says, 'You're a great actor,'they just say 'You're a fake,"' Hart mourns).

Famous-names movies also ranged widely in style. Aviva Kempner's The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg is like a collective fan's scrapbook for the baseball hero who lived on the front lines of American anti-Semitism. Vince DiPersio and William Guttentag's Assassinated: the Last Days of Kennedy and King, a Turner production with Oliver Stone co-executive producing, is made in a somber, no-frills style. It links the deaths of MLK and RFK with their increasing challenges to entrenched power. Bessie: A Portrait of Bessie Schonberg, by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, about the venerable choreographer and dance teacher, takes a vérité voyage inside the world that loves her.

Some films boldly supported social action. Lee Grant's Confronting the Crisis: Childcare in America, the runner up for the audience award, was made for the Lifetime cable channel, in a tried-and-true TV documentary style. It highlights a problem so familiar to most parents that it has come to seem dangerously normal: the lack of decent childcare for America's children. Lifetime has worked with White House staff to promote the issue, the film and solutions to the problem, and offers more action guide material on its website. Margaret Lazarus and Renner Wunderlich's Strong at the Broken Places is a powerful profile of four people who overcame terrible challenges-drug addiction; amputation; a family devastated by handgun- related murder; wartime atrocity and exile. Their stories are unified by the fact that they all saved themselves by learning to help others. It is a film that goes beyond sentimental uplift—the bane of disability films in general—to be genuinely touching and even inspiring. The filmmakers avoid putting viewers in the position of cheering on the handicapped. Rather, they leave us with hard-won strategies that could work for many different kinds of problems.

One of the best examples of the kind of filmmaking that Doubletake was formed to honor is HBO's recent acquisition City at Peace, which ran on the cable channel May 20. Susan Koch's labor of love chronicles a project that bridges profound class and racial gaps in Washington, D.C. Kids are auditioned from all over the city to work on a musical they'd write themselves, out of the material of their own lives. And there's plenty of material. There's Cindy the teen prostitute, who shows up in an obscenity-laden T-shirt; and Laura, a child of divorce who goes to school with Chelsea Clinton. There 's D'Angelo, convicted of two armed robberies, and Rickey, the musician's son. They 're black and white, rich and poor. Pam's parents are appalled by her consort­ing with African-Americans, and sent into a tailspin by her brother's announcement that he has HIV. The entire troupe visits D'Angelo after he gets shot on the street. The kids fall in love, go to jail, have sleep­ overs, hurt feelings and the giggles. In the process, they show us the built-in segrega­tion of most of our daily lives. It wasn't easy to get City at Peace made. "My track record didn't count on this one," said vet­eran producer Susan Koch. "It's tough to find space for social documentaries like this. It 's not what broad casters want. No one believed this was a movie until it was finished."

A few documentaries fit no category. Braden King and Lauren Moya made a haunting meditation on an Alaskan frontier port town, Dutch Harbor; Where the Sea Breaks Its Back, which eloquently portrays the consequences of rapacious harvesting practices on both the cultural and physical environment. Voiceover interviews with town residents Dutch Harbor, Where accompany awe—and terror—inspiring images of the harsh environment and the rolling danger of the fishing boats; people are ever-present in the story of Dutch Harbor but nearly invisible on screen. King and Moya have toured Europe and the U.S., but not on a film circuit. They have screened the film via a network of music societies and clubs, thanks to the cutting-edge group The Boxhead Ensemble, who recorded the sound track . "It was pretty weird to see a film shot at the edge of the world, scored by avant­ garde artists, in a 17th century music hall in Dresden ," King said. The film has a music distributor, Atavistic, and is on file at amazon.com. For Moya, the film is an elegy to a disappearing frontier culture; for King it's an experiment in form; for George Stoney, who praised it publicly (and triggered a sell-out crowd), it was "propaganda for the preservation of th is planet."

The festival paid tribute to the late Henry Hampton, who had been a board member. Errol Morris won the 1999 Career Award, a tribute that he said he found a bit frightening, "since I hope my career isn 't over yet." He showed Stairway to Heaven, a profile of the autistic designer of humane slaughter­ houses, Temple Grandin. The show is a pilot for what may become an internationally-produced series shown on public tele­vision systems. The elegantly constructed short reveals Grandin as a kind, funny and practical person, and Morris's admiration for her showed both in the film and in his presentation.

Commenting on his other films and their often odd ball subjects in a low-key conversation with the audience, he said, "What makes the world tolerable to me is that I often find it unutterably insane." It may not have been the clincher that the festival hosts were hoping for, but it resonated well with an audience that had immersed itself in documentary for an intense weekend.

 

Pat Aufderheide is a professor in the School of Communication at American University, Washington, D.C .

Tags: