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The Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, 1998: Short on Docs, Long on Moxie

By Tom White

A shirtless man wears a hospital gown cast around his neck like a cape with an oversized bandaid pasted on him. From 'Sick: The Life and Times of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist' won the Audience Award for Best Feature at Los Angeles Independent Film Festival

When the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival closed its 1997 edition with the documentary Off the Menu: Last Night At Chasen's, doc fans went home happy that this wasn't just a Cinderella kinda year. In addition, Sick: The Life and Times of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist won the Audience Award for Best Feature; and Michele Ohayon's Colors Straight Up later received an Academy Award® nomination. The momentum continued at Sundance '98, when docu-giants Ken Burns, Barbara Kopple, Penelope Spheeris and Michael Moore weighed in with their latest, and such films as The Farm, Frat House, Divine Trash, Out of the Past and Moment of Impact created the sort of buzz normally reserved for the goatee-and-cell-phone set.

And then came the 1998 LAIFF. In its fourth year, the festival has carved out its own niche on the Los Angeles social and cultural calendar-and that of the indieworld—as a place to discover and be discovered. The festival had grown enough in popularity to warrant a move from its previous sites at Raleigh Studios and Paramount Studios to the more accessible and convenient Sunset Strip, where screening facilities abound within walking distance of one another.

But the documentary offerings declined this year to a precious two feature-length films, with short films preceding them, and five additional short films for the Documentary Shorts program. To be fair, the 1997 fest screened three feature length docs, but all at high-profile times. This year's fare was relegated to the creaky morning hour of 10:30 a.m., with one feature actually going head to head with the Documentary Shorts program.

"I don't think there were as many [documentaries] to choose from this year,"Robert Faust, the festival's founder and indefatigable director maintained. "The numbers that we had in the past far exceeded what we saw this year, and what we ended up seeing this year was a lot of stuff that had played in other venues. What we try to do is keep our programming as fresh as possible. So between those two factors, there's what we programmed. It was disappointing because we had made sure we hit the places where the docs really came in from, and they just weren't coming in."

The dynamic duo of docs were The Cruise, by Bennett Miller, and City at Peace, by Susan and Christopher Koch. The Cruise is a vérité portrait of Timothy "Speed" Levitch, a New York City poet and philosopher toiling as a New York City bus tour guide. Making the best of his situation, Speed delivers long impressionistic monologues on and off the job-about his city, about his life, about the eroticism and spirituality of buildings and flowers and the Brooklyn Bridge and the World Trade Center, about the tragedy of civilization and structure—all to the bewilderment or indifference of his passengers, and the howling delight of this viewer. If Oscar Wilde were to return today, he might just be this cruise director, waxing rhapsodic about the Big Questions that the Big Apple inspires in him.

Director Bennett Miller shot The Cruise in black and white—first in digital video, then transferred to 35mm—and wisely stepped aside for the irrepressible Speed to provide the color. And when he stops talking and lets the city wash over him, the images are stunning: his whirling dance at the foot of the World Trade Center Towers; his rare moment of uncertainty at the door of the roof before he opens the door to a burst of sunshine, and Schubert at the end of the film. These are the Dionysian moments that Speed Levitch lives for every day. By the end of the film, we don't know much about Speed's history, save a wild kvetch on the Brooklyn Bridge at all who dissed him in his life, and the mention (without circumstantial explanation) of a brief period of incarceration. Nor do we know for sure if Speed has a home. But we've enjoyed the company of a fascinating man, one who deems his double decker tour "a loop to my death and a search for perfection."

City at Peace chronicles the creation of an original musical based on the real life experiences of 60 Washington , D.C. teenagers. The teenagers come from different races, classes and neighborhoods, and struggle through their salient and substantive differences to try to work together on the common ground of artistic creation. For filmmakers Susan and Christopher Koch , award-winning veterans of broadcast television, City at Peace is their first independently made documentary.

The Koch duo spent a year filming the process and followed various stories throughout the film. We meet teen mothers, ex-convicts, rape victims, private school students, a student with an HIV+ brother, and students with one parent. The teenagers open up to the camera and open up on stage-over the course of a year, they explore and test one another, with the encouragement of their mentors. The real life substance of their stories doesn't stop at the stage door: two of the teenagers are victims of shootings during the course of the filming, but they survive and recover in time to make their theatrical debuts. Nor is the experience the apotheosis of a perfect democracy: even after four months of working together, the black and white students mingle separately. But a year after they first meet, students are unanimous in declaring, "We're not just a cast." Observed one student, "At the end, you see the ghetto and the bourgeoisie transformed." City at Peace focuses on the most important domestic issues in American life today—race and class relations, the breakdown of the family, living with AIDS, and violence among inner-city teens. These are the issues that are important to the teenagers in the film, and while we may get only a hint of the adolescent undercurrents of dating and sexuality among the teens, what the filmmakers aimed for was to show the possibilities of a working community, whether in dialogue or on stage.

IDA member Elise Pearlstein's short documentary Pink's Famous Chili Dogs preceded The Cruise. A charming valentine to the Los Angeles eatery and long-time institution of the same name, Pink's Famous Chili Dogs traces its history through interviews with members of the Pink family, as well as with happy customers, ranging from working stiffs to once and former celebrities. In a town with a short attention span for endearing watering holes and eateries, Los Angeles—as the film testifies­ has embraced this humble one-time hot dog stand just inches away from the glitter and glimmer of Melrose Avenue.

All the films on the Documentary Shorts program embraced the theme of Pink's Famous Chili Dogs surviving—and not surviving—personal trauma. Elie's Lee's Repetition Compulsion is an animated film, made with her charcoal drawings, about battered and homeless women's struggles to live through the terror of their past. Ms. Lee, who worked in shelters in the Boston area, chose an imation to protect the anonymity of her subjects and to render the terror of their stories. Her drawings, evocative of Edvard Munch, made for a compelling means of telling an all—too familiar story.

Two Weddings, by Harvey Wang and Edward Rosenstein, tells the story of a couple married during World War II and subsequently placed in separate concentration camps. Against all odds, they not only survived but reunited after being liberated. The second of the "two weddings" in the film is that of their grandson.

IDA member Jan Krawitz's In Harm's Way examines the trauma of rape—her own—in the context of growing up in an America that had conditioned her about fear and threat, but had never prepared her for this chance encounter with terror. Through archival footage of Cold War America and recurring imagery that bespeaks Krawitz's lyrical narration, In Harm's Way articulates the challenge of living your life as you had before the trauma.

In Where Did Forever Go?, Michael Dwass chronicles the long and painful decline of his mother to Alzheimer's Disease. Made up almost entirely of 8mm and 16mm films of his family, dating from his parents' wedding to his mother's death, Where Did Forever Go? captures the devastating effect of this disease on everyone concerned. The narration, however, which the filmmaker drew from a typical neurologist's assessment of a patient with Alzheimer's, suffers at times from overwrought poesy and often serves to stultify the flow of the film. The voiceovers from the family members are powerful enough.

The least successful film of the group was the last one­ Dance With Me, by Cassandra Nicolaou. Dealing at once with issues of her Greek heritage, her mother's illness, and her own struggles with being a good daughter, Dance With Me is presented as a choreographed piece—a strategy which left this viewer ill­ equipped to know whether to engage this work as a filmed dance piece or as a documentary. In either case, its emotional ambivalence about an emotional subject made me indifferent about the film and the filmmaker.

THOMAS W. WHITE is Assistant Editor of International Documentary, where he is responsible for the many department columns in the magazine, including the sometimes whimsical "Short Takes."