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Futbol, 'Fire' and the F-Word Highlight AFI Fest

By Sarah Jo Marks

Sebastian Telfair shooting cover for Sports Illustrated. Telfair is the subject of Jonathan Hock and Alastair Cristopher's Through the Fire

Film festivals in Los Angeles have long been a place to hold the illustrious Hollywood gala movie premiere, which can be the springboard into a theatrical run. The American Film Institute Los Angeles International Film Festival (AFI Fest), which ran last November 3-13, devoted a lot of time to this aspect of festivals. Among the many high-profile films that received their US or West Coast Premieres included Walk the Line, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Transamerica, Mrs. Henderson Presents and Casanova . But the adventurous explorer could find something extraordinary just beyond the mainstream, with 127 films, including 20 documentaries, from 44 countries.

Pelé Forever, about Brazilian fútbol (soccer) legend Pelé, led off the documentary offerings of the festival, with Pelé himself on hand to introduce the film.   Director/producer Anibal Massaini Neto is seeking US distribution with hopes for a release to coincide with the 2006 World Cup. The film, five years and $3 million in the making, used 40 years of archival footage, plus new interviews with Pelé, his family, soccer pros, commentators and others to reconstruct Pelé's life in soccer. While entertaining, pleasant, even, the film surprisingly lacks depth or insight about the subject. Nonetheless, the predominantly Brazilian audience reveled in the opportunity to relive the many breathtaking moments in Pelé's remarkable career.

Through the Fire follows Sebastian Telfair through his senior year of high school basketball. Telfair is charismatic, he loves his mom and for a 5-foot-10-inch player, he kicks butt on the court. The film is suspenseful, with great music and editing, and exudes passion and confidence. Through the Fire received the Netflix Audience Award for best documentary, which included a $5,000 unrestricted cash prize. Directors Jonathan Hock and Alistair Christopher did a tremendous job illustrating the exuberance of an athlete born to play basketball. The film opened in theaters on February 10 through Cinema Libre Studio, and is scheduled to air on ESPN March 12 and be available on DVD two days later.

Prior to the screening of Burning Man: Beyond Black Rock (Damon Brown, dir.), the latest doc to explore the annual Burning Man arts festival in the Nevada desert, producer Mike Wilson introduced the film by saying, "We made the movie for the people that have never gone and probably will never go, so you can have some of the pride that this happens in America." Having seen five documentaries over the past five years on the subject, I can say this is the best of the five--but really, that's not saying much. However, instead of just focusing on the attendees and their participation in Burning Man, the filmmakers use clever titles ("364 Days Until the Man Burns"), follow a few participating artists (David Best creates a new temple for the event every year, then burns it to the ground) and interview the creators and people who make the organization run year round. Such a strategy does make the film more interesting to people who have never been to Burning Man, and according to Wilson, that's the point. The film just didn't quite have a compelling human interest story.

Screaming Masterpiece (Ari Alexander Ergis, dir./prod.) was billed in the festival catalogue as a survey of the contemporary music scene in Iceland--"a treasure chest of sound that is 1,000 years in the making." From the first scene of the film I knew I was in for a real treat. It was loud and thrilling. The images were powerful and the sheer passion Icelanders have for their music is addictive. However, at 88 minutes the film is a bit meandering. According to producer Sigurjon Sighvatsson, this was about the 20th version of the film, so chances are more editing will come. The DVD and soundtrack are sure to be fleshed out and will pop up in the States sometime in 2006. In the meantime, the soundtrack is available on iTunes.

The Refugee All Stars band is made up of six Sierra Leonean musicians living as refugees in the West African nation of Guinea. Their homeland was ravaged by a brutal civil war from 1991-2002, and they found themselves in refugee camps playing music to help heal themselves and their people from the tragedies they'd lived through. The Refugee All Stars is emotional, mostly due to the music that defines it and the refugees' passion to write, play, perform and even record it. Three of the Refugee All Stars were flown in from Sierra Leone to field questions after the AFI screening, then to perform their heartfelt tunes at the after party. Filmmakers Zach Niles and Banker White earned the Aquafina Pure Vision Award for the film.

There are three million Sudanese refugees living in Egypt. Davin Anders Hutchins, an American journalist and the filmmaker, lived in Cairo for a year looking for stories. He found them in a refugee from Southern Sudan, a human rights activist from Northern Sudan and in himself. The Art of Flight dares to ask questions about the "American Empire" and explores the Middle East through new and unflinchingly open eyes.

Back to Bosnia (Ali Hanson, dir./prod.) is filmmaker Sabina Vajraca's story of returning to the place she calls her home, Banja Luka, the second largest city in war-torn Bosnia. At age 14, Vajraca was sent to live with her aunt, her brother left with a family friend, her mother eventually joined them and her father stayed behind and joined a humanitarian effort--helping the displaced until one day the mosque where he worked was blown up. The family relocated to Florida, leaving behind their friends, family and home full of their belongings. The film is heartbreaking and thought provoking, using the Vajraca's family story to tell the story of all the families of Bosnia who lost their homes both physically and emotionally.

If I wasn't jerked up enough after seeing Back to Bosnia, Factor 8: The Arkansas Prison Blood Scandal upset me even further. "This film will make you angry, and that's a good thing," said Natalie McMenemy, documentary programmer for AFI Fest, introducing the film. Interestingly, Factor 8 was originally scheduled to be screened at Slamdance in 2004, but due to a court-imposed injunction, the film could not be shown. Kelly Duda's investigative documentary explores the prison blood donor program in Arkansas. How did tainted blood get into a pharmaceutical used to treat hemophiliacs in Canada, infecting them with AIDS and Hepatitis C? Duda's presence throughout the film reminds the viewer that he is just a citizen in his home state asking a few questions. But the roadblocks he hits along the way are truly disturbing. Factor 8 is an impressive work of investigative reporting, an important film and an insane example of what the media chooses to illuminate or ignore. The film received a Special Mention from the Documentary Jury.

Desire follows a group of New Orleans-based girls over the course of five years as they deal with teen pregnancy, sexuality, high school, high expectations, graduation and dropping out. Julie Gustafson, the director/producer, seemed pleased with the world premiere screening after 10 years of work on the project. Desire was supposed to have had its world premiere at the New Orleans Film Festival, but Hurricane Katrina put an end to that last summer. All proceeds from the AFI Fest screenings of Desire benefited the New Orleans Film Festival; Lindsay Ross, its executive director, spoke after the screening and asked for donations. She and her staff are currently working for free trying to get the festival on track for 2006.

There's just something funny about people saying, "Have you seen FUCK ?" And really, that's the point of the movie. What is so bad about a word? Who says it's bad? What makes a word bad word and what makes it so good to use to describe so many things? The film, FUCK, or F**K as it appeared on the marquee, is entertaining, with great animation sequences by Bill Plympton, interviews with Billy Connolly, Janeane Garofalo, Dennis Prager, Ms. Manners and Ron Jeremy, and surprising images of present and past US presidents "flipping the bird," plus countless movie and TV clips and about 800 mentions of the F-word. Okay so it's a little salacious, but ultimately, that's what makes it fun.

Film festivals have a way of making you feel welcome. You want to see everything and you definitely want to happen to see what eventually wins at that Sunday awards ceremony. It would be nice for documentaries to move into some of the slots reserved for gala premieres, though. Save some red carpet for the nonfiction filmmakers and their exuberant entourages.


Sarah Jo Marks is a producer's rep and documentary devotee. Read more at