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Festival Focus: AFI Fest 2007

By Tom White

From Doug Pray's <em>Big Rig</em> (Brad Blondheim, prod.)

Just as New York boasts of two major festivals and a host of regional or community-specific fests, so does LA, with the Los Angeles Film Festival (under the auspices of Film Independent), kicking off the summer season on the west side of town, and the AFI Fest (officially, AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival), anchoring the late fall/early winter, brink-of-awards-season slot in Hollywood. The AFI Fest is one of three franchises, along with AFI Fest/Dallas and Silverdocs, under the AFI banner, and this year’s edition of the LA festival seemed to boast more documentaries than ever before, with two slots—the International Documentary Competition and the Documentary Showcase—devoted to the genre, and docs popping up among many of the other strands.

AFI Fest screened a few of the Toronto International Film Festival premieres, including Nina Davenport’s Operation Filmmaker. Davenport had been tapped by MTV to document the adventures of Muthana Mohmed, an Iraqi film student who had been plucked from the ruins of his bombed-out film school in Baghdad to work on the crew of Liev Scheiber’s Everything Is Illuminated. What begins as a noblesse oblige project on Scheiber’s part becomes an ethical quandary, as Mohmed’s kvetching about his gofer jobs on the set—as well as his unreliability—belie the increasingly horrific circumstances back home in Baghdad. Davenport becomes his unwitting confessor and confidant, and the documentary evolves into a classic case study of the inevitable tensions between filmmaker and subject: To what extent, and when, does a filmmaker step in to help, particularly when the subject is himself an aspiring filmmaker? Breaking from her previous work, Davenport eschews narration, letting this struggle play itself out in the larger arena of documentary filmmaking. Operation Filmmaker went on share the International Documentary Grand Jury Prize with Andreas Mal Dalsgaard’s Afghan Muscles.

Another Toronto alum, Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro’s Body of War, profiles disabled Iraq War veteran Tomas Young, and his transformation from soldier to anti-war activist. Body of War is talk show-host Donahue’s first foray into the doc world, and he and Spiro deftly draw a parallel between the 2002 debate in the US House and Senate on the authorization for use of military force against Iraq and Young’s own rehabilitation, readjustment and re-emergence. By film’s end, Young is meeting with Senator Robert Byrd, one of the more eloquent opponents of the authorization, and following the screening, film representatives passed out copies of the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

This being Hollywood, AFI Fest programmed a number of docs that addressed the subject, including Todd McCarthy’s Pierre Rissient: Man of Cinema, about the legendary impresario; Jeffrey Schwartz’s Audience Award-winning Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story, about the PT Barnum-esque showman of horror films; Mike Kaplan’s Never Apologize: A Personal Visit with Lindsay Anderson, produced and written by actor Malcom McDowell, about the British film director; and Kent Jones’ Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, about the relatively obscure low-budget filmmaker from the 1940s. Arthur Dong showcased his latest effort, Hollywood Chinese, which takes a fascinating look at the history of Chinese-American representation in American cinema, all the way back to the silent era. Dong secured the participation of an impressive ensemble of participants, including filmmakers Ang Lee, Wayne Wang and Justin Lin, actors Joan Chen and BD Wong; and writer David Henry Hwang, among many others, to tell the story of how their community has evolved, rightly or wrongly, on screen.

Music documentaries have always been a strength of the AFI Fest, with such noteworthies as Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars and Kurt Cobain About a Son having received world and US premieres, respectively, here. Screaming Masterpieces, which looked at Iceland’s unique music scene, had its North American premiere at AFI Fest 2005, and Sigur Rós—Heima, part of this year’s International Documentary Competition, could be seen as a spawn of that film. Sigur Rós had embarked on its first tour of Iceland in seven years, and called on Dean de Blois, who had worked primarily in animation but was an unabashed fan of the band, to document the tour. Thanks largely to the stunning and magical terrain of Iceland, and the band’s sprawling atmospheric musical forays, de Blois created a cinematic journey worthy of both the artists and their native land.

One music doc that fell short on its promise was Robert Patton-Spruill’s Public Enemy: Welcome to the Terrordome, which chronicles the 20-year life of the seminal rap group Public Enemy. When you’re as big a fan of PE as I was, you’re naturally inclined to hold up a film about them to closer scrutiny. A panoply of shooting formats that befits the band’s dense aural mosaic of sound and fury, Terrordome offers a compelling mix of interviews, behind-the-scenes vérité and, of course, performances. No doubt, PE took rap to the next level, with its fierce and funky commentary and righteous rage that left the “put your hands in the air/wave ’em ’bout you like you just don’t care” generation back in grade school. But maybe being a fan, I had a lot more questions that were left unanswered, like the band’s diminished impact—and even absence from the scene—over the past decade, or frontman Chuck D’s take on the mayhem, materialism and misogyny themes that infuse so much of the best-selling hip-hop today. Or, as one audience member at a screening asked, What about the dramatic demographic shift in the group’s fan base, from largely black to overwhelmingly white? The producer simply answered, “Music is music."

Filmmaker Doug Pray is no stranger to music, having kicked off his career with Hype!, about the Seattle grunge scene, and Spin, about the art and artistry of turntablists. Having explored other sub-cultures such as graffiti artists (Infamy) and, as editor, pimps (American Pimp; Allen and Albert Hughes, dirs.), Pray turned to truckers in his latest film, Big Rig. He and producer Brad Blondheim traversed the country, covering 45 states and 25,000 miles, capturing truckers on the road, day and night, winter, spring, summer and fall, as they share their tales of life on the highway—the dangers, the struggles, even the occasional pleasures. But as the film reveals, driving a big rig is not the tawdry romantic illusion of Tom Waits songs.

One of the highlights of AFI Fest 2007 was an AFI TalkShow with the always engaging Werner Herzog, whose latest documentary, Encounters at the End of the World, was discussed at length, but, curiously, not screened at the festival. The film, which he shot in Antarctica, was funded in large part by a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Artists and Writers Program. And as with so much of his work, he sought out the “pure-hearted dreamers” to understand “what made them fall off the end of the map.” There was a sense of awe and wonder in Herzog as he described the process of making the film, in every aspect, from sound (“Sound is something you have to take care of. It’s not just technical equipment; it’s way beyond that”) to music (“Music can change not only our emotional approach to image, but also our entire perspective.”). Of course, no Herzog presentation would be complete without his rant against “the idiocy of cinema vérité” and his embrace of “the ecstasy of truth,” which is “a discovery of what illuminates you. It’s very elusive in cinema and has been a guiding light in all my films."

“Many of my documentaries are fiction films in disguise,” he continued. “You reach a deeper strata by invention.”


Thomas White is editor of Documentary magazine and content editor of