October 31, 2006

Los Angeles Film Festival 2006

From 'Paper Dolls,' which won the Audience Award for Best International Feature at the 2006 LAFF. Courtesy of Strand Releasing

When the Los Angeles Film Festival (LAFF) announced its intention last year to pull up its stakes and move westward from Hollywood to Westwood, LAFF devotees were initially skeptical, given the dearth of parking and the cramped quarters of the UCLA-dominated section of LA. But from Day One, the festival planners proved everyone wrong.

Los Angeles is famously maligned for lacking a center, and attempts at mobilizing the entire city around a single eventwitness the regrettable Turn of the Millennium celebrationare nearly impossible without the marketing muscle to leverage a full-on, months-long, take-no-prisoners campaign. Enter the Los Angeles Times and its formidable financial coffersnot to mention a built-in promotional and distribution infrastructure to generate tens of thousands of LAFF brochures and infiltrate the city streets with powder-blue LAFF banners. And finally, Westwood itself, with its cluster of theaters within easy walkingor shuttledistance of one another, gave the festival a manageable, village-sized area in which to work. You may not be able to canvass a sprawling amoeba like Los Angeles, but Westwood Village provided that Park City-like illusion of a takeover.

One would never think that a documentary about Barry Goldwater, for example, would draw a sell-out crowdon a sunny Saturday afternoon in the deepest blue wilds of Southern California, no less. But Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater provided the decidedly liberal audience a portrait of one of the more principled politicians in recent memory. With CC Goldwater, granddaughter of the former Arizona Senator and 1964 US Presidential candidate, producing, narrating and conducting the interviews for the film (Julie Anderson directed), such luminaries and elder statespeople as Sandra Day O'Connor, Ted Kennedy, Walter Cronkite, Hillary Clinton, James Carville and Al Franken willingly offered their on-camera observations and reflections. To her credit, CC eschwed the trappings of hagiography to explore the complexities of a true renaissance manone who revered photography, short-wave radio and the Grand Canyon as much as he embraced the democratic process...and one whose brand of conservativism is decidedly more, shall we say, liberal, than that of today.

Deliver Us From Evil, which made its world premiere at LAFF, won the $50,000 Target Prize for Best Documentary. Amy Berg's first long-form documentary, following Emmy Award-winning stints at CBS News and CNN, offered a fascinating and troubling profile of a convicted pedophile priest, Oliver O'Grady, interspersed with wrenching testimonies from some of his many victims, based primarily in Northern California. O'Grady, now living in his native Dublin, recounts his many crimes with an eerie calm, wavering somewhere between insouciance and sociopathology. Berg employs artful cinematography, courtesy of Dogma 95 veterans Jens Schlosser and Jacob Kusk, to frame O'Grady in a more gothic context. Berg draws out his victims' memories quietly and patiently, and the pain and anger is still very raw. The bigger villains in the story are the bishops and cardinals who allowed O'Grady's crimes to happen for too long; they declined to be interviewed on camera, but they appear in videotaped depositions about O'Grady's misdeeds.

Another kind of churchPeople's Temple, and its charismatic and monomaniacal leader, Jim Jonesare on full display in Stanley Nelson's Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple. In documenting the long road that led to the strange and horrific mass suicide in Guyana in November 1978, Nelson has captured a story that has all the trappings of the American Dreamentrepreneurship, industry, faith, migration, empire-buildingunderscored by the dark culture of cults. Thanks to a rich trove of footage and audio recordings from Jones' early days as a preacher in Indiana, through his utopian ideal of an integrated, self-contained commune, to his tragic final days as a mad messiah, Jonestown tells a riveting tale.

As perhaps a counterpoint to the subject of faith and its misuse and abuse, LAFF programmed a smattering of docs about art, artists and the creative process. Alison Chernick's Matthew Barney: No Restraint presents its subject as the epitome of looking like you know what you're doing so everyone is into it. Barney's art is abstract, greasy and probably not for everyone. The film follows him on a whaling ship in Japan as he creates a new work, Drawing Restraint 9. The piece and the film also feature Icelandic chanteuse Bjrk, another otherworldly being. The two are partners in both art and life, and the film shows how well they work together and understand each other.

Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis (Mary Jordan, dir./wtr.; Kenneth Wayne Peralta, prod.) celebrates the New York-based underground artist Jack Smith, who, for some four decades, figured in the avant-garde aesthetic. As a photographer, filmmaker and dramatist, Smith inspired a range of provocateurs, from Andy Warhol to John Waters, Richard Foreman to Cindy Sherman, and Nan Goldin to the performance artists of the 1980s. In the years following his classic film Flaming Creatures (1963), Smith stayed true to his life-work as an artist, increasingly uncompromising, prickly and curmudgeonly to his dying days.

Jack Smith would have found a spiritual kinship with the subjects of Tomer Heymann's Paper Dolls, which won the Audience Award for Best International Feature. In one of Tel Aviv's most conservative neighborhoods, a small group of gay Filipino immigrants working as caregivers devote themselves to their elderly Jewish charges except on the nights they perform in drag as the Paper Dolls. Heymann spent nearly five years exploring the Dolls' seemingly incongruous, often tender relationships with their employers, as well as their struggles with immigration authorities and the local gay community. The resulting film is a sensitive, complex portrait of men who are perpetual outsiders, at home and abroad.

East of Havana looks at artistic expression in an altogether different context from those of Jack Smith or the Paper Dolls. The film, by Jauresti Saizarbitoria and Emilia Menocal (and produced by Charlize Theron, Juan Carlos Saizarbitoria, Clark Peterson and Meagan Riley-Grant), profiles a corps of Havana-based rappers who hone their art through their finely tuned observations of the state of their native Cuba today. While resembling the recent award-winning doc Favela Rising in celebrating the power of music to empower one's place in a struggle, East of Havana is, in a way, even more hopeful and energizing, given that the raw violence that is so intrinsic to the favela culture is not so apparent in Havana.

Mario's Story, directed by Jeff Warner and Susan Koch, follows Mario Rocha, a young man sentenced to life in prison for a murder he did not commit. The filmmakers have been following him for seven years and are deeply involved in both the filmmaking and in Mario's and his family's struggle to be released from prison. Mario's Story earned the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature, and the filmmakers received a full tape-to-film blow-up, donated by Technicolor.

The wealth and breadth of docs on display here would have been rare in the early days of LAFF (in its former incarnation as LAIFF), when it was more typical for the festival to program two or three docs in total. Now, with documentaries infiltrating nearly every programmatic strand, nonfiction thrives in Westwood Village.

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